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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Review – Conversations (Jazz Dimensions Magazine)

May 7th, 2008 · Comments Off on Review – Conversations (Jazz Dimensions Magazine)

“Is it jazz? Bassist Steve Lawson and pianist Jez Carr indulge in free improvisation on this CD at least: spontaneous and without any prior discussion. Geared to contemplation and harmony, this music does not impose itself aggressively on the listener. Attentive listening pays rewards – and reveals hidden jewels.

Steve Lawson, unusually for a bassist, is known primarily as a solo artist. He and Jez Carr have worked together for some time: Carr was the producer on Lawson’s debut “And nothing but the bass”; here he appears as pianist and duo partner to Lawson. The pieces collected on this CD were deliberately, and bravely, left as first takes, without any subsequent tweaking. It is probably for that reason that they are a little on the long side here and there.

Once again Lawson plays his six-string fretless, with which he covers the entire sonic spectrum and also produces sound effects from the world of electronica. His playing is lyrical, virtuoso and good for a surprise or two. At the same time, he allows his partner Jez Carr the necessary space, which Carr fills with sparing sounds and melodies that are sometimes reminiscent of Erik Satie.

The least important thing about this disc is probably stylistic classification. Call it jazz if you like, call it New Age or acoustic ambient music: it is simply great. Listen up!”

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Review – Conversations (Bass Guitar Magazine)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“The sleeve notes to Conversations suggest that the players had no charts, no tunes, no keys, or anything prepared before recording the project. After listening to the album I refused to believe that such melodic and graceful tunes could emerge from so sparse a formula, so a quick call to Mr Lawson was in order…

‘yeah, there were no rehearsals, no duscussion on keys, rhythms or vibes; just hit ‘reocrd’ and play. It was as spontaneous as it could possibly be!’

“Conversations captures all those moments in their glory. It’s far removed from the usual ‘free jazz’ type of fast improvisations with extended soloing or groove sections. Jez Carr is sparse with his lines, leaving Lawson room to explore the upper reaches of his Modulus Custom 6 string fretless. Two of the tracks exceed 14 minutes, and both are happy to heave lots of space during the tunes where the freedom to bounce ideas around never gets out of control. Conversations is extremely laid back conjuring images of dream like open spaces. IF you like your music free of constraints you’ll like the approach of Conversations.”
– Adrian Ashton

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playing for other people

May 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment

As much as I love playing solo, collaborating with other people is a huge part of my musical life. If you’re interested in hiring me for a project, or have a collaboration to suggest, please do get in touch!

-_o_-

people I’ve played with/for – Aaron Gibson, Airstar, Alex Douglas, Alex Legg, Al Swainger, Alvin Stardust, Amy Kohn, Andre LaFosse, Andrea Hazell, Andrew Buckton, Andrew Gouche, Andrew Pask, Andy Edwards, Andy Gangadeen, Andy Hamill, Andy Thornton, Andy Williamson, Artemis, Beardyman, Ben Castle, Ben Okafor, Black Feathers, Boo Hewerdine, Briana Corrigan, Bryan Beller, Bryan Corbett, Calamateur, Carrie Melbourne, Charlie Moreno, Chris Bowater, Claudio Zanghieri, Cleveland Watkiss, Cole Moreton, Commonwealth, Corey Mwamba, Daniel Berkman, Dave Bainbridge, Davey Spillane, David and Carrie Grant, David Lyon, Deborah Jordan, Divinity, Dudley Philips, Duncan Senyatso, Elvin Jones, Emily Baker, Emre Ramazanoglu, Estelle Kokot, Filomena Campus, Fiona Clifton-Welker, Franck Vigroux, Gary Lucas, Geert Doldersum, Guy Jackson, Guy Pratt, Gwyn Jay Allen, Harry Napier, Hossam Ramsay, Howard Jones, Huw Warren, Iain Archer, Ian MacGowan, Ivan Hussey, Jason Carter, Jason Cooper, Jason Rubenstein, Jean Toussaint, Jeff Kaiser, Jem Godfrey, Jerome Cury, Jez Carr, John Lester, John Perry, Johnny Markin, Jonas Hellborg, Jon Thorne, Josh Seurkamp, Jude Simpson, Julie Lee, Julie McKee, Julie Slick, Juliet Turner, Kaffe Matthews, Kerry Getz, Kira Small, Leo Abrahams, Lobelia, Lorenzo Feliciati, Luca Formentini, Luca Sirianni, Mano Ventura, Mark Kelly, Mark Lockheart, Matthew Garrison, Matthias Grob, Michael Manring, Mike Flynn, Mike Haughton, Mike Outram, Mike Sturgis, Miriam Jones, Muriel Anderson, Murphy McCaleb, Neil Alexander, Orphy Robinson, Oteil Burbridge, Otto Fischer, Patrick Wood, Pete Fraser, Peter Chilvers, Peter Katz, Phi Yaan-Zek, Pierce Pettis, Ray Russell, Reeves Gabrels, Ric Hordinski, Richard Lewis, Rick Walker, Rise Kagona, Roger Eno, Robert Logan, Robert Mitchell, Rob Turner, Rowland Sutherland, Roy Dodds, Ruth Goller, Sammy Horner, Sanju Sahai, Sarah Masen, Seb Rochford, Shlomo, She Makes War, Sonya Kaye, Stephen Bingham, Stephenson & Samuel, Steuart Liebig, Steve Apirana, Steve Beresford, Steve Gregory, Steve Jolliffe, Steve Lockwood, Steve Noble, Steve Thompson, Steve Uccello, Stuart Ryan, Susan Enan, Tanya Donelly, Terl Bryant, Theo Travis, Thomas Leeb, Tiger Darrow, Tim Bowness, Tony Buck, Torycore, Trip Wamsley, Todd Reynolds, Tunde Jegede, Vicki Genfan, Yolanda Charles, Yvonne Lyon and more…

