Sunday, 11 September 2011

King Louie

Funny how information sneaks into your consciousness and then, one day, several pieces fall into place, and you know stuff you never knew before ...

When my eldest son was still very little we used to watch "The Jungle Book" on videotape.  And of course everyone remembers the Orangutang "King Louie" singing "I wanna be like you".  I had always assumed that the name "King Louie" was a tribute to Louis Armstrong.  Well of course I was wrong...

Listening to BBC Radio 4 "Saturday Live" program some years ago, the burlesque artist Immodesty Blaize was on the "Inheritance Tracks" segment, choosing music from her youth that had influenced her.  Her choice: Swing Swing Swing (which the BBC attributed to Benny Goodman).  Well of course the unforgettable performance of that piece is by Benny Goodman, with Gene Krupa et al at Carnegie Hall.  But Benny didn't write it ...

Then there was a band called "Fat Man Swings" at the Trowbridge festival in 20?? They played "Buona Sera Senorina".  Every time I go to one of these festivals I am enthused enough about some band to buy a CD, and almost always it gets NO play time back home.  Not this one, it has been a firm favourite ever since, and especially "Buona Sera".

What's the common factor? Louis Prima.  He wrote and performed "I wanna be like you", he wrote "Swing Swing Swing", and "Buona Sera" was a hit for him.

For me all these King Louie factors fell into place a short while ago: what a great performer this man was!  Such fun, such energy, such verve.

Want some others?  Just a Gigolo, Night Train, O Sole Mio.

And that leads us on to Sam Butera .... but that's another story.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Times They Are A-changing

Ever since a weird friend of a friend left some behind some cassettes of Eno albums and his alien melodies got under my skin, I have watched Brian Eno's career with awe.  His music, his involvement as producer with Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and others, his contribution to the "Long Now" project, collaborations with the likes of Jah Wobble, and his Oblique Strategies project ... all have been pitch perfect contributions to modern music and other culture.  He was profiled in The Guardian listings magazine this weekend, and one comment he made struck a chord with me: "It's insane that since the Beatles and Dylan it's assumed that all musicians should do everything themselves."   

Now, my generation grew up in that world where the overwhelming majority of pop tunes and more ambitious  rock pieces were clearly identified with specific bands or artists, and cover versions were somewhat ... shall we say ... sneerworthy.  I am now learning that this was in fact at the time a new thing, that pre-60's it was much more common for artists to perform songs written by others, Sinatra being a good example.  The best of these tunes from, roughly the first half of the 20th century are now the standards beloved of jazz bands everywhere:  these songs had the resilience to support adaptation by wildly different artists and still to retain their own character.

The performer/songwriter model that followed coincided with the flourishing of the recorded music industry as big business.  This industry has failed to navigate the digital revolution, and the way in which music is made and consumed is changing for good.  Technology means that the closed world of music creation and distribution has been opened to the masses.  There is no longer one pop music market, everything is fragmented and niche, and musicians make a living, if at all, increasingly from performance, using recordings for promotion.  Everyone can make music now and record and distribute it.  But not everyone who can perform half-decently has the skill to craft a good tune.

Over the decades, if anyone has known which way the wind has been blowing, it's been Eno. And now the Guardian tells us that [Eno has] "largely lost interest in the idea that singer should be at the centre of music and that pop music itself is somehow autobiographical".   Could this mean a new era of performers who feel free to pick and choose their material, and no longer feel obliged to write it themselves?  The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind ....

Monday, 13 June 2011

I Got Rhythm

I could never hold a beat.  As a teenager trying to dance, I had two left feet.  My sisters would try to coach me in dancing to 60's pop, saying "listen for the heavy beat, move to that beat".  No good.  Things would drift, I would get lost and nearly trip over my toes.  I loved the music, I sang it in my head, I knew the tunes and lyrics, but dance ... no hope.

When I was forced to join in marching at school and in doing national service, if I could find the pace at all, I  would find it slowly drifting away.  Luckily I learned the trick of changing one's step by using one foot to kick the heel of the other.  Bafflingly, sometimes I found I was still out of step.

