Music Plans for 2010

2009 was a fairly easy-going year, music-wise for Lobelia and I. We played a load of US shows in January, and a handful of other shows across the year, but it was mainly pretty low-key stuff.

Gigs:

2010 is already shaping up to be a much more musically-focussed year. I’m in the process of booking some solo house-concerts for the end of March/Beginning of April – the open dates are

  • March 29th (near Birmingham),
  • 31st (near Exeter) and
  • April 1st (near Swindon) –
  • the 30th already has a gig booked in Southampton (more details ASAP).

If you want to host a house-gig on any of those dates, and are near (or between) those places, please drop me a line.

Then Lo and I are doing some duo shows at the beginning of May – on the 6th we’re in Leeds and the 8th in Surrey (more deets soon) – if you’re anywhere between those two, we’d be happy to come and play on the 7th, or either side of those dates. Do drop us a line.

And at the end of May we go out to the US, mainly to take Flapjack to meet the family, but we’ll be doing some house concerts and ‘house consulting’ as well – if you’re interested in hosting something (or putting us in touch with a music school/university) please drop us a line.

Recording:

It’s now nearly 4 years since I released Behind Every Word, and while it’s currently selling REALLY well thanks to Bandcamp’s wonderful download sales platform, it really is time for a new album. So I’ll be working on that very soon – just need to get the tech side worked out. Hopefully will have that available for the US shows.

In a couple of weeks time, I’m going into a studio for a day with Mike Outram – guitar-monkey extraordinaire. No idea what we’ll come up with, but if its releasable, that’ll be out sometime soonish as well.

And then there’s the archive – I’ve got a whole load of fascinating music languishing on hard-drives. There’s a duo album with Italian guitarist Luca Formentini, a strange-yet-beautiful experimental duo album with free improv trumpeter Jeff Kaiser, a quartet live recording with Jeff, saxophonist Andrew Pask and bassist Steuart Liebig. (that last one is really interesting cos I thought the gig had gone pretty badly, then listened to the recording and really liked it 🙂 )

And there’s also a double album’s worth of live stuff with Theo Travis, recorded on the tour we did after For The Love Of Open Spaces came out. That really needs to be heard. So maybe I should work on that first.

Suffice to say, there’ll be lots of cool music from me this year, if something else doesn’t get in the way.

For now, here’s the album with Theo Travis – have a listen, and then pay whatever you like for it if you want to download it.

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.”

More Music Video – New Public Beta experiments + Duo with Theo Travis

picture of some old book, by Steve LawsonHere are the latest couple of videos I’ve put up. The first is another of the experimental ideas I’m working on for the new album – this time I wanted to try something a little more solidly rhythmic, just to see how the replace functions interact with a percussive track. (the part is played by muting all the strings, and then using a ‘double thumb’ technique, more readily associated with slap bass, to get the percussive pattern).

Continue reading “More Music Video – New Public Beta experiments + Duo with Theo Travis”

Getting the ingredients right: thoughts on Improvisation

Sunday’s gig with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds went very well – thanks to those of you who came along. The venue, The Brickhouse on Brick Lane in East London, was suitably strange – on three levels (ground floor and two balconies, the top one had beds on it!) and amazing food, and we had to get them to move the stage away so we’d have room to set up all our toys.

For those of you just catching up, the Dodds/Lawson/Wood trio is a project spawned by my Recycle Collective venture – when it’s running, it’s a monthly music night, featuring amazing improvising musicians spontaneously composing in different combinations. Quite a few of the combinations I assembled for it are planned to become ‘bands’ of one sort or another, but many of the musicians involved are so busy that it’ll be years before it happens.

However, the trio with Roy and Patrick is one that was so good we’ve all made it our priority. I’ve been playing with Patrick for years (he played at the first ever ‘proto-recycle’ improv gig at Greenbelt in 2005), and have been listening to Roy play with other people for just as long, particularly in Theo Travis’ band.

We did a Recycle gig at Darbucka in October last year, and then went into the studio in early December to record in the same way – just set up and start playing. Since then we’ve been mixing and editing the improvs (which has been interesting for me, as I usually don’t edit) and have come up with a record that we’re all really proud of (more news on that ASAP).

So Sunday was only the third time we’ve all played together, but the musical chemistry is amazing.

And that, for me, is what improv is all about – the ‘composition’ part is just choosing the right players. At its best it’s about getting musicians together who respect each other so much that they never feel like going with someone else’s idea is a bad thing. Musician who listen more than they shred, whose default position is deferential. It means that the music tends to evolve slowly as each new ingredient is added and the the others react to it.

So I may start with a groove, or some spacey ambience, or patrick may lay out some kind of harmonic territory on guitar or keys, and then the others react to it and the initial idea is modified, developed, morphed into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Every time I sit down at the start of an all improv gig I wonder if we’ll have run out of ideas, if we’ll get 20 mins into the gig and just start playing a 12-bar blues or something.

