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

Friday, December 14, 2012

How Does The Music Feel?

A friend of mine told me that at a recent jazz workshop, a very well known drummer said to him (concerning drum students attending the workshop), 'Man, all these guys can really play - and they all sound terrible!' A very funny remark, but with a huge truth contained inside it. As contemporary jazz grows ever more complex - especially in the field of rhythm - and as jazz schools raise the technical level of students to unprecedented heights, there is no doubt in my mind that we are often guilty of ignoring one of the most important elements of all music - its rhythmic feel.

By 'feel' in this context, I don't mean a generic feel as in 'swing feel' or 'Brazilian feel' or something like that, I mean the groove or the rhythmic centering of the music. I notice more and more that the idea of getting a good rhythmic feel - as opposed to playing accurately and in time no matter what the time signature - seems to be further and further down the agenda, if it's on the agenda at all. But the feel of music is incredibly important - it's arguably the most important thing, since it evokes an immediate response from the listener. And most listeners - which is something we musicians often forget - are not players. They're civilians, they're not in the jazz army and they don't care about the complexity (or lack of complexity) of music. They're there to listen and to experience, not to analyse. Most people couldn't care less whether you play in 15/8 and superimpose a 3 feel on top of that. That's the kind of detail that is only of interest to musicians.

Not that I've anything against complexity per se - I've spent a lot of my professional life playing complex music and spent countless hours trying to figure out how to do it and get better at it. I enjoy both simple music and complex music - to me it makes no difference what means you use to get to your message. As long as you actually have a message that is more than just the technique of the music. And there's the rub - I think there's a lot of music around that is solely about the techniques being used by the players, rather than having an overarching intent that is beyond the technique.

Of course this is an argument that has gone on forever in jazz - every generation of jazz musicians has accused the next generation of sacrificing feeling on the altar of technique. There's an element of circling the wagons about this kind of thinking, of protecting something - real or imagined - from the attacks of the avant garde. But this is not really where I'm coming from with this - it's more about the idea that no matter what form of rhythmic expression you choose, that it should feel good!

Feel good? What does that mean? Couldn't it be said to be subjective? Well, ultimately yes. But I do think the idea of something feeling good is not as abstract a concept as it might sound. What I mean by this is that the rhythm of the music should feel as if its coming from a central place, that it should have a weight, an internal energy a kind of groove template from which the music ultimately emanates. Without this central core the music just won't feel good - it may have a lot of detail to it, it may be technically adept and accurately in time, but it won't have that spark, that energy that carries the internal message of the music and that connects it to a tradition of some kind.

This word tradition is important here. Most rhythmic music is, or was at one time, connected to dance. Dance needs a rhythmic core that gives the fundamental energy to the dancers and around which all the music happens. There are so many examples of this - Afro-Cuban music, Belly Dance, Samba, Indian classical music, and of course at one point, jazz.

Jazz moved away from dance a long time ago, and indeed it's hard to make any case for jazz as a contemporary dance music after 1950, but the fact that jazz once was associated with dance has meant that the rhythmic impulse of jazz  always had a central core -  a groove - around which the music moved, and from which the music emanated, no matter how active and complex the music that whirled around this central core was. Despite jazz losing its direct connection to dance, and the rhythmic physicality of playing for dancers, the ghost of the the dance has always been there. This is the 'feel' which I'm talking about when I say that the music should feel good.

It seems to me now that this connection between feel and the music is often lost. Perhaps in chronological terms, the music has moved so far away from its dance origins that the physicality of the rhythm of jazz is something that is being forgotten or buried under the detail of an often complex music. Which would not just be a pity, but would also be dangerous waters for the music to sail into. Jazz has a hard time in the market place these days (or what remains of the market place...), and the permanent removal of a rhythmic feel good factor, would be a tragic loss for the music.

Because this rhythmic feel good factor is part of the music's history and tradition. The ingenious rhythmic placement of Armstrong's lines, Basie's rhythm section, Bird's rhythmic power, Blakey and the Messengers, Miles phrasing, Miles' various rhythm sections, the Coltrane Quartet, Monk, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Headhunters, Weather Report, Wynton's first quintet, Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Wayne Shorter's current quartet, Brad Mehldau. The music of all of these players and bands, despite their often widely different styles and different eras from which they come, exhibit the rhythmic impulse that I'm talking about - a connection to groove and rhythmic physicality around which the rest of their music is formed.

I'm missing that rhythmic and groove impulse in a lot of the music I'm hearing recently. Drummers are hyper-active but often without a foundation - all that clattering piccolo snare drum stuff, fill after fill without any room for an underlying groove to make its presence felt. Bassists playing without connecting with the drummer, pianists and guitarists comping without rhythmically interacting with either bassist or drummer... Soloists with lots of notes but not really locking into the rhythm and the time. Generic grooves played without any understanding of the tradition and impulse from which they originated.

Musicians need to check out the fundamentals of the music and the history of the music. Anyone serious about playing jazz must study the rhythm and the rhythmic impulse of the music, and in particular they should study the feel of the music. Listen to this aspect of the music of the great players past and present and try and identify the rhythmic DNA that circulates through all of their music, giving it its rhythmic strength and feelgood factor. To all serious musicians - don't just ask yourself how your music sounds - how does it feel?

Here are three examples of rhythmically powerful pieces of music, all very different, all of which have a great rhythmic feel at the core of the music.

Wayne Shorter's Quartet - abstract and impressionistic yet rooted

Here's Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette swinging mightily while playing both complex harmony and rhythm

Steve Coleman and 5 Elements connecting complex harmony with interlocking odd metre funk

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tasteful? What's in a Word?

I just read a review of an album in which the critic described the rhythm section's playing as 'tasteful' I really hate when critics use that description of someone's playing, because to me it denotes several things.

First of all, when the word tasteful is used to describe the playing of the rhythm section, either individually or collectively, it tells me that the writer probably has no idea what to say about the them, and probably doesn't have enough knowledge of the intricacies of rhythm section playing to venture anything other than this bland phrase. It's a cop-out on the writer's part - a one-size-fits-all phrase to use when you've no idea how to differentiate the playing of one rhythm section player from another. It also implies an under-appreciation of how important the rhythm section is - the kind of writer who will  apply the 'tasteful' soubriquet to the rhythm section will usually have written extensively about the soloists in previous paragraphs and then, feeling they have to say something about the rhythm section, will describe their playing as tasteful. It's the same kind of lazy writing that trots out cliches like 'getting up close and personal with......' to describe an interview with someone.

If the rhythm section have had the good manners not to distract the writer from listening to the soloists, whom (ahem), after all are the most important members of any group, the critic will describe them as tasteful. Which brings me to my second point.

'Tasteful' can often be freely substituted by the word bland..... The kind of rhythm sections that are described as tasteful often are units that plod along, playing the right changes, keeping the time in an efficient way, doing nothing to frighten the horses. They have no identity and fulfill a function - they don't get in the way. Like good children, they are seen and not heard. Anonymous. In short, they are a terrible rhythm section. A rhythm section should always be adding to the music, not staying out of the way of it. This doesn't meant that they have to be incredibly active all the time in terms of amount of notes played (it depends on the context), but it does mean that whatever they're doing should be vital to the sound of the band, to the energy of the rhythm, to the forward motion of the music. It should be vital, not tasteful.

