Wednesday, September 7, 2016
I remember an incident: I'm in my late 20s at the time, a travelling musician, driving on one of the Motorways in the UK, and as usual, carrying several small-ish instruments with me. I stop for lunch at one of the Motorway service stops, and as is my habit at the time, I take the instruments into the restaurant with me - don't want to tempt fate leaving them in an unoccupied car.
In the restaurant I'm greeted by a group of older ladies on a neighbouring table, curious to know what's in my oddly-shaped cases:
"ooh! can you play us a tune?"
"sorry, I don't think I can play anything you'd know"
I immediately felt a bit disturbed by my own response. Here I was, devoting ridiculous amounts of my time to expressing myself on these instruments, yet I couldn't touch the people around me. I was developing all this for just a tiny group of initiates - jazz nerds.
It changed me quite a lot. I started looking into folk music in general. Into the musical elements common to all - principles of rhythmic and melodic beauty that are universal, authentic and timeless. Simplicity without compromise. Most of what I've composed and played since has tried to hold to these values. I want to communicate.
JAZZ ISN'T DEAD (IT JUST SMELLS FUNNY)
We're experiencing a tough moment in the evolution of popular music. The established order of things of even 20 years ago is gone. Much lamenting is done on the fact that the jazz scene is dying. But it's not dying, it's just being challenged, and because too many jazz musicians are still comfortably stuck in the language and traditions of the old order, they are still playing to an ever-dwindling little group of jazz nerds.
Jazz's life-force is in being able to create something really human and relevant out of the moment. Yet a lot of jazz performances infuriate me for being exactly the opposite. A sleepy trudge through the tried-and-tested. Despite the fact that it's not a jam session, it often follows exactly a jam session format: head-solo-solo-(bass)solo-drum4s-head. Who is this music for? The players or the audience? Is this some kind of musicians cooperative ego-stroking session? Why does everyone in the group have to take a solo? Why does a solo have to be the same length as the last solo?
Audience numbers, and consequently the availability of venues tell the story: few people are going to come to a gig like this - unless there are outstanding or famous players in the band. Even then, the audience will be from that ever-dwindling pool of jazz initiates.
If you've got a gig. Make it a show. Arrange it so that it has maximum effect. Work out the dynamic flow of each set, and then of each song. Decide which soloists you use where, not because you want to give them their rightful "chance to blow" but because they can create the necessary dynamic intensity. Maybe brief your players about what you're trying to achieve with each set/tune/solo.
I'm not saying that the jazz musician needs to change the content, or "authenticity" of what they are doing. Pop music stays relevant by reinventing itself on a regular basis. This is not done for effect - it's not initiated by the recording, production or management companies, but by the musicians themselves: they get bored with the established order, they question it's validity, and then they change it. They do this because their environment demands it. Times change, and the old order ceases to resonate with them.
Pop musicians also don't generally think of themselves as Pop Musicians. They just create and play the music that their aesthetic demands. Though you may have spent much of your formative years internalising the language, structures and lore of bebop, it is after all just one of the strings to your bow. Use them all.
As Louis Armstrong (and so many others) said: "there are only 2 types of music: good, and bad".
Constantly reassessing your musical purpose is the only way to continue being relevant.