Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mojo review of Brassmask

  4 stars Mojo

Soho after the Second World War. My talk on Sunday

Next Sunday, I'll have the privilege of sharing a stage with one of the most significant movers and shakers of jazz over the past 50 years. John Jack's fame for musicians dates back to his first days at Dobell's legendary jazz shop in Charing Cross Road. He  has lived round there since 1960. Subsequently he has been involved in supporting the music as promoter, manager of the legendary Ronnie Scott's Old Place in Gerrard Street, as a record label and distributor with Cadillac. 

It was therefore a no-brainer for me to ask him to help out with a talk that we'll give together on jazz in Soho in the post war era. A period when jazz was at the centre of a revival of hope. It set examples in terms of its willingness to have multiethnic bands on stage,.The musicians were at the forefront of all types of the music: ranging from Ken Colyer through to John(ny) Dankworth and Ronnie Scott to the embryonic improv scene led by John Stevens and the members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Gerrard Street was like 42nd Street. Ronnie Scott's at one end, and the Flamingo at the other.

And all this was in an area where you also had journalists (such as Jeffrey Bernard and subsequently Private Eye), artists (Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon), photographers (David Bailey and Terence Donovan), night clubs where Lord Mountbatten would mix with Frank Sinatra. And the underworld.

Over the past couple of years I have been investigating as a "hobby" the lost jazz venues of London. I have put them up on a Google map as I find them and learn stories about them. The more I have done this, the more I have become fascinated by Soho as a creative hub. But one that wasn't the result of planners, bureaucrats of politicians. It evolved naturally out of the creative spirit of the people.

It follows the latest instalment of Dan Messore's View From The Tower, where he works with a talented group trawling through new arrangements of music by Iain Ballamy and many of their peers. But not least playing their own stuff.

Vortex Downstairs, Sunday 6 p.m. FREE!!

Photo and quiz: The photo is taken at Feldman's Club in 1943. Name the address and the saxophonists. The winner will receive a copy of the latest album Lacuna by Dan Messore. 
But you have to pick it up in person on Sunday!

Email me here

Saturday, November 09, 2013

ON THE SOFA SERIES #1 Alexander Hawkins Part 2

  ALEX HAWKINS (continued...)

katan500: You seem to come up with some interesting, if not curious titles for your compositions...albums... How do you go about naming them?

AH: It completely varies to be honest, although there are a few devices I use: some of the titles are in the form 'x/y' - e.g. 'assemble/melancholy', 'listen/glow', 'totem/bud'. With these, the first word refers to a structural device I've devised for myself, and the second more to an emotional idea. There is a series of 'Baobab' pieces too: 'Baobabs', 'Unknown Baobabs', 'Baobab Constellation', etc. - these all share a melodic and a structural trait.

katan500: Tell me more because I'm imagining trees...

AH: There is also a series of piece titled with initials: MO, AW/LY, etc. Others compositions don't fit into any larger titling 'ITTOQQORTOORMIIT' is actually the name of a place in Greenland, but the shape of the word with the repeated letters just happened to resonate with a rhythmic device in the composition.

katan500: How did you come up with Song Singular for you new solo album?

AH: Song Singular is actually the name of an (as yet) unrecorded trio composition, but it seemed apt to call the solo album this. Song and movement are useful ideas for me in thinking compositionally - hence also 'Song/Dance', the second Convergence Quartet album on Clean Feed.

katan500: And what about Step Wide, Step Deep with your Trio...

AH: Step Wide, Step Deep is a paraphrase of something which caught my imagination in an interview with Henry Threadgill. The second tune on Step Wide, Step Deep is called 'Space of Time Danced Thru' - this may ring a bell for Cecil Taylor afficionados...

katan500: You are playing at the Vortex Jazz Club on 18th November with Louis Moholo-Moholo how did this collaboration come about?

AH: My collaborations with Louis are the products of one of my most important musical relationships. He is in a very, very short list of the greatest drummers on the planet, and was someone whose records I had loved for many years before I ever got to meet, let alone play with, him. I still feel hugely privileged to get to hear him as frequently as I do, and from one of the best seats in the house. He is, for me, a model musician, in that he is constitutionally incapable of giving less than everything in a performance. Musicians are prone to pontification about concepts and the importance of what they do, sometimes at the expense of actually just *playing*: but a musician who has experienced what Louis has experienced has a very special perspective on freedom, and the social importance of music, which it's humbling to bear in mind. I think it's fair to say he keeps me honest more than any other musician I can think of.