If a critic says that a rhythm section is 'tasteful' it usually means one of three things: 1) The critic has no idea about rhythm sections, how they work, or what to say about them. 2) The critic likes his or her rhythm sections to be of the 'seen and not heard/servant of soloists/Bebopper's Labourer kind. Or 3) The rhythm section is crap.

A final point in this mini-rant. What does 'tasteful' even mean in this context? Does it mean played with good taste? A subjective judgement if ever there was one...... Does it mean polite and well mannered? Or does it mean, appropriate to the music? For my money, the latter is the true definition of tastefulness. If a musician is playing in a way that is apposite to the requirements of the music he or she is being tasteful. Elvin Jones, rampaging through 'Transition' with Coltrane is the epitome of tasteful playing. Ron Carter, rhythmically and harmonically nudging and bossing Miles' band is tastefulness personified. Monk's comping behind Coltrane is an object lesson in good taste. Good taste is about doing the right thing in any musical situation, it is not necessarily only about being polite and self-effacing.

Poor Bill Evans is always burdened with that cliche by critics who see things in a very simplistic way. Because his music is lyrical and often on the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, his playing is often thought to be 'tasteful' in the same way that a restaurant pianist's playing could be described as being tasteful. Quiet, not getting in the way, not drawing attention to itself. Well mannered. This does such a disservice to the depth and complexity of Evans' playing. Whenever I see a critic describe Evans' music as tasteful, I just can't take anything else they say seriously. This is a surface listener, a lazy writer, someone who really doesn't have the equipment to talk about the music in any depth.

If you are a jazz writer, please don't use this vapid cliche when describing someone's playing - do a bit of research instead, listen a little harder, tell us something worth knowing about the music you're describing instead of giving us some bland bromide that fulfills your word count but means nothing. 

In my opinion, describing someone's playing as tasteful is in the worst possible taste..........

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On The Road with Pekka - Part 1, Europe

In October and November of this year I took part in a two-legged tour with the great Finnish alto player Pekka Pylkkanen and as part of his Global Unit group. The first part of the tour took place in France and Switzerland, the second leg in Japan. I've played in this group in the past and it's always fun, being made up of great musicians from different parts of the world (hence the name). For the European leg the other musicians, apart from Pekka and myself, were the American pianist Greg Burk and the Brazilian drummer Carlos Ezequiel. Both wonderful musicians, I've played with them both before in Pekka's group, and with Carlos in several other configurations, including a memorable trip to India earlier this year.

My trip began as so many do, with having to get up at 4am (bleh.....) to catch the red-eye to Geneva, and from there to Basel where we were playing two nights at a wonderful club, The Bird's Eye. We were also going to do some live recording, some recording during the day, and combine that with a studio recording at the end of the week in France. A lot of people don't realise what musicians have to do on the road sometimes - in this case, we had four musicians who have come from four different countries, travelled long distances, went straight into rehearsal, put two sets of music together in 90 minutes, soundchecked, ate quickly and then played two sets of music. And some people think being on the road is glamorous!

Considering how little time we had and how tired he were, we played some very good music - a mixture of originals by Pekka, Carlos, Greg and I, and a few arrangements of jazz standards. But the extremely long day kicked in, and I definitely hit the wall half way through the second set - got totally exhausted and had to dig deep to keep my concentration and play competently at least for the last few tunes.

But a good night's rest will do wonders, and the next night was much better - the band sounded better and we were starting to get a real grip on the music. The result of getting to know your material in jazz is always one of creating a feeling of both tightness and looseness - tightness in that the written and composed material is played better, and looseness in the sense of a feeling of freedom within the material that comes from having confidence in knowing that material well. We got into some good energy and the audience responded warmly - it all boded well for the next day's recording.

And the recording the next day was indeed a good one - it was nice to record on stage rather than in the often sterile environment of the studio. And since we'd played the music the previous two nights we had the cushion of both being comfortable with the material and the recording environment, which is a real bonus. We recorded pretty much all our material and then recorded a bunch of improvised short vignettes - pieces improvised on the spot, each one started by a different member of the band. I've always liked doing this - these pieces can often reveal aspects of the band that are not evident in the written material. I haven't listened back to the material yet, but I'm looking forward to hearing these pieces - I think we did some really nice ones!

Recording finished, we headed to Basel airport (which must be the only airport in the world that straddles the border of two countries......), hired a car and drove into France. We headed for Metz to stay overnight, and on the drive there got into some lengthy discussions of politics and economics and the current political/financial situation. Jazz musicians should really record these on-the-road conversations - on this trip we pretty much solved all the world's problems - who needs politicians and economists when you have a jazz quartet to sort everything out!?

(Metz Cathedral)

We had some time off the next morning before heading to Fontainebleu, so Greg and I took a look around Metz, an interesting town that shows both German and French influences. The Cathedral is renowned and when you step inside you can see why - it's a vast Gothic construct with a soaring ceiling and featuring beautiful stained glass windows by Chagall. The size of it and the fact that people have prayed there since the 5th Century gives even an atheist like me an idea of the power religion has had on the minds of people over the centuries.

And the power that good food has on me in France should not be underestimated either - having basked in the glory of Medieval religion, it was time for Greg and I to bask in the glory of local French food, at a local market and to eat a simple but great lunch at a famous soup counter in the market, beside the cathedral. I partook in the delicacy of Boudin Noir with apples (an acquired taste perhaps, but one I acquired a long time ago, raised as I was on Black Pudding - the irish equivalent), while Greg had some fantastic slow-baked lamb. French food is often thought of as fancy and chef-y, but regional French food tends to be both simple and delicious.

And the food theme continued as we headed off for Fontainebleu to play the next gig - at a jazz club that is owned by and is an annexe to a Moroccan restaurant. The R-Jazz Club is a cosy little club and the owner and his family are lovely people - genuine enthusiasts who love the music and their club. It was really a pleasure to play for them, and also a pleasure to eat the wonderful food they provided for us before and after the gig - all jazz club gigs should be like this!

(Gourmet Market - Milly La-Foret)

We stayed the night at a small hotel in the nearby town of Milly La-Foret, a small quiet place that sports a gourmet market (more food!) on Saturday mornings. All kinds of artisan products were on display and the market demonstrated again the importance the French place on food - if only all countries were the same in this regard.......

And then it was off to another small town - Dammarie-Lès-Lys

 (Pekka and Carlos at the studio)

We were recording in a studio in the engineer’s home – I like these kinds of environments, again they’re a bit different to the airless bunkers that often constitute studios these days. The engineer’s house was in a small town in the countryside and the whole scene was pleasant and conducive to relaxed but concentrated work. Where else but France could you take a break and have a lunch of Confit Duck in a local restaurant? We got all the tracks recorded that we hadn’t managed to get to in Basel, and we re-recorded a couple of others, and then we headed for Dammarie-Lès-Lys where we would be staying for the next few nights.

