Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Song Remains The Same

Q: How do you get a Jazz musician to earn a million dollars?
A: You give them two million...

Ah the life of the itinerant musician: never an easy profession.  The endless driving home on darkened and empty motorways, at four am wedged into the back of the van behind the snare drum and the bass player's right armpit whilst the singer and the lead guitarist get all the girls.  Propped up on Prozac, never sure which city you're playing in...playing in half-empty bars to a half-listening audience (if you're lucky)

Most musicians start out this way: playing small pubs, open mike nights in cities where the locals didn't know there was going to be music on and are far more interested in the match on the satellite TV than listening to a band going through the motions of a bad Dire Straits cover version.

Or the wedding gig: where the well-meaning bride and groom hired them in to play their favourite music: failing to recognise that what the guests really want to do is quietly chat about Auntie Enid's historectomy whilst raising old family grudges and silently re-writing their wills, and are sufficiently less interested in the back-catalogue of Michael Jackson and Dexy's Midnight Runners

OK: so far I've been deliberately painting the less attractive side of the world of musicianship.

Take my life, as of recent.

Last year my brother came home from a day trip away to the centre of cosmopolitan England which, it turns out, is also the centre of the British Jazz movement (who knew?  Not me.  Not the concrete cows that used to be visible in a field from the train station and are now safely secured in the shopping centre. Not the locals either as far as I can tell).  He came back with a leaflet for a venue that as well as evening concerts provides day courses in a variety of different styles: from Cajon drums to Mandolin, from Blues Guitar to home recording...and Jazz improvisation.

Let me say this right at the start: I'm a bit of a hypocrite here.  Present me with a CD wherein Dave Gilmore of Pink Floyd noodles away on his Fender Stratocaster (or whatever he's playing these days) for the eight minute solo on Comfortably Numb and I will cheerfully listen....give me some of this endless, self-indulgent Jazz wibbling and I'll happily cut my ears of in preference for giving it the time of day.

It's been the bane of my saxophone lessons for the last 7 years (I know!  And I still haven't learned the damn thing!) as pretty much every session ends with 10 minutes improvisation...

It's usually around the two-and-a-half minute point that I run out of ideas and start looking at my watch.

I think the difference is: structure.  When you have a blues solo, or Messr Gilmore, Clapton, Hendrix, King et al step up the solo is a part of a wider story - fitting in between the words to flesh out the song, whereas in Jazz and improv the solo is often the whole of the thing.

And also: I never really have any feeling for it, or particularly understand why said thing that I did was good or bad when the teacher tells me so.

But because mucking about and making stuff up is such a big part of playing sax I decided that maybe what I really needed was to go on one of the courses on offer at the venue and initially took a one day course with my old friend Argent (remember her?  She's doing ok out there, not blogging but keeping me company in many musical adventures) in Jazz Improvisation hoping that maybe doing it in another environment, with a different teacher and different musicians something would finally click

And it sort of did: because what we did was learn a piece of music first - Milestones by Miles Davis was one, I forget the other (could have been All Blues, but with my memory...) - and then play the tune before taking it in turn to do a smaller improvisation section before playing the tune again (which is, apparently The Thing You Do when Jazzercising)

And actually: it helped.  Putting it in context of a larger and more coherent thing was so rewarding that I immediately signed up for a follow on course over six weeks from January - March: The Jazz Experience.

The plan was simple: learn a couple of "jazz standards", play them as a group (actually several groups: one large 20 piece orchestra and three smaller groups) and, on the final week, foist them upon the unsuspecting public, largely comprised of friends and family from the relative safety of the main stage of the venue.

This resulted in 6 Sundays in the middle of winter driving 50 miles down the motorway and back at ungodly hours, trying to remember the pieces by heart and not forget the weekly amendments and still try and have some kind of life outside....no bass player's armpits were harmed in the process.

The concert itself passed in a blur, it was only an hour and it felt like we'd barely started when we finished.  I made a few mistakes (which I was largely able to cover up) but was generally pleased with the solos I played: my main regret being that the venue was so far away, thus limiting the option of taking things further.

What did I actually learn: well, that bit's quite hard to define, but it gave me more of an idea of where I am down the long road towards achievement...particularly towards the end of the course when I was having a conversation with the teacher who had led our group.

Teacher: (looking at my saxophone reeds): "You should consider getting some better quality reeds more suited to an intermediate player like you..."