discography

2017 – Steve Lawson/Bryan Corbett – Beautifully Disturbed
Steve Lawson/Corey Mwamba – Surprise
Yvonne Lyon – Metanoia
Steve Lawson – Small Is Beautiful
Steve Lawson – PS, You Are Brilliant
Steve Lawson/Poppy Porter – Illuminated Loops
John Lester – Fathers And Sons
Steve Lawson/Andy Edwards – Over Time
Steve Lawson – If They Had Won
Steve Lawson/Pete Fraser – Oven Spring
Steve Lawson/Pete Fraser – Intersect
Lobelia – Love Or Something Like It
Steve Lawson – Towards A Better Question

2016 – Lawson/Edwards/Yaan-Zek – Ley Lines II
Steve Lawson – Hark/Winter
Tanya Donelly – Swan Song Series
Steve Lawson – The Surrender Of Time
Steve Lawson – Colony Collapse Disorder
Steve Lawson – Hands Music
Steve Lawson – Referendum
Steve Lawson – Well Say Hello Then…
Alberto Rigoni – Bassorama
Kiama – Sign Of Four (Bonus CD)
Steve Lawson/Phi Yaan-Zek – The Quiet After The Drums
Steve Lawson and Michael Manring – Language Is A Music

2015 – Steve Lawson – You Guys! Let’s Just Talk About Nail Varnish!
Steve Lawson, Andy Edwards, Bryan Corbett – Winter Song
Steve Lawson, Andy Edwards, Jem Godfrey – Live At Tower Of Song
Steve Lawson – A Crack Where The Light Gets In/The Way Home/Closing In
Airstar – Retrospect
Steve Lawson, Andy Edwards, Phi Yaan-Zek –
Ley Lines
Steve Lawson (with Ruth Goller) – Explore

2014 – Steve Lawson and Julie Slick – Marinate
Steve Lawson with Jon Thorne – Diversion
Steve Lawson – What The Mind Thinks, The Heart Transmits

2013 – Artemis – Triptych II (Nine For A Kiss) (bass and mastering)
Artemis – Triptych I (Eight For A Wish) (bass and mastering)
Artemis, Steve Lawson & Daniel Berkman – For Now
Black Feathers – Strangers We Meet
Steve Lawson and Daniel Berkman – FingerPainting Complete (10 albums + 2 album best of)
Steve Lawson and Daniel Berkman – Accidentally (On Purpose)

2012 – Steve Lawson and Andy Williamson – Nothing Can Prepare
Steve Lawson and Mike Outram – Invenzioni
Lawson/Alexander – Hidden Windows
Artemis – Sephyra
Steve Uccello  – Fire Times
Steve Lawson – Believe In Peace

2011 -Lobelia – Beautifully Undone (Songs I Wish I’d Written)
Steve Lawson – 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything

2010 – Steve Lawson – Ten Years On – Live In London
Trip Wamsley and Steve Lawson – Infrablab
Steve Lawson and Trip Wamsley – Slow Food
Steve Lawson and Lobelia – Live So Far (featuring Todd Reynolds and Neil Alexander)

2008 -Lawson/Dodds/Wood – Numbers on Better Late records.

2007Luca Formentini; Tacet (bass and loopage on one tune), on Extreme Records.
Calamateur vs Steve Lawson; Calamateur vs Steve Lawson, on Autoclave Records.

2006Steve Lawson; Behind Every Word.
– Steve Lawson; Lessons Learned From The Fairly Aged Felines.

2005Various Artists; European Bass Day 2004 – compilation CD, featuring tracks by John Lester, Lorenzo Feliciati, Jan-Olof Strandberg and others.
Various Artists; As One (charity CD featuring one of Steve’s tracks alongside tracks by Jimmy Haslip, the Poogie Bell Band, Steve Jenkins, Mo Foster, Peter Muller, Janek Gwizdala, Stevie Williams, Lorenzo Feliciati, David Dyson, Laurence Cottle & Dean Brown, in aid of SOS Children‘s work in the aftermath of the Tsunami)

2004Steve Lawson; Grace And Gratitude.
Steve Lawson; Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt II.

2003Steve Lawson; Jaco’s ‘Portrait Of Tracy‘, for Total Guitar Magazine, Bass Special.
– Steve Lawson/Theo Travis; For The Love Of Open Spaces.
– Steve Lawson/Theo Travis; It’s Not Gonna Happen.
Andrew Buckton; Rocket Ship on Blue Carpet Records.
– Chris Bowater; Still on db studios.

2002Steve Lawson; Not Dancing For Chicken.
Steve Lawson; Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1 on Pillow Mountain
Susan Enan; Moonlight (EP)
– Commonwealth; That’s the Way It Goes (OD Hunte single remix)
– Steve Lawson/Jez Carr; Conversations.

