All About That Bass

I don’t know exactly when I first fell in love with the guitar.
I remember when I first wanted to be able to play music. I grew up in Ireland. My Irish dad came from a Protestant family but had never been particularly religious: his US Army dog tags gave his religion as ‘EPISCOPALIAN’, which for the early 60s US Army was by way of saying ‘[INSERT RELIGION HERE]’. Nevertheless, when I was a small boy he began to show signs of having faith, which was and still is a bit baffling to the rest of us, who didn’t. We used to go to church on Sundays and I was too shy to sing hymns, but I liked the predictable sound of the music, and I used to sit there working out what you could sing as well as the melody; what else would sound good, besides the boring old tune that everyone else was singing? I didn’t know it at the time, but my instinct was to harmonise.

Later, we would go round to my grandparents’ house for Sunday lunch and I would hear my grandpa’s Oscar Peterson LPs, and I liked the smoky, intimate, predictable-but-not-too-predictable sound of the music. I soon found out that that was called ‘jazz’, so I decided that I wanted to learn to play jazz. I liked the Beatles, but I couldn’t figure out how you played a guitar, so I expressed a wish to learn piano because I thought it’d be easier. The fact that we didn’t own a piano did not strike me as much of an obstacle.

So, when I was nine, we bought a piano from a family friend and schlepped it to our house. It got tuned, and I was sent off to have piano lessons with another family friend who was a professional piano teacher. I didn’t know at the time that my teacher loathed jazz. It was more that we couldn’t very well have me taught the basics of piano by anyone else, because she was the only person we knew who taught piano, and it would have been rude not to ask her to teach me.

My piano teacher’s daughter was one of my best friends from school, and she in turn was learning the guitar. I used to look at her big acoustic guitar on my way out from lessons, and wonder how you made a note with it. Compared to a piano, it looked ferociously complicated. But I soon found that learning piano didn’t agree with me. I realise now that if I had had a teacher who sympathised with my desire to be able to make stuff up on the piano, things might have been different. But my teacher was more about showing me how to sit and how to hold my wrists and how to play simplified versions of ‘Hall of the Mountain Kings’. I don’t blame her. She taught classical piano, not jazz; we just didn’t realise that, or my parents didn’t notice, or something, anyway, but she was never the right teacher for me to be the kind of musician that I might have become. She drilled into me the basics of scales and harmony, and after a few months of me being increasingly bored at never being taught how to improvise, I asked if I could stop.
The piano sat in our living room for a few more years and my mum figured out some tricky Scott Joplin pieces on it before we eventually got rid of it. In the meantime, I discovered rock.

I followed my brother’s taste. He liked Status Quo, to begin with; not the relatively tame Status Quo of the early 80s but the somewhat rougher Status Quo of the early 70s. I wasn’t all that taken with the songs, but I liked the sound of the records. I realise now that what I responded to was the coarse, blunt sound of twin overdriven Fender Telecasters.

At some point I started obsessing about guitars and their shapes and what they sounded like. Aged 14, I did a work placement in Eason’s newsagent in Dublin city centre and they rewarded me at the end of it with a £15 Eason’s voucher. I spent it on the first edition of Ralph Denyer’s The Guitar Handbook, still one of the most massively useful guitar tuition books you can get. It contained jewel-like pictures of some of the more famous guitars; scale diagrams; brief biogs of great players (it was where I first heard of Robert Fripp); information about setup, maintenance, and even basic electronics. I befriended the guys in my school that played instruments and quickly began to annoy them by not wanting to talk about anything else, whereas to almost all of of them it was something that they did for fun. By that point, I was listening to Cream, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker — musicians that, in early 80s Dublin, meant little or nothing in the mighty shadow cast by U2 and their clones.

I decided that I had to learn to play guitar. But then I made a fateful decision.

I reasoned that I had not shown any great talent as a pianist, and the only person who was encouraging me to play music was my mother, who did so not on the grounds that I had any talent, but on the grounds that I didn’t have many friends, and she (rightly, as it turned out) thought that this would be a good way of making some. I wanted to be a great guitarist, but there were already half a dozen guitarists in my school.

However, there were no bass players. 

If I learned bass, I thought, I would be in demand. Plus, only four strings. Two less to learn.

I had some money saved up, so one Saturday I went to Walton’s in Dun Laoghaire and bought an East German Musima knock-off of a Fender Precision, and a 10 watt East German bass amp called Sound City, no relation to the much more famous and better brand. I also bought a strap and a cord. But not, for some reason, a gig bag. I think I didn’t have enough money.

I took my black-and-white Musima home, plugged it in, and spent an hour or so figuring out where to put my fingers. Then I spent the rest of the weekend learning how to play the bass line for ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. By Monday my fingertips were raw and bleeding, but I could play it in such a way that my older brother could recognise it and give me an approving nod.
I started to listen to everything with an ear on the bass line. In so doing, I made one of the biggest ever leaps in my own musical education. I learned to appreciate the solid, laconic style of Phil Lynott; the ominous, dramatic style of Jack Bruce; the clipped, classic style of 60s Motown, which was then having a bit of a mid-80s revival. I bought Stanley Clarke’s School Days and marvelled at it; I got given Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Jaco Pastorius blew my mind.

