A page of random longer pieces…

Sound in its natural state

When was the last time you heard some music and no electricity was involved?

It wasn’t on an internally-batteried ipod, it wasn’t cranked up on a music system or docking station, it wasn’t pumped through a club sound system, it wasn’t played live on electric guitars, electric keyboards, powered laptops and decks and sung through a PA. There were no mics.

Nope, just acoustic instruments were involved and the sound made by vibrating metal strings amplified by a wooden box or air blown through a metal tube or over the vocal cords, or sticks hitting velum or metal had passed through nothing but air before entering and interacting with the complex bones, fluids and nerves inside your ear.

It should not be a rare occurrence but it is becoming one. I experienced it recently at a Birmingham Jazz gig at the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street  – the gig was the Julian Siegel Trio and although double bassist needed a small amp on very low to boost his deep sound slightly to match the other instruments, the saxophone and clarinets of Julian and drums of Joey Baron were unamplified.

The effect on the audience was striking – we leant forward, we had to actively concentrate on listening. The music was coming to us but it wasn’t pushing us back in our seats – we had to meet it halfway.

And visually it was different too. The musicians were much closer to us than usual, and there were no mic stands and wires running everywhere. There was also no music playing over the PA beforehand – because there was no PA.

It will probably happen again later in the year when the Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen returns for another BJ gig with his trio – he also likes to do away with that electric filter between musicians and listeners.

Musing on all this, I remembered a classic French film by the director Jean-Jacques Beineix. He is best known for his movie Betty Blue but his first film, called Diva, and made in 1981 was about a young Parisian postman and his obsession with an American soprano. She believes so strongly that music must happen in the moment and cannot be anything other than live that not only has she never sung in a studio, she forbids her concerts to be taped.

Yes, of course, technology is a wonderful thing and exploiting its potential has resulted in some staggeringly good music and some very exciting experiences for all of us. My CD collection and the contents of my ipod are among my most treasured possessions, and some of my favourite bands and players – Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, Django Bates, Joshua Redman – have made amazing music with the aid of electricity.

But sometimes it’s a good idea to stop and take stock, and remember how magical purely acoustic music, made in the moment and never to be heard again, can be.

This originally appeared in Night Times

Teaching jazz – this time it’s personal

A personal sound, a characterful tone, immediately recognizable – these are vital characteristics of the jazz saxophonist. To use them in a description of a player is indeed to pay a compliment.

But apply them to a classical player – do they still sound as positive?

Let us deal quickly with the gainsayers – there are, doubtless, readers of this magazine who will wax lyrical on the immediately identifiable sound of students of Sigurd Rascher, and contrast them with those more influenced by Larry Teal.

But these are, like most classical discussions, concerned with far more nuanced distinctions, and still the personal sound, the degree of individual character in the tone and timbre will need to be kept strictly in check so as not to overwhelm the much more important personality and characterful sound of the composer these players are interpreting. The classical instrumentalist is more concerned with transparency than personality, it might be argued.

Things might sound cruder in jazz, the timbre more brazen, the expression vulgarly broad, especially if it is classical ears doing the listening. But, believe me, that brass-brash, bar-walking Chicago tenor man is as acutely attuned to the sound he is making as the silver-smooth, conservatoire-seated Rascher scholars. Perhaps even more so, because so much more is dependent upon it.

In Michael Segell’s book The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool (published by Picador), there is a whole chapter devoted to Personal Sound. In it, Segell, who spends his book telling two parallel stories (one the history of the instrument, the other his own quest to learn to play it), describes jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman leading a class of saxophone students.

It makes for exhilarating reading – heaven knows how stimulating it would have been to be there. Liebman is a crude-talking Brooklynite with a pugilistic look; he is also a font of jazz and saxophone knowledge and an exceptional educator.

Segell writes, paraphrasing Liebman’s view: “The process of finding your sound can be torturous, it can take decades of serious playing, but it always involves imitating someone else’s first, and then, as (bass player and band leader Charles) Mingus said, being able to conjure up the rest of the history of the instrument. On the saxophone, that means being able to mimic the tones of a dozen or so distinctive voices – Hawk, Hodges, Webster, Prez, Parker, Getz, Cannonball, Trane, Rollins, Coleman, Konitz and Brecker are a good start – and then abandon them all and find your own.”

We’ll set aside for the moment the assumption that for Segell the history of the instrument equals its jazz history, and the implication that its classical use will always be a rather fusty and forgotten little side chapel in the glorious cathedral that is jazz saxophone.

My point is, would that torturous route to a personal sound be an over-riding issue for the classical player? I suspect it would be more of a hindrance.

Jazz, at its heart, will always be a player’s music, not a composer’s one. And the individual, the personal, the unique voice is what it should be all about.

I say “should be” because I would suggest there has been an insidious, though possibly naively so, force at work in jazz, or, more specifically, on its fringes.

