Interview with JazzBites radio

PINNED

I was recently a guest of the delightful Anthea Redmond for the US JazzBites radio show. Call it the thoughts of Chairman Jase…

Live broadcast on August 12, 14 and 16. My archive link is here (compressed to buggery – their broadcast quality is better…)

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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings

The Set Menu

Here is an episode of a ’60s BBC TV series called Jazz 625 (yeah, our TVs had 625 scan lines at the time and the Beeboid techies came up with that really imaginative name). It’s Bill Evans with his second trio visiting London. Look at 0:16 – the tune is Nardis, and watch bassist Chuck Israels – he only just makes the answering bass riff in time. He obviously didn’t know what the tune was going to be.

So what’s going on here? This is a high-profile national broadcast and Bill (who doesn’t speak to introduce tunes during this show*) seems to just be pulling tunes out of him, erm… whim.

Well, the band certainly knew Bill’s book. In fact, they knew it in all the keys, because on any given night, he might decide to change things up. Old school (as the nuskool kids are fond of saying), and I’ll have more to say about key fluency below. He also had a rather standardised compact repertoire throughout most of his career. He didn’t play wide, he played deep – that is to say, he preferred to explore a dozen or so tunes thoroughly for years, rather than playing a ton of different stuff. (Not that he wouldn’t have been capable of nailing just about anything.)

He certainly felt more at home in certain tunes and tempos, and perhaps there was an eye to marketing as well – he’d often tend to play things that were on albums he’d released, obviously.

He was also in the habit of having a little list of tunes sitting on the piano (you can see it in the video). And the band would have been aware of what was on that. But here’s the thing – it wasn’t a set list as such, more of a menu…

SET THEORY

Sir wants everyzing on ze menu? And in zat ordeur? And maybe a waaafer-thin mint?

I’ve worked with set lists and without, and I much prefer to do it without. Having a sort of menu is fine, but you do have to take into account changing moods – yours, the band’s and perhaps most importantly, the audience’s.

It’s generally good to consider set openers and closers, but I feel it goes best if you treat the rest as choices. I don’t mean you should turn gaps between tunes into lengthy onstage debates – or if you do, at least involve the audience in the “what do you want to do next?” banter and make a bit of fun of it.

Some musicians prefer to work with rigid set lists, and that’s fine. And sometimes it’s a really structured and themed gig, so you put a lot into the prep.

SET IN YOUR WAYS?

But in general, I honestly can’t remember the last time even a strict list didn’t get at least tweaked around on the night. It really is generally treated like a restaurant menu. You don’t eat everything and you choose what you feel like in the moment.

Oh and get key-fluent people. I’ve done gigs where we’ve decided on the fly to follow tune X with tune Y, and quickly noticed that they’re in the same key, so we changed it. These little things matter and in these days of thumbable iRealBooks and such, the only hurdle is your own chops.

Mind you, there’s a lot to be said for the Roman numeral chunk approach to learning tunes. See here for more on that (and another Monty Python reference). I honestly think I must have played Green Dolphin Street in just about every key (singers… I love them to bits) – and without a phone. It’s not a difficult tune to understand and remember structurally, and a good starting point for applying the Roman numeral approach.

* The show was hosted by the late great Humphrey Lyttelton, generally known as a more trad-inclined trumpeter but passionately interested in all styles of jazz. For more on his later fame as a hilariously grumpy panel show chairman see here.

 

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

The Jaws of a Dilemma

quint

“Now?” “Just a second…” “NOW?” “Just a second…” NOW?! I’M GOING TO SHOOT ANYWAY!” “Okay, let her go.”

I was involved in a discussion over on one of the REAPER forums recently with someone who seems to have been hung up on the production intricacies of one song for months.

It’s probably my journalist background – the deadline’s the deadline. I was often reminded during my newsroom days (and nights) of the scene from Jaws when Quint is desperate to shoot a harpoon into the animatronic monster and Hooper is trying to hold him off long enough to lash a tracker to the barrel.

That is to say, you work as hard as you can right up to the last minute but you do have to shoot, or what’s the point?

In the musical (or generally creative, or perhaps just life) context I’d say the same applies, but you usually have to be the one who gives yourself the deadline to meet. You have to be both Quint and Hooper. I’m all for giving it everything you’ve got, but eventually you have to let it fly.