Dammerie is close to Paris, and we had a day off the next day so it was a foregone conclusion that we would head into town at some point. And what a perfect day for a trip to Paris it was! A beautiful late Autumn day, bright sunshine – it was almost like being on the film set of one of those Hymn-to-Paris movies that Woody Allen makes. Carlos and Greg went in earlier and went around the Louvre, (Carlos commented that his smile is more mysterious than that of La Giaconda – see below and decide for yourself….), Pekka and I headed in during the late afternoon and we met up with the guys, walked around in the sunshine along the Seine, and had a delicious and very good value dinner in a great traditional Bistro, before heading back to our hotel in Dammarie. Sometimes being a musician IS glamorous! Or at least lots of fun………

(Carlos enters a smiling competition with the Mona Lisa)

The reason we were in Dammerie was because of its proximity to CMDL – the school of Didier Lockwood, where we did a combined workshop and concert performance. The school is in a lovely setting and has a student body of around 100, which is a perfect size in my opinion – big enough to be interesting, but not too big to become impersonal. I got together with the bassists, and we discussed various bass related issues, but also musical issues in the wider sense. When you get together with a group of students whom you haven’t met before, and you only have an hour, it’s hard to get into much concrete information, since by the time you know what it is they wish to work on with you, the time is almost up. But they were a very receptive group, we managed to get into some interesting stuff, and a good time was had by all.

After the workshop we played a concert for the students for about an hour – really fun, because at this point we really knew the music and were able to get into it immediately and explore it more fully at the same time. This was our last gig on this leg of the tour, so it had the usual bittersweet flavor that these last gigs on tours always have.

To give you an idea of some of the music we played, here's a recording of a piece of mine called 'Traditional', recorded live at the Bird's Eye club on the second night of the tour.


(Greg, Pekka, Carlos and I, outside the Bird's Eye Club in Basel)

 So that was that – some travelling, lots of music, lots of new music recorded, and lots of good food! I left the next morning to go back to Dublin to change my clothes re-pack my bags, and head off for the second leg of the tour – Japan!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Judgement! Competitions, Critics and the Jazz Meritocracy


There’s been a lot of judging or discussions of judging in the online jazz world recently.

Ethan Iverson started one of the balls rolling with his questioning of the value and artistic merit of jazz competitions. This was prompted by the announcement of the impending Thelonious Monk competition, which this year focused on drums. The competition was subsequently won by Jamison Ross . People weighed in with varied opinions which ranged from outright support to outright opposition.

Then in another dust-up, the very strange jazz critic Brent Black launched an attack on George Colligan, ludicrously dismissing him as ‘second rate’. Needless to say this triggered an outpouring of scorn for Black’s opinion, and Black did himself no favours with a bitter, mean-spirited and puzzling tirade directed at Colligan’s gracious response.

And finally the Canadian pianist  Andrew Boniwell responded to Peter Hum’s review of his new recording with what might be best described as icy fury.

All of which made me think about this whole issue of our being judged by others, and indeed judging others ourselves. To what extent does the judgment of critics have an effect on musicians? What effect does winning a competition have? Or what effect does losing a competition have?

Seventeen years ago I was a  competition winner myself - the 1996 Julius Hemphill Composition Competition for this piece:

I must say I didn’t benefit immediately from winning, though it has to be said that competition was very small compared to the Monk Competition. Nor was it a stressful event for me, since there was no performance element involved, and no jury to look at out of the corner of my eye as I played. What winning did do for me was to give me a lot of confidence as a composer, and there’s no doubt that this kind of public approval of your work can have a very positive effect on you. On the other hand, If I hadn’t won it I don’t think I’d have been discouraged – I didn’t expect to win, and no-one was more surprised than me when I did.

But Ethan’s main point was whether such a competition would encourage individuality, or whether it would have the opposite effect, rewarding whoever was closest to the mainstream. The question is sometimes asked whether Monk could have even got into the final of the competition named after him? There's no doubt that if you have a panel of six judges, the winner will have to not only impress as many of them as possible, but also do whatever he or she can to alienate as few of them as possible. The more personal and idiosyncratic a performer is, the more likely they are to polarize the jury. There have been many famous cases of this in the classical world, the most celebrated of these being the Chopin competition of 1980 where Ivo Pogorelich, (a performer for whom the word idiosyncratic could have been coined), was eliminated in the third round, despite Martha Argerich calling him a genius. I have a feeling that a performer like Monk - a guy whose playing very much flew in the face of the prevailing pianistic orthodoxy of the day - would have had an equally polarizing effect on a jazz piano jury......

There's no doubt that in these difficult days for jazz musicians, anything that can help you to raise your profile is welcome, and winning something like the Monk competition is about as high-profile as it gets for jazz competitions. No doubt winning this competition will help Jamison Ross, but looking at his profile and bio, it's clear that he was already on his way - as were the 2nd and 3rd prizewinners, which confirms for me what I've believed for a long time - jazz is a meritocracy and always has been.

It's also a marathon rather than a sprint, and though something like winning a competition or getting a gig with a famous bandleader will definitely help, in the end it's the work you produce over a long period of time that will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail. There are many examples of players who got a lot of press and attention at one time, maybe even a major record deal, and yet are hardly remembered these days. And I believe that this is because they ultimately didn't have something that could be sustained over a long period of time. They undoubtedly had some aspect of their music that was attractive for a while, (at least to the jazz media), but in the final shake-up it wasn't sustainable and didn't develop, and their star waned as a consequence of that. Jazz is quite Darwinistic in this sense and I think this is a good thing.

Jazz musicians have to deal with a lot of unfairness - the dice is loaded against them in so many ways - but within the jazz community I think, over a period of time, musicians achieve the status they deserve. I believe that if  you are a really great player, and you have something original and personal to offer, then sooner or later you will get recognition for that. 

Often you hear a story about this or that guy being a great player but never getting recognition, but as a general rule I don't buy it. If there's a truly great player who's not working, there's usually a reason for it - they're alcoholics, or junkies, or socially impossible, or difficult to deal with, or completely flaky, or recluses, or cripplingly shy, or something along those lines. I've yet to meet a truly great player who takes care of business but who's sitting at home forlornly waiting for the phone to ring........ 

Maybe New York is an exception to that rule, in that there are just too many musicians there, so someone can indeed be a great player but struggle to get recognition among the jostling crowds of other great players. But NY is different - a once a year gig at Small's under your own name and a 'tour' of Europe consisting of 6 gigs counts as being a success for a lot of people there.

But even in NY you can make a career for yourself if you're talented enough and have something to offer over the long term. In this way jazz hasn't changed - ultimately what's going to decide your status is your own playing. If you're a great player, you're immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous critics like Brent Black. His attack on George Colligan is toothless because Colligan's career demonstrates more than words ever can, the stupidity of Black's opinions. Someone who has played with a who's-who of contemporary jazz, including being a current band member of Jack DeJohnette's band has the ultimate imprimatur of the jazz world. His work and success is the the proof of his quality - this is the final arbiter of his quality and nothing that Brent Black can say can alter that. 

