The Artist’s paradox

spinaltap

Women often seem to be attracted to male singers, musicians, artists (DISCLAIMER: could also be male-female, m-m, f-f and all the above where one or both have had sex changes etc) because of the danger and possible significance of them being admired by many people. But once they’re in a relationship with that man, they don’t want him to be an artist.

So one of the paradoxes for the aspiring artist is “Well I want to attract women so I’ll pick up the guitar” but then later the thought crosses your mind “but later in life I could be on my own if I’m still an artist”…

Graeme Norton commentary again exemplifies the lazy prejudices of trans-Atlantic anglophone TV media

norton-wogan

During the Eurovision song contest last week, Graham Norton carried on the tradition of his late predecessor Terry Wogan to be disdainful, dismissive and to poke fun at funny foreigners who don’t speak English.

It’s ironic isn’t it, that both Norton and Wogan are/were Irish, a nationality that has been victimised a lot by the British – but there they go, acting as honorary Brits, peddling the same prejudices for a job.

To make jokes about how bad the music is is fine, because let’s face it, most of it isn’t great music, but that’s not the point. Norton displayed a wilful ignorance of major figures in the Portuguese speaking world who were involved in the event this year. You would think with the amount he is paid, Norton would have done a bit of research about the professional artists performing while votes were being counted. Caetano Veloso is a grand figure of Brazilian music spoken in the same breath as Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Vinicius de Moraes. Sara Tavares who appeared with Branko, is also an established Portuguese singer. She mixes influences of Cape Verde (islands off West Africa where her family is from), Portuguese and jazz in her music.

Norton gave a token reference to Caetano Veloso that he was a controversial figure (he probably just read the first line of his Wiki entry) but didn’t follow it up with any more information. And as for Tavares’ performance, he just said, boring, glad that’s over. He demonstrates the same behaviour many British tourists display when holidaying in the Algarve. Take the surroundings for granted and show utter disinterest for any local culture. The same attitude many Brits have in the Costa del Sol, Spain.

Norton excels in chatting with the US stars who come over the Atlantic to promote their products on Saturday nights. He is one of those beacons who stands their promoting that “special relationship” between the UK and the USA. In a way, I think that fuels his outward prejudice of the factors that don’t fit into that cosy worldview. Perhaps also, because his livelihood and identity has now formed around those dynamics, he can’t pull away from such limited behaviour. Perhaps behind that boisterous figure, there is a depressed comic who doesn’t like the things he says?

Just a thought!

Gospel Music

gospel collage

Just been asked to play a couple of gigs with a gospel band. It’s not my favourite music, but none of us who appreciate the greatness of the music that has come out the USA in the past century can deny that the music of the church has had a great influence on blues, jazz and the r&b pop we hear on the radio today.

The artists I’ve grown up listening to who definitely put gospel into their music are Prince, D’Angelo and I think my earliest memory of a gospel style tune on the radio – good old Leo Sayer – “When I need you” … I guess you can just put that swing beat in your brain and then see which songs fit!

Two songs that spring to mind by Prince that give out a gospel vibe are Until the End of Time (Sign ‘O’ the Times, 1987) and the Morning Papers (Symbol album, 1992). On the former song, the harmony he builds towards the end really give that church feel, and of course he does his trademark falsettos as the soloist on top, trilling, showing off!

I guess that’s the irony with the gospel style that’s been borrowed in funk (let’s not forget James Brown!), soul and blues. You’ve got the allegiance to God, the total surrender etc in Gospel, and contrasted in the modern styles you’ve got the focus on sex… “I need you… I REALLY need you!!

It’s also interesting how many British bands over the years have given their song a boost with a gospel choir or at least a deep soul-voiced singer in the background… often with lead singers who wouldn’t be able to cope singing without a microphone!

Rita Tam – Árboles!

rita
Wow it’s already a year since Rita Tam’s album Árboles was released! It was the first album I’d produced for someone else. It was really enjoyable to help someone realise their ideas and build up parts from initially acoustic songs. Years before, it had also been rewarding to see Rita start writing songs – I had taught her how to play chords on the guitar, and it’s not often that I see one of my students start writing great songs like that! As I had done my first album a couple of years before Rita released hers, I know the feeling, when you have finally found your voice, whether it be your actual voice or an instrument, that you’ve actually put your piece of art out there… people might like it or hate it but it’s yours! Check out her track The Stars…

Retro key changes

fireman-sam-old and new
Started watching Fireman Sam with my young son… it’s a computer animated children’s programme… and as a musician I was surprised to hear so many key changes in the theme song – seemed unusual for this day and age. Then through YouTube it all made sense because we started watching the old Fireman Sam that was made from 1987 until about 1993. The theme song was very 80′s, very Level 42, with key changes, slap bass, synthesisers and a soothing vocal top line reminiscent of Mike Lindup (L42!). So, the modulations in the modern Fireman Sam theme now make sense!

