A new american dawn? not yet, but it's a start…

Well, looks like the Dems to the House AND the Senate, eventually. Not really a shock given the opinion polls on Bush’s approval rating, agreement over Iraq and the economy, but still lefties and centrists the world over breathed a sigh of relief.

It remains to be seen if the ‘progressive agenda’ proposed by the Democrats gets pushed forward. Let’s hope so. But I’m not holding my breath. The inexorable drift to the right in all political parties is as pernicious in the US as it is in the UK, so the Democrat leaders are still by and large a bunch of free market ideologues, who just tip the scales slightly less against the poor. Some tax reform seems like it’d be a good thing in the US, repealing those tax breaks for billionaires that Bush introduced a couple of years back… And healthcare – C’mon America, enough’s enough. Y’all need a national health system of some kind. It’s going to save you all money in the long run, and a lot of people dying from insufficient treatment are going to live. I’ve got a number of great friends who are in a major financial hole after having the temerity to have heart attacks or liver problems – that’s just what you need when recovering from a major operation – a bill for $$$$$$. Great. It’s savage, and y’all need to get it fixed. (note, I’ve even translated this into ‘Merkin with Google Translator so y’all can read it ;o)

In other news, I’m in the process of sorting out lots of gigs. Back teaching this week after my EuroJaunt, but not sleeping well at all, and struggling to get things done. (me? not sleeping? I can sleep standing up… this is weirdness…)

Happy Birthday Joni

Joni Mitchell is 63 today. On the quite ludicrously tiny off-chance that she reads this blog, ‘happy birthday Joni – thanks for Hejira, and endless other amazing albums. You changed my music life!’

I first heard Hejira as ‘contraband’ – I was playing in a New Orleans jazz band in Berwick on Tweed in my teens, Sunday nights round the pubs, and the trumpeter and leader Pete Roughead was a proper old-school purist – any jazz after about 1930 was modern, Dixie was populist, only proper New Orleans stuff was allowed (I was only allowed to play bass because the double bassist was ill, and was still introduced as being on ‘double bass’, cos Pete couldn’t bring himself to say anything else…)

Anyway, one of the trombonists, Sandy, wasn’t quite so narrow in his listening tastes, and started my surreptitious musical education by slipping me a C90 cassette under the table at a gig with his own best of Weather Report’s Jaco years on one side, and Hejira on the other. And while I really enjoyed the Weather Report stuff. It was Hejira that changed the way I thought about music. Everything I ever wanted music to be was on that record. Honest, freewheeling, mellow, heartfelt, superbly played, funny… It is still to this day my desert island disc. If you twisted my arm up my back and told me I was only allowed to keep one album, that’s it, for sure.

Joni’s done other great albums – Hissing Of Summer Lawns is great, the early folky ones are gorgeous, and the 90s stuff, especially Night Ride Home is some of the greatest music of the last 15 years (and ‘Travelogue’ is vital listening for anyone with a heartbeat), but it’s still Hejira that gets me every time.

So happy birthday Joni – I completely understand your stated reasons for not doing music anymore, but part of me still wishes you’d change your mind. Happy painting… x

"can anyone join in?" – some thoughts on Improv and Jamming

I’ve had a few messages on Myspace from people asking if the Recycle Collective is an open jam that anyone can come and play at. The answer to that is an emphatic ‘NO!’, the reason being the fundamental difference between an improvised music gig and a jam. A jam is, for better or worse, primarily about the musicians. If an audience digs it, that’s fine, if it results in some OK music, that’s fine, but in general, jams tend to follow a few set formulae – jazz standards, rock/pop classics or myriad variations on ‘funk in E’ – all fine in an of themselves, but really not the kind of thing around which I’m going to book a series of shows featuring the finest improvising musicians the UK has to offer.

Have a quick look at the list of past RC gigs on the website. The players are a) top class (Mercury Prize nominees, platinum selling, session legends, Royal Opera singers… no dead weight at all…) and b)put together in very specific combinations.