Over time, my taste broadened, especially when I discovered Talking Heads and realised that everything didn’t have to be virtuosic. I first heard ‘Psycho Killer’ in the Stop Making Sense version, but when I heard the original I loved it all the more for Tina Weymouth’s fantastic, implacable bass line. 

But I was putting off the inevitable. I had to learn guitar. I had to learn to make the sound that had made me fall in love with rock music: the entire gamut from David Byrne’s weedy clang to Jimi Hendrix’s Cinemascope Armageddon. In 1987 I had saved up enough, and I went to Musician Inc in Dublin and paid out cash for a black and white Squier Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard.

By that point I had a respectable 30w Vox bass amp, but not enough money to get a guitar amp. I compensated by getting a ridiculously complicated Digitech programmable distortion pedal with two channels, one a fat valve-like overdrive, the other a screaming metal fuzz. That was my only effect, for years. It served for me. I learned about true valve distortion when I experimentally plugged my Strat into my parents’ Akai reel-to-reel tape recorder, a legacy of their shared professional past in TV production. I wasted my late teens in failing to study enough to earn decent places in university, preferring instead to learn how to imitate Adrian Belew. I named my guitar Kathy, after the American writer Kathy Acker, and when I would get frustrated at a plateau in my learning curve I would hack at it with a screwdriver, then covered up the scars with black duct tape. I dive-bombed so hard I snapped the tremolo arm; I used the screwdriver instead. I wore out picks so fast that I made my own metal ones, hammering out Irish 20p pieces on the concrete floor of my parent’s cellar and then filing them into a pick shape.

I sold my bass to a schoolfriend and wasn’t sorry to see it go. My bass-playing apprenticeship was behind me.
Over the years, I sold the Vox amp and somewhere or other I acquired another one – I forget what, now. I stopped playing for a few years in my early 20s, but I kept the Strat. In my mid-20s I took it up again, and soothed that I-need-a-new-guitar itch by buying an Epiphone LP 100 that I couldn’t quite afford. For a while, I loved the fact that I could sound like a low-rent Robert Fripp. But the Epi was fragile, and when one Christmas the flat below mine caught fire, I had to move all my stuff out and store it in the hallway of my flatmate’s boyfriend. He was a classical guitarist and he looked down on my lowly Japanese Les Paul copy. When I got it back, it was temperamental and I sold it to a friend who’d coveted it for years.

In the 2000s, I decided that I deserved a new guitar. I didn’t, but I had a bit more money. Influenced by the fact that Fred Frith in Massacre had played a Burns, and the fact that Musician Inc had some gnarly-looking Burnses in their shop, I got one. I told myself for some weeks that it was great and I loved it, but I didn’t. It was fiddly and it misbehaved and it sounded weedy. I went back to the shop and pointed out that it was less than perfect quality. Plus, by that point, I already had my eye on another guitar.

It was a display model, a black and white Standard Telecaster, Mexican-made, slightly grubby, slightly scuffed. It was about €600, more than I’d ever paid for an instrument. I’d never played a Tele, being in love with the elegant, eloquent Strat, but this thing was hanging there staring at me, defying me not to take it home, and I’d never owned a guitar with a really cool name on the headstock. I asked the shop if they’d part-exchange my almost-new Burns for this grubby Tele, and they said yes.
That was how I got my main guitar. I immediately had problems with it.

The strings on a Tele are noticeably further apart from each other than on a Strat or a Les Paul. You can no longer just place your right hand there and make gentle moves with your fingers. You have to play the damn thing. I was used to five pickup selection options; now I had three, and let’s be frank, the neck pickup on a Tele is more like a condiment for the other pickup, than a sound source in its own right.

Ah, but the bridge: that is the soul of the Tele, that resounding clang. Telecasters don’t have much natural sustain. They were designed for country music. But turn them up and give them some grit, and they are among the filthiest guitars. I reconnected with that shabby, seedy sound I knew from early 70s Quo albums. Then there was the fact that it worked equally well for Talking Heads (Jerry Harrison was the resident Tele player in that band) or early Zeppelin or Bill Frisell. A Telecaster produces one of the purest electric guitar sounds you will get; what you do with it, having obtained it, is entirely up to you.

I love my Tele. It’s called Marcos, after Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. It sits in my office on a stand, waiting to be picked up, which I do often. Of course, as time went by and I earned a bit more money, I wanted a completely different guitar. I ended up getting a lurid orange-red Ibanez AF-75D, a cheap but very well-made jazz box with pretensions as a rockabilly instrument; it’s faster than the Telecaster, although much bigger, and on it I managed to unlock such secrets of bebop as I’ve been able to get into my fingers. It was after doing this that I met my old piano teacher in my parents’ house, one day, at a party. I told her I’d been studying jazz.

She looked at me intently, paused, and said “Why?”

That was when I realised what had gone wrong with my piano lessons.

