Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Something Boys

I have recently been thinking about forming a new band with Finn Ryan on drums, Shane Spellman on trumpet, Andrew Fedorovitch on alto sax and me on electric keyboard and piano. They all seem keen for it, the only thing we are waiting on is for me to get the required equipment and get it together. What I really need is a Jazz organ with distortion, or some kind of Nord or a Rhodes with distortion and a channel switch and an acoustic piano and a celesta, or just a really good keyboard with all those sounds. I just really want to bring the metal side of me out in another way. Lakeside Circus has a lot of ‘metal’ in it and a lot of the compositional ideas come from metal music. But that band doesn’t really capture the actual sound of what metal is because it’s all acoustic jazz instruments. With this band there will be more of a balance towards the metal side with the electric keyboard against the acoustic horns.

My understanding of ‘hybrid’ music really opened up when I saw the BBC Trio last year. Jim Black has shown me a way into electronic music that may end up satisfying my lust for guitarists who can click a switch and get that sound. To make my keyboard sound like a guitar with over drive and be able to play way down low, with all the other sounds that your typical keyboard has these days AND have a real piano would just make the possibilities so great. I’m not professing to thinking that I’ll ever play as good as Nels Cline, but getting what he does on guitar across onto my keys is the kind of direction I’m thinking of going. I just see it as a way of encompassing more of ‘me’ into my free improvisations.

The BBC Trio (as I understand it) improvised their entire gig in Melbourne. That’s the kind of approach I’d like to take, because me and Finn have improvised free ever since we started playing and me and Andrew play free on a regular basis, as do me and Shane, and Andrew and Shane. I believe we are all capable improvisers and listeners. But I also think that without some sort of grounding the sound of the band could turn out to be anything at all, and I definitely have a specific sound in my head. I think written interludes will appear amongst workshopped and spontaneous improvisation. But then again, Circus band was originally going to be a ‘mostly free’ improvising band, and now it’s pretty much all locked-in composition.

I want to do maybe one or two gigs with this band this year. I’d also like to record the gigs. It’s going to be a long time coming if it happens because Finn is out of state and I haven’t got the shit together yet which makes rehearsing hard. But when it happens (or even if it happens) it will be a really sweet band. It will be new music that draws on all the wide things I listen to and like. It will be another step into another place and with this combination of musicians, I’m sure it would be a blast.

The band will be called: Something Boys

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fantasy Bands

This is a blog response to the “Fantasy Football” blog by Ethan Iverson. It is on his 'The Bad Plus' web site.

There are a lot of musicians that I really love that are in the same circle as each other but don’t play together. I sometimes wish my favourite players would play in different combinations (in addition to the ones they do). My fantasy band is: Jim Black on drums, Marc Hannaford on piano, Tim Berne on Alto, Scott Tinkler on Trumpet and Hilmar Jensson on Guitar. I’ve heard these players in various different band with various other artists. I guess I know this band will never happen because of the America/Australia divide. But I did get to see Tim Berne with Hannaford and Tinkler when he was in Australia last year and it was incredible. I guess I would like to hear this band because I know they are all capable players (especially conceptually speaking) and they all have a personal sound that I can identify with and like.

A kind of joke that I like to have with my friends is to make up fantasy band that would obviously be a nightmare, like: Clayton Thomas, Mark Isaacs, Evan Manell and Chet Baker. Now I like all those players and really think they are incredible musicians, I just think that together it wouldn’t work. I usually find that musicians that really gel together are the players that have done time with each other, and work things out together: like the Matt Keegan Trio. In theory we could get the best alto player, the best drummer, the best bassist and the best trumpeter and put them in a band and we would have the best band in the world. But certain players go well with other certain players. I think this is why the album “Live at Massey Hall with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove” doesn’t really do anything for me, even though I really like all the players on that album.

