JJ Wheeler: Life On Tour Part 2

Bandleader, drummer and occasional thejazzbreakfast contributor, JJ Wheeler is currently taking his quintet round the country. In the second instalment of his tour diary he has Psychology on his mind:

Four out of nine dates down, we are currently on a weeklong break, which gives time to reflect on the tour so far. Since my last entry, focussing mainly on the role of promoters, we have played at The Hive in Shrewsbury (courtesy of Shrewsbury Jazz Network) and the very swanky COPA in Oxford (part of Oxford Uni Jazz Society).

As a jazz musician, it is very easy for performances to vary. This is largely down to the nature of improvisation within the music. Fortunately, The first three dates of our tour have seen successful performances, particularly in Cardiff and Shrewsbury. However, I must admit that we were all fairly disappointed with our performance in Oxford. Yes, the standard was acceptable, we had many positive comments from the audience and we “got through” the tunes, but nothing took off like it had previously. As a band we reverted largely to previously explored ideas, never really finding anything new in the music to excite ourselves, or subsequently, those listening.

For me, this dip in form boils down to one key aspect of performance (particularly improvisation); psychology. George Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, a revered text on performance psychology, alludes to this formula:

Actual Level of Performance = Potential – Interference

Interference can mean a lot of things, although typically includes negative thoughts, nerves, thinking too much or distractions beyond the control of the performer.

Unfortunately, the level of interference in Oxford was huge. For starters, the venue we played was actually impossible to reach by car (legally) unless you are a bus or taxi, due to the lovely one-way system and restrictions in place. However, the main problem was that my car broke down, one road away from COPA. Having set off and arrived in plenty of time, I was now nervously stranded in a car park with a very expensive clamping system from a private security firm in operation, just off one of Oxford’s busiest roads.

This was only worsened by incompetence from my breakdown service who, first, couldn’t find my details on their records (landing me with a potential £80 call-out charge!), followed by a string of calls to a premium line asking where their recovery vehicle was (a “maximum” 45-minute wait turned out to be over 90…).

By the time I arrived at the venue, freezing cold from an hour and a half on my own in a car with no heating or entertainment and, understandably, hacked off, we were an hour overdue on our first set. With no warm-up or even a chance to put my tie on, we had to run onto the stage and kick things off.

As I say, we played solidly, with competent soloing and very few mistakes. For this my hat must go off to Ralph, Charlie, Chris and Tom who had even carried my kit to the venue and set it up for me. However, after such an exciting first three gigs of the tour, in which our music had taken great leaps in development, I had to feel disappointed that playing felt more like going through the motions here than pioneering or exploring.

On a positive note, Ralph seems to have cracked the keyboard situation with hardly a word of discussion! Either we’re getting used to playing with a keyboard, or (more likely) his newfound use of different sounds available from a keyboard (including a lovely, dirty Fender Rhodes module and use of pitch bend!) has served to add to the mood of the music, creating and intensifying certain characteristics, especially on what seems to be our crowd-pleaser, Cider Mickey.

Also, I must mention what a delight it was to work with Sam Wooster, a “dep” for Chris Maddock on Saturday in Shrewsbury. To lose such a strong soloist as Chris for a gig was initially a daunting prospect, but the anticipation I felt when booking Sam was fully justified. Sam has a very distinctive voice and way of improvising on the trumpet, taking our music in new directions whenever he played. The energy and creativity this created seemed to radiate into a packed audience in this wonderful setting, making for one of the best performing experiences I’ve ever had.

Next weekend sees our “northern” weekend (I know, it’s not that far north… but most of the band are southerners, after all), in which we play nine sets in four cities over 52 hours (nearly eight hours playing time!). It’s going to be mayhem. Bring it on.

Remaining dates on the tour are:

Friday 4 March: Bradford Irish Club (Bradford Jazz At The Priestley), Rebecca Street, Bradford, BD1 2RX, 01274 820666, 8.30pm, £7/5 www.mypriestley.org.uk

Saturday 5 March: Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club, 64 Tib Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M4 1LW, 0161 831 7003, 9pm, £5 www.mattandphreds.com

Sunday 6 March: Seven Arts Centre, 31 Harrogate Road, Leeds, LS7 3DP, 0113 26 26 777, 1.30pm, £5/4 (U16s FREE) www.sevenjazz.co.uk

Sunday 6 March: Dalton Rooms, 14 Dalton Square, Lancaster, LA1 1PL, 01524 845 785, 8pm, FREE www.daltonrooms.co.uk

Friday 11 March: Symphony Hall Foyer, Broad Street, Birmingham (Birmingham Jazz), B1 2EA, 0121 224 7380, 5.30pm, FREE www.birminghamjazz.co.uk or www.thsh.co.uk

For more info, audio, video and photos, see www.jjwheeler.co.uk

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