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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 3 – Michael Manring

April 20th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

Day 3, and today also happens to be the 20th anniversary of my first website going online! The one that eventually became this site here. When I got my first laptop in 1997, it was because I’d started writing for Bassist Magazine, and the first thing I ever wrote to them I actually hand wrote and posted to them. So, that was insane, and I needed a way to get stuff to them more easily. So I bought a laptop, and not long after, a dial-up modem for it. I got myself a Compuserve address, and used some kind of by-the-minute dial-up access thing for a while, before finding an email company in Orkney via some excellent geek friends, called Zetnet. Zetnet email came with webspace, but I initially assumed making a website required expensive software and stuff that I didn’t have. It didn’t take me long to work out that if I knew just a little HTML, I could hand code a site just in notepad, and if I saved the text files as .html and one of them was called index.html I could upload them to my Zetnet space and have my own website! What an extraordinary thing. The version on archive.org dates it to 20 years ago today, but in thinking about it, that may actually be the day that I added a counter, as that’s what the image shows…

Anyway, what does this have to do with collaboration? Well, one of the first things I was able to do when I got online was start to contact my music heroes, people I wanted to be able to interview for Bassist magazine, and the companies that made the gear I was interested in. I remember finding Modulus’ website, and discovering that their artist relations person was also a big Bruce Cockburn fan…

And one of the people I first got in touch with was Michael Manring. I already had his Thonk album, and having read a bunch of interviews with him, was deeply inspired and influenced by his take on solo bass. This was before I’d released anything solo, but I was starting to play things at guitar shows, and I was on a record with a quartet called Ragatal, with flamenco guitar, tabla and electric violin. I sent a copy to Michael, and we struck up an email correspondence.

Fast forward to my first NAMM show in 1999, and I met up with Michael and interviewed him for Bassist mag. I was driving up to the Bay Area to visit Rick Turner, Modulus and Zon Guitars and found out that Michael was playing a solo show opening for Trey Gunn (who I’d recently interviewed for Bassist Mag in London). So I thought ‘I’ll go to the show’. Michael offered to let me stay at his house, and I set off. But I had no map, and sat nav didn’t exist then. So I drove through San Francisco, with no idea where I was going, out the other side, and over the Golden Gate Bridge. That was obviously not the way to the venue (which I only knew was called the Last Day Saloon and was in-or-near Chinatown) – so I turned round, came back over the bridge, guessed a turning, eventually stopped and asked someone randomly who told me I was about three blocks away… 🙂

Anyway, that’s not what this is about. Collaboration is the theme here, and Michael became a collaborator the following year, when we both played a solo bass gig in Santa Cruz and did a thing together at the end. Over the next few years we did a LOT of shows both in California and around England, and in those duo shows I got to discover much of what was possible at the intersection of two bass guitars (albeit to heavily processed and decidedly weird bass guitars). We played sold out shows, did clinics together, and drove a lot of miles – I think at this point I’ve probably done more shows with Michael than any other improv collaborator besides Lobelia. And the whole thing was an extraordinary eye-opening experience. Remember, here was the person who introduced me to the idea of looping, whose records made me want to be a solo bassist, who had inspired me for many years, and there we were playing loads of weird and wonderful improvised music. We’ve never rehearsed together, never played not in front of an audience. Only twice ever played a prewritten tune together (we did Autumn Leaves as a duo, and played Blue In Green in a trio with David Friesen… Oh, and we did a version of All Blues in a trio with the very brilliant John Lester when he opened for us on tour!)

Part of me wishes I had more recordings of those early gigs. Part of me is happier to remember how they felt than get hung up on what the music actually sounded like. But I was being stretched, trying to rise to the challenge of playing improvised shows with easily one of the most brilliant musicians ever to pick up the bass guitar. He was ceaseless in his encouragement and support for me – and still is! – and he became a supremely valued friend.

There were so many things I learned playing with Michael, and watching him play solo, so many times when I wondered if what I was doing was any good, and his words of encouragement dispelled doubts. And none more so than when we played a house concert at the home of the inventor of the Looperlative, Bob Amstadt, in 2012, and I suggested doing two solo sections in the first set and then some duo stuff later on, and he said ‘no! let’s do it all duo!’ And we did, and I was finally able to record what we sounded like properly, and get it out there. The album, Language Is A Music, is still subscriber-only, and you can get it here – it’s something that I’m not only deeply proud of as a work of art, but which represents almost two decades of playing together, of friendship, encouragement, of growing as a musician and improvisor, and learning from one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard, let alone been on stage with.

