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!