When I started learning to play my sax, my teacher would say, "feel the pulse, tap your foot".  Guess what, I found I couldn't even tap my foot.   He said "play with a metronome".  Nothing did more to put my time out, and I froze, terrified of coming in at the wrong time, so even playing the first note was a challenge.  Left to my own devices, I could pick out the notes ... in my own time ... which was the wrong time.

Then things slowly started to change; things seems to be coming together now.  When I played at the jazz camp in San Diego this year I was complimented for my sense of timing.  What changed things?  I reckon two things: firstly, I started making and playing to backing tracks.  Unlike the harsh, insistent metronome, Band-In-A-Box gave me a warm, swinging, organic sound to play against.  It was actually good to listen to, even without playing a note, and when I did attempt a few tentative notes, they sounded gooood against the pulse of the bass.  And the second thing that changed flowed directly from that.  I started to move.  Not just tapping my toes, but starting to dance, to let the music flow through my body.  These days the toes tap at the slightest hint of swing.

Now I have a long long way to go: I make mistakes aplenty, both in reading the music and in placing the notes.  I struggle with phrasing, some passages are just too swift for me.  But, hey, on a good day, I Got Rhythm.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


It seems presumptuous to write about Thelonious Monk.  He baffles the brain.  His playing can seem disjointed, halting, spikey, unpolished (like this).  His pieces are full of strange harmonies and jumps.  In some way they can seem uncomfortable - especially if you're trying for the first time to turn those dots on the page into something with a shred of musical sense.

In "Jazz", Garry Giddins and Scott DeVeaux tell us that Monk is the second most widely performed jazz composer, second to Duke Ellington.  Consider though, that Ellington wrote over 1500 pieces: Monk wrote around 70.  What is the something that keeps performers coming back and back to those strange and beguiling pieces?  If you go and look at the leadsheet for "Reflections" you'll see just 32 bars sparsely sprinkled with notes. Yet this musical DNA, in the hands and minds of talented artists, gives rise to a whole family of musical offspring, each different, each resonant with Monkishness. Try Reflections enigmatically from Donald Fagen & Steve Khan, or quirkily from (anonomous ukelelist) or smoothly, beautifully from Wynton Marsalis.  Seems you can even  dance to it (if you have to).  

I don't have the musical theory to know why this is so: why Monk's DNA, his musical memes, are so fruitful.  I just rejoice in them, and in that feeling of triumph when somehow, from the jagged jumpiness of the notes on the page, I manage to get something that briefly reveals that flow and that Monkish feel.  Which of these many versions inspires me most?  Why, this one: Caleb Curtis's dreamy, beautiful rendition.

Oh, and Thelonious Monk's middle name was Sphere. Really.  How cool is that?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Aristotle Sings The Blues

"In Our Time" on BBC Radio 4 is, for my money, the most intelligent broadcasting there is.  In January Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Aristotle's "Poetics" (link here).   As ever, there was much to learn, but these two ideas got me thinking:.

"Poetics" concerns itself with drama, and specifically tragedy (the work on comedy is lost).  Aristotle discusses the purpose of drama, part of which is to achieve "catharsis" (used with the meaning of "cleansing").  So the audience gets to experience tragedy by proxy, and a playwright and players of sufficient skill and artistry will involve us so deeply in the action that we will actually experience the emotions of the characters, albeit in a diluted form.  As if it were a vaccination, we experience this cleansing or catharsis in a safe and controlled way, and thereby deal with some of our own emotions that we bring with us, almost as a form of therapy.

The other striking idea was this: that the drama can actually educate the audience in appropriate responses to situations that they may not have experienced.  In this way we can prepare ourselves for times of loss or grief, by seeing how others have responded and knowing what is appropriate.

