Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Under The Influence

I recently read a very interesting interview with Brad Mehldau, via Peter Hum, where Brad, in discussing his influences, makes the following very good point:

“In terms of influence, one discourse that's curiously non-existent over players of my generation is: how we are influenced by our musical peers -- the living breathing people we are actively playing with and listening to now, players of our own generation.”

This is absolutely true – the questions most often asked by jazz journalists and casual listeners, (probably because it’s a relatively easy question to ask and demands little research or proof to back-up), when discussing a young or young-ish, (anyone under 40 seems to be described as ‘young’ there days.......), musician is: ‘who does he/she sound like?’. And by extension who are they influenced by? What they (the journalist or listener) are listening for is some kind of surface idiomatic similarity between the person they’re discussing and the playing of some other musician whose playing they’re familiar with. ‘His playing bears the discernible influence of X’, or ‘she’s clearly been listening to Y’, or ‘the music sounds like the mid-period recordings of Z’. It’s an easy game to play and doesn’t require much effort on the part of the writer or listener – hear a phrase or two you’ve heard in the playing of somebody else and then make a blanket statement outlining the clear influence of same.

But the point Brad makes is an important one - you are not only influenced by the people you’ve listened to, you are also influenced by the people you play with. I would venture to suggest that the people you play with are far more influential on you than any player you’ve only heard on record or seen live but have never actually been with. Because being with other musicians goes beyond the actual playing time, it also includes the hours you spend with them not playing - the travelling, and hanging and the endless discussions about music and life that are an inseparable part of being a working jazz musician. All of these things can help to shape your outlook on music in a way that goes way beyond the mere playing of your instrument.

As a bassist, a saxophone player telling me what they listen for in bass playing, or suggesting something they think might work in the music we’re playing, might make a big difference to how I think about the piece and may have a big influence on how I play it. That can also be true for the music as a whole – sometimes somebody can say something to you, (not necessarily a player of the same instrument as you) which can change your entire approach to the kind of music under discussion, or even the totality of how you think about music. I’ve had several of those what I call ‘light bulb moments’, where another musician has said something to me – often casually – that has completely changed how I think about something. These are huge influences, and go way beyond which bassist I was listening to when I was younger.

And there can be other influences too. Seeing Woody Shaw at the Village Vanguard and Elvin Jones in Ronnie Scott’s, both when I was in my early 20s, had a profound influence on me. I can honestly say that my approach to music completely changed after seeing them play, and my playing changed, but not in any way that could be discerned by a casual listener. These were fundamental core influences for me that went beyond the playing of the bass and into the music I wanted to play and how I wanted to play it.

And then there’s the influence of playing. This is the point that Brad makes – how we’re influenced by the people we’re playing with. This is by far the most important influence you can have in my opinion. Your first-hand experiences on the bandstand are far more influential on your playing than any second-hand experience you can have by listening to a CD or going to a gig – no matter how great those may be. For myself, I learned different things from different people – and most of it from playing situations rather than being taught formally.

In fact my formal jazz education is limited to two 3-week stints at the Banff Centre in Canada in the mid-80s, where I met many of my peers with whom I stayed in touch and later played with (Simon Nabatov, Andy Laster, Owen Howard, Tanya Kalmanovitch among others), which of itself was very valuable to me. But another reason Banff was hugely influential on me was because it put me in personal contact with Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Kenny Wheeler and Steve Coleman

The opportunity to study with Dave Holland was invaluable to me – he’d always been a favourite of mine and to spend six weeks in all in his company, listening to him play, teach, and talk about playing was really game changing as far as my playing was concerned.

With Steve I was introduced to a whole new world of music – everything was new with him – rhythm, harmony, melody – it was simply the opening of a new universe in terms of conception and had a profound impact on me. I spent a lot of time hanging with him and talking and we’ve stayed in touch ever since either by email or in person and he remains a huge influence on me. I never played in his band, but we’ve played in several informal sessions, (and I did a recording with him in NY that was never released) – and all of these playing experiences were important ones for me too.

NB I will be posting an interview with Steve on the subject of rhythm very soon.

The contact I made with Dave Liebman in Banff went on to become one of the most important influences in my musical life – more on this below, and more on Kenny Wheeler.

So those ‘formal’ education experiences were important to me, but really I’ve been mostly shaped by playing, both with older musicians and with my peers. I’ve been lucky enough to play with a lot of older, more experienced musicians - in a way I did a kind of apprenticeship that would be familiar to musicians of an earlier era. I was lucky enough to come in on the tail end of that system and it really formed the basis of my education in music – on the job training. And I can look back and pinpoint particular aspects of music that I was exposed to by specific musicians, and that influenced me hugely.

My first, and a huge playing influence, was with the Irish guitarist Louis Stewart. I began playing with him in 1979 and I freely admit I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing at that point! My theory and harmony knowledge was pretty much nil, (though I’d been raised listening to jazz and so was familiar with the music and innately through that, with song form), and then suddenly there I was playing with a master of voice leading, of bebop, of swing – someone who was at the height of his powers. Louis was the first Irish jazz musician to have an international reputation and career and to be exposed to that level of playing and experience at that point in my development was a huge thing for me. I was forced to improve and try and keep up – this was a real bebop environment – almost no originals, no Real Book, no charts, just tunes – which you were supposed to know. I scrambled to keep up but in the process learned lots of tunes, began to understand harmony and learned how to play off instinct when all else failed. Some videos from that time have surfaced on Youtube recently – and here’s one of a very gauche 21 year old me at the Cork Jazz Festival, hanging onto Louis’ coat tails as he tears through Morning of the Carnival.

At that time I was also involved with a trio with the drummer from that clip, the late great John Wadham, and another great Irish guitar player (with whom I still often play), Tommy Halferty. That was a very adventurous group for its time, and we played original compositions and also played free (heresy on the Irish scene at the time!) and it was my first exposure to a milieu where pretty much anything went. We also played some of the fastest tempos I have ever played and this was great for getting my chops in shape!

After that I played a lot on the Irish scene and in subsequent years began playing with international musicians and I learned something from all of those situations, but there were a few that influenced me hugely for various reasons:

From playing with Sonny Fortune I learned about stamina! Sonny is a product of the 1960s NY jazz scene and musically he came up just at the end of that decade and he saw Coltrane many times (I remember him telling me about a conversation he had with Trane), played with McCoy and Elvin, as well as with Miles, (‘Agharta"), and many others. And he was definitely an energy player who emerged in the era of the long solo. I played with him quite a lot at the end of the 1980s and playing with Sonny you had to learn how to both pace yourself AND play with high energy and intensity. When Sonny called ‘Invitation’ you knew you were in for the long haul – Sonny loved to stretch on that tune (in fact on most tunes.....) and as a rhythm section you’d better be giving him the energy he wants!

From the drummer Steve Argüelles I learned about spontaneity and really being in the moment with no predetermined strategies for any particular piece. I played in a trio with Steve and the English altoist Martin Speake for about two years and Steve really opened me up to a lot of stuff, especially the idea of not necessarily playing anything the same way twice. It was in this group too that I first got to play Ornette’s music and where a lot of the repertoire was comprised of open form pieces, and I had to learn how to deal with that in a convincing way. Coming from a more conventional background this wasn't easy for me at first, and Steve really opened me up to new ways of thinking about playing improvised music. I learned a lot about all sorts of things from playing over a 20 year period with Steve’s brother Julian too – a great musician and a good friend

Simon Nabatov really influenced me in terms of thinking about music in a conceptual way. Simon is very strong on structure and the importance of being aware of the philosophy underpinning what you do as an improvising musician. Many hours on the bandstand with Simon (who is also of course an incredible pianist), and even more hours talking and hanging had a profound influence on how I think about certain aspects of music.