2001Jason Carter with Ragatal, and Hossam Ramsay; Elements (Fragments Of Grace re-released with some percussion overdubs from Hossam) on ARC
Andrew Buckton; Now… But Not Yet on Bluecarpet Records.
– Pauline Wright; Come Closer (Private Release)

2000Steve Lawson; And Nothing But The Bass, Live @ The Troubadour
Andy Thornton; The Things You Never Say (CD single) on EIS
– Steve Lawson; Guitarist mag cover CD Aug 2000 (1 track – ‘The New Country’)

1999Andy Thornton; The Things You Never Say on EIS
– Chris Bowater; Heritage And Hope on Word

1998 – Various Artists; New Songs for 98 on Word
Jason Carter With Ragatal; Fragments Of Grace on ARC
– Chris Bowater; All About You on Word

1997 – Trish Morgan; Spring Harvest Live Vol 1 & 2 on ICC
– Various Artists; Together For Christmas (live) on dB Studios

1996 – Various Artists; Power Of Your Love (Grapevine Live) on ICC
Johnny Markin; See With Your Eyes on ICC
– Geert Doldersum; With All Of My Heart on Spark
– David Lyon; Precious Little Things(private recording)

1995Johnny Markin; Between Two Worlds on ICC

1994 – Chris Bowater; A New Day on ICC

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Timeline and Trivia

May 3rd, 2008 · Comments Off on Timeline and Trivia

Musical Equipment Used

Elrick Gold Series SLC 6 String fretted and fretless basses, Modulus Basses (6 string fretted and fretless and 4 string fretted), a Rick Turner 5 String Renaissance ‘Amplicoustic’ fretless bass, two Aguilar SL112 cabinets and 2 Aguilar Tonehammer 350 amp heads, A Jule Monique Preampthe Looperlative LP1 for looping, Keith McMillen SoftStep controller and Quneo controller, MODDevices MOD Duo for processing, MXR, Darkglass, and Markbass overdrive pedals, a TC Electronics HOF mini Reverb and Flashback delay, Aguilar Overdrive, Fuzz, Compressor, Octave, Chorus, Filter and Preamp pedals, MXR Reverb, Sub Octave Bass Fuzz, Bass Distortion, Bass Chorus Deluxe, Bass Envelope Filter, Bass Preamp & Bass Fuzz Deluxe, Subdecay Vitruvian Mod ring modulator, Pedal Train pedal board an E-Bow+, Latch Lake and Dunlop slides, Dunlop Super Bright strings, East-UK preamps, Evidence Audio cables, GoGo tuners, 2 Korg Mini Kaoss Pad s and a MOTU Ultralite Mk III Hybrid. And I carry my basses around in SlickBag gig-bags.