See, with this kind of improv the choice of players is the composition. It’s at that point that I relinquish my control and instead trust that the players will play whatever they think is ‘good’ at that time. And as a result, the RC has featured some of the most exciting music I’ve ever been involved in. It’s not a jazz gig, it’s not a ‘free improv’ gig in the sense that ‘free improv’ works for the London Improvisors Orchestra. We’ve had some out squeaky stuff, but we’ve also had singer/songwriters, jazz, ambient, electronica, new acoustic, minimalism, maximalism, funk, fusion, gospel and the huge list of crazy influences that Cleveland weaves into his vocal improvs!!

While it is improvised, and it’s great fun, it has none of the lowest common denominator connotations of a jam. Jamming is fun, it’s cool to jam, it’s just that improvised music can be so much more, and this ends up being infinitely more rewarding for the musicians and the audience.

If I wasn’t playing at and booking the RC, I’d be its biggest fan, by miles. It’s a phenomenal indulgence to book my favourite musicians in the world, all of whom are people I respect, admire and love hanging out with, and to make such fantastic unpredictable music with them. You REALLY ought to come down and check it out if you can…

le weekend

spent a large chunk of Saturday afternoon sending out MySpace event invites to the Recycle Collective first anniversary (which you’re all obviously coming to). Then had to attack the bomb site that is my office to get it into good enough shape to teach in.

After teaching, headed down to the Vortex to see Partisans – a fab electric jazz quartet from London, whose individual members I’d seen on lots of different gigs, but never in this lineup. A very fine it was too. Also great to see a packed room at the Vortex. It’s got a lot of vibe when it’s full, and there are always a whole load of musicians in checking out whatever’s going on, so it’s great for meeting up with friends. Have a look at the Vortex Website for a list of what they’ve got on during the jazz festival – lots of great music.

Sunday I decided to skip church and head up to the Music Live thingie at the NEC in Birmingham. These kinds of shows are always a great way for me to catch up with a lot of friends in the industry on one day, call in, say hello, and as happened yesterday, get booked for a load more masterclasses in colleges all over the place! Yay! I got a free pass thanks to Jono at Access To Music, but the ticket price on the door was £17!!! That’s insane for a show that’s essentially about selling stuff to the public (unlike NAMM or Frankfurt, no-one would dream of launching new product there, it’s definitely a show for the public first, and any other business that goes on is a bonus.) It’s a great place to get christmas bargains if you’ve got a family full of musicians, but at £!7 a ticket and £7 to park, the savings are all but gone in the cost of being there.

Still I got to see a couple of really nice acoustic singer/songwriters on the Access To Music busking Stage… good stuff.

Home around 7ish, and another evening spent catching up on email from when I was away, chatting to lovely friends online, and trying to console a v. distraught fairly aged feline, who REALLY doesn’t like fireworks.

Tis a heavy teaching week this week, as well as sorting out gigs for next year for California in January, and Europe in March… yay me!

Last date of my European Tour…

Was in Wales last night. Cross Keys to be precise. Somewhere near Newport. Not quite sure where though.

The gig was put on by Islwyn Guitar Club, and as such was half gig half guitar club stuffs. Started with a bit of a workshop from me, which from the feedback on bassword was much appreciated, thankfully… Then onto a bit of a play round, couple of nice guitar contributions, then Andy Long making his solo bass debut, and doing a fine job of it, followed by Alun Vaughn playing a 20 minute solo set – some great playing, no loopage or processing, just six string bass, a gorgeous version of Here’s that Rainy Day, and a solo bass version of Purple Haze that was completely different to Michael Manring’s, which made a very nice change.

I had two 45 minute sets, so did a similar set to the ones in Kleve and Milan – lots of older tunes in the first set, and lots of Behind Every Word stuff in the second, plus Deep Deep Down (Eric Roche’s tune that leads into Deeper Still), and What A Wonderful World. Also had a bash at a completely solo version of Knocks Me Off My Feet as an encore (an encore! I hate encores, but still…), which shows promise!