Another very important person for me was the Indian percussionist Ramesh Shotham. At a time when I was really trying to develop my rhythmic vocabulary Ramesh explained the technicalities of South Indian classical rhythmic techniques to me. He hooked me up with many Indian musicians, and we played together with the Karnataka College of Percussion and Charlie Mariano and many others, both in Europe and in India. Without Ramesh’s influence my rhythmic knowledge wouldn’t be anything like what it is now.

Playing with Kenny Wheeler really taught me how to negotiate complex harmonies while being lyrical at the same time. Kenny’s tunes are of course some of the most exquisite pieces in contemporary jazz, but are also extremely challenging to play. I had to work really hard in the practice room to learn how to navigate through the changes of some of those pieces, and to play his music with him was an education in itself.

Where to start on the influence playing with Dave Liebman has had on me.........? I’ve learned so much from him that it’s hard to narrow it down, but some of the most important things I’ve learned from him would include DRAMA! I remember him saying to the band before one of first gigs we did with him, in that classic Lieb straight-to-the-point way - ‘When we play I want drama – I don’t want any of that boring, in-the-middle-shit!’. I learned about the importance of programming a set effectively – how to best do that. How to balance discipline with spontaneity – the importance of keeping everything fresh. And, like with Sonny Fortune (whose musical background is similar in some ways – Miles, Elvin etc.) to be able to play with real intensity ALL the time! The countless musical discussions I’ve had with Lieb over the years - on the road, in restaurants, bars, clubs, planes, hanging out – has really helped shape me in terms of how I think about music.

This clip is taken from a gig with Lieb in the 55 Bar in NY with myself and Jim Black – the picture quality is not good, but the music gives an example of the importance that Lieb places on drama, energy and spontaneity.

But although I’ve learned so much from playing with these great international musicians, there’s something about playing with your contemporaries that feels different to any other playing situation, and since you do that more often than you do playing with visiting musicians, or being on the road with occasional projects, it has a far bigger effect on you than pretty much anything else.

By far the longest playing association I’ve had was with the Guilfoyle/Nielsen trio – with Mike Nielsen on guitar, and my brother Conor on drums. Over a fifteen year period we played together on innumerable occasions, either as a trio or as a rhythm section. In one particularly intense five-year period we developed a very forward thinking approach to expanding our rhythmic language which culminated in me writing my Rhythm Book which is still in print, and us recording our (hardly surprisingly) unreleased ‘Fucked-Up Classics’ album in 1993, featuring a whole album of standards played in Odd Metres. I’ve written about the trio elsewhere and you can download the album Here. But really the time spent with Mike and Conor either working as a trio or as a rhythm section accompanying a myriad of great players (Lieb, Sonny Fortune, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Joe Lovano, Larry Coryell, Pat LaBarbera, Conrad Herwig etc.) had by far a bigger influence on my development as a musician than any other single thing, and far exceeds any influence I may have gleaned from listening to records or seeing gigs. The years of talking and experimenting, of developing ideas together and working on them had an incalculable influence on how I play and how I think as a creative musician.

So, influence is not (or definitely shouldn’t be!) just about who you listen to on your own instrument and who you most admire – it’s about ideas and experience, concepts and compositions, mentors and role models, exemplars and experiences. We are not just products of narrow instrumental concerns - loose clones of who we listen to on recordings - but are guided by the totality of our experience in music. Influence is not a simple thing, it, like the music, is a complex mixture of things - at any moment our music reflects not only who we've listened to, but also where we've been, who we've been with and who we are.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Road - Hong Kong and Japan - Addendum

To give a little musical context to my recent travel blog, Pekka Pylkkanen, the leader of the band that I went to Hong Kong and Japan with recently, has posted a Video from the Hong Kong concert. I really had fun playing and travelling with these guys!

Pekka Pylkkanen - alto
George Contrafouris - piano
RG - bass
Carlos Ezequiel

MSG's new CD out at last!

MSG - Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto), Chander Sardjoe(drums) and myself have just released our first CD on the Plus Loin label. We've been together for 4 years now and play whenever the Rubik's Cube of our three schedules can be reconciled! The CD is very representative of what we do and it's great to have it out at last!

I don't think it's been released in the US yet, but it's available in Europe and you can buy it Here

For a taste of what we do, here's a typical live performance by the band featuring one of the pieces we don't do on the CD - Rudresh's 'Enhanced Performance'

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Music for Soprano Sax and String Quartet

It's a a pleasant surprise to accidentally stumble across a performance of your work that you didn't know had been done. In this case it was on Youtube and was a performance by a Polish group of the first movement of my 'Music for Soprano Sax and String Quartet', which I wrote for Dave Liebman in 1998. I think this piece is a good companion to the blog post I wrote about string writing in jazz, involving as it does a lot of the issues I discussed in that article.

The performers here are Andrzej Olejniczak & Apertus String Quartet. I knew Andrzej via email and I knew he'd performed the piece in Spain, but I didn't know about this performance or recording. They play the piece very well too and so it was a nice piece of Serendipity for a Sunday morning................

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

There's Something about Elvin.........

This is actually my second post on Elvin – I also interviewed Dave Liebman about his time with Elvin, if you’re interested, you can see it Here)

I recently had a Coltrane blow-out. Watched all of the great ‘Jazz Icons’ DVD from start to finish, listened to ‘Transition’ which for me, (at least the track ’Transition’ itself), is even greater than Love Supreme in terms of the depths it reaches) and a few other things. If ever there was such a thing as a ‘perfect’ band in jazz the Coltrane Quartet could be said to be it. They were like a monolith, once Garrison joined the band they were no longer in the act of becoming something, they just were. When I listen to the Miles Quintet of this period – the other incredibly influential band in the mid-60s – I get a sense of the band changing and evolving all the time. With Coltrane’s band there’s a feeling of everything being perfect as soon as the final personnel of the ‘classic’ quartet is in place. Of course the band did evolve and Coltrane in particular constantly explored every aspect of his playing, but nevertheless there is a sense of certainty, and a homogeneity about the group sound that’s different to the Miles band in the sense that the ensemble sound you hear on the recordings from 1963 is very similar to the one you hear in ‘65, just before the group broke up. It’s as if they found the ideal vehicle for their creativity early on and it didn’t need to change after that, it just got deeper and deeper

And as so often happens to me when I’m listening to that band I found myself listening as much to Elvin as I do Coltrane.................

As far as I’m concerned, and I know this is a ridiculous statement to make, but I’m going to do it anyway, Elvin is THE jazz drummer. Big words, as a friend of mine would say, but for me he represents the art of jazz drumming in its most complete form. The combination of innovation, tradition, mighty swing allied to incredible virtuosity and the sheer depth of his playing puts him on a level that few jazz musicians on any instrument have ever reached. He was a genius. That word is bandied about far too freely these days in all kinds of contexts, (I saw Lady GaGa referred to as a genius recently – sigh..............), but I think Elvin did represent that word perfectly. What he did was beyond even the exceptionally good – it was in a league of its own and to listen to him play at his best is to hear something that is ultimately beyond the explainable.

Yes, the details of the playing can be explained – the polyrhythmic juggling, the giant triplet that hovers over everything he does etc. - but how he came up with this concept in the first place, how he put these elements together, and then made them swing SO much, is unexplainable. And then there’s the conviction........... when he plays, what you’re hearing is certainty – his playing is of an intensity and power that brooks no argument. It says THIS is where it’s at, there can be no other option. It’s this combination of emotional and physical power, innovation, swing, and virtuosity that marks him out above all others for me, on an intellectual level at least. And on an emotional level (and I admit this is completely subjective) his feel just does more for me than anyone else’s.

