Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Musical epiphony

(Note that the track in the video above is called 'Prehensile Dream' and not 'Prehensite Dream' as it says on the caption.)

Last night I got to go to a gig. It was actually a bit like a pilgremage for me.

My favourite musical group in the entire world is a jazz piano trio named The Bad Plus. They come from USA and, despite the fact that they are constantly playing around the world, they tour the UK only occasionally, so getting to see them is a treat for me. It was the third time I have seen them play. I can easily cite the first time that I saw them play as the most formative musical experience of my life thus far, without even a split second’s hesitation or ‘Hmmm…let me think about that’ moment. For someone who is as notoriously muddle-headed, see-both-sides, there’s-a-time-and-a-place-for-everything as I am, that is quite a statement. Before that fateful night, if you’d asked me for my most profoundly moving musical moments, I’d have uhm’d and ah’d and thrown half a dozen ideas out that depended on what kind of mood I was in at the time. Could it have been Metallica at the Milton Keynes Bowl when I nearly died in the mayhem of The Thing That Should Not Be? Or perhaps And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead destroying all of their gear in an orgy of musically induced violence before they’d finished playing the third song of their set? Or maybe hearing Arvo Part’s Cantus In Memorium Benjamin Britten by accident at a concert I didn’t really mean to be at? And that’s before I get onto moments of musical profundity that I had the pleasure to be actually involved in as a player.

So yeah, to be able to pin point my supreme musical awakening so exactly is quite a big deal for me. It was at St. George’s Hall in Bristol. I don’t remember the date – I don’t remember dates – but it was around 2006 and it was cold. I had been invited to see this band called The Bad Plus by my friend who didn’t really know much about them either. This is how the evening happened in my head:

Damn it. It’s too cold to be arseing about queuing up to see a band that I’ve never even heard about. This had better bloody well be worth it.

I like St.Georges Hall. You feel like you’re dead clever when you hang around here. Isn’t this where they have lots of chamber music on Radio 3? Oh no. I hope I’m not going to have to listen to loads of weird, warbly songs in German with a load of posh people that listen to Radio 3. Man. Hang on! I’ve never done that before; it might be good. Hold in there Liam; keep that mind as open as it can go. See what happens.

We’re in. Rubbish seats, man! Brilliant: not only am I going to watch a band that I probably won’t like, but I’m going to be doing it with a restricted view. They’re going to have to be bloody good to pull this one off.

Interesting crowd. Young trendy types that do jazz but look like they’re in the Strokes but the old, beard-stroking, shaky head brigade are in too. Who is this band? I can’t tell what they sound like just by looking at the audience, which isn’t normal. Hmm.

Here they come. Three of them. A bookish piano player who looks like a jazz pianist and fits the bill. I’m happy with that. The bass player is hauling up a battered old double bass. I like the look of that instrument – much more grown up than my electric bass. He looks kind of Scandinavian and has an expression that says ‘I’m about to play this instrument. Listen.’. The drummer: doesn’t he play in Helmet or Life of Anger or something? He looks scary: hardcore American shaved head punk styles. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to tally up.

Clap clap clap. Here we go.

Holy shit! What’s going on? I don’t get it! What the hell are they doing? This isn’t stuffy jazz that I don’t understand and makes me feel insecure! This isn’t dry as bones classical music that I feel like I ought to like more! This is bloody brilliant. When it is quiet, it’s so agonizingly beautiful that I feel like crying. When it’s loud it’s so brash and in your face I burst out laughing. And they’re funny and seem to be actually enjoying themselves whilst playing this serious, profound and bloody difficult music. I’ve never seen this before!

Man. Where can this go next? The last song of the set. The piano guy says that they love the acoustic of the hall, so they’re going to play a track called ‘Silence is the Question’ that will exploit it to the full. A bass introduction: quiet, lyrical, emotional. This isn’t what I associate with the bass and I’ve been playing the instrument my whole life. Gentle drums, almost too quiet to hear. Piano arpeggios. Soft. Sensual. Build up of volume and intensity. Ok. This is quite full on now. Bloody. Hell. Surely they can’t keep this up? What the hell is that drummer doing? How is the piano player staying on top of this? Man alive! WOO HOO! Go for it!

And then I passed out.

Not really.

But the point I am trying to make is that I was in the middle of the most extreme, the most intense, the most powerful musical experience I’d ever had. As, I’m sure, were lots of people. You just don’t get to do that in the West Country that often. So much music in the UK seems to be led by image and fashion that players don’t seem to want or be able to express themselves to such extremes as The Bad Plus were prepared to push themselves to. And I’ve seen some extreme music in my time: a mass brawl break out at a Carcass gig in Cardiff, lost my small change in a Sepultura mosh pit, various people with laptops making confusing and disorientating sounds in Bristol clubs. But these three guys, with traditional acoustic instruments, blew everything that I had ever seen or heard before completely, devastatingly, overwhelmingly to smithereens.

And that was my moment with The Bad Plus. Nowadays, I can just watch them and enjoy them immensely without necessarily being reduced to tears – although it does still happen on occasion. But that moment was the moment for me. Since then, I’ve strived to get more from my music. I don’t mean that I’m more fussy or picky – quite the opposite in fact. I demand more of myself when I listen and when I play. I invest more and hold back less. I try to listen with my heart and soul rather than just with my ears and my preconceptions. I work harder as a player to know what I’m doing and then discard that in favour of playing what I’m feeling and hearing.

And seeing Reid Anderson, the bass player in The Bad Plus, play that beautiful upright has cost me a small financial and emotional fortune by inspiring me to enter into the world of the double bass. Thanks.

