mat martin | Writing
Sketches, ideas, field recordings, demos and other such nonsenses are collected here, and can be filtered or searched below. Field recordings are often made while someone else takes a picture, and in those cases end with the shutter click.
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I’ve come up against the idea that Jazz is a thing not to like more often that I would have guessed I would.
It had never really occurred to me as an option to rule it out before people started telling me “yeah, I really have a problem with Jazz”. I grew up listening to a few bits in my folks’ record collection, which wasn’t extensive given how much my dad loved music. There was some early Jazz in there though: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, a few choice cuts from an early New Orleans form. There was a Billie Holiday record too. I guess I didn’t think of them as a certain type of record. Significantly, I definitely didn’t think of them as the same type of record.
I’ve always listened to music people would call Jazz, which includes a great deal of different music to my ear. My tastes have evolved (a bit, but probably not as much as they might have) over the years, but never to the point at which something I’m spinning wouldn’t fall into that bracket according to a decent number of people, which I guess is the point: Saying I didn’t like Jazz would feel to me as meaningless and self-defeating as saying I didn’t like food. To dismiss it would wipe out the possibility of engaging with a huge swathe of something, so as an entrenched position it seems to represent a significant impoverishment for little gain in return. And I’d be hungry.
I don’t think I have fully understood what that gain is yet. Trying to talk about the idea with people once they have expressed a dislike is hard to do without appearing to challenge the opinion they are entitled to, and that can understandably make folk defensive. I guess if I’m honest though, I do want to challenge it a little bit. I’m worried they are throwing a lot out at once. Perhaps one of the pay-offs is precisely that ability to make such a bold statement. To stand in a clearly defined camp and say “that’s not for me” can feel good, especially when it feels like a decent, tried and tested fallback position, like sneering at Bono or eschewing a high street coffee chain (both of which I have been guilty of). It helps us feel like we know something.
So here’s my bold statement: I like Jazz. Apparently it’s not hip (not unlike using the word hip) and people seem to be challenged by it, but I do.
Jazz runs deep through almost all the Western music we now know and which continues to shape our lives and ideas on a daily basis. Evolving alongside Blues music from the African culture which became increasingly present in the USA as a result of trading in slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries – and being suppressed as a result – it could be argued to be a genre more political than stylistic in origin. Certainly its angular rhythms and unfamiliar cultural roots made it a dangerous and challenging form even in its rawest state, and it’s possible that as a form it will always be regarded with suspicion by its adoptive cultures. But the musical culture of Jazz has always seemed to me one of vernacular learning and instinctive performance driven by a conscience which extends beyond music: it has at its core a spontaneity which is rarely matched in other forms of Western music, and it could be argued that this defines it more than instrumentation or style.
Its political culture is strong in voice, too. Long the music of the oppressed, the various forms which fall into the category of the genre have been often been about breaking things, be they new ground or old rules. Much of the significant evolution of Western music as a whole in the 20th century can be traced to Jazz over classical forms, a significant change from previous centuries of music history. Composers and performers of contemporary classical music (which blurs lines so much with the free improvisational forms so present in modern Jazz) lean towards the unknown through formal procedures such as aleatoric generation of values or open scoring to create a music which has some of the vitality of the late Jazz forms pioneered by the likes of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy. The voice and energy of the underdog and of the searcher are strong in so many of the great Jazz musicians that the political and social element of the form remains so deeply embedded in the music as to be inextricable from it, a phenomenon which has perhaps only been recently equalled in Hip Hop culture.
But this is where it is possible to imagine a fork in the road, not so much in the evolution of a musical culture but in the perception of what that culture represents. My sense of the political, vernacular and instinctive core of Jazz is far from universal: For me, if your noises dig deep from a rich and varied cultural history and you push them out with a consciousness of their significance for people like you, you’re probably playing music which could be described as Jazz. It’s dangerous to speak for others but I suspect that for some you’re only really jazzing if you’re playing long solos in complex time signatures to people who for some reason can’t leave their chins alone. In the latter case, you’ve most likely undergone intense musical training and are theoretically and technically so accomplished that to play less, or less challenging, material is simply boring to you. Of course, if that’s the Jazz people don’t like, then they can usually colour me on board.
The difference I see in the ways in which Jazz can be defined or understood lie somewhere in this complex notion of whether it is a question of what something is or rather a question surrounding why it is. I have certainly had similar conversations about musical genres which are far less broad – Punk being an excellent example of that. Put another way, it may be possible to define Jazz in terms of either attitude or style and come up with some quite different results.
Even when dismissing Jazz only in terms of style we are dealing with a very broad spectrum, although I suspect many people when thinking of Jazz as an enjoyable thing to dislike are imagining a saxophone- or trumpet-led frenetic and intellectual type of impenetrable chamber music. To pretend that the stereotype doesn’t exist would be naive. This music is certainly extant, and I probably like some of it, although I would be the first to admit that the more music relies on technique and intellect at its core the more intimidating it can be to the untrained ear, and a certain amount of defensiveness must arise from any resultant feeling that one is supposed to understand something about it and has somehow failed if not. But who gets to confirm whether any reading of a piece of music is ‘correct’ or not, and does it make sense to consider that the purpose of music is to be ‘understood’ anyway? To me it mostly doesn’t, unless we assume artists are interested in creating an exclusive club which inflates its tiny memberships’ sense of superiority by giving it a sense of intellect which can at best only be based on subjective measures. That seems like an arduous and thankless task given how hard it is for artists to reach an audience in any case.
