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…
August 4th, 2010 · Comments Off on Two EPs On The Way, Duets With Trip Wamsley
Trip and I have been friends for over a decade. We met at the NAMM Show in LA in ’99, and I was immediately a fan of his music. I doubt he heard anything I was on at the time – I was still 11 months away from my first ever solo gig, and he’d already been doing the solo bass thing for best part of a decade – he was SO far ahead of the curve, inspired by Michael Manring, playing opening shows for big name acts in The South all on his own. A real inspiration. [Read more →]
May 12th, 2009 · Comments Off on More Music Video – New Public Beta experiments + Duo with Theo Travis
Here are the latest couple of videos I’ve put up. The first is another of the experimental ideas I’m working on for the new album – this time I wanted to try something a little more solidly rhythmic, just to see how the replace functions interact with a percussive track. (the part is played by muting all the strings, and then using a ‘double thumb’ technique, more readily associated with slap bass, to get the percussive pattern).
November 3rd, 2008 · Comments Off on …and another video with Michael Manring!
Here’s a second video from 2005, with Michael Manring – this one was filmed the day after the last one, at the Brookdale Lodge, a rather freaky venue in the Santa-Cruz mountains that actually as a creek running through it… and a swimming pool with all kinds of weird tales attached to it – apparently the place was a Mobster hang-out back in the 20s.
Anyway, they now have duelling-bassists to add to their list of weird events, and here’s the video evidence!
“Steve’s complex array of sound and rare, intimate
touch are rapidy turning him into one of the most
influential bassists in the world” – bass guitar magazine
“Lawson’s writing and his phenomenal command of the possibilities of looping creates a compelling and surprising variety of sounds one would never imagine the bass capable of producing.” – JazzWise
“Steve Lawson is a brilliant musician. I’ve known about him and listened to him for many years. He may not be one of the most famous bassists but he is definitely one of the most talented.” – Victor Wooten
“Steve..I look at you as one of the best innovators in the bass community. The path you have chosen to follow is special and deep. If anyone has any issues with this, I feel for them and they should not be paying any attention the what you do. Just move on to a more mundane approach to the instrument and be happy. You are a gift and I love your playing and concept.” – Leland Sklar
“one of the most gifted solo bass players on the planet” – Ian Peel, Record Collector Magazine
“sensuous melodies intertwine and fall away with the intimacy of Talk Talk?s Spirit of Eden and the cinematic production values of Brian Eno” – Sid Smith
“Lawson’s solo bass compositions include palettes of lush sonic soundscapes and layers of ambient textures which have helped to redefine the art of looping and live performance as a solo bassist.” – The International Insitute Of Bass
“one of today’s most inventive and original sounding voices on the
electric bass. He is a pioneering innovator in the art of looping.” – cliff engel, www.bassically.net
“a one man cosmic symphony” – Jerry Kranitz, www.aural-innovations.com
“Taking you from new-age jazz to Starsky and Hutch, this solo bassist is a must-see for anyone who’s ever
harboured dreams of being a professional musician. Catch him while he’s hot!” (4/5) – ThreeWeeks
“Lawson is a master of a whole universe of sounds…a truly original talent” – JazzWise
“Steve Lawson is better than good… …[his] sheer virtuosity communicates an infectious love for the music.” – Good Times Santa Cruz.
“the life affirming stuff of dreams” Sue Edwards, Royal Festival Hall.
About the cds –
“What a beautiful recording! This is perhaps the best argument yet that the bass is a versatile, deeply expressive instrument and in the hands of a brilliant and visionary artist like Steve, is capable of making music of enormous emotional and musical depth. Please buy a copy and share it with your friends and family. I think they’ll thank you for it!” – Michael Manring.
“beautifully performed throughout” – Guitarist Magazine (uk)
“From the opening trills of ‘Flutter’ it’s clear that this is going to be an extraordinary album…
…Steve’s complex array of sound and rare, intimate touch are rapidly turning him into one of the most influential bassists in
the world.” – Bass Guitar Magazine (uk)
“one of the most refreshing, listenable and unpretentious albums i have heard in one long time!” – warren murchie, global bass magazine (Canada)
“i encourage the rest of the world to get this album and find out just how versatile a bass guitar can be – 10/10 “- cross rhythms magazine (uk)
“A excellent set of truly inspired improvisational music.” – aural innovations e-zine. (US)
“Frisell, Fripp and Garbarek revisited in unique ways.” – JazzUK Magazine. (UK)
“steve has something all his own, and with it a bright future as a solo bass performer and likely anything else he chooses along the way. pick it up now so you can say you know of him from the beginning.” – bass frontiers magazine (us)
“I highly recommend this CD! As Steve’s playing and concept grow he makes ever more gorgeous and engaging music that really demonstrates the expressive depth of the bass. The richness of this music makes for a rewarding listening experience on all levels and I think Steve’s approach represents a real step forward for the art of solo bass.” – Michael Manring.