Musical History

1986 – got a bass and joined first band
1988 – broke arm, kicked out of first band, formed second band (EARS) – played first gigs
1989 – GCSE Music, Grade C
1991 – AS Level Music, failed – fine at composition, not so hot on history… :o) Somehow got into music college in Perth, Scotland. Teaching as head of bass at West Lothian Rock School.
1993 – left college, moved to Lincoln, tour with Canadian singer/songwriter Johnny Markin. Gigs all over Europe, played on three albums.
1994-96 – working as a pro in Lincoln, teaching, studio and live session work.
1996 – moved to London, more session work, including TV, Radio and theatre work, more teaching.
1997-99 – teaching at Drumtech and Basstech, West London.
1997-2000 – freelance reviewer/interviewer/columnist/gadget guru for Bassist magazine in the UK.
1999 – Toured Europe with Howard Jones. First completely solo gigs in London.
2000 – Released And Nothing But The Bass on Pillow Mountain Records. More solo gigs around England.
2001 – 2 Solo tours of California, including headlining the world’s first solo bass looping festival, and tour with Michael Manring and Rick Walker. Clinics for Ashdown Amps and Modulus Basses. Solo gigs in France.
2002 – Another tour in California, Released Conversations, duo CD with Jez Carr, on Pillow Mountain Records, 2 Major tours of UK Theatres and concert halls supporting first the 21st Century Schizoid Band then Level 42. Two shows at the London Guitar Festival. National TV and local radio appearances in the UK. Featured in the Sunday Times Culture Section. Released second completely solo CD, Not Dancing For Chicken. NDFC picked as one of the best CDs of the year by Aural Innovations
2003 – four week solo tour of California, gigs with Michael Manring and David Friesen, including the Anaheim Bass Bash, featured interview in Euphoria magazine, and review of NDFC in Bass Player (Feb issue). New recordings with Theo Travis, BJ Cole and Patrick Wood for future release. Duo gigs with Theo Travis. Gig at the barbican with orphy robinson. Recording in France with Vigroux/Cury/Rives for upcoming release. first italian solo gig and recording session in august. Duo CD with Theo TravisThe Arts Show, alongside Jenny Eclair and Barry Cryer. Acclaimed appearances at The Detroit Bass Fest and European Bass Day. Gigs in US and UK with Muriel Anderson. A second tour in England with Michael Manring in November.
2005 – another year another NAMM show, followed by a few promo gigs with Michael Manring in California. Dates with pedal steel guitarist, BJ Cole, and recording and gigs with singer Cleveland Watkiss, as well as more UK dates, the Edinburgh Festival and a trip to Italy. Started monthly music night, Recycle Collective.
2006 – back to California, NAMM again and some more dates and another day-long masterclass, Recycle Collective continues to be one of the best live music nights out in London, and features musicians such as BJ Cole, Cleveland Watkiss, Orphy Robinson, Seb Rochford, Todd Reynolds, Jason Yarde, Andy Hamill, Patrick Wood, Leo Abrahams, Julie McKee, Andrea Hazell. UK tours with Theo Travis, Muriel Anderson and Ned Evett. 4th solo album, Behind Every Word, released on Pillow Mountain Records. Recording in Italy with guitarist Luca Formentini. New duo formed with singer Julie McKee, for the Edinburgh Fringe. European tour in October, including EuroBass Day and European Bass Day, as well as an electronica festival in Italy. Behind Every Word makes a number of end of year ‘best of 2006’ lists.
2007 – guess where it started? Yay, NAMM!! Bass-Bash, two days of masterclasses, Modulus clinics and gigs both solo and with Muriel Anderson and Vicki Genfan. Much fun. First New York show too. European tour with Lobelia, including first time visit to Frankfurt Musik Messe and gigs in Italy, Spain, Germany and Denmark, 7 week tour of the US, 24 states, 7000 miles. Gigs at Greenbelt festival with Lobelia, Sarah Masen and Ric Hordinski. Recycle Collective relaunched in September. Playing on one track on Luca Formentini’s album, Tacet. First Amsterdam and Geneva gigs in November. Released live EP with Lobelia in December. Recorded improv album with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds.
2008 – NAMM again, with Lobelia this time, playing the bass-bash and for Looperlative and Modulus. More California shows. Back to England, playing lots of ‘acoustic’ shows with Lobelia, London Solo Bass Night in March with Todd Johnson and Yolanda Charles, . Year ended with Lawson/Wood/Dodds album ‘Numbers’ released, and some LDW gig dates round London, followed by a whole string of house concert shows in England and the US with Lobelia. 2008 was also the year of social media – 10 years of running my music career online turning into a 2nd career teaching and consulting on how it all works, including Nokia flying me to Helsinki for their Open Lab, and working on the launch of Ucreative.tv at UCA in Rochester. Finished the year with a series of house concerts in the UK and the US with Lobelia..
2009 – …which continued into the new year on a trip that included a trip to NAMM, a masterclass at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a series of masterclasses in bass, looping and ‘social media for musicians’ in various people’s houses. But I did miss the bass-bash for the first time ever. Back to the UK for more bass masterclasses and other University-based projects around the future of the internet… look out for a new solo album at some point this year!
2010 – the first half was spent looking after our new born baby, but at the age of 6 months, we took him to the US for a 7 week, 6500 mile tour of house concerts, that took us from Brooklyn to Milwaukee, Massachusetts to Lake Charles Louisiana, via Texas, Tennessee and Ohio. Lo and I recorded a live album on the tour, featuring Todd Reynolds and Neil Alexander, and while in Louisiana I recorded TWO duo albums with Trip Wamsley, released in September. The end of the year featured a sold out London gig with Michael Manring, and speaking engagements in the UK and Berlin at grass roots music industry conferences. I also released another live album, celebrating the 10th anniversary of my debut album coming out.
2011 – first half of the year was focussed on getting my first new studio album in 5 years finished. 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything was released and followed by a 2 month, 8000 mile US tour, which included shows with Julie Slick, Trip Wamsley, Tiger Darrow, Steven Guerrero, Darren Michaels, Neil Alexander, Trevor Exter and Catherine Marie Charlton. The trip also included me guest-performing at Victor Wooten’s Music-Nature Camp, teaching a bass masterclass in Virginia, and Lobelia and I being the only overseas musicians to be booked to play at the first Wild Goose festival. Oh, and  I also co-produced, mixed and mastered Lobelia’s new record, Beautifully Undone. We started selling our music on USB Stick, which has proved v. popular. A move to Birmingham in the late summer promises all kinds of new opportunities.
2012 – the year started with the release of Believe In Peace, an all-improv solo record, recorded in Minneapolis. January continued with a return visit to NAMM, 12 shows in 12 days including duo shows with Julie Slick, Michael Manring and Daniel Berkman, a recording session with Steve Uccello and a playing-and-speaking gig at Stanford uni, as well as a masterclass at LA Music Academy. The shows with Julie, Michael and Daniel were all recorded, so mixing and mastering work on those took up a lot of the following months, as well as recording for Californian singer/songwriter Artemis. May saw the relaunch of Beyond Bass Camp, and the remastering of 11 Reasons… 2012 also saw the formation of #ToryCore – a project that coupled the evil words of the Tory govt with twisted avant garde metal. One of my favourite ever musical projects.
2013 – started with NAMM and another 8 shows with Daniel Berkman, and this time Artemis joined us on vocals at every gig. It was one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life to play with them both. Which is why a large chunk of the year was taken up mixing, mastering and releasing EVERY show we’d done up to that point. All 10 of ‘em. Went out to Frankfurt to the Musikmesse, more ToryCore shows & a few more gigs with Alvin Stardust depping for his regular bassist. Started teaching at Kidderminster College, and ended the year with a lovely joint tour with one of my favourite bassists – Yolanda Charles, and with a duo show with Andy Edwards on drums.
2014 – Another NAMM trip, 11 wonderful shows with Daniel and Artemis (part of a run of 14 shows in 13 days for me!). Just before NAMM I was invited to speak at the Microsoft Social Research Symposium in NYC, which was one of the most brilliant few days of my life. The duo project with Andy Edwards expanded to become ‘Andy, Steve + 1’ and we played a couple of gigs with Julie Slick, made an album with Murphy McCaleb and gigged with Jem Godfrey and Bryan Corbett – we have further projects planned. Played a super-lovely duo show with Briana Corrigan, ex-of The Beautiful South, whose solo work I’ve been a fan of for 20 years. I released a new solo album – What The Mind Thinks, The Heart Transmits. Playing at the London Bass Guitar Show and inviting Jon Thorne to join me on my set led to the release of that as a new album – Diversion. Towards the end of the year, I launched a new subscription service via Bandcamp, with the aim of finding a useful home for the epic amounts of music that I record and want to release…
2015 – NAMM in January, of course, plus a handful of lovely house concert shows with guitar genius Thomas Leeb. Released LEY Lines with Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek, the first new thing that my subscribers got, which Phi released for everyone else. Did the London Bass Guitar Show again, and had another of my bass heroes Ruth Goller agree to play with me. That was fun. Formed a duo with Divinity Roxx – hip hop, improv, songs, stories, all rolled in. We had a week of playing and did a first gig in Kidderminster. The duo with Jon Thorne was expanded to a trio with Rob Turner, of GoGo Penguin, that band sounds amazing! In September, I release two new solo albums – my first proper solo album releases since 11 Reasons in 2011. A Crack Where The Light Gets In and The Way Home were really well recieved, and got played on Late Junction. In October, I was the cover star on Bass Guitar Magazine, almost certainly the only self-managed, self-releasing, self-everything solo bassist to ever get there without an association with any other artist. Still can’t quite believe it. The mag cover coincided with a mini-tour with Jonas Hellborg – we had a wonderful time playing in Birmingham, London and Leeds, and hope to do a bigger tour ASAP. By the end of the year, I’d released 7 albums for Subscribers, all of which I’m immensely proud of! The year ended with the recording of a second album with Phi and Andy, to be released early in 2016. The year also featured a few more Torycore gigs – a thing that gets better every time we do it, and more vital, sadly.