And jazz has always been like that and even though the jam sessions, that for many years were the proving grounds of aspirant jazz musicians, have ceded their Gladiatorial position as arbiters of musical ability, it's still true to say that the opinion of your peers is the one that is most important. Play well and you will eventually get the attention of established players, play with them and you will get the attention of the public and the media. I've lost count of how many times I first heard hitherto unknown (at least to me), great players when I went to see a band led by someone of real status - Mulgrew Miller with Woody Shaw, Terence Blanchard with Art Blakey, Gabriele Mirabassi with Rabih-Abou Khalil etc.

Yes it's nice to get a good review, yes it would be useful to be on the cover of Downbeat, yes it would be very helpful to win a major jazz competition. But ultimately what a jazz musician needs in order to succeed over the long term is the approval and admiration of his or her peers. Jazz has always been a meritocracy and it still is one. Competitions and critics may come and go, and you (or media admirers of yours) may talk a good game, but eventually you're going to have to shut up and show everyone the music. And thank heavens for that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My New CD - Renaissance Man

The photo on the cover of my new CD 'Renaissance Man' is of my father Brendan, taken in about 1950, it shows him in a very relaxed moment, complete with cigarette and cup of tea, and is one of my favourite photographs of him

Renaissance Man is written in memory of my father and its genesis goes back a long way in that if it hadn’t been for my father it’s doubtful if I, or my brother Conor, who plays drums on this recording, would be involved with music in the way that we are today.

My father passed away at the age of forty eight, when I was seventeen, and he was an extraordinary character. He wasn’t a musician but he was an absolute devotee of music, with very specific tastes – classical music from 1880 onwards, and jazz from 1945 onwards. So we were raised with the music of Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovitch and Prokofiev, and the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Errol Garner. As children, (there were eight of us!), he would play games with us where we would have to identify the instruments of the orchestra, or identify a particular soloist in a jazz piece. We didn’t realize it, but he was giving us a fantastic aural musical education, and for some of us he was setting the course of our future careers in music.

This was 1960s Ireland, a conservative, culturally isolated place, so our experience of all this great modern music was pretty unique for a child of those times. And when you’re a child, the music you hear is the music you hear – nobody told us that ‘The Rite of Spring’ was ‘difficult’ music, or the music of Bartok or Miles – to us it was just our everyday music.  And it wasn’t just in music that my father played the role of cultural evangelist, he was also interested in literature, film and the theatre and introduced us to everything from the Marx Brothers to Lewis Carroll, from ’Twelve Angry Men’, to ‘Three Men in A Boat’. Thanks to him we had a thorough cultural education at a time, and place when something like that was very hard to come by.

I wrote this piece on the 30th anniversary of his passing and I decided to write a piece for jazz guitar trio and string quartet – two classic ensembles of their respective genres that would be the perfect vehicle for what I wanted to express. In choosing the musicians to play the piece it was a foregone conclusion that my brother Conor would play drums on the project, for obvious familial reasons as well as the fact that we'd played together for over 20 years.

(John, Conor and I at the rehearsal for the 1st performance of the music)

In choosing the guitarist for the piece, I wanted someone who could not just play the instrument well, but play in many different emotional climates - which is not a common quality in many players, and certainly is rare in young players. So I asked John Abercrombie to do it - we'd worked together several times previously and I had studied with him in Banff in the mid-80s, so we knew each other on both a personal and musical level. John is of course one of the great contemporary guitarists with a unique approach that is much more multi-faceted than most guitarists, or indeed musicians. John has the ability to play completely sparsely and quietly, or to completely burn. he also has a unique harmonic approach and sound and is a true improvisor. His sensitivity to the music and what I was trying to do with it was perfect for this project and he played the music beautifully.

In choosing the string quartet, I knew I needed really good players - in writing the piece I wanted to represent my father's love of modern classical music and I definitely didn't want a typical jazz 'string pad' effect. The writing for the quartet is very involved and very challenging at times, and Ioana, Cliodhna, Cian and Kate really did an amazing job on the music, I couldn't have asked for more.

(Rehearsing the piece at the 1st performance in 2005)

The piece itself is in six movements, each one inspired by some memory of my father: some are inspired by quotes from his favourite books, some by music he loved, and some by general memories I have of him.

1) Stillness/Movement

A recollection of my father taking me cycling up to Killiney Hill, a local beauty spot, at dawn on a summer morning around 1970 when I was about 12. There were few cars in those days, and even fewer at 5am, and there was this feeling of being the only two people in the world -  utter silence. Then the birdsong began, and got louder and louder till it reached a cacophony......

2) Mr. BP

Brendan Patrick Guilfoyle, was my father's name and this is a lyrical tune dedicated to him

3) George's Hat

This refers to a line from 'Three Men in a Boat' - 'It was George's hat that saved his life that day' - that my father found hilarious  - and it is hilarious! If you know the book you'll know why, and if you don't then check it out!

4) This Was Very Odd Because

This refers to another line from classic literature, this time 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' from Alice in Wonderland', which my father would read to us and we would be expected to know the last line of every stanza.

5) It Was The Middle Of The Night

Although my father was a wonderful man with so many great qualities, he also had his dark side for sure, and could be pretty scary at times. This movement reflects that aspect of his personality

6) 2 Degrees East

The only explicitly musical reference, to John Lewis' blues 'Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West'  from 'Grand Encounter'. My father loved this piece and played it incessantly. The theme is referred to here, but the treatment is completely different to the original.

Here are excerpts from each movement in order

  Excerpts from 'Renaissance Man' by RonanG

And here is a little film about the making of Renaissance Man

My father passed away before any of us began playing seriously, and I’ve always felt that it was so unfair that he never got to hear the results of the groundwork he laid for us. But I also feel very fortunate to have been able to write this piece, and to have such great musicians perform it. Renaissance Man is written in recognition of the great gifts he gave to us, and the debt we owe to him.

As a little bonus - here's some footage of myself, John, Joey Baron and Michael Buckley playing a quartet arrangement of the 2nd movement, 'George's Hat'

Whenever you release a new recording it's an exciting and special moment, but for me, this release is particularly special and personal. In this case the importance to me of the music being widely heard outweighs any other consideration and so I'm selling the physical CD for a very low price. If you're interested in purchasing a CD you can click on the Paypal button at the top of this page. If you want to buy it in downloadable format you can do it here

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Down With Jazz! Bejayzuz!

It’s not that long ago that Ireland was to all intents and purposes a Theocracy, not unlike present day Iran. In a similar way to the contemporary Iranian state, right up to at least the 1960s, the country was under the thumb of a cabal of clerics who interfered with every aspect of the state and whose number one concern was the wielding of their own power.  They interfered in every aspect of Irish life and left a legacy of brutality and child abuse (such as in their schools and Reformatories), which Irish people are still having to deal with today. But disgusting as the institution of the Catholic Church was,  (and often still is), occasionally the behavior of some of the dimmer members of that church, through the stupidity of their actions, gave us a badly needed laugh at the Church’s expense. One such dimwit was Father Peter Conefrey.