“All in all, “and nothing but the bass”, is a most delectable and auspicious debut release from a very talented artist with the vision and ability to think and play outside the box. Definitely recommended listening” – www.ambientvisions.com (US)
“Take the playing expertise of Phil Keaggy mix in a healthy dose of the solo work of Robert Fripp and transfer that to a six string fretless bass guitar. What you have as a result of the best of both is a gentleman known as Steve Lawson.” – www.tollbooth.org (US)
“On technical terms alone, Lawson holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass suchas Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent
but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners.” – Misfit City E-zine (UK)
“Using only a couple basses and a handful of electronic gadgets, Lawson skillfully paints sonic textures of ambient soundscapes with adventurous soloing and masterful layering.” – www.bassically.net (US)
” This is such a special album that a short review like this can hardly do it justice. The moody melody of ‘Need You Now’, the funky slap and pop of ‘Channel Surfing’, the atmospheric ‘Jimmy James’, all these and every other track are worthy of careful examination and I only have 200 words! ‘Chicken’ is an album that invites you to sit back,
close your eyes and get involved in it’s shimmering melodic beauty for an hour.” – Euphoria Magazine (UK)
“The marvelously musical result on Lawson’s second [solo] album, which tends toward a mellow, ambient vibe that sometimes recalls new age
music and ’80s art-rock, has as much to do with Lawson’s melodic sense as it does to do with his technical mastery.” – Bass Player Magazine.
“Folk music, Frippertronics, fretless Jaco Pastorius flights, country melodies and world-music trance epics mingle here, plus a few hints of past effects-pedal kings like Dean Carter or Pat Orchard. And it’s utterly inclusive music, lacking the smugness and self-love that blight many solo instrumental jaunts, and more interested in raising a happy smile rather than pulling an anguished ‘guitar face’ ” – Organ Magazine (UK)
“In summary, Lawson succeeds in showcasing the range of his instruments’ possibilities while also creating enjoyable and interesting music. The album’s real strength
lies in it’s variety, from Frippoid soundscapes, to jazz, and ambient space. – www.aural-innovations.com (US)
“On the last piece – “Pillow Mountain” – Lawson shows that, with a few electronic gizmos, even very “unbasslike” sounds can be produced. A
wonderfully melancholic fretless solo is played over an underlying mood reminiscent of Brian Eno. Beautiful.” – Jazz Dimensions Magazine (Germany)
“Only a musician with great talent and sensitivity can provoke such emotions, giving us these 52 minutes of pathos from solo bass and effects.” – No Warning e-zine (Italy)
“Steve Lawson [is an] innovative bassist dedicated to stretching the boundaries of bass. On Lawson’s And Nothing but the Bass album,
the simple boom-di-boom we know as bass is transformed into a spray of chords, arpeggios, hammer-ons and rangy melodic runs, flecked in harmonics and reinvented by effects.” – San Jose Metro (US)
“Lawson and Carr alternate playing Jekyl to the other’s Hyde. Dreamy pastoral visions interrupted by an invasion of drunk Martians. Steve’s sonic pallette allows him to blend beautifully, or create havoc, a dichotomy he clearly enjoys. A fascinating listen. A Little Nitrous Music anyone?”
– Ed Friedland, Bass Player Magazine (US)
“The music Steve and Jez make is reflective, intimate and powerful. It takes you on a journey that is
simultaneously familiar and exotic, engaging and serene.” – Michael Manring
” ‘Conversations’ finds pianist Jez Carr and bassist/loopist Steve Lawson deftly walking a fine line between
new age and avant-garde, drifting from meditative serenity to angular abstraction so smoothly that the seams
barely show. With its extended and often reflective feel, the highly-attuned duo improvisations allude to the
vintage eras of record labels like ECM or Windham Hill.” – Andre LaFosse (guitar looping genius)
“This is subtle music that demands your undivided attention.” – www.aural-innovations.com
“Close to perfection… …Magnificent” – No Warning (Italian e-zine)
“I can’t say enough to recommend this CD adequately. Just do yourself a favor and get it if you haven’t already.”- Ted Killian, Loopers Delight.
” There’s music here to appeal to a diverse crowd… from space ambient to jazz fans to prog fans. And I can’t imagine any musician who wouldn’t appreciate the results of what are actually solo performances. Recommended.” – www.aural-innovations.com
About Steve’s gigs…
“Most bass players settle for one distinctive tone and make it their own, yet solo loop guru Lawson is a master
of a whole universe of sounds all conjured from his fretless six-string bass. It’s a feat equivalent to juggling
half-a-dozen lit torches that not only he makes look and sound effortless, but his sense of otherworldly narratives
makes his a truly original talent.” – JazzWise magazine.