Which brings us to the present. I now live somewhere else, with a full-time day job and two kids aged nine and two, and I get to play from time to time with very much better and more experienced musicians than myself. I bring the Tele and my Digitech Whammy and an E-Bow, with which I can cover most of the registral and timbral ground that I want to cover.
And then, one day about six months ago, having time to kill which I don’t normally have, I wandered into Red Dog Music on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, just out of curiosity. And I saw, hanging on the wall among the basses, something I’d never expected to see.

Remember how, before I’d ever owned a guitar, I’d owned a book about guitars? That’s typical of me: I tend to read about experiences before I ever have them. In that book of cool guitars that I knew I’d never, ever get to own, there was one that had grabbed me.

Fender invented the bass guitar. It was the greatest single innovation they ever made, in that it was an entirely new instrument. There had been electric guitars before the Telecaster, and there had even been solid-body ones, but nobody had ever made a guitar that played an octave lower than a regular guitar until Fender brought out the Precision in 1951. They followed it up nine years later with its classier, slinkier, more versatile sister, the Jazz Bass.

Then, in 1962, they brought out the Fender VI, popularly known as the Bass VI. It was tuned like a bass guitar, an octave lower than a regular guitar, but it had six strings, was shaped like Fender’s ineffably cool Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, and had a slightly shorter neck than the Precision or Jazz. Denyer’s Guitar Handbook has a picture of one, with the withering comment ‘however, the Bass VI was never very popular and Fender discontinued it early in the 1970s.’

But I knew, even as a teenager, staring at that picture of a scuffed, sunburst, heavy-looking six-string monster, that I wanted one. A six-string bass? Hell yes! All the low end of a bass, but you could go higher! Plus it has a whammy bar! Jack Bruce played one in Cream! He then painted it in psychedelic colours and it never dried properly so he had to switch to another guitar, but still!

Of course, in 1984, it was all academic: I knew I’d never find one, or if I did find one, be able to afford one. I didn’t reckon on the marketability of nostalgia. By the early 2000s, Fender Japan was bringing out a replica VI and in 2013, Fender brought out two: a Fender model which was pointlessly messed-about-with, and a much cheaper Squier model which was essentially an Indonesia-made replica of the original instrument.

It was one of these Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI’s that I found hanging on the wall in Red Dog Music. I asked them if I could try it. The assistant enthusiastically took it down and plugged it in for me, and as soon as I started playing, I fell in love with an instrument in a way that I hadn’t done since I first picked up Eoin O’Brien’s Squier Strat in Sefton Lucas’s front room in 1986 and wanted one for myself.
It so happened that both my birthday and Christmas were on the far horizon. I suggested to my dear wife that the ever-present problem of what to get me for birthday/Christmas could be put aside, basically forever, if everyone in the family who wanted to get something chipped in some cash towards a Squier VI. She replied, basically: Of course, lovely, but you’re going to have to go and get it yourself, because we’ve all got more important things to do than mess around in guitar shops trying to figure out what the hell you’re talking about.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went back to the shop. I’d expected to have to order one, because their website said they were out of stock. I was surprised to find the exact model I wanted still hanging on the wall, probably the very one I’d tried out back in March. I tried it out, and while I was at it, I tried out many other basses, within the same price range, just to be sure: a Squier Jazz Bass, a fretless model of the same, a five-string Jazz Bass with a low B string.

None of them made the grade. Apart from anything else, it’s so long since my fingers had to handle regular bass guitar strings that I’ve lost the strength in my right hand needed to play one. I had a last fling on the VI, took it to the counter and paid for it. It is currently sitting in its box under my office desk, where it will remain until Christmas, screaming at me to take it out and plug it in. But for the sake of ceremony, I will leave it there until I officially get given it.

My late encounter with the VI has shown me something that I’d forgotten: that although I have learned to be able to operate a guitar to a certain extent, I still think like a bass player. I love the way that bass can change the way you hear other instruments. Bass players steer arrangements in a way that guitarists simply can’t. Also, the VI is an unusual instrument in that there is no definite agreement about what kind of instrument it is. It occupies a liminal space between guitar and bass: some people regard it as definitely a baritone guitar, albeit lower than normal, others as a bass with an unusually high range, but nobody seems to be willing to say that it’s definitely one or the other. Plug it into a bass amp, turn the treble down and the volume up, and it’s very much a bass. Plug it into a guitar amp, engage the so-called ‘strangle switch’ (one of the four switches on the guitar’s body, a high-pass filter) and it’s the twangy guitar from hell.

So that’s how I’ve come to fall back in love with bass playing. I’ve owned the thing for three weeks; I am honour-bound not to play it till Christmas. But I can’t wait. Except that I can, because honour, etc. Incidentally, apart from my lollipop-coloured Ibanez, the VI is the first guitar I’ve ever owned, and plan to keep owning, which isn’t black and white. Its colour scheme is, in fact, factory sunburst.

If you read this post hoping I was going to say something about the Meghan Trainor song: cute song, smart production, great sentiment, and I fully endorse and applaud the message decrying body-shaming. But it’s not a song that reveals more depth on repeated listening. I say this because my two-year-old son has an iPod and a dock ,and he sometimes puts that song on repeat. Bless you, Meghan Trainor. But I have heard your song plenty of times, now. Thank you.