Katan500: Is it true that you first met at the Vortex?

AH: I first met him when I subbed for Steve Beresford, and the request of Evan Parker, in the group 'Foxes Fox' (ordinarily Evan, Steve, John Edwards, and Louis; although on this occasion Steve was unavailable), and this is in the long list of things for which I am indebted to Evan. Actually, we literally met for the very first time on the stage of the Vortex that night.

katan500: I was hoping you were going to say on the sofa...but stage is good too...

AH: A few months after this, I was in the audience at a gig of one of Louis' own groups...he saw me between sets, and asked if I'd like to sit in for the second set. Of course I didn't really know the tunes, other than as a listener to the records, so in some respects I was little crazy to say yes, but naturally I'd have been way crazier to say no, and I've been lucky enough to have played with Louis since then time in various formations - sextet, septet, octet, duo, and most recently a quartet too. Suffice it to say that every opportunity to make music with him is a special one. We've certainly played together more at the Vortex than at any other venue, [Katan500: flattery gets you everywhere...] but this is the first time we've done the duo there, so I'm hugely excited about it.

Katan500: I only noticed yesterday that you had left a comment on my piece about Howard Becker, I was interested in what he called the etiquette of improvisation can you say how this idea of etiquette works in practice? What’s your experience of it?

AH: I have to confess, I don't know that specific Becker piece, so I shouldn't really comment without being familiar with it (the one which loomed largest for me whilst in academia was 'Outsiders', which I suppose is just one of the classic works of 20th Century sociology). That said, Becker being an 'insider' on this 'outsider' existence, I can imagine his account being compelling. As for things such as repertoire being negotiated ideas - absolutely, that resonates: at least, in a jam session setting, or in a standards-type gig where a group gets together on a less formal basis. I suspect Becker wasn't writing about bands with their own repertoires - e.g. if you turn up to Charles Mingus' gig, the process of putting together a performance is somewhat different than if you're on stage at 'Jazz at the Phiharmonic'. That said, Becker's observations would doubtless cast some light on the processes even in these settings of specific bandleaders/repertoires. For example, you might argue that musical choices - even down to the level of note-choices - are in some way negotiated (even if implicitly) in these contexts. Think of the negotiation in these terms: the musician has a broad decision-making context: his/her life experience, current background trends in music making, perhaps the venue in which he/she is playing - things like this. Then there are rules or norms which are active in the particular context: are there rhythmic matrices at play? Chord changes perhaps? Dynamic norms? Then the musician has his/her own interpretive practices through which (s)he makes sense of the context and the particular rules...and the form and substance of the music is what comes out of all of this.

Katan500: Jazz musicians tend to play with a number of bands e.g. you have the AH Ensemble and also play with the Convergence Quartet and others, how do you keep the identity and the sounds of the bands separate: or maybe it’s not even an issue...

AH: My only guiding principle is that I try to be myself, and play to the best of my ability in any context. Taking into account that different groups having different personnel, repertoires and working norms, there are plenty enough variables at play at all times to keep any new context sounding fresh!

katan500: I thought I saw somewhere that you are self-taught did you use sociologist David Sudnow's method? Does it work?

AH: To be completely accurate, I am self-taught as an improviser - I didn't go to music college or anything like that. However, in terms of instrumental technique, I did study classical piano and church organ when I was much younger - the organ in particular to a pretty high level I suppose - so I acquired an initial technical base from these studies (although over the years, I've obviously tweaked many things: my own improvisational language being, I suppose, pretty far removed from the these 'classical' languages).
I think the important thing about Sudnow though is that his is a descriptive sociology: he's really describing the process of learning an instrument, rather than being prescriptive - at least on my reading!

katan500: Tell me about your upcoming gig at the Vortex?

AH: As mentioned above, it's an exciting one, in that it's the first time Louis and I have played in duo at the club. It's difficult to say more, since in fact, one of the things which characterises a typical gig with Louis is that there is no such thing as a 'typical' gig. The moment really is everything with his bands; so whilst the repertoire is sure to include some open improvisations, many South African tunes (many of these associated with the two legendary bands he powered - the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath), perhaps some Ellington and so forth, how these will develop on the evening is anyone's guess!

katan500: You will also be busy curating 3 late night sessions can you say a bit about your plans for this...

