Category Archives: Improvisation

Remembering Keith Tippett

There’s a story Miles Davis tells in his autobiography, about how seeing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform in a tiny club was the greatest experience of his life (he adds the caveat “with my clothes on”), and how he spent his career trying to reach that level of musicianship in his own work. For me, it was a concert Keith Tippet played at the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, spring 1998. The first half was just Keith at the piano, and after the interval he performed with his wife, Julie Tippetts singing, and Paul Dunmall on sax. That night changed my life.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the uniquely captivating qualities of Keith’s piano playing. Nonetheless, there was something entirely other-worldly about a Keith Tippett improvisation that on an average day was completely spellbinding, and on a good day was utterly transformational for anyone in attendance. He named one of his bands “Mujician” after his young daughter’s mispronunciation of his job. But Keith really was the most magicianly musician.

That phenomenal performance at the Norwegian Church was on a Thursday. I know that because the next afternoon was the college big band rehearsal, and Keith said to some early arrivals, “well, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who were at last night’s concert, and those who weren’t”. Years later I heard on good authority that even for Keith, with the 1000s of concerts of he’d played over 40 years or more by that point, that night was one of his favourites. I’ll never forget how it made me feel.

For the three years I was at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, I lived for Friday afternoons with Keith. 12-1pm was free improvisation, and 2-5pm was big band. It was magnificent. The first time I went to the free improv class, I thought Keith was bonkers. He asked me to play some bongos along with a flautist. Neither of us had any sheet music, a timeframe, a plan, or a clue what we were doing. Keith said to listen and respond without being selfish. I was wracked with anxiety and I’m sure whatever we did sounded horrendous, but Keith was encouraging enough to this 19-year-old budding classical clarinettist and closet rock drummer that I came back the next week. Keith would put us into duos, trios or sometimes quartets, and everyone was welcome in his class. He curated a beautiful, safe space where we could experiment and offer feedback on each other’s performances. The fragile young musicians in attendance learned to believe in ourselves because of Keith’s unerring belief in us all. I didn’t miss a class till I graduated.

Keith’s big band was like the free improv class on steroids, with sheet music. The pad was all music Keith had written for one of his avant-garde ensembles like Centipede or Tapestry. The melodies were memorable, the chords complex, the structures varied and often baffling, and the tempi ranged from incredibly slow to unplayably fast. All were welcome – we had French horns, violins, flutes, saxes, trumpets, guitars, piano, trombones, cellos, recorders, vibraphone, bass and drums. In addition to “burning” group free improv (I can hear Keith’s devilish Bristol accent now – “burrrrrrn!”), he had us all stroking wine glasses and chanting the names of fallen jazz comrades in whispers; we would collectively improvise freely in “circular time” in the middle of a composition, and play long or short random pitches at Keith’s direction in the middle of these improvisations. Each week a different person was a section’s riff-meister or riff-meistra and led conversational call-and-response during others’ solos. Keith ensured we played every note and every phrase with intent. The energy and focus in the room were intense. The students would all go to the college bar with Keith for a pint after class, or he’d go with us to a pub in town.

Keith rarely spoke to me much individually, beyond direction and feedback as the drummer (or, for two of my three years, one of two drummers) in the big band, but Keith’s influence expanded my listening, broadened my musical horizons exponentially, and made sure I practised my ass off. Keith was a sage – deeply wise and full of unvarnished love. He often spoke with adoration of his wife, Julie, and his children, Luke and Inca. He showed by example how to live life as a musician.

Keith’s sheer generosity as an educator was profoundly impactful during my formative years. A whole generation of musicians passing through the Welsh College before the turn of the millennium owe so much of our confidence and belief in ourselves – as musicians and humans – to Keith. In the spring of 1997, after only 6 months behind the kit in his big band, I was the sole drummer when we closed the opening night of the Bath International Jazz Festival in torrential rain. I played a drum solo that night in front of 10,000 people. That, like every class or rehearsal or performance with Keith, was a masterclass in listening and being fully present in the moment. Keith was relentlessly encouraging. He cared about the musicians and the music. He cared about each of his students, and remembered us all many years later. Keith demonstrated that making good music is inherently worthwhile. (He had left King Crimson in the 1970s after one album with them because their music and ambitions were too commercial!). Keith loved life and he loved music and he loved working with his students.