All About That Bass

Scaruffi on jazz

In a follow-up to my already celebrated (heh) post on Piero Scaruffi, I decided to see what the great man had to say about jazz. This was prompted by his page on the Best jazz albums of the 1940s, which contains nothing by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Given that very few jazz albums were released in the 1940s, is this an unfair call? Well, no: even his Best jazz albums of the 1950s page doesn’t contain the two volumes of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music for Blue Note, and it only has two of the more than a dozen classic albums Monk made for Riverside, including Thelonious Monk meets John Coltrane, one of the greatest albums ever made. Nor does it contain Charlie Parker’s even more awesome The Charlie Parker Story, released posthumously in 1956 but consisting of the classic November 1945 session that yielded ‘Billie’s Bounce’, ‘Now’s the Time’, ‘Warming up a Riff’, ‘Meandering’, ‘Thriving from a Riff’ and ‘Ko-ko’, and therefore one of the motherlodes of bebop. Nor does it contain the foundational texts of Bud Powell’s entire legacy, the first two volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell.

So that’s not a good sign. But let’s start with the single most important figure in the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong.

I take Armstrong’s pre-eminence to be not a matter for debate, for reasons I went into in my earlier post. I see no reason to disagree with the likes of Gary Giddins, Whitney Balliett, Stanley Crouch (‘if there was one musician who most completely wrote the Declaration of Musical Independence, it was Armstrong’) and basically every other jazz critic ever, even if I’d dissent from Hugues Panassié, who thought that jazz after Armstrong wasn’t even jazz, let alone good jazz.

To be fair to Scaruffi, he clearly has some admiration for Armstrong. But he combines immense condescension with an amazing inability to understand anything at all about Armstrong’s music, such as why it’s both good and important, or even what it was.

Armstrong’s trumpet solos were majestic, phantasmagoric and full of drama.

Majestic, good God yes. Full of drama, sure. ‘Phantasmagoric’? The OED defines the word as ‘Of, relating to, resembling or reminiscent of a phantasmagoria’ — ‘phantasmagoria’ itself, in all its meanings, has strong connotations of being an illusion or deception. So Scaruffi, whether he knows it or not, is suggesting that there is something essentially illusory or deceptive about Armstrong’s improvising, as if he was playing at being something that he wasn’t. It’s fair to say, I think, that this is not something that has occurred to anyone else who’s written about Armstrong, ever.

His experience with blues singers had prompted him to develop a trumpet style that was a mirror image of human singing. His trumpet was literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing.

As misuses of the word ‘literally’ go, this can perhaps be put down to indifferent translation. But ‘literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing’ would be blues trumpet. Armstrong knew how to play blues, but he was a jazz musician, not a blues musician.

Armstrong had introduced a dose on [sic] individualism in jazz that was the antithesis of its original socialist principles.

Jazz had ‘original socialist principles’? I would like to chalk this one up to appalling translation and assume that he means ‘collectivist’ rather than socialist.

Armstrong applied a similar technique to his vocals, which did more than just popularize “scat” singing (wordless vocalizing): they invented a way to sing without singing. His singing often sounded like a conversation. Sometimes his vocals were so estranged from the music that it sounded like he didn’t know what song he was singing.

If Scaruffi is implying that Armstrong really didn’t know what song he was singing, that amounts to calling the father of jazz an imbecile. If he isn’t implying that, then he must mean that Armstrong sang songs with a total insensitivity to their semantic and emotional content, which amounts to calling Armstrong an incompetent singer. Louis Armstrong carried a dictionary around with him on tour, wrote obsessively, developed a highly distinctive and effective prose style, and is to my knowledge the only jazz musician whose Selected Writings have been published by Oxford University Press. I feel like any attempt to defend his singing style would be an insult to his memory, and I personally resent the fact that Piero Scaruffi has such a tin ear that he would not only think something like this, but feel that his idiotic opinion is worth sharing with the world, thereby forcing me to rebut it.

Armstrong became famous with his improvisations on covers of blues and pop standards. In many ways, he taught the whole jazz world how to improvise on a theme. At the same time, the charming and flamboyant player knew how to entertain an audience with the humblest of musical tools.

Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Let’s just run that sentence past us again. Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Louis fucking Armstrong?

But his contributions as a composer are rather dismal.

This is where we get to the heart of Scaruffi’s failure. He thinks that the greatest musicians in the world are composers, of some sort or another. You can tell as much from his list of the essential classical compositions: it’s so predictable, it could be a playlist for Classic FM. (His much longer list of classical masterpieces only looks like it makes sense; for example, he lists William Byrd’s “Motets”, as if that’s a work, but leaves out Byrd’s Masses, which are the pinnacle of Byrd’s music. The same list doesn’t contain a single Bach cantata, or any of Handel’s operas. This is the kind of thing you come up with when you get your information not from an encounter with the music, but from reading outdated encyclopedia articles about the music.)

The point is, you don’t have to be a great composer to be a great jazz musician. What you have to be is a great improviser, and Armstrong was the first great improviser. That’s how jazz works, and it’s what makes it different from most other kinds of music. Scaruffi doesn’t understand this. He seems to think that greatness in music has something to do with the ability to be a great composer. It doesn’t, but he never argues the point, so there’s no engaging with him on this.