One of the things on Sunday that triggered these thoughts was when the DJ who was hosting the day said he’d play a few more record and then we could ‘get up and jam’ – I was really taken aback, as I’ve never thought of this as ‘jamming’ at all.. it’s a whole other headspace to the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach that defines most ‘jamming’. It’s spontaneous composition, acknowledging that each of us as an acutely refined sense of what’s ‘good’ even when nothing is laid down to define what’s ‘right’. It’s not about finding some simple changes we can stumble through to make ourselves feel better, it’s about exploring our shared music worlds to find music that otherwise wouldn’t exisit, about listening, reacting and trying to add to what the others are bringing. This is 300% music – it’s 100% Patrick, 100% Roy and 100% me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt, playing with these guys, that my own musical vision is in anyway compromised or stunted, but I frequently feel my own playing elevated by the genius, sensitivity and creativity of the other two. We never have to ask the others to do something specific, as we each recognise that we are the masters or our own musical discipline – I know what ‘steve lawson music’ should sound like better than anyone else on the planet, and likewise Roy and Patrick. If I start telling Patrick what to play, it assumes that I know more about what he does that he knows. That’s insane.

There is, however, a deeply psychological streak running through all this, in that it takes a while to develop that kind of deep trust, to develop the ‘abandonment to the moment’ and to foster to confidence required to take the music where YOU feel it should go. With Patrick, this is part of a 6 or 7 year improvising relationship – when we first got together to play, he was rather puzzled by the idea that I didn’t want to play written songs, that I didn’t want to discuss keys and stuff, but just wanted to play. But the fruits of it is where we are now, exploring this unique shared musical space that the three of us occupy.

I’m really excited about the future of this trio, and the record release. With this, my solo stuff, the duo with Lobelia and Open Sky, I feel like I’ve got such a rich portfolio of music to work on, and feel really blessed to have the opportunity to explore the respective styles and approaches of the projects.

Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Thoughts on composition and improvisation

Went out for dinner last night with the ever-wonderful Theo Travis. Not only is Theo one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the good fortune to play with, but he’s a really inspiring person to spend time with, and I always come away with all kinds of new thoughts and inspiration whenever we hang out.

One of things we were talking about last night was improvisation. Theo made a couple of great observations; the first was about how lazy it is of reviewers to think that the highest praise you can give an improv record is that it’s ‘so good is sounds composed’. His second was that whenever you see a ‘what I’m listening to’ list from the titans of jazz, it’s almost invariably ‘classical’ (orchestral/chamber works) music that they are listening to.

Which sparked off a series of thoughts in me about structure in improvised music – the first point about reviewers is an important one, because it presupposes that the best structure and form comes for writing and refining rather than reacting. The record I recorded with Theo is, IMO, way better than it would have been if we’d composed it. The structures are too complex to be writable, the interaction between us way too intuitive to have been conceived of abstracted from us playing and reacting… There are things in it that felt wrong to one or other of us as we played them but turned out to be fantastic.

And to hammer the point home, every track on the album is a first take. There is somewhere a second take of every track, and none of them had the magic of the first takes. When we tried to turn them into ‘songs’ they lost something.

So onto the ‘top jazzers listen to classical music’ – I think this too is a matter of structure. I think it was Daniel Barenboim (might not have been, but it sounds like something he’d say) who said that ‘the best composed music sounds improvised and the best improvisations sound composed’ – meaning that in a composition one is hoping to inject the feeling that the performer is playing it because it’s the best possible thing to play right at that moment, not that they are settling for the shit that’s on the page cos that’s their job. There wants to be a relationship between the various parts that feels like it’s happening right there, like those lines are so meant to go together that all the players must be sharing a brain and thinking it up together…

Likewise, with an improvisation, the feeling that it’s the best you could possibly come up with even if you sat and edited it, that the strands running through it grow and evolve in the way you want them to, that the performer is in control of saying exactly what needs to be said with the most amazing level of skill – that’s what we’re aiming for.

So it stands to reason that great improvisors would spend time absorbing forms and structures and arrangements and ideas from the masters of form and structure – composers.

For the last couple of days I’ve been ‘rinsing’ Bartok’s string quartets nos. 1, 3 & 5. The music is so so beautiful, so deep and complex, and at times incredibly dark and dissonant but never without shape and form and beauty. It’s remarkable stuff, and I’m just letting it soak in and seeing what happens. I may end up having to get a book on Bartok, to try and get inside some of the harmonic ideas, but we’ll see how far I get by osmosis…

Video of Theo Travis' Double Talk live…

The very marvellous Theo Travis has just posted a couple of videos of his ‘Double Talk’ quartet on youtube – here’s one, and the second one is the top related link on there if you want to check it out. It’s great stuff and features the fabulous Roy Dodds on drums, and lots of lovely sax and flute loopage…

Forgotten Gems…

Was just browsing around the pages of my ‘top friends’ on Myspace, and on a whim started playing the tunes that are on the Recycle Collective page – just in case you’ve only just found this site, the Recycle Collective is a semi-regular improv night that I run in London with a revolving cast of characters that has produced some of the most incredible music I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of…

Anyway, I’d forgotten just how lovely the tunes are that are up on the RC page – go here to have a listen – the first one, Dido’s Lament is with Andrea Hazell, and is particularly interesting as for big chunks of it when I tried to loop her voice, all I managed to loop was the reverb on her voice, which makes it all the more ghostly…

The second track is an improv duet with Cleveland Watkiss, the first thing we ever played together, and has a sort of Gregorian chant-ish harmony to it.