Keith’s jokes were a rite of passage at the Welsh College. He liked to say “groovy, baby / gravy booby” with a cheeky grin like a 13-year-old, and every now and again when directing us to play a mezzo-forte passage he would say “MF – mother f….” Keith appeared to wear the exact same outfit every day – light blue jeans, white shirt and a tweed waistcoat; judging from publicity photos from the mid-1970s, he’d not changed his look a bit since at least then. He didn’t like or trust acid jazz – he was an acknowledged jazz virtuoso and had certainly dropped acid, he said, so the music, in his opinion, didn’t live up to its name. He had the most preposterous sideburns, which I imitated until I shaved them off for a series of unusually well-paying gigs in the mid-2000s. He preferred the Spice Girls to the Rolling Stones (I’m still trying to get my head around that one, 23 years later). He loved professional football. He felt one should drink a full bottle of wine with dinner.

Keith was fond of saying to an audience or band after a show, “you’ve made an old man very happy, and a happy man very old”. Just last week I wrote the same words in an email to a younger collaborator; it was the first time I’d said it. Keith knew 24 years ago when I first met him that he was responsible for lighting a flame and passing the torch. I guess he’d want to know that even his awful jokes are still alive and well among the next generation.

Keith used to say to students when we graduated, “it’s an honour to have been a link in your chain”. Keith, it was the profoundest privilege that you were a link in mine. Thank you.

Rest in Peace.

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‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

Introduction:

I have Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes.  Trying to manage this disease feels like a full time occupation, and it can be exceptionally difficult to try to keep my blood sugar levels stable enough to function properly sometimes.  Simple things like making sure insulin dosage matches my food intake, how much to reduce insulin to compensate for the physical exertion of exercise or even the mental exertion of writing/lecturing etc., can become difficult calculations and when they go wrong, can have some significant effects.  Too much insulin and I get hypoglycemic symptoms which can be anything from mild dizziness and confusion, to loss of consciousness and even seizures.  Too little insulin and blood sugars rise, causing lethargy, unquenchable thirst (coupled with the constant need to run to the toilet), splitting headaches, and ultimately damage to internal organs and other parts of the body.  I feel constantly as if I am performing a tightrope act and that any false steps have life-threatening consequences. All in all, it is not a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time.  I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky that my condition is relatively easy to treat.  I am not complaining – just setting the scene for the musical information that follows.

Continue reading ‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

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Drums and Shouting of Words

I was becoming bored of (and spending a small fortune on) playing in the Toxic Twins Aerosmith tribute band, and wanted to make new music at the drums. I quit with the firm intention of not playing any more rock for a while, unless it was of the ‘feral pop’ variety discussed by Charlie Bramley (2017), or in projects with Stephen Wheel or the Eruptörs. I had also recently burnt all my bridges with the London musical theatre fringe circuit by fathering a child and therefore not being in a position to do gigs for free any more. I was still playing in pop-noir electro-swing band, Sweet Tooth, whose gigs and rehearsals were consistently beautiful, immersive quasi-cinematic experiences that kept me technologically on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to express myself a bit more on the drums – to breathe, move, listen, respond and emote. Jazz might have been the logical vehicle for such an endeavour, had I not long ago abandoned its oppressive subtleties and sophistication for a post-quiet performance aesthetic that allows me to play as loud as I feel I need.

At one of the monthly Cabaret Futura events hosted by legendary London musician and curator (and one-time olde-English executioner), Richard Strange, I absorbed the performance of spoken word artist and self-proclaimed “shouter of words”, Oh Standfast. Having seen him play at another event a few months prior, I was excited to be bombarded by his bombastic bardery for a full fifteen minutes and gave him a lift home after discovering we lived in neighbouring regions of north London. My rock covers holiday inspired me to contact him later by email, and he was curiously accepting of my invitation to meet in a rehearsal room to see what would happen. I confessed at our first session, I had been struck by a video that caught my attention on Facebook, of a drummer (and bassist and keyboard player, but I wasn’t at all interested in them) playing along to this advertisement for Jones’ Truck Rental and Storage.

Continue reading Drums and Shouting of Words

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Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

In July of this year I was part of a team, along with Dr Haftor Medbøe and Prof Chris Atton, that organised and hosted the international conference ‘Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe‘, in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

We were delighted to welcome a broad range of delegates from around the world, including academics, musicians, industry representatives, and educators. Through a programme of panel discussions, research presentations, and discussion sessions, the conference was a wonderful weekend of informed and lively debate around the ontology of jazz in Europe, the nature of jazz in the region at present, and a look towards the future of the music in this area.

We now have video footage and audio recordings of the event, and I would like to share them in this post.  For audio recordings, you can subscribe to the podcast using iTunes by clicking here, or visit the blog feed here. Please see below for a range of videos of the event.

We are looking forward to working in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival again next year, and we will be distributing a call for papers in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in participating, or even just attending, then please get in touch or comment below.