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10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 2 – Jez Carr

April 19th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: 10 Collaborators · Uncategorized

Right, so today is part 2 of my new series, and we’re talking about Jez Carr! Jez is such a monumental presence in my improv career, I’m genuinely not sure I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for his influence…

We met at a jam session arranged by a mutual friend that I’d met on a session gig – and really hit it off. We started getting together multiple times a week to play (to the point where one of his flatmates in a freudian slip on the phone counted me amongst the residence of their flat 😉 ) and his studio engineering expertise was integral to me being able to turn my initial live minidisc recordings into my my first solo album. We dumped them into Protools, recorded an extra duet track for it, and that was …And Nothing But The Bass.

We then set about recording the first fully improvised recording of my life, and playing the first fully improvised gigs together – Conversations was an utterly pivotal experience for me, and still stands alone amongst my recorded output as a collaboration on which I used just one pedal (a Line 6 DL4) and as such it favours interaction over construction to a great degree. Jez was the person with whom I started to properly build my melodic and harmonic vocabulary as an improvisor. We did a ridiculous number of jazz gigs together, which were mostly standards gigs, but we’d sneak in as much improv as we could…

His presence in those formative years, and the experiences we had together making music around the turn of the millennium are indelibly present in everything I’ve done since, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for his friendship, trust, sense of adventure and truly beautiful piano playing. A life-changer, for sure 🙂

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10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 1 – Daniel Berkman

April 18th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: 10 Collaborators · Musing on Music

I’ve been meaning to do this for ages, but for the next ten days I’m going to post about one collaborator each day that has changed my music life. There are way more than ten who could fit the bill (maybe I’ll enjoy it so much I’ll keep going after ten, we’ll see) but we’ll start with these ten:

Day one, I’m want to talk to you about Daniel Berkman. I met Daniel because of another fabulous collaborator, Artemis – though I hadn’t met either of them when she suggested that Daniel and I should do a gig or two together. Sure, says I. I showed up to the first gig – a house/loft gig in San Francisco hosted by another new friend, Jimmy, and we met while setting up. As we started getting a sound, it dawned on both of us that playing solo sets and a little bit of a duo thing at the end was a bit of a waste of this opportunity, so we did two entire sets of improvised music, and finished wide-eyed and wondering if it was a fluke… But the gig we had the next night in Oakland was at least as fabulous as the first one, and something magical had been set in place.

The following January we did 8 more shows, then ended up releasing the recordings of all 10 shows – pretty much every note Daniel and I had played together up to that point (we didn’t jam in soundchecks, or play tunes outside of the gigs – just get on stage and see what happens) – the recordings also feature Artemis on vocals, and her presence became such an important part of the emotional/artist arc of the gigs, each set climbing towards a vocal finale.

Working with Daniel brought with it the most extraordinary sense of possibility – his skill set as a multi-instrumentalist is unfathomably huge, and the crossover in our taste from electronica to pop music to weird shit to folk and jazz was equally huge. So we got to go to a lot of different places. It was a really formative collaboration for me in terms of how percussion and drums related to what I do as an improvisor – a whole load of ideas and experiments fell into place in that particular musical setting.

Right now, I’m finishing up mixing the 11 shows for our third tour together, which should be out in some form or other later in the year.

For now, you can check out the work we did together via the players embedded below, and Daniel’s extraordinary solo releases on Bandcamp too… Go buy his music and follow what he’s up to. I hope we get to play together again soon 🙂

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Crossing The River – When Albums Move From Product To Chapter

April 10th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: Music News · Musing on Music

I’ve finally started work on mixing the rest of the recordings from the FingerPainting project. The existing recordings are from 2012-2013, all ten shows available as a download, a complete document of everything that Daniel Berkman, Artemis and I had played together up until that point. But we did another tour in 2014, and until this week, they’d remained untouched in my Reaper-recordings-vault. Too massive a venture to contemplate, especially after the absolutely mammoth task of mixing and mastering the first lot, which put a huge strain on the rest of my life for about four months in 2013. However, this week I decided to see what would happen if I mixed and mastered them really quickly – applied a much lighter touch than I did to the processing last time round – FingerPainting was right at the beginning of my journey with professional-quality mastering work, and the project taught me SO much. But it also took an extraordinary amount of time, as I worked on getting the perfect sound for every aspect.  [Read more →]

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New Live Album With Corey Mwamba Out Now

April 8th, 2018 | 1 Comment | Categories: Music News

I just released a new album! Surprise is a duo live recording with vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, from a show in London. It’s all improvised, and provides a beautiful stopping off point in my musical journey with Corey thus far.

