A Decade In Music – The Solo Bass Years.

First Ever Solo Gig, London, December 1999

My first ever solo gig was at the Troubadour in Earls Court, London, on Dec 15th, 1999 – 10 years ago last week.

The eve of the new millennium, and a gig that started with a lie (the lovely chap who booked the gig asked me if I had a whole set of material after seeing me do one solo tune in a band-gig. I lied and said ‘yes’ 🙂 ). It wasn’t the first time I’d played solo bass in public – that was a product demo at the National Music Show for Bassist Magazine in Nov 97. I also played weird improv noise stuff for a contemporary dance company in Nov 98.
Continue reading “A Decade In Music – The Solo Bass Years.”

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 :)”

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.

Sad news

Just received a very sad and shocking phone-call from a friend in Edinburgh to let me know that Duncan Senyatso died last week. Duncan, you may remember, was the Botswanan guitarist and singer that I played with at Greenbelt last year – a fantastic musician and a very generous and patient man, putting up with me taking ages to get my head around the rhythms of his songs, laughing and joking, and being very generous with his praise when I finally got the songs right. He also played a vital creative part in what was one of the best gigs I’ve ever done – my ‘global footprint’ improv piece at Greenbelt, along with Jez Carr, Patrick Wood and Andrea Hazell. He sang and played guitar beautifully, miles outside of his musical comfort zone, but he fell into the a-rhythmic improv setting like a natural.

We’d talked at some length last summer about the possibility of getting British Council funding and taking the same project out to Botswana to tour with it, to do workshops in schools on improvising and music technology, and see how the marriage of the two musical worlds would work. Yet more regrets, to go along with the regret that the Global Footprint gig wasn’t recorded.

Simon, who rang me, was the mandolin player in the band last year, and has known Duncan for more than 15 years, and is flying out to the funeral.

if you click the link above, you’ll see just how highly regarded he was in Botswana. A big loss to the music world in that part of Africa, and a musical partner I shall be sad not to see again.

That’s Duncan on the left, with Rise Kagona in the middle.

Another great Greenbelt Gig

Saturday at Greenbelt, and my plan was to avoid anything ‘work’ related for most of the day, and it mostly paid off. What I did do was to invite lots of special guests onto my show during the day in the hope that some of them would turn up!

So following a couple of seminars and a lot of sitting around chatting to lovely peoples, I headed up to my venue for the 7.30 start. just after 7.30, the band before started their last song – which then went on for 12 minutes. Always nice to be 15 minutes late getting on stage for a gig at a festival where audiences are on a tight schedule and probably have the gig bookended by other things they wanted to see…. if I’d been on sound, I’d have turned the power off.

Anyway, we got set up and I explained the premise of the gig – one piece of 50 minutes long (it was going to be 70, but the delay meant I cut it down), with a whole load of special guests, each one coming on stage one at a time, then playing, me looping them and then leaving while their contribution lives on for the next guest to interact with.

The four guests who ended up doing it were Jez Carr (obviously – Jez being a genius improvisor and perfect first contributor to anything like this in terms of letting the others who are less familiar with the form to hear roughly what’s going on.) So Jez played some piano, which got looped, then left, and after me layering a little more, guest number 2 was Andrea Hazell, (soprano from the Royal Opera House), who sang three of four beautiful layers of wordless vocals, harmonsing my ebow line.

Guest no.3 was Duncan Senyatso, who contributed some beautiful guitar, and a vocal line that meshed so marvellously with Andrea’s voice that it sounded composed, though far to intricate to have been composed by me!

Last guest was Patrick Wood, keyboardist and composer with The Works – I’ve collaborated with Patrick on a lot of improv things before, and once again he played some gorgeous fender rhodes sounds to the loops. To finish things off, Jez came up and played some bass – Jez is a great bassist and plays very differently to me, so it was lovely to have him take the low end somewhere else…

And in between and through it all I was mixing and adding and fading and chopping and multiplying and post-processing and keeping it all interesting for 50 minutes.

and the end result was without a doubt the best gig I’ve ever done at Greenbelt, and one of my favourite ever, I think. Some really really beautiful music – I’m gutted that I didn’t record it, but I’m sure we’ll get to do something similar again – time to contact the British Council in Botswana and see if we can get them to fly us over there!