Conefrey was the founding member and leading light of the ‘Anti-Jazz League’ in the 1930s – a movement he hoped would rid Holy Catholic Ireland of the corrupting effect of jazz. Coneferey was convinced that jazz (although what he thought of as jazz would certainly not be recognised as such by any jazz fan or musician), was destroying the morals of the young people with its unholy rhythms and lewd dancing. He managed to lead a march against jazz through a tiny town in Ireland and through his contacts get questions asked in parliament about why Irish music was getting displaced on the radio by this sinful jazz music. But under the thumb of the clergy though Irish politicians may have been, this was too ludicrous for even the most devout Irish politician and the movement fizzled out relatively quickly. There’s a fascinating documentary on it here

This coming weekend I'll be taking part in a festival called 'Down With Jazz' which humorously takes the anti-jazz movement as its theme, but has in fact the opposite intention of the idiotic Father Conefrey, in that it is celebrating Irish jazz.

Over three days sixteen bands will show the variety and quality of the music produced here in Ireland by the local musicians and it should be a great festival since there's never been a higher standard of jazz music being played in ireland than there is now.

I think it's fair to say that in western Europe, Ireland's jazz scene is the one that is least known outside of its own borders. Every other scene in western Europe - the French, Italian, German, and various Scandinavian scenes for example - all would be known through various famous practitioners who have gained international reputations and are well known everywhere. Musicians such as Enrico Rava, Martial Solal, Jan Garbarek, and John Taylor are known internationally and through them people know there is a scene in the countries in which they live. Ireland would not be known in the same way in the jazz world, and truth be told, up to recently, while there were some great musicians here, there wasn't enough of them to constitute a 'scene'

Jazz had a slow start in Ireland - there were jazz influenced jazz bands in the 40s and 50s, but the first real jazz musicians began to appear at the end of the 50s and into the 60s with players such as the pianist Noel Kelehan and the drummer John Wadham, both of whom were world class. There were other players around the scene who were good also, but the real breakthrough came with the appearance of Louis Stewart, the great guitarist who was the first domiciled Irish musician to get international attention. Before that the bassist Rick Laird had played with musicians such as Sonny Rollins and Wes Montgomery as part of the house rhythm section in Ronnie Scott's Club in London, and later went on the play with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Due to his Mahavishnu stint and appearances on various 'Jazz Icons' DVDs, he remains Ireland's most famous jazz musician. However Louis Stewart broke the mould in that he was the first Irish jazz musician, living in Ireland whose work was recognised internationally and he performed with Benny Goodman and a host of other great musicians during his career. A phenomenal guitarist, he inspired a generation of Irish players (including me), and made them believe that this music could be played at the highest level by Irish jazz musicians.

My peers and contemporaries, who came up in the 80s, included some really great musicians, many of whom were determined to expand their horizons beyond Ireland, some by moving abroad, some by studying abroad, and all of whom were very interested in current trends in jazz. Many of us were interested in developments beyond the customary hard bop style of the Dublin jazz scene and the result of that was a broadening of stylistic approaches in the Irish scene and the founding of something that every other European country had - a jazz school.

It took a lot of time to get the full time courses going there, but when they did the school had a real impact on the development of the music in Ireland and aspiring jazz musicians now had access to the same training and information as their European and American counterparts, as well as getting to sit in classes with many visiting musicians of renown. All of this, with the addition of the rise, development and ultimate boom (and now bust!) of the Irish economy had an explosive effect on the jazz scene here. With the coming of serious money into the economy more musicians started to land up on irish shores and this is turn enriched the scene further. Recordings were made, tours undertaken and organisations such as the Improvised Music Company, (the promoters of this weekend's event), created imaginative events and programming.

And this weekend will show the variety and quality of what's currently on offer in Irish jazz at the moment - everything from electronic-infused improvisation to traditional jazz, from through-composed large scale compositions to standards, from duos to big bands. The Irish jazz scene has come of age and the festival is a great showcase for the many great musicians and bands now playing here.

Here's Phisqa, a group that is an exemplar of what effect the influx of overseas musicians has had - led by a Peruvian drummer, it features a South African saxophonist, an Italian guitarist, a Venezuelan pianist and an Irish bassist

More traditional fare will be on display too and I'm really looking forward to playing some standards with the truly world class saxophonist Michael Buckley

I'll also be playing a set with 3G - a family affair that features my brother Conor on drums and my son Chris on guitar.

Things have really changed for jazz in Ireland and hopefully this (sold out), festival will help to make more people aware of the musical riches the scene currently contains. As they might  say in Ireland, regarding this weekend's doings - 'if Father Conferey was alive today he'd turn in his grave.....'

Friday, August 3, 2012

Stefano Bollani

I first became aware of Stefano Bollani on an Enrico Rava recording on ECM about 5 years ago, and I remember listening to the intro to the first piece, hearing the piano comping, and saying to myself 'who's that playing piano!?' It's a mark of Bollani's brilliance that he can make you stop short just by the way he's comping. After listening to his playing on that recording I checked out lots of his stuff and and I discovered a brilliant pianist and musician, with a complete command of colour and sonority aligned with gift for melody and a great time feel. Combine this with an extraordinary gift for improvisation and you have a recipe for the complete jazz musican - but........

In his recordings I also discovered what I can only describe as a mixed bag. Mixed in that I never really heard a recording in which, from start to finish, Bollani played in the sublime way that he can. Inevitably on every recording, he would play something that made me shake my head in admiration of the brilliance and depth of his playing. But, for my taste it would never sustain itself over the whole recording. There would always be one or two tracks in which Bollani would indulge in his penchant for humour, and this, for my money anyway, would detract from the whole and make the totality of the CD a less satisfying experience than if he had left those tracks out.

Having said that, I'm all for humour in music - I think jazz musicians these days are far too po-faced and far too prone to believing that the only deep emotions, or the only cool ones, are the ones where we're feeling angry, sad, intense, or pensive. But of course in life we also display happiness in our daily lives, and there's no reason why we should willfully omit happiness from the range of emotions we choose to display in our music - I've written about this before.

And Bollani does this humorous thing brilliantly - it's never cheap or puerile. He's genuinely playful and has the imagination and technique to bring off something like this rendition of 'Maple Leaf Rag' in which he inserts all kinds of 'stumbling' effects, phrase stretches and sly modulations to create a very funny and witty version of this hoary old chestnut

It's typical of Bollani that while the piece seems to be sloppily played, it's only possible to do something like this if you have a phenomenal command of the instrument. The same is true on this constantly modulating version of 'Tico Tico'

But while I enjoy the humour and wittiness of these performances, I always felt that they never really sat with the other pieces on the Bollani albums that I checked out - they were like jokes, albeit very good ones, being made at an inopportune time - jokes which gatecrashed a very sublime atmosphere and somehow diminished the overall impact of the music.

But then I saw Bollani play live last year, in a solo performance in France, and there it all made sense. Within the live context, the humorous flourishes seemed no longer out of place, but completely at one with the skittishness of Bollani's personality and the fecundity of his creative imagination. The guy who played a sublime version of 'Blame It On My Youth', was clearly the same guy who, for an encore, created an extraordinary collage of themes from suggestions shouted from the audience - yes the encore was a schtick, but was so creatively done and executed with such obvious enjoyment, that it seemed all of a piece with what had gone before.