We first played together over a decade ago, brought together by Orphy Robinson for a trio gig in Derby. There was an instant musical chemistry, and the next stage was me playing in Corey’s group Argentum at the London Jazz Festival a couple of years later. Since then we’ve played a handful of shows together – always a rich experience, and always with the intention of doing more.

This latest opportunity came when a friend who was booking a percussion-based show asked if I could do a set with a vibraphonist – the tuned percussion being the hook, the improvised nature of it providing the trust that we’d bring something that would ‘fit’… And we did. There’s something wonderful but also otherworldly about playing improvised music to an audience who have no idea who you are, and about whom you know very little. The music stands apart from the relationship between artist and audience in a way that I’m largely unfamiliar with (the nature of my career means that I’m often playing to audiences with whom I have a much longer musical relationship).

You can hear the album here, and buy it if you like it:

As a result, it took me quite a few listens to the recording to hear what’s in there. I was remembering the experience of not knowing, or hearing and being unable to contextualise. Fortunately, I stuck with the music’s leadings and we came up with this. It is, to my ears, a deeply satisfying album, with many twists and turns across its 25 minutes. Playing with Corey is always a joy. He’s an inspiring human and a truly masterful musician and improvisor. More soon, I hope. x

Note: this album was released to my Bandcamp subscribers last December, four months before it became public. Now that it’s public it’s no longer part of the subscriber back catalogue (though, obviously, all those who got it as part of their subscription own it for ever 🙂 ) – there are a number of other collaborative recordings that have been released to subscribers over the last couple of months that will be coming out publicly soon. When they do, they’ll cease to be part of the Subscriber back catalogue too. So, if you want everything, there’s no better time to subscribe than now. If you want to fill in the blanks, you can of course buy the albums that you’re missing from your collection as individual downloads – the pricing is v. cheap to reflect the otherwise overly expensive task of trying to keep on top of all this amazing new music 😉

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Thoughts on Cecil Taylor

April 6th, 2018 | 1 Comment | Categories: Musing on Music

Listening to this and thinking about Cecil Taylor. His legacy, his choices, his extraordinarily personal take on music.

He’s someone whose choices inspired me for many decades. When I first heard that he chose to wash dishes rather than capitulate to the way the clubs that would book him wanted him to play, it literally changed the path of my music career. He’s an avatar for choosing the hard road. Choosing a path like that is not a one-off choice that you tell your friends about to make yourself look like some bad-ass. To be as accomplished a musician as Cecil was, and still choose to keep your music as a sacred thing not to be messed with just to pay the bills, is an extraordinary commitment. It’s not like he couldn’t have played standards as well as anyone if he’d wanted to – he even recorded a bunch of standards later in life – but he saw something as bigger than the status of being ‘full time in music’.

I spent a lot of years thinking that being full time was the aim. Cecil’s witness was a huge part of me getting past that point and realising that the music was way too important to make it bland just to get a gig. It’s a position that’s put me at odds with some of the places I’ve worked, and it’s a lesson that I’ve had to relearn a bunch of times, but thinking I could make my music ‘fit’ (and I’ve always been happy to play other people’s music as a ‘job’, and do the occasional function band – it’s just my own creative path that I’ve been more protective of) – but thanks to what I gleaned from Cecil’s path, I’m still doing the thing I do, finding the places where it fits, and refusing to screw it up to fit some booker’s idea of what I ought to be doing. I do WAY fewer gigs than I otherwise might, but Cecil is there to illuminate the long game.

RIP, Cecil – you influenced a huge amount of people, made some extraordinary music, and I’m materially less well-off because of your example, but infinitely happier with my creative choices. Thank you x

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/06/cecil-taylor-free-jazz-pioneer-dies-age-89-new-york-pianist-avant-garde

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What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

February 22nd, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

Light and Shade
High and Low
Fast And Slow
Loud and Soft
Harsh and Mellow
Tension and Resolution
Inside and Outside
Sound and Silence

…the spread of options can be seen both in a micro and macro senses. It’s OK (caveat – of course, anything’s OK, it’s your creative practice here… but Imma try not to get bogged down in overly-explanatory language) to say ‘actually, my role within the scope of things happening in my field is to explore only shade.’ You don’t have to do everything or be everything. Your art is not a school science project to be graded on a set of learning outcomes.

