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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Lawson/Dodds/Wood, the making of Numbers video #4

September 23rd, 2008 · Comments Off on Lawson/Dodds/Wood, the making of Numbers video #4

It’s back to me talking non-stop on this one, I’m afraid… actually, that’s not all true, Roy gets a look-in half-way, but there’s lots of me. 🙂

The next two are mini-featurettes on Roy and Patrick, so look out for those in the next few days. Til then, here’s #4

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The drinking ban on the tube/buses – waste of time?

July 6th, 2008 · Comments Off on The drinking ban on the tube/buses – waste of time?

OK, so this is a month or so late in coming, but I was sat on the top deck of the bus the other morning, and just across from me sat a bloke I’m assuming was a pretty far gone alcoholic, drinking some kind of super-strength lager from the can.

Now, just in case you don’t live in London or follow our news, ‘banning’ drinking on the tube and buses was the first move our new moron Mayor, Boris Johnson brought in.

Here’s the problem with it: It’s not a law. The ‘ban’ works on the fact that the tube is ‘private’ space, therefor you enter into an agreement with the tube owners when you get on that you’ll abide by their laws. The police can’t arrest you for drinking on the Tube, but the Tube’s own staff can ask you to leave. I’m not sure where they legally sit with being able to forcibly eject you.

The point at which your behaviour becomes legally a problem is when you resist their attempts to throw you off or confiscate your booze, and you can be done for breach of the peace.

And here’s what makes the law so effing stupid – that was already the case! You can be arrested for being drunk and disorderly anyway. If your behaviour in public is offensive, dangerous or constitutes a breach of the peace, the police can cart you off, wherever you might be behaving like that.

So banning drinking on the tube does nothing to make it ‘more criminal’ to be pissed and offensive on the tube, it just means that the staff on the tube end up having to put themselves in harm’s way by tackling people for drinking, who may or may not be drunk, or causing a problem, and who they can’t get any police support for until that person resists their attempts to exit them from the tube, by which time, someone’s probably got punched or puked on or generally upset. (they could feasibly have members of the British Transport Police shadowing them, or even doing the enforcement for them, but what a complete waste of police time!)

Surely it would’ve made a lot of sense to just up the numbers of transport police on the tube, and go with a publicity campaign about how behaving like an antisocial dick could get you in trouble with ‘actual laws’, rather than made-up unenforceable rules.

The other huge issue is that you have people getting onto the tube who after deciding to obey the new rule, have downed whatever their drink is just outside the station. So people are getting on the tube MORE drunk than before, not less so!

As a general rule, I really don’t like being around drunk people. I find them unpredictable and often unpleasant, and always less interesting than the same person when sober. But I know a stupid rule when I see one, and attempting to push the people who want to peaceably drink on the tube – whether they be getting tanked up on their way for a night out, or finishing a drink they didn’t want to leave behind when all their friends left the party they were at – seems like a recipe for more fights on the tube not less.

Perhaps it would’ve made more sense to have policed carriages on the tube late at night. Or depending on what the stats are relating to who exactly it was that’s being bothered, women-only policed carriages.

Or maybe the UK just needs to think a bit deeper about what is inspiring its teens and 20 somethings to go and get utterly shitfaced 3 nights a week – something that no amount of ‘bans’ on drinking are going to sort out.

…and maybe they should be doing more about the people smoking crack and crystal meth on the 29 bus before worrying about the dude with the bottle of Becks on his way out to a gig… The meth-dude we encountered on the 29 was considerably more unpredictable than any drunk I’ve come across on the tube for many years…

Tags: Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc.

Review – And Nothing But The Bass (Misfit City)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“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.

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Review – solo gig, St Luke's London (Misfit City)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“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.

– DANN CHINN

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Review – Solo Show, Christopher's, Lincoln (Michael Cowton)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

01/06/2000

“Lincoln is not known for its musical prowess. Buying in ageing musical hiccups like Mike Pinder’s Searchers, Leo Sayer, and the occasional tribute band is about the city’s forte. Mind you, last year we did have Jools Holland appearing at the Castle. The highlight of the year, for most. So the idea to stage a low-key concert appealing mostly to bass aficianados could have been perceived as the kiss of death. Could be, but wasn’t. Far from it, in fact.

‘An Audience With Steve Lawson’ was sold as a musicians’ evening, appealing to a discerning public’s sense of taste. To some it was a journey into the unknown. An evening of solo bass. Curiosity won the day, perhaps swung slightly in its favour by the addition of support act Jazz From Hell, a trio of Lincolnians who put on a solid performance of classics and own compositions. At times we were treated to a blitz of notes. “I’ve never played so many notes in my life,” said an obviously impressed Steve Lawson. “Yes you have,” retorted some wag.

