"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’

Anti-terror laws or the repression of dissent?

George Monbiot, on the implementation of new anti-terror laws, referencing the arrest of Walter Wolfgang –
Had Mr Wolfgang said “nonsense” twice during the foreign secretary’s speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment, the act says, “must involve conduct on at least two occasions … conduct includes speech.”(5) Parliament was told that its purpose was to protect women from stalkers, but the first people to be arrested were three peaceful protesters.(6) Since then it has been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators away from its factory gates,(7) and by Kent police to arrest a woman who sent an executive at a drugs company two polite emails, begging him not to test his products on animals.(8) In 2001 the peace campaigners Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were prosecuted for causing “harassment, alarm or distress” to American servicemen at the Menwith Hill military intelligence base in Yorkshire, by standing at the gate holding the stars and stripes and a placard reading “George W Bush? Oh dear!”.(9) In Hull a protester was arrested under the act for “staring at a building”.(10)

Read the whole article – the number of laws enacted and misused since the much-maligned ‘Criminal Justice Act’ of the early 90s is staggering. The suppression of dissent is surely one of the hallmarks of a repressive regime – just the kind of behaviour that Tony and his buddy Dubya are always telling us is threatening democracy in all them foreign lands where bad people threaten our ‘freedoms’. Just in the paragraph above, the catalogue of misapplication of laws supposedly enacted to prevent terrorism should be enough to get any self-respecting supporter of the democratic right to disagree with your leaders up in arms. How any labour or lib-dem MP can possibly be silent in the light of such behaviour is mind-boggling. As George points out, it’s taken the aggressive man-handling of an octogenarian at the party conference for most of us to wake up to just how pernicious the outworking of these laws is, supposedly in the name of protecting liberty.

I don’t know about you, but I’m less worried right now about bombers than I am about the enactment of these crazy laws. Parliament can do what it wants, without anyone having the right to respond with even their presence outside the building. No placards, no massed gatherings, all in the cause of getting rid of Brian Haw.

Time to start making some noise about it methinks. Perhaps a letter to your MP might be in order?

Soundtrack – Charlie Peacock, ‘Love Press Ex-Curio’ (I’ve had this for a few weeks now, and I think it’s actually released now as well – it’s a fantastic change of direction for Charlie, whose previous work was kind of funky singer/songwriter stuff, fairly heavily Prince-influenced in places and very soulful. This is a contemporary jazz record, featuring lots of the biggest names in the field – Ravi Coltrane, Jeff Coffin, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Joey Baron, James Genus, Victor Wooten, Kirk Whalum etc. etc. The sound is sort of Avishai Cohen/Dave Douglas/lots of other new york electric jazz peoples ball-park, and the writing and play are top notch. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s a must, especially as all the ‘in the know’ types that you hang out with won’t have heard of it, and will be very jealous that you got there first when you play it to them.)

Jazz is dead?

Spent a wonderful evening yesterday with Orphy Robinson – just called round to drop off a CD of the tracks for the gig with Rise on Oct 13th, but as is always the case with Orphy, ended up spending hours putting the world to rights, and listening to some great stories.

Orphy and I have some very similar thoughts on music, and while our own music sounds quite different (he can actually be bothered to write lovely complex through composed music as well as doing the more free improv/spontaneous composition stuff), the genesis of it is similar – both of us have spent a lot of time around people who play ‘proper’ jazz, who studied Bird, learned the omni-book and did what you’re supposed to do – transcribed thousands of licks by your favourite artists. But both of us were turned off by that in favour of looking to the narrative aspects of music, drawn to musicians like Coltrane and Monk who told stories within a jazz framework, rather than just looking to burn their ‘opponents’ in a jam.

Both of us had a fear of screwing up when playing ‘real’ jazz, but when it came to soloing wanting something of ourselves to come out, and so looked to freer improv as inspiration for self expression. I learn so much whenever I chat to Orphy about where his music comes from – he’s been pro for at least 10 years more than me, and having been signed to Blue Note and played with loadsa big names, has a heck of a lot more experience than I.

But we both see our role as story-tellers, and as such are willing to take from any musical tradition that works for us. Our origins are different – Orphy’s background is Caribbean and its musical heritage. Mine is prog-rock and 80s art-rock/pop. So both of us bring that to the table when we play, and both had a rude awakening into the world of free improv (the first free record I ever bought was ‘Montreaux Suisse’ by Air (not the french pop band), and Orphy had gigged alongside members of the band…!)

And it seems like our journeys are becoming to norm for ‘instrumental improvising’ musicians – that all the interesting stuff is ‘jazz plus’ – taking a jazz framework and dropping loads of other influences in. Whether it’s players like Theo Travis and Ben Castle who bring prog elements to their writing and improvising, or the current golden boys of the brit-jazz scene Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland who bring elements of classic rock, electronica and hardcore to their music, it’s the everything else that is keeping jazz vibrant, vital and renders moot the bollocks talked about Jazz being dead. Wynton has done his best to turn Jazz into a museum piece, and the rest of the world has ignored him, thank God.

And coincidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Brad Mehldau in the Guardian talking about this very thing.

Soundtrack – King Crimson, ‘Discipline’.

Greatest albums, my arse!

Was watching Channel 4 the other evening – they were doing yet another of these greatest top 100 type shows. This time it was albums – here’s the results – a bit of a motley bunch, and some that certainly don’t deserve to be there, and clearly won’t be in a few years time. The Libertines? OutKast? huh?

The problem, I guess is that the great unwashed voted for them, but from a list of 125 chosen by ‘experts’… that’s rubbish – who decides who’s an expert. I’m not, I wouldn’t dream of trying to choose 125 albums that the public could then pick their favourites from. If it had been a free vote, I’m thinking a few more random things would have ended up in there. The ‘winner’ was ‘OK Computer’ by Radiohead, and while I really don’t get the whole radiohead thing, I do know lots of people who really really love that record, so fair play. I guess I’m just galled that stuff like The Libertines and ‘Play’ by Moby end up higher up the list than Coltrane or Curtis Mayfield… that’s clearly bollocks.

I own 31 of the top 100 – is that good?

Soundtrack – George Cunningham, ‘Stumblingham’ (features one of the dudepit guys on bass – very good Frisell-ish stuff); Dum Dums, ‘It Goes Without Saying’; Prefab Sprout, ‘Steve McQueen’; M83, Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts’.

Five questions…

Right, Marvellous Liz – she of the quite remarkable organisational skillz and highly readable blog – has been doing this five questions thing – see her site for more on it. Anyway, I agreed to have 5Qs thrown at me (I think I need to do the same for five other bloggers reading this, so if you are, feel free to email me, and we’ll make it happen – you then answer them on your blog – sort of new millenial chain letter thingie i guess…)

so, here’s Liz’s Qs for me, answers below…
And five for the lovely Steve L:

  1. Where did you get that coat from (and are you sure no animals were harmed in the making thereof)?
  2. Is blogging all about narcissism and if so what makes you think it’s of the benign variety?
  3. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, seems to have the basics covered, but there’s always space for one more – go for your life!
  4. Appearance wise you are clearly the bastard love child of Geddy Lee (the hair, the facial fluff) and David Beckham (the nail varnish, the sarongs), but to whom do you owe credit for your emotional, political and intellectual pedigrees?
  5. You can select a super-human power for the day – choose well my friend, choose well!

Answers –

  1. Long black furry coat was from the late-lamented C&A (£50), short blue furry coat was from some crappy shop on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street (£25), and other short greyish furry one was bought in Zurich whilst on tour with Howard Jones!
  2. Blogging can either be about sharing information from across the net, or randomly inflicting the minutae of your life onto others. Mine’s a mix of both, with very little of the former and far to much of the latter. I think it’s a highly narcisistic persuit, but the benign-ness stems from the lack of harm that comes from it, I guess… I suppose you could use a blog to bitch about everyone in your life that you have a grudge against, then the benignity of it would be blighted!
  3. Human Rights – it’d have to be trade laws – make it a basic human right that the collection of humans in a particular nation have the right to fair and just treatment in international trade, and that the rich humans in other nations be obliged to keep the playing fields level.
  4. Two people, mainly – my mum, who’s a marvellous woman, probably mad, very clever, and who is basically a middle aged woman version of me (and the difference would be??) the other is The Small Person – I remember a bloke I once knew who made this insane defence of marrying thick people by saying ‘you can have fun with your friends and argue with your wife, or argue with your friends and have fun with your wife’ – that’s flawed on every conceiveable level, and I very much like having someone around who’s my intellectual superior, and challenges my rather too black-and-white thinking on a regular basis (I’m sure my Edward VIII faux-pas wouldn’t have happened yesterday if she’d been at home. And I certainly would never have had a journalistic career without her intervention!). So, heavy female influence on my life, to be sure.
  5. A super-power? I think I’d have to go with super-speed-reading-and-information-retention – I’d use that day to fill my head with all the things I really ought to be aware of if only I managed my time better and read more books – hows that for a topical answer on world book day?

Thanks Liz, very interesting questions! :o)

Now, time to get ready for tonight’s gig, I need to pick Theo up in less than an hour.

Soundtrack – John Coltrane, ‘Live At Birdland’.

It's World Book Day

Today is . So in honour of that, let’s do top three book recommendations – head over to The Forum and post your own.

Here’s mine, in no particular order;

Long Walk To Freedom – Nelson Mandela
Crime and Punishment – Dostoevsky
Life After God – Douglas Coupland.

what’s yours?

Soundtrack – John Coltrane, ‘Coltrane’.