The players I really like to play with are my friends. They are the people that understand me the best and I am the most comfortable with. Sure, they aren’t as good as some other players that I probably could play with but the chemistry is more important that just being ‘good’. Combination of musicians is an interesting thing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blast Beats

The foundation blast beat that all other blast beats arise from is simply continuous 16th notes with the hands on the ride and snare and the same on the double bass drum peddles. This exact beat however, is one of the lesser played blast beats in death metal. The many variations that arise from this beat have their own place in the music. There are beats more common for verses and others that are more common for choruses. For example a lot of drummers bring the two hands into 8th note unison between a cymbal and the snare for verses and then later split it up again for choruses and bridges. Choosing when to play the 8th note snare beat on the beat and when to play it off the beat is a choice made according to the guitar riff. I’d call the off beat (or ‘oom-pa’ beat) more of a thrash thing (as heard in Slayer) and the on beat snare thing more of a black metal thing (as heard in a lot of power metal like Trivium). How and when players decide to play on or off is what makes their sound unique. George Kollias of Nile revolutionised the blast beat by leaving out the left foot part of the double peddle 16ths and the right hand on the ride cymbal and learnt to place crashes at various points with the now available right hand.

The blast beat as opposed to a pure thrash beat is different in that it ‘over plays’ the riff it’s behind. Where guitars play 8th notes in death metal, the drummer usually plays 8th notes on one part (like the hi hat) and 16th notes on another part (usually the bass drum). Where as in “speed metal” or “hardcore” or even hard rock the drummer would just play 8th notes on one part (or between two parts of the kit) and not double up on the bass drum and even play a lesser part again on top of that (like crotchets on a cymbal). Of course we can only generalise about the difference between death metal and thrash metal. The cross overs are countless, and with bands like Shadows Fall playing blast beats it’s impossible to draw the line these days. Slipknot is a great example of diversity, they have wide ranging metal beats from blasting to Nu grooving and even hard rock (and soft rock these days). How diverse a drummer plays beats in a metal band is also another aspect that makes metal drummer unique. How we rank metal genres from fastest to slowest (or more subdivisions to less) is beyond me.

How blast beats are actually played is as long a journey as any musical embankment. All accomplished death metal drummers have extreme technical ability and endurance. The single stroke roll for the hands, feet and between any combinations of the four limbs is the basis of all blast beats. In my experience, playing a single stroke roll with one hand on the ride and another on the snare is harder to play clearly than just playing both on the snare. A lot of death metal drummers will change their type of blast beat from fast to slow to fast and intersperse fills in order to “rest” between the really fast blast beats. For example they might play a 16th note blast between the ride and snare, but then play a fill at the end of the bar and come out into a more ‘thrash’ like beat for a while. Playing a single stroke roll around the kit as a fill is much more forgiving to dropping notes or being a little behind that playing a blast beat. Also, a lot of drummers will mix up the difference between playing fast on the feet and fast on the hands. For a few bars they may play 16ths on the double peddle and 18ths on the hands, then 16ths on the hands and crotchets on the bass drum. There is no doubt though that death metal drummers have massive chops and a great way around the kit. I also am fascinated about the art of blast beats and the many various components that make up what metal is.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Music Making

There’s not much more to my music than technique and attitude. When I improvise and compose, what comes out is within the limits of my technique (as in, ability to actually play the notes) and an expression of my attitude. My technique is formed by specific rudimental exercises that I practice and everything else that I actually play like standards, Mixolydian scales, diminished voicings and so on. I guess my attitude is formed by the music that I listen to and the studying of the attitudes of the improvisers/composers that I like. I study them by talking to them, reading about them and just listening to their music.

Listening is a big thing for me. I think the power of listening to music in a non-analytical way is underestimated in the Jazz world. Musicians can easily get caught up in the whole “he played the flat nine and jumped to the 3rd of the next chord and then played the triton substitution” kind of listening and forget that the music they are playing is an expression of their attitude towards life. These bebop musicians were hard living (and sometimes arrogant) people - not nerds in a University sitting over a text book. This is not to say I don’t listen in an analytical way, of course we all need to listen with a fine comb, but also to know when.