Current Musical Projects

Solo gigs and recording -::- Duo with Divinity -::- trio with Jon Thorne and Rob Turner -::- trio with Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek -::- performance duo with painter Poppy Porter  -::-  Torycore.

trivia

favourite artists. – these days, it’s lots of singer/songwriters, and death metal bands. So, alternately, Bruce Cockburn, Cannibal Corpse, Jonatha Brooke, Cattle Decapitation, Joni Mitchell, Job For A Cowboy, Paul Simon, Entombed, Emily Baker, White Empress, The Blue Nile, Soulfly, Nik Kershaw, Ihsahn…

Along side that, a bunch of other things – Hope & Social, Bill Frisell, D’Angelo, David Torn, Let Spin, Michael Manring, DJ Krush, Throwing Muses, Coltrane, Kristin Hersh, 70s Miles, Beauty Pill, Janet Feder, Jon Gomm, Kenny Wheeler, Trish Clowes, Divinity Roxx, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, J Dilla, De La Soul, Terje Rypdal, KT Tunstall, The Pixies, The Cure…

top 10 (or so) favourite(ish) albums

bass influences – Current favourites are Tony Levin, Ruth Goller, Michael Manring, Julie Slick and Matthew Garrison but there are literally hundreds. I suppose, in roughly chronological order, those players that have influenced me the most would be – John Taylor (Duran), Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo/Iona), Chris Squire (Yes), Simon Gallup (The Cure), Pino Pallidino (everyone, but especially the D’Angelo stuff), Doug Pinnick (King’s X), Ewan Vernal (Deacon Blue), Steve Swallow, Abraham Laboriel, Jaco Pastorius, Scott LaFaro, Freddie Washington, Bernard Edwards (Chic), Ray Brown, Jonas Hellborg, Family Man Barratt (The Wailers), Verdine White (EW & F), Tommy Simms, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Jimmy Haslip, Danny Thompson, Eberhard Weber, Mike Rivard, Marc Johnson, Kermitt Driscoll, Mo Foster, Todd Johnson, Doug Wimbish, Yolanda Charles, Trip Wamsley, Divinity,  and loads more.

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The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

April 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Right, here’s a blog post I promised on Twitter at the beginning of the week, but have only just got round to writing. Here were my original ‘tweets’ –

solobasssteve “Blog post idea – the musical mechanics of ‘feeling’: ambiguity, journey, wordless story-telling and narrative/soundtrack quality…”
solobasssteve “Gifted singers routinely sing like they’re still discovering the unfolding tale of the song. Instrumentalists rarely play like that…”

One of the things I work most hard on in my music is developing the relationship between phrasing and feeling. Learning how to play a tune as though it has words and is telling a story. For that reason, most of my biggest influences are singers; the musicians I try and emulate are those whose music strikes me on an emotional, feeling level rather than a technical, heady one.

I often find myself left cold by instrumental music that on the surface I’m impressed by, but which doesn’t seem to soundtrack any part of my life, does reflect anything about the way I think or see the world. And I think I know why…

The big problem with most of what gets lumped together as ‘fusion’ or ‘electric jazz’ is that the way the music is played makes it sound like the artist has all the answers. Like there’s no search, no journey, just an arrival point. And that arrival point is one of dexterity and chops, with the compositions often stemming from a similar place. Or even with the compositions actually being pretty deep, but still being played from a position of having it all sown up before the tune starts.