Lining up on stage was Steve’s favoured Modulus 6 string fretless, Modulus fretted 4 string and a fretless Renaissance 5 string acoustic bass, played through an Ashdown combo linked to a Trace Elliot 2×8, Lexicon JamMan and a Lexicon MPX-G2 multi-effects unit. The only item left behind in the car boot transported from London was Steve’s uncle. We all thought he was joking but, by all accounts, the ashes were stashed safely away by the spare wheel. Diplomacy won the day, as we chose not to pursue the subject.

Preamble over, Steve comfortably moved into almost an hour-long set of loops layered with haunting melodies; self-composed tunes that drifted in and out of your sub-conscious; mellow soundscapes that gently floated like confetti on a warm breeze, on occasion enhanced by the eerie sustain of an E-bow, its blue LED piercing through the light.

Apart from a peppering of Steve’s friends in the audience, the majority of the audience would have been in the dark about what to expect. None could fail but be impressed by the set. 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.

As a music journalist, I have interviewed hundreds of name bands, attended rehearsals and recording sessions, even jammed with Mark King who, to me, was God. Times change, bass players come and go. Yet some names and progressions stick in the memory bank. My heroes, like most of you out there, are today’s and yesterday’s virtuosos – Jaco Pastorius, Abe Laboriel, Victor Wooten, Michael Manring… yes, and Steve Lawson.

Like Jaco’s finger-pumping runs and a slap-happy Mark King of old, Steve can be slick when necessary, pumping out the notes in jaw-dropping time, but bass playing isn’t all about that. It never was. I believe it was Marcus Miller who once said that what you leave out is as important as the notes you play. How right he was.

With a new CD imminent of his live set at The Troubadour, Steve Lawson is preparing to move into the next phase of a burgeoning career. You wouldn’t think it could get any better. But it no doubt will.
back”

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Review – And Nothing But The Bass (Jazz Dimensions)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“As we know, bassists always have to stand in the shadows of their fellow band members. The answer is to play a solo which is as meaningful as possible in concerts, or to record a whole solo album on which you show that you also know how to handle all the other instruments. But there is a more logical route, as is shown by Steve Lawson with his – literally – solo bass album.

The CD “and nothing but the bass” represents a document of Lawson’s live work as a soloist in London during the first half of 2000. Apart from one piece – “Bittersweet” – on which pianist and co-producer Jez Carr contributes a few notes in the studio, everything was recorded live in front of an audience and without overdubs. This all takes place in a peaceful atmosphere, almost reminiscent of chamber music. You will not find displays of power playing à la Stuart Hamm here.

Essentially these are duo pieces “in disguise”. With the aid of his loop sampler (Lexicon JamMan), Lawson plays duets with himself, plays around his own parts, and lays down tapped chord foundations under bass solos which are sometimes squeezed through a distortion unit. The great thing is that this approach never descends into guitar territory, even on the 6-string bass. A few mistakes have been left in the recording, as has the audience applause, but these could have been cut here and there.

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.”

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Review – And Nothing But The Bass (No Warning e-zine)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“And nothing but the bass! No, don’t be afraid, you are not likely to get bored just because a single instrument takes the spotlight in this recording; in fact you will have the opportunity to discover a new world of sounds and colours conjured up by the intelligent use of the bass, which is perhaps too often written off as being unable to play an important role, except where it deals exclusively with rhythm. On the other hand, without going into the greats of the instrument in the fields of jazz and jazz rock, how can we forget the fundamental role played in rock by bassists such as Jack Bruce, Chris Squire, Mark King and Tony Levin? How can we ignore how many new horizons have been opened up by the courageous souls who have dared to abandon the “pedal” on the bass strings to venture in search of new possibilities on the high strings? What would Gentle Giant have been like with the bassist from AC/DC in the line-up? And the Clash with Stanley Clarke? But, without losing ourselves completely if “ifs” and “buts”, you get the picture that Steve Lawson is a bassist who belongs to that group of musicians who consider the bass to be an instrument capable of breaking new ground in its own right. His approach has been praised by colleagues of the calibre of Michael Manring and Danny Thompson.

Steve Lawson began his career as a solo performer when a London dance company commissioned him to write music for a contemporary dance performance which was subsequently held in a car park in central London. He then took part in the National Music Shows in 1997, 1998 and 1999 at the Wembley Conference Centre and held various clinics on the use of effects, MIDI and real-time sampling.