My own feeling on this – that great art works on several levels most of the time – is hardly groundbreaking. It may be possible to analyse and understand what is being done in a piece of music, and of course there is an enormous amount to be gained from doing so when one chooses to, but fundamentally if the music in question relies on this then it usually isn’t for me: Surely, the subjectivity of any art form is vital to its artistry. I also have very little time for music which exists to please or validate its executor rather than its listener, although I should add that I make no case for the dumbing down of technique or intellect in art on principle. The sheer abstract qualities of any piece of art must surely at the very least be satisfying or intriguing enough to invite further investigation from a third party regardless of the intellectual arguments which can or cannot be made for its existence. One must want to move towards something even if one doesn’t already understand its vocabulary. Look at our perpetual fascination with birdsong.
That said, when the spectrum also comfortably encompasses Armstrong and Fitzgerald or Django Reinhardt it’s hard to argue that the style is by definition either difficult and alienating or homogenous enough to make a single judgement about. This without considering the blurred lines between Jazz and almost all modern forms of music including Hip Hop, Reggae, Soul, R&B, Rock n Roll, Swing and a multitude of other elements which form the DNA of a very modern listening experience. To dismiss Jazz as a whole must be to draw a line in the sand beyond which taste will not venture, and to condemn Joni Mitchell to spend eternity tightrope-walking its length like an introspective Canadian Sisyphus (a fate from which the breadth and artistry of her output should surely save her).
But this is the point – the sheer variety of artistic visions, sounds and approaches, and the number of “non-Jazz” artists who have taken the form on in their work – be they classical musicians like Stravinsky or Gershwin, songwriters like Mitchell or Pop behemoths like Bowie or Radiohead – surely preclude us from forming a single reactive opinion which dismisses well over a century of music history in a single blow, and holding it so widely. I don’t doubt that whatever someone is thinking of when they say they don’t like Jazz is something they genuinely don’t like and that that is a considered opinion – I also wonder what it is they are thinking about, and how precisely it would line up with what the person next to them calls Jazz and doesn’t like.
I was in a rehearsal recently during which a friend was trying to play a line in exactly the way I was playing it. His playing was great, but we didn’t sound like one another. His natural inclination was to articulate the phrases and transitions differently, and to place the stress in different spots. His final comment came: “I just don’t have any of the same instincts as you”.
In these moments in which I’m invited to wonder why I make the noises I do and no others I tend to think of the players I’ve listened to most and make an effort to blame them for my choices, so I casually suggested he perhaps hadn’t spent as much time as me listening to Mark Knopfler during his formative years.
His proud reaction was to assure me that his youth had been far too mis-spent to listen to uncool music. I quietly wondered whether mine hadn’t, by his own definition, been more mis-spent than his by my doing just that.
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Two nights ago I played a show in Dachau with Kirsty McGee. Above the door of the café was a wooden crocodile on wheels. I was amused by its expression, and this broke the ice between us and the café owner, who later introduced us to a large man with a moustache. He also had with him some binocular spectacles, which of course we took turns to try on.
The conversation turned to lake swimming – a popular pursuit on a warm day in Bavaria. The man said ‘of course, there is a crocodile in the lake here – people are nervous to swim here now.’ We looked at him askance. I laughed out loud. He fixed me with a warm, beady eye as if to say ‘this is true, you know’. What he actually said was, ‘yes, his name is Emil’. This made our host laugh in turn: ‘Yes, Emil! What an old fashioned name for a crocodile!’. This was of course my principal concern with the story so far, too. Who would call a crocodile Emil at this point in the history of dangerous reptile distribution?
The moustached man continued: ‘Yes, he was my crocodile – we were friends and I used to take him swimming with me in the lake. He was not too long then and he never bit anyone’. I considered asking if he had wheels like the one above the door. ‘But one day he went down and didn’t come back up again. I had to give up and go home alone.’ The note in his voice made me think that he perhaps was for real with this crocodile story. A man with binocular specs who would keep a crocodile as a pet in Germany was, after all, perhaps to be expected to take it swimming on a warm day. It’s what crocodiles do.
‘Of course, no-one knows how long a crocodile lives for round here,’ said the man. Maybe he is still under there. I guess it is a bit cold once you get down to a certain depth. Maybe his body shut down and he went into a kind of hibernation.’
Apparently no-one has been bitten by Emil, but he is a local celebrity, and people keep reporting sightings from the lake, like those that come up from time to time around Loch Ness. I’m not sure what he eats, but then if he is asleep maybe that’s okay. Of course, I might have eventually bought into some nonsense. I did feel like going to the lake though, just in case.
the weight of the
(december) drenched, yet
able to fly
A (sort of) haiku from my notebook, dated 01/12/2005. I remember writing it in my head whilst driving in the rain. And holding onto it until I reached a pen.
