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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thanks and Happy New Year!

Another year - hard to believe but there it is. I note from my statistics that I wrote 27 blog posts this year, and that four of those make it into the top 10 of most-read posts since the blog started. It was an interesting blogging year on a personal level, though not always pleasant. I had my first taste of an internet troll, and saw what it can mean to put your head above the parapet regarding jazz politics. Jazz blogs in general experienced some serious firestorms in the past year, and I must say this kind of back and forth abuse by people who are supposed to be discussing important things is something I have no time for. It cheapens everything, gets nobody anywhere and only serves to demean the arguments and demeans the people whose means of debate consists of abusing anyone foolish enough to take a contrary opinion.

I was particularly sorry to see an appalling example of this type of ‘debate’ erupt on a respected musician’s blog and he (the respected musician) doing nothing to moderate what was going on. When comments to a blog include threats of physical violence between the protagonists the blog itself becomes pointless. We can get that kind of stuff in the comments to any Youtube video, we don’t need it in what should be an enlightening discussion of jazz and the problems and challenges it faces. Hopefully there will be less of that in 2012 and more discussion of the musicians and the music........

Rick Peckham

For myself, the next big thing on the horizon will be the premiere in January of ‘Hands”, my Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, which will be performed by the great guitarist Rick Peckham. I’ve been doing a series of video diaries about this in Youtube and I’ll post something about that very soon. I’ll also be posting my long-delayed interview with Steve Coleman on the subject of rhythm. It’s embarrassing how long it’s taken me to get this out there, but it was a huge interview and I kept falling off the horse in terms of the transcription of it. But it’s almost ready to go now and I’ll have it up very soon.

And doubtless there will be other things that will inspire me to put electronic pen to electronic paper, (European jazz is on my radar......), as the year progresses. But for now I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read the blog and a special thanks to those of you who commented - I appreciate it all.

Best wishes to everyone for 2012 – let’s hope it’s a good one for the music.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Closed Book?

Sitting here in Bangkok yesterday, having a coffee in a café, surrounded by schoolkids who were post-school giddy - laughing, joking, punching each other (the boys), giggling behind their hands in conclaves (the girls) and of course brandishing, looking at, talking into and flourishing their mobile phones. In short, a normal contemporary urban scene - except for one thing. There sitting at a table, on his own, was a kid.......... reading a book!

It was only when I saw this kid reading that I realised what a rare sight it is these days to see someone in a café reading. Not just kids - anyone. The mobile phone is the contemporary accompaniment-du-jour to a coffee break, popping a book in your bag to have with you for commuting, or coffee break purposes has gone the way of the fax machine. Upon sitting down in a café most people these days take their phone out of their bag or pocket, and start the prodding and poking. It's funny how subtly things can change around you and you don't even notice it.

The classical pianist Jeremy Denk has a very interesting post concerning another change in our habits - our greater love of the content delivery systems we use over the actual content itself. You can see it here

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Musical Week in Paris

‘Paris! Paree! What pictures of gaiety those two cities conjure up..........’ As Spike Milligan said – and he was right, at least about the city conjuring many images. Paris is truly a great city and probably the city with the most stereotypes applied to it – but as is so often the case, there are kernels of truth in the Parisian stereotypes, it is a physically beautiful city, it has lots of art and culture in it, it is full of great food. I’ve always enjoyed being there and is probably the city I’ve visited the most over the years, both as a musician and also simply being a tourist. Recently I got an opportunity to spend a musical week there involving three different activities, teaching, rehearsing and performing – an opportunity I grabbed with both hands.

Sometimes things work out really well and this opportunity to visit Paris was one of those times – the great bassist and head of the jazz programme at the Paris Conservatoire Riccardo Del Fra contacted me and asked me to to come and teach at the Conservatoire for three days, and then shortly after that I got a call from the wonderful Sheila Pratshke, director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais asking me would I be interested in performing at the Jazzy Colors Festival in Paris towards the end of the same week. Taking advantage of being there for these two events, I managed to hook up a third, a long-discussed chance to try out some new music with three great French musicians – the altoist Stéphane Payen, the violinist Dominique Pifarély and the drummer Christophe Lavergne.

But first up was the three-day stint at the Conservatoire – I arrived on a Sunday and had a fantastic dinner courtesy of Riccardo at the Au Boeuf Couronné, one of the last restaurants remaining from the era when the area (which includes the Conservatoire) was the main meat market of Paris. Needless to say they specialise in meat, and equally needless to say they really know how to prepare and serve it. A wonderful meal with good company and a great, and very Parisian way to start the week.

And a fun three days with the students it was too. As one would expect from such a famous school, the playing level of the students is very high. I was working with students from both the BA and Masters programmes, and all of them were very good, all playing at an international professional level (at least technically), and a pleasure to work with. The nice thing about working with young musicians who play at this level is that you can really talk about interesting conceptual and aesthetic things instead of just technical issues. I was there principally to do my rhythm thing – talking about how to develop your rhythmic technique, your time, odd metres, metric modulation etc. etc. - the thing I’ve been doing for years now and am perhaps best known for. So we did some work on that and I gave them some exercises for working with rhythm that are both very simple and also very difficult to do well. There’s a big difference between simple and easy, and often the simplest things are the hardest, (try playing a REALLY slow walking bass line over changes!). If your rhythm in general, and time-feel in particular, is not good, then even if you can play Giant Steps in every key at 360BPM, you’ll still sound terrible.

(At the Conservatoire, if you were ever in any doubt as to the fact that you are in a heavyweight classical school, the names of the rooms will soon set you straight....)

But apart from talking to the students about rhythm we also got to talk a lot about the ‘why’ of what we do. I feel that jazz schools tend to spend their entire focus on how to do everything, but rarely discuss the whys – why should be play this music? Is it important to play this music? If so, to whom? Us? Society? What artistic responsibility do we have? What are we trying to express? Is it important to be different? Should we be trying to innovate? What is our relationship to the audience? Do we have a responsibility to them, or is our primary artistic responsibility to ourselves? What should we be thinking about when the inevitable decision has to be made between playing this music or moving into a more commercial area of the business?

This kind of philosophical discussion is an important one to have with young musicians and particularly important when you’re talking to very talented and highly skilled musicians such as the ones I was working with in the Conservatoire, who are on the cusp of becoming professionals. The students were not only fine players, but great too in terms of their personal attitude, and we had a very nice time working together over the period I was there.

On the Monday I got a Facebook message from my friend Marcelo Coelho in Brazil – I had posted the fact that I was in Paris on FB, and he wrote to let me know that the unique Hermeto Pascoal would be playing in Paris that night. Sometimes the internet is really an amazing invention – a Brazilian guy in Sao Paulo sends a message to an Irish guy who happens to be in Paris for a few days to let him know that there’s a concert he really should go an see while there. You get used to the internet but every now and again you (or at least I) shake your head at the extraordinary things it can do!

So, tickets bought courtesy of Stéphane, he and I set off to see Hermeto that evening. Hermeto was playing at the renowned New Morning club with his ‘Grupo’ a band consisting of a saxophonist, bassist (the great Itabere Zwarg), percussionist, drummer, vocalist, and Hermeto himself on various instruments. As always, the guy is a phenomenon – if you don’t know his music (and you should!), I can say that’s it totally unique, complex yet joyous, brilliantly structured, with a unique sense of harmony, great sing-able melodies and killer rhythms, derived from Brazilian music yet rarely conventional. If you want to hear the kind of thing we heard have a listen to this

This was the second time I’d seen Hermeto and though his genius is undiminished (he did a call/response thing with the audience of over a set of moving changes that was unbelievable in terms of his ability to hear ahead and know what was going to work over the upcoming changes by the time the audience was singing their part), I did notice that he played much less than normal, only took a couple of solos and when he played those solos, the formerly fearsome technique had become ragged. So I’m not sure if he just wasn’t well that night, or whether it’s more a thing related with his age (he is 75 after all!), but it was strange to see this musical dynamo be quite subdued, by his standards at least. But still, the music was fantastic, the band was killing and vibe was as always, joyful and wonderful – I always feel that when you see Hermeto, you’re seeing music the way it should be played, as part of the life-force.