He was more of a popular icon and entertainer than an auteur. This too influenced generations of jazz musicians who cared more for the marginal contribution of their delivery (for the “look and feel” of their music) than for the core contribution of their compositions.

This is going into crazy-land, now. It seems as if Scaruffi doesn’t realise that jazz musicians improvise — or if he does, he doesn’t consider it a very important fact about their music, when it’s only the whole point of jazz. Without improvisation, jazz is unthinkable, but Scaruffi appears to have little understanding of what improvisation even is, let alone how it forms the lifeblood of jazz. Without improvisation, there is no jazz.

With Armstrong jazz became more style than substance.

I’m tempted just to say ‘We are talking about Louis Armstrong here, right? Not Kenny G?’ It has been argued that with Armstrong, jazz achieved substance for the first time. This is unfair on his predecessors; but what’s certain is Scaruffi applying this particular cliche, in this particular context, is a new low in critical inanity. To say that ‘with Armstrong jazz became more style than substance’ is the kind of statement that scientists describe as not even wrong, in that it’s so utterly confused that it’s impossible to tell what the author was even trying to say. Since Scaruffi is supposed to be a scientist, you’d think he’d have radar for this kind of thing. I suspect that this has to do with his general worship of composers and his contempt for improvisation, which, as should be obvious by now, rules him out as a serious commentator on jazz.

His influence was enormous, but it is debatable what kind of influence it was. He was certainly instrumental in making jazz music acceptable by the white middle class, and in making it a worldwide phenomenon.

The first sentence is only half-true; you can tell that Scaruffi basically thinks that Armstrong was an Uncle Tom who made a few OK recordings and then laffed it up for the white folks, of whom (needless to say) he is himself one. You can also tell that Scaruffi thinks that the reach of Armstrong’s music is a sign of how bad it was, because Scaruffi believes in the ‘masses’, and he thinks that they’re stupid, or at any rate fatally deceived by the culture industry, and so nothing that lots of people like can be all that good. So if Armstrong helped make jazz ‘acceptable by the white middle class’ and a ‘worldwide phenomenon’, that’s bad, because the only good stuff is the stuff that isn’t a worldwide phenomenon and isn’t acceptable by the white middle class. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Scaruffi that Armstrong’s popularity might not have been a capitulation to something, but rather a seed of its opposite. But he seems to have got his cultural politics straight from the Adorno of Minima Moralia , swallowing it whole without bothering to compare it against his own experience. Then again, I have my doubts about the extent to which Scaruffi is capable of having experiences, which I’ll get to in a minute.

If you still think that Scaruffi has made even the most polite effort to take Armstrong seriously, consider that in his list of capsule biographies of jazz musicians, from which the above quotes are taken, his entry on the jazz-folk violinist Darol Anger is, in the original Italian, 1,676 words long. (Presumably nobody is interested enough in Darol Anger to translate the whole thing into English.) His entry on Armstrong, in its English version, is 917 words long. I have no doubt that Darol Anger — a very fine musician, but not a game-changer of Armstrong’s stature — would be mortified at this.

That Scaruffi isn’t mortified is not, as he and his fans think, evidence of his sturdy independence of mind. It’s evidence of pig-ignorance.

Reading Scaruffi on jazz made me wonder for the first time whether he actually listens to any of the music he writes about. I have started to believe that he doesn’t.

So, okay, how about a more radical musician. I give you Scaruffi on Charlie Parker.

Parker extended both the melodic and the rhythmic range of jazz music in a systematic way. His solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing. Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern. The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats. Parker was an oxymoron of sorts: the player of a melodic instrument who indirectly focused on rhythm. His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow. His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory. His playing did obey a meta-rule, though: emotion. Whatever he was doing with the saxophone, he was trying to secrete as much emotion as possible.

Okay, to show that I’m willing to be fair-minded, here’s a critic I normally can’t stand, Ian Penman, writing about Parker in the London Review of Books:

I love Parker’s music, but it’s not what I’d choose to smooth anyone into jazz appreciation. It can seem hard-shelled, intransigent. (The two words of true-believer praise that crop up most are ‘virtuosity’ and ‘velocity’.) If you did have to play devil’s advocate, the brief might go: for all his technical verve and power, Parker’s is a limited palette; his playing, while breathtaking, rarely admits softer moods or qualities – anything of drift, reflection, loss. The one time he instigated a more calmly interpretative project – 1950’s Bird with Strings – it was not an unqualified success. Parker’s impatient stiletto tone guts the delicate membrane of his chosen mainstream standards; it doesn’t sound as if he is interpreting these popular songs so much as assailing them, giving them a hard time to see if they pass muster.

I happen to disagree with Penman — you do wonder, from the above passage, what on earth about Parker’s music he can possibly “love”, given how much he appears to find it repellent — but at least I can see where he’s coming from. The thing is, Penman wants music to be about emotions like drift, reflection and loss and doesn’t really like music bursting with power, vitality and cheek. He thinks it’s ‘intransigent’, or in the case of Frank Zappa, annoying. The interesting thing is that Penman, who is a real critic even if he’s fatally addicted to romanticism and anecdote rather than truth and analysis, comes to the opposite conclusion from Scaruffi. Penman thinks that Parker is too aggressive and not emotional enough. Scaruffi thinks that Parker is Ben Webster.