His approach is based on the creation of superimposed layers, preferring melodic bass lines onto which he grafts solo phrases rather than focusing solely on soundscaping: this method is apparent right from the opening The Inner Game, where Steve plays and layers a couple of lines which form the basis for the whole piece, then solos over the top. In Drifting, on the other hand, a beautiful arpeggio serves as the foundation for tricks with volume and delay, harmonics and solos which display a remarkable sense of melody. It is notable that in pieces such as Virtue Of The Small and The New Country, the melodies take on a pronounced Mediterranean feel, which is a real surprise from a British musician. If you are a fan of Jetlag/Passpartù-era Premiata Forneria Marconi* you will certainly appreciate these marvellous solar episodes. In Chance, Steve buries himself in soundscaping of indescribable sweetness, keeping melody always to the fore. In Blue Sticks he reshapes the famous tune Blue Moon in his own style. And what can be said of the beautiful Bittersweet, a trio for two basses and piano…if in Virtue Of The Small and The New Country Steve is able to conjure the landscapes of the Tyrrhenian coast and the smell of Sicilian orange trees, with Bittersweet the mind turns to rainy London afternoons, with grey clouds hanging over elegant Victorian buildings. Only a musician with great talent and sensitivity can provoke such emotions, giving us these 52 minutes of pathos from solo bass and effects. The disc closes with the minimalist picture of Pillow Mountain, a soft blanket of fine layers which Steve Lawson enriches with a few tastefully played notes. Recorded live, mainly during a performance at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, London in December 1999, And Nothing But The Bass has already received favourable reviews from publications such as Global Bass Magazine, Cross Rhythms, Guitarist Magazine and Bass Frontiers. The album is available directly from the artist. To order it and to find news, images and free downloads, go to the website for Steve Lawson, and discover a musician about whom we will certainly be talking in the future.”

The Inner Game / Drifting / The Virtue Of The Small / The New Country / Chance / Bluesticks / Bittersweet / Pillow Mountain

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Review – Conversations (No Warning e-zine)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“A little less than a year ago we looked at the debut album by the talented London-based bassist Steve Lawson, a disc which afforded an amazing variety of perspectives from the instrument of a musician blessed with a keen melodic sense and an innate propensity to experiment. Now Steve has shifted focus, taking on a new challenge, together with pianist Jez Carr, based on a series of spontaneous improvisations which, as the two musicians assure us in the sleeve notes, have not been planned in any way, but were approached as a conversation (hence the album’s title).

And the resulting feeling of looseness is like that of a quiet chat over a coffee in which the most diverse subjects are addressed, wandering from one point to the next following a logical thread that only a dialogue can have. Barely murmured phrases, sounds that rise up to emphasise certain points, whispers and laughter, all skilfully evoked by Lawson’s mellow bass and Carr’s refined jazzy piano, which over the sixty-five minutes bear witness to a rare sensibility, together with an excellent training and a remarkable aptitude for more extreme challenges. How can we extrapolate from these outlines something that stands out against the rest when the whole is so close to perfection and when everything is so magically balanced, so beautifully ethereal?

A disc that reinforces the idea of improvised music as one of the highest musical forms, where the deepest secrets of the human heart surface, allowing a pure approach founded on the innocence of the listener and vulnerability of the musician to create an unrepeatable piece of magic, free from restrictions, expectations and preconceptions. Magnificent! Allow yourself to be involved in Conversations, which will free you from your mortal remains for a little more than an hour and let your mind contemplate the universe from a privileged viewpoint. You will not regret it. Available from Pillow Mountain Records. “

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Twitter-peoples: welcome to my e-world, dive right in!

May 7th, 2008 · 12 Comments

Image cut from Steve Lawson's Twitter page, illustrating this page about twitterOK, so you arrived here via my twitter page, and want to know more?

Short version – I’m a musician, music teacher/lecturer, 1/5th of New Music Strategies, writer and social media tinkerer. I blog about my music life, specifically the various things that are now possible for musicians thanks to the joys of ‘tinternet. I’m also a consultant/thinker about Social media in a wider context, particularly as it relates to creatives. I co-run a social media event help organisation called Amplified.

Your best places to start finding out what I do are my blog (set aside a while, there’s a lot of it!), and the music pages. It’s worth having a listen, honest, cos all this other nonsense is related to the music – that’s the centre of the wheel, the hub around which all the other stuffs rotates.

After that, you might want to find me elsehwere: Facebook, Last.fm, YouTube and some other places.

You’re also welcome to check out the gigs page in case I’m out and about.

Oh, and if I followed you first, the chances I found you were recommended to me, or retweeted by someone. It may also have been that I found you via something you tweeted about music… Whichever, it’s just that your feed looked interesting, so I’m checking it out – feel free to follow back or not! If you do follow me, and I tweet too much, I shan’t be in the slightest bit offended if you unfollow. My own sister did 🙂

If you followed me in the hope that I’d follow back and I haven’t, it’ll be because of two things – firstly, I don’t get notifications of new followers – there were too many, and it was taking up loads of time. I do go and have a look about once a week to delete all the spam and wrongness, so then I follow people I know.

