It's ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it…

There’s been a fairly long discussion on one of the bass-geek e-lists I’m on of late about phrasing and patterns and such – it started out with a guy who was feeling stuck in the patterns that he played, and was asking for a way out.

My answer to that is always the same – learn more patterns. Not wanting to use any patterns in music is like not wanting to use grammar when talking – it inhibits your ability to communicate (non-idiomatic free-improv notwithstanding). The problem – as with language – comes when you know so few patterns (or expressions) that their repetition reveals your lack of familiarity with the subject (style/tune/key/chord progression) – in Italian, I know about 6 phrases, which I repeat ad nauseum in an attempt to sound slightly less like a typical doesn’t-speak-any-other-languages Brit. But it’s clear from my limited range that I really don’t know the language. My accent isn’t bad (especially not when I’ve been there a while), but I still don’t have the vocab to sound even like an ex-pat, let alone a local.

If I could even vary the phrases I knew slightly, it’d make for a broader base from which to converse. Same with music – start by mixing up what you already know. Change one element – could be the last note, or the first note, or putting a rest in the middle, or starting the phrase in a different part of the bar… It really doesn’t matter, the point is to get away from the tried and tested, and start to branch out into newer areas.

Anyway, the discussion on the list moved away from that to what ‘phrasing’ is all about, and why (in the opinion of some of us) bassists are particularly bad at expressive, fluid phrasing. Here’s what I wrote in response, with particular reference to the quote from Stig at the top (he’s wise, very wise)


>>”also in my view, this is something that most ebass players do not do.
they tend to favor the instrument’s percussive or shreddable qualities,
and neglect the more “expressive” aspects. << Which is utterly baffling given what a phenomenally expressive instrument the bass - and particularly the fretless bass - can be... I guess that the tendency towards metric subdivision and testosterone-driven displays of dexterity is somehow related to the requirement in so much rock music to play things in a consistent, steady, non-varying way. Multiply that up to a solo and it becomes the same thing at 2, 4 or 8 times the speed one or two octaves higher... Easier to do that than to move away from seeing rhythmic 'correctness' as being about a dualist 'in time/out of time' binary equation, and instead see the emergence of a rhythmic or textural, um, gestalt (?) as a consequence of observation and awareness of what makes music connect, and then working on developing the control to execute that, based on what it is you want to play in relation to what your awareness tells you should be happening, however seemingly complex, random, a-rhythmic, poly-rhythmic or whatever that may be. There aren’t many rock/pop basslines that require you to change the tone-shaping effect of your right hand technique from one note to the next, whereas expressive shaping of a melodic line often demands that in order to set up the kind of question/answer phrase-logic that Stig alluded to.

It’s clearly a much bigger issue for improvising musicians and solo musicians than it is for bands operating solely within an idiom that has readily defined parameters – if I suddenly got the gig playing bass in Green Day, I wouldn’t be quite so aware of the benefits of understanding the influence of fluctuations in the rhythm of a loop on the listener, or how palm muting a single note in the middle of an improvised melodic phrase might make it sound more like a question than a statement, and would be far more concerned about where to place the bass notes on the beat in order to produce the kind of urgency required by the music. (something that would be much better learnt by playing lots of punk music, going to punk shows and listening to punk records than my studying rhythmic placement in any other context…)


there you go. :o) Any of this stuff could be equally applicable to any musician, it’s just that bass players are particularly geared to not play tunes well (in the same way that guitarists from a blues background often struggle with anything that needs to be rhythmically precise – their training just hasn’t focussed on those elements). Ultimately, it’s all about control and awareness, but that’s a whole other book.

Last night's Recycle Collective gig…

Ah, it’s good to be back Recycling! :o)

It took Lo. and i ages to get to the venue, thanks to nasty south London traffic, but we’d left plenty of time, so no panic. When we got there, Cleveland was already setting up, Sarda and Kari were downstairs, Oli was sorting out the venue, and all was familiar. We set up, and just listening to Cleveland soundcheck made me realise how much I’ve missed hearing him perform in the last 9 months – for all of 2006, he was doing the Recycle Collective every 2 or 3 months, so I got to both listen to and perform with him a lot. He’s definitely one of my favourite solo looping performers anywhere, and he gets more proficient with the technology every time I see him play.

So the gig itself started with me solo, with a couple of improvs, including the now-fairly-regular one based on Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G, and then I got Andrea Hazell up, for a big sprawling open ambient piece – Andrea’s voice lends a gravitas to everything she sings on, as noted before. Lovely stuff.

