A Decade In Music

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the decade.

A decade that began just a couple of weeks after my first ever solo gig.

That gig, unknown to me at the time, marked a pretty huge turning point in my music career.

The ‘session’ work I’d be pursuing and doing up til that point was to dry up pretty damn quick when word got out that I was doing gigs on my own, but equally fast, word spread about what I was up to to the people who might like to listen to it, and I started to play more and more shows, and in August 2000 put out my first solo album. A decade later, and here we are… Where? I’m not sure. Continue reading “A Decade In Music”

The Musical Mechanics of 'Feeling': Wordless Story Telling

Right, here’s a blog post I promised on Twitter at the beginning of the week, but have only just got round to writing. Here were my original ‘tweets’ –

solobasssteve “Blog post idea – the musical mechanics of ‘feeling’: ambiguity, journey, wordless story-telling and narrative/soundtrack quality…”
solobasssteve “Gifted singers routinely sing like they’re still discovering the unfolding tale of the song. Instrumentalists rarely play like that…”

One of the things I work most hard on in my music is developing the relationship between phrasing and feeling. Learning how to play a tune as though it has words and is telling a story. For that reason, most of my biggest influences are singers; the musicians I try and emulate are those whose music strikes me on an emotional, feeling level rather than a technical, heady one.

I often find myself left cold by instrumental music that on the surface I’m impressed by, but which doesn’t seem to soundtrack any part of my life, does reflect anything about the way I think or see the world. And I think I know why…

The big problem with most of what gets lumped together as ‘fusion’ or ‘electric jazz’ is that the way the music is played makes it sound like the artist has all the answers. Like there’s no search, no journey, just an arrival point. And that arrival point is one of dexterity and chops, with the compositions often stemming from a similar place. Or even with the compositions actually being pretty deep, but still being played from a position of having it all sown up before the tune starts.

Great singers never do that. They tell stories, the adopt characters, they emote according to the narrative. They often sing like they are discovering for the first time the unfolding tale of the song. It’s way more important to communicate than it is to show of their wikkid skillz. Having a big range in your voice is part of the singers emotional palette, and is rarely used for shredding (Maria/Celine etc. aside…)

So it’s no coincidence that my favourite instrumentalists also play like that. Bill Frisell is a fantastic case in point – a phenomenally gifted guitar player, who has leant his wide ranging guitar skills to a whole load of different projects, but who always digs deep emotionally. He plays guitar like a world-weary country singer, or a heart-broken torch singer. He does the full range of emotions, rather than sticking with the slightly smug, self-satisfied gymnastic displays of many instrumentalists.

Nels Cline is the same – he can be sad, angry, playful, child-like, inquisitive, tearful, tender… all in the same solo.

And of course there’s John Coltrane, the Godfather of story telling improvisors, unfolding the story of his spiritual quest on the stage each night via his sax. Phenomenal technical skill, completely at the service of the music, or the story, and always stretching, searching, telling stories as they occured to him, risking the blind allies, crying and screaming through his music when it was required.

Q – “So how do I as a bassist head in that direction? What are the mechanics of feeling? How do I move away from dextrous but lifeless technical cleverness and start telling stories?”

The start point is listening and a little analysis. Take a singer you love, a singer that moves you, a singer that connects – what are they ACTUALLY doing? What’s happening in terms of dynamics and phrasing? Where do the notes sit on the beat? Take 16 bars that you really like and learn them. Start by singing them, then play what you sing. Not just the notes, but the dynamics, phrasing, articulation. The whole works. As close as you can get. How far is that from how you usually play?

Here are a few musical elements that aid us in sounding a little more ambiguous, discursive, narrative:

  • stop playing everything on the beat: Bassists are the worst for this, but a lot of jazzers too – we end up drawing a metric grid in our minds and stick to it. Divide the bar into 8/16/32 and play those subdivisions. Go and have a listen to Joni Mitchell and tell me how often she’s on the beat. How often her phrasing is metric. Pretty much never.
  • Start using dynamics: I’m amazed at how few melody players in jazz – particularly guitarists and bassists – rarely vary the dynamics of what they do.Have a listen to this Bartok solo sonata for violin – hear what’s being done with the phrasing and dynamics? It’s incredible.

    Alternatively, have a listen to Sinatra, to the way he pulled the melodies around, and used his amazing control of dynamics. Remarkable stuff. In the rock world, check out Doug Pinnick’s vocals with King’s X. He’s closer to singing in time, but exploits the variation in being ahead of or behind the beat beautifully to spell out the emotion of a song.