Three very satisfying days at the Conservatoire and then it was on to the next part of the trip – putting together some new music with Stéphane, Dominique and Christophe. Stéphane, Christophe and I had played before and enjoyed the experience very much, and I had played a couple of times with Dominique in a project called Simulacrum a few years previously. I had talked frequently with both Christophe and Dominique about playing together again and my stay in Paris gave us the opportunity to do this.

The music was written by Stéphane and I, and we were just trying out material to see what would work, with a view to developing it further later. It's such a luxury to be able to spend time playing through music without having a specific performance in mind - you can try things out, change things, develop things and have the luxury of time - the one commodity (apart from money...) that's in really short supply in the professional music world.

Stéphane's music and mine is quite different, but compatible. The one common denominator that both musics would have is the extensive use of rhythm as compositional and improvisational devices. Stéphane's pieces tend to be shorter than mine but each section of his pieces usually are capable of being played in several different ways and the music evolves through these variants. Mine tend to be longer and maybe more prescriptive in terms of what goes on - or at least the order of what goes on. But I think the music we both write complement each other and you can hear that we both operate in a similar musical aesthetic. As I mentioned previously Stéphane, Christophe and I had played as a trio before but adding the violin gave the music a whole other sound - the blending of the alto and violin creates a very nice sound, light and flexible. And Dominique is such a great player, easily able to negotiate the rhythmic complexities of the music and immediately understands the conceptual ideas underpinning the pieces.

(Christophe Lavergne)

We rehearsed in an industrial space that some Parisian musicians rent between them - a great idea to have a space like that where you can go and rehearse whenever you need to. So, we worked on the music over a two day period and got a good feeling as to how we could progress it - that was the easy part,now for the more difficult one - getting some gigs and recording!

We don't have any recordings yet of the quartet but here is an example of the trio in action from a couple of years ago......... For music by the quartet - watch this space!

So, the final act in this musical week was the concert at the Irish cultural centre, and on Friday the members of my own group - Michael, Matt and Chris - arrived. I met up with them after the final rehearsal with my French colleagues and we went out for dinner, enjoying the vibrant Parisian eating-out-on-a-Friday vibe. Earlier we'd had a look at the room we'd be playing in and decided that there was no need to get everything set up until late on the following afternoon, which meant a free morning to have a walk around Paris and enjoy the atmosphere and take in the physical beauty of the city. This we duly did, walking around the St Germain district (which,it being November, wasn't too crowded with tourists), and even spending some time in Notre Dame - something I'd never done before even though I've been in Paris so many times.

Chris, Matt and Michael take in the sights.......

The gig that evening was in the Centre, a beautiful building which has a history going back hundreds of years.

I'd played here a couple of times before, in duo with Stéphane and also with the amazing Nguyen Le. It's a wonderful place to play - right in the middle of Paris (near the Pantheon) yet has a tranquil almost isolated feeling. The Centre hosts artists of various kinds, mostly Irish, doing residencies in Paris and there are certainly worse spots you could be in....

And worse places to play too! This gig was far from the poky over-priced Parisian jazz club-type venue - it was in a very nice room at the Centre that had previously hosted an art exhibition. We had to do the usual checking of the acoustic to make sure it wasn't too reverberant and we were pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the sound - often these old buildings can be a bit cavernous and boomy. We did a quick check of the sound, went back to our rooms to change (what a luxury to be staying in the same place we were playing..) and then it was time to play.

And unusually for a jazz gig these days, it was packed. So packed that they had to bring in extra seating - usually they're taking the seating out! So it was really nice to play to a full house and an appreciative audience. The music went well too - we'd done a few warm-up gigs in Dublin in the preceding weeks and this really helped with knowing the music and being able it confidently and feel loose and creative. The audience were terrific, the sound had changed a lot since the soundcheck (it's amazing how much different full room sounds in comparison to an empty one), and we had to alter things a little, but once we got that going everything was fine and we, and I think the audience, had a lot of fun.

Here's our last piece from the evening - a piece of mine (very) loosely based on Scrapple from the Apple'

We played one long set, plus an encore, packed up our stuff and headed out for a late dinner - more great food, more great company.

And that was it - a great week for me, lots of good music, working with talented students, seeing one of music's great geniuses live again, exploring new music with wonderful musicians, playing with my own band to a full house, lots of good food, some great conversations........... Sometimes being a musician can be OK.

Here's to the next time......

Monday, December 5, 2011

Swinging with John and Joey

I was tidying my attic music room (just a little, it’s still a shambles) and I came across this video that I’d completely forgotten that I had. It’s from a tour I did in Ireland in 2008 with Michael Buckley, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron. I remember I stuck up a camera behind the sound desk at the Belfast gig and let it run. It’s always interesting to listen to music that you were involved with but can’t remember the details of, and this was the case for me with this clip. I haven’t checked out the rest of the recording, but I’m definitely going to – this tune feels so good!

This was a trio piece – a lovely tune of John’s called ‘Jazz Folk’, and it swings along really nicely. One thing I do remember about this is that we played it in the second set – we had to cut the first set short because one of the guitar amps had malfunctioned, and I remember John being really annoyed about it. Years of using what he describes as ‘amp du jour’ has made him weary of getting either the wrong kind of amps or getting ones, like this one, that didn’t work properly. So during the intermission he was quite pissed off and when we took to the stage for the second set the vibe definitely was a bit on the wrong side of enthusiastic.... But Joey kind of took over and just vibed us back into good spirits, both in the way he played and with audible shouts of encouragement – it was really something to see the way his infectious joy at playing music just steamrollered over the difficulties we’d had and the bad vibes that had resulted. He dragged us along by the scruff of the neck and soon everyone was smiling again. You can clearly see Joey’s amazing spirit in the video.

And check out Joey’s incredible swing feel too – the brush playing, the power of his quarter note. Joey is well known for his playing at the cutting edge of contemporary jazz (Masada, Tongue in Grove, Dave Douglas etc.) but I think a lot of young drummers could learn a lot from looking at this and seeing how great he is at playing in the swing tradition over song form. It’s an object lesson in being aware of where this music comes from and being able to really deal with the skills involved in swing playing over structure. Also this is a masterclass in how a drummer can orchestrate a ‘slow burn’ - the way Joey almost imperceptibly turns up the gas over several choruses is a classic example of this concept.

And of course John is his unique self – lyrical, individual, non-clichéd – every phrase flowing from the last with wonderful musical logic and improvisational virtuosity. And ‘Jazz Folk’ is yet another in the long list of lyrical songs (‘Labor Day’, ‘Even Steven’ etc) that John has written – lovely miniatures that stick in your musical memory hours after the music has finished.

I must have a look and see what else I can dig up from this gig – looks like it was a good one! You can see more from the tour – Here and Here

Now to get back to cleaning the attic...........

Monday, November 28, 2011

You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone.......

The passing of Paul Motian has again shown the truth in the adage that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.......... And reading the outpouring of tributes to Motian it struck me again what a shame it is that we don’t celebrate great people enough while they’re still around. Despite all the evidence to the contrary we seem to persevere in the belief that these people are immortal and will always be with us. Since his death, there have been been wonderful anecdotes about Motian from people who knew him – would it be so bad to hear all these kinds of anecdotes about great players while they’re still around? I definitely feel I’ve got a more rounded picture of Motian the man since his colleagues and friends spoke so honestly about him and how they felt about him.