It’s a bit like a gig. You can practice and rehearse (in that order, please people) as much as you like, but come showtime you’re as good as you can be at the time. A 1, A 2, A 1-2-3-4…

We all have a funny relationship with projects from the past. We seesaw between only hearing the flaws, only hearing the good stuff, liking them, not liking them, regarding them as naive. Eventually, we hopefully just think “Hey, of course I’d have done it differently now, but there are things I like and actually some things I probably couldn’t do now…”

PS This one’s for Stephen – keep at it, mate. You can’t be expected to nail it first time out, or in fact ever. None of us ever do. But what you can be expected to do is DO. And it’s in the getting it done part that’s when you learn the most.

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

Camels and Robots

…and as they come to the turn, it’s 001101110101 on Humpy leading the field…

Or putting rhythm sections out of business…

Nah, of course, I’d never do such a thing. There’s no substitute for the real deal. But then practising isn’t the real deal either and I was asked a while ago about how I practise. Sorry the reply comes so late, MH.

Sad truth is that at the moment, I don’t and I’m not proud of the fact. Life’s in the way right now, but I have been doing this a long time, so with a gig whiskey inside me I can usually rise to the occasion.

But when I do, I use a program called Band in a Box to get the virtual guys round for a play. Attached is an example of four choruses of Caravan. I’ve tweaked it a little to my preferences and to give me a workout with variety, but it’s really just BIAB’s basic sampled output. There’s a lot more that could be done – for instance, you could swap in specific basslines and hits. Frankly though, for practice purposes, I can “hear” those.

If any of you use BIAB and want the original file so you can tailor it, just get in touch.

Midnight at the Oasis…

(FUN FACT: Did you know that the delightfully old-fashioned British pejorative “git” comes from the Arabic word for a pregnant camel? It’s one of those adopted words that came from our often unsavoury adventures abroad. I’m not an experienced herder, but by all accounts, while usually pretty cool and sweet creatures, camels are very obstreperous when in that condition and not to be messed with… And who can honestly blame them?)

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

Lies, Damn Lies & Marketing Part 7 – Sick Self Love

Interesting piece in the NYT recently by Frank Bruni. Belated grasp of things, but good that the talking heads are finally starting to notice what’s been going on under their talking noses for years.

In a nutshell, the piece focuses on the eulogising of Aretha Franklin and John McCain. I don’t want to go anywhere near politics here, but the general point is that so many tributes appear focused on the writer rather than the subject. Bruni is pretty fair here – pointing out that those like him with a privileged platform have been doing it too. Introspection is a rare commodity these days.

I think we’re all familiar with the “the bassist from Crotchstrap used to mow my lawn” and general griefsploitation stuff. But let’s just boil this down to how to promote yourself as a musician. Of course, we’re in a prisoner’s dilemma here – if everyone else is exaggerlying their arses off, it becomes normal, so if we don’t, we might sound pathetic. But it is possible just to be honest.

As I’ve said previously in this blog series (The Dark Art of Marketing), I feel that integrity matters. You didn’t work with someone, you just held the door open for them once. You weren’t best pals with them, you just once buttonholed them for a two-minute chat while they were waiting for their limo. You might feel you know them through their music, but you didn’t actually know them at all.

Social media… theoretically a fantastic tool for communication, but sadly in reality all too often an amplifier for narcissism and confirmation bias that warps people.

Hah! So why do I blog? Because I genuinely believe I have useful and helpful things to say. You don’t have to like or agree with any of it. Feel free to object.

Every technological advance throughout history has immediately been used as a weapon even it wasn’t developed as one. You can use a sharp stick to build a shelter or hurt someone. You can use the internet for knowledge gathering and communication or… to hurt someone. Or even to falsely aggrandise yourself.

Let’s not be one of those people, eh? We’re better than that aren’t we?

And of course, if you make it a policy not to lie, you’ll have a much easier life. No need to remember or concentrate – you can just get on and do your thing. Sadly, nowadays that isn’t a recipe for success, but you’ll sleep soundly. And fame often ain’t worth the candle anyway.

Re-re-re-re-spect – just a little bit…

PS This is not a political forum. As always, I welcome comments, but please keep them general and on point, and for this first time ever, I will moderate.

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Posted in d) The Dark Art of Marketing, e) Rants & Ramblings

All About That Bass, Bout That Bass (No Trouble)

That cat can swing… Right paw in a sort of slap position btw.

I’ve had a question about comping bass solos. Wow. Well, how long have we got…

I’ll start by mentioning that I play some “journeyman” bass. I can do a reasonable job as long the tempos are gentle, the changes aren’t too complex and you don’t expect inspired solos (or particularly good intonation). The reason I mention it is that it’s important to put yourself in other musicians’ shoes, and the best way to do that is to spend some time at least mucking around on their instrument. If you can’t do that, at very least try to put yourself in their heads.