Great singers never do that. They tell stories, the adopt characters, they emote according to the narrative. They often sing like they are discovering for the first time the unfolding tale of the song. It’s way more important to communicate than it is to show of their wikkid skillz. Having a big range in your voice is part of the singers emotional palette, and is rarely used for shredding (Maria/Celine etc. aside…)

So it’s no coincidence that my favourite instrumentalists also play like that. Bill Frisell is a fantastic case in point – a phenomenally gifted guitar player, who has leant his wide ranging guitar skills to a whole load of different projects, but who always digs deep emotionally. He plays guitar like a world-weary country singer, or a heart-broken torch singer. He does the full range of emotions, rather than sticking with the slightly smug, self-satisfied gymnastic displays of many instrumentalists.

Nels Cline is the same – he can be sad, angry, playful, child-like, inquisitive, tearful, tender… all in the same solo.

And of course there’s John Coltrane, the Godfather of story telling improvisors, unfolding the story of his spiritual quest on the stage each night via his sax. Phenomenal technical skill, completely at the service of the music, or the story, and always stretching, searching, telling stories as they occured to him, risking the blind allies, crying and screaming through his music when it was required.

Q – “So how do I as a bassist head in that direction? What are the mechanics of feeling? How do I move away from dextrous but lifeless technical cleverness and start telling stories?”

The start point is listening and a little analysis. Take a singer you love, a singer that moves you, a singer that connects – what are they ACTUALLY doing? What’s happening in terms of dynamics and phrasing? Where do the notes sit on the beat? Take 16 bars that you really like and learn them. Start by singing them, then play what you sing. Not just the notes, but the dynamics, phrasing, articulation. The whole works. As close as you can get. How far is that from how you usually play?

Here are a few musical elements that aid us in sounding a little more ambiguous, discursive, narrative:

  • stop playing everything on the beat: Bassists are the worst for this, but a lot of jazzers too – we end up drawing a metric grid in our minds and stick to it. Divide the bar into 8/16/32 and play those subdivisions. Go and have a listen to Joni Mitchell and tell me how often she’s on the beat. How often her phrasing is metric. Pretty much never.
  • Start using dynamics: I’m amazed at how few melody players in jazz – particularly guitarists and bassists – rarely vary the dynamics of what they do.Have a listen to this Bartok solo sonata for violin – hear what’s being done with the phrasing and dynamics? It’s incredible.

    Alternatively, have a listen to Sinatra, to the way he pulled the melodies around, and used his amazing control of dynamics. Remarkable stuff. In the rock world, check out Doug Pinnick’s vocals with King’s X. He’s closer to singing in time, but exploits the variation in being ahead of or behind the beat beautifully to spell out the emotion of a song.

  • Vary your technique – again, very few singers sing in one ‘tone’ through everything. Those that do usually get tiresome pretty quick. Most of them use tonal variety the way we do when we talk. Getting louder will vary the tone automatically. Same with your instrument. The number of bassists who play with their thumb planted on top of the pickup, using their first two fingers in strict alternation even for playing tunes is bizarre. Bassmonkeys, Your right hand is your primary tone control – forget EQing, and work with the source, where the subtle variations are from note to note. moment to moment, phrase to phrase. Experiment, keeping in mind what you’re trying to do – tell a story!
  • Play less notes – At NAMM every year, I get other bassists – often pretty famous ones – coming up and asking me how I play so ‘soulfully’, or so ‘deeply’ or whatever. Admittedly, their reaction to what I do is going to be exaggerated by the lunacy of all the shredding going on, but the simplest answer is often that I play less notes than most of what they are used to listenin to. Again, it’s a singer-thing. Very few of my favourite vocal melodies are technically hard to play. Some have some pretty big intervals in them (Jonatha Brooke, one of my favourite singer/songwriters on the planet, writes some of the most amazing melodies, and has an incredible way of delivering them. She uses really unusual intervals but never sounds like the cleverness of the tune is getting in the way of what’s being said…) So just learn some vocal tunes. Actually, not just ‘some’, learn loads! Get deep into what singers do. Take songs and listen closely to how the tune develops from one verse to the next. Again, great story tellers adapt the phrasing to the emotion of the story, they don’t feel the need to add more and more notes as it goes on…
  • Play simply… even the super fast stuff! – the genius of Coltrane was that he very rarely sounded like he was struggling with his sax. He was wrestling with music, and emotion through his sax, he was digging deep to find the soundtrack to his inner journey, but his horn was at the service of that journey, not directing it in a ‘check out this clever shit’ way. Dexterity is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing at all wrong with being able to sing or play really fast. It’s just that it’s not an end in and of itself. Some things sound fantastic when you play them really fast. There are tracks by Michael Manring and Matthew Garrison that have an incredible energy rush to them because of the pace. They wouldn’t have that if they were slower. But neither player sounds like the tunes are a vehicle for a load of mindless shredding. Im always looking to improve my technique by deepening it. Speed is definitely part of that. But it’s just one aspect of control. And control is the key.

I find it really odd when I hear musicians that site Miles Davis as a big influence and then proceed to play like the entire story of the tune was set in stone years ago. Like there’s nothing to add, nowhere new to go, no need to dig deep. Miles is the Yin to Coltrane’s Yang. Miles was a pretty good be-bop trumpeter in the late 40s/early 50s, but he didn’t really have the chops of Dizzie or Chet Baker. And yet he had a quality to his playing, even on crazy-fast bebop stuff, that drew you in, that took you with him… That got deeper and deeper as his life went on. With a cracked and broken sound, he told stories, and wrung out old melodies to find new tales. He also never went backwards, constantly searching for new things in music. The narrative of each solo was reflected in the meta-narrative of the arc of his career. No resting on laurels, lots of progressive work, and not a few false starts along the way. But he was integral to just about every new thing that happened in jazz from the early 50s onwards.