There is little need for me to add more to the accolades that have been made about his playing – he was a truly great jazz drummer and musician and hugely influential, and we are lucky that he was so prolific in his performing and recording right up to the end. So instead of adding anything specific myself I would like to point you in the direction of some great online postings about Paul Motian:

Peter Hum invited musicians to speak about their personal experiences of Motian here

Ted Panken republished a wonderful interview with Motian here

And Canadian drummer Ted Warren wrote beautifully about what we can learn from Motian’s life and career here

And finally, something appropriate...........

Friday, November 18, 2011

Let's try and get the Mingus film made!

Despite how it may seem from the availability of everything on Youtube, jazz is scandalously underrepresented in the field of serious documentaries. Yes, there are good films on Monk, Miles, Coltrane etc. but in comparison to other genres such as classical music or rock, good jazz documentaries are thin on the ground. Kevin Mingus, grandson of one of the true greats of jazz - Charles Mingus - is trying to redress that balance a little by making a film about the legendary bassist and composer.

He's trying to get it funded to the tune of €45,000 - a laughably small amount by documentary standards, but a daunting amount in the face of the realities of the economics of the jazz world. He's trying to get it funded through the Kickstarter website - you can go to the site and pledge some money to this very worthy and historically important project here.

Here is the Kickstarter video - this whole project looks great, let's try and help make it happen!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

On The Road with Lieb

It’s been my privilege to know Dave Liebman for over twenty five years. Of course I’ve known him from his recordings long before that - ‘Lookout Farm’ on the Horizon label, the legendary burning and swinging solo on ‘I Concentrate On You’ from The Opal Hearted Aborigine, his passionate and intelligent playing on Steve Swallow’s “Home” album, and the incendiary playing on Elvin’s ‘Live At The Lighthouse’. Of course he was also well known for his work with Miles, but I didn’t get to know those recordings till later. I first met him in person when I attended the Banff Jazz Workshop as a student in 1986. Dave was a member of an extraordinary faculty that was led by Dave Holland, and he made a huge impression on me as a teacher, a philosopher about the music and life, and was (and is), the embodiment of someone who has devoted their lives to the playing and teaching of jazz, and of living a life at the highest level of creative music.

I got to know Dave at the workshop and I played with him for the first time the following year, (a memorable gig with Sonny Fortune, Richie Beirach and Billy Hart, with me hanging on for dear life!), and recorded with him for the first time in 1989 with the Guilfoyle/Nielsen Trio, a group that developed a long term playing relationship with Dave and with whom we toured in Europe and Australia and made two recordings. Since then I’ve played with Dave on many occasions, recorded with him, taught with him, worked with him on the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting, got to know his great family, and generally hung out with him and discussed life, music, and the universe on innumerable occasions. So it was with great pleasure that I welcomed him back to Ireland for a short tour this past October – this is an account of what we did........

The tour was built around three trio gigs, with the addition of the great young Finnish drummer Jussi Lehtonen. I was lucky to get Jussi, he had come in at quite short notice when the original drummer (who shall be nameless) did the unpardonable thing of double-booking himself, leaving me with a headache as how to get a suitable drummer at such short notice, and him (the original drummer) with the reality of never being called again.......

I had played with Jussi before and always enjoyed it, and we had recently hooked up again briefly at the IASJ Meeting in Sao Paulo and had fun playing. And I knew Jussi’s great feel, intensity and sense of spontaneity would be ideal for this gig. Because this gig was based around open playing – I hesitate to use the term ‘free playing’ because like any musical term to describe a style of playing it can have so many different meanings to different people. I’d done this type of thing with Dave before with different drummers (Jim Black, Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits a.o.) and it’s always been so much fun. It was Dave’s idea – he’d heard me play some of my original music, which involved a lot of complex rhythmic elements, and had suggested playing in trio with that complex rhythmic vibe, but no pre-arranged music – free but rhythmic. ‘I want to play that hula-dula shit, but I don’t want to rehearse!’ was Dave’s hilarious and memorable phrase when he made the initial suggestion. So that was the (very loose) plan for the gigs.

Dave arrived early from NY, I picked him up at the airport, drove to the hotel, he checked in and then we hung out for a while catching up – Lieb has amazing energy and stamina – there he was after a transatlantic flight, and despite having a full schedule ahead of him, choosing to hang and chew the fat rather than go striaght to bed and rest. Eventually he went to bed and later I picked him up, we had lunch and then he did a saxophone masterclass at the school before we headed off for the soundcheck at Whelan’s - a famous Dublin live music venue where I’d played with Dave several times before. So many soundchecks these days become surrogate rehearsals due to the lack of proper rehearsal time before the gigs – but because of the format we’d be playing in there was nothing to rehearse – a very liberating feeling. Tom Rainey once said to me that the four most important words at a soundcheck are ‘sounds great, let’s eat’ - and this was one of those mercifully quick soundchecks.

The gig itself was packed and was musically great. In some jazz quarters playing open or ‘free’ is still considered to be a cop-out, as if it’s easier somehow than playing changes. But playing good music has everything to do with imagination, creativity, experience and attitude and nothing to do with the format you choose to express yourself in. Playing open is hard – to do it well and make good music you have to be listening all the time and creating your own structures in real time. When you’re playing changes (which is not easy either....) you at least have the song form as a prefabricated structure to base your improvisations on – with open playing those structures have to be put together on the spot.

For me, I find this kind of playing calls upon certain aspects of my decision making processes that are not called into play as much in song-form playing. You’re constantly called upon to decide when to play and when not to play, when to go with the flow of the others or when to go in the opposite direction, when to follow and when to lead, when to start something and when to let somebody else start something, when to reinforce the direction and vibe of what’s going on and when to suggest possible other directions and vibes. Everyone in the band needs to have this decision making ability and be open to both leading and following, directing and complementing. Just having one guy in the band who is not in sympathy with this concept will destroy the whole thing. But on this occasion, with this group of musicians, everyone was on the same page aesthetically and so the music took off from the word go.

Myself, Michael Buckley (flute), and Jussi Lehtonen at Whelan's

We played the first set in the trio format, and then in the second set Dave invited two musicians to join us – the saxophonist Michael Buckley, and my son Chris, who’s a guitarist. Michael is a really great saxophonist and has played with Lieb before – he makes a perfect foil for Dave, has a fantastic sense of when to play and when not to, plays the shit out of the horn (to use a technical term), and is a wonderful improviser. He’s also that very rare animal – a truly great jazz flute player. Dave always enjoys playing with him, has taken him on tour with him, and always invites him to sit in whenever he plays in Dublin.

Chris is just starting out in the professional jazz world, though of course he’s been around the music all his life and is now starting to make his way on the scene. He spent a week in August with Dave at his chromatic harmony workshop and Lieb invited him to sit in on the Dublin gig. I was confident that he’d be OK being thrown in at the deep end like this – I knew how he plays, and also knew that Lieb wouldn’t invite him to play unless he felt he was ready for it. And the music turned out even better than expected, with the five of us really gelling from the word go – here’s a flavour of it, taken from the last section of the concert – a real, old fashioned improvised burn-out!

The next day featured a workshop at the school and a very different kind of concert. The concert took the form of a talk by Dave on his time with Miles – this year is the 20th anniversary of the death of Miles and I took the opportunity to set up an evening where Dave would talk about his experiences with Miles in a kind of illustrated lecture – I’d seen Dave do a similar thing on Coltrane a few years earlier and knew he was an entertaining and erudite public speaker, well capable of communicating with members of the general public, towards whom this event was aimed. The music would be provided by Dave playing with Trilogue, my improvising chamber trio featuring two wonderful musicians – the vocalist Sarah Buechi and the pianist
Izumi Kimura

I had done two arrangements – one of ‘Blue in Green’ with seriously altered harmony (in tribute to Dave’s ground breaking work in this area), and ‘Half Nelson’ a piece from the 50s with similar changes to ‘Ladybird’. I radically altered this piece so that the changes would only occur at the end, before that the improv was based off fragments of the melody and allowed Sarah and Izumi to do duo improvisations with Dave, before he and I took over and played the changes and took the head out in conventional manner. We ran the pieces down and Lieb suggested a few changes to my arrangements, all of which worked, and we knew it would be fine. But before the gig Dave had another thing to do – a workshop for the teachers at my school.

