Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

You need a very special drummer for it to sound better than no drums

Western non-classical music has evolved to the point where a composite instrument called a drum kit (or set) consisting of several drums and several cymbals of varying sizes is played continuously with four limbs throughout the entire rendition of any given piece (with occasional brief exceptions).

This is quite unusual in the history of music across all cultures. The density of a multi-drum/cymbal set-up and the unique application of four limbs using pedal mechanisms for the feet is equivalent to at least two instrumentalists playing drums with hands. The cymbals would be another player. Leaving aside the special case of actual music for drums alone this use of a drumset in a wider instrumental ensemble is an unusual instrumental balance. Continuous percussion in folkloric musics might come from a single tambourine or hand drum playing with several melodic instruments rather than what amounts to maybe the density of three traditional percussionists pitted against an equivalent amount of melodic instruments. Moreover there is the singularity of the very assumption of the drumset’s necessary constancy in the foreground of the music. Traditional folk musics and non-Western classical traditions like Indian and Arabic musics feature long passages without drums or if the drumming is continuous it doesn’t necessarily have the same degree of constant primacy that it so often does in jazz, rock and related forms. And of course in Western classical music drumming and cymbals are used only very occasionally for punctuation.

Now, the situation with drums as we now know them is all very well and I in no way intend to make a case that it should be any other way in non-classical Western music. But what is the musical purpose of this unusual case of the multiple drums + cymbals playing such a big role all the time?

Drummers need to justify their existence far more. It’s not at all the case that “swingin’ or groovin’” music needs drums inherently. A master folkloric player will groove like crazy without drums. Same for the unstoppable swing of a sublime jazz musician playing alone or indeed the rhythmic propulsion of a great country guitar picker. A certain kind of classical player – I’m thinking of someone like Glenn Gould – can also groove palpably without drums. Orchestras (really good ones) might get you on your feet dancing in certain passages with no more than an odd timpani bump, or not even that.

Clearly an accomplished musician doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need a drummer to keep time for them or to create a groove that they themselves are apparently incapable of generating. Why would it be that way other than lack of skill? All instruments are percussion instruments. Chick Corea once remarked that he liked to approach the piano as if he were a drummer with 88 drums and 10 drumsticks at his disposal. Even a voice can be percussive. So really – as is the case with every other instrument – the drums should bring something truly special of its own beyond the rhythmic dimension that all instruments contribute to anyway.

What distinguishes the master drummers that I know of is that they make sure they are really adding to the music something that it would lack without them. And so mere timekeeping is no more important to them than it is to any player. They play in time and share in the groove along with everyone else, no more, no less. But when music without a drummer is capable of grooving of its own accord if we’re going to have drums all the time it behoves the drummer not to forget that along with everyone else they must make very sure they are at all times adding something of unique value to the timbre, orchestration, counterpoint, dynamics and all the other spectra of the music. And since their instrument can so easily dominate adversely, they of all people need to pay extra special attention to balance.

Let’s strive to be sure the music really is better by virtue of what the drums are playing as it clearly is when Tony Williams – or any other master – plays. Too often the reverse holds, with a bombastic, gormless drummer wringing all the dynamics out of the music, puncturing a carefully spun fabric with boorish ejaculations and drowning out or indeed completely destroying the subtleties, careful pacing and shadings of other players to whom they just can’t be bothered to pay deep attention since the art of accompanying largely evades them. When this lamentable situation is in play the drumming is so far from being special that the music really would sound better without it.

Good Friday, 2009


Address to Music Commentators’ Circle Inaugural Meeting

Sunday September 28 2003 2-4pm, Reinventing Criticism II

  • Future priorities for music journalism and criticism: looking at strategies for improving the role and contribution of music commentary

What precisely is music-making?

At the simplest level it is the act of creating sounds, sounds to be heard – heard and understood.

Yes, a rather facile observation but one that can be gently unpacked to reveal the stunning mystery of this deeply consuming activity that has so profoundly engaged the human spirit.

The mind thinks a thought, a thought that is made flesh as vibrations in the air. Sound is really just like the wind. Air, moving. No more, no less.

Music can only manifest through the medium of the very stuff that sustains our lives, stuff without which we pass from this world in minutes. It does not, cannot, operate in a vacuum.

The air is caused to move. It moves in waves and these waves wash up on the very shore of another human mind. The flesh is now made thought again within this new mind.

