The Illusion Of ‘Genre’

John Goldsby just tweeted a link to this article from the Wall Street Journal. It’s all about the falling audiences for jazz. A whole load of demographic stuff about who’s going to see jazz, and who now isn’t going to see jazz.

The problem with this is that any artist worth a listen doesn’t do ‘jazz gigs’. They play their own unique music. They play ‘John Goldsby music’, or ‘Miles Davis music’ or ‘Pat Metheny music’ or indeed ‘Steve Lawson music.

The ‘style’ might be jazz, but the intention, ideas and the 20/30/40/50 years of life experience that lead them to make the music they make are unrepeatable. Continue reading “The Illusion Of ‘Genre’”

Creativity and Socially Networked Marketing – the good and the bad.

So much is being written about the egalitarian nature of online distribution, it would be easy to believe that all our worries as wannabe professional musicians are now over. We all know that we can get a myspace page and a facebook music page, a reverbnation widget and a page, just like the big boys. We can also get our music onto iTunes and eMusic, Amazon and Rhapsody, just by sending a CD to CDBaby and paying them less than $40 to set it up. Easy, huh?

Well, not quite. It’s true that the music economy in the last couple of decades has shifted from hundreds of acts selling millions of records to millions of acts selling hundreds of downloads, but two things are still problematic – monetizing the attention that we’re given, and building online spaces where attention is available in units greater than 30 second chunks.

You see, the huge problem with the MySpace/Youtube/iTunes generation is that it favours instantaneous gratification. It favours music that ‘wows’ in the first few seconds over music that takes a while to grow – in much the same way that mainstream pop radio has done for decades. It’s just that now, it’s not just the top 40 sector that’s expected to fit that paradigm, it’s everyone. There’s no special version of myspace for people with long songs, where the listener knows that it’ll take a particular piece of music a good few minutes to get going and reveal its hidden magic.

It’s true that to a degree it has always been thus – playing music to your friends in a ‘hey, check this out!’ scenario has always been a less comfortable proposition if you’re introducing them to the magic of Steve Reich or Brian Eno’s Music For Airports than if you were letting them in on the hitherto-undiscovered-to-them genius of Chic or Duran Duran. Pop music is by its very nature more immediate.

No, the problem here is a slightly more insidious one – it’s that all of us, ‘pop’ acts and more difficult to classify musicians alike, are being encouraged to market what we do via these channels in the same way, and music lovers are being encouraged to look for it in that way, and it can have a negative effect on the way we create and the way we find the music we love.

The fantastic potential that Myspace/Youtube/iTunes gives us to connect with an audience that we’d previously have needed a record label and radio plugger to connect with is still largely bound up in the ‘instant gratification’ notion of where the value lies in a piece of music. 30 second previews of tracks are useless for through-composed or gradually evolving music. 30 seconds of just about anything by Michael Nyman or Philip Glass isn’t going to show where the piece goes as it unfolds over the course of minutes rather than seconds.

How do we deal with this? I think acknowledging it is the first part of the answer – once the influence has been ‘named’ we can see if for what it is, and hopefully recognise the difference between our own creative urge pushing us towards brevity or accessibility (certainly no bad thing if that’s where you’re leaning) and the crippling of a deeper more evolved sense of where a particular piece of music should be going out of a fear that it just won’t work on myspace.

Download culture is wonderful in that it frees us up from the limitations of length – in both directions – that vinyl/casette/cd/minidisc had – we can put out tiny short works and not feel like we need to pad it out to fill a CD, or we can release massive epic hours-long single pieces if that’s really where our muse is heading. There’s nothing to stop you putting out 10 hours of continuous music, other than the limitations of the download speed of the person trying to get hold of it. We’re no longer constrained by pressing cost or media size, but we are still subject to the evolution of the music-discovery culture, and we all need to be thinking hard about how we build a space where we encourage people to investigate music that takes many listens to sink in, music that doesn’t reveal any of its complex magic in a 30 second low-res preview, but given time will seep into our consciousness and affect us in a unique way.

We need filters. We need

  • people and
  • media-outlets and
  • blog groups and
  • socially networked advisors who will recommend great music to us in the way that magazines used to.