Usually workshops and clinics are always aimed at students, but I think it’s a great idea to occasionally have pedagogical workshops that give the teachers something to think and talk about. And there’s nobody more qualified to talk about pedagogy than Dave who’s both a great teacher and also a great believer in the importance of jazz education. He’s the founder and Artistic Director of the International Association of Schools of Jazz and a real force in education. So who better to talk to the teachers than him? It was a very valuable experience for all concerned – Lieb covered many different topics about the philosophy of education, too many to go into here, but here’s a flavour of it – in this clip Dave is talking about the importance of keeping in mind the beauty and mystery of music when teaching.

Dave Liebman talks about teaching by NewparkMusic

From there to the gig at the National Concert Hall - a very different venue to Whelan’s where we’d played the night before..... The audience was very different too, the Whelan’s audience had a high quotient of students and hardcore jazz fans, the Miles talk had an older audience with a higher quotient of ‘civilians’ than the night before. Some footage of Dave playing with Miles was shown and Lieb gave a very entertaining talk full of good anecdotes and insights, and the music went well, we even spontaneously added in another duo piece - “Nardis’ - with Dave on piano.

The following morning there was time for one more workshop, this time for the students, before heading off to Limerick. We had almost the entire student body there and Dave gave them an inspiring talk that covered a lot of areas – practice, transcription, seriousness of purpose etc. all peppered with great anecdotes calculated to both inspire and entertain. It was a typical Lieb call to arms for the jazz army, and the students set off from the workshop with a new sense of purpose while we set off for Limerick with a sense of purpose of our own!

After the Whelan’s performance Lieb invited Chris to join us for the rest of the tour, so we set off for Limerick as a quartet. As any working musician can attest to, travelling can be a drag, but, as I’m sure they can also attest to, it also gives you a chance to to listen to music, talk about music, and life, the universe and everything... And this we duly did as we drove around Ireland over the next couple of days. Lieb is really fun to travel with in this regard because he of course has so many stories and anecdotes, but he’s also interested in your stories and is incredibly opinionated and argumentative – but in the best possible way. Opinions are strongly (and very humorously) expressed, but differing opinions are given due consideration too. I’m quite opinionated and argumentative myself, so we had a great time chewing the fat, batting opinions back and forth, arguing, discussing, listening to music.

We talked about so many things – speculating on how the Coltrane/Elvin saxophone and drum thing originated, (did it just happen one night and they kept it and developed it, or was it discussed and tried out as a preconceived idea?), how one measures whether one has made a positive impact on the world or whether one hasn’t, music collectives (including a great anecdote about the setting up of Free Life Communication the music collective Dave and many other now famous musicians were involved with in the 70s), some Elvin and Miles stories, and a hilarious, passionate, and outraged rant from Dave about a recent experience he’d had with a ‘name’ player who ‘absolutely-could-not-play!!!’ And I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’m going to tell you who that was – ‘what goes on the road stays on the road’, it’s like the seal of the confessional.........

Limerick is the third largest city in Ireland and were were playing for the Limerick Jazz Society a great organisation that’s been putting on jazz concerts in the city for over 20 years. Ireland is a small country and jazz is a minority music so it’s tough to promote the music and put on concerts and all of that, but LJS have been indefatigable stalwarts in promoting the music, have developed an audience, and it’s always a pleasure to play there. On this occasion John Daly – drummer and one of the leading lights in the LJS – has arranged for Dave to do a workshop before the gig for a group of people who attend jazz workshops organised by the LJS. This is a very different audience from the full-time student one Dave had at Newpark that morning – these were adults who are studying the music on a part-time basis and it was fascinating to watch Lieb seamlessly tailor his approach to the situation. We opened the proceedings by playing ‘Autumn Leaves’ and then Dave took questions and everything went well, with Dave, as is his wont, being both informative and entertaining.

Lieb talks jazz at the LJS

A quick dinner (a great thing about the venue - Dolan's - is that they serve very good food downstairs) and then the gig. It's a very guitaristic night this night because in the second set we were joined by Joe O Callaghan, a great guitarist with whom I’ve worked many times before, and who played with me the last time Lieb came to ireland in 2007. So between Joe and Chris the set is very guitar-heavy, but lots of fun to play because the vibe is completely different to the Whelan’s gig. The sonic landscape is very dense, but both guitarists play differently enough to make it interesting and Joe plays one extraordinary intro to a tune in duo with Lieb – completely improvised (as is all the music of course) but feeling like they had worked everything out in advance, so nuanced was the interplay......Jussi was completely grooving, creative and generally killing – again.

The next day we head off to Cork, Ireland’s second largest city, home of Ireland’s biggest jazz festival, but more importantly for Irish jazz musicians, the home of the Triskel Arts Centre, one of the best venues in which to play creative music in Ireland. I’ve always had a good time playing there and have played so many great gigs with great players over the years, including several there with Dave. But this time there’s a new element involved, they have a new auditorium, much admired anecdotally, but this is the first time for me to see it in person. And it’s beautiful! A converted church with state of art sound equipment and great sight lines for the audience.

Triskel Arts Centre

The previous venue was small and very intimate, this is much bigger and impressive, but also has a consequently more reverberant acoustic – ‘Looks like we’re going to have to go ECM’ was Lieb’s half-joking remark, but contained in the humour is a core of pragmatism – the kind of burn-out stuff we did in Dublin, or guitar-heavy music we did in limerick, would never work in this space.

We soundchecked (including Dave trying out Jussi's cymbals and the Triskel's drums) and though the sound is different to the old auditorium, it's a pleasure to be working with the soundman Dennis again. Any musician will tell you that having a sound engineer who knows what he, (or she) is doing and knows how to amplify acoustic instruments and doesn't try and turn everything into a rock gig, is a pearl beyond price. And Dennis is one of those pearls! The soundcheck is quick and painless, a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant and then it's back to the gig.

The gig itself is very enjoyable - the different sound does discourage certain types of approaches, but encourages others that just wouldn't sound good in a drier acoustic. We play a lot more spacious music on this occasion and it's a pleasure to hear the sound of the instruments in that space. Included in the performance (as it is on all the gigs) is what we call a 'free ballad' - the idea being that we approach the piece as if we were playing a typical 'Lover Man' or 'Body and Soul' type ballad, but there are no pre-agreed changes or form. Ballad vibe and feel, but open - here's an excerpt from the very spacious and lyrical one we did at the Triskel:

And that was it - four days in which Dave did 3 gigs, 3 completely different workshops, one rehearsal, and a lecture/performance. Dave turned 65 this year, but he has the energy of somebody 30 years younger, always gives 110% in everything he does and of course is still one of the truly great jazz musicians around today. He's always been an inspiration and example for me, and of course for so many others over the years. I had a great time on the tour - here's to the next one!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Blog Hiatus

I'm on the road for the next couple of weeks, so I'll be taking a break from attending to the blog during that time. Back in a while - thanks for all the interest and comments.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Listening Again (2) - Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire

I have included several sound clips from the subject of this post - all are very short and are intended as a taster for the music on the album, and to illustrate various points. If you're interested in this music please go and buy the album, support the musicians and enjoy its full sonic beauty - don't settle for some crappy compressed version on Youtube!

I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Birds of Fire’ – I was fourteen years old, and I was in a friend’s house, in the kitchen (where they had a record player for some now unfathomable reason). We were all prog-rock guys – King Crimson, Gentle Giant etc. and considered ourselves to be very sophisticated (no Black Sabbath for us!) in the superior way that only teenage boys can. I had been raised on classical and jazz music and had been exposed to pop music for the first time only the year before (seriously!). I had a brief flirtation with pop music, an even briefer one with Heavy Metal and then discovered King Crimson, which probably appealed subconsciously to my need for and experience of listening to structurally more complex music. And subconscious rather than conscious would have been an accurate description of my musical knowledge or expertise at that time.