And this year I saw him again, this time in the company of the unique Brazilian mandolinist Hamilton De Holanda, and again the reconciliation of both sides of Bollani's personality was even clearer. Playing Brazilian music in duo, all of his lyricism, technique, light-heartedness, rhythmic strengths and harmonic palette was on display and put at the service of the music. This was technically difficult music, but those uninitiated into the arcana of music technique would never have known it, such was the effortlessness and sheer joy in music making that was on display. Here they are from a concert last year, playing Piazzola's darkly lyical 'Oblivion'

Seeing performances like this has resulted in my previous reservations being completely overcome, and for my money, Stefano Bollani is one of of the finest jazz pianists in the world today - he really has so much to offer. While he's very well known in Europe, his profile is nothing like it should be in the US, though recent duets with Chick Corea might possibly change that a little. However, if the predictability and  typical herd instincts shown by the recent Downbeat Critic's poll is anything to go by I wouldn't hold my breath while I'm waiting.........

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Human Jukebox and the Unfamiliar

I went to a concert that was a first for me last night - a mainstream stadium pop concert. Paul Simon played at the O2 arena in Dublin and my good friend and great percussionist Jamey Haddad was playing in the band and comped me.

I should say at the outset here that I have absolutely no feeling for pop or rock music whatsoever – of almost any type. Somehow (probably because of my childhood, surrounded by jazz and classical), pop music passed me by. In my late teens I had a fleeting interest in Cream, and then progressive rock for a while (King Crimson mostly), but otherwise no interest, and certainly nothing that lasted. Between cassettes, LPs, CDs and Mp3s, I have over 3000 recordings in my home and not one of them is a pop or rock music recording. It does nothing for me and even the guys that a lot of jazz guys like – Sting, Bowie etc etc – leave me cold.

I do like the Beatles and admire their craft and the originality. And, (much to the surprise of many people who know me when they find out), I also like Burt Bacharach, whom I consider to be a real craftsman with a very original and identifiable style. But otherwise pop music does nothing for me. It’s not a value judgement (though sometimes it is – Justin Bieber! Lady GaGa!), it’s just personal. Pop music has no meaning in my life, doesn’t remind me of my youth, doesn’t connect me to people or places or things etc. etc. in the way that it does most people.

So, given my background and lack of empathy with all things pop and rock, it was hardly surpassing that this was my first time at a concert on this scale  - 14,000 people packed into the venue, seat prices starting at €56 rising to over €150 for the seat I was in, close to the front of the stage. And I must say I found the whole thing to be very interesting - I felt dispassionate, (if admiring of the professionalism and skill of the musicians), about the music, but interested in the vibe and general demeanor of everyone.

First of all it has to be said that Simon surrounds himself with very good musicians, most of whom play more than one instrument very well. Secondly it has to be said he does put on a very good show - the pieces go seamlessly between each other and clearly a lot of thought is given to pacing and making sure the show keeps rolling along. And it's a long show too - over two and a half hours without a break, and Simon has great energy and stamina which belies his 70 years. He's also a total pro - never slips up once, sings both in tune and pretty strongly for the whole concert. His only mis-step is when he occasionally breaks out some ill-judged dance moves, reminding one of an embarrassing elderly relative doing some 'hip' dancing at a wedding........

The music itself is a parade of his hits spanning almost 50 years, and of course the audience lapped it up. I was fairly familiar with about half of the pieces, less familiar with others, and totally unfamiliar with  the rest. In the first section of the concert, (before the African contingent arrives for the 'Gracelands' section), I'm struck by the amount of Americana in the music - overtones of country music, Cajun, blues etc. Simon seems to use all of these influences as backdrops to his songs, just as he does with the African music in the latter part of the concert.

Again, though I'm impressed by the professionalism, I'm unmoved by the music, but quite honestly, I was never expecting to get into it, and as someone with no familiarity or empathy for this kind of music, I'm not in any position to say whether this was a good performance by Simon's standards or not. I suspect, that as someone who has spent so much time at the top of his end of the business, he delivers a similar professionally well paced show every night.

But in my lack of response to the music, I was clearly in a minority of one in the auditorium - the audience adored it, cheering the opening bars of every familiar tune, singing along at certain points, and rushing the stage at the end when the opening chords of 'You Can Call Me Al' break out. But it's all quite sedate stage rushing, as the audience age profile is not one that would encourage any kind of physical activity that might create a need for a hip replacement after the gig......

And as I watched the adoration of Simon and the songs, I realized again, (and this is really the point of this blog), that what 99% of people want is something they know, and preferably something they can sing along to. What they don't want is the unfamiliar. The audience may all have loved Paul Simon, but if he had gone out there last night and played a whole evening of new music they probably would have rushed the stage. What most audiences want from a  concert, ultimately, is a human jukebox - someone who will regurgitate the hits, and give everyone a good night out and a sing-along. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But where does that leave those of us whose milieu is improvised music? In a tiny minority, that's where. One thing I realized a while ago, is that most people, as far as music is concerned at least, don't really like improvisation. They like what they know, not what they don't know. In most music performances audiences want a confirmation of what they like, a parade of familiarity - it's comforting and often celebratory, particularly so when (like the Simon concert I was at), it's experienced with a large crowd of others, all of whom are equally enamored of the music on display. But in improvised music, the audience is invited to participate in the unfamiliar, to experience the process of music creation rather than be presented with a comfortingly familiar result.

It should be noted that this love of the familiar is not confined to lovers of pop music, it's part and parcel of classical music too (where not even one note can be changed by the performer), and is not unknown among jazz fans. Jazz fans, and musicians, can also make demands of performers that they conform to some agreed norm that reinforces the audience members understanding of what jazz is. The comfort of the familiar is a requirement of some jazz listeners too -  improvised music doesn't always have the automatic support in the jazz community that one would imagine

Improvised music will never have the support and popularity that non-improvised music attracts, but it has qualities too that non-improvised music will never have. Last night at Paul Simon's gig everything was as carefully choreographed as any classical performance, there was no room for the spontaneous creative input of the musicians - everything was at the service of Paul Simon's songs and the requirement of the audience to hear the familiar. And I missed the creative input of the musicians, the sense that anything could happen at anytime, which is a quality I find tremendously attractive in music. At a pop or classical concert, you will never experience that moment where you know something has happened that never happened before and will never happen again in that precise way. This is the unique quality of improvised music, for both musician and listener, and has tremendous value, even if most of the 14,000 people in the O2 arena last night wouldn't have thanked anyone for it had it happened.

The human jukebox may be a comforting place to be for both performer and listener, but it's a place where you will never experience anything like this........

Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Thoughts on Jazz Education, Art, Craft, and Entitlement

(Dave Liebman speaking to students and teachers at the IASJ Meeting in Graz)

Some recent thoughts on jazz education, prompted by attending the 2012 IASJ Meeting

I’ve spent the past week at the International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Graz in Austria. I’ve written before about what goes on at the IASJ meetings and what a buzz it is, and this year was no exception. Last year it was in Brazil, and this year in Austria so naturally the vibe of the location was quite different, but the camaraderie of the musicians – teachers and students alike – was as strong as ever. At a time when institutionalised jazz education as an idea is again under scrutiny, it was interesting and thought provoking to be part of this meeting and once again my feelings on the positive benefits of jazz education were both confirmed and reinforced.