Drove home, back here just before 3. So knackered now, but so much to do today. Office is in an even bigger mess than usual (more mess?? Surely that’s not possible?) and much admin and gig booking has to be done for the new year…

So there endeth the European Tour – next gig is the Recycle Collective first anniversary gig on 15th November at Darbucka – you SO don’t want to miss that. Rumour has it there are people coming from Denmark to be there… beat that, Italian blog readers!!! haha!

Weird interview style, but great answers from Bruce Cockburn

Just found this via the ‘Humans’ discussion list (Bruce Cockburn email geekfest, a lovely bunch of people) – it’s taken from www.canada.com, and is a very odd way to publish an interview, just as a series of soundbites on topics, but Bruce Cockburn has always been great at one liners, so here’s the list –

On recording and performing at age 61: “It’s not so much wondering
how I could be doing this at this age as [the fact] I’ve actually
lasted this long. When I started out I had no idea where I was going
to go.”

On pop and songs that appear in TV advertisements: “Once I hear a
song in a commercial, I don’t want to listen to the record again.
It’s ruined for me.”

On songwriting: “It’s just that bloodhound hunt for the perfect piece
of writing.”

On artistic restlessness: “There’s a kind of feeling I have of
wanting to get onto the next thing. Sometimes even before I’ve
finished the thing I’m working on.”

On being prolific (Life Short Call Now is his 29th recording): “Every
album I’ve made has always felt like it might be my last.”

On mortality: “Once you’re past 50, the odds are you’re looking at
the downward slope . . . Almost everything I’ve written is about
death and hope. In some way I’ve written my own obituary dozens of
times, you know.”

On the cosmos: “I kind of feel like every speck is significant. And
I’m certainly a speck . . . Perhaps I owe this to experiences with
LSD way back when, but it seems to me that everything touches
everything, and everything is in an constant state of flux. And that
flux has an order to it.”

On why it’s not so bad to be a speck: “I’m also as essential to the
cosmos as anything else in it.”

On God: “I don’t have much of a definition of God these days. I like
the kabbalists’ way of referring to God as ‘the boundless who is not
really accessible.’ You have to approach God — in their view —
through angels or through imagery that doesn’t reflect the
boundlessness, because it’s beyond comprehension… I kind of feel
like that.”

On why his parents bought young Cockburn a guitar only after he
solemnly swore not to wear sideburns and a leather jacket: “They were
worried about rock and roll and teenaged gangs with switchblades.”

On being frequently summoned to support good causes: “Sometimes I get
frustrated. I’m not the only guy out there. Call up Avril Lavigne,
for cryin’ out loud. She’s going to get to a lot more people than me.”

On the phrase “tattoos done while you wait” which appears in his new
song, Life Short Call Now. (Cockburn was inspired while driving
through Missouri): “All of a sudden there’s this big white billboard
with small print in the middle of it, that says, ‘Mike’s Tattoos,
done while you wait’ and a phone number. I thought, ‘That’s gotta be
in a song.’ “

And now I’m off to get ready for my gig near Newport in Wales tonight. See you there!

How tired am I???

Well, two days of doing not much since getting back, and I’m still exhausted! I’d forgotten just how tiring this kind of touring is, especially carrying all the stuff on trains… I’m recovering, but slowly.

So not much to blog about in my life, so i thought I’d rant about Trick Or Treat. Is it really wise to teach kids that threatening people who don’t give you sweets is a good thing?? Or that going round door to door asking for sweets is a good thing anyway?

As a kid I was told that Halloween was evil because of the association with the occult and all that stuff – not something I’m all that bothered by now. But giving kids a reason to go round demanding stuff on pain of some kind of ‘trick’ has to be a bad idea, given that number of rather more harmful parallel activities too many kids are already getting into.

In the US, according to TAFKASJ, kids of ‘no concept of the “Trick” part of it’ – they just go round the houses collecting sweets (or ‘candy’, I guess with it being america). So it’s about gluttony rather than the threatening part of it, the expectation that the fun neighbours are the ones who give you sweets, and only a miserable bastard would withhold candy from the kids.