But how is any message carried in these waves? It seems our brains are hard-wired to the mathematics of sound. We can determine the ratios inherent in sonic events that unfold in time. This means that certain fundamental parameters of music are near-universal in human civilisation. There is a Rosetta stone by which we can to some extent decode music cross-culturally, something we cannot do at all with an unknown spoken language for example.

We may not get the full message, but we can get some message. Pulse. Divisions of pulse. Certain pitch relationships which themselves also represent events in time, a precise mathematical ratio of frequencies of vibration that the human brain honours – if not in the observance then in the breach. It is like body language, which also can be decoded cross-culturally: a threatening face, a grief-stricken face, a smile.

But this Rosetta stone of music fundamentals only allows us to decode the most basic layer of operation: for example we can generally distinguish between music for dance and a heart-rending lament even in the most extreme cases of cultural unfamiliarity. But beyond that, in the stratum of the gossamer webs where meaning is whispered through the almost-secrets of nuances that dance like moonlight upon water – here, we do need a real commonality. It is at this point that the message can indeed be instantly and irretrievably lost, where understanding evaporates for the want of a shared vocabulary, a shared dialectic. And the mind that thought that first thought finds it falls on ears that do not, or cannot, or will not hear.

So what of the music commentator, the writer, the critic. He or she is like the town crier of music, pounding the pavement, ringing the bell:  I listened, I heard, trust my ears, this is the message I received (or didn’t receive). For the town crier is reputed to know things and can shepherd others in their quest to pick their personal shamans, their medicine men and women, as they choose those that they will seek out, those they will listen to.

Our commentators: heralding the messages that the thinkers of the thoughts, the makers of the waves cause to wash through the air.

It’s a weighty responsibility.

Indeed our commentators are also rather like apostles, who must speak truly for the ones who speak the truth as well as calling to account the false prophets, the muddled, the inept, the vain and the deluded. So let them get close, if only to find out.

The musical prophets of the past are well-known, time has allowed their message to precipitate. But the town criers need to be prophets themselves – to telescope time and see the present through the eyes of the future and the past. They are perhaps midwives to the music, midwives who need to know the lineage from which the child springs and have the power to imagine the fullness of the being that can grow from this offspring. It is they who can interpret for others if they can get close enough and truly listen and understand with their special gifts of enlightenment. But all this is too easily squandered as our most trusted may fall into traps that dilute the acuity of their powers.

Some practical and specific suggestions, made boldly and bluntly, but certainly not without humility, by one who is more commented upon than commenting.

If a critic is reviewing the first performance of a new composition they cannot fully rely on their powers to distinguish a poor performance from a poor work. In this country almost all first performances are poor due to endemic under-rehearsal and widespread lack of commitment from performers and conductors as well as economic factors. But these performances are usually good enough not to obviously bring the performers into disrepute. It is a clever sleight-of-hand – this lacklustre – but commentators should be careful in deciding to what measure it is the performers or composers who are lacking the lustre.

Don’t bother to study the score. Highly-distinguished conductors sometimes grossly misinterpret the scores of new works, so you might too. Come to the final rehearsal where you will find the composer palely loitering. Ask them if the performance that will ensue fully represents their conception, and if not, why not? Take their answer into account when you towncry otherwise you risk unfairly impugning their reputation.

There is no canon of idealised interpretations of new works so you are in a vulnerable position and the composer is in an unenviable one. Indeed if the reading is poor, it is as if a new novel were published with many key paragraphs missing. Is not the writer entitled to cry foul, especially if consequently publicly accused of incoherence?

In the world of jazz, this distinction between performance and work is not anywhere near so apparent since the work is not mediated by interpreters, rather the performance itself is appropriated as the fundament of text by the performer-composer. Jazz critics can have other hang-ups. They are so close to the cut and thrust of creation that they can sometimes claim a kind of covert ownership of the creative discourse. This can manifest as a deep, perhaps unconscious, resistance to changes of direction by the artists themselves. This has been suffered by everybody from Miles Davis down. Talk to these people, those that change their direction, and find out if this new sound, this new repertoire can still be reasonably characterised as gratuitous, thinly thought out or an out-and-out sell-out before you dub it such. Jazz reviewing mostly takes place in clubs, so as the song goes, “now’s the time”. Surprisingly, despite the informality of a jazz club, the atmosphere between critic and artist can sometimes be like that of a funeral: a nod of acknowledgement, a hushed polite word through the pall of the pallbearers.