Al Di Meola – All Your Life (Review)

aldimeola

Ever since I randomly picked out a tape in my local library in the late 1980s called “Al Di Meola – Land of the Midnight Sun” (a technically impressive, melodic, innovative album he recorded in 1976, unbelievably at the age of 22) I’ve always been interested in his unusual approach to guitar playing and composition. It’s clear from what he did in his late ’70s albums, and then with his contributions to the Guitar Trio albums of the early ’80s (with Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin) that he already had a great legacy.

So I was interested when I heard he’d recently recorded a tribute to the Beatles – “All Your Life”. He describes in the album sleeve how influential the Beatles have been to popular music and culture in the past 40 or 50 years, and to him personally. As I am also a Beatles fan, I look forward to reviewing this album…
By the way, here are some abbreviations: ADM- Al Di Meola; PDL Paco de Lucia; JM – John McLaughlin; EM – Elevator Music; EL – Easy Listening

Making an Instrumental covers album
Briefly, before I get into the album itself, I want to mention an idea that shapes the way I listen to this music. The impact of vocal and instrumental popular music on the listener.

In the early days of jazz, melody was very important, and composers used to spend a lot of time at the piano coming up with distinctive melodies and chords. And often a lyricist would then put words to those melodies. Because of that, many of these “show tunes” were very popular with improvising musicians like Charlie Parker in the bebop era, because the melodies could speak for themselves, then they could be embellished and developed by soloing musicians.

With the evolution in popular music of styles like Rock n Roll, Funk and Pop, the beat and the groove started to take precedence, and there was less importance in melody- the character and presence of the vocalist took over.

If you were going to choose a band or artist in popular music to make instrumental versions of, The Beatles would be a good choice because many of their songs have very strong melodies in that old jazz sense (compared to say, the Rolling Stones!). But the question is, are there enough songs like that in their repertoire to be able to make a full album of material that speaks for itself, just on guitar? Let’s see…

TRACKS

In My Life Has a chirpy upbeat start with flamenco claps, a little like a rumba (e.g. Gipsy Kings). Nice interlude, very ADM harmonies… and then he develops the famous harpsichord-style middle section (by George Martin) into some expressive solos. There are a couple of parts played in the main theme with open strings, that remind me a bit too much of when you tune the guitar though!

And I Love Her: Nice funky riff as the bedrock of this interpretation… not what you’d expect for this tune, which is a pleasant surprise. I read a general note on the album saying claps and “chaca” rhythm are by Hernan Romero- perhaps that includes this track too, where the body of the guitar is tapped like a funk beat would be on the drums. Great solos ADM style… then ending on a major chord like the original, nice touch.

Because: As the previous track, ADM stamps his authority on this one with great rhythmic interplay that enhances what is already a great melody. Listening to this, I find this is the key to successful guitar covers… find something with a great melody, and inject even more interest by specialised guitar techniques and intricate rhythms, for example borrowing from flamenco…

Michelle: Classical style beginning… and the percussion setting a solid beat reminds me of the interaction between cajon and flamenco guitar, like on a PDL album. ADM solos take this melody to different places during this track… and that’s really what’s needed, the more abstract the better, I want to be taken on a journey, away from the original… and it really does that.

I Will: I’m not so familiar with this song (from the White Album), but it doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a guitar instrumental interpretation… just sounds like a series of arpeggios of predictable chords to a set rhythm. Not a highlight of the album… but a nice intro all the same.

Eleanor Rigby: We are now embedded in the middle of the album… and as often happens, the weaker tracks tend to lurk here… and now I have to mention my dreaded abbreviation… EM! From the very start of this track I feel I’m now pushing my trolley through a budget supermarket (where they can’t afford the license to play original versions!) Of course the production quality is great on this… I suppose Al couldn’t resist the chance to get the Abbey Road strings in full effect here… but unfortunately, overall this track feels aimless, you just feel you’ve digested a diluted version of the original by the end.

