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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Being Small – Sustainability, Scale and Success

June 11th, 2015 · 1 Comment

It’s that time of year again – one of my favourite conferences began last year, and this year continues as an annual event – Small Is Beautiful. Billed as ‘Insight, intelligence and ideas for micro-enterprises’, it’s a wide ranging exploration of how life and work play out for those of us who neither work for nor run corporations. Sole traders, freelancers, entrepreneurs, artists, makers, educators… an amazing collection of people gathering for inspiration, solidarity and encouragement in an evermore perilous financial environment.

Last year I wrote how being a ‘micro’ was my Plan A – it wasn’t a 2nd choice, it was always the aim.

This year, I’m going to explore a few of the reasons why, on the themes of Sustainability, Scale and Success.

Sustainability is such a buzzword in every field that we quite often lose sight of how it applies to us. There are so many kinds of sustainability that I need to consider in my work, perhaps it would be helpful just to list them:

  • Economic Sustainability – that’s obvious: can I keep doing this and no end up broke?
  • Creative Sustainability – alongside the economics is the task of maintaining the level of creative exploration and control that is right at the heart of my reasons for staying micro.
  • Environmental Sustainability – one of the joys of being self employed is that I can (and do) turn down work if the environmental impact of doing it is going to outweigh the benefit of the work. I can choose to spend more and get a train, rather than a cheap flight, and soak up the cost because I think it matters. That control feels vital…
  • Political Sustainability – this is a more tricky one, especially as every area of life involves compromise, but I’m deeply wedded to the aspect of being small that gives me political agency within my work. Being micro and stay micro is itself a counter-cultural act, and carving out a space where you can make art that is explicitly political without being beholden to someone else’s agenda is a luxury we’d do well to cherish. I certainly don’t take that freedom for granted, and make a lot of my decisions about the future with that freedom in mind.

Scale is another area that requires unpacking – especially in music, where the aims of so many people are unquestioning and depressingly hyper-modernist. Much of the music world is still obsessed with the metrics of success that applied in the late 20th Century, the triumph of giantism, and it’s inherent rush for the middle ground creatively and culturally, the competitive element that left so many crushed by a system built to push everyone through a funnel towards huge sales and huge gigs… Choosing something other than that is still often seen as ‘what you do because you can’t play stadiums’.

But realising that the kind of interactions with my audience that I cherished only really happened at a small scale, that there was an upper limit to the size of event that really worked for me was liberating. It took me out of that particular conversation about growth in numerical terms, and allowed me to think of growth in terms of creativity, consistency, how regularly I can do shows, reputation, the kinds of collaborations I was able to make happen… How to increase your standing as an artist or practitioner without playing to ever-bigger audiences is a really tricky question, but one that we micros are well placed to ask.

So how does the desire to scale in terms of impact weigh against the need to stay small in terms of the experience? It’s a juggling act I’m still working through, and one that requires a different conversation about priorities. And that leads us onto the third of our ’S’s…

Success… what is success? Is it a place you intend to arrive at, or is it a state of being? Is it your ability to navigate change successfully, or will it be something that is measurable only in hindsight? I have a mixture of ‘targets’ that help me with planning, but ultimately, success is about the ongoing curiosity of my creative exploration. So many other people have an expectation of what my ‘success’ should look like, what I should be pursuing and how I should go about it. Sometimes it’s to the point where they consider me irresponsible and/or lazy for not pursuing the business side of my work ahead of the creative side, and I have to be sure what it is that I value in order to push back against that.

But I also have to have some kind of idea of what order of success in those kind of economically measurable and observable terms is needed for me to be able to keep doing what I do, and to reach whatever creative targets I set for myself. Where is the perfect balance of creative freedom and audience size for whatever venture it is that I’m involved in? These are conversations I have to revisit on a very regular basis so as not to get sidetracked.

So, what are those questions for you?

  • How do you prioritise sustainability in its myriad forms?
  • What do you imagine is the perfect scale for your venture? At what point do you think growth would start to inhibit your other aims, personally, creatively, philosophically?
  • What is success? In what ways are you already a success? How can that success be maximised?
  • What is it that you value most, and how does your business plan help you to maximise the impact of those values on your life and the lives of those around you?

Last year’s Small Is Beautiful provided a lot of food for thought in asking and answering those kinds of questions and I’m looking forward to exploring them again in new and different ways this year, and maybe finding some new questions, new aims and new goals.

See you there?

Tags: New Music Strategies

“What Is The Work?” Thoughts On Cross Disciplinary Art

June 1st, 2015 · 5 Comments

“What Is The Work?”

It’s not a question we really ponder much as musicians, even though it’s one we would answer quite differently if we delved into the language we use. ‘It’s all about the music, maaan!’… yes, but what is the music?

Live music? That’s the main thing?

Or is it the recordings? Are recordings the thing, and if they are is it making them, or experiencing them? Do we make them to be amazing standalone art, or do we make them to be amazing experiences? Does the theatre of experience (for example, shifts in how and where people listen to music) change the work? What role ‘purist’ thinking in this?