“Steve’s style is to look like he never knows what he’s doing in the first place,
he talks nonsense to distract you from how frighteningly good he is at what he does.” – www.bassworld.co.uk
“steve plays with a wonderful fluidity. his fingers glide lovingly, effortlessly over the fretless, the chording and intonation never less than perfect. whether a simple, relaxed glissade or a line demanding
huge control and dexterity, his fingers did the talking.” – michael cowton, journalist and author of ‘level 42 – the definitive biography’ (UK)
“[steve is] very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the american virtuosi on equal terms… his improvised melodies…make for an assertive and individual new voice.”- dann chinn, misfit city e-zine (uk)
“…an evening of technological wonder and musical psychadelisizing.” – Santa Cruz Sentinel
“a gifted and imaginative bassist, whose melodic ideas and encyclopedic chordal knowledge are at least equal to many (currently) more well known artists.”- www.globalbass.com online magazine. (Canada)
“Bottom Line: Virtuoso technique + imagination + a vision + improvisation chops to burn = Steve Lawson.”- www.bassically.net (US)
“At last! Steve Lawson – a bassist with a commanding technique that doesn’t mean more notes,
but a truly good sound and great time, with melody a priority. Finally, lots of notes when needed.
How refreshing! Now all we need is a Steve Lawson that plays double bass – are you out there?” – Danny Thompson (double bass legend)
“Steve Lawson has got to be one of the most tasteful bassists I’ve heard in a long time and is certainly a creative
player who focuses on sound and the quality of individual notes, not to mention different ways of speaking with his
instrument.” – Jerry Kranitz, www.aural-innovations.com
“Somehow I had never heard of Steve Lawson before and while at the recent NAMM show a friend of mine dragged me
to a booth to check him out. When I heard Steve play doing a live solo with self accompaniment I was instantly
transported to somewhere beautiful inside, even though we were in Anaheim of all places. The CD does the same
thing for me…I listened to it driving through the desert and again at home…lovely,
wonderful stuff…I’m a fan” – Andy West
(solo artist, bassist with The Dixie Dregs)
“When I first heard Steve Lawson it made me go home and practice my bass again, it was inspiring to hear his use of bass loops with great melodies.
He doesn’t play like a bass player, he plays like a musician. I am going to rip off every idea he has ever had!!” – Matt Bissonette (bassist to the stars!)
May 10th, 2008 · Comments Off on Finding inspiration – improvisation on a theme.
Last Thursday, I had a hugely enjoyable gig, playing at an art exhibition opening, of drawings by Rob Pepper. Rob is someone I’ve known for a while, and I really like his style and approach (you can check out a load of his work on his blog at dailydrawingdiary.com).
This latest exhibition at the SW1 Gallery in Victoria, titled ‘To There And Back Again”, is of drawings Rob did in Texas and in London. The London ones are mainly large canvas works of London Landmarks and views, while the Texan ones are a mixture of the large and some smaller more intimate portraits. Both sets have an off-kilter sensibility to them that says something way more about the subjects than a straight realist portrait might have.
Anyway, from a musical point of view, the discussions beforehand with Rob were really interesting. His first instinct was to suggest some kind of literalist mashup of England and Texan themes – banjos and folk songs, country music with east end cockney songs… So we talked a little around the theme, and he seemed more settled with me understanding what he wanted but filtering it through what I do…
The SW1 gallery is a fantastically resonant space – all hard surfaces and wood floors, so I only needed my studio monitors to play through. Stylistically, I drew quite heavily on Bill Frisell’s art-inspired music – where he used Jim Woodring and Gary Larson’s art for different pieces – and also on the feel of Rob Jackson’s mashup up of Americana and a more reserved English feel.
Those influences were then filtered through the strangeness of some of Rob’s drawings and blended into that thing I do – looped ‘n’ layered lush mellow bass stuff. Lots of slow swing country rhythms and chord progressions, overlaid with the kind of ambient shimmer that works so well in galleries and twisted just enough to reflect something of that quirkiness in the art.
The result was almost 2 hours of music that was at once very obviously ‘me’ music, but had taken on a whole other slant as a result of the focus that the gallery gave me.
It’s a worthwhile experiment, whether or not you’ve got a gallery opening to play at – just being able to get away from focussing on yourself as the centre of a project, and see how your skill set and musical vision can be applied to soundtracking and contextualising someone else’s work/world. The combination of the two can be a great launch pad for new ideas, and it also shows up the elements in what you do that are just there because you always do them – there were a lot of the usual StevieSounds that didn’t make it into the music for the show just because they didn’t fit the vibe. I played way more fretted bass than I normally would (fretless bass is neither a particularly ‘country’ sound, nor intrinsically english) and used the fretless in ways I wouldn’t normally, or to give a degree of obfuscation to a particular idea (looping and layering ‘dueling banjos’ on fretless, in a minor key, for example… OK, so Deliverance was set in Georgia, not Texas, but it still worked 😉 )
Anyway, the lesson is, sometimes is good to mix it up a bit, focus your skills and soundworld on someone else’s challenge. I got loads from it musically, and Rob was delighted. (The bit in the middle when I took a break and they put a CD on felt really odd following on from an hour of music shaped by the room and the art…)
Go! Experiment! …and go and see Rob’s show too –
Friday 9 May – Thursday 29 May 2008
Opening hours: Tues – Sat 10am – 4pm
020 7963 4024 www.sw1gallery.co.uk
“This music is apparently what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends. Friends who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs in London. Or in Lincoln, Watford, France, California… or wherever Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, E-Bow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. And, having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.