  • Vary your technique – again, very few singers sing in one ‘tone’ through everything. Those that do usually get tiresome pretty quick. Most of them use tonal variety the way we do when we talk. Getting louder will vary the tone automatically. Same with your instrument. The number of bassists who play with their thumb planted on top of the pickup, using their first two fingers in strict alternation even for playing tunes is bizarre. Bassmonkeys, Your right hand is your primary tone control – forget EQing, and work with the source, where the subtle variations are from note to note. moment to moment, phrase to phrase. Experiment, keeping in mind what you’re trying to do – tell a story!
  • Play less notes – At NAMM every year, I get other bassists – often pretty famous ones – coming up and asking me how I play so ‘soulfully’, or so ‘deeply’ or whatever. Admittedly, their reaction to what I do is going to be exaggerated by the lunacy of all the shredding going on, but the simplest answer is often that I play less notes than most of what they are used to listenin to. Again, it’s a singer-thing. Very few of my favourite vocal melodies are technically hard to play. Some have some pretty big intervals in them (Jonatha Brooke, one of my favourite singer/songwriters on the planet, writes some of the most amazing melodies, and has an incredible way of delivering them. She uses really unusual intervals but never sounds like the cleverness of the tune is getting in the way of what’s being said…) So just learn some vocal tunes. Actually, not just ‘some’, learn loads! Get deep into what singers do. Take songs and listen closely to how the tune develops from one verse to the next. Again, great story tellers adapt the phrasing to the emotion of the story, they don’t feel the need to add more and more notes as it goes on…
  • Play simply… even the super fast stuff! – the genius of Coltrane was that he very rarely sounded like he was struggling with his sax. He was wrestling with music, and emotion through his sax, he was digging deep to find the soundtrack to his inner journey, but his horn was at the service of that journey, not directing it in a ‘check out this clever shit’ way. Dexterity is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing at all wrong with being able to sing or play really fast. It’s just that it’s not an end in and of itself. Some things sound fantastic when you play them really fast. There are tracks by Michael Manring and Matthew Garrison that have an incredible energy rush to them because of the pace. They wouldn’t have that if they were slower. But neither player sounds like the tunes are a vehicle for a load of mindless shredding. Im always looking to improve my technique by deepening it. Speed is definitely part of that. But it’s just one aspect of control. And control is the key.

I find it really odd when I hear musicians that site Miles Davis as a big influence and then proceed to play like the entire story of the tune was set in stone years ago. Like there’s nothing to add, nowhere new to go, no need to dig deep. Miles is the Yin to Coltrane’s Yang. Miles was a pretty good be-bop trumpeter in the late 40s/early 50s, but he didn’t really have the chops of Dizzie or Chet Baker. And yet he had a quality to his playing, even on crazy-fast bebop stuff, that drew you in, that took you with him… That got deeper and deeper as his life went on. With a cracked and broken sound, he told stories, and wrung out old melodies to find new tales. He also never went backwards, constantly searching for new things in music. The narrative of each solo was reflected in the meta-narrative of the arc of his career. No resting on laurels, lots of progressive work, and not a few false starts along the way. But he was integral to just about every new thing that happened in jazz from the early 50s onwards.

We need to dig deep to find this stuff. It’s not something you just do. Its not something easy, it’s not a lick you can learn and regurgitate, or a solo by such and such a player that you can transcribe. It’s a desire and a search and a longing to tell stories that comes out in our playing, that shapes the way we practice, the kind of musicians we choose to work with, and the risks we take. If you want some inspiration, try looking up some of the following on last.fm:

Guitarists: Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, David Torn, Mark Ribot
Bassists: Michael Manring, Matthew Garrison, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden
Pianists: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Jez Carr, Alan Pasqua
Singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch, Jonatha Brooke, Lobelia, David Sylvian, Kelly Joe Phelps, Robert Smith (The Cure), Frank Black (The Pixies)

Music is about way more than impressing other musicians. There’s nothing wrong with musicians being impressed by what you do, any more than there’s anything wrong with people thinking you’ve got a cute accent when you talk… but what you say is what will sustain the value in the long run… Dig deep.

Michael Manring and I on video…

Here’s another video from the gig in Santa Cruz – this one is of Michael Manring and I. It’s the second half of a REALLY long improv, and goes through about 5 or 6 big changes of direction, all seemlessly transitioned, thanks to the magic of the Looperlative.

Michael and I have been playing together for about 7 years, touring in England or California. We’ve never played together not on stage, and have only once or twice even vaguely discussed what we were going to do before a song, and that was usually because there was some hidden comedy element that one of us had come up with… We just get on stage, smile and start playing, and see where the muse takes us. It’s proper ‘pan-idiomatic’ improv (thanks to David Torn for the description) – it goes through any genre or idiom of music that we choose to steer it, from folk to metal, avante garde to funk, minimalist to contrapuntal neo-fugues…

Anway, here’s the video – it’s a lot of fun, but sounds pretty muddled on laptop speakers. Break out the headphones, or plug into a hifi to get some idea of what we were actually doing!