AH: I was very excited when approached to do this, and my immediate decision was that I didn't want to play at all: I wanted to curate, and then just listen...however, at around the time I was approached, one of my favourite bands to play in - 'Human' (the fantastic project of drummer Steve Davis, a quartet featuring Steve, Alex Bonney on trumpet, Dylan Bates on violin, and myself) had recently had gigs in London and Belfast cancelled due to terrible weather preventing the relevant flights from going. I felt that I'd really love for this band to do something; so Steve's band plays the first night. On the second night, Alex Ward is playing a solo set on the clarinet. Alex was one of the first musicians I began to play with around London. By anyone's measure, he's an astonishing musician, and by mine, a genius (and I say this fully aware of how overused the word is). Alongside this solo, Kit Downes and Lucy Railton will perform a duo set. And on the final night, Tom Skinner is bringing 'Hello Skinny' along, which I'm really excited about. Tom *really* knows music. I sometimes feel that if he hasn't heard it and checked it out, it may well in fact simply not exist.

katan500:  Thank you very much  Alex for being such a good sofa sport. That concludes the first 'On the Sofa' interview. I look forward to seeing you at the Vortex soon.

Alex Hawkins with Louis Moholo-Moholo 18 Nov 20.30
Alex Hawkins curates: 21 Nov  23.00 , 22 Nov 23.30 23 Nov 23.30  

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Q and A with Alexander Hawkins: On the Sofa Series #1

Alexander Hawkins (Part One )
The first Q and A for the Sofa Series brings pianist Alex Hawkins into focus

 Katan500: Favourite colour?
AH:  Very specifically, which ever blue Chelsea are playing in at the time.
Katan500: Jazz is... In 150 characters?
AH: I'm not sure I want to try to define it, save that I know it when I hear it...
Katan500: Cats or dogs?
AH: Cats!
Katan500: How do you relax?
AH:  By listening to music, by writing music, by practising music. And by watching football.
Katan500: You realize this is the warm up...
AH: Hmm....
Katan500: You have gained yourself a reputation for creating your own distinctive ‘sound world’ how would you describe your sound world?

AH: Describing my own soundworld is very difficult...I suppose I'd rather that people just listened - that'd give the most accurate picture. Of course, I suppose there are some very basic things that I try to do. For a start, I'm interested in a range of musical behaviours ranging from the realisation of fully scored music, through to almost completely open improvisational languages. I don't like to sign up to the talk which is slightly in vogue of mixing composition and improvisation, because I don't really think that they're necessarily different behaviours: I think they exist much more on a continuum. Essentially for me, I'm into free music. But this is freedom to rather than freedom from. Options and possibilities are my thing I suppose; I wouldn't want to close anything off. In practice, this can mean various things. For example, I'm interested in groups really developing empathy, such that the musicians feel free to desert or distort the composition if this is what feels right at the time. I'm into devolving decision-making; giving musicians leeway to introduce things (or not) in their own time, perhaps with their own sub-grouping of the ensemble. Another thing I like to do is assemble musicians who to my ears have really individual voices, and though there are lots of precedents for this approach, for me personally, it comes from my love of Ellington.

Katan500: Who do you admire / has been an influence on you?

AH: As to who I admire and who has been an influence on me, I will wear out my keyboard before I can get halfway down the list. I love this music, have done for as long as I can remember, and listen incessantly. Goodness knows I'd have more money in the bank if I didn't buy records like I do. Additionally, I'd like to think that I try to learn even from the things I don't really like. And of course - the relationship between admiration and influence is not a straightforward one.

Katan500: What if you were on Desert Island Discs...