So, back to my friend’s kitchen - he produced the album, (which had a very satisfyingly intriguing cover featuring soaring birds), put the record on the turntable, lowered the needle and…….. And basically my musical life changed from the moment I first heard the gong being struck and shimmering through some kind of phaser effect, followed by a dense and dark arpeggiated guitar figure, in what is one of the most dramatic opening moments of any album in my opinion. I sat there transfixed and almost shocked – I really had never heard anything like this. In retrospect I realize that I had in fact heard some of the elements of this music in other contexts – both classical and jazz – but at the time it just sounded like music coming from another planet.

And to cut a long story short, it set me off on a journey that returned me to jazz, and planted the seed of being a jazz musician inside me.

What’s interesting to me, almost forty years later, is that the music on ‘Birds of Fire’ not only has a function in my own personal history, but objectively, listening to it now, it more than stands up to the scrutiny of the decades. It’s still great music, on any level, and looking at it now, knowing what I know now and having the experiences I’ve had in the intervening years since I first heard it, I realize what a unique musical document it is – something that had never been done before, and has never really been done again – even by the protagonists involved in my opinion.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was an interesting band for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it was probably the most multi-national major group in the history of jazz. There was only one American in it (Jerry Goodman), a Czech (Jan Hammer), a Panamanian (Billy Cobham), an Englishman (McLaughlin), and an Irish man – the bassist Rick Laird - someone we were very proud of around here because he came from my home town of Dun Laoghaire. Laird had left Dublin many years before Mahavishnu and gone to Australia and later London where he became the house bassist in Ronnie Scott’s club and accompanied an endless stream of American jazz legends including Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Ben Webster, Clark Terry etc etc. This was where McLaughlin, (who went to New York at the behest of Tony Williams who wanted him for the seminal ‘Lifetime’ band) had met Laird. London had an amazing scene in those days with future giants such as John Surman, John Taylor and Dave Holland all playing on the scene.

All of the Mahavishnu group had a jazz pedigree with the exception of Goodman who came from more of a rock background. Mclaughlin had played with Miles and Williams, Jan Hammer with Sarah Vaughan and Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham with Miles and Horace Silver, and Laird with just about everyone (He's almost certainly the only bassist to have played with both Wes Montgomery and John McLaughlin). Yet the music they produced was not a ‘jazz’ sound. This is the early 70s, post-Bitches Brew, post-Lifetime, all the instruments except the drums are electric, there are no swing feel pieces and odd metres abound. Both McLaughlin and Cobham played with Miles (together on Jack Johnson) and were among the Miles diaspora who created the genre that is now known as Fusion, but was known then as Jazz-Rock. And apart from Goodman, McLaughlin had connections with the rock scene, jamming with Jimi Hendrix, and playing in the same London rock/blues scene that produced Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

The group had been around for a while and ‘Birds of Fire’ was its second album. The first, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ caused a bit of a sensation on its release, its combination of instrumental virtuosity, complex time signatures, electric instruments and rock energy proved hugely popular and the band became an overnight sensation, selling a phenomenal amount of albums for an instrumental group. This album has always had its advocates as THE Mavishnu album, but for me it’s more like a prototype for what was to come rather than a definitive statement. I don’t think the compositions are as interesting or the sound as developed as on ‘Birds of Fire’ and I think at times it lapses into the solo-histrionics-over-static-rhythm-section-groove that was to so blight the Jazz-Rock movement as a whole, and which was to even become apparent on the Mahavishnu’s later live album between ‘Nothingness and Eternity’ - a blitzkrieg of duelling soloists and impossible tempos delivered with great virtuosity to an audibly ecstatic audience in Central Park. But between the bookends of these two albums the band delivered what was to be a seminal recording, both vastly influential on musicians of my generation and beyond, and also featuring music that has more than stood the test of time.

So what’s so special about this recording? It’s a combination of things - first of all there’s a cohesiveness about the entire album, it feels like something that was conceived as a whole rather than as a series of tracks that were put together to make an album. In the manner of ‘A Love Supreme’, ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Blues and The Abstract Truth’, a consistent atmosphere hovers over the whole album – the music feels all of a piece and not episodic in any way. It’s a much better recorded album than the previous one and this helps to create the feeling of an over-arching musical intelligence at work.

Then there is the sound of the music, much of which is due to the unusual instrumentation. Guitar, violin and keyboards combine together to give the music a lightness that is unexpected considering the gnarliness, chromaticism, and dense rhythmic tangle of much of the music. Jan Hammer featured the Moog extensively in the music, and these early monophonic synths didn’t have a a very wide sonic range, so Hammer favours the higher register which blends very well with the electric violin and guitar. The sonic spectrum of the front line instruments favours the upper register and they
create so homogenous a sound that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s soloing where........

At the time I first listened to this music I was just blown away by it in its entirety, and it sounded to me like something that had come out of nowhere. But looking at it from many years later, and with thousands of musician’s flying hours under my belt, I can see the many influences that are in this music. The influence of Hendrix and the electric guitar culture of the 60s is easy to discern, what’s perhaps not so immediately apparent is the influence of Coltrane of the ‘Love Supreme’ period – but it’s there in McLaughlin’s playing – listen to the Coltrane-like way he soars chromatically over the shifting odd metre groove of the title track.

Another interesting thing to my ears now, having spent a lot of time over the past 20 years studying the rhythmic aspects of South Indian music, is just how much Carnatic music influenced McLaughlin’s writing in this period. Later of course he went on to form Shakti, (and presage the jazz meets world music movement by about twenty years), but he made a serious study of the Veena and this clearly be heard both in the sound of some of the melodies he composed and in the rhythmic structures of the odd metres he used which are clearly related to the tala structures of Carnatic music, while the structure of the melody, in a typical McLaughlin-ism, is clearly related to both Indian music and the blues

But I think McLaughlin not only used Indian music in his own writing, he very probably influenced other members of the group in this respect. On ‘One Word’ - which Cobham famously opens with a snare drum roll that has left generations of drummers in open mouthed disbelief – the drum groove that Cobham uses has no real precedent in jazz, yet is very common in Mridangam grooves of South India. Here is a percussion group from South India

And here is Cobham on ‘One Word’

Was Cobham checking out Indian percussion at the behest of McLaughlin? It certainly sounds like it!

But not all the pieces were either lightning fast, or odd metre workouts, the group could also get in the pocket with the best of them - ‘Miles Ahead’ is almost Headhunter-esque

But Headhunters would never have done anything as radical with this groove as Cobham and McLaughlin do later in the piece

Or how about this haunting Moog solo on ‘Sanctuary’, played over the shifting metre of the rhythm section, evoking an atmosphere worthy of the quieter passages of ‘The Rite of Spring’..............

There is just so much great music on this album – so many different ideas and approaches yet all contained within a very unique and immediately identifiable sound. The virtuosity of the players, even at a distance of forty years, is amazing (has there ever been a greater guitar right hand technique in jazz than McLaughlin’s? How can he play at that speed, with such rhythmic accuracy yet never slur anything!?), yet the virtuosity is put at the service of the music and is never subservient to it. Unfortunately the success of the Mahavishnu unleashed a slew of poor imitations all vying with each other to be the fastest, loudest highest.......