The number of people I’m already following (2000-and-change as I write this) is already functionally too high, so I’m only adding people that REALLY interest me. If I’m not following you, it doesn’t, of course, mean that you can’t reply to things, or ‘@’ me for specific things – that’s all cool, and if we get a conversation happening, it may well be that I end up following you. But please don’t be offended if I don’t. It’s honestly nothing personal, I assure you 🙂 x

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Getting the ingredients right: thoughts on Improvisation

May 6th, 2008 · Comments Off on Getting the ingredients right: thoughts on Improvisation

Sunday’s gig with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds went very well – thanks to those of you who came along. The venue, The Brickhouse on Brick Lane in East London, was suitably strange – on three levels (ground floor and two balconies, the top one had beds on it!) and amazing food, and we had to get them to move the stage away so we’d have room to set up all our toys.

For those of you just catching up, the Dodds/Lawson/Wood trio is a project spawned by my Recycle Collective venture – when it’s running, it’s a monthly music night, featuring amazing improvising musicians spontaneously composing in different combinations. Quite a few of the combinations I assembled for it are planned to become ‘bands’ of one sort or another, but many of the musicians involved are so busy that it’ll be years before it happens.

However, the trio with Roy and Patrick is one that was so good we’ve all made it our priority. I’ve been playing with Patrick for years (he played at the first ever ‘proto-recycle’ improv gig at Greenbelt in 2005), and have been listening to Roy play with other people for just as long, particularly in Theo Travis’ band.

We did a Recycle gig at Darbucka in October last year, and then went into the studio in early December to record in the same way – just set up and start playing. Since then we’ve been mixing and editing the improvs (which has been interesting for me, as I usually don’t edit) and have come up with a record that we’re all really proud of (more news on that ASAP).

So Sunday was only the third time we’ve all played together, but the musical chemistry is amazing.

And that, for me, is what improv is all about – the ‘composition’ part is just choosing the right players. At its best it’s about getting musicians together who respect each other so much that they never feel like going with someone else’s idea is a bad thing. Musician who listen more than they shred, whose default position is deferential. It means that the music tends to evolve slowly as each new ingredient is added and the the others react to it.

So I may start with a groove, or some spacey ambience, or patrick may lay out some kind of harmonic territory on guitar or keys, and then the others react to it and the initial idea is modified, developed, morphed into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Every time I sit down at the start of an all improv gig I wonder if we’ll have run out of ideas, if we’ll get 20 mins into the gig and just start playing a 12-bar blues or something.

One of the things on Sunday that triggered these thoughts was when the DJ who was hosting the day said he’d play a few more record and then we could ‘get up and jam’ – I was really taken aback, as I’ve never thought of this as ‘jamming’ at all.. it’s a whole other headspace to the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach that defines most ‘jamming’. It’s spontaneous composition, acknowledging that each of us as an acutely refined sense of what’s ‘good’ even when nothing is laid down to define what’s ‘right’. It’s not about finding some simple changes we can stumble through to make ourselves feel better, it’s about exploring our shared music worlds to find music that otherwise wouldn’t exisit, about listening, reacting and trying to add to what the others are bringing. This is 300% music – it’s 100% Patrick, 100% Roy and 100% me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt, playing with these guys, that my own musical vision is in anyway compromised or stunted, but I frequently feel my own playing elevated by the genius, sensitivity and creativity of the other two. We never have to ask the others to do something specific, as we each recognise that we are the masters or our own musical discipline – I know what ‘steve lawson music’ should sound like better than anyone else on the planet, and likewise Roy and Patrick. If I start telling Patrick what to play, it assumes that I know more about what he does that he knows. That’s insane.

There is, however, a deeply psychological streak running through all this, in that it takes a while to develop that kind of deep trust, to develop the ‘abandonment to the moment’ and to foster to confidence required to take the music where YOU feel it should go. With Patrick, this is part of a 6 or 7 year improvising relationship – when we first got together to play, he was rather puzzled by the idea that I didn’t want to play written songs, that I didn’t want to discuss keys and stuff, but just wanted to play. But the fruits of it is where we are now, exploring this unique shared musical space that the three of us occupy.

I’m really excited about the future of this trio, and the record release. With this, my solo stuff, the duo with Lobelia and Open Sky, I feel like I’ve got such a rich portfolio of music to work on, and feel really blessed to have the opportunity to explore the respective styles and approaches of the projects.

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