And what a feel that is! His beat has this slightly behind feeling that seems at times to defy logic in terms of how he manages to propel the music forward while playing behind. I remember talking to Tom Rainey about this one time, and Tom made the additional point that when you see Elvin playing, what you see is often not what you hear – he seems to play, at least visually, almost in slow motion sometimes, yet what you’re hearing can be incredibly busy and active. Tom said Elvin seemed to have the ability to almost suspend the laws of physics and movement when he played, and I know exactly what he meant. Even on fast tempos, when Elvin hits that big ‘1’ at the beginning of a new section, it’s a split second behind where others would play it and this creates a spaciousness about the time feel that both allows the music to breathe while at the same time making it swing even more. Watch Elvin playing here with Coltrane on ‘Impressions’ and check out that almost imperceptible pause before the ‘1’ is struck – that tiny little micro-second gives the music so much space – it’s the art of ‘back-of-the-beat’, even at this tempo

Of course the other thing that’s noticeable on this piece is the polyrhythmic activity that churns underneath the music at all times (check out the snare drum triplet on the bridge of the 3rd chorus of Dolphy’s solo!). A lot of discussion of Elvin’s polyrhythmic style focuses on the stuff he plays on the drums, but in my opinion Elvin’s whole polyrhythmic thing starts with the cymbal. That cymbal beat just changes all the time – it’s no longer the traditional Spang-Spang-A-Lang beat, but an endlessly moving tattoo around which all the other drums revolve. It’s the power of this cymbal beat that gives Elvin’s playing the incredible swing feel that it has – somehow by varying the traditional swinging pattern he makes it swing even more. Of his contemporaries, Roy Haynes was the only other drummer who had this varying ride cymbal beat (it’s no surprise that when Elvin wasn’t available Coltrane used Haynes if he could get him), but he has a very different feel – more edgy and definitely lighter.

Haynes of course is a very interesting drummer since he not only was (and is!) a great drummer in his own right, he strongly influenced the other drummer who changed the way the instrument was played and conceived of in the 1960s – Tony Williams. Williams and Elvin completely changed the role and concept of how drums could or should be played in the core repertoire of the jazz tradition, but their playing couldn’t be more different. Williams' playing is front-of-the-beat edgy, with a tight cymbal beat, and with a crisp explosiveness about it. Elvin is back-of-the-beat and utilises a kind of relentless polyrhythmic approach rather than than Tony’s explosive thing.

But despite the fact that both changed the way drums are played in contemporary jazz, (and you can’t hope to even understand contemporary jazz drumming unless you’ve checked both these guys out), I think it’s true to say that Williams’ influence is more to the fore these days than Elvin’s is. And I think the reason for this is two-fold:

Firstly (and probably most importantly) Tony’s style is more suitable for straight-8s playing than Elvin’s is. Tony was after all one of the pioneers of bringing straight 8’s playing into the jazz mainstream (’Eighty One') and through ‘Lifetime’ was one of the most important figures in the integration of rock music energy into a creative jazz context. Post-Bitches Brew/Weather Report/Mahavishnu, straight 8’s were here to stay in jazz, and if as a drummer you were looking at how to use the drums in this new rhythmic landscape, Tony provided a great model. His influence permeated the drummers who came after him – Lenny White, Billy Cobham etc., and down through subsequent generations. Elvin, though his influence became greatest at around the same time that Tony made his first big impact, was an older player whose playing was rooted in the swing idiom. Although he did so much to open up that idiom, and in showing how a drummer could engage in an equal dialogue with a soloist, his style of playing, based as it was (in a structural sense at least) on the 3:2 polyrhythm, never really lent itself to straight 8’s playing.

Secondly, I think Tony’s thing is easier to codify into something comprehensible to the aspirant drummer. This is not to say that what he did was conceptually of a lower level than Elvin, but his approach lends itself more readily to the kind of intellectual analysis that people like to make. This is especially true in the later Tony style of the 4 in the bar swishing hi hat and endless flams. Put simply – and somewhat superficially, Tony is easier to cop than Elvin. Elvin’s thing is more mysterious in a way, it lends itself less easily to analysis. OK, one can identify the constant triple versus duple stuff going on, but the juggling act of keeping all those rhythmic balls in the air while playing behind the beat, not getting in the way of the music, AND swinging the whole band is beyond technical analysis. A comparison (simplistic but with some truth in it) of the two approaches could be that Tony’s playing is linear, while Elvin’s is multi-layered. The linear thing is easier to comprehend, but to figure out how to make that multi-layered thing work requires a conceptual intelligence, not just an ability to technically analyse patterns.

(Interestingly, I think Jack DeJohnette has shown a way to integrate the two approaches. He has a real affinity for straight 8s playing yet also espouses the all four limbs in perpetual motion approach of Elvin. His ride cymbal beat can have the edginess of Tony on fast tempos, yet maintain that perpetual motion thing of Elvin's. At slower tempos his beat can be broad like Elvin's, yet feature the explosiveness of Tony. He's figured it out somehow, but few have followed in his footsteps......)

So this combination of the difficulty of figuring out what exactly is going on in Elvin’s playing allied to the fact that his work was mostly in the swing idiom at a time when swing began to cede some of its dominance to the straight 8’s feel pushed the influence pendulum more in the direction of Tony rather than Elvin. Of course most good contemporary jazz drummers can approximate some of the Elvin thing when they feel it’s required, but the predominant influence I hear in most contemporary mainstream drummers would be coming more from Tony than Elvin.

But actually if you look at what Elvin did beyond the Coltrane group, he was pretty much game for anything. Back in the 60s, with Andrew Hill, he played in 7/4 (on Siete Ocho), and he also recorded with Earl Hines. He played with Ornette as well as Duke Ellington. In the 70s he was happy to play with synths and played on a little-known but particular Elvin favourite of mine 'On The Mountain’ with Jan Hammer and Gene Perla. Have a listen to him deal effortlessly with the quite complex vamp (at 4.07) on ’Destiny’, or play some savagely swinging brushes (he was a true master of brush playing) on Oleo with Tommy Flanagan.

And to hear him at the peak of his polyrhythmic virtuosity outside of the Coltrane Quartet, listen to him here with George Coleman and Wilbur Little from a live date in the Vanguard – the solo on this is just extraordinary, the way it goes from clearly metric to a kind of impressionistic outline of the beat and back again, and check out the way he sets up the re-entry of the melody. Nobody really played drums like this before or has since.

And it could be argued (and no doubt someone will argue with me!) that even leaving aside his landmark work with Coltrane, Elvin appeared on more truly classic albums than any other single drummer – with Wayne on ‘Ju Ju’, ‘Night Dreamer’ and ‘Speak No Evil’, with Joe Henderson on ‘In and Out’ and ‘Inner Urge’, with Rollins on ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and ‘East Broadway Rundown’, with Lee Konitz on ‘Motion’, with McCoy on ‘Inception’ and ‘The Real McCoy’, with Freddie Hubbard on ‘Ready for Freddie’, with Larry Young on ‘Unity’ etc. etc. - the list goes on and on. He played with Charlie Parker, with Monk, with Mingus, with Miles, Trane, Rollins, Ornette, Bud Powell, Ellington, he lead bands that included people like Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Steve Grossman, (Check out the classic ’Live at the Lighthouse'), and in later years he played with John McLaughlin, Michael Brecker, Bill Frisell and Bennie Wallace. He did it all.

And he did everything with a conviction that has always been an inspiration to me. I first saw him play at Ronnie Scott’s Club on a rainy Tuesday evening in 1979 – the club was half empty, the band comprised of unknown young players, and yet Elvin played as if that was the most important thing that anyone could be doing anywhere. For me it was, musically speaking, a life-changing experience to see that. Of course I was thrilled just to be in the same room as him, and to hear that extraordinary playing live – but what left the biggest impression on me was the intensity. This was the way music should always be played – with complete conviction and immersion on the moment. I’m still inspired by what I saw that evening over thirty years ago.