And unfortunately the Mahavishnu itself imploded not long afterwards, with the other members of the band wanting a share of the composing duties (McLaughlin had previously been the sole composer)– which wasn’t a great idea as evidenced by the release years later of ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’ which featured compositions by Hammer, Laird and Goodman, none of which rises to the heights of the earlier McLaughlin compositions. Internal disagreements ensured the the disintegration of the band, but by the time they split up they had already fallen from the heights of ‘Birds of Fire’ and had allowed their virtuosity to take precedent over the other elements of their music. But for a while their flame really did burn brightly, inventing a whole genre, influencing and inspiring countless musicians and creating one of the greatest albums of the modern jazz era.

Here they are in their prime playing in London in 1972 – chops and ideas to go, and notice the quote of the 'Jack Johnson' riff, which McLaughlin almost certainly wrote despite Miles being credited with it.............

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Physician, Heal Thyself

So Branford is at it again......... He gave his verdict on students a while back (‘students today are completely full of shit’), and now his wrath has become broader and is turned on jazz music itself (‘There’s so little of it that’s actually good, that when it’s good, it shocks me’). In doing this he joined another A-list musician, Kurt Rosenwinkel who recently created a furore by stating that most jazz sucks He recently recanted a little, (didn’t have the courage of his convictions once the proverbial shit hit the fan?), but unfortunately this phenomenon of well known musicians, (who really should have better things to do other than pronouncing judgement on everybody else), lashing out at all and sundry doesn’t seem to be going away.

I don’t think any of these guys should be wasting their time thumping the pulpit like this (don’t they have any music they could be working on.....?), but I think it’s particularly true of Branford. At least with Kurt you’re dealing with an influential musician, but with Branford? He is certainly a famous musician and he is a also a great musician, and a great player of the saxophone. And the combination of his abilities and his association with Wynton, the Tonight Show, Sting etc will ensure he’ll always be a crowd-puller and (luckily for his students) will never have to take a teaching job to make ends meet. But Branford, for all his fame and ability, has never had an influence on the jazz mainstream – his music, for all its accomplishment, has always been too derivative.

The closest that Branford has gotten to being musically influential on the international jazz scene would have been during the time he and Wynton were doing the wonderful ‘Black Codes’ music in the early to mid-80s – more than twenty years ago. That music had a genuine impact and you can hear its influence even today. But since then Branford’s jazz playing has been remarkable for how unremarkable it is. Yes he’s a virtuoso, yes he knows the history of the saxophone and can demonstrate different stylistic influences at will. Yes his quartet members can all really play. No question. But when was the last time the jazz world was excitedly anticipating the release of Branford’s next album? Branford dismisses the idea that jazz has to always be new to be good (something I’d agree with actually....), but in his case it comes over as being one of those ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ things, since he himself has not produced anything new, (as opposed to well played), in a very long time.

Even as a tenor player – and he really is a virtuoso – he’s not particularly influential. He’s been on the scene for a long time, but I’ve never heard a young saxophonist who sounded like they were influenced by Branford. He’s a great player, he’s in the public eye more than almost any other jazz saxophonist, with a public recognition that goes way beyond the narrow jazz audience. So why isn’t he influential on players of his own instrument? Because, for all his accomplishment and virtuosity, he’s too derivative. I think he’s a stylist – I think I’d recognise his playing when I heard it, (as long as he wasn’t doing one of his all too common Branford does Sonny, or Branford does Trane schticks), but it’s not different enough and hasn’t enough individuality to attract young players in the way that Joe Lovano, Mark Turner and Chris Potter do.

Of course Branford is entitled to his opinion – after all, what is a blog such as this one if not an opinion piece? And he could well point the finger at me and ask what have I ever done that was influential? Fair enough, but then again I’m not the one pronouncing judgement on the entire jazz scene and telling everyone that they’re not good enough. The artists that people like Branford name-check as being exemplars of the highest level of jazz achievement, and to whom they look to for inspiration (sometimes to the point of blatant imitation) - people such as Rollins or Coltrane - never spent any of their time criticising their colleagues. They were far more concerned with developing their own music than telling everyone else how to do it.

Even if Branford were a much more influential and innovative musician than he is, it would be drag to have him pontificating on ‘the problem with jazz’ in the way that he has. The fact that he has done so little truly original work over the past twenty five years puts him in a very weak position to be pointing the finger at others - at least artistically, commercially of course we could all take lessons from him.

If Branford really wants to change the music, it would be much better if he found something in his own music that interested enough musicians to make them change the way they play. Just telling them, (in an incredibly arrogant way) that they’re all wrong, while presiding over such a narrow bandwidth of artistic achievement himself, is never going to work.

PS. My argument is based around the opinion that Branford’s own musical output puts him in a weak position to tell others what to do, for a reasoned response to the arguments that Branford puts forward, have a look at Peter Hum’s blog

Miles and Trane - Two Beautiful Aberrations

If, like me, you're a hard-core Miles and Coltrane fan, with a particular interest in the latter half of their careers, you will no doubt have amassed a pretty large collection of live performances, either in audio format, or very commonly these days, on video or DVD. And if you have a large collection of live performances, you pretty much know what to expect in terms of the set-lists of these bands, and the tunes they most commonly played. With Trane, you probably have dozens of versions of “Impressions”, “Afro–Blue”, and perhaps a few of “Chasin’ The Trane”. With Miles, you probably have multiple versions of “Round Midnight”, “So What”, and “Walkin”. These guys' repertoires did change over time, but slowly, and by listening to these recordings you can get a good idea of what pieces they liked to play and explore.

But every now and then there's a surprise........a tune you rarely if ever hear them play, and it can be really interesting when this happens. For me as a working musician I always wonder what prompted the bandleader to call the tune on that particular night? Were they just tired of the regular repertoire? Was it a sudden impulse? Could it have been a request? Actually, that last possibility is unrealistic in the case of Miles, and probably in Coltrane's case too. But for whatever reason they decided to call it, for me it's always a real bonus to hear a familiar band playing unfamiliar repertoire, and recently I came across two great examples of pieces you wouldn't normally associate with - a) Miles second great quintet of the 60s (with Shorter, Corea, Holland and DeJohnette), and b) Coltrane’s great quartet - being played in live performances, in what, as much as I can tell, were one-offs.

In the case of Coltrane, its a version of “Autumn Leaves” performed in Graz in 1962. I was really surprised to come across this, I have never heard of Coltrane playing ‘Autumn Leaves’, even when he was with Miles, though no doubt he may have done since it was such a staple part of Miles’ repertoire for such a long time. But as far as I know he never recorded it with Miles, certainly not in the studio and in none of the live recordings I’ve heard. So it was a real surprise to come across this recently, and again I was intrigued to think about why Coltrane decided to play this tune on this particular evening.

And they played it quite straight too, with no arrangement. McCoy begins by playing the melody, and as was often the case with that band, takes the first solo. This is McCoy in really swinging mode – of course McCoy always swung, but here he’s playing a bit closer to the original changes than he subsequently would as the group evolved. There’s definitely traces of the McCoy of ‘Inception’ here, which was recorded with Elvin and Art Davis in the same year. Elvin demonstrates his uniquely virile brush technique and shows just how great a brush player he was and how great brushes can be at driving a fast tempo along – something you don’t hear too often, especially these days when great brush playing is at a premium and seems to have become the preserve of Brazilian drummers such as Edu Ribeiro and Kiko Freitas. After a while Elvin changes to sticks which is unusual in itself, as there are very few recordings of Elvin where he changes from brushes to sticks – usually, such as on Tommy Flanagan’s great ‘Eclypso’ album, once he starts on brushes he stays on them. Coltrane’s live recording of ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ is an exception and he changes to brushes for the soprano solo. Here he switches also – though interestingly he does so during the piano solo and half way through the form, giving the piece a lift in an unexpected place.