Penny Lane: There are some nice syncopated phrases on the verse and impressive solos over the chord seqeunce but as the previous track, I have to give this quite a high EM quotient! The question again occurs to me, what does this add to the original?

Blackbird: A popular song to be covered by jazz musicians… and as this was originally a guitar riff, it’s nice to see it developed by a true virtuoso like ADM. The percussion has a bit of a bulerias feel, which gives it a freshness you won’t hear in many covers of this song.

I am the Walrus: ADM has managed to keep some of the eccentricity of this humorous Beatles song… but as the verse only has repetitive two-note patterns to offer, it does make you think, better as a vocal piece.

Day in the Life: Pure EM.

Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite: The complex key changes in this tune work really well instrumentally… Great solos and arpeggios… this is when ADM does what he does best!

With a Little Help from my Friends: A famous guitar instrumental version of this song is the theme to “The Wonder Years”, a big show in the 80s/ 90s. This is approached differently… but a bit like “I Will”, the conventional chord changes give it a but of a stagnant, uninteresting feel. Perhaps I just have an aversion to “II-V-I“s (jazz term)!

If I Fell: Imaginative intro… but then quite a predictable chord arpeggio play through again. I suppose one of the limitations of playing chord melody style with a pick is that you don’t tend to play two notes at once… and the consequence on this piece is that it sounds a bit too fragmented.

She’s Leaving Home: The two-guitar approach here works well… it gives space and the ability for the guitar solo to be more sensitive (like the two guitar version of Cavatina). Also the use of a pick on a nylon string guitar can sound too aggressive, but on this track ADM brings out the quality of the melody beautifully.

Conclusion:

With a project like this, it’s all about the choice of material… and also what you’re going to put on the album once recorded. There are 14 tracks on this album and I feel barely half make a musical statement.

I suppose I’ve been spoilt by the vibrancy, originality and energy of an album like Passion Grace and Fire (ADM, PDL, JM)… this album doesn’t reach those heights… but as I’ve already implied, a covers instrumental album is destined not to. Al does show some flashes of brilliance here but my overall feeling is that while this album has a concept, the individual tracks rarely have a concept that grabs the ear.

I hope ADM is going to go back to his own, original style on the next album. Because when he does his thing, he’s unbeatable! I’d also like to see him back on the electric guitar, as he seems to have a unique voice on that instrument… The steel string acoustic is a hard instrument to be original on these days…

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Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events (2011)

DT - A Dramatic Turn of Events
Genre: Metal/ Prog-Rock/ Fusion

As I haven’t listened to any other Dream Theater albums, I’m just going to judge this as I hear it. I did see a youtube video which was promoting the launch of the album, which told how long time drummer Mike Portnoy suddenly decided to leave the band, which left an emotional reaction for the other band members… (paraphrasing:) “we’ve shared everything, we’ve been at each other weddings, christenings, family funerals… and now after 20 years you just cut us off…”

The video goes on to audition different drummers…”we are so lucky that the best drummers in the world are lining up to play with us” and the drummers generally express their awe… “these guys have been my heroes all my life, and now I can audition to be one of them??” In the end, genius drummer Mike Mangini, the first one auditioned, won the job and so gave up his prestigious teaching job at Berklee College of Music. This college is also where the original 3 members of DT had met up and formed the band, some 25 years earlier.

The Album
Some of the aspects of the band’s sound I’m about to describe in this review will probably seem obvious to DT fans, as they are probably common elements of their sound across their album discography… but as I said, I’m just taking it as I hear it.

One thing that surprises me is that I expect the angst of rock/ metal driven guitars to be accompanied by a hard voice like Motorhead’s or Metallica’s but DT’s singer has more of a 80′s ballad/ soft rock voice. I first assumed that it must be the guitarist’s voice and so not the focus of the music, but I was surprised to find that the band must have actively sought out a vocalist in this style, as he joined in 1991 after many other singers had auditioned. Ok, here goes my track-by-track breakdown:

Track 1, On the Backs of Angels
A guitar arpeggio with a phase effect starts the track off. I can hear right from the outset that Dream Theater like to play with rhythms, adding little tags that take it away from its natural 4/4.
As the main beat comes in, a type of “orchestral voices” keyboard sound is also heard, reminiscent of the 80s. I notice throughout the album that this is part of the DT vocabulary.
Then for the verse section, there is a hard guitar/bass/drums rhythmic unison riff, mainly around one note, again with complex rhythm, thrash style. This track has real character. The introduction extends as far as 2 minutes 30, when the vocals enter.
The chorus has a nice sequence of slash chords, almost reminiscient of a rock James Bond Theme.
John Petrucci (guitarist) lets out quite a controlled neo-classical guitar solo (6:00) leading to a final unison tag, choruses and then ending with that great thrash riff again.

