Category Archives: Pop Music

Remembering B.B. King

News of legendary entertainer B.B. King’s death came as a jolt. The monumentality of his contribution to popular music created the impression that somehow he would always be around, striding onto someone else’s record to make you wonder why they were there, superstars or not. His ability to spark collaborations with unlikely partners – U2, The Crusaders, the GRP Big Band, Cyndi Lauper – meant that in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many genres you could approach without coming across him. This could seem surprising until you considered that all this music – stadium rock, smooth funk or state-of-the-art big band – all traced roots to the wellspring of Delta blues that formed B.B. King.

He tends to be labelled as a widely influential blues guitarist, but his singing was at least as striking as what came from his fretboard, and was what brought him to attention first. I saw King perform twice during his lifetime of incessant touring, and had never seen such blatant showmanship before: the band stoking the blues for a good 20 minutes before the great man walked on stage to top it all, and relentless encores infused with the same chutzpah as his advice for the queen of England (sic) when she corners him in the street during ‘You’d Better Not Look Down’. What I remember most from the live shows is that his voice and guitar seemed interchangeable. The voice rang out like an electric guitar, and Lucille (the guitar) sang back in the solos, a percussive approach and portamento wails perfectly recreating the vocal delivery. King himself acknowledged this link, stating that, ideally, ‘you wouldn’t know when Lucille stopped and my voice began’1. This gave his guitar playing the emphatic restraint so often lacking in overenthusiastic blues players since.

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Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (Part 2)

“Take the funky drummer give him back to james”

In my last post, I was looking at the convoluted relationships between DJ performance in the context of a ‘live’ Hip Hop party and the live musician’s role in the creation of the first Hip Hop records. It’s now time to follow the chronology of the story and deal with the development of digital sampling of the kind any producerw would recognise today. But just before that…..if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know I have a penchant for Igor Stravinsky into the mix- well here he comes again: in a paper from 2005, (The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine), Robert Fink has identified ORCH5, a pre-set on the Fairlight sampler. It is a cheesy full orchestral ‘hit’ which Fink convincingly argues was sampled from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet. To hear Stravinsky’s ‘hit’  in action in early Hip Hop you need go no further than Africa Bambaataa’s 1982 classic Planet Rock. Here it is on the invaluable whosampled.com website:

http://www.whosampled.com/sample/135683/Afrika-Bambaataa-Soulsnic-Force-Planet-Rock-David-Vorhaus-ORCH5/

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Dance to the drummer’s beat (PART 1)

This post is a quick look at the tangled the mix of live playing, sampling and DJ’ing in old School hip Hop. One of the great advantages of the blog format is the chance to lay in audio a youtube links, so the reader can actually hear what is being talked about.  I do, however ask you, dear reader, to be aware that this limits us to MP3 audio, and if you want to REALLY here some of this stuff, find it in a decent audio form.

My five year old daughter has some interesting books, courtesy of a cool mother in law. Along with a story built around Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I’ll lend it to you Zack), we have an illustrated children’s account of DJ KOOL HERC! When the Beat was Born gives a child friendly account of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx. Spurred on I went looking for more on the subject and a visit to  Edinburgh University library shows a good ten feet of academic literature on hip hop, much of it describing a world I know nothing – which is weird because I lived in new York for 11 years from 1990, and had some experience making music on the peripheries of Hip Hop.

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Music as a (Second) Language

There is a great video from bassist Victor Wooten where he talks about music as a language (you can watch the video here).  There is certainly nothing new about likening music to a language. Poets, writers and authors have been doing so for some time now…

Music is the universal language of mankind.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
~Kahlil Gibran

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”
~Victor Hugo

Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
~Thomas Carlyle

The idea of music as a language has taken on an increased focus in my life ever since I came to work with Little Kids Rock through my job at Amp Up NYC about a year ago.   At Little Kids Rock (LKR), their pedagogy is based upon the idea of treating music as asecond language.  The basis of LKR’s pedagogy was developed by founder Dave Wish, a former first-grade, ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

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Confessions of a Luddite: My eventual acceptance of technology in performance

Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.

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My Top 5 Songs of 2014:

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about ‘top 5 records’ for this site (have a read here) which seemed to generate a lot of activity in the form of comments and discussion.  At this time of year, I thought it would be fun to follow this up and compile a ‘top 5 songs of 2014’ list.  So, the following is a list of the 5 tracks that I have enjoyed most this year.  Again, as in the original post, I’m not trying to convince anyone or to campaign for these songs in any way – they’re just my personal favourites from 2014.

It would be great to hear what other people have to say, so please feel free to comment below with your list or even just music that you have enjoyed from this year. Continue reading My Top 5 Songs of 2014:

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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.”

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‘Just Like Clarence’

This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.

It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session:  ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately).  Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’.  I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation.  So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion.  I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’

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‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick. Anyone Can Do It…’

I was sitting with my daughter last week watching Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (Warner Brothers, 2005) and was struck by a particular passage of dialogue.  Just after the first of the bratty, selfish children (Augustus Gloop) gets eliminated from the tour of the chocolate factory, the Oompa-Loompas perform an elaborately choreographed song and dance routine which describes the events which led to this child’s early exit from the film.  Shortly after the song finishes, the following dialogue occurs:

Charlie: Mr. Wonka, why would Augustus’ name already be in the Oompa-Loompa song unless they—

Willy Wonka: Improvisation is a parlour trick. Anyone can do it. [turns to Violet] You! Little girl – say something. Anything!

Violet: Chewing gum.

Willy Wonka: Chewing gum is really gross. Chewing gum I hate the most. See? Exactly the same.

Mike: No, it isn’t.

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Turn the Beat Around

In a previous post I talked about ‘keeping the beat’, while rhythmically shifting melodic motifs and accents.  One way of shifting  was to pre-ordain it through the process of pulse preserving polymeter, as exemplified by Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and Stavinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. However, Stravinsky didn’t only use such prearranged processes to create rhythmic displacement; in fact more often he would also just do it.

Histoire du Soldat and Thelonious Monk:

Again, Histoire du Soldat provides some of the best examples of this, partly because, as Lambert said, all those marching band rhythms and pseudo polkas and rags make the pulse emphatically clear.

Here is one of my favourite examples from Histoire:
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