Magazines still provide some of that, but they are very limited in their scope, because they are beholden to their advertisers and the broadcast nature of what they do, so are constrained by the need to write about people their core readership already know about. Those people aren’t really our concern. The ones who already have a career, a fanbase, a stream of self-generating traffic to their sites and online store. Finding out about the new Nick Cave or Pat Metheny record is rarely going to prove difficult.

No, we need microfilter channels, groups of 5,10,20,50 friends who get excited about new music and do the research for eachother, in the same way that Google Reader lets us search out news and blog posts for eachother.

There are already music blogs like this – audioblogs that feature MP3s on a daily basis. Some of them are fabulous. Many of them are less helpful in that they are basically a mashup of bit-torrent and – illegal giveaways of whole albums that don’t actually help the band because they direct no attention or traffic in their direction. I was talking with a guitarist friend in LA in January who found that only a week or so after his latest album had come out, someone was giving it away on an audioblog based in Holland. The sales in the first few weeks of any project are important because that’s when the publicity is focussed on, so to be offering illegal free downloads of an album that close to the release date is particularly galling.

The new currency online is attention. Time is valuable, and it is possible to monetize that, through sales of CDs, downloads, DVDs, t-shirts, gig tickets, teaching weekends, meet and greets, promotional spin-offs, advertising revenue. But directing attention is best done by communities, by trusted advisors, but bloggers and twitterers and facebookists and friends of friends who know their subject and seek out the best new music around and tell people about it. And do it because then their love for it is propogated, the artform and the creators are encouraged, make enough money to make the next record, and the cycle of soundtracking a part of our lives is completed and begun again.

BUT if you’re a musician, unless the career part of being a professional musician is more important to you than the musician part, all of that has to be at the service of getting the word out about YOUR art. That which you hold most dear. Not an advert for what you hold dear, not a truncated, MySpace-ized version of it, but the real deal, however dense, complex, mellow, subtle or otherwise it is. Which brings me back to a point I’ve made a few times on here before – BE THE KIND OF FAN YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE – musicians need to be using the attention they have from their audiene to share the love, to let their listeners know about the music they love. It’ll come back, karmic-stylee, and will solidify your position as a guru of great music, a person of taste and discernment and the hub of a music-loving community. That’s how we build RELATIONSHIPS with the people who connect with our art – relationships built on shared knowledge and an unfolding understanding of where our aesthetic tastes overlap…

That is, as the yanks like to say, all good.

Steve Rodby interview from Bassist Mag, Aug 1999

Steve Rodby was, without a doubt, one of the nicest people I got to meet when writing for Bassist mag. Along with Michael Manring, Lee Sklar, Jimmy Haslip and a handful of others, he was one of the interviewees that inspired me as much by his personality, grace and enthusiasm as by his wise words and exceptional playing. His thoughts on soloing in this interview were particularly enlightening…

He’s also, bizarrely, one of the most underrated bassists on the planet. I’ve had the ‘who could replace Steve Rodby?’ conversations with loads of great bassists the world over, and no-one has yet suggested another player that does everything that Steve does as well as Steve does it in the Pat Metheny Group. His jazz upright playing is exemplary, his bowing beautiful, his rock and pop electric playing makes him sound like he’s spent the last 40 years studying nothing but great rock/pop bass playing. He’s a proper low-frequency master of all trades. So here’s the interview – again, frustratingly, it’s an edit of a very long and involved conversation that I wish I had transcribed… maybe I’ll have to start an ‘in conversation’ podcast – could be a fun project for NAMM… Anyway, have a read of this, then go and listen to any of the PMG albums that Steve plays on, and be amazed at what a great player he is. One thing to keep in mind is that when Richard Bona joined the PMG, he joined as a singer. That’s how good Steve is :o)

For 20 Years now The Pat Metheny Group has been one of the biggest selling acts on the contemporary jazz scene. It has consistently filled concert halls and arenas the world over, and produced a series of critically acclaimed albums that have touched on almost every imaginable area of contemporary music, from Latin to industrial, drum ‘n’ bass to avante garde and freeform improv.

Since 1982 Steve Rodby’s upright and electric bass grooves have driven the band’s sound, helping to define the style that is now instantly recognisable as the PMG.

Bassist collared Steve for the low down on all things Metheny-esque while they were in London earlier this year for three nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire.

SL – You started out as a Classical bassist, but made the switch to Jazz fairly early on. How did that come about?

