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


2 comments:

Stephen Hayes said...


This line really made me laugh.

"...after all this time I've finally climbed the dizzy heights to being average"

The Bug said...

I'm glad you've been pursuing your sax passion. I feel the same way about the unstructured nature of jazz - but then I like to sing, not play, & jazz doesn't really lend itself to a good alto part.

Argent teased us a while back about making a comeback. Tell her to get with it! I'm on pins & needles here!