Friday, 15 June 2012

Music for Helicopter Pilots

This is about a change in perspective: a shift in how I see the world. Maybe it's just about getting older, but actually this shift was triggered by my reawakened interest in music. Some of these ideas are still slippery in my mind but I'll see if I can catch one or two and lay them before you. Tell you what, here is something to listen to while you read: Nothing Really Blue. Take the tempo down a little.

A couple of years ago I did a lot of reading around the history of jazz (this recommended). What really struck me was how quickly things were moving at the start of the 20th century. The first few decades of jazz saw the music develop hugely.  And that early jazz period which had seemed so far away, so sepia-tinted, suddenly seemed accessible to me, available for me to explore. I was starting to play some of these tunes: no longer were they museum pieces, but living things.  And with services like youtube and spotify, that music had become so easy to find and hear.

Sometimes we categorise ourselves too easily: things are "before my time", or "not my style". Musically,I had by and large stayed locked in what I learned to like in childhood and young adulthood. Now I was discovering music from before my time, and finding it to be fresh and inspirational. My horizons were broadening: as if I were going up in a helicopter, able to see how my familiar territory fitted within a larger landscape.

Our Love is Here to Stay suggests: "The radio and the telephone / And the movies that we know / May just be passing fancies / And in time may go". Well even if those then-newfangled gadgets have transformed out of all recognition, the ideas of them have certainly stuck around. Some things are passing fancies, but some things endure.  I love my Android smartphone that gives me all the backing tracks I could want,: but my sax of bronze and leather and cane is far more satisfying as an object, and will endure far longer. And increasingly the things that will endure should be where my attention is focused.

I know that these are ideas I will keep returning to.

For me, the music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra has this quality of wide horizons. Their music is unmistakably their own, but it has echoes of many cultures, and many times.  It feels somehow universal, timeless, as in Perpetuum Mobile, Air a Danser and Music for a Found Harmonium. Now the PCO has been reborn as plain "Penguin Cafe": note the comment someone made on That, Not That: "I suppose the Penguin Cafe is a music that can last for ever.I suppose it can.

And the title of this blog entry? Enjoy Music for Helicopter Pilots.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Walkin' After Midnight

The Blues Brothers, on arriving to play a gig out in the sticks, are told "We got both kinds [of music]. We got country *and* western."  Not to Jake and Elwood's taste, but they give it their best.  It's not to my taste either: I'm not ambivalent about it, I don't like country music.  And yet, sometimes we come across specific instances that make a nonsense of our prejudices based on generalisations.

Some years ago I was pointed in the direction of the Cowboy Junkies, and in particular their breakthrough album, The Trinity Session, which starts with this track.  Well, the "Cowboy" in the band's name notwithstanding, I listened and I was won over.  Find it, listen to it, it is a modern classic.  And that's the closest I have come to liking country music (and part of me still says the Junkies are not real cowboys).

Now the closing track of The Trinity Session is "Walkin' After Midnight", originally recorded by Patsy Cline.  As you can see, you can't get much more country than Patsy (or should that be western?), and as she sings it, it is pure C&W.   But hold on, even in Patsy's take, is there a hint of a bluesy feel there?  A note that flattens by a semitone in bar 3 of the melody ("out in the moonlight"), coupled with that strange lyric that tells of obsession.  Perhaps this tune can stray a little too, go out walking to some different places:

All of which leads me think about the labels we like to place on musical genres, and ask if these are simply lazy assumptions that may be keeping us from richer experiences. By saying "I don't like that sort of thing", I might be filtering some good stuff from my experience.  After all, music has always been about cross-fertilization and as ever, the most interesting places are always edges and boundaries.

Other versions of "Walkin'" that I found along the way and liked:


  • Melissa Lauren Pisarzowski (the upload post makes my point "Patsy Cline tunes are great to sing on a gig. Sometimes we do them really bluesy, sometimes really country...")

But of course, I always have to come back to the Cowboy Junkies version: Margot Timmins' dreamy, floaty voice over that muscular, somewhat grungy guitar, laid back but still insistent.

And of course, I'm fooling with this on my tenor sax, and, well, here's how it's going ...