All of this gives the music a real wind-up for Coltrane’s entry, though they’re still swinging in a quite conventional way by the time he comes in - on soprano. In a way this treatment of Autumn Leaves is a bit like the aforementioned ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ in the way McCoy sets it up, Elvin changes to sticks and Coltrane plays his solo on soprano. I can’t think of any other ‘standard’ kind of tune that Coltrane chose to play on soprano – usually he used it for extended churning 3/4 modal pieces such as ‘My Favourite Things’ or ‘Afro-Blue’. But here it’s used on a burning swing piece, over the changes of one of the most ubiquitous standards of all. Unusual in itself, but what’s also unusual is the fact the solo is almost all 8th notes – in fact it’s a masterclass in burning 8th note playing over changes and how to seamlessly move in and out of them. Elvin and McCoy really get it going behind Trane’s solo and by 7.30 they’re thundering, with that giant dotted quarter being brought in when reinforcements are needed. To drop into Jazz Robot argot for a moment – completely killing!

Again, I’d love to know why Trane chose to play this tune this one time – maybe he just felt like burning up some II-Vs! By the way – the tempo hardly budges despite the whole band being on fire by the end – how did Elvin do that!?

The second surprise is Miles’ second great quintet of the 60s playing ‘Milestones’ at Juan Les Pins in 1969. Now Milestones was of course played many times by the seminal quintet with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams, had been transformed from a loping swinging modal piece into an up-tempo burner, (often at around 300bpm), and was given the full abstract treatment on live recordings such as ‘Live at the Plugged Nickel’, but by the time the second quintet was extant it had disappeared from the repertoire. However here it makes a comeback as a loping swing tune at about 190bpm– at least at the beginning.

Again, as far as I know there are no other recordings of this piece with this band, and I’m sure there were people in the audience, devotees of the good old days of ‘Kind of Blue’ and the Gil Evans recordings who were probably horrified by what they were hearing with this band, only to be apparently thrown a lifeline when Miles starts this familiar theme in a familiar way. But their relief must have been short-lived – Miles solos quite conventionally for a few choruses and then gradually gets more animated and agitated, setting it up for Wayne (I’d love to know what Miles said to Wayne as they passed each other at 3.50.....), who starts to move it outwards, with the help of the rhythm section, and then the piece takes on the familiar contour with this band – Miles plays pretty much over the form, Wayne starts to stretch it and then Chick, Dave, and Jack take it completely out. The rhythm section were definitely going for a different thing than Miles and Wayne, really into stretching everything beyond breaking point and using the themes as a jumping off point to collective improvisation, rather than as structures to solo over. And it’s interesting to see Miles in the background, clearly paying close attention while the young guys are doing their open thing. This band was definitely the closest Miles ever got to playing in an open and free context.

So, were they playing ‘Milestones’ every night (if so there are no other recordings of it as far as I know)? The ending seems almost like an arrangement, but Wayne and Miles were so telepathic and had played together for so long by this time, they could have improvised this ending too. Or did Miles spontaneously decide to play it? I suspect the latter, partly due to the non-existence of other examples of the band playing 'Milestones'. And partly due to a fantastic story Dave Liebman told me about Miles, while playing with the ‘On The Corner/Agharta’ band, suddenly going into ‘Milestones’, and just playing the theme and then walking off the stage leaving chaos in his wake - Mtume, Michael Henderson and the two guitarists, wrestling with the form and upsetting Al Foster (who loved the earlier music) so much that he was in tears after the gig.

There are no tears here though – just incredible playing. Hearing a great band play unfamiliar material somehow reinforces their greatness. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Saying hello to the bass again......

Having spent the past few weeks writing a guitar concerto (more on this soon), it's so nice to come back and just play a standard.......

Monday, August 22, 2011

To Play or Not To Play?

Recently I took part in a very interesting discussion as to whether jazz critics should be able to play jazz or not. I came down on the side of 'yes - someone writing about the music should have some knowledge of how it works on a technical level'.

I think jazz has suffered very often at the hands of critics who have no idea of how the music works and come up with some extraordinarily half-baked ideas when writing about the music. I remember seeing Chick Corea being referred to in Downbeat as a 'chops-meister', and seeing Monk's 'Little Rootie Tootie' being referred to as 'Little Tutti Frutti' by a jazz 'critic' in Jazz Times, etc. etc. Of course this is just ignorance and bad journalism rather than a misunderstanding of a technical detail, but a musician with a working knowledge of the music would never make either of those statements. And I've always enjoyed reading musicians writing about music, and I think they should do it more often, rather than leaving the field only for the writers. I wrote extensively about this subject a while ago

But many great jazz critics responded to this question in this article, some pro the idea of being able to play in order to write, and some con - all make cogent points and it's a fascinating read for anyone interested in how the music is written about.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sao Paulo - The IASJ Meeting (Part 2)

The second part of my report on the recent IASJ meeting in Sao Paulo in July 2011. For part one go here

Day 4

Today is a very Brazilian kind of day – it begins and ends with Choro.

Opening up the day we’re treated to an explanation and demonstration of Choro music by Pedro Ramos, one of the teachers at Souza Lima, our host school. Choro is a wonderful music typically played by at least two guitars (a small one called a Caviquinho, and a big 7-string guitar), one or more melody instruments (saxophone, clarinet, or flute usually) and Pandeiro – the Brazilian tambourine. It dates to the early part of the 20th Century and is sometimes described as Brazil’s Ragtime. It is full of counterpoint and the voice-leading prowess of a good Choro player is really something to behold – the 7-string guitar acts as a bass, but a constantly moving bass, playing wonderful obbligato lines underneath the melody. In fact the way the melody and accompaniment switch back and forth between the different instruments is in itself reminiscent (in terms of instrumental roles rather than sound) of traditional jazz. But the rhythms are unmistakably Brazilian, with that slightly behind, triplet-y samba so unique to the music of this country. Pedro also gave a handout that outlined the racial history of Brazil and how the very striking variety of races and skin colour that one sees in Brazil came about and how unique to Brazil that was.

(Pedro Ramos Group)

After we’ve all been uplifted by the Choro music we go to Masterclass again and this time Herbie Kopf takes the helm and has some great things to say about dealing with sound issues in venues of different types and also some very valuable stuff on practice techniques. The students weigh in with some great stuff too – questions and suggestions. This is exactly what IASJ Masterclasses are about – the sharing of ideas rather than stuff being handed down in a hierarchical way. In the afternoon, more student rehearsals and ongoing dialogues for the teachers, and then in the evening we go off to finish the day with the same music we started it with – Choro, and the legendary Ó Do Borogodó club.

Ó Do Borogodó is a unique place – small, very basic, with a tiny bar and space for maybe 100+ people, but it is THE place in Sao Paulo to go and hear Choro and other Brazilian music, and dance. Every time I’ve been to Sao Paulo I’ve come to this club, and every time it’s been great – the vibe is extraordinary. The gig starts at around 10.30, and it’s usually packed out. There are tables and chairs on the floor, but usually these gradually disappear as the dancers commandeer all available space and the music really gets going. The musicians sit behind a table, which acts both as something to place their drinks on and as a barrier to keep the dancers from actually falling on top of them! Another interesting thing is the age of the dancers – it’s totally mixed, with young and older people dancing together unselfconsciously – no age apartheid here!

And these musicians really work! Their first set will usually be almost 2 hours long, then they take a break and play for another two hours, finishing after 3am – it’s reminiscent of jazz in the old jazz club days in that respect. And the music has an insistent quality to it, where the intensity level gets raised over a period of time and just goes and goes. A singer will usually join them after a while and then the dancers really get going, singing along to the Anthemic choruses of these songs and just having a great time. What amazes me about this place is that it is totally packed, with no room to move for anybody – dancers, staff, musicians - but the vibe is universally good humoured with no sense of any annoyance or suggestion that things could get ugly. And this is at 3am - in Europe and the US, late night places that sell alcohol are usually places to avoid in the small hours – but not here.

Here’s a video I shot in Ó Do Borogodó, but not on the night in question (there were too many people there that night to film – the locals were astonished to arrive and find the place already packed with jazz musicians at 9.30pm!) - I shot this a few weeks before the IASJ meeting on a previous visit, but it gives a good idea of how the music sounds and what a great vibe this is.