As an example of that conviction allied to the science of his playing, check out Elvin with Trane towards the end of the quartet’s life, in Belgium in 1965. It’s outdoors, it’s freezing cold and yet both Trane and Elvin play as if their lives depended on it (Elvin is playing so hard there’s steam rising from him!). For me, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ever.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

On the Road - Hong Kong and Japan

I’ve just returned from a tour to the Far East, mostly in Hong Kong and Japan. The band, put together by Pekka Pylkkanen (alto) from Finland, consisted of the Greek pianist George Contrafouris and the Brazilian Drummer Carlos Ezequiel – a truly international band, put together in the way these things often are in jazz these days, through mutual connections. I’d played with George with Dave Liebman and in various trio and quartet settings, I’d played with Carlos in Brazil, and with Carlos and Pekka in Denmark, George had played with Pekka in Finland. So we all knew each other in different ways, though I think I was the only one who knew everybody. We rehearsed by email in advance (as you do these days) and then put the music together in real time when we got there.

What follows is as much a travelogue as a blog, with some thoughts along the way on various subjects that were prompted by our experiences

Hong Kong

And so it begins - Asia. We had a typical Asian experience this morning - i.e. not knowing what's going on. We had a place booked for a rehearsal this morning only for it to be cancelled at the last minute. Efforts to find another place seemed to have borne fruit and so we waited for the confirmation phone call – and waited and waited......... So here we are, still in the hotel lobby three hours after we arranged to meet there to head off to rehearsal. Pekka has fought the good fight, multi-tasking on his iPhone and Macbook, but to no avail. So we’ve decided to give in and go out. You can’t fight the local ways, the best thing you can do is be glad you’re in as interesting a place as Hong Kong and get out and enjoy it – and that’s what we’re going to do............

...............And that’s what we did - took a bus to Kowloon, got lost after staying on the bus too long, walked part of the way back and eventually found the subway. I love figuring out subway systems in different cities in various parts of the world. Once you figure it out it the city just opens up to you and you get a great sense of liberation and independence – the city is your Oyster.

And Oysters seem to be the only type of seafood I haven’t seen in the vast amounts of it here – stalls, shops, restaurants, all selling fish and seafood. And it’s sold dried, fresh, salted, roasted, spiced, steamed........ The number of ways the Chinese do seafood (and many other kinds of food) is always dazzling. Even the vegetable dishes are dazzling. I’m a reluctant vegetarian myself, (as in only if I’ve no choice!), but here the vegetables are cooked so freshly that I didn’t think twice about ordering a vegetable dish for lunch instead of my usual carnivorous spread.

The following morning is the beginning of our first really musical day – a rehearsal followed by a workshop at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. The rehearsal took place in an unusual setting – as these these kinds of rehearsals often do once you get off the beaten jazz track – in the nightclub section of a fancy hotel. How Pekka managed to get the use of the place is beyond me, but he did, so here we are amidst the chintzy glitz of a nightclub – all fake gold and sequins and thick carpet – playing contemporary jazz. Or trying to play it – we’re all a little jet lagged and nightclubs by day are always strange places. Stripped of whatever allure they have in the evenings, in broad daylight they reveal all their tackiness and their false promises of glamour. It’s hard to get it going in such a setting, but we work efficiently, have a brief lunch next door, a brief rest back at the hotel and then off to the workshop.

The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts is a very impressive looking building with state of the art facilities. As far as music goes the two big subjects here are Classical Music and Chinese Music, but an American flautist and saxophonist called Tim Wilson has begun a part time jazz programme for interested students – 2 hours a week, playing standard tunes etc. I have real admiration for people like Tim who work really hard to get something going in a place like Hong Kong, so far removed from the geographical mainstream of jazz activity – Europe and America. Of course Japan, with its long history of jazz support, is pretty close by, but China and Japan do NOT get on, for all kinds of historical and political reasons, so don’t expect Japanese musicians and teachers becoming active in founding a scene in China anytime soon.......

The workshop consists of us playing a few tunes, taking questions and then having the students play while we listen and then make comments. The technical level is quite low, as is their knowledge of the jazz idiom, but they’re really enthusiastic and I must say I get a warmer feeling teaching in a place like this than I often do at some of the high level jazz schools in Europe where the students are sometimes so spoiled you can nearly drown from the combination of their sense of entitlement and their apathy.

What’s interesting musically is that the problems the students have, even at this quite low technical level, are the same problems I see with jazz students everywhere, they’re just a little more extreme. They don’t listen to each other, they play in a very literal way with a high element of role playing – press button A and play this, press button B and play that......... These kids don’t have much vocabulary, but otherwise there are similar issues that one sees in students everywhere. Of course being so far from the jazz mainstream it’s probably also very difficult for them to feel part of something larger – the jazz community and history – but that’s something I often wonder about anyway – how much are young jazz students learning this music as a kind of classical music, and how much are they learning it and seeing themselves as being part of a much larger thing? Questions for another day perhaps........... But first, dinner!

The following day we go to the Hong Kong Institute for Education and do a workshop and performance for the students there. These guys are studying pedagogy, and some have taken jazz studies as part of that. The students are of a higher technical level than in the previous institution, but the same problems are evident. Lack of listening is a big problem – not just to each other, but to the recorded history of the music. Out of 10 guys playing ‘Impressions’ only three had ever listened to the original recording, or heard Coltrane play it! An extreme example perhaps, but again lack of in-depth listening is another current issue among young musicians – the sheer availability of so much stuff does actually impact negatively on their listening habits I believe. They listen to lots of stuff – but often just once, and rarely in-depth. Again, a question for another day......... But the vibe is great, and everyone is so nice and enthusiastic, it made the 2 hours trek out there by subway worthwhile. Dinner in a great Thai Restaurant ends the day very satisfactorily

(Two Students from the Hong Kong Institute for Education try out my bass)

Hong Kong Jazz Festival

Today is the anchor gig of the tour, the Hong Kong Jazz Festival, but before the gig Carlos and I take a trek out to Mong Kok, the electronics Mecca of Kowloon. I want to by a DV Camcorder in order to have a second camera to give a different angle on things when I record music and gigs etc. (In recent years I’ve probably got too into this – spent far too much time on Final Cut Express and not enough on the simple 4 string bass!). We go the Mong Kok Computer Centre – three floors of electronics and a geek’s haven. I eventually settle on a Sanyo hand held device that functions as both a DV camcorder and a digital camera. I save myself an estimated 70 euro on the deal by buying it here, so I’m, pretty happy leaving the store. Out on the street there are even more electronics places – some really huge (see below) - it’s an extraordinary two blocks............

And so to the gig – at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre – a big 800 seater theatre with very nice acoustics for jazz. Everything is very well organised and the soundcheck runs smoothly and there’s very good equipment and a decent dressing room. Add a free dinner courtesy of the festival to that and you can’t really ask for more. Over dinner we talk to two of the girls running the gig – Carol and Alison and it turns out they’re both piano teachers but also studied other things - business studies of some kind. So the Asian work ethic is very clear from these two young women – you can see why Japan forged ahead in the past, and why China and Korea are galloping up now.

The gig itself is great – the last 2 days of playing/workshops has got our individual and collective chops up and the band really clicks and plays a very high energy set that’s very well received. We’re playing opposite the Rusconi Trio, (whose sound engineer very generously helps us with our soundcheck), whose music is much different to ours, but the audience seems to like both. We have to wait till the end of the concert before we can go back to the hotel since the tradition here is that people get autographs. Since Pekka and Carlos are the only ones who brought CDs George and I let them do the meet and greet while George and I hang out and solve even more of the world’s musical and social problems..........