This is as true in jazz as it is in classical music – if you can’t tell the difference between a clarinet and an oboe, you just won’t be able to write well for them. If you can get a squawk out of them, you’ve started. If you can play a little bit, you’re closer. If you’ve had a go, however feebly, at some of the parts they typically play, you’re much closer. Remember, instruments have specific roles to play in any kind of music.

So… where do we start? Not in historical order, let’s try building up from nothing.

MONKERY

You don’t actually have to comp at all. Leave them their space, go off to the bar even. Monk used to occasionally start gigs with pure solos – the drummer will now play you a tune, now the bassist will, etc. I’d say that, in general, a bassist won’t regard you laying out completely as idleness, cluelessness or lack of support. With the piano, guitar or drums out of the way, they have the musical space to themselves and most of them will relish the situation. But do be ready to come back in the right place though…

BACK TO BASIES

The odd little trinkling riff way up at the top of the piano – ie, well out of the way. This can work like a charm, but probably not all night. Likewise, low simple pedal points, often to mark section breaks. It’s not always a crime to play roots when accompanying a bassist. Oscar Peterson did it frequently. As, in a different vein, did Tyner. As in fact just about everybody does.

SO YOU WANNA BE THE CHAMP

An approach typical in bebop and hard bop. It’s pretty much the bog standard way – just keep champ-champing in the mid or upper register – although with a lighter approach than the way you’d comp a horn. Typical basic rhythms are the Charleston variants that Red Garland and others popularised. But be sensitive. When bassists get the opportunity to let fly, they like to use the full range of the instrument. They’ll often be right up the neck (it’s called thumb position). It is possible to play “in and amongst” but often better to keep out of the register they’re plundering at the time.

Don’t hop about weirdly, try to make it all organic, but it can actually be very beautiful when a bassist is really going for the high stuff with both hands barely inches apart for you to drop down really low – occasionally even playing a walking bass line yourself. Role reversal.

THE VAMP OF SAVANNAH

An idea inherited from jazz’s Latin roots, and prevalent in hard bop, funk, fusion, etc. Become a machine – pump out something consistent and allow the bassist to do something over it (do keep good time though). Of course, keep an eye on them and if they don’t much fancy this approach in the particular circs, don’t impose it. And be careful of dynamics – don’t overpower them.

THE CHAMBER OF HORRORS DELIGHTS

Pretty much invented by Bill Evans as an extension from the champ-champ. Total communal interaction, passing ideas around all the time. Quite literally creating a sort of conversational chamber music arrangement on the fly. With all these approaches, it becomes natural to respond to things that happen during a solo and magically make rhythmic hits, echo solo lines, etc. Kid the audience into thinking you’ve rehearsed… But in this approach, interplay is intense and constant.

Incidentally, this isn’t one for bigheads. If you do it right, audiences often can’t tell the changeover from piano to bass solo (or vice versa – great idea to occasionally give the bassist first whack). Or they don’t want to interrupt the music. Or they’re too busy arguing, falling in love, falling over, etc. So you’ll often get the applause for the two as one.

BACK TO BASS CAMP

So which to use? All of them, when appropriate. I’ve remarked before that I actually enjoy comping more than soloing (I’m weird like that). There’s as much creativity and challenge in it, believe me – possibly more – and comping a bassist well is possibly the ultimate test of your chops.

Your bassist, however inspired, generally spends the majority of the gig on a refined form of autopilot – it goes with the territory. For years they didn’t even get to solo at all. So when you give them their time to shine, treat them right.

Oh, and in general, if you feel you have to comp just to keep your place – stop it! You should be able to go and move the car, stop downstairs for a piss, have a chat with Uncle Fred and come back, just hear where the band is in the form and jump right back in.

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping, c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

Audio Plugin – the PSG

“Up the uppifier…” “Give that bit less… oomph” “I feel there’s something missing…”

I had planned to release this freeware FX plugin on 1 April, but things got delayed a bit. Okay, a lot.

Introducing the all-new PSG™ – put it on a spare channel strip and it will instantly double your productivity, guaranteed. Using carefully formulated psycho-socio-acoustic algorithms, the PSG can automatically do anything your client wants to any mix.

To install, just label any strip you choose “PSG” and don’t route it to anything. Then when you’re getting damn fool suggestions or demands, you can play with any of the controls with as much dramatic flair as you wish, and the PSG (pop star’s girlfriend) plugin will magically fulfil the client’s every wish, to their instant amazement. Leaving you free to work.

  • No download or registration required
  • Warning: contains crass stereotyping, not fully tested on all relationships
  • Fully backwards compatible with the betas of Oomphifier, KindaMissinger and ABitLiker
  • Coding based on the open source STFU library
Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, j) Sound & Vision
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