Corner the artist at the bar and ask questions if there are seeds of doubt. You may hear something that will enlighten. No, it is not enough to just listen to the music as everybody else does. With the established canon you already bring a dialectic of understanding to your commentary that has accrued through many years, one that is generally more enhanced than that of the ordinary listener. You do not just respond to the music with a child-like blank slate, nor should you. So with the new, rush to the source while it is still alive and kicking. Be ahead of the pack in your probing.

If all this sounds like being a mouthpiece for the artist this is precisely what you should be (with certain important qualifications).

A mouthpiece to this extent: the commentator needs to fully understand the message of the artist by recognising and laying aside the distortions that are brought about by the circumstances inherent in the particular manifestation at hand (for example, performance problems in a new work). Separate it out and cut to the chase.

Further. By self-identifying and counteracting any resistance and predisposition within their own mind (a process perhaps afforded through dialogue with the artist) our commentator can hopefully set aside all prejudice.

Now our town crier has becomes a medium for the message – they “get it”, they hear what the artist is saying, no more, no less. They now stand in the same place as the artist, with the same understanding of the word at hand.

And only from this point can real commentary begin.

Chick Corea


Chick Corea must be one of the most prolific artists in jazz. It’s not just the volume of his output which spans almost fifty years but its sheer variety of format.  Along with Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock he is one of the few jazz artists after Miles Davis to command a mass audience beyond the relatively small number of aficionados of the genre and become something approaching a household name.

He is widely admired by musicians for his ingenious compositions, unfailing melodic lyricism, rich polytonal harmonies, supple rhythmic complexity and terrifyingly crisp articulation. Critics in the jazz world – often suspicious of “fusion” and popular success – have sometimes damned him with faint praise.

He is known as a Scientologist and is usually cited on a short list of its famous practitioners that otherwise includes movie and pop stars. In the way in which his music is associated with his faith and the works themselves often use its tenants or texts as programmatic underpinning he brings to mind composers like Messiaen and Bach.

On December 9, 2008 I spoke to Chick by telephone while he was at home in Florida.

MI: In the last few days an idea has been coming at me from a couple of directions, and that’s the concept of “longevity” and if you like “late style”. On the weekend I was listening to an interview with [composer] Elliot Carter who has just turned 100 and is still writing many pieces a year.

CC: No kidding? Wow!

MI: Now, you’re a long way from that age but nonetheless I do see from my calendar that in two or three years you’ll be seventy and in the population a lot of people by that stage retire from what they do, but I don’t see any sign of you doing that. So I wanted to ask you about that process of one developing one’s art over many decades – as you have – and whether there’s particular characteristics that come out in a “later” period, the “wisdom of age” or however one puts it.

CC: Well you know I consider that one of the successful things that I do that keeps me fresh is – I never think about myself.  So, I don’t answer questions like that, I don’t ever look at it, I don’t try to analyse my life or see whether something is this period or that period. I mean I look into my music sometimes and review something I did in the past just to see if I can improve on it or something like that. But in terms of trying to make evaluations like that I kinda stay away from it and it keeps me fresh in a “new unit of time” all the time, you know? Which is the creative moment. Like – what to do, what project to take on, what new thing to learn and that kind of thing.

MI: It makes sense and of course it’s really the job of others to make that kind of analysis of an artist’s work.

CC: Yes.

MI: But nonetheless how does it feel now compared to the 1960s?

CC: Well, there’s two feelings. One is that the music and my love for it grows and grows. And that’s of course the life-giving and joyous factor. The body gets a little bit older, and that’s the other factor. And also as the society – I don’t know what word to use – changes, let’s use a nice, mild word like “changes”, you know, the way music is presented is changing all the time and I have to always come up with new ways to deal with that. But my life is basically travelling, because I love to perform. I mean I’ve never made a living or had an idea to make music sitting at home writing, although I love to write music. But I’ve always written music as a vehicle to play, myself. Like I don’t write music for others that much for instance. It’s just I write music for my bands or my collaborations or whatever I’m doing you know, so my life is basically on the road that way. But it’s the creation of music that keeps me going.

MI: As a composer you’re very prolific though so I imagine that if as you describe it you travel a lot then you maybe can write on the road? Do you write very fast? Are you facile as a writer? Do you ever get blocked?

CC: I’ve always written fast. I came across the idea years ago that when I have an idea of something I want to put down or some kind of a composition I want to make or some kind of a theme that I want my band to try to improvise on or whatever it is and it’s that the first ideas that come are the ones I always take. I don’t sit down and ruminate and say “Well let’s see, let’s try another idea now, now how about that idea? Now there’s an idea, maybe I should test these ideas out”. So what I do is I take the one that seems the easiest to come out – the most natural to come out – and then I work with it. And I guess the result is that way the compositions kind of flow out. Then I can review them after that and I can say “Well, nah, I’m going to try this other direction now”.  But when I do try a direction I try to complete it and just see where it goes.