You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of “And Nothing But The Bass”‘s title is accurate: Steve Lawson’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass’ with one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite but audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals: that isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists, cool-by-numbers checklists, spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers; obvious-state-of-minders stapled to credible trends and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck this, focussing quietly instead on the way music connects across generations and between person and person, is a sweet shock.
On technical terms alone, Lawson holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from playing pop with the elfin, equally guileless Howard Jones; but when you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like “The Inner Game” and “The New Country” (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt. Or with the solemn rules at jazz school.
All right, perhaps an over-mellow conflation of those lovable old chestnuts “Chopsticks” and “Blue Moon” (on “Blue Sticks”) is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill, which is all very nice but a little worrying. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic American folk song and bluegrass into “The Virtue Of The Small”, Flecktones-style; then splitting off to layer on luxuriously glutinous improvisations via serenely wandering fretless and classic metal distortion. Or to spot momentary nods to other bassists (Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm) who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement. Or just to put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like “Bittersweet”, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to both Pachelbel’s Canon and Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made”. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white, New Age end of jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.
So far, so immaculate, so “Bassist Magazine”. What really opens doors, though, are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music: closer to Fripp Soundscapes and post-rock than to John Patitucci. …and again… The moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies of “Drifting” give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes, like wheelmarks on cloud, and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass. “Chance” clings on – just – to the right side of disassembly; the sharp attack or mother-beast rumble of Lawson’s fretless stepping in and around his frigidly emotional ECM bass figure, ghosted with minimal traceries. And the lapping sounds, heartbeat sub-aqua bass and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous “Pillow Mountain” are closer to Mouse On Mars than any bass guitarring this side of Rothko, as Lawson E-Bows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour, moving away from bobbing their heads to the happy melodies and simply listening instead.
And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either. Anyone who’s been to one of Lawson’s recent concerts can testify that this CD’s a mere dry run compared to the music he’s now growing into. For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming; for Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.
“Drawn by the call of bass, I’m chilling here – it’s cold inside the nave of this small church tucked away by Holloway Prison. Were he American, Steve Lawson would be filling Stateside theatres on the progressive-instrumental circuit. But he’s British, and aiming at a gap in the market that the industry’s done its best to squeeze shut (or suffocate with endless minor variations on “Tubular Bells”). And, consequently, he has to plan and implement his own events from the ground up and in out-of-the-way places.
At least St Lukes is a fine place tonight. Flickering tea-lights, sofas and chairs, lovely acoustics and clean tall white walls to carry the visual multi-media provided by the Sparks collective. Long shots of bus travel and busy campuses fill one wall, a cartoon tribute to Lawson’s trippy bass guitar music along another, and TV screens frame inert men lolling in armchairs. Negative homilies manifest quietly on walls – “Once bitten, unlikely to trust anyone ever again”; “Failure is inevitable, therefore I will never even try to begin anything”. Jolly animations of dancing subway signs and jostling cells inhabit one corner. From another a muted, indistinct babble of voices seeps out of three detuned radios to wind around our chair legs. Once again, I find myself part of an installation (tonight, Matthew, I’m the saggy off-colour bit up near the front).
By all appearances, Steve Lawson’s pretty much marked for bass guitar playing. He looks like a frighteningly convincing young Geddy Lee from a Rush tribute band, and he sounds much like Michael Manring – the clusters of ringing-bell harmonics, the use of E-Bow sustainer and the glutinous pining tone of his six-string fretless. But he’s very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the American virtuosi on equal terms. A live shot of Steve Lawson (photo by Edward Eldon) His playing has elements of other remarkable bassists (Victor Wooten’s bubbling folk-song lines, the inevitable Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, the aforementioned Manring, plus every now and again a moment of cyclic Stuart Hamm tap-and-hold). His improvised melodies, though – allied to the upside/downside/back-to-front timbral inventions and the multi-layered looping fed through his small garrison of effects pedals – make for an assertive and individual new voice.