We then finished off the first half with some trio improvs, some cool funky stuff with Cleveland beatboxing, and some more spacey ambient things.

Second half started with Cleveland on his own, but he very quickly got Andrea up to join him, and their duo segment was really really wonderful – their voices combine so well, and the juxtaposition of his funkiness and her operatic poise was beautiful. I really hope we get to hear more of that!

Cleveland invited me back up, and we went into more funky, spacey territory with Cleveland launching into a tune from Carmen, which he and Andrea then played around with for a while which was both marvellous and hilarious, especially when Cleveland went into a patois/ragamuffin version – really magic stuff!

And to finish the night, I got Lo. up to sing with us, and she improvised a really gorgeous sound, that Cleveland added harmonies to, and the three of them stacked vocals for a big ambient ending. Lovely lovely music.

It was really lovely to play the vortex, though with the venue shift and the big break from the last show to this one, the audience numbers were down on our Darbucka averages… We should be back with a Darbucka show in October – watch this space, I’ll be booking it ASAP!

write up in Time Out for tomorrow night's Recycle Collective gig…

Once again, we’ve got a really lovely write up in Time Out

“Singularly talented solo looper/electric bassist Lawson moves his long running RC night from Darbuka to a new regular slot at the Vortex. Joining the ambient effects maestro tonight will be bewilderingly versatile singer Cleveland Watkiss, also looping his a capella voice, and Royal Opera singer Andrea Hazell, this will be breathlessly spontaneous, indefinable, music making.”

That’s rather nice, and true, and means you shouldn’t miss it!

What a bizarre day of contrasts…

So, today started well – a trip to Guildford, to the ACM to give a masterclass to their degree students on self promotion and marketing. Much of it was about readjusting their expectations regarding what is likely to be an income stream and what isn’t, and where to put your energies in terms of your attempts at promotion – ie. musical contacts and gigs = good, myspace friends lists with a million bands on that don’t even know who you are = bad. Lots of talk about where we discover new music, where we find things, and what we feel inspired to buy and to go and see live. A successful morning.

Lunch with head of bass Stefan Redtenbacher, drum tutor and old friend Stuart Roberts and fellow visiting lecturer of the day, Terl Bryant. Great peoples one and all.

Home for a few hours, then out to teach. New student in east london, good lesson, but the place where he’d said I was fine to park wasn’t… AND I GOT CLAMPED!!! And not by the local council, not for blocking a drive or taking up a much needed space. No, by some venal scumbag private clamping firm, who charged a £100 release fee. It felt like my car had be broken into – there were no visitors parking spaces that I could see (and clearly even the non-car owning residents hadn’t read the signs about the parking, that’s how well displayed they were) but there were also hardly any cars belonging to residents.

If I get a normal parking ticket for running over, or chancing it somewhere, fair enough – that’s £30, you pay it, it’s a shame, but whatever. Not on private estates in Tower Hamlets. Oh no, there trainee nazis dole out clamps… Has there ever been a more self-defeating device than the wheel clamp. You not supposed to park here, so we’ll IMMOBILISE YOUR CAR – huh??? you’ll keep me stuck in the place I’m not supposed to be. Surely if I’m not supposed to be there, there’s a reason why I shouldn’t be, like it’s blocking something, or I’m taking someone’s much needed space. No, that’s all bollocks, it’s just a bunch of bastards who clamp for fun. Like wasps who according to legend sting just for fun (how on earth do you measure the fun quota of anything in a wasp? or for that matter, a clamper…)

To be fair, the kids who came to unclamp it were obviously in their first job, just trying to get on, clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable at what their role was, and the one kid did try his absolute best to get the stickers of the windscreen without leaving any residue behind. Do the firm give them any solvent to remove the sticky stuff? do they fuck.

I wonder what the legality is of carrying around bolt-cutters and removing it yourself? I’m pretty certain that their jurisdiction can’t extend beyond the private property they operate on. The stickers all say ‘it is an offense to try and remove the clamp’ – but lots of things are an offense. Celine Dion is an offense, Kevin Costner films are an offense. Neither sadly are in any way officially criminal acts.

I ought to just put a big notice on my car saying ‘it is an offense to clamp this car’ – I’m fucking offended by it! filthy scum. Why on earth is it legal? It’s a disaster waiting to happen – you need the car to take someone to hospital, to escape a mugger, to do all kinds of things, and some tosser has come round and chained a bloody great metal triangle to your wheels… grrrrrrr, it makes me so annoyed! (can you tell) – and it’s not as if I’ve got a spare £100 to just throw away on such trivial bollocks.