This articulated so clearly some of  my own half-formed thoughts about the tunes I have been playing.  Old blues and jazz standards, with lyrics carrying strong emotions of love and pain and loss.  But these songs are not about giving in: we know somehow that the blues are all about surviving tragedy, and enduring the pain.  In a word, catharsis.  (like this)

They say that before you can sing the blues you must have lived the blues.  Maybe so.  But maybe it works a little the other way round also: that by singing, playing or even hearing the blues, we can educate ourselves emotionally.  Isn't this one way how we as teenagers developed an emotional vocabulary, and prepared for life?   So now, when I manage to play a blue phrase on my sax that twists in just the right way, and wrings the heart just a little, I feel am connecting with the main flow of humanity, stretching back, yes, as far as Aristotle.

Friday, 28 January 2011

California Dreaming

It does seem like a dream.  48 hours ago I was leaving springlike San Diego to return to wintry Surrey having attended the annual Adult Jazz Camp hosted by the America's Finest City Dixieland Jazz Society.  (AFCDJS)
A wonderful time, playing LOTS of Jazz in the company of the most interesting and talented folk.  The instructors are versatile, tolerant and inspiring, the students equally so.

Even though the students are of varying skill levels, everyone seems to gain a great deal from it, and for someone so close to the start of their musical journey it is a great privilege to play with those who have so much more experience than I, and to feel that I'm making a contribution: it's a team effort.

In fact, you can do worse than to take a Traditional Jazz Band as a great example of a working team.  While each player is given a chance to shine in their solos, the ensemble choruses demand close attention to both the music and what the other players are doing.  The bandleader (by default the trumpeter/cornetist), has the task of managing the whole show, either through a carefully worked out roadmap, or more freely, responding to the flow of the performance. Success comes through everyone's efforts, not least the ability to pull it back when things start coming off the rails.  I leave you to draw your own lessons for life.

Some dreams linger on waking.  I'm hoping I can hang on to those good feelings of teamwork and fellowship.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

St Louis Blues

Last week I stumbled over St Louis Blues, by W.C.Handy, the father of the blues. Listen to this tune.  If you have an online music resource, like Spotify, see how many versions of this tune there are: dozens and dozens. Artists like Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, and of course, Bessie Smith/Louis Armstrong.  Now hear how each version reflects its time, its performer, its context.  Every version preserves its essential "St Louis Blues"ness, and yet is moulded to serve the purposes of the performing artist.

For me, this is interesting, because it is NOT the way I grew up listening to and understanding music.  After all, a tune like "Penny Lane" exists in a definitive, canonical performance.  Only that version is the real "Penny Lane".  Cover versions are, well, pointless, because the Beatles laid down the one and only way it should sound.

Come back to St Louis Blues.  Every version sounds "right".  Chuck Berry, or Brenda Lee make it belong to the rock-and-roll era, Django puts it on springs, Bessie and Louis take it right back to New Orleans.  What is going on here?  It's as if the St Louis meme combines with Django's gypsy jazz to create a unique offspring.  But why does it work so well, in almost all cases?  Why is it so adaptable?  Is there something special about this tune? Or is this just the passage of time (incredibly the tune is 97 years old) that has brought the tune to the attention of so many musicians, who have in effect selected the best of tunes, leaving the lesser ones behind?  Or was the first half of the twentieth century just the right environment for this flourishing of popular tunes?

Nice questions to think about.  And of course, St Louis Blues is such fun to PLAY, and how lucky I am to be able to take that St Louis DNA and make my own version.

Anything Goes

Should I start at the beginning?   I think not, that would be tedious.  In other posts I am sure I will go back, and record the memories of the joys and frustrations of getting the first notes out of my alto sax.  That was two years ago, and so much of how I think and feel about music has changed in that time.

Every week seems to bring new insights, insights that seem to me, now, to be worth capturing.  It's a good thing, in middle age (there, I said it) to discover that you have the capacity to learn, to feel the joy of discovery of fresh ideas and new thoughts, a joy that seemed to have been left behind in youth.

I warn you though, some of these new thoughts are slippery as fish.  No sooner does it seem that you have grasped them, than they wiggle and flip and they are gone. I hope this blog can become an album of snapshots of these leaping, flipping, lively ideas.  Get 'em while they're fresh!