Scaruffi saying that Parker’s ‘solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing’ is completely inexplicable. Even when I was first listening to Parker’s music aged 14, and knew nothing of jazz theory or the song forms that he was playing in, his solos clearly made sense to me. I could hear that he was steeped in blues but also knew a lot of advanced harmonic stuff, and if I didn’t understand that he was altering chords and playing chromatically, I sensed that it was possible to learn how this was done and apply it yourself. It wasn’t just random tooting, as Scaruffi seems to experience it.

‘Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern’ — again, what the hell? It’s called improvising. Unless, of course, Scaruffi is claiming that each of Parker’s solos is idiomatically distinct from all the others, which is demonstrably not the case. Criticism is supposed to make things clearer, but as usual, Scaruffi is muddying the water.

‘The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats.’

Scaruffi uses technical terminology the way my seven-year-old daughter uses big words she doesn’t really understand; she throws them in there with more hope than certainty, because she wants to sound more grown-up. In her, it’s cute and I love it. In a grown man pretending to have things to say about music, I find it embarrassing.

To clarify: Parker didn’t have the same rhythm section for his whole career but, like most bebop musicians, played with whoever was available at any given time. Therefore, his rhythm section was not always consistent; he didn’t always have brilliant Max Roach and immensely reliable Tommy Potter at his back, but sometimes had nobodies. Therefore, his rhythm section wasn’t always taking ‘detours’, whatever that means, which could emphasise the ‘polyrhythmic essence of his playing’. Moreover, Parker’s playing was not polyrhythmic. For polyrhythm to happen, you can’t be playing a monophonic instrument like a saxophone; you have to be an ensemble, and in any case, polyrhythm is all over jazz from its earliest recordings, but it’s a characteristic of an ensemble, not of a solo player. Parker sometimes played in a contrapuntal way, suggesting parallel melodic lines by switching back and forth between them, but that’s not the same thing. Parker’s rhythmic innovations, while real, are not described here with anything approaching accuracy.

‘His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow.’ Parker’s music was revolutionary not because it was ‘based on discontinuity’, which it wasn’t, but because he brought an unprecedented level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication into jazz.

Once again, and I say this as someone who considers himself on the political left, Scaruffi’s dunderheaded cultural politics are leading him by the nose, here. Scaruffi likes Parker; Scaruffi likes the idea of revolution; revolution is discontinuous; therefore Parker must be revolutionary in the same way. This is crap. You can read many, many testimonies to Parker’s influence on other musicians, but none of them liked him because they thought he was importing Trotskyism into music by other means. They liked him because he saw a way out of a stylistic dead end that jazz had got itself into. To other musicians, Parker stood for a kind of freedom, and you can make of that what you will, but to suggest that Parker’s music is some sort of direct analogue of, or substitute for, political revolution, is an insult to both music and the revolutionary impulse.

‘His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory.’ No it didn’t; not to the musicians it inspired, anyway. It sounded like that to the ‘moldy figs‘ who disliked it, but to musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Red Rodney and Thad Jones, it was the new thing that they knew was right and which they’d been waiting for without realising it. As Jones put it about both Gillespie and Parker, with remarkable generosity, ‘They spoke our minds.’

Scaruffi on John Coltrane is more problematic, in that I share his reverence for Coltrane, the only difference being that I know a little bit about what Coltrane was doing, whereas Scaruffi doesn’t:

Coltrane introduced elements of Indian philosophy (if not music) into jazz, as well as a much stronger and deeper spiritual dimension.

You don’t have to be Ravi Shankar to be able to hear the extent to which Coltrane introduced elements of Indian music into jazz. I would describe myself as someone with the most basic acquaintance of Indian classical music, in that I’ve (very) briefly studied it at college level. Nevertheless, even I can hear it. It’s blindingly obvious that Coltrane uses elements of Hindustani classical music in some of his improvisations; he starts using the additive technique of Hindustani music (playing short bits that you then repeat and add bits to) around the time of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings; this is also the time that Coltrane started using drones (‘India’ being the canonical example) and playing long pieces on just one chord, another example of the influence of Indian music on his own music. If Scaruffi is implying that Coltrane’s spirituality was ‘stronger and deeper’ than that of everybody in the Indian subcontinent who has any kind of spirituality whatsoever, well, that would be highly unfortunate. Not to mention yet another example of the extraordinary, casual racism that his hipster fans seem to be blind to.

Next, his thoughts — no, wait, not ‘thoughts’, the shit he has to say — about the jazz musician most beloved to me because he was the first one I obsessively listened to, Bud Powell.

Earl “Bud” Powell (1924) was the pianist who adapted the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano. He boldly disposed [sic] of the left hand striding and of Art Tatum’s baroque embellishments to coin an anti-virtuoso style that relied more on melodic invention and on subtle irregularities, while releasing an almost demonic energy.