Track 2, Build me up, Break me down
Bit of an electro vibe to this one… starts with a drum machine before real drums kick in. Nice broken chord rock line starts with driving energy and some harmonics for extra grittiness.
Quite a pop chorus, almost an 80s rock power ballad feel to it. I wonder if this message of “you build me up, you break me down, until I’m falling to pieces” is related to the writers’ relationship with the departed drummer, who knows?
More orchestral keyboard sounds.. some satanic screaming, yelling in the background. Maybe the subject matter of this could be even deeper than I first thought!
After 4:00 there’s a nice classical style rock guitar solo. The structure of this track is simple compared to many others on the album. Evocative string ending, perhaps a bit of Eastern mystery to it…

Track 3, Lost not Forgotten
This continues from track 2, but with a dramatic piano introduction.
Kick drum and bass guitar combine with unusual rhythm. Piano and guitar then join with unison riff, followed by eccentric fast guitar motif, overdubbed with octave above.
Steady thrash riff follows for vocal intro.

Some very complicated rhythmic movements here- the main riff having different tags each time. The fact that most of the main musicians met at Berklee makes sense, because these parts must be written out, they’re so complicated!
At 4:50 there’s a mainstream 4/4 rock section, almost Def Leppard. Then gets really progressive after 6:00… Bach counterpoint at some point?
Imaginative and skillful guitar solo journeying through Classical > Blues > Fusion > Eastern…
Finish off with a spacey synthesiser solo reminding me of the Van Halen days…
The drum breaks on this track would be perfect for aspiring prog-rock drummers to practise too- if they were very, very good!

Track 4, This is the Life
Guitar arpeggio intro in 5/8.
A wistful subject matter… perhaps the meaning of life. The main theme has a country rock 6/8 feel. No musical acrobatics on this one, the focus is the song.

The verse and choruses comfortably move between 5 and 6 beat cycles. As the song gets halfway through, again it draws from the 80s rock anthem genre, and as James LaBrie raises his voice… it reminds me of one of those famous pop/ rock themes sung by Peter Cetera in that era.

Track 5, Bridges in the Sky
Sounds of nature, a beating drum and a murmurring, (digeridoo?) croaky voice sound then haunting church choir harmonies envelop the surroundings… a really interesting introduction to… a thrash riff!
A hammond organ joins into the throng, reminiscent perhaps of John Lord in Deep Purple.

This 11-minute track has 3 personalities! The first 4 or 5 minutes alternate between a hard thrash riff and then a mainstream sounding chorus which culminates in a syrup-sweet “At last the time as come, to unite again as one”. The third personality is a complicated unison riff on an Eastern scale, perhaps a touch of klezmer. I would say that the elements of this track don’t bind together as well as Track 1, which has a similar spirit.

Track 6, Outcry
This starts similarly to track 2 in that there are processed drum sounds and loops at the beginning that are also reintroduced later. Impressive, powerful 4/4 guitar riff signifies the main theme. Flawless guitar work as usual from JP, using muted riffs and deep powerchords.

The aspect that doesn’t work for me in this track is that the rousing lyrics speak of freedom and rebellion but the music that accompanies it doesn’t inspire that message, it seems too lacklustre.

More musical rhythmic and scalar acrobatics ensue… and approaching the 9 minute mark, a tangential laidback groove (that would belong in an insurance ad!) arrives with a soothing piano melody. Reading the lyrics, I can’t tell if the writer JP is referring to a particular war… “The world watches on/ While we risk our lives/ Locked in a kingdom of fear/ As our children die”… perhaps sending American troops to foreign wars?

Track 7, Far from Heaven
This one pretty much goes through a standard piano-ballad formula with a Robbie Williams style vocal… though James LaBrie probably cut his teeth well before RW! Lyrics and melody again seem uninspired… I get the feeling this was put in the album due to time constraints!

Track 8, Breaking all Illusions
Nice to hear this track has more energy… I think the highlight is at about 7:00… JP does a great bluesy solo over a slow beat à la Dave Gilmour or Carlos Santana.