We need to dig deep to find this stuff. It’s not something you just do. Its not something easy, it’s not a lick you can learn and regurgitate, or a solo by such and such a player that you can transcribe. It’s a desire and a search and a longing to tell stories that comes out in our playing, that shapes the way we practice, the kind of musicians we choose to work with, and the risks we take. If you want some inspiration, try looking up some of the following on last.fm:

Guitarists: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, David Torn, Mark Ribot
Bassists: Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden
Pianists: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Jez Carr, Alan Pasqua
Singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Jonatha Brooke, Lobelia, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps, Robert Smith (The Cure), Frank Black (The Pixies)

Music is about way more than impressing other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with musicians being impressed by what you do, any more than there’s anything wrong with people thinking you’ve got a cute accent when you talk… but what you say is what will sustain the value in the long run… Dig deep.

Tags: bass ideas · cool links · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Sad news

May 3rd, 2006 · Comments Off on Sad news

Just received a very sad and shocking phone-call from a friend in Edinburgh to let me know that Duncan Senyatso died last week. Duncan, you may remember, was the Botswanan guitarist and singer that I played with at Greenbelt last year – a fantastic musician and a very generous and patient man, putting up with me taking ages to get my head around the rhythms of his songs, laughing and joking, and being very generous with his praise when I finally got the songs right. He also played a vital creative part in what was one of the best gigs I’ve ever done – my ‘global footprint’ improv piece at Greenbelt, along with Jez Carr, Patrick Wood and Andrea Hazell. He sang and played guitar beautifully, miles outside of his musical comfort zone, but he fell into the a-rhythmic improv setting like a natural.

We’d talked at some length last summer about the possibility of getting British Council funding and taking the same project out to Botswana to tour with it, to do workshops in schools on improvising and music technology, and see how the marriage of the two musical worlds would work. Yet more regrets, to go along with the regret that the Global Footprint gig wasn’t recorded.

Simon, who rang me, was the mandolin player in the band last year, and has known Duncan for more than 15 years, and is flying out to the funeral.

if you click the link above, you’ll see just how highly regarded he was in Botswana. A big loss to the music world in that part of Africa, and a musical partner I shall be sad not to see again.

That’s Duncan on the left, with Rise Kagona in the middle.

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Another great Greenbelt Gig

August 28th, 2005 · Comments Off on Another great Greenbelt Gig

Saturday at Greenbelt, and my plan was to avoid anything ‘work’ related for most of the day, and it mostly paid off. What I did do was to invite lots of special guests onto my show during the day in the hope that some of them would turn up!

So following a couple of seminars and a lot of sitting around chatting to lovely peoples, I headed up to my venue for the 7.30 start. just after 7.30, the band before started their last song – which then went on for 12 minutes. Always nice to be 15 minutes late getting on stage for a gig at a festival where audiences are on a tight schedule and probably have the gig bookended by other things they wanted to see…. if I’d been on sound, I’d have turned the power off.

Anyway, we got set up and I explained the premise of the gig – one piece of 50 minutes long (it was going to be 70, but the delay meant I cut it down), with a whole load of special guests, each one coming on stage one at a time, then playing, me looping them and then leaving while their contribution lives on for the next guest to interact with.

The four guests who ended up doing it were Jez Carr (obviously – Jez being a genius improvisor and perfect first contributor to anything like this in terms of letting the others who are less familiar with the form to hear roughly what’s going on.) So Jez played some piano, which got looped, then left, and after me layering a little more, guest number 2 was Andrea Hazell, (soprano from the Royal Opera House), who sang three of four beautiful layers of wordless vocals, harmonsing my ebow line.

Guest no.3 was Duncan Senyatso, who contributed some beautiful guitar, and a vocal line that meshed so marvellously with Andrea’s voice that it sounded composed, though far to intricate to have been composed by me!

Last guest was Patrick Wood, keyboardist and composer with The Works – I’ve collaborated with Patrick on a lot of improv things before, and once again he played some gorgeous fender rhodes sounds to the loops. To finish things off, Jez came up and played some bass – Jez is a great bassist and plays very differently to me, so it was lovely to have him take the low end somewhere else…

And in between and through it all I was mixing and adding and fading and chopping and multiplying and post-processing and keeping it all interesting for 50 minutes.

and the end result was without a doubt the best gig I’ve ever done at Greenbelt, and one of my favourite ever, I think. Some really really beautiful music – I’m gutted that I didn’t record it, but I’m sure we’ll get to do something similar again – time to contact the British Council in Botswana and see if we can get them to fly us over there!

So after the show, I was compering in Centaur – the huge indoor venue here at GB – where The Works were playing, followed by Aradhna – both played fantastic sets and went down a storm.

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What, no mention of the election result??

May 8th, 2005 · Comments Off on What, no mention of the election result??

What is there to say? Labour back in – no surprise there. Greatly reduced majority – good news, or it would be if the Tories hadn’t taken so many of the seats. Interesting that the Tories took those seats due to a swing from Labour to Lib-Dem, rather than Lab to Tory… Lib-Dems did well but not as well as some predicted. Took a couple of very key seats (Hornsey being about the highest profile of them).

It’s nice to see that Michael Howard is stepping down. Hopefully whoever takes his place will be less overtly racist in their policy formation. While I dread the idea of a Conservative government again, a weak opposition is really bad for democracy. Good riddance to Howard and his race-baiting immigration policies.