Lawson’s milieu is a translucent psychoactive landscape of sound that tugs at old memories of water, of night, of the hypnotic rapture of nature; as close to the ethereal electronic/acoustic embrace of Cipher or BJ Cole’s Transparent Music as it is to the inevitable Frippertronics. As he duets with himself on soprano-calling E-bowed lines, plucks crisp sophisticated little riffs, or feeds in a ribbon of backward-processed Chinese Opera or Turkish trumpet tones (which he’s quietly played and tweaked only moments before), it’s both captivating and enveloping. He makes unnerving harmonised passages of scrunched sound like a passing swarm of disgruntled operatic bats. Or manufactures and introduces his own complex thump of trance-techno beats on the spot, mixing them in carefully to evolve a questioning jazz solo into a dance-music leap. All part of a weave of rich underwater reverb and freeflowing textures (or, as the man himself puts it, “weird stuff”) which molds itself to the warming air in the church.
There’s always a sense of audience in this guy’s playing; always a feel for melody and placement, and – incredibly, for a loop gig – no straying into pretentious or tedious noodling. The continually morphing but almost hummable “Drifting”, in particular, seems to last for most of the evening, yet never once feels dull or overstretched. Everything is considered carefully as it’s played – you can see him thinking, nose wrinkled and fingers hovering – and if the improvising is slow, laid-back and eminently accessible, it’s also consistently inspired and knows where to move to. There’s humour here too – the string-click that turns into an amplified lipsmack, or the way Steve spends half a minute constructing a fresh set of rhythm, harmony, melody and texture loops almost from scratch to make a perfectly harmonised melodious group arrangement… and then casually strolls to the toilet for a few minutes, leaving a squad of virtual-bassists to calmly play on without him. Had you been looking down, you’d’ve have missed his absence entirely. A honeycombed version of an old standard (“Blue Moon” – warm, graceful and far from blue cheesiness) connects back to traditional jazziness, but Steve Lawson’s very much a modern player: a full-on ear-bather in love with the luxury of de-e-e-e-p sounds, but suspicious of waste, thank God.
For the second half, Lawson brings on Harry Napier (on elegantly melodic cello) and Mark Lloyd (on compact percussion rig), pulls himself out of the ultramarine and the innerspatial, and plonks himself down into a more mannered realm. Specifically, New Chamber Music: that tidy, definition-elusive, very white stream of fusion, factoring in classical, jazz and folk idioms, and best illustrated by Napier’s correct and serene improvisations over a little loop of Bach. Half of the mighty loop rig is switched off, to be replaced by group approaches and music overlapping into aspects of Windham Hill (the muso cleanliness of The Montreux Band) or ECM (the more melodious, commercial side of Oregon or Paul Winter). And as the trio course through versions of Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden’s “Spiritual” (written by Charlie’s son Josh, indie people – he of the noir-ish, string-laden Spain) and Bill Frisell’s “That Was Then”, you can tell that their spiritual home’s the panelled confines of the QEH or Carnegie rather than the Jazz Cafe or a proggie hangout. It sometimes edges too far in a polite direction, but for slow-cooking group playing it’s tough to fault.
In a less intimate setting, Andy Thornton would’ve looked like this… After this, former Big Sur songwriter Andy Thornton – over in the coffee lounge, in low light – is a fine comedown, and no let-down either. A camply mellow presence with a nice line in dry wit, working with strong roadstepping acoustic guitar and a voice that pitches a little lopsided but hits the emotional target dead on, his is the necessary music to complement the wordlessness of Lawson and co. Songs with soft sides and late wisdom about love and ageing, performed in a number of personas from the petulant (“She Won’t Talk To Me” – “once you say you love them, then you’re shown the door”) to the hyperreal. Fine-tuning his guitar, Thornton announces “this is about a random shepherd sitting on a hill, contemplating physics; and this is what he wrote” – and follows up with a spiralling love song full of dramatic metaphysical jumps of scale and perspective. Later, he’ll sing something with the same driven blend of voyeurism and thwarted intimacy as “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, giving us permission to laugh at the first line (“I wish I was a girl of 21″) but daring us to giggle at the sympathy and jealousy emerging from there on in. Another dark horse talent revealed. This church is broader than I thought.
“SL – Michael, when you started playing solo bass, there was very little repetoir, and certainly very few precedents for people making a career out of it, or doing whole live gigs like that – who inspired you and what were the pivotal events in your coming to a position where playing solo was a viable option? Can you remember your first ever completely solo gig?
MM -In the beginning my primary inspiration for wanting to play solo bass gigs was just that I loved the sound of the instrument and I thought it really should be heard in an unadorned format where all of its subtle colors could be appreciated. In terms of context, I drew a lot of inspiration from the steel string guitarists who were out there doing solo shows. It was also exciting to hear how solo artists in the jazz realm like Joe Pass or Bill Evans, could instantly take their music anyplace they wanted to – changing tempo, arrangement or dynamics on the fly. Working with Michael Hedges was at tremendous inspiration for me because his whole solo concept was so clear and focused. His solo performance was totally engaging on many levels and experiencing that strengthened my resolve to work with the possibilities of bass as a solo instrument in spite of the opposition that so many folks seemed to have to the idea. I had no idea if anyone would ever want to listen to what I was trying to come up with, but I just felt an overwhelming need to try.
