New Single – Recorded Yesterday, Out Today!

Right, I just released a single. When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t planned to. What I had planned to do was to mix the track I recorded last night. Like everything I do, it’s a one take, unedited improvised performance. All the drums are played and looped live rather than being a pre-existing loop, and everything else is bass. The field recording was triggered during the performance, rather than added afterwards. So everything is happening in response to everything else. Here it is:

I mixed it today, experimenting with getting a really huge low end on the synth and the kick, and loved the way it came out. So as well as adding it to the subscriber-only album Stepping Stones, which is gathering together all the things I’m recording towards releasing a new solo album and making them available as they happen to subscribers, I thought I’d put this out as a separate single so everyone else can have it too 🙂

All of this music is released as episodes in an unfolding story. I’m less interested in how it fares as a standalone entity, and am more interested in it as an emblem, an avatar, a signpost of where I’m going and what I’m up to. That’s why the subscription is my focus. Convincing you that a particular album is worth buying is way less interesting to me than inviting you into the process of it all happening, and forming a community around that. if that’s interesting to you too, check out my Bandcamp subscription.

It’s a ‘pay what you want’ release, so you can pay or not as you feel able/inspired, or you can subscribe and get everything I put out in the next 12 months, plus 48 albums from my back catalogue. And if you subscribe before the weekend, you’ll get the new LEYlines album, LEYlines IV, included. After that, you’d have to buy that separately...

I love living in a world where music can be made and released in a matter of hours – it’s about 14 hours absolute start to release with this. If you want to play it on the radio, or do anything else with it like that, please feel free – let me know if you need more info…

And the title? That came from a Tweet by Vernon Reid. 🙂

Nine Years Since This Gig…

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the gig where Lobelia and I recorded this video:

…I say ‘we’ recorded the video. Obviously we played the music, but the video was actually shot by our friend Brian Wilson (not that Brian Wilson…) – he’d invited me in 2007 to play a house concert after I’d talked about my plan to do a tour of them. He and his wife Michelle obviously got the bug, because after that they became exquisite house concert hosts, even going to far as to buy the grand piano you see in this video!

Brian is now a pro photographer (not much of a surprise when you see the quality of the video), and no longer lives in the house where we played these shows, (we played again almost exactly a year later, with the great Tiger Darrow opening for us – here’s a vid of an improv trio from that show) but they hold some incredibly dear memories for us.

This year, Lo and I have got back into doing gigs together (parenting kind of knocked the wind out of our duo gig sales for quite a while!) and we played a gorgeous house concert in Hackney, London in April. If you want to host one, please do drop me a line!

The tour where we played this show back in 2010 also became our album Live So Far – an album that grew progressively as the tour went on and I mixed and mastered the tunes on our days off… Check it out here:

The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… 🙂

5 Inspirational Bass Recordings with No Drums

Spend more than 5 minutes online talking about bass, and you’ll encounter some variation on the theme of ‘groove is king – the idea that the only things that matter for musicians who play bass are those that relate to the function within a normal band line up is pushed pretty hard in most contexts.

But so many of my favourite bits of creative bass playing (in my own career and from others) happen when the bass is freed up from that idea of a ‘role’ and the musician is free to contribute to the music in whatever way works best for the music. Sometimes that’s still very much within the understanding of what the bass ‘should‘ do (as with Pop Pop here) but other times it breaks away from that.

So here are 5 drummerless albums that feature some absolutely exquisite bass playing in the context of wonderful music! (as always these are in no particular order) ::

 

  • Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard & Steve Swallow – Trios

Steve Swallow has one of the most singular, recognisable voices in the history of the electric bass. This trio is possibly my favourite setting for his playing ever. So much space, and his melody work is astonishing. To hear him with a drummer, have a listen to Bartalk by John Scofield. An incredible trio record with Adam Nussbaum on drums.

 

  • Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Dave Holland – Angel Song

One of my desert island discs, everything about this is perfect. It was Bill Frisell that lured me in, but Dave Hollands playing here is exemplary – his tone!!! This has to be one of my favourite recorded bass sounds ever, and his solo on this (the first solo on the opening tune of the album, no less) is just perfect. The feel is beautifully relaxed throughout, particularly in the interplay between Dave and Bill during Bill’s solo. Incredible.

 

  • Duke Ellington And Ray Brown – This One’s For Blanton

Jimmy Blanton changed the way all of us think about about the role of the bass, that much is true. That he died at 23 is mindblowing and deeply tragic. I can’t imagine what he’d have accomplished had he lived. The Ellington band of the 40s that Blanton was a part of is one of the most amazing groups of musicians ever assembled. This One’s For Blanton is a fitting and rich tribute, and who better to take the bass role than one of the true greats who followed on from Blanton’s lead in making the bass such an important instrument in Jazz, Ray Brown.