It is the teachers I blame. Not the Dave Liebmans, the jazz practitioners working in the jazz colleges. Not the semi-pro bandleaders fostering young talent in the youth orchestras. It’s the well-meaning, classically-schooled teachers who started out on clarinet and started teaching saxophone because that was what the children wanted to learn, and then started teaching jazz because that was a little bit more modern than this Gavotte or that Barcarolle.

They think that teaching jazz rather than classical saxophone just means changing the music, and then forcing a little stilted syncopation upon it.

They also concentrate on playing music with the eyes – which is why reading the music and playing the right notes is everything – rather than with the ears – which is why developing a personal sound doesn’t get a mention. And let’s not take two many steps down that stony, twisted path signposted Improvisation – it’s far too scary!

The dangerous result – and I suspect this is more of a problem in the United Kingdom, where fewer of the teachers have a jazz grounding – is armies of grey, faceless saxophone clones who can play lots of fancy things and whose sight-reading is exemplary, but don’t have a clue who they are in the Liebman sense, i.e. what they really sound like. And, like those who taught them, don’t have a clue what jazz really is.

It is not classical music with a swing, it is a celebration of the freedom of the individual, a crucial voyage of self-discovery, a never-ending quest to define and articulate a point of view, based on the music that grew in the United States in the early 1900s from a whole variety of sources only one of which is European art music.

Of course, the end point of this search, the pot of gold for the jazz saxophonist, is to be able to play as naturally as breathing, with a sound as true to oneself as one’s speaking voice, and the technical facility to construct musical sentences as effortlessly as one constructs verbal ones. Not to recite, but to speak one’s mind, and express what is in one’s heart.

And, of course, no one gets to that end point, to the end of that seductive rainbow. But any progress we make along the path is a bonus.

I must end – Coleman Hawkins is playing Juicy Fruit, and I have some serious listening to do.

This was originally written for CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.

It’s sweet, it’s black, it’s back in fashion

I was watching a little food porn on telly, The Great British Menu, in which chefs from all over Britain compete to cook a meal for chefs from all over the world. Representing the Midlands was young Brummie Glynn Purnell who shocked the taste police in round one with a modern twist on the old cheese and pineapple on a stick 1970s party snack, only to boggle both minds and tastebuds at the next stage with veal fillet rolled in liquorice charcoal with tamarind jam, liquorice puree and rocket.

I decided immediately what to write about on this page – no, not the baby cows, the bitter lettuce nor that spice which I have since discovered is used in the recipes of both Worcestershire and HP sauces.

Liquorice then, or, more specifically, the liquorice stick.

It had been there at the beginning of jazz, the clarinet, and remained strong right through to the heady days of swing, when Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were kings.

And then came bebop and bang went the liquorice stick – like a prop in a Laurel and Hardy magic show, all that was left was a puff of smoke and a sweetish smell.

In a thoroughly entertaining volume called The Jazz Word, the only book about jazz I could find in my school library in the 1960s, and which I came across again in a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, there is a chapter on The Argot of Jazz.

This small glossary of hipster speak from 1957 contains references to all kinds of musical and lifestyle slang, but while it tells us a Small Pipe is an alto saxophone and the Vein is the double bass, there is no reference at all to the clarinet.

I shall return to The Argot of Jazz another time, for it is filled with quaint and witty phrases, but it is difficult to leave it without mentioning that a Fig is “a traditionalist; a cat for whom jazz sort of ended with the swing era. For him Mulligan’s a stew, Parker a coat…” Presumably also a clarinet fan, then?

And so, with isolated exceptions, like Jimmy Giuffre and more recently Louis Sclavis, the liquorice stick left a bad taste in the modern jazz mouth for, oh, 40 years or more.

To turn briefly down the oft-avoided side road where race and jazz are spoken of together, it is striking that the major clarinet stars of the swing era were white players, and it was the black-led bebop that sent the clarinet salesmen spare with worry. So, it is notable that the man who, almost single-handedly, made the clarinet fashionable again in modern jazz was a dreadlocked, Bronx-born Afro-American.

He is Don Byron.

In a marvelous bit of hyperbole, Time magazine said of him: “Calling Don Byron a jazz musician is like calling the Pacific wet…” and it is easy to see why they might get carried away.

This is a man whose first recording of avant-garde and often angry atonal music was called Tuskegee Experiments, after the infamous medical experiment in which a group of black men were left to deteriorate without medication to study the effects of syphilis.

He followed that with a klezmer album inspired by the music and comedy of Mickey Katz.

Since then, he has made recordings in almost every style there is, playing hip hop on the record Nu Blaxploitation, more formal contemporary compositions with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, classic romantic tunes by Gershwin, Porter, Arlen et al from the great American songbook, setting lieder and arias against Tamla Motown pop songs, and revitalising the long-forgotten swing-era writing of the composers John Kirby and Raymond Scott on Bug Music.