So after the show, I was compering in Centaur – the huge indoor venue here at GB – where The Works were playing, followed by Aradhna – both played fantastic sets and went down a storm.

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What, no mention of the election result??

What is there to say? Labour back in – no surprise there. Greatly reduced majority – good news, or it would be if the Tories hadn’t taken so many of the seats. Interesting that the Tories took those seats due to a swing from Labour to Lib-Dem, rather than Lab to Tory… Lib-Dems did well but not as well as some predicted. Took a couple of very key seats (Hornsey being about the highest profile of them).

It’s nice to see that Michael Howard is stepping down. Hopefully whoever takes his place will be less overtly racist in their policy formation. While I dread the idea of a Conservative government again, a weak opposition is really bad for democracy. Good riddance to Howard and his race-baiting immigration policies.

‘Tis a shame the Greens didn’t get in in Brighton – they did get a load of votes, and it bodes well for the next election. I just hope that some miraculous thing transpires where we switch to Proportional Representation – that way, we would have green MPs, a vote for the Greens wouldn’t be wasted, and the Lib Dems would just about double their number of seats… though it would also give the BNP a voice in parliment… hmmm, maybe we need stronger laws about racial hate-speech. Glad to see the BNP didn’t get any MPs, and their highest number of votes in any constituency was less than 5000… still, the thought that there are 5000 people in Barking willing to vote for a fascist party is pretty frightening.

Will Blair go? i doubt it. Nice to see some MPs sticking their heads over the parapit and calling for his resignation. Would Brown be any better? Who knows. Sad to see Blunkett back in – off the scene for 5 months, and now all is forgotten apparently. I haven’t forgotten his draconian insanity in his time as Home Secretary, so dread to think what he’ll do in his new role as Work and Pensions secretary.

Basically, it looks like being business as usual for president Blair – a few vaguely contrite words about learning from the election, followed by more of the same. *sigh*.

SoundtrackSheila Chandra, ‘Moonsung’ (I can’t ever imagine getting bored with this album, it’s perfect); Steve Lawson/Jez Carr, ‘Conversations’ (not listened to this for a few months, very nice to pull it out again and have a listen – I’d forgotten how lovely some of Jez’ playing on it is).

Turning down gigs…

It’s been an interesting week work-wise. I got a phone-call last Tuesday from Carl Palmer, the drummer with 70s prog-rock legends, ELP, and 80s prog legends, Asia. Carl now has his own trio, which until recently Dave Marks – who I taught when he was studying at Basstech – was playing bass for. Dave left to take up a job at Basstech, and Carl had been recommended me via a few sources, aparently. Carl rang to find out if I’d be interested in joining the trio. Having been a big ELP fan in my teens (‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ got some major rotation on my record deck in the late 80s/early 90s), I was really up for meeting him and finding out more.

We met up on Thursday, to have a listen and chat about the gig – he lives pretty locally to me, and seems like a very nice bloke.

The music itself is mainly heavy rock reworkings of classical works, by the likes of Bartok, Prokofiev, Copeland etc. Most of it is at full-throttle, and while very exciting and energetic, a long way from the languid mellow stuff that I’ve spent the last five years getting good at…

So I was faced with a very odd decision – here’s a good paying high profile gig with a legendary drummer who seems like a very nice bloke, that I’m going to turn down… What?? But still I felt very comfortable with the decision. I’ve obviously been primarily a solo/duo player for some time now, but that was never tested until now due to not having been offered anything of this kind of size. Now that I have been, but am faced with the need to change my technique back to a full-on rock approach, and build up a huge amount of stamina to maintain that level of drive for almost two hours a night, I chose to stick on the path that I’ve been carving.

It’s not that I don’t want to work with other people – I’d still happily do sessions, and obviously do a fair few jazz and funk gigs with Jez Carr, Mike Haughton and our floating drum chair (which features some incredible players – Mike Sturgis, Tom Hooper, Phil Crabbe, Eddie John etc…) – but if the gig requires me to divert a lot of attention away from the path I’ve chosen, that I’d rather stick where I am.