Day 5

A relaxed day – traditionally at IASJ meetings the middle day of the meeting week features a trip of some kind which introduces the participants to some aspect of the city or area that we’re in – something they wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else. On this occasion the host school has organised a trip to nearby Santos Beach - birthplace of Pele! Since Brazil is synonymous with beach life (at least in the minds of non-Brazilians!), this seems like a great trip to do. However, it being winter here at the moment, and the weather has been cold, I decide discretion is the better part of valour and skip the trip in favour of rehearsing a little with Carlos and George (we have a couple of gigs at the end of the week), and doing some school work on the computer.

After dinner the second jam session of the week is organised for a nice club called Ao Vivo – after the spit and sawdust vibe of Ó Do Borogodó the night before, Ao Vivo seems positively opulent! Before the jam session itself, Marcelo Coelho’s group plays a set of his rhythmically involved compositions for soprano sax, trombone, bass, drums and percussion. The difficult music is very well played and Emilio Martins’ percussion playing is particularly impressive.

After Marcelo’s set, the jam session starts and this time, after my previous experience, I decided not to bring my instrument. However I again make a strategic error since this time there are much less people here because the bus taking a lot of the participants to Santos developed mechanical problems and is very late getting back. So this time I could easily have played if I’d brought my instrument, but I didn’t and console myself by having a great time listening to Herbie Kopf, and American expat and SP resident, drummer Bob Wyatt swinging the band into bad health on two pieces! It’s a pleasure to hear a great bassist and drummer really lock in together and drive the band along – listening to Herbie and Bob is almost as much fun as playing! Almost.......

(Lieb playing at the jam session)

At the end Lieb turns up and plays two tunes with one of the teachers and two of the students – ‘Milestones’ and ‘I Hear A Rhapsody’ get the Lieb treatment – total commitment to the music, everything stretched almost (but only almost) to the point of the dissolution of the form. Always great to see him playing standards..... There is a bit of controversy when the student playing the piano, visibly displeased with his own playing, abruptly leaves the stage after the first tune, the keyboard then being ably taken over by Cliff Korman, author of a fine book on the Brazilian Rhythm Section.

The night ends up being a late one due mainly to the length of time it takes to pay the bar tab – they have a very inefficient system where you’re given a card at the beginning of the night and the drinks you get are marked on it. At the end of the night you pay the tab – but of course when the music ends then everyone tries to pay at the same time so a huge queue forms and it takes more than 45 minutes for everyone to pay, and then we have to get on the bus and be taken back to the hotel, so it’s after 2am by the time we get back.

Day 6

We’re at the business end of the Meeting now – literally and figuratively. The business of the IASJ is taken care of at the General Assembly which takes place in the afternoon – the housekeeping of the organisation is dealt with including the venues for upcoming meetings (Graz in Austria in 2012, Denmark in 2013, and very excitingly, Cape Town in South Africa in 2014).

But before all of that, in the morning there is another lecture and another Masterclass. The lecture is given by Emilio Martins and some colleagues on Afro-Brazilian rhythms and it’s just fantastic! The sheer variety of styles and approaches demonstrated is amazing and also gives the lie to the idea that Brazilian music is only about Samba or Baossa Nova. The guys switch effortlessly from one regional style to another and the whole thing is a revelation to all of us.

(Emilio Martins and group)

At the Masterclass, due to some confusion in scheduling, I am the only teacher there and so I spend some time talking about, and demonstrating, the benefits of playing solo bass – solo bass as opposed to bass soloing – i.e playing on your own and figuring out ways to make that work so that the music rather than the instrument becomes paramount. I demonstrate some techniques and ways of thinking about it and we get into some very interesting discussions about this and related topics. A very nice way to finish the Masterclass series.

So that evening, the empirical evidence of the value of the IASJ meeting is on display – the student concerts. Tonight is the first one, featuring three groups, with the other three performing on the following night. The gig takes place in a nice theatre about 30 minutes away by bus. I while away the journey by having a great conversation with Francois Théberge about the history of Ireland and Francois’ native Quebec. On arrival we find that Lieb has been struck down with severe laryngitis and will not be able to do his normal MC role for the student concerts, though he will be at the concerts. However his place is ably taken by his daughter Lydia and she does a great job of introducing all the groups and telling the audience about the IASJ. As usual the concert itself is full of good music and it’s amazing to hear how well these young musicians play together only 5 days after their first meeting......

Barry, the student I brought with me, performs with his group tonight and does very well – the band is a killer (see the video clip at the end) and they bring the evening to a suitably spectacular close.

I haven’t seen much of Barry since we arrived, just brief chats here and there - and that’s how it should be at these meetings. He’s been off hanging with the other students, making friends and connections and talking incessantly about music, as have I................

(Student Concert)

Day 7

The final day and it begins with the traditional Lieb rousing speech to the troops! Every year Dave talks directly to the students, encouraging them, cajoling them, making them realise what a special thing they’ve become involved with by choosing to play this music at this level. He gives them practical advice as well as a lot of philosophical stuff to chew on. I’ve heard versions of this speech about 20 times now and I never tire of it! It’s always inspiring and send the stiudents off in high spirits and full of determination and the will to win. And I always hear something new or something I hadn’t noticed him say before – this year it’s about how the difference between a good player and a great player is how the great players take care of ALL ‘the details’. And how right he is.......

The fact that he manages to give this talk despite his ongoing laryngitis problem is amazing, but after the meeting he asks me if I will go and sound check with the students for the final concert tonight, since he’s not feeling up to it. So, after a farewell reception, off we go to the theatre at 5pm – earlier than last night and what was a 30 minute journey the previous evening turns into one more than an hour long due to the heavier traffic at the earlier time. SP has 5 million cars and tonight I think we were on the road with at least 3 million of them........ The soundcheck is relatively painless thanks to the amazing Jesse – (the guy who seems to look after EVERYTHING at Souza Lima – from the sound in a huge theatre, to getting a glass of water for Lieb during his morning speech – what a guy!) and also thanks to the help of Carlos Ezequiel who blends his musician’s knowledge with an ability to speak Portuguese to great effect. Pretty soon the job is done, time for a quick dinner and then the final three concerts.

(Me and the amazing Jesse!)

Again, great music, great playing, great spirit – to see these young musicians, from all over the world, communicating together through the medium of jazz is truly touching.

After the concert comes the 'long goodbye' where everyone says goodbye to everyone else - with more than 200 people involved, this can take a while! I manage to get a photo opportunity with Dimos Dimitriades from Greece and Bruno Santos from Portugal. Our three countries are currently in hock to the International Monetary Fund to the tune of about 400 billion Euro, so we dub ourselves the 'IMF Trio' - the world's most expensive jazz group!

(Bruno, Dimos and I - the IMF Trio!)

The IASJ Meeting is a truly wonderful event – every one is different but each meeting has one thing in common – a demonstration of the true spirit of jazz – creativity, generosity, individuality, collective spirit. It is a musical language that started in America but is now truly international. To see the proof of all of that – watch the clip below - The full personnel is:

Darren Craig English - Trumpet (University Of Cape Town, Cape Town,South Africa)
Kasperi Sarikoski - Trombone (Paris Conservatoire/Sibelius Acdemy, Helsinki, Finland)
Florian Wempe - Tenor Saxophone (Royal Conservatory, Den Haag, Netherlands)
Kaneo Ramos - Guitar (Souza Lima Conservatorio, Sao Paulo, Brazil)
Christian Li - Piano (Berklee College of Music, Boston, USA)
Barry Donohue - Bass (Newpark Music Centre, Dublin Ireland)
Ariel Tessier - Drums (Paris Conservatoire, Paris, France)

Barry Donohue's 'Anti-Matter' at the IASJ... by NewparkMusic