Or is ‘the music’ the songs? Are the songs the thing, and if they are, do we just love recordings and gigs because they bring them into our lives? What of music with no songs?

Is it the experience of playing it? If so, what’s the purpose of an audience? Just money so you can keep playing? [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

Finding Inspiration In Denmark…

May 30th, 2015 · Comments Off on Finding Inspiration In Denmark…

[this is a VERY long write-up of four days I spent in Demark last week. Hopefully it’ll be worth the effort]

-o0o-

From whence cometh inspiration?

No idea. Not a clue.

I really don’t have a handle on where inspiration actually comes from. Or what it actually is.

But I do know that I can massively increase the chances of stumbling into it by surrounding myself with curious people, especially those who are working in fields other than my own.

Being primarily an instrumentalist, I’m constantly working with an abstract/concrete duality. The purpose/message/inspiration of a particular piece may be concrete, but the interpretation – if it happens without some kind of written/spoken introduction – is at best culturally mediated and often entirely abstract. That so many people seem to hear something of my intention in my music is itself an amazing affirmation that I’m not insane to see it as having a ‘purpose’.

What’s this got to do with the 2nd Inspiration Lab at Cantabile 2 in Stege, Denmark?

Well, everything. The limits of my own musical practice are always where the interesting stuff happens. I’m interested in edge spaces, overlaps, the bits where the circles in the Venn diagram of humanity change colour as they overlap in different combinations.

In the arts, we often gravitate towards influences and influencers who can obviously help shape our own work. Songwriters get into other word disciplines easily, musicians who make records are inspired by films – time delineated documents of a series of events, easy to mulch into a musical expression of a similar aesthetic… it’s often the music in the film that starts the process anyway… [Read more →]

Tags: Random Catchup · travel

We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

May 5th, 2015 · Comments Off on We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

Drummers! Drummers have always played a massively important role in my music. Almost entirely by their absence. The conversation around what I do – perhaps not surprisingly, but still with some level of irritation – almost always gravitates towards ‘I’d love to hear what you do with a drummer!’. It’s kind of the curse of being a bassist. We’re seen as half of the rhythm section. It’s an instrument that was INVENTED for loud rhythm sections. Its voice was deeply integral to the development of rock and roll, pop, hard rock, prog, funk, soul, R’n’B… It is the sound of pop music. Bass and drums, that’s what makes it not-folk or not-chamber-music. As a voice outside of that, it’s still woefully under-explored…

So my decision to mostly avoid drummers, certainly in the context of my solo work (the decision to see all ‘band’ work as collaborative and never ‘my band’ is a huge part of this) is one that puts what I do apart from what most bass players do. It works as a USP, but has also been a very very useful set of limitations for exploring a new vocabulary for the instrument. I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot, though the degree to which it has dominated my work is unusual. [Read more →]

Tags: music reviews · Musing on Music

Two New Solo Videos!

April 17th, 2015 · 1 Comment

This is the first of two posts today – the 2nd one will have gig news and some recording news, but first here are two videos that have gone live in the last week.

Yesterday I posted this one, that was recorded as a video test, and turned out rather nice… Was checking whether I could do video and multitrack audio at the same time on my laptop. Turns out I can, as evidenced here.

Lots of lovely pedals are featured – MXR bass preamp (on the floor out of shot), Dunlop Volume Pedal, Markbass MiniDist, Darkglass VMT, MXR Bass Fuzz, MXR Bass Chorus Deluxe, MXR Bass Overdrive, TC Electronic HOF mini, MXR Bass Envelope Filter: [Read more →]

Tags: Music News

Gigs Update – London Bass Guitar Show, Moffat Bass Bash, #TORYCORE…

February 28th, 2015 · Comments Off on Gigs Update – London Bass Guitar Show, Moffat Bass Bash, #TORYCORE…

Right, if you’re the kind of person who keeps tabs on my gigs page, you’ll have seen a bit of an update happen… Here’s the next few:

March 7th, 10:30am – London Bass Guitar Show. Aguilar and MXR/Dunlop present… me! Pedals/effects/processing masterclass at this most wonderful of london events – details on the LBGS site. Line-up also features Divinity, Doug Wimbish and Jah Wobble… lots of greatness going on 🙂

March 15th – the Moffat Bass Bash! Yay, Scotland! I don’t get to play up there anywhere nearly enough. It’s 10am-4pm, with me as special guest. All the deets are at www.moffatbassbash.co.uk

April 10/11th – #TORYCORE is back. Two nights of the words of our evil overlords in the appropriately evil setting of some tortuous avant-metal. We’re at Battersea Arts Centre in London, and all the details are on their website.