Track 9, Beneath the Surface
Although this appears melodically to be quite a cheesy tune that you might find on an advert, the introspective and slightly disturbing lyrics make this song work, as the contrast of the major key melody with the subject matter of darkness and pain keeps your interest going…

Conclusion
My overall impression of this album is that it was really important for them to get this out of their system, as a new band forging a new identity. Mike Mangini had a lot of energy and wanted to prove he was up to the task on this one. He didn’t contribute to the writing of this album but on the following album he did, so I expect the sound of that album will be more cohesive and assured in its delivery. There is brilliant musicianship in this album… amazing speed and technique, and some very dramatic and rowsing themes, like Track 1. I do think though that it loses its way in the middle of the album (5,6,7), some parts sounding like a musical chops/ rhythm exercise. And perhaps a bit too much of the middle eastern scale used… it loses its effect after a while.

I’m really looking forward to listening to their latest album (Dream Theater – 2013), to hear how they write together as a band! Dream Theater is clearly unique in its approach to its genre… they push the boundaries technically. And as a musician myself, it’s also reassuring to know that you can keep innovating in your 40s and 50s!

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Marcelo Andrade – African Tree

marceloandrade-africantree

London-based Brazilian composer and flautist Marcelo Andrade has come up with
an album full of the vibrancy and energy of music inspired by the African
diaspora, as the title of the album suggests. There are some great grooves,
subtle harmonies and expressive singing in this album.

I feel that when someone listens to African Tree, their reaction to the music
will depend on their musical inclination. Those who just listen to beats might
not get the full subtlety of the movements within the songs. Those listening out
mainly for jazz voicings and solos might miss the sensitivity of the vocals and
the shape of the compositions. The album has all the above elements so I recommend taking it as a whole, and listening to it several times for it to sink in!

Track 1 Samburá
The album starts with an energetic flute riff… setting the imagination alight
straight away… then a piano riff comes in with a different rhythm, introducing
evocative chord changes. My musician’s head says these are extensions of the
chords… but whatever it is, sounds good!

Helder Pack’s voice is strong, resonant, emotive. I thought I might
understand a few words of Portuguese because I speak a bit of Spanish, but I’m
struggling so when I look at the text in the album booklet, I wonder if these first words of the song are evoking some of the African roots in Brazilian history… some African words mixed with Portuguese perhaps?

Great piano solo by Ivo Neame. Part way through this solo I’m reminded of
Bheki Mseleku’s Celebration album, because that also has the soft, soothing
sounds of the flute complimenting the piano solo lines, weaving around
thought-provoking, surprising chord changes.

Track 2 Barriga d’água
This track has a subtle reggae style groove… with accordion! The guitar isn’t
in the expected place… it’s played with more of a jazz approach. The bass drives
the reggae feel. This track somehow reminds me of Manu Chao.

Another great vocal delivery, this time by Geraldo Azevedo. He gives off a
relaxed vibe, as if he’s singing about a summer’s day. When I read the lyrics in
the booklet I see it’s about drought and there being no food… I guess the
beauty of music is to bring these contrasts together… a happy voice doesn’t
mean a happy life!

At some point in the chorus, the bass leaves it’s normal place in the chord
sequence, and with the guitar and accordion, heads for some diminished sounding
chords… showing that times of security and stability can lead to insecure,
unsafe times…

Track 3 African Tree
This track starts with a guitar arpeggio… and Adriano Adewale playing a hollow
percussive instrument, the calabash I think. This slow meditative groove is then
counteracted by very quick vocals, by Senegalese musician Kadialy Kouyaté. His
languages are Mandinka and Wolof, I don’t know if he combines them here. Quite a
short song about young people making plans, having a family, and the disruption
of these plans by wars with those who used to be neighbours.

Track 4 Foge Kudu
This is a groovy Latin fusion piece. There’s a flowing, virtuoso bassline by
Matheus Nova. There is real chaos created by trombones blown, made to sound like
elephants. And the quirky Hammond organ with African style drums make me think a
little about Fela Kuti and Afrobeat. A jazzy, bebop-style unison chorus line
with flute and trombones really give this track a unique flavour.

Track 5 Razão de Ser
It’s nice to have a bossanova style track on the album because that’s what I’m
most familiar with as I learnt the guitar to accompany singers over the years,
mainly songs composed by A.C. Jobim. The groove played on Razão de Ser might
have another name though, I’m not a specialist!

