I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:
People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.
So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.
But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.
No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.
Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.
I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…
Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.
So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.
Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.
But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.
So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.
The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.
The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…
Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…
But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉
So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉
My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)
So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows…
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.
September 14th, 2009 · Comments Off on New Live EP: Releasing Music 2.0
So, if you read my last blog post about the gig on Oct 7th with Michael Manring, you may have seen that I embedded in that post a widget containing a free-to-download live EP of Michael and I playing together in California.
The EP happened because while blogging about the gig, I remembered that after that show (which at the time felt like a particularly good set of music) someone had sent me a recording of it… I’d been meaning ever since then to put up the rest of the improv that made sense of this video on youtube, and when I dug out the recording (which was sat on my incredibly messy desktop), I found that the entire improv set was worth putting out. [Read more →]
This is the first proper London show in AGES for Lobelia and I, so we’re making it a special one. We’ve asked 3 of our favourite singers to join us for an amazing night of singer-songwriter-ness… and genius Ukulele magic. It’ll be on Aug 25th, doors at 7pm, music from 7.30, at Darbucka World Music Bar, on St John’s Street in Clerkenwell, London.[Read more →]
I’ve mentioned before how fortunate I feel to have got to meet so many of my musical heroes early on in my music career. Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine – and then Guitarist magazine when they were merged – I had the opportunity to hang out with and chat to so many players whose music had meant a lot to me. In some cases, they were pleasant interviews, and the players now say hi if see them at trade shows. Others are people I now class as good friends, and some I’ve had the chance to play with. After this interview with Abraham Laboriel, we played together for over an hour. (I’ve got a minidisc of it somewhere, though given that it was only a few months after I first got my 6 string fretless, I’m guessing my intonation wouldn’t be quite what it is today!) [Read more →]
April 12th, 2009 · Comments Off on More new music – Youtube video of a brand new tune.
After the new tune I posted on Audioboo a few days ago, I’ve got the bug for uploading new tunes. Hopefully it’ll finally kick me into action to make some decisions about the kind of record (or whatever passes for a ‘record’ these days ) I want to make. [Read more →]
That’s by far the best way to get in touch. It comes straight to me, no intermediaries, and I can then email or call you back when I’ve got my diary in front of me!
For gigs, it’s probably cheaper and easier than you’d think to organise, and I’d love to come and play, so please do drop me a line. I’m sure we’ll work something out. For house concerts, I can put you in touch with people who’ve organised them before so you can get the low-down on what works best, if you so wish.
For now, listening links are over there on the left, blog stuff on the right, everything else is worth a look… stick around
January 28th, 2009 · Comments Off on Interview with me from Bass Guitar Magazine.
I’ve been hoping this interview would surface online for a quite a while – Adrian asked a really smart set of questions and, crucially, came back with questions relating to them. Email interviews can be really dull if it’s just a questionnaire (unless it’s MEANT to be a ’20 questions’ type deal…) – because there’s no conversational flow. So as a tip for those of you interviewing online, send 2 or three questions to start with at most, preferably unrelated ones, and then develop each one with questions that follow on…
But I digress, this is about me – anyway, it’s a great interview, and I was kinda surprised at the quote in the sell that says,
‘The unexpected popularity of bass looping in the UK can largely be attributed to Steve Lawson‘,
but I guess there’s some truth in that. It’s probably just that I’m more aware of my own influences than my influence.
January 28th, 2009 · Comments Off on Update on my broken bass…
So, as you know, the saga so far is that British Airways smashed up my bass on the way over here back in Mid-Dec. I emailed them and rang them and was told to ‘send them the fragile tag and the bubble wrap receipt‘ – fragile tag was a generic piece of cardboard, and the request for bubble wrap receipt came off like a sick joke, if you’d seen the damage done…
Anyway, over the course of NAMM weekend, quite a few bass builders looked at it, most with a look of horror on their faces. All said it wouldn’t repair adequately, and at best would need to have the spruce top sliced off and replaced. Not good. That’s a few grand’s worth of work.
Fast forward to yesterday, and I finally get to visit the lovely geniuses at Modulus Guitars, who made the bass (and every other solid bodied electric bass I’ve played in the last 16 years). I showed the bass to their chief bass builder, designer and all-round bass building ninja-dude, Joe Perman, and he basically wrote off the body. Because the crack goes ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE BODY by the jack socket, and is right across the grain through the top, any repair is going to be a botch job at best. He said he could make it better, but not great.
So we start discussing other options, after deciding it needs a new body. At this point, the willingness of Joe and Modulus A & R guy and dude-who-sorts-things-out Anderson Page to bend over backwards to help was astounding. Ideas were thrown around, including putting the neck and electronics from my bass on a completely solid body until they had time to build a new one, and even shipping me the body to have Martin Peterson assemble it in London…
But then a Joe has a light-bulb moment, remembering that there was in fact a semi-hollow Q6 body that had a tiny blemish (I couldn’t even see it!) that meant it couldn’t be sold (their quality control is exceptional). I looked at it, and loved the idea…
‘can I take it home on Thursday then?’ – er no, it’ll take a coupla weeks to get it finished and sprayed and for the lacquer to dry… which reminded me of a conversation I’d had last week with Steve Azola, maker of the incredible Azola upright basses, who was wondering what my bass would be like with a rubbed finish, rather than the heavy lacquer finish. “if we did that kind of finish, would that work?”
Joe’s eyes lit up – it was a plan that allowed them to use a body that couldn’t be sold, to experiment with a new finish for their basses AND I get a perfect working bass to go home with. The old body on mine becomes a write-off, but the new bass will be a whole other bass adventure for me. The wood combination is different (walnut top on an alder body) so will add a different flavour to my music. Always a nice game to play
As you can see in the photo at the top, part of me is loathe to let go of the bass that has been MY sound for a decade. It’s what happens at the end of my arms, a new limb… But that’s not going to happen, it’s not going to be fixed, BA saw to that by completely trashing the old one.
Good job bass manufacturers don’t function like airlines.
We’ll be heading back to Modulus tomorrow morning to see how they are getting on with it… More photos and blog posts then!
January 17th, 2009 · Comments Off on Photos from NAMM so far…
NAMM so far has been a whole lot of fun – have met up with loads of great friends, checked out some fab music gear, chatted a lot, drank coffee, playing some music on the looperlative booth (and discovered a couple of amazing new Looperlative features – video coming on those ASAP!)
Of course, I’ve also run into loads of pictures of Geddy Lee looking scarily like me as always (see above), but below is a round up of the rest of my pictures so far from NAMM – bass gear-wise, my favourite things so far have been the Mark Audio powered speakers (not really bass gear, more portable PA equipment – looks PERFECT for what Lobelia and I do!) and the new Ernie Ball bass with the push button pick-up controls… the great sound of it really took me by surprise.
Have met lots of of twitter friends too, which is rather lovely, and not a small number of people whose opening gambit has been ‘dude, I LOVE your blog’ – so this post is for you lot!