Um… Kenny Garrett

I spend quite a bit of time on YouTube these days. In fact it’s become my default way of accessing music when I’m in the office. I feel a bit guilty about this actually, because I still love the tactility of physical formats, even CDs, for all the negative things people say about them. But, say what you will, YouTube is brilliant for finding new things. Most of the time I don’t look for albums but for musicians, and sometimes I’ll just spend quite a while watching as much of one musician as I can find. Not anyone of course, but someone I’m ‘checking out’.

Recently, I happened upon some old footage of Kenny Garrett playing with Miles Davis. I was actually revising a book chapter I was writing and had to check the YouTube link was still live. I spent quite a bit of time in the late 80s listening to Davis, and especially the album Amandla, one of those slick Marcus Miller productions. Garrett is on it, and actually, on listening to it back, I think he sticks out a mile, simply because even if the production can tend to be very generic 80s gloss, he just sounds simultaneously perfectly idiomatic, but also completely original. That’s probably a paradox.

Going back to it now, part of what I love about listening to him play with Davis is how well he gets around those repetitive vamps and simple chords. 80s era Davis can tend to be, well, a bit limited harmonically, if that’s your thing. Davis can also tend to sound a little bit ‘sing song’ like, to me anyway. (That’s probably ridiculously unfair. Perhaps it’s just my memory of it). That’s not to deny his brilliance, but just to say that he was happy to almost be almost entirely diatonic in what he played. Garrett on the other hand…..

This clip, which is the one I happened on, is from the concert in Paris, which was a celebration of Davis’s life. Garrett’s solo on ‘Human Nature’ is a thing to behold. He does the whole familiar rocking out routine by the end, but for the most part he’s just sitting on a single chord. But nothing, nothing, sounds like a cliche to me. And some of the notes he puts in there really shouldn’t work, but they do. And of course, there’s some amazing dynamics. You know where he’s going to go, but he takes his time getting there.

Guilty pleasure? Maybe. But next I’m going to go revisit Garrett’s great album Songbook.



Wheeler, Voicings, and Sweet Time Suite

Over the last year or so I’ve been spending a bit of time with Kenny Wheeler’s music, especially the Sweet Time Suite (recorded on the great Music for Large and Small Ensembles album on ECM, from 1990). Wheeler had a distinct harmonic language – that much is clear just from looking at his music or trying to play it. You quickly realise that every chord has to be voiced a certain way to make it work, more so with his harmonies than certainly most of the standard post-bop language. For example, I was working on ‘Freddy C’ yesterday from the final part of the suite. One of the online transcriptions of that tune that exists has the main part of the tune as built largely around Bb6/9#11. I stress that’s just the transcription, not necessarily how Wheeler wrote the chord. That looks pretty similar to a Bb13#11 if you look at it, but without the b7 of course. But in this case there’s a #7 in the melody.

The thing I found was that voicing Bb6/9#11 on the piano just didn’t seem to work. Most of the colours seem right, but the sound just isn’t there.

(NB, you can hear the tune below, but the bit in question starts at 2’42”.

All of this highlights how in this kind of harmonic language, often these standard chord notations are stretched to describe harmonies. And that certainly with this music, to get that very particular sound, there’s just one voicing that will really ‘work’, everything else doesn’t quite get there. So today I’m going back to the piano to see if I can find a voicing that makes sense, to get the sound that I can here is there.

Meanwhile, to get an idea of just why Wheeler’s music is so important, read this great piece from Darcy James Argue. I still remember the first time I heard the opening of Sweet Time Suite, and it’s a simply gorgeous piece of writing.

Corea and the blues

I’m trying to keep to a goal of publishing something once a week. And this week in a few spare minutes I had I took a look at some Chick Corea solos. Truth be told, I’ve never really studied Corea’s playing in huge detail, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because there was just too many others things to occupy my attention. Various things recently (not least the fact I’m supervising a PhD that is in part about Corea) have made me think I need to spend a lot more time looking at what he does.
There are some great things out there on the web, not least about his great solo on the composition ‘Matrix’ from the Now He Sings LP. There are quite a few transcriptions about different kinds of analyses. For example, in this video there’s an attempt to annotate what harmony he’s implying over the 12 bar structure. I’m not actually sure I agree with all of this, but what does come through is just how inventive and really melodic this playing is. I love the way he will sequence four note patterns in a way that just falls really nicely under the fingers. And of course he’s not thinking about these substitutions, they’re just coming out fluently.