The answer is many answers in a way. We should listen to many different types of music in many different ways. Who can say they differentiate between appreciating a type of music and being turned on by music? Who listens to certain styles of music only for the academic and mathematical content and other styles just to chill out? Perhaps when transcribing a solo by a jazz musician we should ask some questions about how we are listening and set aside time to listen to the same song with a different mindset. all these questions and the many questions unasked and the many answers that there are, come into the overall whole that is my attitude. It’s all about diversity and widening the spectrum.

My attitude is expressed within my technical limitations. I work on my technique as much as I can (or at least I sometimes like to think I do). It’s not a matter of having just enough technique to do what you want, or even playing all you can with the technique that you have. It’s a matter of working on technique and then expressing your attitude. Simple as that. What comes out is music. My music created in the only and best way I can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010



Recently I’ve been getting into a brother recording of ‘One Down One Up’ by John Coltrane Quartet at the Half Note (with Alan Grant). It’s unreleased and isn’t mastered. It came to me through someone who I have no idea how they got it. The playing is incredible, everyone simply burns the hell out of it, much the same as they do on ‘One Down One Up’ and it sounds half decent as well. It’s just got me to thinking how many amazing recordings there would be out there that aren’t available. How many albums does Blue Note have stored up? How many does the ABC have that are just incredible pieces of music that no one has really ever heard? I also know that a lot of people these days record their tours and never release it. I know there is a recording of the BBC Trio at the Melbourne Jazz Festival 2009 that hasn’t been released and may never be. I also wonder how many of my favourite artists record at home (just on some low-quality gear) to document their playing much the same as I do. I know a lot of artists have recording gear at home these days. What happens to these recordings? Sometimes I like to think there is away into this ‘underground album’ scene. I like to think there is some especially hip shit out there that wasn’t released because it wasn’t commercially profitable but is an absolute gem. But then again, I know there is plenty of great shit out there that is available. It’s just a matter of working out where it is and then getting it. It’s a big enough task working out who is hip and what albums they have done that are hip.

No One Thing Will Make You Good

It gives me the shits how some people say that if you just have great time you will be good. Do you think if you took away Keith Jarrett’s knowledge of harmony, his sense of melody, his touch and tone and ability to interact and just left his great time he would be what he is? No. Everyone who is great has an incredible sense of time (and we all agree this is a very important aspect of music making). But these great musicians also have great harmonic understanding, sound, concept and a whole bunch of other things. I guess we hear people say that one thing is the most important thing a lot in the institution because they are trying to get us to focus on that one thing. Sure, as if we aren’t . As if we aren’t practicing all these little things that are spread across a wide spectrum of all the various things we can practice. Sure, we are still shit. We still sound like shit and can’t play our instruments, but we are working on it - one slow step at a time. Sure, we will never get there. We will always be shit. But that’s ok if we just keep going.

Free Improvisation

To me, improvisation is an expression of an attitude. When improvising freely in a band I go in with (hopefully) and attitude that is going to allow for interesting dialogue. I guess for it to be dialogue the most important thing is to listen alertly to what other people are saying, respond with taste and also say intelligent things myself. Those three main areas are complex things in themselves. Listening alertly means hearing what other people are doing and hearing what I myself am doing and being ready to act with a relevant responce. Responding with taste requires a certain amount of subtly in adding to the overall sound by playing a role that compliments the other players approach to the overall sound. The right time to step in and make a statement of one’s own is a hard thing to judge. No one likes greedy improvisers and we all know when it’s going on. It’s just hard to explain and deal with when that situation arises. Sensitivity, a taste for structure, contrast and interest is what should drive the decision to ‘step in’.