A lot of my pivotal experiences came from composing new pieces or coming up with new concepts. Many of my early pieces were both too hard to play and not terribly appealing to listen to, so it took a while for me to gather enough repertoire to feel like I could give a convincing solo performance. I felt I had to come up with something that was simultaneously interesting and entertaining in order to be viable and to keep from boring everyone to tears. With the prejudice that seemed to exist against the idea of solo bass I figured it really had to be good to work! I’m still trying to find ways to make solo bass more intriguing to an audience.
Throughout the early eighties I had been doing a lot of shows where I would play one or a few solo pieces as part of a larger program, but my first real solo show was in California sometime around 1985. I was just finishing up my first solo record and I remember playing the title track, “Unusual Weather,” “Longhair Mobile” and “Thunder Tactics.” At that time I was living in New York, but I was so impressed with how open and apparently unfazed Californians seemed to be to the whole idea of solo bass that I decided to move here!
Now one for you: I’m fascinated by being alive in this time when we have access to technology that we can use to expand the scope of what’s possible in music. There are pitfalls of course, and I enjoy trying to maintain a balance of sort of high- and low-tech approaches. You have integrated technology into your concept in such an effective way. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this. What are the positives and negatives? Do you have a philosophy or directive you use to decide how to use a particular tool?
SL – That’s a fantastic question! I too am really excited by the possibilities, but am at times overawed by the scope of the technology, both to be an amazing tool, but also to mask the creative process by constricting things. This is particularly true with looping, as the parameters are, on the surface, very clearly defined. So with every new bit of equipment, I allow myself plenty of time to get to know it before subject an audience to it – working with it for hours, and thinking about what’s possible with it, and also just improvising and seeing how it responds to a random element. Nearly all of my best ideas have been mistakes, or at least the product of random events! So my philosophy is to explore the parameters… actually I use a permutation approach that I was messing around with before but which was solidified by watching your video! I took what you were doing with notes on the neck and applied it to the JamMan, exploring all the functions in different combinations. I’ve recently got a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, which is an unbelievable bit of technology. I’m taking my time to work through all the functions, seeing how they widen my technical options when performing solo, then seeing if they open up new arrangement possibilities for tunes that I’ve been playing for some time. I’m certainly discovering how I can take ‘cell’ musical ideas – fragments of melody or chord sequences – and allow the possibilities of the technology to inform where it goes next. I’m currently using 4 unsync’d loop boxes – the Gibson EDP, Lexicon JamMan, Line 6 DL4 and Lexicon MPX-G2, which gives me loads of possibilities for shifting soundscapes, and the option of recording lines early on in a piece and then triggering them at various times. So is that a well formulated philosophy? I’m not sure!
MM – I really liked what you said about how you sort of “encounter” a new device. Isn’t it fascinating how, at some point certain tools go from being “toys” to being “instruments.” The only real difference is in the intention of the user, I think. There’s a tendency to think of an instrument as being something necessarily complex and/or subtle, but just the other day I was playing with a bansuri player and I was surprised to see what a very simple instrument it is — just a basic wooden tube with a few strategically placed holes. I’ve always been very moved by the sound of the bansuri and in the hands of someone like Hariprasad Chaurasia it seems infinitely deep. It’s an intriguing thought that almost anything can be an instrument of expression as long as the user has the creativity and imagination to bring it to life. For some folks, electronic effects might just be gimmicks, but you use them to expand the scope of your expressive palette.
SL – On a similar theme, how did your relationship with Joe Zon of Zon Guitars develop and how did the new technical advances of The Hyperbass change the way you write and perform?
MM – In answer to your question, The Hyperbass was an interesting project in that my concept for what I wanted to do with it was pretty well formed before the instrument was constructed. Normally, like you, I usually take a somewhat reactive approach to a new piece of gear — check it out and see what it can do and then start to form a concept around that. In the case of The Hyperbass though, I had been goofing around with things like changing tunings (by turning tuning keys) while I was playing for a while and I wanted to find someone who was interested in building an instrument that would help facilitate that. Turning the keys is fine and all, but it just seemed like there were better, more complete ways to accomplish the task. Everybody who I talked to pretty much thought I was crazy except Joe. In fact, he had a few crazy ideas of his own to toss into the mix! By the time The Hyperbass was finished, I knew just what I wanted to do with it and the first couple of compositions came together very quickly. More recently though, I’ve been having fun finding ways to play it that I never thought would work. Slapping, for instance – I never thought it would even be possible to slap on it because the fingerboard is so long, but I find I’ve been developing a kind of percussive technique based on slap that has really been capturing my imagination lately. I guess it’s that limitations and quirks thing again — I can’t do the typical kind of slapping on The Hyperbass, so that has led me into trying to develop a different kind of style based on slap, but with its own idiosyncrasies. Joe and I have many other design ideas we’re anxious to explore, but sadly it’s hard to find the time and money for it as not that many folks are interested in that type of thing. However, I’m a long, long way from having tapped out the possibilities of The Hyperbass. I’m learning more about it, and more from it everyday.