Anyway, the evening ended on a much brighter note (well, not that much brighter, seeing as I’d forgotten my ordinary glasses when I left home so was wandering around Brick Lane at 11 o’clock wearing sunglasses – who’s the twat trying to look like Bono? That’ll be me then…) – it ended with the lovely Showbiz (or whatever the name is that I’ve given her this week), and Chambers, then back to casa showbiz for mac-geekness and ladies’ tea.

clamped??????

When a gig takes you by surprise…

A few months back, I did a gig at a venue called ‘The Loft’ in Crouch End – I was booked to open for a band featuring Rowland Sutherland, and the gig turned out to be a really really lovely house concert, put on by a woman called Jenni Roditi – the audience were warm and friendly, the atmosphere one of acute listening, and it was an all round positive experience.

So when Jenni emailed round a circular letter a couple of weeks back, asking for people who were interested to play at an ‘open salon’ night, I thought it sounded like fun. The theme was ‘blank canvas’ and the last gig had been a positive experience, so why not.

As it turns out, tonight’s gig was one of the best night’s music I’ve heard in ages – about 10 acts performed all in, ranging from singer/songwriters to story-tellers, instrument builders demonstrating their amazing inventions to arias by Gluck. And, of course, solo bassists. :o)

A quick run down of what was on, if I can remember it all…!

Stella Dickenson started off demonstrating and talking about her wooden Sounding Bowl with strings – looks like a fruit bowl with strings attached, is actually a remarkably resonant instrument, that apparently works incredibly well in therapeutic settings. Fascinating stuff.

Sarah Warwick: singer/songwriter (former dance-chart-topping singer) – really really beautiful song and beautiful voice.

Jarmila Xymena Gorna: wordless singing, gorgeous piano playing, some lovely pre-recorded harmonies. Great stuff.

Fran Zipang: story from ancient Iraq – really great to hear a damn good story-teller, it’s easy to forget what a fantastic performance art story-telling is.

Mohini Chatlani: Mezzo Soprano, on show tune, one aria by Gluck – particularly liked the show tune (can’t remember the name of it now!) but both really well done.

Belinda Braggins: possibly the most nervous performer I’ve seen in years, but a writer of really really great solo piano music. A couple of things where she comped chords with her right hand, and all the melody stuff was happening in the bass, so we like that!

Bheki Mseleku: South African legend of spiritual jazz piano, apparently – lots of people there had heard of him, and he was very good.

then food and chats with all sorts of delightful people.

Second set –

Malka Rosenberg: singer/songwriter with a voice a lot like Julia Fordham – really beautiful song. Apparently this was her first ever gig, which, if true, was without a doubt the best debut performance I’ve ever witnessed. really great stuff.

James D’Angelo: Blue Monk variations, deconstructed and mashed up. Very good, very funny, very clever.

Jenni Roditi: our amazing host, performing extracts from her opera The Descent of Inanna. Somehow Jenni has managed to channel the harmony of ‘Lame Lies Down…’ era Genesis and ‘Once Around The World’-era It Bites into an opera, without ever hearing either band. Really great writing.

And then me, on last – because the theme was blank canvas, I just took my headrush pedal along, and my fretless, and started out with an improv piece, based on a similar idea to ‘chance’ off of ‘And Nothing But The Bass’, but with a much shorter loop (if you want to overdub on the headrush, you’ve got a maximum of 11 seconds…) – which came out really well. I then did What A Wonderful World, and got people to sing along, and finished off with Grace And Gratitude. I was then really shocked by the demand for CDs – i’d only taken 10 or so with me, but sold all the solo ones I had in about a minute, and only came home with one copy of Conversations. Everything else went. An amazing gig, perhaps it was the inspiration of so much other amazing music, and the great atmosphere that Jenni creates that did it.

Hat’s off to Jenni for hosting such a great gig – it’s a strong reflection of her personality (I guess in a similar way to how the Recycle Collective reflects mine), and she’s built up a fantastic audience and vibe for these gigs. Long may it continue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night's gig.

Very enjoyable gig last night with Estelle Kokot at Octave near Covent Garden.

The enjoyableness came from playing great music with very fine musicians – Estelle’s a fab songwriter, singer and pianist, and is predisposed to stretching out her songs into long involved jams. Much fun. The drummer was Richard Spaven, a lovely understated creative player.