It was at this point that I laughed and retorted, "ooh, intermediate eh?  Air's getting a bit rarified up here...after all this time I've finally climbed the dizzy heights to being average"

Actually - I never said it half as cleverly as that but we both laughed and joked and found it funny (it still amuses me)

Intermediate is a good place to be, and I'd say it was about right: there were some players in the group who had been playing two or three times longer than me but whom I could happily play the socks off, whilst there were rank beginners who were already showing signs of catching me up.  In the road to becoming good at something you never really reach the end: you just climb the next hill and see where it takes you

The important thing is to keep climbing

Friday, 3 February 2017

Your Latest Trick

Let's be honest: right now, if you are approaching a till in a shop with the intention of paying with your smart watch there's a high probability that the person behind you thinks that you are a pretentious idiot.

I've had this happen to me a few times now, where I've been standing in a queue with my ever-so-last-century coinage in my hand, ready to take out a small payday loan so that I can afford to pay the extortionate amount being asked for in exchange for a cup of coffee, only to be delayed as someone in front of me insists on pushing back their sleeve, twisting their arm (thus spilling half the drink) and holding their wrist at the correct distance from the scanner for the signal to be transmitted and paying without the arguably quicker but less flashy alternative of getting their debit card out of their wallet.

I must admit to being a little bit guilty here myself because after some initial grumbling about not seeing how it can make transactions any safer I now regularly pay via contact less with my bank card, thus saving me having to input my PIN and probably shaving 20 seconds off what would have otherwise been a more lengthy purchase interaction.

Now I know this is going to sound out of fashion and like an old man grumbling but the basic, single purpose I wear a watch for is because I want it to tell me the time.

Back at school when I was a kid I experimented with digital watches.  Most of them had two or three buttons and a read out based on an 8888 square in poor LEDs.  One or two even had alarms.  As a kid I was even banned from wearing a watch at school - the culprit being a clockwork Mickey Mouse watch from disneyland that ticked so loudly it disrupted the class.

Eventually i returned to a simple watch with hands - I've probably had my current one for 15-20 years with only the occasional change of strap or battery and am in no immediate rush to upgrade.

But the thing is with the smart watch is that I can't help but feel that people are jumping the gun a bit.

Take the mobile phone,  When these first came out in the 1980s they were exclusively used by Wall Street types and came with big battery packs, antenna and a transmission distance only slightly better than standing at the other side of a room and yelling at the person you wanted to talk to.

Nowadays of course you have phones that can control drones, book you a table at a restaurant, organise your fitness regime and take prize winning photographs - but the problem is the rate at which the technology is changing.

Apple and their contenders seem to be releasing new, improved iphones every six months ago that via a tiny improvement or change immediately render your previous phone as obsolete as a penny farthing bicycle - I've personally resisted buying a new games console since the Playstation 2 largely because I got tired of having to buy a new one every year or so because the new version wouldn't play my old games (and because of the price of the games themselves)

And I'm not convinced by the 3D systems going around at the moment - they seem clunky and gimmicky

Personally my suggestion is to hang on for a while and see what comes next - meanwhile in the short term if your watch is still telling you the time then surely that's good enough?

Friday, 13 January 2017

Live It Up

I'm now officially old.

To be fair - I think I was born 60 and it got worse as time went on, but there are several things that have led me to the conclusion that the top of the hill is now behind me.

The first thing that tells you that your dotage is upon you is the way that women (usually Grand mothers and young mothers) refer to you, particularly when they are pointing you out to a young child that is in their care.

It starts well with, "do you see that boy there" and moves on to "that young man" before the inevitable "that Gentleman" and finally, of course, "that old man" (by which they are trying to warn their kid "keep away, he could collapse at any second")

The second thing is, of course, new technology.  (Author) Douglas Adams famously once wrote that "anything invented before you were born is in the Natural Order Of Things, anything between then and around 35 years is a New And Exciting Gadget and that anything invented much after your 40th year is Against God And Must Be Stopped.