It’s so interesting too, how sometimes it’s limitations that set us free. There’s that old saying, “limitation is the basis of style” and I think there’s truth to that. Sometimes it’s the quirks of a piece of gear that really give it a defining character. I wonder how you conceive of the boundaries of your instrument. It seems to me that you have incorporated the electronics seamlessly and integrally into the identity of the instrument. Is that true or do you think of the instrument ending at the output jack and everything else as accoutrement? How about the amp and speakers? Cables, even?!
SL – In that respect, I began to think about and conceptualize what I do in a different way after you mentioned that you see bass as being a fusion of acoustic and electric – that the sound is as acoustic in origin as any amplified acoustic instrument. It’s just the degree to which you choose to mess with it – volume is a parameter to be altered just like any other. It’s true that my approach to what I play and how is greatly affected by the gear that I’m using – I’m kind of in awe of guys like yourself who can just sit down and play beautiful music without the need for extra processing – I guess once I got into the processing thing, it sort of attached itself to my whole music making ethos. I still occasionally sit down and try to write completely solo pieces, but I think in layers and textures as much as I do harmony and melody. Sound is my fundamental element in music, not the usual trinity of melody, harmony and rhythm – what I do with that sound is in service of it, rather than the other way round. So in that respect, the electronics the amp, and yes, even the cables have an influence!
MM – Another question for you: I know you have an interesting balance of improvisation and pre-composition in your music. How important is improv in what you do and what different approaches to it do you take? Are there any pieces that you play verbatim?
SL – The balance varies from day to day and gig to gig – improv is vital to that process of allowing randomness into it, and honing my own ability to react and respond to chance events in the music. So even with pieces that are composed, I still tend to flip part of it back to front at some point, or pick a sound I’ve not added in there before, just to go somewhere else with it.
‘The Inner Game’, from my first CD is about as composed as it gets, in that it has an initial loop, opening melody, and a couple of other additions to the loop that are always the same, and then the rest of it is like a jazz tune – soloing over the form. From there, there’s a pretty smooth continuum (cool title for a tune, perhaps? :o) all the way to ‘hit it and see what happens’ at the completely random end, where I not only randomize the pitch and rhythm, but also the techniques, experimenting with whatever idea comes to mind and trying to make it work. I’m also in the middle of an obsession with duo improv at the moment, as I love the conversational aspect, and the give and take, response, direction and comedy of the whole thing – that’s totally the thinking behind the new CD with Jez Carr… I’m planning a whole series of them, recontextualising what I do, in conversation with various improvisers. You seem to work with both extremes – strict composition and free improv, and from listening to your improv projects, you also take ideas that emmerge in improv and develop them into tunes. Do you view improv as a compositional tool or a separate event? How much continuing development goes into the heavily composed tunes? The Enormous Room seems to have space (haha!) for you to react in the moment, and reorder some bits of it, no?
MM – I really like how you are working on expanding the parameters of music. I always feel lucky to be working in music at this time when we have so much control over timbre. It really used to be a subordinate quality after melody, harmony and rhythm, but it’s almost like we get to discover a new world and make new rules (or choose not to make rules!). What a great idea to approach it from the angle of layers, too. Now that you mention it, I really see how your music is structured that way. Of course, you have the timbral imagination and palette to make it work. And all of it originating from what most folks would consider a highly unlikely instrument – because I think most “civilians” see bass as very monochromatic. That’s when art is really fun — when it surprises you, opens up your sense of what’s possible, fires your imagination and delights you all at once. It’s fun to experiment with improvisation, too. For so long in the West, improv has meant jazz blowing over chord changes, but there are so many other options. Timbral improv is a really intriguing idea! I went through a phase when I wanted to avoid improv in my solo concept because I felt like it was kind of a competitive thing. I just have a need to be contrary sometimes, and although I grew up in the jazz tradition I wanted to just go out and play my tunes to allow me to focus all my attention on phrasing, dynamics, articulation, tone, intonation, etc. Sometimes even great improvisers skimp on those areas because the intellectual demands of improv are so great. But these days, like you, I’m really enjoying doing a lot of improv and looking for different improvisation concepts. In playing solo, the improv possibilities are so vast — all the interpretive things I mentioned before, but also tempo, form, etc. before you even get into thinking about playing different notes! And of course, your timbral improv idea is a whole other realm. I also vary the improv in my solo shows like you do. I have some tunes like “Adhan,” which are just sort of general sets of tendencies and parameters for improv while others are pretty much through composed. I always look for what kind of improvisation a piece seems to want to entertain. For a long time I’ve felt that there were some interesting improv possibilities in “The Enormous Room,” and once in a while I find some, but I’m still searching for the methodology for that one. I just listen as deeply as I can to see if I can hear what a piece tells me it wants to do. I agree the duo thing is strong, too, especially in an improv context. It’s interesting how the smallest numbers sometimes seem to have the most significance. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between 14,758 and 14,759 for instance, but the difference between 1 and 2 is huge. Compared to other numbers they are so strange that they’d seem almost surreal if they weren’t so common. (Sorry for the tangent!) In any case, I really look forward to hearing your other interactive projects. Will you keep the same basic premise or do you think you will alter the concept when you have other personalities to interact with?