Back to the hotel – tomorrow, Japan!


Tokyo is so huge it took us two hours by train to get from the airport to the city. It’s SO different here from China – I’ve been in Japan before but it’s very interesting to come to Japan from another Asian country rather than from Europe – you get a different perspective. First of all it’s so clean and everything looks so modern and less traditional than in China. And the other thing that hit us the minute we got on the plane was the politeness! Of course I know about Japanese politeness, but when you come from China it’s thrown into even sharper relief. The Hong Kong Chinese (at least to strangers on the street or in shops etc.) are not really polite at all, they’re quite brusque and rude sometimes and never give you the impression they’ve the slightest interest in you. Which is fair enough – it’s their country and they can decide what attitude they want to take to visitors (though I think the waiter who gave me a sort of slap on the arm to remind me to take my bass with me was taking it a BIT far!).Here it’s so different, people are incredibly polite – and friendly! I had at least three exchanges with people by the time we got to the hotel, I don’t think a Chinese person outside of our business dealings, spoke to us even once.

So tonight we went out looking for a restaurant and ran into a girl giving out leaflets about a restaurant on the street – she had very little English, but Pekka has a little Japanese and so we decided to go to that restaurant. When we said we’d go she nearly had hysterics – laughing and doing the Japanese equivalent of ‘OH MY GOD!” - ringing ahead to say she was bringing four foreigners with her. And so we ended up in this tiny traditional restaurant, full of Japanese, and we sat on the floor on Tatamis around a table and had some really great food – sashimi, and Yakitori, rice and various other bits and pieces. There was great hilarity as we tried to figure out from the Japanese menu what to order and the same girl with the leaflets turned out to be the waitress there too – she was a really fun character, up for anything and laughing all the time. Then a man came in who spoke some English, and he helped us with the translation and promptly joined us at the dinner table and had dinner with us and became George’s smoking partner. So it was great fun, and it was very pleasant to be in a real authentic restaurant eating real Japanese food. Everyone in the restaurant waved goodbye to us as we left, and it was a very nice personaiised evening after the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.

(The band with the two ladies who ran the very nice restaurant on our first night in Tokyo)

The next day we had a gig in the city, in a small venue converted for the evening into a concert space. We got there early, set up, soundchecked and having a few hours to kill we went back to the centre of town, the extraordinary Shinjuku district. Shinjuku epitomises the stereotype about Tokyo – thousands of people, flashing lights, constant movement, noise. It’s almost futuristic around there, ‘like a scene from Blade Runner’ as George described it. I’d imagine you either love it or you hate it – we loved it!

It was a real rush being there, especially being in Shinjuku station which is huge – a million people pass through it every day! - and SO easy to get lost in. Pekka did a very good job in figuring out the lines to take which, when you take a look at the Tokyo subway map (below), you can see is no easy task.

And if you do get lost it’s very hard to get information to help you with because hardly anybody speaks English. In the whole time we were in Tokyo and stopped people to ask for help, and asked them if they spoke English the answer was always no. And these were young people in one of the world’s best educated and richest nations on earth. I’m not saying they SHOULD speak English – we English speakers get away with far too much linguistic colonialism as it is – but there’s no denying that English is the travel and business language of the world, yet in Japan the level of English speaking was lower than almost any country I can remember travelling in. One of the Japanese guys I met, who does speak good English, said it was because the way English was taught - nearly all through written work - was very bad. Anyway, the fact that there's so little English spoken and a lot of the signs are unreadable to a westerner, forces you to really make an effort and to not mind the fact that it's hard to find out what's going on, or where to go, or what stuff is on a menu etc. - sometimes it's fun being lost!

We ended up at Disk Union – a famous Japanese record shop that specialises in jazz and – even more specialised – in jazz on vinyl. George is a collector of vinyl jazz LPs and there was no way he was going to visit Tokyo without visiting Disk Union as well. And it was extraordinary in there – the place was packed with people buying LPs! It reminded me of specialist record shops like Mole Jazz in London (long gone) 20 years ago. Actually it’s amazing how much jazz you hear walking around Tokyo – in shops, restaurants etc. They seem to have a real taste for it, though I notice it tends to be very much focussed around the 50s Hard Bop era. And they’re much more attached to American jazz than they are European (or Japanese for that matter), in fact European jazz musicians rarely play here in comparison to their American counterparts.

(Result! - George with a prized Clare Fischer LP at Disk Union)

George’s LP cravings having been sated for now, we head back to the gig and a play a 90 minute set, which is preceded by an interview with Pekka and George on the subject of ‘what is Finnish Jazz?’ Yutaka, the organiser of the gig, has a passion for Finnish jazz and is selling a bunch of Finnish jazz CDs at the gig. The gig itself is really good – again the band gels very well from the first bar, and it all feels great. Sometimes when you’re on the road and you’re dealing with lots of stuff – hotels, airports, food, money, etc. - you forget that the real reason you are there is to play music. And then if the band is good – which it is on this occasion – you are pleasantly reminded of it once you start playing, as in, “Now I remember - THIS is why we’re here!” After the very well received gig, we head back to Shinjuku and find a restaurant, which is packed with Saturday night diners and which is a bit of a squeeze for four large-ish westerners to get into. But all is achieved with good humour on everyone’s part and the food is delicious.

Then back out into Shinjuku subway station for the train back to the hotel. What was interesting was the fact that at night there are only young people in the subway - all the older people disappear - it was amazing! We were by far the oldest people on the subway that night. And of course everyone was dressed up - or what passes for dressed up among Japanese youth. For the girls it usually means short skirts or shorts, or even more popular, the mini skirt with the knee socks pulled to above the knee. It’s actually a very strange phenomenon in my opinion – this, (as a Japanese friend of mine described it) ‘Lolita Complex’ Almost none of them dress like women - they all dress like girls. There's a kind of childishness about their image - the kind of schoolgirly outfits (and I saw a couple of really weird ones - like Bo-Peep or something!), the Hello Kitty handbags, the miniature pink teddy bears hanging from their mobile phones - that's a little disturbing after a while. And the guys were in all kinds of weird and wonderful haircuts, sunglasses, outlandish clothes etc. It's really unique to walk through Shinjuku station on a Saturday night and see Japanese youth en-masse. An extraordinary sight. Yet, for all this apparent rebellion against the sober dress of the adult Japanese there’s no sense of anarchy about them, nor do you feel any threat, as I would in a Western city late on a Saturday night. They’re very well behaved and they form neat rows, side by side in twos, at the designated areas, to get on the subway trains. I got the feeling that the outfits constituted the beginning and the end of the rebelliousness, and that in other ways they were probably quite comfortably part of mainstream society.

The friendliness of everyone continues to be impressive. The following morning George and I were talking outside the hotel and three ladies came out - very well dressed - and invited us to come and have lunch with them - despite the fact that they had barely any English. But they were SO friendly, trying to find out where were were from (they were baffled by Greece, but were very excited by 'Irelando!') and being giggly and friendly. And in Starbucks in Shinjuku later on a man offered me his seat, said welcome and shook my hand, and then the girls came out from behind the counter and got chairs for all four of us - in a packed Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon! Never saw that anywhere else in the world.......

Having some free time before the gig, George, Carlos and I take a walk in the suburbs, and once you get off the main streets you enter a different world – quiet, narrow streets, very little traffic. It all makes for a very pleasant walk after the madness of Shinjuku and we buy some Yakatori chicken that is being grilled freshly on the side of the road, and finish the walk by having a cappucino in a café – everything was very pleasant except the price of the coffee.......... Japan is an EXPENSIVE country! I’d say it’s more expensive than even Switzerland, and that’s saying something. It’s hard to have a meal in a restaurant for less than €30 a head, and that’s just in a regular place – it’s very easy to spend much more than that. In this little café, we had 5 coffees between the three of us, I decided it was my turn to buy the coffees and was somewhat stunned to be handed a bill of €22!

