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Originality, Iconoclasts, Recognition and Motivation

September 14th, 2010 | 9 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music |

On Saturday, I was at v late notice invited to an amazing gig I didn’t even know was happening.

Vernon Reid and I have been Twitter-buddies for a while. We have a few friends in common, and had chatted a fair bit on there. He mentioned he was in London, I suggested meeting up, he invited me to his gig.

And what a gig – under the name Tongues Of Fire, it was a tribute to The Black Panthers, featuring David Murray on sax, Questlove on drums, the remarkable Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets, Black Thought and Ray Angry from the Roots, and Corey Glover and Vernon from Living Colour.

The music was remarkable – fiery enough to live up to the thematic inspiration, and broad enough to draw in everyone’s specialities. Questlove demonstrated once again why he’s one of the most important drummers of his generation, The Last Poets helped cement their legacy, David Murray was incendiary, with Vernon Reid sounding like the only guitar player who could match Murray in that setting.

But for me, the surprise was Corey Glover – despite being a big Living Colour fan, I’d never thought of his unique presence as a vocalist, distinct from the sound of the band. Corey’s voice IS Living Colour. So to hear him in this context, a long way from where you’d expect him (despite the comfort of having Vernon stood a few feet away, the freer moments were a long way from any territory close to LC), and for him to totally own the music whenever he stepped up to the mic was a revelation. It was his stage in those moments, the music served to support his vocal, but without the maelstrom being tamed. He was able to sing through it, to weave a path in a way that only the most self-assured and poised of artists could handle. It was genius.

Which got me thinking about why Corey is (relatively) rarely talked of outside of the context of the band. He doesn’t seem to end up on many high profile collaboration projects, and is rarely in lists of all time great vocalists, rock or otherwise.

The reason, I’d suggest is a two step logical progression – firstly, for a sound as commanding and identifiable as his to have reached prominence in a band as high profile as Living Colour were at their peak, the voice becomes the band, in a way that pretty much never happens with instrumentalists (even ones as unique and uncompromising as Vernon Reid, who crucially was already well-regarded before the band, and has made notable contributions to a number of projects outside the band).

So as a consequence, to invite Corey Glover into your project is to invite comparisons between your music and that of Living Colour, to be the jazz act that sounds a bit like Living Colour, to be the Reggae band with the Living Colour dude… Few artists are confident enough in their own personality and forward thinking enough in their casting of characters to be able to give vocalists that are that iconic a new context in which to show what they’re capable of away from their main project.

Which is why even I, as a big fan of LC, was so surprised at his commanding performance at the Barbican.

And when I began to think about it after the show, I realised that its been characteristic of people’s reaction to my work, that it apparently has a very strong perceptible signature of ‘me’… So without attempting to cast myself in the same light as Corey Glover, it certainly gave me pause for thought – there has always been a discrepancy between the degree of positive reaction to the projects I put on and host (the Recycle Collective being the most obvious example) and the number of other projects I’m invited to join. Every musician who ever played with the Recycle Collective expressed delight at being involved and asked to play again (despite minimal financial reward), but it was also clear that my own musical signature was carved deep into the personality of all the music that happened while I was actually playing.

The fact that through looping I’m able to define every aspect of the music I play – harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, sonic, idiomatic – makes it all the harder for people to envisage any of those elements as distinct from the others, and imagine it recontextualised away from StevieWorld.

Back to Corey, there are less accomplished singers who by being dynamic but ultimately more generic have been able to slot into other musical settings in a less threatening way and have become much higher profile by association. But that just means that those moments when you do get to hear artists like him outside of their expected zone are all the more special. And for those of us cursed with a similar ‘signature sound’, we can just keep hosting our own projects, or impressing on people that we’re capable of playing outside of that narrowly defined capacity…

I often say that I wish I’d done my solo work under a project name, mainly because my solo career killed my career playing for other people – I was rather busy through the late 90s playing normal bass for other artists, and that vanished when I started playing solo, partly for the reasons outlined above, and partly just because people were worried that any bassist who plays solo is just going to over play on their songs. Which is clearly bollocks.