More gigs coming very soon…

Tags: gig dates

Creating Spaces Where People Can Respond To Music…

February 27th, 2015 · 4 Comments

[big gig update blog-post coming later, but this was bubbling in my head so needed writing first… 😉 ]

Right, this was inspired by a couple of brilliant thinker-friends. Partly it was this blog post by Corey Mwamba (an exceptional musician, thinker, doer and advocate for music) about The Family Album, and his audience-focussed rethink of jazz/improvised music programming, and partly by the work of a theatre company called Coney, particularly their co-director Annette Mees, whose thinking on pretty much everything has been of immense value to me over the last while… Their amazing work on new ways of experiencing theatre, of devising experiential work for audiences is truly remarkable (their upcoming show, Early Days (Of A Better Nation) is touring in the run-up to the election, and is unmissable)

Anyway, here’s today’s brain-ramble, on which I welcome your thoughts and input…

…disappearing down a wikipedia wormhole of synonyms for outmoded terminology that appears to have no analog in the useful terminology world, I stumbled on Cymatics – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cymatics

cymatics by evan grant.

And I’m now thinking about how it works as a metaphorical space for thinking about visible human/audience responses to music… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

5 Inspirational Bass Recordings with No Drums

January 6th, 2015 · Comments Off on 5 Inspirational Bass Recordings with No Drums

Spend more than 5 minutes online talking about bass, and you’ll encounter some variation on the theme of ‘groove is king – the idea that the only things that matter for musicians who play bass are those that relate to the function within a normal band line up is pushed pretty hard in most contexts.

But so many of my favourite bits of creative bass playing (in my own career and from others) happen when the bass is freed up from that idea of a ‘role’ and the musician is free to contribute to the music in whatever way works best for the music. Sometimes that’s still very much within the understanding of what the bass ‘should‘ do (as with Pop Pop here) but other times it breaks away from that.

So here are 5 drummerless albums that feature some absolutely exquisite bass playing in the context of wonderful music! (as always these are in no particular order) ::

 

  • Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard & Steve Swallow – Trios

Steve Swallow has one of the most singular, recognisable voices in the history of the electric bass. This trio is possibly my favourite setting for his playing ever. So much space, and his melody work is astonishing. To hear him with a drummer, have a listen to Bartalk by John Scofield. An incredible trio record with Adam Nussbaum on drums.

 

  • Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Dave Holland – Angel Song

One of my desert island discs, everything about this is perfect. It was Bill Frisell that lured me in, but Dave Hollands playing here is exemplary – his tone!!! This has to be one of my favourite recorded bass sounds ever, and his solo on this (the first solo on the opening tune of the album, no less) is just perfect. The feel is beautifully relaxed throughout, particularly in the interplay between Dave and Bill during Bill’s solo. Incredible.

 

  • Duke Ellington And Ray Brown – This One’s For Blanton

Jimmy Blanton changed the way all of us think about about the role of the bass, that much is true. That he died at 23 is mindblowing and deeply tragic. I can’t imagine what he’d have accomplished had he lived. The Ellington band of the 40s that Blanton was a part of is one of the most amazing groups of musicians ever assembled. This One’s For Blanton is a fitting and rich tribute, and who better to take the bass role than one of the true greats who followed on from Blanton’s lead in making the bass such an important instrument in Jazz, Ray Brown.

I can’t embed this video, as it’s blocked on YouTube, but it has to be this track for the unbelievable solo intro, and the incredible elaboration of a standard walking line that Ray goes into – Sophisticated Lady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZFTDxYV7ss

 

  • Paradoxicon – Gianni Gebbia And Michael Manring

This is a REALLY unusual record. for much of it, the sax is playing a more rhythmic role than the bass, particularly on the opening tune, where Michael is all texture and what groove there is is from Gianni’s sax. Some beautiful writing, and a wonderful space for Michael to explore.

 

  • Rickie Lee Jones – Pop Pop

This kind of breaks the rules, in that 3 of the tunes on the album have percussion on, but the rest of them are so great, and Charlie Haden does drummerless bass playing SO well that I had to include it. I also really wanted a great vocal record in here to show what can happen when you free bass up from the ‘groove’ obsession in a song context. Charlie Haden may well be my favourite drummerless bassist of all, every note he plays is exactly where he wants it to be. The economy of notes is counterbalanced by the obvious care and attention given to every part of every note. Astonishing.

 

Over to you – what are your favourites?

Tags: bass ideas · music reviews

5 Solo Bassists Who Shaped My Musical World

January 3rd, 2015 · 6 Comments

It’s a truism that most solo bass struggles in ‘pure’ musical terms. It’s so easy to get caught up justifying our ‘right’ to play solo by doing clever acrobatic things that the meaningful deployment of those acrobatics, or the avoidance of them for more musical ends gets lost along the way, and YouTube ends up as a fumbling bass-circus.

For this reason, there are very few solo bassists in my list of musical influences. But those who are there are towering monuments to what’s possible on this amazing instrument of ours, and their influence on my music and musical outlook is massive.

So, in no particular order, here’s 5 solo bassists who shaped my musical world: [Read more →]

Tags: bass ideas · cool links