The gig that night is in the ‘Finland Café’, in Shubiya (another incredibly busy area), in a café devoted to all things Finnish. It seems particularly Japanese to do this – this kind of obsessive attention being paid to one thing – though I’m hardly in a position to comment since the whole world is infected with the terrible ‘Irish Pub’ plague. The interior of the café is studded with fake birch trees and books on Finland are strewn around casually (though of course, being in Japan, there’s nothing casual about it at all). It’s a very swish looking place in the basement of an apartment block.

There are no drums in the place, so it’s to be trio, and George, being the trouper that he is, doesn’t balk at the electric keyboard he’s given to play. We play the first set - all standards, which we figure is more apposite for this audience, and which we like to play anyway - and then Yutaka approaches me, looking very embarrassed. It seems there’s been a complaint from a resident about the sound of the bass going up to his/her apartment, and would I mind not playing the second set. He assures me that it’s got nothing to do with my playing! Well, what can you do? So Pekka and George play the 2nd set, with George’s left-hand working overtime...... The audience are great, and interestingly (though it’s tragic that this is something worth mentioning), are mostly women. They pay rapt attention throughout, applaud all solos and insist on an encore at the end. If only all audiences were like this......... Another expensive dinner, an even more expensive taxi ride (having missed the last subway train) and the evening ends.


We take the Shinkansen to Kobe – the famous Japanese Bullet Trains. Very comfortable and very fast, we cover the 600+ Km to Kobe in 3 hours. During the journey Carlos and I order a coffee from the girl pushing the coffee trolley through the carriages, and she pours the coffee and then carefully arranges the coffee, sugar, milk and napkin in a very symmetric design on the fold-down table on the couch. Having done that she then pushes her trolley out of the carriage, turns around and bows ceremoniously to the carriage before leaving. Only in Japan would the ordering of a coffee on a train involve such an elaborate display of manners complete with a little ceremony to go with it.

We arrive in Kobe and are picked up at the station by Tako, one of the main guys at the Koyo Conservatory – our hosts during our stay. We go straight from the station to the workshop/performance which will take place in a club called Maiden Voyage. It always feels strange to be in these club situations during daylight – as I mentioned earlier there’s something that doesn’t quite fit about a club shorn of its night-time allure - being exposed like an ageing stage performer who is dragged out into daylight so that their true flaws and imperfections can be seen all the more clearly. But this place is actually quite nice, even during the day and the audience is made up of about 40 Japanese students who are very polite and attentive throughout. We play several tunes first and then open it up to questions.

This workshop (like all the ones we did in Japan) is being translated for us – again the low level of English is pointed up by the necessity of having a translator, something that was never necessary in the Hong Kong workshops that we did. Translated workshops are always difficult since it’s impossible to have any real interaction with the students, the delay of having everything translated kills any spontaneity, and you can only speak in short sentences since the translator has to deal with all the points you’re making, and can’t be expected to remember more than a few sentences at a time. But we do our best (and the translator does a great job), and the students are responsive, if a little shy.

They do get up to play though, and that’s always interesting since you can engage more personally with them having heard them play, rather than just doing a lecture/demonstration kind of thing. Walking cold into a room full of students in a school and figuring out what the best approach for a workshop might be is a very difficult task since you’ve no idea of their experience or concerns or needs. It’s a bit easier in a typical 3rd level US or European jazz school since the curriculum tends to be similar throughout these institutions, but in more far flung places it’s often a bit tricky regarding what level to pitch your teaching to, and what information might be most useful in the short space of time you have. In an instrumental masterclass where you’re dealing with a specific instrument it gets a bit easier, but in these mixed classes it requires a bit of care in order to maximise the impact of whatever information, or help, or even philosophical thoughts you might be be able to give. The students play through Autumn Leaves and this gives us some good talking points and allows us to focus our comments more effectively for the short time we have

The evening ends with a group photo with those who haven’t already left to smoke or go about their business (why do all Japanese kids make the Peace Sign every time a camera is pointed at them!?) then it’s off to the hotel to drop the cases and out for dinner with our hosts Akihito (whom I’ve known for a long time through the IASJ) and Tako.

They take us to a great restaurant and miraculously convert me to Sushi! I’ve never been a fan, (a friend of mine used to say ‘that’s not food, that’s bait!), though I’ve always wished I was, but on this trip the joys of Sushi are fully revealed to me and I’m now a complete convert. But I think for it to work the fish has to be as incredibly fresh, and everything else as well cooked and presented as it was at this restaurant. The food was just amazing, and foodie that I am, I’m delighted to be able to share in a gastronomic miracle that was a closed book to me up to this point.

Back to Tokyo

On any tour there are days that prove trying, and the day after the Kobe workshop/performance proves to be one of those days. Carlos and George have offered to do some extra teaching at Koyo Conservatory before we leave for Tokyo and so we head off there first and, teaching finished, go to the station for the train to Tokyo. There, for reasons too dull too go into, there’s a delay in getting the tickets and we end up missing our train and hanging around for nearly an hour and a half before eventually getting a later train. This delay means we’re behind schedule when we get to to Tokyo, where we have a workshop to do at Tokyo College of Music in the late afternoon. Before doing the workshop we have to check into our hotel in Shinjuku, and Tokyo is so huge that by far the fastest (and cheapest) way to get around, is by subway. Which is fine when you’re travelling with just a shoulder bag or something, but when you’ve got all your luggage and your bass, and you’ve several subway line changes to make on a humid afternoon, the whole thing becomes a bit of an ordeal really. By the time we reach the hotel my shoulders are aching from carrying the gear and manipulating it up and down escalators, across platforms and onto trains. Then it’s into the hotel, drop the stuff and back on the subway for the trip to TCM.

When we arrive at the nearest subway station we’re met by our hosts and then it turns out to be a 15 minute walk to the college and our hosts (both Westerners BTW), are quite happy to walk along beside us for this long trek and it never once occurs to them to offer to help carry the gear – I’ve got my bass, Pekka his alto and backpack, and Carlos his cymbals and they know we’ve had a bit of a trying day, but still they walk along empty-handed, chattering away and never offering to take anything from anyone, and this causes me to add grumpiness to my already tired mood.

So when we arrive at the college (which is an amazing modern building ), late due to all the earlier problems, I’m not really in the mood to do the workshop at all. But once we enter the room the students cheer and applaud and this immediately lifts our mood – how can you resist such enthusiasm? So, on with the show – again we play, and although it’s a cliché, the healing power of music shows itself again in that once we start playing the tired grumpy mood disappears and it’s fun time again! We’ve been playing together for almost two weeks now, the band has really gelled, and we can hit a very high level almost from the first beat. Good humour restored, we answer questions and then have the students play. Again the workshop is translated which slows things down a bit, but these students are really charming and very sweet and enthusiastic and it’s a lot of fun working with them. There are a couple of really talented improvisers among them too – all they need is a bit more experience and access to good information and a wider playing environment.

I find it extraordinary that there is no undergraduate degree that can be taken in jazz alone in Japan. When you see the history of engagement with the music here, and the popularity of it, it’s amazing that there’s no way of studying full time to degree level through the state institutions. But from talking to teachers here who are trying to change things it seems the Japanese education system is very rigid and the same structural problems that prevent effective English language teaching, also stymie any attempt to bring jazz into mainstream music education here. The Koyo Conservatory has a 2-Year full time programme, but it’s a private school and as far as I know it can’t offer an undergraduate degree at the end of the course.