‘I always thought I’d be a classical bassist. My father is a classical musician, so that seemed the obvious direction. I went to college to study, but I don’t think I was ever quite at the level where I would have landed a really good orchestral post.

‘Very early on I started playing pop. When I was in college I got a couple of calls for studio work and I took to those sessions extremely well. Because orchestra playing was kinda boring, I played this game with my self when I was a kid where I would imagine that there was a mic in front of my bass recording every note that I played and that someone was going to say “Rodby, come in here!” and then play the tape back and say “What were you doing there”'”

‘So when I finally got in the studio, it was a fairly stress free process as I’d been playing for imaginary tape recorders for years!!

‘I also started to play electric bass, and made the switch to playing pop easily as that’s the music I was listening to all the time.

‘I finished college got my degree in classical bass, but by half way through college I was playing fairly regularly on the Chicago jazz scene.

‘My big break came when the great bass player Rufus Reid, who played in the house band at the Jazz Showcase (prestigious Chicago jazz venue), moved to New York, so the gig was up for grabs. The owner of the club seemed to like the way I played, and I ended up playing five nights, three sets a night with all these amazing visiting musicians like Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Joe Henderson. The drummer in the house band had played with Charlie Parker and the pianists were all 30 years older than me and knew so much about music. And here I was this nerdy college kid with a classical background and all I had going for me was my ear and a feel!’

How did you learn all the tunes?

‘When I first started playing bass, my dad bought would play guitar and we would play duets. To teach me a song, he would write the roots notes and bar lines down, with no information about what else to play, so I had to improvise from the very beginning.

‘On the gigs, I was doing the same thing – following roots and knowing instinctively what the rest of the notes were. The piano players would play the first few choruses very clearly until I had it. I learned on the bandstand rather than in the practice room or out of books. I never really studied as much as I wish that I had.’

How did you first hook up with Pat?

‘I’d met Pat at various jazz camps when we were younger, and had stayed in touch. He was looking to add acoustic bass to his band and was auditioning players. My name came up so he called me and I went to NY and auditioned. Shortly after that he offered me the job.

‘When I met Pat I was an unformed nobody from small town Illinois, who didn’t even know what chords were, and he was already the future of music – he was 18 and had it all figured out. He was so far ahead of the game it was unbelievable. But when we played there was something about the style of the music that I felt that I could understand that I couldn’t account for – It may have been similar backgrounds and a shared love of pop music, the Beatles. It just made sense. I used to listen to the first couple of PMG albums and say to myself – ‘that’s my music’. It really was my dream group.’

Was it intimidating to work with Pat after the succession of great bassists that he’d already worked with?

‘Mmm, not really. The only thing that could have freaked me was Pat’s relationship with Jaco. Not only because he played with Jaco, but he REALLY played with Jaco. Bright Sized Life was one of the best records ever made. The next time I saw Pat after he met Jaco he said, “Oh man, I just heard a bass player that is going to change music. He sounds like John McLaughlin and John Coltrane only better – and on bass!!” – Pat doesn’t say stuff like that lightly!

‘Once I heard Jaco I just said “forget it, I’m not even going to try!” I was one of the few bassists on the planet who loved Pat and Weather Report but didn’t get a fretless and transcribe Jaco’s licks. I’ve never transcribed a bass solo in my life! Hearing Jaco also kept me away from playing fretless. So I thought if I’m going to do anything, I’ll play acoustic bass and I’ll play fretted pop style bass. Playing acoustic bass with Pat gave me a lot of freedom because what I was doing was different to what Mark Egan, Jaco or Charlie Haden had done. That’s my way of being able to sleep at night, otherwise I would have shot myself a long time ago!!’

How did the group develop such a distinctive sound?

‘In the early days of the band, I think we had a feeling that we had to do something different from other bands, so we had a load of do’s and don’ts – don’t do fusion, don’t have a back beat. And then we spent a lot of time avoiding music that may have sounded borrowed. But now we’ve finally got to the place were we can play Happy Birthday and it’ll sound like us. So we can now do a tune like the opening track on Imaginary Day that sounds sorta Chinese, maybe a bit like Gamalan Indonesian music, but it still sounds like us.’

Live, on the standard, ‘How Insensitive’, you take the first solo that I’ve heard you play. Is this a new area for you?