SL – That numbers idea is a good one – on that theme, I often find that the strangest of thoughts and ideas can influence the way I think about, approach and therefor play music – a single word, such as ‘permutation’ can lead me down a whole other path in a way that affects me far more than messing around with a new scale or whatever would.
For the duo stuff, I guess it will depend on who I’m playing with, and what the sum of their musical journey brings to the project. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I do, but I can be quite forceful in a musical setting like that, which is one of the reasons why on ‘Conversations’, I only used the Line 6 DL4 for all the looping – otherwise, I’d be in danger of drowning out the piano, or just not listening in quite the same intense way as I was able to with the music more open texture that we developed. I have a duo with a a keyboardist/guitarist called Patrick Wood, and what we do it much more heavily layered – I’m using my whole solo set up, and he’s playing keys and guitar, sometimes at the same time! I’m also about to start work with a vibraphonist, which brings it’s own set of unique creative limitations to a project, that will hopefully inspire some new music in me.
MM – On that general train of thought, I’d love to hear your ideas about the concept of “experimental” music. As far as I know, no one has really quite done what you are doing, so you are in a new artistic place. Do you think of it as “experimental” or do you find the term inappropriate? Or is it just a matter of semantics that has nothing to do with actual music making?
SL – I think semantics have everything to do with music, so your perception of the labels that are put on you really impacts the music. ‘Experimental’ is a term with a heck of a lot of baggage. It’s a label I’ve used for my stuff a few times just for ease of use, but there seems to be within in a connotation of it being unmelodic or ‘hard work’, which anyone listening to my first album would be hard pushed to find – a lot of what I’ve done up until now has been conceptually experimental, but harmonically a bit more ‘inside’.
When it comes to labeling or describing what I do, I find that really well written reviews can give me a new insight into my own music! I had one recently from a guitarist/writer in LA who seemed to understand what I was doing and where I was going almost more than I did, and it allowed me to think about what I did in a freer way.
I do think we need some new labels for what’s happening now – the labels that related to jazz and to electronica in the 60s and 70s don’t work for much of what’s happening now – I’m certainly not playing ‘free jazz’ or ‘fusion’ – I think something like ‘open adventurous improv’ would work for me – it carries no history, is very open ended stylistically, but contains a description of the intent of the musicians – to improvise something new, which does ‘need’ to be really weird – or what a violinist I knew described as ‘squeaky gate music’ – but can easily switch from nice harmony to full on noise if that’s where the musicians take it. Again, the duo format allows for a sense of dialogue that isn’t really available anywhere else. I think we did a great job of keeping things conversational and open on the tour with Rick Walker last year, but part of the creative buzz for me was the increased tension of three people all exerting an influence – it became more of a ‘debate’ than a conversation, and that threw out some fascinating music.
It’s a shame that there’s so little conceptualizing that goes on in music – I certainly wouldn’t be playing what I play if my ‘game plan’ were different. So many people just jump in and play without ever thinking why… I can feel this heading towards a question or two about music education, but maybe we’ll leave that for a future issue!”
“Caption: The audience allowed themselves to be carried along during an astonishing experimental performance, which was ultimately conclusive.”
“Last Saturday, the Regional Arts Development Association invited music lovers to come and hear a bold master class at the Théâtre de la Mauvaise Tête.
The performers were a guitar, bass and percussion trio composed of musicians with different backgrounds and inspirations, a trio characterised by its improvisational playing, each member being carried along as his inspiration took him, in response to the offerings of the others.
Franck Vigroux, highly focussed on his guitar, Steve Lawson, conjuring weird sounds from his bass, and Jérôme Cury, attacking a strange arsenal of percussion, gave an astonishing experimental performance for the audience from the music college and Marvejols music lovers. The three musicians, from diverse backgrounds (modern jazz, ambient and classical music) performed their pieces as “stories to tell”. The audience allowed themselves to be quietly carried along by their innovations and their musical risk-taking during the concert which, although weird, never became impenetrable.
The concert came at the end of a day which began when the trio met with students at the music college.”