La Mer… Qu’on Voit Danser…

Some other people enjoying themselves on the SS Not Mine

Some people enjoying themselves on the SS Theirs. (The jazz musicians are below decks moaning about money. Apart from the one frantically waving from the shore because he was late for the gig. Again.)

Got a few projects on, so I’m taking a little holiday from blogging for a couple of weeks. Hope my dedicated 51.2531 readers (it says here) will be able to handle the disappointment. Hey, I’m sanguine about it – the only time a jazz musician is ever going to be on a yacht, it won’t be theirs… And when a jazzer takes a holiday, they’re usually working harder than ever.

So I’ll leave you for a little while, but with some things to ponder. One of the projects I’ve been involved in recently is a rather quickly crashed together cabaret show of French songs – for Bastille Day. Allons enfants… I love all that stuff. But it has to played the right way…


There’s a general point to distil here – always play appropriately to the situation. That applies to the place, the audience and the music.

You really shouldn’t go all Ornette Coleman on a duo gig in a hotel lobby bar – just perfume the air, because that’s the purpose of the gig. The audience has spent the day hoofing round the sights, had a shower and are enjoying a quick drink together before dinner or a show. Don’t try and educate their ears with your insights into Schoenberg. Don’t do a village fete and deafen everyone with your hot rawk, because inside your head it’s Woodstock or Donnington. You may think it’s the revolution, but melting the tiger face painting off screaming children is not what you were hired for. Don’t swing the viola part to a Brahms symphony – it’s not a propos.

Equally, when doing a fundamentally triadic sort of style – like French popular songs, for instance – there’s not much place for jazzy sharp 27ths, flat 49ths and edgy syncopations. It’s not in the style, not appropriate, and actually not even necessary. I did a John Lennon tribute a while back, and it wasn’t a “Lennon Goes Jazz” gig, it was a Lennon gig. I left my attitude and my upper chord extensions at the door then collected them from security on the way out.


Was talking recently to a friend who runs a pop band (that’s not a putdown – they’re very good) and invariably uses jazz musicians in the lineup (we get everywhere, like roaches). She remarked that “you guys seem to have a language that I don’t speak”. The trumpeter and I had been nattering about pedals, harmonic alterations and an and-of-two that sort of wandered around a bit during one of the arrangements.

She has an excellent point. You don’t walk into a pub and start waffling about weights and measures, specific density of the beer, licencing laws, etc. You order a bloody drink. I’m not implying that I think supercharged jazzotastic musical stuff is superior. I certainly don’t, and there are plenty of tunes I play perfectly straight. It’s about “entre nous”, not “contre nous”.

Be appropriate...

“Well hi there, Mr Gripfang McBastard! Or can I call you Grippie? You look like a fan of Lawrence Welk to me…” Might be actually, but the bet’s against you. Be appropriate.

There’s a tendency in jazz circles to reinterpret popular contemporary tunes. Of course, the music has always done that – it’s just that the tunes they did it with have now come to be known as “jazz tunes”.

Incidentally, watch out for an afternoon TV repeat of the classic Lana Turner film Green Dolphin Street. It’s a great film, but if you’re inclined to think of trilbyed cool cats lighting cigarettes down city alleyways, you’re in for a shock. It’s an epic about 19th Century colonial class angst, drunken sailors, volcanic eruptions in the South Sea islands – there’s even nuns… It was a hit film and jazz musicians liked the theme tune.

I’ve lost count of the number of jazz acts doing the circuit that “reinvent Coldplay”, etc… Well, you could do the full Herbie, I suppose, and find some intricate, elegant, moody way of reharmonising the material. Why not – go for it. Some of the versions are great – although I personally think that 20 minutes of introspective pantonal poking at Smoke on the Water is probably stretching things a bit too far.

Abide With Me is an astoundingly beautiful composition just as it is. Doesn’t need tritone subs and slash chords all over the place. Play the damn tune! Get deeply into it on its own terms and do it well. Nobody’s going to thank you for your Coltrane-inspired explorations when they’re burying Uncle Dick. (Incidentally, Peter Sellers didn’t insist on In the Mood at his funeral to get a laugh – he knew his colleagues didn’t like Glenn Miller…)

A bientôt les mecs (I’m still in character for Bastille Day). And don’t forget to tip your vicar. Never a good idea to get the wrong side of a vicar…

PS To commemorate the date when the French stormed a prison fortress and liberated a handful of drunks (who were mostly quite happy where they were), a figment of Alexandre Dumas’ imagination and a confused duck, I’m doing a competition. There are three references to La Marseillaise scattered in this post – first one to get them all wins a free book.

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
One comment on “La Mer… Qu’on Voit Danser…
  1. Jason says:

    We have a winner.
    A few people picked up on the lyric references – “allons enfants” and “contre nous”. But Amanda G noticed that 512531 is the first phrase of La Marseillaise.
    Appropriately enough, a copy of the Pentatonics book is on its way.

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We play every month at Toulouse Lautrec in Kennington, South London.

Fri Mar 30th 9pm, £15 (£9 adv)
JLT feat Duncan Eagles ten sax 

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