A lot of what I improvise is so called ‘non-tonal’ music. That’s just because it’s what I (and my fellow musicians) usually hear and like. But improvising freely should not rule out the major scale. Really, it should not rule out anything. In fact, for free improvising everything should be taken into consideration. The reason ‘personality’ seems to be such a big part of the avant-garde is because of all the amazing combinations of our influences that come out when we are improvising. There is something quite unique about how a jazz drummer (with his understanding of what ‘swing’ is) can play a rock beat (with his understanding of what ‘grunge’ is). This is but one example of a whole spectrum of things – which is why we should study our favourite classical composers, listen to metal bands, do gigs with folk vocalists and go and see what modern be-bop players are doing, because it all counts towards what we are as a musician who makes music by improvising.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Listen to Yourself

Listening back to recordings of myself makes me feel really strange. I’m quite undecided about how to approach it because I usually react in many different ways. Sometimes I wait a while and forget what I played and then listen to it and like it, but then later listen again and not like it. Sometimes I listen to it right away and like it, having not felt good about it whilst playing it. Some things I’ve recorded sound like dog shit to me every time I listen to it. I guess it I should like listening back to myself because it’s my music. After all, I am making music that I like. I guess listening for mistakes (or places for improvement) is something I should do while I’m playing. I really should have an awareness of my weaknesses, but maybe listening back to myself will allow for a deeper insight into what exactly is going on. It may be a way to check wether what I am imagining is what’s coming out.

I have recordings that I did years and years ago and when I listened to them I have no idea how I possibly did it. I think that for a while after recording something it’s best to just sit on it and forget about what you did, and then go back to it. I think if I ever release anything I will have to release it without hearing it because I know that chances are I wouldn’t be happy enough with it. I guess in the end, my music is for me to play and create and other people to listen to. I don’t listen to myself all that much. It’s a strange thing.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Piano is Young

Over the past year or so I have been developing a technical exercise for playing piano. The exercise revolves around building the independence of each finger. From what I have heard, not many pianists fully exploit the capability of the piano to allow for a player to sustain one or more notes while playing other notes of shorter duration. To do this takes a lot of coordination because some fingers have to be held down while others go up and down. That’s pretty much what the exercise is: a systematic way of holding down every combination of fingers while playing every combination of every other finger. It’s a pretty time consuming thing to do, but I’ve found that doing only small amounts really improves strength (if you would call it that) for playing more conventionally. The sostenuto pedal allows players to sustain notes while playing short notes and also re-engage in the sustained notes. This is also something that even in the most advanced piano music I have heard is only used as a momentary technique.

When all this is considered one might be able to remark at how “one note, then another note, then a another...” piano players actually are. Perhaps I am just ill informed and someone needs to lend me some CDs. What I am working on with the practice exercises is a balance of an over-all sound that incorporates sustained notes and long notes, which is hard to hear because long notes usually go with long notes and short with short (hope that’s not too much of a sweeping generalisation). But I really think that the piano can do a lot more than people have already done. That may seem like a bold statement, but I’m not saying that I will be the one to do it. I can’t do anything on the piano when you consider all the people that have sat at one before. All I’m saying is that I can imagine things. The techniques exercises are just a thing. Maybe if I take it to its greatest lengths I will touch the edge of what a human can do at the piano. Until then, I won’t know how effective it is.

No Answer

I’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality recently. It seems that everyone has their system of ‘higher’ living whether it is the writings of a great philosopher, religion based around a god or an attitude of a group of people. I sometimes worry that I am one of those people who live so called ‘average’ lives but I also realise that we all have our own way of living. I know there are people in this world who live extraordinary lives (as I see them) and I sometimes wish I was more like those people. Music for a long time has been my ‘means’ of so called ‘higher’ being but now I’m bringing into question just how real this pursuit for ‘enlightenment’ is. I think just enjoying what we have is a big part of enjoying life. As opposed to going after things we don’t have and then gaining happiness by attainting them.

A part of me thinks I should get way into something. Maybe I need to read every single book that Krishnamurti and Gurdjieff ever wrote. Maybe I need to study Kant, Socrates and Hume. Maybe I should believe Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. I don’t think it’s that simple. We sometimes need time to question the bigger questions of life. But I also need time to question the concepts of my craft. I also need time to take a shit. These systems and so called ‘answers’ of our existence seem to only spread so far. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t have an answer. Or even any answers - to anything. But I know I’m here to do something and I want to enjoy doing that thing. Even though I’m not sure what that thing is or how I’m going to do it or how significant that thing will be to anyone or anything (or how relevant that so called ‘significance’ is).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It's Heavy - Not Random