Once more, not even wrong: Powell developed his style alongside Parker and Gillespie, he didn’t ‘adapt’ their style to the piano. He didn’t ‘dispose of’ stride piano, and you can hear Tatum all over his playing. If Tatum wasn’t about melodic invention, Tatum was nothing. As for Powell’s ‘anti-virtuoso style’ … well, here’s Bud Powell playing ‘Tea for Two’. You tell me if this isn’t virtuosic.

Thank me later.

His playing was apparently schizophrenic, but in reality Powell was “drumming” with his left hand while unleashing phrases at breakneck speed with the right hand.

Powell didn’t have schizophrenia. He had undoubted mental problems, but not that particular illness. Nor was he ‘drumming’ with his left hand but, at least when he was at his best, playing the chordal accompaniment to what his right hand was doing. As usual, Scaruffi – who thinks that every musician he likes basically reinvented music – overestimates the degree to which Powell was doing something for the first time, and praises him for things he wasn’t doing, meanwhile failing to praise him for what he was actually doing, namely extending and expanding on an existing tradition and building something new using older materials. There is already a blurry line between composition and improvisation, but Scaruffi’s prioritising of composition, and his lack of any respect for (or even elementary understanding of) improvisation, cripple his already limited capacity to understand jazz.

Elsewhere in Scaruffi’s jazz pages, I find little but obsessive discographising and inane bullshit about stuff he doesn’t understand. He is sometimes, very infrequently, accurate: he describes Lennie Tristano’s music as ‘frigid and lifeless’, and even those of us who (like him) actually enjoy Tristano’s rather clinical take on jazz must admit that this is true, but even then he’s absurdly inconsistent: if he thinks Tristano’s music is so frigid and lifeless, how come he calls Tristano’s Crosscurrents album the best jazz album of the 1940s? A decade in which, as we’ve seen, bebop erupted and Ellington was at the peak of his powers. In his list of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Crosscurrents is No. 14, ahead of Bitches Brew, Brilliant Corners, Free Jazz, Mingus Ah Um, Saxophone Colossus, Giant Steps, Pithecanthropus Erectus and Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come. That should tell you something about the quality of his ear. If it doesn’t, it should tell you something about the quality of your ear.

I love Cecil Taylor at least as much as Scaruffi thinks he loves Cecil Taylor, but the statement ‘His fusion of exuberance and atonality was particularly influential’ is ridiculous; few great jazz musicians have been less influential, because hardly anyone has the nerve to be influence by Cecil Taylor.

Finally, in his biography of the greatest composer in the history of jazz, where you’d expect him to finally give nothing but unrestrained praise, he still manages to make Duke Ellington look like a failure: in writing about Ellington’s last albums, he says ‘He was trying to give a more organic structure to his genius.’ As if Ellington had not already proven his supremacy over and over again.

I am now done with Scaruffi, having proven to my own satisfaction that even if he does listen to the music that he writes about, which I personally doubt, he certainly hasn’t heard it, and if he has heard it, he hasn’t understood it. Comments on this article will be moderated, by which I mean, if you just want to see yourself calling me a dick in public, you will be disappointed.

Scaruffi on jazz

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

I was browsing YouTube the other night, wondering as usual whether the guitars I own are adequate or if I’d be better off with another one, when I decided to look for reviews of a particular instrument: the Epiphone Broadway.

The Broadway was introduced in 1931 as an unamplified f-hole archtop suitable for big bands, and it was the go-to guitar for many a mid-20th-century session man. At some point it acquired pickups but it’s never lost its bigness; I once saw one in a Dublin shop and didn’t have the nerve to ask for a tryout, probably because it was priced at about €800, well beyond my reach. (I was in the market for an f-hole archtop and ended up getting a far more affordable Ibanez AF75, although mine is the rather uglier orange-hued AF75D, not the sunburst beauty as seen in the link.)

Well, among the many reviews of the Broadway on YouTube was this one:

— in which a Broadway is played with great gusto through some serious distortion effects, and not with the sort of smooth, muffled, warm, clean tone normally considered appropriate for such a venerable jazz box. Of the comments on the video, which are not many, the majority are in an appalled tone, as if the player had taken a shit on the instrument:

This is no way to play an Epiphone Broadway.

*facepalm* Dude.. its a Hollowbody, designed for blues / jazz, and here you are with rock licks and distortion? you might as well demo a frickin les paul! -.-‘

Weirdly, the other two comments about how you shouldn’t do this to a Broadway, goddammit, are from the player himself:

You are right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

Appreciate it. We do so many videos, we get lost sometimes on which sounds to use. You’re right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

The only other comments, in which someone says that they liked the video because ‘[t]here are a couple dozen of everyone doing the typical jazz licks and that’s fine but why have so many videos showing the same thing?’ and someone else agrees with him, are alone. I’m the person who agreed, for what it’s worth.