Fortunately that was all enough to get over the crapness of the venue. Whoever invented the term ‘dinner jazz’ needs a swift kick in the nads. Everything about the venue said ‘background music’ – very little lighting on the band, very few chairs that actually faced the band, tables not really laid out to give a good view of what’s on, no MC to introduce the music, no instructions to listen. They charge a fiver to just come in an listen, but if I’d paid a fiver to listen, I’d expect not to have to listen over the din of people talking. Next to the Octave, Thursday night’s Recycle Collective was like a night at the Royal Opera.

If the Octave sorted that out, they’d have a great little venue – it’s a nice room, not a bad PA, and God knows we need more decent jazz venues in London. As things are, this isn’t the answer. Still, it was £70 when I wasn’t doing anything else, in my home town, playing great music with great musicians, So I’m not complaining.

Death toll in Iraq – officially not really newsworthy…

A couple of days ago, I got an email from Doug Lunn in LA, with a link to an article about a report about to be published in The Lancet saying that the death toll in Iraq is likely to be as high as 655,000. The horror of the figure led Doug to say that he wasn’t going to circulate it til he had more confirmation of where the figure had come from etc.

Today, The Independent have it on their front page – clearly deeming it credible enough to run with it. After all, it’s not some crazy fringe website that’s claiming this, it’s The Lancet! Hardly known for it’s rabid anti-zionist, anti-western stance. It’s a medical journal.

here’s a chunk from the article –

“The new figure is much larger than all previous estimates – more than 20 times higher than President George Bush claimed 11 months ago – and will add considerable weight to the calls of those seeking a withdrawal of troops.

The 654,965 deaths estimated to have resulted from the invasion represent about 2.5 per cent of the Iraqi population. It means people have been dying at a rate of about 560 a day, equivalent to one death every three minutes, or less

Two years ago, a study by Dr Les Roberts and a team from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, estimated that at least 100,000 Iraqis had been killed as a result of the war. This new survey, conducted by the same team and based on similar methodology but using a larger sample, suggests the situation is getting worse rather than better – a conclusion at odds with claims made by President Bush.”

So why the hell isn’t this everywhere? the lovely Jyoti raises this point, and it’s a scary one – why, if this is a credible report (which it clearly is) isn’t this on every front page? Operation Enduring Freedom and its conjoined sibling Operation Gargantuan Fuck-up have lead to the deaths of 2.5% of the population – most attempts at Genocide don’t do such an efficient job of wiping out sections of a population!

Meanwhile, has anyone in government on either side of the Atlantic apologised? or acknowledged the report? Here’s Bush’s response from the same article –

“Yesterday, Mr Bush sought to dismiss the survey, claiming without elaboration that its methodology was flawed. “I don’t consider it a credible report. Neither does General George Casey [the commander of US forces in Iraq] and neither do Iraqi officials,” he said.

“I do know a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me. And it grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence.”

So the guys responsible for the slaughter don’t consider it credible, so we’ll just let it go. Nice of him to applaud people for their courage in the face of violence that he commissioned… Like a murderer bigging up his victims for the struggle they put up.

The problem with numbers like this is that whether the report is validated or not, it gives the hawks a reference against which to say ‘look, other figures say that only 100,000 people have died – check out our wikkid humanitarian skillz’ – as though 100,000 would be OK.

However it’s spun, we’re left with a government in the UK and US that in the style of King Kanute, stands in the face of a tidal wave of evidence against them and says ‘well, we’re in power, and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing until you start believing us, regardless of the consequences.’

Is there a way forward from this? what’s the best thing that could happen? You know, I’m not at all sure (like that’s a surprise, me with my PHD in Islamic Peace Studies ‘n’ all… ;o) ) – but various people who do know have offered suggestions, and all of them favour getting the troops the hell out of Iraq. Some say immediate withdrawal, some say timed but quick withdrawal. All say that the western military presence is making it worse not better, leading to more deaths not less deaths, giving a voice and legitimacy to those who seek to destroy Iraq from the inside, and provoking the understandable anti-western guerrilla response – the so-called insurgents. The western military presence makes it impossible to discern the difference between those who are fighting the occupation, and those who are just crazy warmongering loons on the rampage. If the troops pull out, those fighting the occupation would clearly stop, because there’d be no occupation, and those carrying on would be opposed from within as the Iraqi people get back some sense of ownership of their own nation and destiny no?

perhaps I’m being too simplistic (I’m definitely being too simplistic), but given the choice between two simplistic answers – keep fighting so we can blame ‘them’ for the war, or pull out so we can expose ‘them’ for their ulterior motives. I’d take the second…

But back to the initial question – why the hell isn’t this front page news everywhere???