As always, the evening ends with food. This time the some of the students and one of the teachers comes with us and it’s a fine way to end the tour, chatting with these very nice people and eating, again, GREAT food that arrives one dish after another in that very nice communal eating style found in Asia. George gives one of the piano players an impromptu lesson in upper structure chord voicings while I expound the joys of the Ligeti Études to another group of pianists and Carlos and I explain the geographical position, and relative difference in size and population between Ireland (4.2 million people) and Brazil (200 million). The students talk about their lives and studies and the whole evening is a great way to end the working part of the tour – we have a day off the next day before heading home.

Which Carlos and I decide to spend in Akihabara, the famed electronics district of Tokyo. It’s a noisy crowded area, full of electronics shops blaring out music and sound effects from computer games, and Anime films and all kids of other things. I remark to Carlos that this area is definitely many people’s idea of hell – noise, commercialism, crowds – but it’s also fascinating, at least for a couple of hours. The sheer energy of the place is extraordinary and it’s a real luxury to have a couple of hours to wander around and observe the scene. Again this strange Lolita complex is in evidence as the area has girls of about 17 years old on every street corner, dressed in kind of French Maid outfits handing out leaflets for various shops. The whole thing is kind of weird – there would be outrage in the West if teenagers were asked to parade around in outfits like that for the purposes of selling electronics, but here, in modern industrialised Japan, it doesn’t seem to provoke even a raised eyebrow among the passers-by.........

I end up not buying anything – the prices are dearer than Hong Kong and nothing really catches my eye. In the evening Carlos, George and I meet up for a last meal and on impulse go to an Indian restaurant (Indian food is a passion of mine), where the food is very good and the portions more in keeping with the needs of someone of George’s size. George has been enjoying the Japanese food but has felt that the meals often feel more like a snack to him than a proper meal. We finish up having a coffee in Starbucks – not a chain I like particularly, but I have been missing the after dinner coffee while in Japan – they haven’t really embraced coffee culture and, uncultured addict that I am, I’ve been feeling that the one thing these great Japanese meals need to make them even greater is an espresso at the end.

So that was that – the next day we all undertook the long trip home, (Carlos’ journey was 44 hours via South Africa......) and brought to an end a really great trip involving music, crowds, culture shock, traffic, teachers, students, subways, soundchecks, festivals, sushi, sashimi, stir fry, yakitori, neon signs, unreadable signs, noise, politeness, impoliteness, efficiency, inefficiency, planes, trains, automobiles..................

After 2 weeks of man-made wonder, on the way home my plane flies over Siberia on a perfect day for viewing the beauty and wonder of nature...........

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bill Evans - A Forgotten Man?

Bill Evans a forgotten man? Seems like an absurd thought – but with the arrival of the 30th anniversary of Evans’ death on September 15th, I definitely got the feeling that his one-time huge profile as one of the most influential, important, and admired, pianists in jazz had taken a serious tumble. Yes there were jazz blogs which mentioned him and marked the anniversary, but they were in general blogs that have a stylistic leaning towards the music of the 50s and earlier, rather than blogs that deal with contemporary jazz and its doings. It was a combination of reading these blogs, noting the absence of mentions of Evans in others, and watching some Youtube clips of Evans that gave me this feeling that as far as the contemporary jazz world is concerned his star has fallen considerably in recent years.

But a forgotten man? This post is more me thinking aloud rather than me coming to any definite conclusion.

There was a time when Evans was ubiquitous, where he was mentioned in any serious discussion of jazz piano, when everyone could list their favourite Evans albums (which in those days were NOT just ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’ and the trio recordings with LaFaro and Motian). And of course up to 1980 he was touring and recording, so I knew many people, even in Ireland, who had seen him play. I just missed that particular boat myself, he died just as I started to get around, get out of Dublin and go to NY and London to see international artists who, at that time, never appeared in Ireland. So at that time his reputation and influence were enormous – it was very much accepted as a sine qua non that he would be always mentioned in the pantheon of jazz piano Gods alongside such deities as Art Tatum, Bud Powell etc.

But now? I don’t think that if you asked contemporary pianists about Evans that they would downplay his importance in the jazz piano lineage, but you rarely hear them volunteer Evans when asked about their influences. Of course as time passes all young musicians listen to different stuff than their elders did, and that’s how it should be. But it’s not uncommon to hear contemporary pianists cite Monk, and Bud Powell, (both of whom would have been mentioned in the same breath as Evans in the roll call of great pianists by an earlier generation), as influences. And it’s not uncommon to hear people such as Andrew Hill, or even Herbie Nichols and Jaki Byard being mentioned as being important figures for several well known contemporary pianists. But it’s been a long time since I heard a young cutting edge pianist make any reference to Bill Evans. Even Mehldau got quite miffed about his trio constantly being compared to Evans’ in the early days (rightly so – it was just lazy journalism to conflate the two bands) and went out of his way to deny the influence.

Shortly after Evans died a tribute recording was released which featured many great pianists then active on the jazz scene – some older, some younger, some not so well known, some legendary. The line-up included Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, John Lewis, Dave Mckenna, Denny Zeitlin, Jimmy Rowles, Richie Beirach, JoAnne Brackeen and Andy LaVerne. Quite an impressive tally of great pianists, and all lining up to praise Evans and play pieces by him or associated with him. I wonder if you did the same thing today – i.e put together an ‘Evans recording’ featuring the current crop of well known contemporary American pianists – Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Ethan Iverson, Craig Taborn etc. - what the result would be? I think the musical results could be intriguing, but I wonder how many pianists, (outside of pianists who deliberately position themselves within earlier styles of playing), would have any interest in recording Evans material these days? In these days where the music of others is deconstructed or ‘re-imagined’ or whatever the current phrase might be, by young musicians, how in sympathy would they feel in working with pieces like ‘Turn Out the Stars’ or ‘Very Early’? That harmonic world of constantly moving chords seems very far away from a lot of current pianistic concerns. Not that I’m bemoaning that – it’s just an observation.

An aside – for me the greatest Evans ‘tribute’ album was made by Paul Motian with Frisell and Lovano and Marc Johnson without a piano in sight. Frisell is just scary on this recording, the way he can distil the harmonic complexity of Evans music into a two-note guitar chord is an object lesson in accompaniment and ingenuity. John McLaughlin also made an often very beautiful Evans recording using five guitars!

In Europe there is a stream of contemporary pianism that is more clearly linked, in evolutionary terms, to Evans – for example the Scandinavian tradition espoused by the descendants of Bobo Stenson, Lars Jansson etc. and the Italian piano tradition of such great players as Enrico Pieranunzi and Stefano Bollani. But the European pianists who are influenced by Evans seem to favour the more ‘classical’ elements in his playing – the rich voicings, the impressionistic melodicism – and ignore the hard-swinging Evans. While the American pianists who these days do speak about Evans tend to focus on the swinging aspects of his playing and not be too interested in the pianistic impressionism. Of course these are generalisations, but I do detect a trend in the contemporary response on both sides of the Atlantic to Evans’ legacy.

As for me, I kind of go in and out of an Evans thing. I have a huge collection of his recordings – most on LP – and mostly collected in the early 80s when it was a given around these parts that Evans was a God and that it behoved any serious student of the music to have everything he recorded. And in collecting all these recordings I got to hear much great music that I think a lot of present-day musicians maybe don’t know since, these days, there seems to be a lot of focus on the earlier part of Evans career, and the later trios (post LaFaro/Motian, pre Johnson/Labarbera) seem to be unfashionable now.

