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.