Jazz used to think of itself as, in Whitney Balliett‘s fine phrase, ‘the sound of surprise’. It’s always been a contested music, with nobody being able to agree about where the frontier is; Charlie Parker used to be accused of having anti-jazz instincts, but as someone who has ‘Donna Lee‘ as his ringtone, I can confirm that Charlie Parker bursting into a crowded 21st century office sounds more like Louis Armstrong than like the avant-garde. (Of course, Louis Armstrong was once the avant-garde, but that’s another story.) Jazz guitar in particular has been a pretty sorry field for most of its history, with the early innovations of Charlie Christian soon becoming boringly canonical; it could be argued that jazz guitar didn’t really loosen up until you had a generation of guitarists coming of age who’d grown up listening to punk, or alternative rock. It’s depressing to see social pressure being applied to the way you play an instrument; the instrument itself doesn’t care how it’s played.

It’s true that you couldn’t take a Broadway onto a rock stage and turn it up to 11. Its large, hollow body would vibrate and it would feed back uncontrollably. But if you have ever wondered why jazz, which was once the most exciting music on the planet, can sometimes sound so boring, now you know.

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

Concert, Inverleith House, 18/01/2015

I played a concert today at Inverleith House in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden — well, it was more of an improv session, really, organised by the immensely charming Yati Durant of the Edinburgh Film Music Orchestra and a very, very fine musician, with Margaret Christie on double bass (Margaret is a freelance publishing professional in her day job and is always open to a bit of improv) and Nicola Baroni on cello — Nicola and Margaret I knew from Edimpro rehearsals, but I’d not played a concert with Nicola before, and had little idea of what he was capable of.

It was to mark the end of the Tony Conrad exhibition in the gallery. Yati, Margaret, Richard Worth and I had played an earlier concert in November last year, around the beginning of the exhibition. The November concert had been really fun, so I was looking forward to this one.

Well, it was if anything more fun, with Nicola playing the hell out of his cello and an amplified park bench that happened to hanging there as part of the show. Being the only amplified musician there, I had to be careful about dynamics; note to fellow players of single-coil guitars, when you’re playing with unamplified acoustic musicians, keep a hand on that pickup volume knob if you want there to be such a thing as actual silence. At one point Yati’s small daughter joined in, sitting on her mother’s lap and sawing at the park bench with a violin bow, and then she and her mum began a bit of vocalising and we got into a bit of call-and-response. I used my trusty EBow a lot (damn, I love that thing) and in general my gear behaved itself, but as usual I got a bit frustrated with my rather old Zoom G2.1u and its annoying reluctance to go to bypass unless you hit both footswitches at the exact same instant.

Having said that about silence, amp hum can be fun; there was a young woman present, a friend of Yati’s, I think, and he gave her a small pocket-sized analog synth to play, which made some interesting swirly noises that I thought were coming from my own gear until I realised she was making them. One of the patches on the Zoom has a ring modulator setting which creates insane amounts of swirly amp hum, and if you bonk the guitar it makes for a hum that you can actually tune, by twirling the gain knob on the Zoom. So that prompted a brief, impromptu duet.

When you play improvised music you can’t always tell for sure if the audience is really liking it or just being polite. But at 2.30pm we’d been playing for ninety minutes straight, and we took a break. That was when Yati’s little girl began doing her thing with the park bench. A middle-aged couple (what am I talking about? I’m ‘middle-aged’) had appeared beside me and the woman whispered to me “Are you going to play some more?” I said I wasn’t sure, but that we were booked until 3pm. She asked Yati the same question and gradually we started to join in with Yati’s small daughter, which developed into one of the more eventful improvisations of the day.

Gear I brought: Fender Telecaster, Roland MicroCube, Zoom G2.1u, Boss RC-30 Loop Station

Gear notes: I didn’t use the RC-30 much until the very end, when we were tailing off and I was feeling a bit burned out; I’d randomly recorded a few seconds of guitar earlier in the afternoon and I played the loop a bit while Yati and Nicola were banging the hell out of that park bench. The Zoom, for all its versatility, is getting increasingly annoying to me (noisy, fucks with my already questionable tone, hard to turn off) and I may have to retire it. The MicroCube is a great practice amp but faced with players like Yati, Nicola and Margaret, with the lovely tone coming from their brass and strings, I’m starting to dislike the MicroCube’s digital-sounding tone. It would be nice to sound a bit cleaner and more valve-y. Next time, different pedals; I really only use the Zoom for its pitch-shifting capability, and that will shortly be rectified. Maybe I need to sell the MicroCube and start relying on house amps.

Music notes: With such a spread of different types of player, this was a less jazzy session than the November one. Nicola and Yati had a great sense of humour and mutual rapport; sometimes I just stopped playing and watched Nicola because he was so intense with that cello, while still being entirely musical. Yati being on trumpet and (I think) flugelhorn, there was unavoidably a jazz flavour about some of his playing, which I liked very much; it’s just what the sound of the instrument does, but he’s such a good player that you’re kept on your toes and you don’t want to slack. Margaret and I not being full-time musicians, I think we both tend to wait and see what the others are doing and respond to it, but I don’t like to always find myself doing that. Sometimes it’s good to drop a bomb. As long as it’s the right bomb.

Damn, I love improvising. The latecoming couple whose arrival prompted us to play an extra 40 minutes were so sweet afterwards. It was like going to see improvised music in Inverleith House was their Sunday treat.

Concert, Inverleith House, 18/01/2015