I attended the meeting that saw the foundation of the IASJ  - an organization which was the idea of the Artistic Director Dave Liebman – in 1989, and have attended 20 of the 22 meetings so far. Being part of the IASJ was invaluable to our school in Dublin, which at the time of the foundation of the IASJ, was just beginning to take its first steps towards putting in place some fulltime jazz programmes, which culminated in us offering a BA in Jazz Performance, and a 2-year fulltime programme with transferring credits in Berklee College of Music in Boston. Being part of the IASJ and attending the meetings gave me an insight into what was involved in the setting up and running of a real jazz programme, the kind of subjects which should be covered, how the materials were most effectively taught, and the pedagogical philosophy underpinning the teaching of jazz. The meetings themselves, in which teachers and students from all over the world come together to play, hang, and discuss music, are fantastic giving everyone involved a great fillip and a chance to meet their colleagues from all over the world.

During the meeting there are regular meetings between teachers and school administrators that discuss pedagogical issues  and current issues related to the teaching of jazz in institutions. Usually these meetings catch the zeitgeist of current concerns among the jazz community as it relates to education, and this year was no exception.

 (Outdoor student concert in Graz)

Art, Craft and 'The Gig'

This year there was much discussion of the employability, or otherwise, of graduating students from jazz programmes. In the US in particular, the financial practicality of undertaking a jazz education in an institution is definitely an issue – how can someone who spends more than $100,000 on their education have any hope of making that back? The situation is somewhat different in Europe in that education is much cheaper so the ratio of education cost to possibilities of recouping that cost is more realistic. But it’s tough for jazz musicians in Europe as well and questions of how and what jazz schools should be teaching are both timely and apposite.

But despite agreeing with the principal of helping students to equip themselves with the tools to operate as professional musicians (music business courses, technology courses, entrepreneurship courses etc.) I feel we are in danger of losing sight of what it is that we (high level jazz schools) do best – teach the art and craft of playing improvised music. The economic situation being what is, jazz schools are under more threat than ever before from both market forces, and pressure, (from the school authorities themselves) to respond to market forces. The response to this has in my opinion, begun to become skewed in that I notice a trend to almost apologise for teaching jazz, and a trend towards viewing the business aspects of the programme as being the most valuable thing you can teach.  

But the reality is that many non-jazz schools offer music business and technology courses, and the vast majority of private music schools focus on the more commercial and business related aspects of music education.  For example, here in Dublin my school is the only one that offers full time jazz education and high level training in non-classical music performance. If we were to change our focus to offer separate courses in music business, music technology or writing for Gaming, then we’d immediately be in competition with at least 10 other schools in the Dublin area alone.

It’s the high level performance training that set jazz schools apart from all the other music schools. Only classical conservatoires offer similar high level performance training, and they are far more specialised than jazz schools, training musicians who are unsuited to almost any other form of musical employment other than classical.

 (Final student concert at the IASJ Meeting Graz)

I’m a firm believer in the teaching of craft despite the constant decrying of the amount of musicians being turned out by jazz schools. As far as the (incredibly inaccurate) received wisdom goes, jazz schools are anti-creativity and have a negative effect on the jazz scene. Bullshit. Jazz schools are, in my opinion, like Architecture schools – they teach a high level craft in a milieu which is also artistic. In architecture, most architects spend their professional lives designing functional buildings, some of which will be artistic, some less so. Occasionally brilliant architects will appear and their creations definitely occupy the artistic realm. But the architecture schools are not responsible for which of their students are more creative and artistic. All they can do  – is teach the craft of architecture, teach and show the history and work of great  architecture, and hopefully teach and inspire a new generation of great architects. But even if an architect only ends up designing a post office, they still need the craft level to make sure that the ceiling doesn’t come down on the head of a customer!

Similarly jazz schools should teach the craft of jazz (and related musics  as desired), introduce the students to the rich creative history of the music, encourage students towards creative goals and provide them with an environment in which they can fully benefit from both the knowledge and experience of the teachers and the creative energy of their fellow students.  A school that teaches high level craft, encourages creativity and supports a strong musical community is something to be proud of, not something to be slightly ashamed of just because some jazz critics, who don’t know their arse from their elbow, make brainless pronunciations on the negative impact of jazz schools.

 (Countryside outside Graz)

Anyone who attended the last IASJ meeting (or any jazz camp, workshop, summer school or similar) would attest to the happiness and excitement of the young musicians who attended, and could attest to the high level playing skills displayed by all of them. How could this joy in playing together and high achievement in performance be a bad thing? Some critics say that only the most talented and creative should be educated – but who is going to choose who has the benefit of an education and who doesn’t? The critics? Jesus, the day that happens we might as well all pack up and go home…………


Another thing that was discussed at this meeting, (mostly informally among the teachers), was the sense of entitlement among many students these days…… There definitely seems to be a trend towards the idea that a student deserves a high grade regardless of the effort put in. There’s no doubt that in this time of instant gratification the connection between effort and reward is less understood than ever before. In a field like jazz, where there are no shortcuts to high level achievement, there is no substitute for hard work, single-mindedness, and dedication. But more and more, we in the schools are starting to see a greater unwillingness among some students to put in the flying hours necessary to become an international standard jazz musician. Yet we are facing demands from these same students for high grades which they clearly haven’t earned. A sign of the times I think….. I hasten to add that not all students are like this, but there’s definitely a growing trend in this direction.

And the delusions of some of these students about how the music world works is not helped by the attitudes of some teachers and administrators whose indulgence of students, regardless of achievement, are bound to feed into the idea that you can be half-hearted about your commitment to the music and yet achieve a high standard of achievement. I heard one administrator recently, (at a different meeting to the IASJ), say that our job was to ‘get out of the way of the students’. Really? If a student really wants teachers out of his or her way, then surely the best way would be not to come to the school in the first place? If a student comes to a school, they should be there for the following reasons:

1 To be in a community of musicians

2 To take part fully in the musical life of that community

3 To take all they can from the experience and knowledge of the school’s teachers

The school’s job is:

1 To provide a place where this community of musicians can flourish

2 To provide an environment where creativity, craft and high achievement is valued among both students and teachers

3 To give the students the benefit of the experience and knowledge of the teachers

I didn’t come through the jazz school system myself, yet I am completely a believer in the value of these schools. Of course they’re not perfect – in the same way that democracy has its flaws but is the best system we’ve got. The community of musicians around which musicians learnt their craft in previous times, doesn’t really exist any more. Until or unless something better comes along, the best way to get the information you need as an aspiring young jazz musician is to go to a good school and partake of the life there -  for a while at least.

Here's an example of what great things young musicians can do when given the kind of opportunities attending a jazz school can bring. This is a student concert from last year's IASJ meeting in Sao Paulo

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Elvin Again............ It doesn't get much better

If you ever want a masterclass in true rhythmic polyrhythmic complexity allied to one of the best ever swing grooves, have a listen to Elvin's playing on 'Transition' - if you have a proper stereo system, as opposed to an iPod player, use the stereo balance to just listen to Elvin - the separation is so extreme you can hear everything Elvin is playing, it's like standing beside him. Then listen to the whole track again with the full band, and hear the full context of what Elvin is playing and how he's responding to, and playing with Trane, McCoy and Garrison. Then lie down with a cold towel on your forehead....