BUT. As orthodoxies and modes of practice within particular disciplines emerge and coalesce around a limited set of expressive options, the invitation is built into that to transgress, explore, colour outside the lines, stay INSIDE the lines when everyone else is going nuts… Your practice is yours, but it exists within an ecosystem that’s partly of your own choosing and partly in the perception and experience of your audience. You can opt to ignore that and be ‘true to yourself’ or however you want to frame it, but when everyone is ploughing the same furrow, your seemingly radical notions are seen in that light.

An example – when I first started playing solo with a looper, a ton of (obviously inexperienced) people thought I’d invented it. Like I was the first person to ever do that. Even to those who had come across it before as an idea, there were very few who could name another solo artist using a looper, and even fewer who had ever seen someone play like that. It was, in short, a killer gimmick. I used to do this schtick where in the second tune in my set (back when I played compositions with actual names n shit) and go to the bar, leaving all the loops running. The trick was that it didn’t sound like just a loop going round and round, but because I had enough unsynced loops going, it could sustain interest as a performance without me adding anything for the 90-120 seconds it took me to go the bar, get a drink and rejoin my toys on stage. Ta-daaaa! 

By the time KT Tunstall appeared on Jools, that gimmick was dead. It was no longer a big reveal. A ton of people were looping by then, Imogen Heap was doing amazing shit with it, and YouTube was happening so people could see all the old footage of Michael Manring and David Torn and David Friesen and Eberhard Weber and Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell and a ton of other people doing extraordinary looping-enhanced performances from WAY before I started doing it… If I’d stuck with the gimmick, with the fact that for my audience it had been a new and novel thing, I’d still be wearing those clown shoes now and be looking like a massive bellend. When Lo and I did a gig with Ed Sheeran in 2007/8, he still had this whole ‘look at me, I’m looping!’ moment in his set. We were on before him, with a much more sophisticated take on the whole looping thing and it stole the thunder out from that moment. However, he had a ton more going for him, so it didn’t spoil his gig at all – he wasn’t reliant on that gimmick for ‘the sell’. (And he was about 12 or something at the time. His mum picked him up after the gig 🙂 )

Anyway, be aware of the way the wind is blowing, and take note of prevailing trends and orthodoxies. If you stick with them, you’ve got to do them in a way that makes your work something other than a hazy reflection of someone else’s work. Doing your own thing doesn’t require you to be wilfully obscure. Conspicuous originality is a deeply overrated and misunderstood notion. Plagarism is, after all, way harder than you imagine. But it also takes

  • some deliberate intent
  • some deep breaths and a commitment to an exploration that might not come to much immediately
  • to be able to go out on a limb and build on those other innovations
  • to take your art to a new place, to see the thing that’s happening from a alternate vantage point
  • To bring your life, experience, skills and curiosity to bear on what’s going on in your field.

All of those things can be fed, nurtured and brought into your work in fascinating ways. There are no guarantees of brilliance or acclaim or financial reward (in fact, the opposite is demonstrably the case, that by far the biggest chunk of money in the arts economy goes to the safe and the derivative, with a number of notable exceptions) but as human beings, doing mediocre things for money is how we got in this mess in the first place. There is no creative or artist reason to pursue anything less than excellence. Now, go be extraordinary – even if you miss, the journey will be worth it.

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The Bandcamp Subscription Gets An Upgrade

January 11th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: Music News · New Music Strategies

…Well, to be honest, the upgrade has already happened. What’s happening is the price is going up a little to reflect that 🙂 (read on to find out how to get in on it 30% off for ever!)

When I launched the Bandcamp subscription service a little over three years ago, it came with my (then) 11 Solo albums and the promise of two more public albums and two subscriber-only albums a year. That was a pretty cool offer, and £20 felt like the point where the value was obvious to anyone who liked what I did.

Fast forward 3 years and there are now 30-something albums in there that you get *straight away* when you sign up, and in the last 12 months, I’ve released 9 albums, and an exclusive book, and a ton of video… So we’re talking about a whole other level of offering.