I can’t embed this video, as it’s blocked on YouTube, but it has to be this track for the unbelievable solo intro, and the incredible elaboration of a standard walking line that Ray goes into – Sophisticated Lady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZFTDxYV7ss

 

  • Paradoxicon – Gianni Gebbia And Michael Manring

This is a REALLY unusual record. for much of it, the sax is playing a more rhythmic role than the bass, particularly on the opening tune, where Michael is all texture and what groove there is is from Gianni’s sax. Some beautiful writing, and a wonderful space for Michael to explore.

 

  • Rickie Lee Jones – Pop Pop

This kind of breaks the rules, in that 3 of the tunes on the album have percussion on, but the rest of them are so great, and Charlie Haden does drummerless bass playing SO well that I had to include it. I also really wanted a great vocal record in here to show what can happen when you free bass up from the ‘groove’ obsession in a song context. Charlie Haden may well be my favourite drummerless bassist of all, every note he plays is exactly where he wants it to be. The economy of notes is counterbalanced by the obvious care and attention given to every part of every note. Astonishing.

 

Over to you – what are your favourites?

New Live EP: Releasing Music 2.0

So, if you read my last blog post about the gig on Oct 7th with Michael Manring, you may have seen that I embedded in that post a widget containing a free-to-download live EP of Michael and I playing together in California.

The EP happened because while blogging about the gig, I remembered that after that show (which at the time felt like a particularly good set of music) someone had sent me a recording of it… I’d been meaning ever since then to put up the rest of the improv that made sense of this video on youtube, and when I dug out the recording (which was sat on my incredibly messy desktop), I found that the entire improv set was worth putting out. Continue reading “New Live EP: Releasing Music 2.0”

London gig on Aug 25th – the Singers Of Twitter :)

This is the first proper London show in AGES for Lobelia and I, so we’re making it a special one. We’ve asked 3 of our favourite singers to join us for an amazing night of singer-songwriter-ness… and genius Ukulele magic. It’ll be on Aug 25th, doors at 7pm, music from 7.30, at Darbucka World Music Bar, on St John’s Street in Clerkenwell, London. Continue reading “London gig on Aug 25th – the Singers Of Twitter :)”

Abe Laboriel Snr Interview From August 2000

I’ve mentioned before how fortunate I feel to have got to meet so many of my musical heroes early on in my music career. Back when I was writing for Bassist magazine – and then Guitarist magazine when they were merged – I had the opportunity to hang out with and chat to so many players whose music had meant a lot to me. In some cases, they were pleasant interviews, and the players now say hi if see them at trade shows. Others are people I now class as good friends, and some I’ve had the chance to play with. After this interview with Abraham Laboriel, we played together for over an hour. (I’ve got a minidisc of it somewhere, though given that it was only a few months after I first got my 6 string fretless, I’m guessing my intonation wouldn’t be quite what it is today!) Continue reading “Abe Laboriel Snr Interview From August 2000”

Press contact and booking info.

Welcome! Whether you want to

  • book me (or Illuminated Loops, LEYlines, the Steve & Lobelia duo, or any of the other collaborations I’m involved in, or have a collab of your own to suggest) for a gig,
  • get me to speak at your college/university,
  • ask me to play on or produce your record,
  • ask me to open for you on tour,
  • interview me for your mag/site/newspaper,
  • ask me to write for your mag/site/newspaper…

whatever it is, email me via the form over here.

That’s by far the best way to get in touch. It comes straight to me, no intermediaries, and I can then email or call you back when I’ve got my diary in front of me!

For gigs, it’s probably cheaper and easier than you’d think to organise, and I’d love to come and play, so please do drop me a line. I’m sure we’ll work something out. For house concerts, I can put you in touch with people who’ve organised them before so you can get the low-down on what works best, if you so wish.

For now, most things you might want to know can be found on this site – stick around 🙂

Interview with me from Bass Guitar Magazine.

Bass Guitar Magazine article photo, cropped from the web page.I’ve been hoping this interview would surface online for a quite a while – Adrian asked a really smart set of questions and, crucially, came back with questions relating to them. Email interviews can be really dull if it’s just a questionnaire (unless it’s MEANT to be a ’20 questions’ type deal…) – because there’s no conversational flow. So as a tip for those of you interviewing online, send 2 or three questions to start with at most, preferably unrelated ones, and then develop each one with questions that follow on…

But I digress, this is about me 🙂 – anyway, it’s a great interview, and I was kinda surprised at the quote in the sell that says,

The unexpected popularity of bass looping in the UK can largely be attributed to Steve Lawson‘,

but I guess there’s some truth in that. It’s probably just that I’m more aware of my own influences than my influence.

So, either click on the photo above, or click here to read the interview