Enjoy the video content – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Continue reading Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

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The Black Dog: More thoughts on writers’ block

In response to a recent post by Zack Moir, I thought I might wade in with some related musings and give offer suggestions to banish the ‘black dog’ that is writer’s block.

In common with Zack, I struggle to balance my musical practice with the teaching and administrative demands of academia, and the general push and pull of simply living life. I recognise all of the worries that he outlines – and, I dare say, that they are probably universally experienced by those who compose music. The act of committing musical ideas to paper (or hard-disc), for posterity is a daunting prospect. Improvisation, albeit differently challenging, doesn’t run the same risk of sustained critique – when it’s over, it’s over and quickly becomes just a vague memory (good or bad). Composing, however, exposes you to the judgement of fellow musicians, listeners and critics. And, most frighteningly, they have the ability to review your work over and over again, giving you never ending fresh insights into what’s wrong with your it (or, on a brighter day, what’s right about it).

Personally, I find the following strategies provide some motivation. And motivation is generally the first stumbling block over which to jump:

Continue reading The Black Dog: More thoughts on writers’ block

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‘Layers’ – Documentary

Following on from last week’s post about The Digital Ensemble, this post gives you the opportunity to watch a short documentary about a project I worked on recently with this group.

‘Layers’ is a new track by The Digital Ensemble, a group of musicians with disabilities who compose and perform original music in a variety of styles. The track is the result of collaboration between CP Productions and Drake Music Scotland and was supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative (Access to Music Making fund).  Zack Moir worked primarily with Paul Duff of The Digital Ensemble to write, record and develop ways to perform this innovative music. The track was recorded with the rest of The Digital Ensemble in Slate Room Studios, Scotland’s newest professional recoding facility in January of this year.  The track is out now to buy on iTunes:

itunes.apple.com/gb/album/layers-single/id971257721
(all proceeds to The Digital Ensemble)

This documentary shows how the composition and production of this music was approached:

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Why I Love ‘A Love Supreme’

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic album ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane.  The album is a four-part ‘suite’ (with a running-time of only 33 minutes) that is frequently listed as one of the most important or influential albums in the history of jazz.  The album was written as an expression of Coltrane’s gratitude to God and is widely understood to be a reflection of his spiritual quest, arising from his personal struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.  It comprises 4 thematically-linked tracks: (1) Acknowledgement, (2) Resolution, (3) Pursuance, and (4) Psalm.

My admiration for this record has nothing to do with Coltrane’s faith or spirituality.  As an atheist, I have no religious connection to the music and I do not believe that such a connection is necessary in order to engage with the work.  I love the music and feel that it was (and continues to be) an eye-opener for me with regard to the approach to improvisation, the development of melodic ideas and the ensemble interaction.  So, here’s a short list of the musical reasons for my love of this incredible album.  There is very little in the way of analysis of the music and I do not intend to draw any conclusions – this post is simply me, as an admirer of the album, providing some insight into why I love it. Please feel free to comment below and add your own reasons to the list – I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this music.

Continue reading Why I Love ‘A Love Supreme’

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What sense can I make of improvisation?

Time for another instalment on improvisation – I’m going to try to absorb different accounts of what improvisation is and who does it… and there are questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for.

To begin with, two complaints against improvisation:

First from C.P.E. Bach, commenting sarcastically, in the preface to his Sonatas with Varied Repeats (1760). He goes on:

“It is indispensable, nowadays to alter repeats. One expects it of everybody.  A friend of mine goes to endless trouble to play a piece as it is written, flawlessly and in accordance with the rules of good performance; how can one not applaud him? Another, often pressed by necessity, makes up by his audacity in alteration for the lack of expression he shows in the performance of the written notes; the public nevertheless extols him above the former.”

He’s complaining about the prevalence of improvising, particularly the convention that on the second time through a melody, the performer would add variations;in fact some of them would start before they had finished the first time through – think of how a jazz player states the theme of a ballad for instance. Consequently Bach began composing the varied repeats himself, and also provided variations or embellishments (Auszierungen) for existing works. This makes us aware of the degree to which improvisation was the modus operandi of his day, and his complaint is the beginnings of a move away from it.

Now Scott Joplin, in a preface to a collection of his piano ragtime compositions:

“We wish to say here that the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this, and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.”

Continue reading What sense can I make of improvisation?

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Improvisation Workshops in Primary Schools

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation.  I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts.  Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation.  It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.

The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative.  This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example.  The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways.  16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved.  I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation.  In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!

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Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir [1] and Dr Richard Worth [2] I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development. Continue reading Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

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