As someone who would seriously not want my kids (were I to have any) to be given sweets by anyone, let alone strangers, the idea of a national holiday built around the idea that the best halloween you can have is one where you get loads of sweets doesn’t work for me at all. Dressing up is great fun, parties are cool – it’s not that I’m anti-fun, far from it. It’s just a shame that the fun seems to revolve around filling kids’ stomachs with borderline inedible sugar and chemical concoctions in vast quantities. No wonder there’s a childhood obesity crisis in the US and the UK.

So whether it’s threatening people who don’t give you sweets, judging neighbours by how much candy they produce or filling your face with millions of nasty sweets, it just doesn’t work for me on any level, and certainly doesn’t seem to be setting up these kids for any kind of positive view of anything. I’ve come full circle from when I was a kid – we’d do none of the ghost stuff and all of the sweets and toffee apples… now, I’ve got no problem with the ghost stories, but will avoid the gluttony at all costs…

…maybe we should all just celebrate samhain instead?

Here's the press release for this month's Recycle gig… don't miss it!

1/11/06 Press release – Recycle Collective first
anniversary special, featuring Cleveland Watkiss,
Huw Warren and Steve Lawson

This November is the first anniversary of the beginning of the Recycle Collective. In the last 12 months, we’ve played host to some of the finest improvising musicians in the UK and beyond, and had many memorable nights of beautiful unique music.

Our first anniversary boasts another stunning line-up as solo bassist and Recycle Collective curator Steve Lawson is joined by singer/beatboxer/MC Cleveland
Watkiss and pianist Huw Warren.

Both Cleveland and Huw have been mainstays on the UK jazz scene for almost 20 years, celebrated for their inventive compositions and stunning improvisational ability. Cleveland’s recent focus on solo voice and live looping performances has added yet another layer to an already multifaceted career, ranging from jazz to opera, hip-hop to ambient electronica. Without doubt one of the most talented and versatile vocalists the UK has ever produced.

Huw Warren’s skills are equally diverse – whether free improvising with german double bassist Peter Herbert, playing Hymns from the Welsh Revival with Lleuwen Steffan, or writing music for the Scottish and Welsh Chamber Orchestras, through to accompanying singers June Tabor and Christine Tobin, he’s renowned for always playing the right thing at the right time. Effortlessly tasteful and prodigiously gifted, Huw’s presence at the Recycle Collective is very warmly anticipated.

Fresh back from a solo tour of Italy and Germany, Steve Lawson has steered the Recycle Collective to being one of London’s finest monthly live music events. Combining his own looped and layered bass work with the contributions of myriad fellow recyclists.

So come, bring friends, and be prepared for amazing music, special guests and a night of musical surprises in the perfect surroundings of Darbucka World Music Bar.

Date – Nov 15th Time – doors 7pm, music 8pm
Venue – Darbucka World Music Bar, Clerkenwell, London, EC1 4JZ
Nearest Tube – Farringdon
Tickets – £7/£5 concessions.

www.stevelawson.net www.clevelandwatkiss.com www.huwwarren.com

Home now

Home now, after a very easy trip indeed – lunch in Roosendaal station, met a very lovely Horn player on the train from Roosendaal to Brussels called Helen MacDougall (my record on meeting lovely people on trains on this trip has been outstanding, smoking losers in Germany and Switzerland notwithstanding). Eurostar doesn’t take long, so home late afternoon. And it’s good to be home! Oh yes, knowing that I don’t have to drag two basses around on my back, towing a suitcase and a rolling rack behind me.

All in, a great tour. A GREAT tour. Loads of great gigs with fantastic people in great venues. A load of great new friends, and some old friends reacquainted. The train thing really worked, though I learned a couple of lessons for next time –

1) get an all-europe pass whatever, it’ll make life much easier
2) book any long distance journeys as far in advance as possible (just book the seat anyway, cos even if you cancel, it’s only going to cost you a couple of quid to make the booking…
3) I’m going to find a way to get all my stuff into one bigger bag, rather than two smaller ones.