A while back when Kirsty McGee’s ‘No.5’ album came out, we were asked to edit content for the Sprial Earth website. I saw it as an opportunity to talk about a wide spectrum of musics, and we immediately talked about bringing in musicians we knew and liked to help us generate a selection of articles. These became as much about idea and inspiration as they were about the work any of these musicians create. We had a lot of fun getting songwriters to interview each other and asking musicians with a focus on an idea or style to try and define that through top ten lists.
I set myself at the time the task of putting together a list of our top ten of hobos, partly as an excuse to define the term for our own use, and drawing on examples of artists across genres to make a point about the attitudes and approaches they all have in common. I talked to several friends about the idea while I was putting together the list, and then someone said to me ‘what about Moondog? Why haven’t you mentioned him yet?’
These two activites overlapped for me almost a year later as we paid a visit to some members of a favourite Manchester band, Caulbearers, last night and I got talking with their main songwriter Damien about Moondog (Damien conducted an in-depth interview with Kirsty for the Spiral Earth feature back in 2010).
I hadn’t heard Moondog’s music before I put that list together, but I did some research and awarded him a place with no trouble at all. Quite apart from genuinely being a hobo, his music seemed to embody that fantastic raw and almost naive energy that so excites me in a lot of the beat generation’s output – this was a large feature of our top ten article.
I have since spent a lot more time with Moondog’s music, having bought two beautiful pressings on heavy vinyl from the honest jon label, and it has stood up to repeated listens. There is something about the way in which it sits back and lets its own nature take over that seems comfortable and groovy about the tunes. You soon don’t even think about the odd time signatures or the strange noises, because the communication of idea and the nature of the sound is so clear. There is no doubt about the composer’s idea or interest, that we are listening to his experiment in sonic behaviours, as if he just wound up the idea and put it on the table, then sat back to see which direction it spun off in.
Of course this is how it could be all the time, but so often music ‘does clever things’ and seems to consider that point enough, or worse – bends the nature of a work of art to fit an arbitrary concept. I am always humbled and excited by art that just quietly gets on with its job, with little regard for whether anyone has done it before or who will find it impressive, but with the utmost respect for the natural behaviour of the medium. There is something bigger out there than the glory of the individual artist I guess, and those people who are out there looking for that are the ones that usually break my heart somehow. Accompaniment is a truly wonderful thing.
So I wonder if one could write music to accompany something that wasn’t there? An accompaniment to an imaginary line, perhaps, or to a line that was drawn or written in text? Or perhaps an accompaniment to something of a different nature to music? I was struck recently by a performance in which a dancer has chosen to work to spoken text instead of music. I immediately stopped seeking the connection between what I was seeing and what I was hearing, and took the whole at face value. The preconceptions of internal organisation in art had somehow, or at some level, been bypassed, and I found myself reacting to something bigger than the dancer, the text or myself. it was quite beautiful.
I have been listening to John Lurie. A lot. I bought a record of some of his film music whilst on tour in Hamburg last year and haven’t been able to get it out from under my skin. It led me to The Lounge Lizards, to his alter-ego Marvin Pontiac (the insane African-Jewish musician), and to his altogether seminal and quite charming tv series Fishing with John. All of these things have pleased me greatly.
They have also led me back towards Marc Ribot, and out towards Arto Lindsay (the latter must without doubt be the international authority on how to make scratchy noises owith an electric guitar). Of course I was already sold on Jim Jarmusch’s movies. In all of these things there is a bravery of movement tempered with an ability to hold the tongue which I continue to find nothing short of inspiring.
The whole scene, in fact – or at least those bits of it I’ve been wallowing in of late – seems to give out this careful yet nonchalant cool which comes from an economy, even restraint, of expressive means which is distinctly at odds with the directness and immediacy of the gestures that make up these pieces. I suspect it is the inner tension between these that gives the work its engaging tautness.
Take Lurie’s music for Jarmusch’s Down By Law as an example. Swathes of this collection of delicious noises are made up of single lines, single pitches even. Repeated. Paused. Repeated. You are drawn directly into the detail of the playing. The breath behind the harmonica. The attack of the banjo. The sharpness of the tone. A repeated pitch hardly represents a melody. Rhythmically we are talking about a regular pattern, too. This is music that in places pulls itself into a line so tight that there is nothing but texture left, and it’s hard to resist the compulsion to run your fingers over it.
The point is that the detail is erased by the whole. The destination more important than the way in which you arrive. You hear this in Ribot’s playing all the time. It’s rough, he reaches for things that should be outside of his grasp, both physically and musically, and he grabs them. It works. It fails. It is taut. These guys know how to land, brush themselves down and saunter away in a single movement. No wonder they refer to hip guys as cats.
The moral of these stories? I guess you should shut up until you know what to say, then say it like you mean it, and stop thinking about grammar. And mind you don’t cut your fingers.