Recently I’ve been listening to the album “The complete ‘Is’ Sessions” by Chick Corea. It’s really free avant-garde music with a lot of really thick (textually) group improvisation sections. Some parts are really busy and chaotic, even to my ears. But I understand that it is a way of improvising and there is still interaction between the players. This improvisation seems to be the logical extension of jazz improvisation and interaction. As in the more traditional jazz this avant-garde improvisation has different instrument performing different roles to create the overall sound. They also interact by responding to each other, it’s just done in a more subtle way. I like this kind of music because it’s got a lot of meat to it. I can understand how it is musical and logical. For the people who say it’s just a bunch of crazy shit, they can get fucked. Do you think Chick Corea plays free just for the hell of it? I wish more musicians (or even fellow musicians) would be open to styles of music that they aren’t fully acquainted with. Maybe it’s just my youth making me all over eager, but I like really brutal music and ‘The Complete Is Sessions’ is definitely one of those albums that is brutal – not meaningless. I guess some people just don’t get it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Recently I have been developing a compositional device that allows for players to improvise off two different meters as they please. The idea first came to me when I started to hear how Tim Berne creates a mix between formal notation, improvising off that formal notation and freely improvising (or soloing). My idea is to extend basic cross rhythms so that the ‘over the top’ pulse is more recognisable than the underlying pulse. The tune I am working on at the moment is called ‘Princess’ and is based on 4 over the top of 7. So we can all play four on seven, it’s just 7/4 time sig with 16th notes grouped in 7. But I have extended this 7/4 bar by adding a further 7 16th notes. That means we have 5 over the top of 35 16th notes. Or we could have two bars of 4/4 and a bar of 3/16, or a whole bunch of different combinations of bars. The underlying bar lines that I decided upon for the composition was a bar of 4/4, a bar of 7/8 and a bar of 5/16 (that all adds up to 35). The reason I chose this is because the increase in time divisions (4,8,16) adds to the release of the cross rhythm on ‘one’. Over the top of these three bars I still maintain the groups of 16th notes in 7. A very simple way of playing the pattern is to just think of it as 5/4 with some straight up septuplets.

Of course, because this piece is for piano, bass, drums, alto sax, tenor sax and trumpet I have to balance the weight of the players playing in each ‘pulse’. The underlying 3 bar pattern (which doesn’t actually contain an obviously coherent meter between them all) is strongly outlined by motivic content – particularly in the bass parts. The saxes then sit between the lower part and the ‘over the top’ cross rhythm while the piano and trumpet play in the 5/4 bar and even stretch away from septuplets. Playing 4 over the 7 16th notes ends up being 20 on 35 which play sound extreme but between players is possible – and dramatic.

The difference between the two ways of looking at it really is held together by the note choices. As I understand it, there is a good chance it cold just turn out to be a 5/4 song with lots of players using septuplets. The note choices I have made for this composition are just things I’ve heard in a loosely atonal way. I understand the principals of atonal and serial music, but haven’t used formal devices for this tune (Princess). I have done some compositions with tone rows and know the shapes of some grandmother chords, and things of that nature. But for this song I started with the rhythm and then started to hum over it once I had internalised it a bit. From the lines that I scat and work out I usually do some tweaking and changing of notes to make it more ‘out’ especially when writing parts for instruments that play at the same time. Like, I might end my scat on an ‘A’ but then decide to change it to a ‘Bb’ in order to make it fit in with another instrument, but then have to change that other instrument’s part as well. It could go on like this, back and forth between all the parts for a long time. Playing the parts on the piano, the lyricism of how I can sing it and the relation of the instruments (in regard to register, rhythm and each other) is always high on the list of priorities.

This is all only about the first little bit of the tune. I also have an over-all structure that I am working with. I don’t know when it’s going to get played or performed because I have a lot of tunes for Lakeside Circus that I want to get through. This music is different to Circus band, even though the players in it would be pretty much the same. I want to start a different project that deals with group improvisation over complex cross rhythms and has really heavy written parts to work from.