Beyond those, it was perfect, and all being well, I’ll be back touring in Europe in March, so if you’re anywhere in the general European area (basically anywhere between Turkey, in the south, Poland in the east, Finland in the North and Portugal in the west) and want to book me, or know a venue I could play, drop me a line!

My next gig is on Friday in South Wales, so I’ve got a couple of days of chilling and recouping before that…

Euroblog #932

Home stretch! I’m on the train from Nijmegen to Rosendaal in Holland, having played in Kleve in Germany last night. The Kleve experience was one I won’t forget for a while…

So yesterday morning, the morning after European Bass Day, had breakfast with all the bass peoples who were at Bass Day, in the hotel, then got a lift down to Krefeld Haupt BanHof, (that’s train station to you), and got the train to Kleve. For some stupid reason I’d left it til that morning to email the owner of the theatre I was playing in, but I sent him my phone number and the email address that goes straight to my phone, and thought that the worst case scenario was that I’d end up meeting him at the venue when he got there to set up. I had the map from the venue website to be able to find the place, and was happy to have a look round Kleve and check into a hotel in the afternoon.

I get to Kleve, find a town map outside the station, and set off in the direction of the venue. I walk for about 5 minutes and a car pulls up alongside and asks me in German if I want any help. I answer in English, and the driver then guesses that I’m doing the concert at the theatre, as she’d read about it in the paper that morning (a very good sign), it turns out she knows the guy who owns it and his family, and offers to give me a lift first to the theatre, and then to the house of the owner when there’s no-one there! As a general rule, I don’t advise getting into stranger’s cars, but Oopie (I’m assuming that’s how it’s spelt) clearly did know the theatre people, and the Serendipity of the situation seemed way too go to pass up… Thank God for slightly nuts people in small-town Germany who are willing to stop and help lost looking musicians!

So we go the house of the theatre owner, Wolfgang, he’s not there, but his family take v. good care of me, speak excellent english, and prove to be utterly delightful, interesting, funny and wonderful people – just the kind of people that would make all of this worthwhile even if I didn’t enjoy the music. That I get to play music I love and meet people like this makes me a most happy and lucky bunny.

Wolfgang arrives, matches his family for friendliness and all-round wonderfulness, and we head down to the venue – xox theatre (xox is actually a word, not just X O X, which I thought it was… xox, pronounced like ‘socks’ with an x in front, was a biscuit manufacturer, and the theatre is on the top floor of the old converted factory.) It’s a gorgeous little theatre, with great lighting and 99 raked seats. Just perfect for a StevieGig.

The house PA proves most satisfactory, and I set up and soundcheck with tonnes of time to spare, and meet Theo from MySpace, the guy who set all this up in the first place.

The gig itself was pretty small (the big problem with being on the road is that’s pretty tough to keep track of all the promo stuff for each gig, and make sure everyone has everything they need), but the people there were hugely generous in their appreciation for the music, I sold a lot of CDs (on this tour I sold out of all the copies of both Behind Every Word and Grace And Gratitude that I bought with me, and have only a couple of the other two left each!), and met a whole host of utterly delightful people. Is there anyone horrible in Kleve, or are you interviewed to measure you general niceness level before moving in? All in, one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve had in a long time, and the theatre want to book me again early next year and do it again with a bigger build-up. What fun!

So I’m back on the train, heading home, via Brussels and the Eurostar, looking forward to a couple of days off before my gig in Wales on Friday. Time to regroup, send out the CD orders that have come in online while I’ve been on tour, sleep A LOT catch up on all the teaching-related email that I’ve neglected, and generally relax.

But, barring some kind of utter disaster today, this training-it round Europe thing is definitely the way to go. Book a month of gigs at a time, fill in off-nights with as much fun as possible, the more gigs you do, the cheaper the travel works out per-gig, you can play in Italy one night and Portugal the next , and all it’ll cost you is the food on the train and a cheap hotel if you don’t have someone to stay with… I can’t understand why the trains of Europe aren’t chock full of musicians on tour!

So who wants to help book a gig in Europe in March? :o)