"Intention is Audible"

It’s one of those things I tell my students all the time. ‘Intention Is Audible’ – if you’re writing music just so other people who play the same instrument as you will think you’re a badass and can play faster than them, that’s going to come across in the music, and it’s very unlikely to have any emotional impact on your listeners. If you are playing out of some sense of obligation to some outside standard of what is and isn’t acceptable, the likelihood is that it’ll be plainly obvious that it isn’t from the heart. It’s why so much modern pop is as dull as shit, why not one of the TV talent shows has, as yet, produced a genuinely creative artist. That Will Young is the best we have is a sad indictment on the whole sorry charade.

Every now and again, the ‘intention is audible’ line is hammered home to me in a positive way (the negative stuff is there in so much music every day, sadly). One such experience is listening to ‘Duw A Wyr’ by Lleuwen Steffan/Huw Warren and Mark Lockheart. It’s a collection of Welsh hymns from the time of the revival, sung in welsh and given a european jazz reworking. And it’s beautiful.

But more than that, it’s deeply moving. Remember, it’s sung in welsh – there are translations on the sleeve, but I’ve intentionally avoided them thus far, as I’m allowing the music to impact me on a purely emotional level. And it works. Boy, it works. One particular track, ‘Gwahoddiad’, is one of the most uplifting things I’ve heard in years. The intention of the song is crystal clear in the performance, in the intonation of the voice. It’s incredible. Maybe I’ll have a read of the words later on. Maybe I won’t. It’s gospel music in its purest form – ‘good news’.

And it reminds me why I do what I do. Playing solo bass that isn’t all histrionic fretboard gymnastics and slapping, tapping circus tricks is definitely a ‘road less travelled’. There are very few solo bassists around, even fewer that aren’t spending their time pushing speed and agility as their main frontiers. To keep heading down this path into music where the emotional narrative is front and centre is a juggling act, given that it requires a lot of work on all those technical control and awareness issues that the twiddly stuff requires but without the pay-off that your peers rave about your wikkid skillz. Instead you get the pay-off of people being moved by what you do, being changed in some way by hearing it. I get enough of these stories from people to make it worthwhile. It’s never going to be a mainstream choice of music career (well, I guess it might be, I’d be happy to end up looping, layering and noodling on Top Of The Pops… or at least on Jools Holland’s show…), but it’s one that ultimately is so much more fulfilling for me creatively.

For any musician, learning to practice, absorb and then dismiss virtuosic technique is a huge challenge. For extreme virtuosity and emotional impact to be resident in the same player is incredibly rare – Coltrane would be one, Michael Manring another. Keith Jarrett’s one, Pat Metheny is more than capable of it. And Eric Roche, for whose family I’m playing a benefit gig on Sunday night, was definitely one, one who inspired me hugely, who encouraged me to pursue those aims, to carry the tension forward on my own journey into deeper musical understanding, and greater control of musical vocabulary and expression.

The gig on Sunday night, at Haverhill Arts Centre will be a great chance to give credit where it’s due. The rest of the bill is pretty fine too – Boo Hewerdine, Steve Lockwood and Stuart Ryan are all fabulous musicians that I’m really looking forward to playing with and listening to.

Soundtrack – Lleuwen Steffan/Huw Warren/Mark Lockheart, ‘Duw A Wyr’

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