I don’t get to do many gigs these days. But when I do I inevitably come back with a long list of ‘must practice’ things. After a recent gig, one of them was the great standard ‘Tea for Two’, which for some reason I’ve never got around to really working on. So, after a bit of lunchtime listening, I happened across two versions I really love. Naturally of course, I end up checking out piano players more than anything. So first of all, here’s a duet in Ben Wendel’s series Standards with Friends, featuring Larry Goldings on organ. I love the voicings that make it sound so modern even though all the changes are pretty much as you’d expect. There’s so many ideas though…

Second is this recording of Yotam Silberstein with Aaron Goldberg. I’m a huge Aaron Goldberg fan so will go straight to anything he plays on basically. As ever he swings so hard on this, and there’s also a great melodicism that comes straight out of a Wynton Kelly kind of style, or at least that’s how I hear it. And I yes, I know there’s an Art Tatum version out there, but that’s just a bit too scary….

New book

I’m very happy to announce that the book I’ve been working on with colleagues Bjorn Heile and Jenny Doctor has just been published by Oxford University Press. Watching Jazz was, in large part, the result of an AHRC grant we received to work on the use of Audiovisual Resources in Jazz studies. This book brings together essays by leading scholars in the field. It was a project which took some years to come to fruition, but we’re all hugely pleased with the results.

Article on improvisation

I’ve just published online a new article entitled ‘Re-imagining Improvisation: Listening, Discourse and Aesthetics’. This article began life as a number of conference presentations, probably most notably a paper at last year’s Perspectives on Musical Improvisation conference in Oxford. After that conference I decided that it really was time I wrote turned this paper into an article, not least because there are so many other projects I’ve got on at the moment, that it seemed best to get this into a concrete form and move on.

Publishing this online is also because there’s an increasing (and welcome) trend for academics to ensure that their work is widely available. That’s why (potential) readers will also be able to download this from my page on Research Gate and shortly. There are also some colleagues in my field around the country who have provided a great example. I should mention Elizabeth Eva Leach at Oxford, whose page here demonstrates how musicologists (and academics more generally) can use online resources as a really effective way of distributing what they do to the outside world, and encourage others to do the same and engage in online (and offline) discussions. I should also mention Dan Leech-Wilkinson, whose online book The Changing Sound of Music provides an exemplary demonstration not only of why we should be publishing online, but how to do it.

So, please do have a look at my offering, and I’d welcome comments by email or Twitter.

Reviews, reviews, reviews…

Well, only two of them actually. It’s a interesting experience reading reviews of your published work that aren’t by anonymous referees, as is normally the case in academia. And when you’re publishing on a subject like a famous record by Keith Jarrett, then it turns out that reading what the jazz press think is an interesting exercise. They’re both nice positive reviews, but I suppose like most authors, I’m naturally drawn to what else they think I should have done.

The New York Jazz Record thinks that I tend to ‘over-philosophize’. Which I take as a compliment actually, because most of my academic peers think that I tend to avoid wordiness in favour of clarity. So perhaps I do spend quite a bit of time in the book thinking about what certain aspects of the record say about certain issues (liveness, improvisation, and so on), but I think I’d rather do that than just spend my time doing nothing but analysis, or telling a story.

The Jazz Journal, meanwhile, thinks that I’m fine when talking about the music, but they’re not so sure I explain why that particular record should be the one everyone owns. I think I disagree actually, but then they say that part of the problem is that The Koln Concert isn’t really a jazz record at all. But in saying that they’re making my point for me. Jazz studies, by and large, doesn’t have frameworks to deal with records when they become something beyond that enjoyed by a relatively select audience. In fact, we don’t really have even so much work in musicology on that (the exception I’d make is Tia DeNora’s work).  So perhaps I’m writing about The Koln Concert as a jazz scholar, looking out and trying to understand the idea of a jazz record that isn’t a jazz record. But I hope not really. The whole point of understanding The Koln Concert is that it has become something that jazz records don’t (and shouldn’t?) normally become. The result is that it allows us to reflect on the preconceptions we bring to the utility and function of recorded music.

Goodbye Ubuntu, hello Mint.

So, recently I left Ubuntu and moved over to Linux Mint as my main linux distro. Why? Well, I’d spent quite a while getting thoroughly frustrated by the bloat in Ubuntu I could never removed. I’m not a Unity fan, but all those Unity libraries that were on the system while I was running Cinnamon as my WM were getting in the way. And removing them was, while possible, not straightforward. And then I read the recent article in Linux format about the future of Ubuntu, and really didn’t like what I saw at all. So Mint made a lot of sense – it runs the desktop environment I’m happiest with, I don’t have to spend ages trying to get rid of things I don’t want, and it seems generally pretty stable. Let’s see how things develop.