Jandira Silva really sings this melody beautifully, and composer Andrade
harmonises with his voice and the guitar. This is a love song, and in the
booklet, love is compared to a tree which grows, matures and lives through
adversity. This track is well placed halfway through the album, a nice balance
to the more intense tracks, which brings me to…

Track 6 Samba das 8
This is the highlight track of the album for me. just a great trombone line to
start! Pretty much a bassline.

Playing the actual bass is Thiago Espírito Santo, a technically gifted player
who has clearly been influenced by the great master Jaco Pastorius. Thiago does
a Jaco-style fretless bass solo in this piece, and then as a middle section
there’s a Brecker Brothers style brass breakdown.

You can hear by listening to this track, that Samba and Jazz really go
together well! And vocalist Filó Machado improvises in the outro with phrases
drawing from those two styles.

Track 7 Bola de Cristal
You’re now taken to a very different place… a cry that sounds like it’s in a
deep cave… lost echoes in a vast space.

As the groove starts, there’s a dreamy quality, perhaps like Flora Purim in
the 1970s. The chord changes take you on a journey here, expect the
unexpected…

Over the chorus there’s an unusual unison riff (violin, viola, cello) that
reminds me of tracks I’ve heard by Jaco and also George Benson, extending that
1970s jazz fusion sound.

Again Espírito Santo demonstrates his great skills and imagination on the bass.

Track 8 Coco-Pera
features London guitar maestro Antonio Forcione… and also a great multitracked
solo by Jaal Leb. This is done in the Flamenco Rumba style, made famous by the
Gipsy Kings. Following the two guitar solos is an atmospheric mandolin solo by
Anselmo Neto. This is a cheerful tune, and appropriately a poetic quote in the
booklet speaks of an old tree still having young leaves… we are never too old to
enjoy ourselves!

Track 9 Vôo Livre
"Fly free"… a 5 beat groove. With my limited knowledge of Brazilian jazz fusion,
I know this music could have some influence of Hermeto Pascoal and Airto Moreira,
but I’m sure there are many other artists Marcelo has as inspiration!

This is the only track on the album with soprano saxophone, and doubling the
sax lines is Marcelo’s own voice. This piece has an experimental quality to it,
especially when it breaks down to a drum solo with strange chords and voices
murmurring, crying in the background…

Track 10 Blackbird
The Beatles cover, interpreted and arranged by Marcelo, preceded by a
traditional Kenyan singing from the Giriama Tribe… a curious marriage of
styles! Danish guitarist Jacob Quistgaard lays down a 12 beat groove accompanied
by the Kenyan drums of Philip Sadhi and the iron sheet(!) of Saidi Nyule.

Blackbird is a popular cover for jazz musicians because of its chords and
melody, but Andrade has put another slant on this.

On the first page of the album booklet he explains how on his travels in East Africa (Uganda and Kenya) he heard sounds and music which seemed so familiar to him, and the rhythms of everyday conversation there sounded like the music he grew up with in Brazil. He then planted 500 trees there, symbolising the growing of cultures, people, friends.

Perhaps Andrade put this final track together as an expression of hope, to show that people can rise from adversity to achieve greater things.

African Tree is available from Marcelo Andrade’s website: www.ourlandrecords.com

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We want to worship

wewanttoworshipIt’s funny because yesterday when I heard about the death of Paco de Lucia, of course shocked and feeling sad, (he was the main inspiration for making my album because I realised I could combine chords, melody and rhythm in a certain way after listening to him) I started trying to think of the ultimate piece he played to sum up that moment, that atmosphere that he’d just gone. And a certain phrase appeared in my mind, I knew it was from a Paco de Lucia album so I started searching for the track… I knew it was at the beginning of the track. I went through probably 6 albums and I couldn’t find it, so I rechecked – still no joy.

Then suddenly it occurred to me it was on the Guitar Trio album Passion, Grace and Fire (with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola). So here was the track, “David”… yes, this intro is perfect… evocative… poignant. Yes this is the track that epitomises Paco.

Then just before posting on Facebook (as you inevitably do) I realised this track was written by McLaughlin and it’s he who plays the solo intro I heard in my head! PDL and JM both play nylon string guitars on the album, but JM uses a pick. But JM plays so skilfully here, such a flamenco feel, my memory has registered it as Paco!