I don't need cheering up…

… but if I did this review would do the trick! – a very nicely written review from one of the guys on Loopers Delight. Always good to get well written reviews, even if they are constructively ‘balanced’. This ones is completely positive so scores even higher. 🙂

Soundtrack – John Coltrane, ‘Coltrane’ (I’ve got more John Coltrane CDs that almost any other artist – it’s between ‘Trane and Bruce Cockburn. I don’t listen to him nearly as often as I should… might be time for a Coltrane-binge.)

a view of CCM from the outside…

As some of you will know, my early playing career as a pro musician was spent almost exclusively within the gospel and ‘CCM’ scene. CCM stands for ‘contemporary christian music’ and largely represents slightly crap pop songs with words about Jesus… I still do the occasional gospel gig, and play at St Luke’s once in a while (one of my main reasons for choosing to attend St Luke’s when I moved back to London 7 years ago was that they didn’t have a band so I was unlikely to get asked to play bass every week, as happened at just about every church I visited around that time), but not with anything like the regularity I used to – the main reason being that Churches tend not to book instrumental acts to play at any of their gigs or functions…

So anyway, it was with much hilarity and a fair amount of surprise that I read this article from thescotsman.com, as forwarded to me by The Captain – it’s one of the few comments on Christian music I’ve ever read in the UK from outside the church; largely because, with a few exceptions, christian music in the UK is relatively poor quality, and most of the bands that are any good soon cross over into playing ‘normal’ gigs anyway (people like Cathy Burton, Beehive, Fono, Eden Burning, Airstar…) given that, unlike the US where CCM is huge business, it’d be pretty much impossible to sustain a sensible career as a musician in the UK, unless you wrote lots of worship songs as well for other people to sing in church and lived off the royalties.

Anyway, the article is pretty good, and surprisingly friendly.

Soundtrack – I’ve listened to ‘Crescent’ by John Coltrane, featuring Elvin Jones about 7 times today. Incredible stuff.

The end of An Era in Jazz…

Elvin Jones, drummer with the John Coltrane Quartet in the 60s, and one of the most original and inspirational drummers in the history of jazz, died yesterday.

here’s a link to an obit in the NYTimes.

And here’s a re-post of something I posted over in the dudepit discussion board a few weeks ago when it was reported that Elvin was seriously ill, about the one time I got to play with Elvin…

I once got to play with Elvin, at a clinic at the drum school I was teaching at. It was before I’d really started to listen to the Coltrane Quartet (I now own about 20 Coltrane albums, and have listened to Elvin more than any other jazz drummer…), and I was pretty rubbish, but Elvin just kept on grinning, giving me really obvious signs as to where the form was going, taking me with him. He could’ve made me look a fool, but instead did what great musicians do – play to make the band look good.

At the end, as people were applauding, he said ‘these are the cats’ about the guitarist, and I, even though it was clear to anyone with a pair of ears that we really weren’t…

Afterwards, he came over and said, ‘man, that scared the shit outta me – I haven’t played with an electric bassist in 25 years – I’m not used to HEARING to bass, just feeling it’

I’ll never forget either the fear of playing with him beforehand, or that feeling of him holding me up when I could so easily have falling on my arse. A pivotal moment in my playing career.

Today is a day to remember one of the pivotal figures in the development of jazz, and one of my all-time favourite drummers. Those moments at the end of a lot of a the Coltrane live recordings where McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison drop out and leave ‘Trane and Elvin to go at it as a duo as an extended firey cadenza to the tune are some of the most sublime moments in recorded music – two hugely innovative and gifted musicians exploring the outer limits of where their music can take them.

Soundtrack – right now, clatter, ‘blinded by vision’, which just arrived this morning and is excellent but will soon make way for a day of Coltrane…

1 down, 6 to go….

So last night was the first night on the tour with Michael Manring, and went exceedingly well. The show was at Mansons Guitar Shop in Exeter, and was sold out three weeks in advance, which is nice! The format was fun – we alternated between improvising duets, playing solo tunes and fielding questions from the audience, and got lots of very interesting questions. The duo material was really interesting – it bodes really well for the rest of the dates.

There’s already one review up at talkbass, from Matthew Foote – thanks Matthew, glad you liked it. If you were there, please feel free to post a review of the show over in the interact section of my website.

We almost didn’t make it, having had a tire blow out on the M25 about 15 miles from home, but we changed that and got back on the road pretty quick.

Touring with Michael is a lot of fun – I think I’d happily take him along even if he was a rubbish bassist… ;o)

The rest of the gigs are still selling really well – it’s going to be a great tour. Tomorrow night is Petersfield in Hampshire, then Friday daytime we’re at BassTech, Friday night in Brighton, Saturday in Reading, Sunday in London and finally Monday in Southampton. Please come along if you can, but do phone and book in advance, or you might not get in.

Soundtrack – John Coltrane, ‘Live At BirdLand’; Kelly Joe Phelps, ‘Slingshot Professionals’; Michael Jackson, ‘Off The Wall’; Stevie Wonder, ‘Natural Wonder’; Robben Ford, ‘Supernatural’; Dapp Theory, ‘Y’all Just Don’t Know’; Medeski Martin and Wood, ‘The Dropper’; Marc Johnson, ‘The Sound Of Summer Running’.