‘For years I took some really bad solos, and then we started doing this tune and I began applying myself to soloing again. That’s the next thing to think about. Not just soloing, but maybe making a solo record. I’ve spent so many years not paying any attention to it, but now that I’ve finally started to do my homework, I’ve found a real satisfaction. I’ve managed to get beyond the plateau that I was on. I’m moving forward as a soloist, so maybe now’s the time to do my own record.’

What have you been studying?

‘Well, I’ve finally begun to realise that at the technical level – playing melodies and chord scales, playing faster, higher – that you need to be able to do it 20 times faster than you’ll ever need to in a song! My problem was that the fastest the highest the hardest that I ever played was in this little solo during the gig. I was always trying to reach so far over my head and it didn’t really work.

‘So I realised that I had to put in the time, getting my technique up to speed. Same with the chord scales – there is a set of musical materials that you need to know – with this chord, this set of notes are your primary musical material – you can do other things, but you need that reference point.

‘These are the things that beginning sax or piano players learn very easily, but bass players don’t seem to take to so well. Fancy bass soloists tend to learn a bunch of hot licks but often don’t learn the fundamentals of music. So I’m finally taking the time to learn what the chords are and be able to play them at soloing speed!

‘A great bass solo has to be a high quality melody that would sound like a high quality melody if it was played on another instrument. You’d go, “well, it’s down kinda low on the piano, and he’s playing a little slow, but that’s a great melody!” Most bass solos on any other instrument would sound kinda weak.

‘I have a million miles to go, but that’s what I aspire to, that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 20 years. I’m sat up there playing for myself and for the audience but I’ve also got Pat and Lyle, two of the finest melodic improvisers around, sat right behind me! I’m not going to get a smile out of them by playing fast, but my playing good strong melodies.”

Pat Metheny on Steve Rodby:

When you’ve played with the most highly respected bassists on the planet, the must be something pretty special about the guys that you keep in your band for 15 years. Here’s what Pat has to say about Steve –

‘The kinds of things I need in any musician who is going to be in the group, regardless of their role in the band, is a certain musical insight that includes, but hopefully transcends, a deep sense of what has happened on their respective instrument, particularly over the past 60 or 70 years of popular and improvised music, combined with the musical skill and vocabulary to sonically render their conception of what just what that history implies into a personal sound. Steve Rodby has the ability to do just that and so much more, and that is what makes him the perfect bass player for this band. His background in classical music combined with his extensive jazz playing and studio work has made him an exceptionally well rounded player with a genuine musical curiosity that transcends style. His relentless pursuit of just the right part, played with just the right intonation and sound are well suited for the basic musical aesthetic that our band aspires toward.’

Friday Random 10

Here’s today’s list…

Cathy Burton – Speed Your Love (need to get her new album soon)
Tom Waits – Ol’ 55 (what a FANTASTIC song! Not heard this for a while…)
Pat Metheny Group – Second Thought (from Quartet)
Hinda Hicks – If You Want Me (bit of a shock after the last tune! Don’t trust iTunes to generate radio playlists for you…)
Jaco Pastorius – Continuum (now THIS would’ve followed the PMG track perfectly… bloody iTunes)
John Martyn – Looking On (from the double version of Live At Leeds, and this clearly isn’t from the Leeds gig)
Paul Simon – Sure Don’t Feel Like Love (apparently he’s at Wembley soon – will have to find out about tickets…)
Gillian Welch – I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll
Iain Archer – Soul Cries
Evelyn Glennie – Battle Cry (Bonus Mix) (From the album Shadow Behind The Iron Sun, which is incredible – get it!)

another interesting mix of stuffs…

Friday Random 10 on saturday…

a day late…

1. Pigs, Sheep and Wolves – Paul Simon
2. Part IV – Mark Isham (from Tibet)
3. Just For Now – Imogen Heap (sadly not a live version – this was the single greatest live looped performance I’ve EVER seen when I saw her do it in London and Brighton)
4. Rain – Iain Archer
5. Little More Time With You – James Taylor
6. Making Flippy Floppy – Talking Heads
7. Off The Wall – Michael Jackson
8. Creeper – Gary Peacock and Ralph Towner
9. Meanwhile – Art Lande/Jan Gabarek
10. I Will Find The Way – Pat Metheny

…now that’s a compilation I’d buy!!