But actually I particularly like the trio that was together the longest – the one with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell. This trio is often accused of going through the motions, and much comment is made on their proclivity to rush. But I really like this band – I think the very underrated Morell really brought a kind of muscularity to the trio that was missing in some of the earlier versions. And yes they do rush, but it can be very exciting, and besides, other famous groups rushed – Tony and Ron with Miles for example – and never got the same opprobrium heaped on them for doing so. And Gomez, particularly in the earlier recordings by this trio, was just savage! Check out his solo on this version of ‘Emily’ - his motivic development stuff is amazing - and also check out how hard swinging this trio could be, even on a ‘sensitive’ jazz waltz like this one. (I love the setting for this clip, and the others in the series – a house in Helsinki, with the stark Scandinavian landscape outside and the clean lines of the house furnishings creating a contrasting backdrop to the rather florid music)

When I hear something like this I can easily get back into an Evans kick, because these days I can also easily go for long periods without listening to him, and sometimes I wonder how the slightly ‘rootie-tootie’ swing 8th notes of the later Evans still manages to swing, because it shouldn’t! And the over-amplified bass of the later trios bothers me, and how many times can you hear the same arrangement of ‘Autumn Leaves’ anyway?

But then something will spark me to listen again to Evans and it becomes evident again what an incredible amount of great music he was responsible for both under his own name and as a sideman – George Russell’s ‘Jazz Workshop’, ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’, ‘Kind of Blue’, ‘Montreux’ with Gomez and Jack DeJohnette’, the first great trio with LaFaro and Motian, the intros to Nardis on the last trio’s live recordings, the poignancy of ‘We Will Meet Again’, etc. etc. He really was one of the greatest jazz musicians of his era, a huge influence on pianists whether directly or through pianists such as Herbie Hancock (the only major post-Evans pianist to openly acknowledge the influence) or Jarrett, and a true giant of the music. I think it’s a shame the 30th anniversary of his death wasn’t highlighted in a way a bit more in keeping with Evans’ stature, but I also think it’s interesting that it wasn’t – it says something about how Evans is now viewed in contemporary jazz – I’m just not sure what that something is! If there are any working jazz pianists under the age of 40 reading this I’d be interested to hear what your take on Evans is, and whether he had any influence on you as a pianist and/or improviser.

And to finish this rather rambling post – here’s the Evans/Gomez/Morell trio again burning their way through ‘Gloria’s Step’ from 1971. God bless Youtube.................

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Every (Jazz) Man Has His Price

Why do many truly great jazz musicians, musicians who over many years have played some of the greatest music in the idiom and forged reputations as being among the finest in the world, agree to make recordings with people who, in jazz terms at least, simply can’t play?

Why do many truly great classical musicians, have such a lack of respect for jazz that they feel they can hire some of the greatest players in the music to accompany them while they butcher the idiom?

These questions were prompted by listening to an absolutely dire recording by the classical violinist Nigel Kennedy called ‘Blue Note Sessions’ in which Kennedy is joined by some of the greatest jazz musicians active today, who seem quite happy to play with someone who, to descend into Irish argot for a moment, doesn’t come within an ass’s roar of the kind of level of improvisational ability, or vocabulary, that should be required for anyone hoping to come within the aforesaid braying distance of any recording studio containing the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, Joe Lovano and Kenny Werner. And listening to Kennedy’s playing here, he’s so far below the level of the other players – stilted phrasing, clichéd, unimaginative, throwing notes at improvisational problems – it seems extraordinary, at least on the surface, that he could make an album like this with players of this calibre. Yet not only can he be on this album, he is actually the leader on it.

I find these kids of classical ‘crossover’ recordings very both infuriating and depressing.

Infuriating because of the arrogance of the classical musicians who on the one hand claim to love jazz (or Brazilian music, or Indian music or whatever genre they or their record company feel is worthy of exploitation), yet never stop to ask the question whether, if they really respect and love the music as they claim to, they should REALLY be playing with true masters of the idiom, recording it, and putting it out under their own name? Have they no shame? Are they so immured in their own sense of self-worth that they believe themselves to be capable of playing pretty much anything at the highest level? Is it a case of ‘listen, I can play Beethoven’s violin concerto at the greatest concert halls in the world, how could I NOT be able to play a blues with jazz guys!? I’ve been touring the planet and been playing great music with the world’s greatest orchestras for over 25 years, and I’m a household name – of course I can improvise over a simple tune like Autumn Leaves!’ Do they never listen back to the recordings they make with great jazz musicians and writhe with shame at the vapid clichés, stilted phrasing, crocodile tears attempts at blues phrasing, and general corniness of what they play in these projects?

Maybe they do, maybe they’re just pressurised so much by the record company, who feel this will help broaden their appeal, that they’ve no choice but to do it. Mind you, in the EPK video for his Blue Note album Kennedy states that one of the things that persuaded him to do the album was the fact that people like DeJohnette and Carter would be on it – so, no fear of HIM feeling like he’s not worthy to play with jazz people of that calibre. He obviously sees it as a meeting of equals. Nigel Kennedy is a great classical violinist, but is, at best, a hack as a jazz musician (others can comment on the success or otherwise of his ‘Hendrix’ project), so the idea that in this milieu he has the artistic right to record with these musicians is in my opinion laughable. Just because you have the money and the opportunity, should you still do it? Not if you’ve even a shred of respect for the music or musicians involved. But I’m convinced that despite all the profession of love for jazz and respect for the tradition these players pay lip service to, underneath it all they don’t really believe this to be a serious genre – or at least as serious as theirs. Otherwise they wouldn’t record and release these awful discs.

And I find these recordings depressing because of the jazz musicians’ compliance with this disrespecting of the music to which they’ve devoted their lives, to which they’ve contributed immensely, and by which they have inspired thousands of musicians all over the world. Now of course there’s money involved here, and I’m not condemning anyone for having a big pay day. But I think that surely there must be a cut-off point – a point decided upon by a combination of the stature of the jazz musician involved and how much or how little they need the money. I can’t believe at this point in their careers that either Ron Carter or Jack DeJohnette – two musicians who command big fees all over the world – really needed the money Kennedy gave them for their involvement in this mediocre (to put it generously) project.

Nor can I believe that they did this for any other reason than the money – if they really believed Kennedy was any good as a jazz musician they’d be including him in some of their own projects – right? Has any jazz musician of any stature, anywhere, ever included Kennedy (or any other classical high-flyer for that matter) in their own creative projects? I don’t think so. The whole history of this genre is one of the classical musicians waving a wad of money at the jazz guys and the jazz guys scampering over, only too happy to lend their names and prestige to any lame ‘jazz’ project as long as the price is right. Maybe it’s a hangover from the days when you did whatever you could to get by, a gig’s a gig etc. etc. But surely there must come a point where you reach a level of financial security when you really don’t need to place your talent and achievement at the service of anyone who has the price to hire you, regardless of their ability?

Because what I find doubly depressing about this is that I don’t believe the reverse to be true. That is, in the classical world, that the true heavyweights – the Evgeny Kissins, Arturo Benedettis, Anne-Sophie Mutters etc. - , no matter HOW much money was involved, would countenance a jazz guy hiring them to play on a classical recording that he (or she) was making, listen to him butchering Brahms or Shostakovitch or whatever, and agree to have their names lent to the project in order to allow it to gain credibility, and to allow the jazz guys to pretend to their own jazz public that really could play classical music at the highest level. I just don’t believe it would happen. These people have too much regard for their own genre, their own art, their own tradition to traduce it like that in public for folding money. Why can’t the jazz equivalents of these great musicians have the same self-respect and the same respect for their own tradition?

If the greatest players in the jazz world can’t respect the music they’ve helped to shape enough to refuse to publicly appear and record with players who can’t play – no matter how well they may be known in other fields – then what hope have the rest of us got in convincing the world that what we do is serious and worthy of equal consideration with any music?