‘Tis a shame the Greens didn’t get in in Brighton – they did get a load of votes, and it bodes well for the next election. I just hope that some miraculous thing transpires where we switch to Proportional Representation – that way, we would have green MPs, a vote for the Greens wouldn’t be wasted, and the Lib Dems would just about double their number of seats… though it would also give the BNP a voice in parliment… hmmm, maybe we need stronger laws about racial hate-speech. Glad to see the BNP didn’t get any MPs, and their highest number of votes in any constituency was less than 5000… still, the thought that there are 5000 people in Barking willing to vote for a fascist party is pretty frightening.

Will Blair go? i doubt it. Nice to see some MPs sticking their heads over the parapit and calling for his resignation. Would Brown be any better? Who knows. Sad to see Blunkett back in – off the scene for 5 months, and now all is forgotten apparently. I haven’t forgotten his draconian insanity in his time as Home Secretary, so dread to think what he’ll do in his new role as Work and Pensions secretary.

Basically, it looks like being business as usual for president Blair – a few vaguely contrite words about learning from the election, followed by more of the same. *sigh*.

SoundtrackSheila Chandra, ‘Moonsung’ (I can’t ever imagine getting bored with this album, it’s perfect); Steve Lawson/Jez Carr, ‘Conversations’ (not listened to this for a few months, very nice to pull it out again and have a listen – I’d forgotten how lovely some of Jez’ playing on it is).

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Turning down gigs…

December 20th, 2004 · Comments Off on Turning down gigs…

It’s been an interesting week work-wise. I got a phone-call last Tuesday from Carl Palmer, the drummer with 70s prog-rock legends, ELP, and 80s prog legends, Asia. Carl now has his own trio, which until recently Dave Marks – who I taught when he was studying at Basstech – was playing bass for. Dave left to take up a job at Basstech, and Carl had been recommended me via a few sources, aparently. Carl rang to find out if I’d be interested in joining the trio. Having been a big ELP fan in my teens (‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ got some major rotation on my record deck in the late 80s/early 90s), I was really up for meeting him and finding out more.

We met up on Thursday, to have a listen and chat about the gig – he lives pretty locally to me, and seems like a very nice bloke.

The music itself is mainly heavy rock reworkings of classical works, by the likes of Bartok, Prokofiev, Copeland etc. Most of it is at full-throttle, and while very exciting and energetic, a long way from the languid mellow stuff that I’ve spent the last five years getting good at…

So I was faced with a very odd decision – here’s a good paying high profile gig with a legendary drummer who seems like a very nice bloke, that I’m going to turn down… What?? But still I felt very comfortable with the decision. I’ve obviously been primarily a solo/duo player for some time now, but that was never tested until now due to not having been offered anything of this kind of size. Now that I have been, but am faced with the need to change my technique back to a full-on rock approach, and build up a huge amount of stamina to maintain that level of drive for almost two hours a night, I chose to stick on the path that I’ve been carving.

It’s not that I don’t want to work with other people – I’d still happily do sessions, and obviously do a fair few jazz and funk gigs with Jez Carr, Mike Haughton and our floating drum chair (which features some incredible players – Mike Sturgis, Tom Hooper, Phil Crabbe, Eddie John etc…) – but if the gig requires me to divert a lot of attention away from the path I’ve chosen, that I’d rather stick where I am.

It feels like a bit of a rite of passage. Four years ago, I’d have jumped at the chance, seeing it as a big step forward. Now, despite the obvious advantages of the gig, the distraction from what I’m doing was too great, and I’ve turned it down.

Am I nuts?

Soundtrack – Talking Heads, ‘Stop Making Sense’.

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…and Last night's gig

September 10th, 2004 · Comments Off on …and Last night's gig

Forgot to mention last night’s gig in previous blog entry.

‘Twas back at Traders in Petersfield, another marvellous Stiff Promotions evening. This time, it was me opening, then Jez Carr doing his thang, with some duo strangeness at the end. It was the first gig Jez and I have done like this in a v. long time – we do a lot of normal ‘standards’ gigs for weddings and parties etc. but don’t get to improv or play originals nearly as often as we’d like. My solo set went well – I’m playing pretty well at the moment, due largely to the large number of gigs I’ve done since the album came out at the beginning of August. I’ve played Traders three times this year before tonight, so it was really nice to have some new material to play, from Grace And Gratitude.

Jez’s solo set was on next, and he played fantastically – a mixture of originals and choice jazz tunes (Waltz For Debby, Search For Peace and Blame It On My Youth), he had the audience in wrapt attention. Hugely compelling stuff.

The for the duo set, we started as we always do – just start playing and see where it goes – the magic was still there, and the first duo improv went all over the map, pretty seamlessly blending styles, keys, swapping chordal and melodic roles between us. Top stuff, very exhilarating. We then played a couple of standards to finish – Breakfast Wine, a tune we’ve been doing for a while out of the Real Book, which was OK, but I made the mistake of not switching back to fretless, and the melody didn’t really come across the way it does on the fretless. And then Autumn Leaves – a bit of an old chestnut but we played it really well. We were already half an hour over time, and still got called back for an encore (a v. good sign, methinks), and Jez suggested in a moment of inspiration that we play ‘Bittersweet’, from And Nothing But The Bass Fortunately he remembered it even better than I did, and we played a lovely version, a very fitting end to a top night.

If you were there, feel free to post a review in the Reviews section on the forum. And thanks for coming!

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