And he has done it all on the clarinet.

In the last year or two of reviewing contemporary jazz concerts in the English Midlands I have come across the liquorice stick two or three times; this is possibly two or three times more than in the last 20 years.

The young now London-based Shabaka Hutchings started out playing tenor saxophone in the Walsall Jazz Orchestra, but he has increasingly turned to the clarinet – and not the more common tenor-doubling instrument the bass clarinet – as his primary instrument.

Last year I was privileged to hear the first outings of Bengali tunes given jazz interpretations by pianist Zoe Rahman. Her brother Idris, more commonly to be seen playing tenor saxophone in the Afro-Jazz group Soothsayers, was on clarinet, and brought a new power and muscularity to the instrument I hadn’t heard before.

This was not the high, happy singing clari of the swing era, but a gruffer, earthier, harder-blowing clarinet sound. It sounded thoroughly contemporary and fresh with not a hint of retro-swing or trad.

So, if Don Byron and Shabaka Hutchings and Idris Rahman – oh, and Glynn Purnell – have anything to do with it, a taste for liquorice is returning.

Now where’s that bag of All Sorts?

This first appeared in CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.

An old saxophone reed box

It’s a good job I can’t afford a cleaner – sure as Hoovers are now Dysons I would, sooner or later, lose one of my treasured possessions.

It’s an empty box, rather tatty, the cellophane still round it but ripped where it was opened at one end. It has a white sticky label on it that reads GEWA Music. I have discovered from a quick Google search that this is the name of a German musical instruments dealership with subsidiaries all over the Continent.

The box itself is black with blue and magenta lettering that tells me it once contained five Rico Select Jazz filled reeds. They are for the tenor saxophone and are of the hard/3 variety.

How did I come by this box?

On a Saturday morning in late April 2006 I was having a fine time as a volunteer at the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, cleaning out a dressing room at the Everyman Theatre. It needed to be prepared for its next occupant, which wouldn’t take long as all that remained as evidence of the previous evening’s visitor was an empty red wine bottle, this empty box and a paper sign bluetacked to the door which read: David Murray.

I first came upon the music of David Murray in the 1980s when I first heard the World Saxophone Quartet. This was challenging, boisterous jazz well within that catch-all term we writers use for something a bit too weird for us fully to understand: the avant-garde.

In the quarter century since then I have followed the career of Mr Murray, and have been fascinated by the way in which he has performed a trick not unlike the one Martin Amis played in his Holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow. He has managed to take his listeners on a reverse journey in time.

We may have started out listening to 1980s jazz in the 1980s, but in the ‘90s and the ‘00s we have heard in the saxophone-playing of David Murray the John Coltrane ‘60s, the Charlie Parker ‘40s, the Ben Webster ‘30s, even the Sidney Bechet ‘20s. And all incorporated into a jazz sensibility continually searching for new things to say and a more profound way to articulate them. (He is also an fine and original exponent of the bass clarinet, by the way.)

That evening in Cheltenham, Murray was there as a guest for a live BBC broadcast of Jazz On 3.

Jez Nelson was set up at a desk on one side of the Everyman stage with a comfy chair for those musicians he was going to interview. The instruments of the various bands that would be performing during the show took up the rest of the stage.

I can’t recall who else was on, as I was dashing here and there doing other things, but towards the end of the broadcast I did manage to squeeze in to the wings among the assorted musicians and other hangers-on.

Heavens, I thought, they’re not going to have much time for Murray. He hadn’t been interviewed, hadn’t sat in with any of the other groups, and now the minute hand was fast approaching the top of the clock.

And then, with five minutes left, Jez introduced David Murray and the short and stocky man with the large tenor worked his way through the crowd in the wings and took centre stage.

Dressed in a crumpled brown suit that looked like it had the dust of jazz history in its creases, he raised the saxophone to his mouth, expanded those bulbous cheeks to their full extent and started a solo improvisatory line that teased out that full jazz history from the air.

This gleaming avalanche of music seemed unending and unstoppable, yet as the final seconds of the programme ticked away Murray brought his exposition to a coruscating close, bowed and left the stage to receive the delight and camaraderie of his fellow musicians in the wings.

This empty reed box on my mantelpiece sits there to remind me of all of that: not just the mundane mechanics of a piece of carved cane buzzing against a shaped hole, not just that hugely seductive, serpent-curved tube of burnished brass, but the unlimited sound world that is conjured out of thin air when the instrument Adolphe Sax invented just 150 years ago is played by a genius like David Murray.

A reminder of one night among many when the sound of the saxophone has made this life really worth living.

This first appeared in CASS Magazine, the organ of the Clarinet And Saxophone Society.

3 replies

  1. I think you should listen to the cd ten finger 4 god . I would like to hear your review on it


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