Track three is with Theo Travis, and is an improv track from a gig we did in Cambridge, that will eventually end up on a live album somewhere!

The last track features Cleveland again, and Julie McKee – all good stuff!

So head over there, enjoy, and look out for more RC gigs coming up soon!

End of year eMusic round-up…

So, end of December, time for everyone to do their end of 2007 best music lists… I’m just going to offer the stuff I got off eMusic, and a few of them were released in 2006 even though I didn’t get them til 2007 – with the way digital releases go, things released on CD one year might not end up being available for download until early in the next year anyway, so there’s a little ambiguity about what a ‘release date’ is these days…

Draw Breath – Nels Cline Singers – LA-based avant guitarist keeps on melding ‘out’ weirdness with amazing tunes. This new one is no exception.

Line By Line – John Patitucci – John continues to grow as both a composer and player on this beautiful guitar-led album of introspective jazz and beautiful chamber music. My favourites of his since One More Angel.

Double Talk – Theo Travis – push comes to shove, probably my favourite album of the year. Theo just gets better and better, and here his band are just amazing. It’s no wonder he’s so in demand right now… Look out for our duo live album some time in the next 12 months….

Shine – Joni Mitchell – seems like a very personal record, much smaller in scope than anything she’s done for years, a beautifully understated return to the recording world. Now let’s hope she tours…

The Antisocial Club – Alan Pasqua – anyone savvy enough to put Jimmy Haslip and Nels Cline on the same record HAS to have it going on. A beautiful album of spikey post-miles jazz, and the kind of project that Jimmy excels at, even though people don’t think of him as an out player…

You’ve Got To Laugh – Nik Kershaw – when are people going to wake up and realise that he’s one of the finest songwriters of the last 25 years – how long can one man’s reputation be defined by his mullet of two decades ago?

Sermon On Exposition Boulevard – Rickie Lee Jones – mad freewheeling gospel album, sounds unlike anyone else that I can think of. In a good way.

These Friends Of Mine – Rosie Thomas – really a trio record with Sufjan Stevens and the wonderful Denison Witmer, Rosie’s yet to record a bad song, let along a bad album. Now when is Sheila’s first album coming out?

Rock Garden – Ty Tabor – Ty finally allows himself to really rock out without the rest of King’s X.

Strange Conversation – Kris Delmhorst – as with everything she does, it’s full of great tunes and great words.

there you go, no Radiohead, no Britney, no Arctic Monkeys, no… whatever, you can go and read about their tedious nonsense elsewhere… :o)

Recycle Collective gig, Tuesday 30th…

(this is cross-posted from my mailing list – thanks to the lap-top problems I’ve been really slow to send out info about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig, so am putting the word around as much as I can today, giving you the chance to make a last minute decision to come and spend the evening listening to marvellous music in the gorgeous surroundings of Darbucka…)

Sorry for lack of communication over recent gigs (if you have a look at www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml you might see some stuff that you’ve missed) – broken laptop has messed up my web-life all round… all the more reason to subscribe to the gig RSS Feed on that page… :o)

But anyway, this is really a reminder about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig at Darbucka in Clerkenwell, London – www.darbucka.com is their website.

The line-up is me on bass and loopage, Patrick Wood on keys and Roy Dodds on drums. This is a bit of a dream line-up for me, as I’ve been a fan of Roy’s drumming since his days with Fairground Attraction (yup, that was him on ‘Perfect’) through to his beautiful playing on Theo Travis‘ new ‘Double Talk’ album. And Patrick is a regular at Recycle gigs, having played with us at Greenbelt this year, and is never less than amazing – melodic, funky, inventive; the ideal improvised music collaborator! :o)

So PLEASE come down – it’s only £6 to get in, and Darbucka does fabulous food either upstairs in the restaurant beforehand, or while you’re sitting listening to gorgeous music!

Music starts at 8pm – www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml – head there for a link to a map for where Darbucka is. The address is 182 St John Street, London EC1V 4JZ and the nearest tube is Farringdon, and we’ll aim to finish in time for you to get the last tube home! Music starts at 8pm.

thanks – please check out the gig calendar for more dates and my blog for more on what I’ve been up to. Hope to see you soon,

take care

Steve
www.stevelawson.net
www.recyclecollective.com
steve.anthropiccollective.org
www.last.fm/music/Steve+Lawson