David Sylvian at the RFH

david sylvian at the RFH London

Went to see David Sylvian last night at the RFH last night, with Lo, Catster and The Cheat. I’ve been a big fan of his (that’s David Sylvian, not The Cheat) for ages, but had never got to see him live so was really looking forward to it. When I found out a couple of days ago that the wonderful and lovely Theo Travis was playing sax and flute with him, I was even more excited. Any day watching Theo play music is a good day.

The gig was, as expected wonderful – moodily lit, as you can see in the above photo, and the rest of my sneakily taken rubbish camera phone pics, the band played a range of stuff from right across David’s career, all the way from Ghosts through tracks of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets Of The Beehive, Dead Bees On A Cake to last year’s Blemish (was Blemish last year? the year before? whatever…) – all good stuff. It was odd hearing DS without the foil of another guitar player – one of the defining features of his records is that he almost always has a mad guitarist as the random element in the midst of the calmness – BJ Cole on Gone To Earth, David Torn on Secrets Of The Beehive, Fripp and Trey Gunn on The First Day, Derek Bailey on Blemish etc… – but tonight it was just himself on guitar, playing simple acoustic strummy stuff on almost all of the tunes. Very simple acoustic strummy stuff – he appears to only use about 4 chord shapes… Which worked, but left me wondering what another guitarist would’ve added. Thankfully, Theo was there as that random more freewheeling element – the tracks without him were noticeably more restrained, tied more tightly to the sequenced tracks that fleshed out most of the gig with bleeps, squeaks and canned brass and woodwind. With Theo playing in and around the tunes, they took on a more spontaneous feel, and it seemed to lift the band into a more spontaneous place, intentionally or otherwise.

All in, a gorgeous gig. I love the fact that DS doesn’t feel the need to throw in an up-tempo number to please the crowd – the dynamic changes were largely left to whether the ever-brilliant Steve Jansen was playing predominantly acoustic or electronic percussion; the acoustic stuff being far more dynamic, which the electronic kept everything in a really tightly defined dynamic and emotional framework.

Wonderful 3-part half hour interview with David Torn…

Just found this, accidentally, on YouTube – here’s part 1 of the interview, which is in 3 10 minute segments.

Torn, for those of you that aren’t familiar with his work, an american guitarist and sonic architect whose influence runs fairly deep through the stranger end of what I do. He’s also one of the nicest and funniest people i’ve ever met, and more fun to hang out with that just about anyone on the planet.

If you’re investigating his music, all his albums are worth a look, and search under ‘Splattercell’ as well as under David Torn as that was his AKA for a while in the late 90s/early 2000s…

Anyway, the interview is well worth a watch, and his description of playing in an improvising band and his desire to get away from it being shackled to the labels of ‘free jazz’ and ‘avante garde’ reveal why he’d be in the top 3 or 4 biggest influences on what I’ve been trying to do with the Recycle Collective

Euroblog #5

Venice. Wow. What a place. I’m sure I’m the last one to get here, but if you’ve not been, it’s great.

The first thing I had to do when I got here was book my ticket to Amsterdam for Saturday. Sounds easy. Is it bollocks. I go to the ticket office, ask for the ticket but get sent to the information desk to get the train times, get them printed out and take them back to the ticket office. Back to the ticket office, that train is fully booked. So back to the information desk for more trains. WTF? Two completely independent computer systems for tickets and time-table!!! 95 minutes later and I’ve got tickets booked for the train up through Switzerland and Germany, but still only costing an extra 20-odd Euros, and actually saving me about three hours on the time it would take via Paris. Worth 20 Euros of anyone’s money.

Anyway, after that, my fantastic host here in Venice, Daniel Deluve takes us to the hotel where the gig is happening. Swanky doesn’t even scratch the surface of how posh this hotel is. 495€ a night posh. Just nuts. Venice, having no roads, is a nuts place to get to, and we travel to the gig by boat (this is definitely the only gig I’ve ever done where the PA and bass rig have been delivered by boat (is it just me, or am I writing in some weird pidgin english? All I can hear in my head is the kind of bizarre simplified english that I use to speak to Italians who speak slight more english that I speak Italian… sorry if all this sounds a bit odd..)

Anyway, we dump the stuff at the hotel and head off for lunch and a wander round this gorgeous city. It’s nuts. it’s one big cliche, in the best sense of the word – gondolas, canals, street musicians playing lutes, and chock full of loud obnoxious tourists. Yay for the English speaking world and our bizarre relationship with the beautiful parts of the planet.

Anyway, the gig was great fun. A mix of residents in the hotel, friends of Daniel and some tourists (including an american dude who lives in Cornwall and is a David Torn and David Sylvian fan – restoring my faith in tourists as people of taste and discernment). All in a great time had by me, and seemingly by everyone else too. nice to get to play two 40 minutes sets too.