Of course, I also idolise JM anyway, but this taught me a lesson. The music is the music, whoever plays it. We shouldn’t put these people on pedestals, like gods… we should listen to the music they play. To paraphrase something Paco once said, I don’t believe in genius, it’s all about the situation you grow up in, and hard work.

All sorts of people “have greatness thrust upon them” as it were… they grow up in families where they live and breathe a certain artform, expressing it like a native language. Mozart the same. Yes let’s call them geniuses or whatever, but more importantly, let’s appreciate fully the music, the art, the beauty.

Wow, are you really making that up? (The Art of Improvisation)

Imitation
I remember when I used to listen to BB King and Robert Cray as a teenager, I would try and mimic the guitar tones I heard, the phrasing… and I started to fit the phrases into the scale positions I saw in books… so I was using my ear and a bit of theory. I think that’s pretty typical for the way a young improviser learns. You are in effect learning a language with vocabulary and rules, but more importantly, with sounds.

Communication
Language and music have a lot in common. There are situations in language where we make it up as we go along (in conversation), and there are times when phrases are prepared in advance (a speech). But even with a conversation that might seem to just happen on-the-spot, the two speakers would be constantly referring to things they have in common, things established in the past – those things draw them together, a type of bonding. So the amount of “new material” in a typical conversation is limited. In the same way, musicians jamming together will look for common ground, they will rely on conventions that most musicians of a certain level are familiar with, like a 12 bar blues. The improvising would not only be the solos, but the way the chords and rhythm are played.

In performance
Like a stand up comedian prepares his act meticulously but appears to speak spontaneously to the audience, a jazz musician improvises after 1000s of hours of practising phrases, different combinations over different structures. Rhythmic practice is also very important, maybe even more than melodic practice. A piano, saxophone or guitar solo can be like a drum solo, but with notes! And just like a comedian, an instrumentalist needs confidence in delivery. If you look confident, you can play anything!

Energy
Also, as a stand up comic will have to keep the flow going, keep the energy level going to keep the crowd interested, an improvising musician must keep the rhythm and energy of the solo flowing. He/she will draw from previous experience soloing in a similar environment. If a “bum note” is made, one that doesn’t seem to fit or sounds wrong, the improviser will then work to make it sound right… you can make it appear that you “meant it”. Perhaps a bit like when an actor misremembers a line and then improvises from that point to make it seem natural.

Perception towards improvisers
Sometimes when I’ve been teaching people the background or theory to jazz improvisation, I find some students (even ones with years’ experience) are surprised there is so much theoretical background to the solos musicians like Charlie Parker created. I often hear “I thought they were just making it up, feeling it.” This attitude probably comes from the image of “free jazz”, those quite uncomfortable, often disturbing sounds created by some musicians in the 1950s and 60s (bored with the conventions and safety in regular jazz harmomy). They appeared to play notes at random, often associated visually with a type of Modern Art, random strokes of paint across a canvas. Perhaps that encouraged people’s belief that jazz musicians just turn up and play, and have no discipline or refined methodology. Anyway, in either traditional jazz, bebop (Parker’s style) or free jazz, that’s clearly not the case- there are scales, chords, harmony or a conscious absence of these elements. Jazz musicians have also borrowed a lot from classical theory, and we see a lot of experimentation both in 20th Century classical and jazz music. Perhaps the tendancy to improvise in jazz comes more from the African input into American music. (There again we see improvisation in Celtic music and many other folk forms around the world)

Can’t be good at everything…
Often it seems that a virtuosic improviser doesn’t have much to say composition-wise. Maybe that’s because they spend most of their time making sure they can solo over any musical context, which hones certain skills, but perhaps they have less of a sensitivity of space for that reason, that they’re always filling in gaps with notes. The successful composer/ songwriter often has the other problem, their soloing ability is limited because they’ve not spent the necessary 1000s of hours practising scales and phrases. Also of course, people will gravitate towards what they feel they do best. A good example of a bandleader/ composer with vision would be Miles Davis. He seemed to know how to create space, create a new musical context that his colleagues could then improvise in. Miles himself never seems to have been particularly lauded for his own soloing, but maybe that’s because the landscapes he created superceded his soloing power. On the other hand, an jazz virtuoso like Oscar Peterson has not generally been known for his compositions but for his technical mastery of the piano. I’m sure jazz fans can now give me a list of those who were great at both…

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