After the gig last night, I got to say hello to them as well. They were really nice, in that special way that Americans can be: warm, friendly, interested despite having to chat to lots of people. I, of course, came over all shy, mumbled my appreciation, got my CD signed and ran away in cloud of thoroughly British awkwardness and gratitude.

So, yeah. If you love music and what it does to your soul, check out The Bad Plus. Or, if that’s not your bag, go and find your own Bad Plus moment. Keep your mind open: it could happen when you least expect it.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

'The Magic That's Between The Lines/Behind the Scenes' or 'The Bassplayer'

This is a post about appreciating music.

And to appreciate this post fully, you need to watch the video above. All of it. You need to watch it in a way that is perhaps dying out in our age of You Tube haste and attention deficit disorders; you need to watch with care and sympathy for the subject. Open your mind and put aside your issues of taste or preference - attitudes that seem to me to be routed in self regard and narcissism anyway. It may not be your cup of tea. You may be a jazzer that distrusts anything too loud and simple, or an aficionado of way out electro art ensembles, but I want you to empty your mind, as much as it is ever possible to forget the part of you that is nurtured, of your preconceptions, tastes and learned habits and just listen and appreciate. Trust me: you can do it.

Oh, and to really get the gist, you need to be listening on something other than a laptop with silly little speakers that can't reproduce the floor vibrating, stomach churning, bowel loosening glory of an electric bass. Headphones or proper speakers please.

Ok. Now you've done that, I want you to think about what was striking about it. What was different about this extract?

That's right! 80% of the camera's time is spent looking directly at the bass player. His name is Pino Palladino, and there are many things you might like to know about him:

# he is Welsh Italian and there are quite a few of them you know (ever had a Sidoli's ice cream?);
# he has played on countless records that you will have heard, but is most famous for his lyrical, melodious and groundbreaking fretless bass lines with Paul Young in the 80s;
# he looks a bit like Jasper Carrott.

There are many reasons why I might be feeling called to sharing the above clip. I'll do my best to be brief, but please be warned that this is a subject very close to my heart and I do tend to go on so.

Palladino is, to put it in the strangely crass vernacular of jazz musicians, a motherfucker. That is, he is a really, really good player. If you listened to this track and you were not particularly drawn to or knowledgeable about the role of the electric bass in music, you may not even particularly notice what the man is doing. Indeed, most people, when they listen to modern rock or pop, are only really aware of a bass line as a low frequency rumble in the pit of their stomachs and only become consciously aware of it if it is promoted to being a hook at the fore of the mix (I'm thinking of Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal as an example of this, or The Chain by Fleetwood Mac: a tune has been immortalised by Formula 1 over the years). Bass players actually like this phenomenon; we like the fact that there is an arcane and secretive side to what we do. You can only truly understand the dark art of bass playing if you have spent your life listening to only bass lines; if you don't know the words to even the most famous of pop songs but can beat every syncopation and hum every fill of the bass line.

And so, from a technical playing perspective, here are the highlights of Palladino's playing on this track. May I suggest that, after you have listened to the track as a whole, you have a closer look at these highlights.

0:26 - notice the clarity he gets in this bluesy run. Most players, even good ones, would slur this because it is a moderately quick run of notes, but Palladino gets every note in with a punch and lets it exist in its entirety before he moves to the next one.

0:33 - the first 'fill'. A 'fill' is a freestyling piece of improvisation that players insert within a predefined and written line, usually at the end of a section of a song. This is a fairly straightforward and typical example of a blues rock bass fill, but it is merely laying a good, sensible foundation for what is to come.

0:41 - now Palladino is firmly in 'the groove' and is beginning to push the boundaries of convention. There are very few players that would attempt this kind of phrase at this point in the music. It's a kind of Motown bluesy chromatic run from one chord to another that leads into a more avant guard fill back to the safe ground of the run that we've seen at 0:26.

0:55 - another sign of a highly individual approach to the instrument here as Palladino plays a nice, tight little fill and then hits two harmonic notes simultaneously. Harmonics are notes that are achieved when you play a string or strings and do not fret a note but merely hold your fretting hand on the string and release immediately after the string is struck. The physics of harmonics is quite interesting, if you like that kind of thing, and you can explore them here.

1:02 - another piece of left-field playing here. It's actually quite typical for Palladino to play this kind of higher register, melodic fill. But, trust me, you won't hear many other examples of it in popular music generally.

1:06 - this the one that makes me weak at the knees. It's a really simple phrase, but quite, quite brilliant. A bass player shouldn't really be doing anything here other than sticking to the bass line and holding things together, but Palladino slings in a nonchalant ad lib that is unexpected, melodic and devastatingly brief.

, ok. I'm starting to bore myself now and I'm sure you've got the point: Pino Palladino is a brilliant player. We've only got a minute into the track and I could yet probably write a PhD on his playing underneath the guitar solo that follows shortly after.

What I'm really hoping, though, is that you might realise that - if the director hadn't decided to fix the bass player in our sights for a uniquely long section of the film and if I hadn't decided to point all of it out - you'd probably never have noticed any of this. It would have merely been a pleasant rumble behind the guitar and voice that fits in with the drums and makes you nod your head rhythmically without you really realising that you're doing it. A closer look, however, reveals a beautiful web of subtle detail and nuance that normally goes unnoticed.

So, try exploring the dark, subtle shades of the musical world that holds up what you normally listen to. If you understand what's going on down there, you'll understand more about music. If you understand more of music, you'll understand more of what makes life so worth living.