It feels like a bit of a rite of passage. Four years ago, I’d have jumped at the chance, seeing it as a big step forward. Now, despite the obvious advantages of the gig, the distraction from what I’m doing was too great, and I’ve turned it down.

Am I nuts?

Soundtrack – Talking Heads, ‘Stop Making Sense’.

…and Last night's gig

Forgot to mention last night’s gig in previous blog entry.

‘Twas back at Traders in Petersfield, another marvellous Stiff Promotions evening. This time, it was me opening, then Jez Carr doing his thang, with some duo strangeness at the end. It was the first gig Jez and I have done like this in a v. long time – we do a lot of normal ‘standards’ gigs for weddings and parties etc. but don’t get to improv or play originals nearly as often as we’d like. My solo set went well – I’m playing pretty well at the moment, due largely to the large number of gigs I’ve done since the album came out at the beginning of August. I’ve played Traders three times this year before tonight, so it was really nice to have some new material to play, from Grace And Gratitude.

Jez’s solo set was on next, and he played fantastically – a mixture of originals and choice jazz tunes (Waltz For Debby, Search For Peace and Blame It On My Youth), he had the audience in wrapt attention. Hugely compelling stuff.

The for the duo set, we started as we always do – just start playing and see where it goes – the magic was still there, and the first duo improv went all over the map, pretty seamlessly blending styles, keys, swapping chordal and melodic roles between us. Top stuff, very exhilarating. We then played a couple of standards to finish – Breakfast Wine, a tune we’ve been doing for a while out of the Real Book, which was OK, but I made the mistake of not switching back to fretless, and the melody didn’t really come across the way it does on the fretless. And then Autumn Leaves – a bit of an old chestnut but we played it really well. We were already half an hour over time, and still got called back for an encore (a v. good sign, methinks), and Jez suggested in a moment of inspiration that we play ‘Bittersweet’, from And Nothing But The Bass Fortunately he remembered it even better than I did, and we played a lovely version, a very fitting end to a top night.

If you were there, feel free to post a review in the Reviews section on the forum. And thanks for coming!

Happy New Year!

Oh yes, it’s 2004. Another year over a new one just begun, as a songwriter no longer at the top of his game and desparately in need of his old writing partner once wrote.

So out with the old and in the new, hopefully. Or maybe it’ll just be ‘what goes around comes around’. Who knows.

I’m hoping for the usual crap – more time to read, more gigs, more CD sales, less big countries blowing up small countries, less reality TV, more properly researched documentaries, more decent comedies on TV, more going to the cinema, more exercise (!!), more journies on public transport, less using the car, more bass practice, less time wasted online… yeah yeah, right.

So this afternoon, I had a listen to an album I’ve not heard for a while – ‘Beyond These Shores’ by Iona. This is an album that when I first got it blew my mind, but as I’ve only got it on tape, and the tape is just about worn out, I hadn’t listened to it in ages. However, the small person has got it on CD, I remembered this afternoon. So put it on. and. wow. Unbelievable. Still as good if not better than I remember it. Great songs, amazing playing, fantastic production, moving lyrics (it’s a sort of concept album on the legend of St Brendan sailing from Ireland to America a few hundred years before Columbus…) – truly wonderful. Seriously, it’s great, get it.

It’s kind of apt at the start of a new year to be listening to an album about a journey into the unknown – not that stepping over into 2004 is like sailing the atlantic in medieval times – after all it’s just another day in ‘actual’ terms – but new year is a rite of passage, giving us a chance to pause, take stock, rethink, set some goals, change the way we do things, and also chops the past into convenient chunks for us to assess whether they were good or bad.

2003 was very different for me musically than 2002 – ’02 was the year I did the two big tours with Level 42 and The Schizoid Band, but ’03 was a year of fewer gigs but a lot of musical experimenting – loads of new improv settings, gigs with Orphy Robinson, Tess Garraway, Corey Mwamba, Filomena Campus, Josh Peach, Seb Rochford, Theo Travis, Mano Ventura, Michael Manring, Jez Carr, Harvey Jessop; I’ve also recorded loads of improv stuff this year – most importantly the new album with Theo Travis, but also material with quartets in France and Spain, duets with Matthias Grob, Luca Formentini, BJ Cole and Patrick Wood. Loads of space to develop new ideas, much of which will be launched on anyone who wants to hear it in 2004.