Friday random 10…

seems to be a bit of an online tradition to post a random playlist generated by your iTunes or whatever on a Friday. ‘Til now, there hasn’t been much point for me, as I didn’t have enough stuff to do it with. But now that I’ve got the new harddrive, and am furiously copying CDs across, it’ll be a little better –

1- Steve Lawson, No More Us And Them (seriously, it’s not a fix!)
2 – Charlie Haden/Pat Metheny, Tears Of Rain
3 – U2, Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World
4 – Paul Simon, Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears
5 – Steve Lawson, Here Endeth The Lesson (again, it’s what actually came up!)
6 – The Works, Meeting Place
7 – James Taylor, Line Em All Up
8 – Mary Chapin Carpenter, I’ll Take My Chances
9 – Jeff Buckley, Corpus Christi Carol
10 – Lleuwen Steffan, Gwahoddiad

there you go!


Death of a legend

I don’t know too many of the details at the moment, but I’ve just read on another list that the great free improv pioneer Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day. I never met Derek, and the only gig of his I ever saw was a huge disappointment, but we have lots of friends in common, and his influence on the free improv world is hard to put into words. A phenomenal free thinking musician, who went from dance band side man to possibly the most abrasive sounding guitarist the world has ever seen. Uncompromising and hugely skilled, but willing to apply his notion of ‘ad-hoc musical experiences’ to his playing life even when he reached the point where his fame was so great that he recorded a record with Pat Metheny.

His book on Improvisation is a great read too – I learned a heck of a lot from that.

Rest in peace, Derek, you’ll be sorely missed.

"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’

destroying all musical boundaries

A student turned up yesterday morning having been working on Jaco‘s arrangement of ‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles. He was making rather a nice job of it, but one of the things I often witter on about in lessons is the notion of active and passive learning – passive learning being just the copying by rote of a particular piece of music (or scale or interval study, or whatever) without taking it any further. Active learning would pull it apart into its various musical components, why does it work, what are the chords, how can I take that style of arrangement and apply it to other tunes, are there any new techniques that come up in this piece that I can absorb into my playing, and how else can I play this same tune?

In answering this last question, whenever anyone is doing this tune (it’s a standard for bassists to have a go at), I play them Bobby McFerrin‘s solo voice arrangement of the same tune, from his album ‘The Voice’. Which happens to be one of the greatest solo performer recordings of all time. The lovely thing about it is that conceptually it rips the roof off of what’s possible on any instrument – if one man can do all that with one unprocessed voice, how much more can I do with my bass than I am currently doing? What kind of leaps of logic, what kind of seemingly insane musical experiments have lead to Bobby being able to perform like that? It’s clearly not a style that one stumbles into, and I’ve no doubt that his arrangement of Blackbird took months and months to perfect, though he makes it sound so effortless on the CD.

If I were to draw up a list of most inspirational recordings for solo performers, this would be right up there at the top.

Oh go on then, here’s my top some, in no particular order –

Bobby McFerrin – The Voice
Don Ross – Passion Session
Michael Manring – Soliloquy
Kaki King – Legs To Makes Us Longer
Eric Roche – With These Hands
Pat Metheny – One Quiet Night
Keith Jarrett – Scala

a lot of these are solo acoustic guitar records, which I guess just reflects the fact that more people are experimenting with interesting music on solo guitar than on other instruments… or at least, I’ve been exposed to more solo guitar music than anything else…

Any others to add to the list? Stick ’em in the comments section at the bottom.

When I’m working towards a new album (as I am at the moment) I tend to ‘use’ music in a more knowing way than at any other time – I put things on to consciously take me out of my comfort zone, to re-orient my ears towards another space, to offer up possibilities for my own playing. I’m very much at the mercy of the things I listen to. in the last lot of recording I did, I recorded tracks that were heavily influenced by Morphine (the band, not the drug), M83 and Eric Roche. Bobby’s music takes me into another space altogether.

Soundtrack – Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Voice’.

So, I'm number one in the charts!

Sadly not some kind of national sales chart, but an airplay chart for a show on WWSP in Steven’s Point, WI, hosted by BEAR – BEAR has been very supportive of my music for a long time, playing loads of it on his show over the years. Sadly you can’t stream it on line (at least, I’ve never found a stream), but it’s great to know he’s playing it!

Thanks, BEAR!

Soundtrack – Pat Metheny, ‘Bright Size Life’; Julie Lee, ‘Stillhouse Road’; Ethel, ‘Ethel’.

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