Then the journey home, back on the boat with PA and bass rig. Suddenly the boat is invaded by four completely hammered tourist losers from Bolton. Incoherently drunk, singing and dancing, and making me oh-so-proud to be English. One pissed lady comes to talk to me, so I pretend to be Italian – ‘no parlo inglesi’ – shows just how hammered she was that my crap Italian grammar and piss poor accent fooled her. But it was great to have some English buffoon shouting ‘ARE YOU A MUSICIAN? MUSIC? LA-LA-LA???’ in my face while I look blank, and ask my Italian friend to translate for me, then tell her I’m a pianist, despite the fact that I’ve got a bass gig bag leaning against me. Fun with drunks.

So today, I’m heading back to Luca’s to mix the last of the tunes for the album, the tomorrow onto Milan.

I love my life – as John Lester commented on my MySpace page, ‘That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it’.

up too late

shit, tomorrow is Bass Day in Manchester, so Trip and I are having to set off at about 6.30 in the morning to get there, and it’s now midnight and I’m still up – not my finest idea.

Another trip to the vets today with the ginge – ever improving, he’s now on low dose chemo to make sure the lump doesn’t come back. He’s eating more now, and seems in very good shape!

other things to blog about, but no time now, must sleep.

SoundtrackDavid Torn, ‘Tripping Over God’.

Reasons to be blogging, Part Three

…as Ian Dury would no doubt have sung if he’d written the song today.

The world of blogs, or ‘blogosphere’ as geeks call it, is now HUGE. As in very big indeed. And there are as many reasons for doing it as there are bloggers, I guess.

My reasons are manifold – partly cos I enjoy writing, partly to sort out the thoughts in my head, to make me clarify what I’m thinking on any given subject into a form that I’m willing to submit to public scrutiny, which is the next reason – public scrutiny. I realised in the mid-90s during my Front-Row-Hands-Up (that’s FRHU for short) pentecostal church time that I knew very few people who didn’t all believe the same thing. And a lot of those people only had friends who didn’t believe the same thing as them in order to try and convince those friends to agree with them. This was clearly a rubbish way to go through life, and a supremely arrogant one. So I now actively look for places to find out what other people think and try and make sense of it. If that means that on occasion I drift into intentionally mindless relativism, that’s a small price to pay for actually being open to the possibility that I might be wrong! So I like the email that I get in response to blog posts, and I love the discussions that ensue over in the forum. I guess I should enable comments, but it would just encourage The Cheat to post rubbish, so I’ll not to that just yet.

Which reason are we up to? er, four I think… another reason is that as a music fan I’ve often wondered what’s going on in the heads of the people whose music I listen to. So this is here to hopefully provide the overly wordy and sometimes dull-as-shit open-ended sleeve-notes to where the music comes from. The music is the soundtrack to the inside of my head, and this is the literal interpretation of that. So you really ought to be listening to me whenever you’re reading this, to get the full effect.

Other reasons? To keep friends around the world up to date with what’s going on in my life, and then just cos I get a kick of of the idea of a couple of hundred people a day reading what I’ve been up to. It’s an odd experience that was only open to newspaper columnists in the pre-blog world. I like that, being the Benign Narcissist that I am.

Anyway, the best blog-reasoning I’ve read of late is the one on Richard Herring’s marvellous blog – his blog is a great daily read, sporadically very funny, and worth adding to your list of feeds, if you have one. And if you don’t, you’re wasting lots of time by having to look up all the blogs you read every day.

Soundtrack – right now, it’s a me-loop – I’m doing some practice for tonight’s gig with Theo and Orphy. Before that it was a recording of Tim Berne’s gig at the QEH in 2003, with David Torn on guitar, which is fantastic.

Big achievement

OK, so I’m blogging this a week late, but last weekend, I managed to get my email inbox down from over 1200 to 7! The main upshot of this was that I was able to ditch Outlook Express and switch over to , which also allows me to have all my news/blog feeds in the same programme as my email. which is nice. One more step away from Microsoft stuff.

On the subject of groovy free software, I mentioned a few days ago about , the free photo management thingie from Google. Well, I’ve been toying with it, and it’s even better than I first realised. It’ll generate webpages with your photos in, movie files of your photos as a slideshow, and all the edits are non-destructive, so you can do as much editing as you like, and then save a copy later… It’s great. Seriously, I’d have happily paid £100 for a piece of software this logical and useful. I’ve hardly opened photoshop since I started using this.

Soundtrack and Elvis Costello, ‘Deep Dead Blue’; , ’10 Cent Wings’ and ‘Back In The Circus’; , ‘Entremundo’; , ‘Legs To Make Us Longer’.