AH:  I couldn't bring myself to choose between Tatum and Ellington; those are my two real heroes, and I couldn't be without either. Also Rollins, Monk, Cecil Taylor, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra, Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell, Clifford Brown, John Kirby, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Anthony Braxton...the list goes on and on. Morton. Coltrane. Threadgill. Don't get me started on piano players. I am obsessed with Hampton Hawes' music...Mary Lou Williams...Elmo Hope is one of my favourite pianists in the world...Herbie Nichols...Hasaan Ibn Ali...Muhal Richard Abrams...Amina Claudine Myers...Chris McGregor...Mal Waldron...Al Haig...Dick Twardzik...Joe Albany...Fats Waller of course...Albert Ammons...Meade Lux Lewis... Of course, that list only touches on the 'jazz' tradition; and naturally, I listen to anything which is of interest - the label on it isn't really important. So for example I've recently been checking out some birdsong again (I can't lie - inspired by Radio 4's 'Tweet of the Day')...also some early Elliott Carter...Kathleen Ferrier doing Mahler...Glenn Gould playing Byrd...Lipatti playing Scarlatti...'Curtis Live' has been in heavy rotation recently too... I don't want to do the trendy thing though and say I listen to everything. I definitely don't - there's a whole load of stuff which I draw a bit of a blank on. And that list is a long one too. A very long one. And anyone who knows me would be able to reveal some bizarre and massive holes in my listening below in the comments section to this, I'm sure of it...

Katan500: That's quite a list.Your reviews are always glowing. Looking at the way you have been reviewed there is always a feeling of a master in the making... the marrying of brains and soul. Would you like to comment? Feel free to blush...

AH: I'm blushing. I can't comment on the first bit. [Katan500: Yes you can...] I don't want to be disingenuous... of course, I'm hugely flattered whenever something is positively reviewed. Music is about communication, and if something I've done has managed to achieve that in a small way here or there, then that is definitely important to me. I really don't like musicians being disparaging about critics: there are lazy critics, but also lazy musicians. There are critics who can't play, and musicians who can't write. And so on.
I suppose I think one of the things which is most key about development and attainment is an absolute and genuine devotion to those processes, and just generally 'pushing on'. I have a horror of coasting and/or repeating myself, and I suppose I'm worried that being self-regarding about some vague idea of 'stature' in some ways could lead someone to be less hungry to evolve and generally improve. Also, as an musician, I'm privileged to work closely and on a very frequent basis with people whose playing inspires/intrigues/baffles/fascinates etc... me to amazing degrees. This really keeps you honest - it's always abundantly clear that there's more to learn and achieve. I also feel this extremely keenly just through my listening - I'm a music lover at least as much as I am a musician: it's easy to listen to things from decades and decades ago, and realise quite how much there is still to.

Katan500: What about brains and soul....

AH: This can be a little difficult to comment on. I think it's deeply problematic to view them (I'm not suggesting that you do this in your question, of course!) as mutually exclusive. For one, the ideas are difficult to pin down. Part of the magic of the music is that yes, it can be a communal experience, but also a very personal one. So much to say that what speaks to one person - is 'soulful' to them - won't necessarily to another person. One of my absolutely heroes is Art Tatum, and I frequently hear it said that he's a great technician, but lacks 'soul'. Personally, I just don't hear it...I simply can't get my head around this, to the extent that, I suppose, I even feel offended by the sentiment; but at the same time, I do recognise that how I feel Tatum can't/shouldn't have a bearing on how others feel about him. Myself, I can't identify with Keith Jarrett's music in the slightest; it doesn't resonate with what I'm searching for in any respects that I perceive, and to be honest, it leaves me completely cold. Yet whilst I'm puzzled by some people's reaction to him, I can't deny the sincerity of those people's reactions. There's of course fascinating literature on the question of people's reactions to music - I love William Benzon's 'Beethoven's Anvil', for example. Brains are also a difficult idea. As someone who used to play the organ, I'm familiar with - say - many Bach fugues. 'Brainy' music, for sure: and according to the norms of western classical music, unbelievably crafted. But work at a technique long and hard enough, and it *will* come; and in that light, simplicity looks like an extraordinary technical gift. Look no further than the unbelievable construction of a Monk composition.

Katan500: Sounds to me like the soul-brains dichotomy is also a stylistic attempt to classify -  if people are able to say so and so is 'soulful', whereas so and so is 'cerebral' interesting discourses start to emerge...