But ultimately, my priority is integrity, it’s investing all the music I play with as many positive qualities as I can muster, to dig deep into my own reservoir of intention, to play mindfully. I can’t allow myself to worry about being too ‘me’, or fretting about how other people perceive what I do. Because, of course, even positive reactions can be misleading, endorsements can be unhelpful if they are misguided…

-o0o-

In this context, this version of ‘Portrait Of Tracy’ that I recorded for Total Guitar magazine some years ago, sits as a unique experiment in my musical life – it’s the only time I’ve ever attempted to learn any music written for solo bass that wasn’t written by me, it’s the only time I’ve ever learned any solo piece note for note from another musician, and it’s the only time I’ve been asked to cop another bassists, phrasing, articulation and tone. Particularly weird as it’s possibly the single most famous and celebrated piece of ‘solo bass music’ ever written. It was slightly disturbing to do, the disturbance mitigated mainly by the knowledge that I’d probably never have to do it again. And don’t ask me to play the tune now – I can only remember about the first 10 bars. I hope you enjoy it though:

Portrait Of Tracy (recorded for Total Guitar Magazine) by solobasssteve

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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Phil Wain

    I remember chatting about that with you, I was surprised you weren’t constantly in demand for other people’s projects. Similarly I can’t help associating Corey immediately with Living Colour whereas I’ve heard Vernon with Decoding Society, producing Salif Keit, in his own band and in other projects. Interesting.
    Corey is an amazing singer and such a powerful presence live, I’d have loved to have heard him in this context.
    So wish I’d been at that gig, I was obsessed with David Murray’s music for a while, I got to meet him briefly after a gig and he seemed a genuinely lovely person too.
    Hope you get some interesting gig-calls as a result of this! I do remember seeing you with the ‘Numbers’ band and really digging your playing in that context.

    • Steve

      Thanks Phil – Numbers is definitely an interesting ‘test case’ as bits of it sound very much like my vibe, and others are a long way from what people expect my playing to sound like (the unedited versions are way more Steviefied).

      The gig on Saturday was incredible – it’s slightly disingenuous of me to single out Corey, as the entire ensemble cast shined (was really impressed with Ray on keys, who managed to switch seemlessly with every change of style) – it was really loose in places (refreshingly under-rehearsed is how I’d describe it :) ) which added to the sense of amazement as the intensity built in each choon. But Corey was, an absolute revelation. Outstanding.

      …whether this will lead to gig-calls… ha! I’d not thought of that as a potential outcome (was more worried about people accusing me of hubris, but hey, who really cares 😉 )

  • gregorylent

    something similar for visual artists .. or cross-medium artists .. really hard to not get associated with a style, or a genre

    it is in other people’s minds, if not in reality

    • Steve

      Hi Gregory – indeed, typecasting is an issue in all of the arts, though the flipside of that is specialism, and the rewards that focusing on a particular idiom can bring… The toughest issue is when you’re only thought of as you, in the one context – I can see that being a biggie for photographers, especially, who have a strong style, but are also just awesome photographic technicians, able to do standard work too…

  • Kevin Charles Dunford

    Steve, I think it’s fantastic that you have your strongly defined musical direction. I was speaking to Jasper Hoiby recently and was very impressed that he had made the decision quite early to only play original material, either his or written within the bands with which he works. I’m quite envious of that sort of self determination.

    As for getting hired, I never second guess the reasons why one would be suitable or not for a gig, that way madness lies. Though it is usually possible to work it out for yourself.

    Fabulous job on Tracy by the way, very nicely done, of course I had to have a go myself.

    Kevin

    • Steve

      thanks Kevin – I wouldn’t (couldn’t?) have it any other way, WRT to my own music. I remember reading that ‘plagarism is harder than you think’, and after the nightmare I went through to cop Jaco’s vibe on this tune, I’m all the more aware of it :)

      At some point, maybe I should do my own take on it… or not 😉

      Jasper’s a great musician – been listening to the Phronesis album these last few days, great tunes, great playing. I’m glad to hear he has such a strong vision for where his music will go.

  • Amy

    Here’s a thought: I wonder if the musical gene pool at large sees the performer who has “gone solo” as having climbed up the musical evolutionary chain to emerge from the primordial stew and arrive at the apex of his or her career, so that it seems impossible to imagine that person would ever have the desire to play with others again. Once you’re in control of your own destiny, harmony, melody, rhythm, etc., collaboration might seem like a lesser you. The confidence and nerve it requires to leave a group setting and jump like a fish out of water into your own domain is beyond a lot of musicians. So it would be scary for them to ask you to join them. But, of course, so much brilliance can come from collaboration!

    • Steve

      Amy, that’s a really smart way of looking at it. As someone who sees solo as just a thing I do, it’s easy to forget how mammoth the task of playing on your own looks to some people.

      I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say, and I’ll keep it in mind when trying to explain my desire to collaborate.

      You rule! x

      • Kevin Charles Dunford

        I think you did miss a trick by not giving yourself an alias for the solo work. Apart from anything else it immediately ramps up the credibility.

        You could of course do the reverse and adopt a persona for your collaborative excursions, sneaking out at night dressed in corduroy and a beret posing as Slik the Scandinavian bassist arriviste.

        I had that Squarepusher living opposite me for a couple of years, as in looking directly into each others windows – reckon the guy must have ripped off everything I had.