One of the weird things about us as humans living in capitalism is that we value things based on how expensive they are. I’m constantly being told by people that I should charge more for bass lessons, and that I’d get loads more students if I did. I’m not putting my teaching price up again, because I’m not in it to make as much as I possibly can, but there’s something about the price reflecting the offering that we innately connect with. So the price of a new subscription is going up. To £30. Still crazy-great value, and still an amount that keeps me on my toes planning all the incredible projects that the money from it makes possible.

But here’s the amazing thing – whatever level you join at when you start your subscription is where you stay. If you’re signed up for £20 a year, it’ll stay there until you unsubscribe.

AND IF YOU SIGN UP NOW, BEFORE NEXT WEDNESDAY, YOU’LL BE ABLE TO STAY AT £20 FOR THE DURATION OF THE SUBSCRIPTION. Click here to subscribe now.

I’ve said a million times that the subscription is the at the root of my sustainability as an artist. Because gigs and recordings are basically the same thing for me as an improvisor, it’s the subscription that makes all the shows and the recordings of those shows possible. It’s the subscription that pays for plug-ins that mean I do better mixing and mastering, that pay for pedals and software and the TIME to plan things. TIME – that most elusive of commodities. The one that we’re so so bad at quantifying and valuing as artists. Well, y’all make it possible for me to invest time in making better records for you. This is plan A, and right now there is no plan B.

So, go sign up right now, and get a lifetime of music for 30% less than it’ll be if you wait til next week. And if you’ve previously been subscribed and have for whatever reason ended your subscription, now’s a great time to rejoin the party and find out what’s been happening while you’ve been gone!

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Thoughts on ECM joining the streaming world

November 10th, 2017 | Comments Off on Thoughts on ECM joining the streaming world | Categories: Uncategorized

Today’s big (ish) music economy news is that ECM are sticking all of their stuff on the various streaming services v. soon.

I’ve never really understood ECM’s economic thinking – I get that they have a historic and aesthetic attachment to CDs and vinyl, but their delving into digital has been seemingly pretty haphazard. For quite a while they had massive parts of their catalogue (perhaps all of it, I never checked) on eMusic – them removing their stuff from eMusic was one of the deciding factors in me cancelling my eMusic account yesterday, after 10 years.

They’ve recently stuck a few things on Bandcamp, but have priced them so high that they’re positioning themselves well outside the mainstream of Bandcamp’s internal economy (as an aside, in the last couple of years, the cost in real terms to a customer in the UK of a download that costs $10 on Bandcamp has jumped from around £7 to around £9, thanks to Brexit trashing our currency, and VATMOSS adding $2 to the price before we even get to that…)

Anyway, so ECM have pulled their stuff from eMusic (where I would pay between about a pound and maybe £3 or 4 per album, depending on the number of tracks) and put it on Spotify, and have put massively overpriced versions on Bandcamp.

Which at face value begs the broader question, why are SO many music people still so utterly binary in their thinking about music distribution? It’s either collect the scraps from streaming and hope that you can magically generate a big enough market to make it meaningful, or charge £10+ per album for CDs AND THE SAME FOR DOWNLOADS ?!?! [Read more →]

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PS, You Are Brilliant – New Steve Lawson Solo Album Out Today

October 30th, 2017 | Comments Off on PS, You Are Brilliant – New Steve Lawson Solo Album Out Today | Categories: Uncategorized

Finally! My new solo album – my NINETEENTH full-length solo release – PS, You Are Brilliant, is out today. You can listen to it and download it exclusively on Bandcamp – This is NOT on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play etc. You can only hear it and download it from Bandcamp (or anywhere that has the Bandcamp player embedded, like here!). You can stream the album in full and if you like it and want to buy it, it’s pretty inexpensive 🙂

Keeping it on Bandcamp is the musical equivalent of only selling your produce in a farmer’s market. It’s a better deal for artists, a better deal for listeners, and you get to choose better-than-CD quality audio if you like at no extra cost. Everybody wins!

If you dig it a lot, and want to investigate further, PS, You Are Brilliant is also available to my Bandcamp Subscribers – I recently passed the 3 year anniversary of the introduction of the subscription, a mechanism for releasing music whereby subscribers pay a flat fee per year and get everything that I release. This year so far, they’ve had 8 albums and an eBook, plus a load of subscriber-exclusive video. [Read more →]

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