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.


  1. You didn't mention their bonkers cover versions? I heard their version of Smells Like Teen Spirit on the radio and bought the CD straightaway. Never seen them live though!

    I cried at Brian Wilson. It was a mixture of reasons, partly the sight of him almost inanimate in a chair but mostly the music. "In My Room" was the moment.

    I've also had awesome moments in clubs hearing DJs play tunes. I think that is a perfectly valid musical experience. It's almost purer than watching a band, it's all about the tune and the people around you. The superstar DJ trend totally missed the point. The DJ should be almost invisible and ego-less to allow the formidable power of TUNE.

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  3. Man, I'm sure you're a great teacher, but you should be writing! More people need to catch your enthusiasm for... well anything you're writing about. Seriously. You're gifted with words. Well I'm off to see if there's any of The Bad Plus on You Tube, you have whet my appetite.

    I had a similar feeling watching Muse (sadly not live - but on the ... (darllen mwy)telly) when they played Glastonbury in 2004 (I think) after being tipped off by one of my year 9 pupils (eternally grateful to Tom Davies). Blew me away - just what I had being waiting for without knowing I was waiting - if you know what I mean? Best trio since Huge Leg!

  4. Stevie Wonder tour last year = amazing. My dream come true.

  5. They do indeed do some bonkers covers. My favourite is probably Comfortably Numb off the last record. Although I once heard a cover of Every Breath You Take that they did with one of the most gob-smacking bass lines I've ever heard. Mind bending! You can't get it over this side of the Atlantic though, which is a shame.

    Year 9 are worth listening to!

    I too was blown away by Stevie. What a gig that was!

  6. completely agree with the st george's theory - i feel like i may be a little smarter just for having been there for an evening!
    am not sure i loved them as much as you, but they were great and i have made friends and family listen since!
    thanks for the comment, is nice to know someone actually reads my blog! flora


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