I was actually having a conversation around the second point at work the other day with a girl half my age who was saying things like "oh I can eat whatever I like and never put on any weight" and "I can't ever see myself not understanding new tech the way my grandmother does" - and yet even she, spring chicken that she comparatively was, admitted that there were elements of social media, such as Twitter, which she didn't really follow (Twitter is beyond me I'm afraid: please explain where the joy is in reading half a stranger's text message).  My personal gripe is 3D movies - if the story wasn't good in the first place then some actor waving to the screen and arrows flying out at you isn't going to make it any better (I studiously avoid them and will only go to 2D screenings)

Thirdly, of course, my pop culture references regularly go over the heads of people working in shops.  Just recently we went to a hobby shop to buy some glue, pens and other craft materials (we're very fond of gluing pens together in our house...) and whilst Herself was rummaging through her cavernous purse I joked to the assistant that "this is what happened to Lord Lucan and Shergar, you know: they got put in her bag for safe keeping"

Now I'm aware that anyone in the US may not get the reference to the disgraced 60s Lord whose clothes were found abandoned on the beach in the wake of the Police wanting to speak to him in relation to a murder, or to the Grand National winning horse that rumour has it may have been stolen by the IRA with intentions of ransoming it before they realised how hard a thoroughbred is to look after - but both are familiar names in the UK: or at least they should be.

However: even after a brief summary of the Lord Lucan affair (which, incidentally, happened before my time as well) the expression on the girl's face remained polite-yet-liable-to-call-security-at-any-moment.

Fourthly - and I just became aware that this post, although not originally intended to, is slowly turning into a list-o-fives post -  I'm hopelessly out of touch with New And Upcoming Musical Artistes.  This is something I actually regret - we used to have a 1/2 hour music show here called Top Of The Pops which showed you the top 40 selling singles in the chart and if that were still on today then I would be fully versed because a half-hour music show is about the right length for me and I can't be bothered with all these 1 hour music video shows you get on the digital channels

The most up-and-coming music act that I recently discovered was Gregory Porter: who it has to be said has a great voice and some wonderful tunes - but he's only a small amount younger than me and he sings Jazz - so it hardly qualifies me to announce that I am "down with the kids" (slang for hip - and by god does using the word "hip" make me sound even older)

Fifth - all of a sudden I find young people deeply annoying.

Actually that's not true: all my life I've found them deeply annoying, but it's got worse.  Particularly on public transports

There's this nice old image of the traditional Brit who sits in his shed all day, quietly stoking and smoking a pipe whilst he ponders over a tricky crossword, who never complains despite being kept waiting at the station for 5 hours (other than the occasional sigh or tut) and who absolutely DOES NOT spend the entire 2 hour train journey having a loud and vacuous phone conversation about their sex life whilst playing BubbleSaga or Angry Birds on their tablet

I have to admit to being a bit of a hypocrite here because as a child I used to insist on carrying around a small case of magic tricks and "entertaining" fellow passengers when the train broke down (which was a frequent occurrence back then) - quite frankly: if I met myself as a child now I would cheerfully stab myself to save anyone else the pain - but to be fair I was a hell of a lot quieter.  I don't know whether it's a thing of getting older or what, but it seems that anyone below the age of 17 is unable to speak at any volume lower than a bellow that would start an avalanche

Finally, of course, I have recently discovered the local Folk Club Scene.

For those of you who don't know Folk Clubs are still quite common in the UK and they usually have one or many of the following attributes:
* Real Ale drinkers - people who insist that beer has to be made Traditionally and by some bloke using his bath tub - to be the real thing
* Acoustic instruments - they're still bitter about Dylan going electric
* songs written over a 100 years ago, usually about how grim it was being a miner/weaver/peasant, containing "fol-de-rol"s or heavy innuendo
* people old enough to have heard the songs the first time around
* and, to be fair, a really friendly and informal atmosphere that is a hell of a lot of fun

But what they don't have: is young people - and this is a thing I've heard and seen a lot of recently. On the stand-up course I did the teacher bemoaned the fact that the audience watching him now were the same people as 10-15 years ago and that no new audience was coming through - and it's the same in the Folk Clubs - I may be getting on a bit, but the large proportion of people there are 15-20 years older than me and I wasn't aware of anyone younger

Which is a bit of a shame - I'd hate these clubs to go out of business and to vanish like so many things because they clung onto a forgotten ideal of what the world was like

Which brings me to the final thing about getting old - becoming afraid of change.  It's very easy to complain about things changing (as I've just proven) and history is full of people moaning that INSERT NEW FANGLED THING HERE is wrecking our society and changing things irretrievably but hey - change will happen regardless. 

Better to accept it and move on: maybe therein lies the secret of eternal youth?