So, here’s to the new year – may all your gigs be well paid and your audiences attentive.

Soundtrack – The Smiths; ‘Louder Than Bombs’; Bill Frisell, ‘The Willies’; Rob Jackson, ‘Wire Wood and Magnets’; Iona, ‘Beyond These Shores’;

Strongbad the good

Ok, if you’re on broadband (and perhaps even if you’re not, I’ve not tried it on dial-up), get thee to www.homestarrunner.com – some very bizarre and surreal cartoons, but totally addictive, especially strongbad’s emails – one of the characters answers emails from the public… Truly brilliant.

What else? Had another gig last night with Tess Garraway and Joss Peach in Brighton, which was fun. Due to a misunderstanding with the venue, it was a shorter gig that had been planned, but was much fun nontheless, especially as I had a line from Tess’ voice into my loop set up, so could layer up loads of vocal stuff…

Yesterday I received a copy of Andrew Buckton’s new album, Rocket Ship, which is marvellous. It was recorded at the tail-end of last year, with me on bass, jez carr on piano and buck on guitar and voice. Tom Hooper then added some drums and percussion. There’s a fair bit of E-bow and looping from me, providing lots of atmospherics, including one tune where I do loads of looping and SFX, while Jez plays the actual bass line (as has been noted before, Jez is not only a mighty fine pianist, but a stellar bassist too…) The album is fantastic. Really great songs, very personal moving lyrics, and I don’t sound bad on it either… 😉

Hopefully it’ll be available online somewhere before too long.

What else has been happening? Ah yes, yesterday before the gig with Tess, I was recording more stuff with Patrick Wood – if you have a look at the MP3s page, you see there’s a duet track with Patrick. He’s very good, very very good, and we get together every few weeks to make a good noise. More mad loopy stuff, as you’d expect. Will no doubt be releasing a duo album with Patrick at some point. Still editing the stuff I’ve recorded with Theo… there really ought to be lots of this stuff online, but at the moment, I maxxed out on my webspace, so really need to change servers before I get to add any more. Was all set to move to a new host when sarda said he was planning to get a server. So now I’m waiting for that…

Anyway, when it finally happens, you’ll get to hear lots of what I’ve been up to.

Oh, and on the subject of me and Theo, we’ve got a gig at the National Theatre in London on Tuesday 17th from 6-7.30pm. And then on the same day at 9pm, Rick Walker – the percussions that I play with in California – has got a solo gig at The Klinker, so it’s a fine evening for music – well worth coming to see us, grabbing some food, and heading over to Rick’s gigs. I’ll be at both, anyway!

Er, what else? ah yes, Matthias Grob came to stay. Who’s Matthias? He’s the inventor the Echoplex, that rather amazing looping tool that I’ve got four of. And a great musician in his own right. And an all round top bloke. We’d arranged to meet for lunch with a friend of his up town, but he was late, so I had a very nice lunch with Jenny at the ICA, and then Matthias turned up at my place a bit later on. We went for curry. and he gave me a copy of his brand new CD, which is coming out on my label! Yup, Matthias is the first non-me Pillow Mountain Records release. How does that work? for someone who doesn’t like record companies… well, he’s using the name. Doing all the leg-work himself, but using the Pillow Mountain name out of recognition for the fact that our music bears a similar meditative quality I guess. The looping connection, and just that he’s a top bloke. I’m sure people who like what I do will like what he does. So he’s on PMR. It’ll all be official soon, and on the website etc…

Soundtrack – right now, it’s Andrew Buckton’s album ‘Rocket Ship’ (see above) which has been on all day. It’s great. you need to get it when it’s available. Yesterday I was listening to the new album from Andy Sheppard and John Parricelli, ‘PS’, which is great – guitar and sax duets, some looping/processing from John. All good. Recommended.