Jazz drumming doesn't get any better than this......... Music doesn't get much better than this........

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ron Carter - The Master

Ron Carter turned 75 recently. It's amazing that, in a music with an incredibly high mortality rate, (especially among Carter's generation), that he's still around and that he's still active and playing. Like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, his bandmates in the legendary Miles Quintet of the 60s, he seems ageless - it seems impossible that there will come a time when he, (and they), will not be around. Carter has been on the scene since the very late 50s, and is apparently the most recorded bassist in history. He's certainly someone I've been aware of since I first started listening to and being aware of jazz in the early 70s, and as a bassist, he has had a profound influence on me.

Carter is for my money, the greatest walking bassist in the history of jazz. Big words, I know - and describing somebody in music as being 'the best' is a risky proposition, since it is ultimately unprovable,  and probably undesirable as well - music is after all, not a competitive sport. Maybe it would be more appropriate for me to say that as a walking bassist, nobody satisfies me on so many levels as Carter. Others have had an extraordinarily powerful beat (Ray Brown, Leroy Vinnegar), and some have a relentlessly creative mind when it comes to note-choices for bass lines (Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez), but none of combined these two elements in the way that Carter has.

Carter's ability to dictate the direction of the band through both rhythmic and harmonic means is unparalleled by any other bassist. Harmonically he seems to have a lexicon of possibilities to apply to even the most mundane tunes, and pieces that he must have played thousands of times. To hear Ron Carter play a blues is to hear the apogee of endless variation of a simple harmonic form. If you are an aspiring bassist and you want to learn how to play great walking bass lines on a blues or Rhythm Changes, just take virtually any RC recording and transcribe what he plays - everything you need is there.

Carter's bass lines come into the 'why didn't I think of that!?' category. They're not that complex in themselves, but they're so relentlessly creative - always shifting, always finding the perfect note, always outlining the harmony but in a way that follows an inexorable voice-leading logic. Carter bass lines are like voice-leading études - as perfect in this regard as any line from a Baroque composer. And they're always logical - hence the 'why didn't I think of that?' feeling you get as a bassist when you listen to Carter's lines. Of course the reason that you didn't think of that is because you (and by you I mean me!) are not as good as Ron Carter at this stuff! In fact in my opinion, nobody is as good as him at this voice-leading aspect of the music. Carter practices Bach a lot and you can hear this kind of contrapuntal intelligence in his lines.

And then there is the rhythmic creativity - Carter has the ability to fundamentally change the perception of the listener with just a slight shifting of where he is in the bar, or even in the beat. He will take a phrase and shift it backwards or forwards by a tiny amount, and the whole landscape changes. You can be suddenly taken outside your comfort zone by one one of these little rhythmic tweaks and kept out there until such time as he decides to, (almost always majestically, and at the perfect moment), resolve it and bring everyone home safely. He is a master of this, and I think his contribution to the Miles Quintet is extremely underrated. Yes Herbie, Tony and Wayne were amazing - but this band couldn't have achieved what they did with any other bassist.

His time feel is a wonder in itself, slightly to the front of the beat but rock solid, with an inner-sprung bounciness that's different to other great walking bassists. It has a more pliable feel than for example Ray Brown's big-as-an-oak-tree quarter note, and is more unpredictable rhythmically than either Brown's or Paul Chambers. He has his own lexicon of crafty embellishments  - triplets, pull-offs to the the open strings, leaps to the open string harmonics - which he varies endlessly and beautifully.

Here's a classic example - the amazing walking bass on Invitation from Joe Henderson's great 'Tetragon' album. Everything that's great about Carter's bass playing is on display here - if you want to know how to play so much C minor and yet never repeat yourself, then you need to check this out. The bass is a little over-recorded and the sound a little too early Barcus-Berry pick up (for my taste anyway), but the way Carter bosses this track is just extraordinary. And he and DeJohnette sound so good together.......

I studied this recording so much and blatantly copped a lot of Carter's methods of getting around cycle of 5ths progressions and ways of making extended minor key passages interesting.

Carter is of course best known for his time with Miles and playing with Tony Williams, but there's so much other good stuff out there. I particularly like his playing with drummers who have a broader cymbal beat than Tony had - particularly when he played with Elvin on such celebrated albums as 'Speak No Evil',  'The Real McCoy' and 'Trident'. I've heard anecdotally that Elvin and Ron didn't get on well on a personal level, which may explain why their recordings together are not extensive (I can't think of any live albums of them together - maybe someone can put me straight?), but any time they played together the feel is just great - Elvin's turbulent yet laid back forward motion works so well with Ron's springy certainty.

Another drummer that Carter sounds great with is Mel Lewis - Lewis also had a broad cymbal beat which  dovetailed beautifully with Carter's time feel. They recorded together a few times and one of my favorites is on Thad Jones and Pepper Adams' little-known gem of an album 'Mean What You Say'. Duke Pearson played piano on this recording which features some fantastic arranging from Jones, (a masterclass in small group arranging) and gives Carter lots of space to show the full range of his skills. Like here on 'H and T Blues' -

Again, Carter's creativity on the blues - a form he must have played literally thousands of times - is wonder to behold.

I must admit I've never been crazy about Carter as a soloist, though it is individualistic. Having said that, Carter did record one of my all-time favorite bass solos with the Great Jazz Trio, (Hank Jones, Carter, Williams) live at the Village Vanguard, where on 'Naima' Carter plays an extraordinary solo which is almost solely based on rhythm. By rhythmically manipulating the two pedal tones, he creates a riveting solo which should be mandatory study for all jazz bassists on how to make the most out of simple material by using rhythmic means alone. But in general, I've never felt that his soloing is on a level with his accompaniment and I've also never liked his own two-bass bands. But these are small personal cavils - nobody can be great at everything, and I do think he's a very interesting composer, writing little contrapuntal gems which are very individualistic. I particularly love a little-known album called 'Etudes' (with Tony Williams, Bill Evans and Art Farmer), that features some wonderful compositions - gems like 'Arboretum' and 'Rufus' which really should be better known. Carter actually has quite a distinguished history as a composer on classic recordings, such as 'RJ' with Miles and 'First Trip' from Herbie's classic 'Speak Like a Child' album. 

But it will be mainly as an accompanist that Carter will be known - and rightly so, since this is ultimately the role of the bass, no matter how much chops and harmonic information we may have acquired over the decades. If we're talking about accompaniment and the role of the bass in jazz, as far as I'm concerned, there's Ron Carter and then there's everyone else.........

Happy 75th Mr. Carter and thank you for the great music and inspiration

Postscript: Having said that Carter and Elvin never recorded live together, I found a clip of them playing together on Youtube. It's an All-Star conglomeration recorded at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982, and despite some cretinous editing, (and footage of people who indisputably prove that man is definitely not evolution's last word), there's some pretty burning music here