AH: Take a Bach fugue: for me, there's a genuine beauty, a soulfulness, in the realisation of form. For a similar reason, the Alhambra is beautiful; the design of the London Underground map is beautiful; game 6 (was it 6? I think so) of Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky is beautiful; etc. etc. It's in some ways his most austere stuff, but there is something really magical about the formal qualities of Bach's Musical Offering, the Art of Fugue, or the late canons, etc. I don't even think it's necessarily to do with someone transcending their formal constraints; it's less mystical than that for me: it's that it's a beautiful achievement for someone to be able to fulfil formal requirements in a creative way.

Katan500: Rules are cool...

AH: Rules do NOT make music less free, so long as you choose to adopt them, and feel completely free not to adopt them. Same goes for football: watch videos of Socrates, Eusebio, Zidane. Are they less free because they've agreed not to use their hands, and accepted that the ball going over a touchline will give possession back to the other team? There are interesting analogues to with discussions of instrumental technique versus soulfulness...but are they really anathema to each other? What about the amazing exuberance of late 60s Freddie Hubbard? I think part of the beauty of that is just hearing an ebullient personality enjoy how great they are a playing an instrument. Same with those 60s Rollins European trio performances; or those albums where Johnny Griffin will double time anything in sight. Historically too, the brains/soul discussion has taken some awkward turns. Anthony Braxton has written brilliantly about this. As an African-American musician, he was criticised for surrendering the 'soulful' which - it was clumsily assumed - 'should' have been his preserve to the 'cerebral', essentially through showing too much interest in composition and non-'jazz' music. It's not hard to see the racially loaded aspects of this line of thought. To bring it back to the question a little bit though... soul is extremely important to me, insofar as we're talking about music as a communicative enterprise. And brains are too, in that I often think extremely hard about what I'm trying to do, or how I'm trying to do it; and in that I'm interested in how different compositional strategies can be used to expand a musician's freedom to communicate/freedom of expression. I really believe that there is no necessary contradiction between the two ideas (without denying, for example, that fussy, over-thought music can easily hinder expression). And similarly, none of this is to deny something which I think is hugely important, which is the role of the unconscious, mistakes, and so on. Mistakes can be great - beautiful, and inspirational. Playing what you know is great, but playing what you didn't know you had is even better. Empirically speaking, as musicians we all occasionally realise that we've drifted into that amazing space where we're really not thinking at all, and 'just' playing. That really is magical.

katan500:  Your album All There, Ever Out was very well received, chosen as one of the Guardian's top five Jazz albums for 2012, do you think it will be a hard act to follow?

AH: In a sense, my answer has to be yes. I try to put everything, creatively, into making records. When I make an album as leader, I work as hard as I can to make it represent absolutely the best and most 'advanced' state of being of that ensemble at that time. So on that basis, it has to seem like a difficult act to follow at the time. However, I suppose the more you do these things, you realise that if you continue to work hard, the inspiration do come, and possible directions do appear. But if the question is touching on 'am I anxious?', then if I'm brutally honest, yes - I do care what people think, and I suppose I would be hurt in some way if people said 'this isn't as good as its predecessor', even if it would - sort of - be comparing apples with oranges!

Katan500: How do you think you have ‘matured’ since then?

AH: Goodness! I don't know...there are certainly things I've been thinking hard about. Economy is one. I want to be able to write and play fewer notes, and really to pare things down to structural essentials. It's not a fear of density - if everything creating a welter of sound is there for a reason, then no problem...Cecil Taylor's can be some of the most structurally economical stuff out there. But I get cross with myself, for example, when I *do* because I *can*. Listening to recordings from a few years ago, I can be horrified at the number of notes I'm spraying around. But when I think of the musicians who really touch me - Monk, Mal Waldron, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada - there's a magic and which comes from the SPACE and the focus. So I hope I'm moving in the right direction there. I'm also more and more concerned with the architecture of pieces. As a composer, I feel that it's relatively easy to focus on details, and the moment to moment linear progression of a piece, but I'm increasingly preoccupied with the overall 'map'. How does the overall shape work? What are the ways to allow structural flexibility and freedom, yet still create something with the overall coherence of, say, a sonata form, a theme and variations, or head-solos-head?


Alex Hawkins with Louis Moholo-Moholo 18 Nov 20.30
Alex Hawkins curates: 21 Nov  23.00 , 22 Nov 23.3023 Nov 23.30  
*Alex Hawkins photograph above courtesy of 'Edu Hawkins Music Photography'.