MI: So perhaps what you’re describing is as close as you can get to improvisation with a pencil in your hand.

CC: Kind of, yeah. In fact – I don’t know how technical your readership is – but more and more what I’ve done to compose certain pieces is to improvise the notes in, now that we have tools on the computer that will take the notes that way. I can improvise the notes in, do a quick edit on them and then have a composition that’s quite pleasing to me.

MI: Fantastic.

CC: I still sit down and write with pencil and paper though a lot of the time.

MI: It’s got a nice feel about it hasn’t it?

CC:  Oh yes.

MI: Funnily enough you anticipated another question I wanted to ask you when you alluded to the times as they are now, the society if you like. You said you don’t analyse yourself as such but I wondered about analysing the society you’re living in. With you making music through the 1960s up until now – and we’re completing another decade soon – I wondered how you feel the society, or if you feel the society has changed in the way that it impacts on creative artists and how they make their way through it. Have you perceived any changes?

CC: Absolutely, without a doubt, one hundred per cent. In fact when I’m asked to comment on the “health of music” of the “health of jazz”, you know, people want to know “Is jazz dead or alive?”, that kind of silly question.  But it’s not so silly and in actual fact the answer to that has everything to do with the environment and the society, not with artists. Artists are always there, they’re living, they’re breathing, they’re creating, they’re trying to do something. But it’s how the community, or the city, or the society itself “promotes” music or gets behind art and that kind of thing. And to me in the years that I’ve been alive I’ve just seen it get gradually worse and worse and worse and worse. It’s really on a nose dive.  We’re going away from the individuality of expression and we’re going toward a kind of homogenised “control” with people in the media thinking what the public “should” listen to, or what they think the public will like. And so in order to really find individual creative music you have to look outside the normal paths usually.

MI: So what advice would you give to those artists that perhaps – or most probably – don’t have the degree of success that you have, or indeed the talent for that matter? How would you counsel them in counteracting or reacting to those almost suppressive forces that you seem to be describing?

CC:  Yeah. Well you know the first thing to do is you become aware of it – you don’t fight it, that’s for sure – but to me the equation is always the same no matter how tight or loose the society is, which is you work, you create and you keep on putting your message out no matter how much resistance there is. You just keep doing it. Every one of my musical heroes, musicians that I admire and artists that I admire, they all do that – they just keep going, you know? I was just reading a biography of Art Tatum, I love Art Tatum’s piano playing and I got curious about his life a little bit. He lived in some interesting times, through Prohibition and the First and Second World Wars as you know. He did as most of us do which is, he just kept going. He just kept playing his music, finding outlets, finding people who would present him. And at the same time the trick is to keep one’s musical integrity while doing all of that. So the answer is always the same, it’s just maybe a little harder these days.

MI:  And it seems to me that many artists have credited something beyond their own musical abilities in the kind of steadfastness you describe. They have had to have the inner personal skills, inner convictions – matters of philosophy, matters of faith if someone’s comfortable with that word, an inner life or a spiritual life if someone’s comfortable with that word. And you yourself have publicly credited Scientology many times with doing that for you. Is that something that really does inform your music in the way one might say that Bach’s music was informed by Christianity?

CC: I don’t know about Bach’s relationship to Christianity. But I do know that among the inspirations in my life and people I learn from, L. Ron Hubbard who’s the founder of Scientology and who’s written some incredible works has been constantly inspiring to me so that’s for sure. But you know, the part about faith and religion and how it interacts with the artist is very interesting to me because after all of these years and seeing how there’s so much potential conflict in people of different faiths trying to get someone else to believe what they believe I’ve come to the very bedrock of what I believe is the best way to approach that whole subject.  Which is basically to respect everyone’s beliefs, whatever they are, whether they be religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, artistic beliefs, you know, artistic tastes because that’s what makes the world go round and that’s what makes life interesting is that people have their own opinions and expressions and way they like to do things, you know? And I think that applies to religion, it applies to art and it applies to life in general.

MI: That’s really interesting because it actually leads me into another question that takes it back to music again and the question of taste that you mention. In our “world of jazz” if you like as it stands there are a lot of “taste” issues around. For example your music will be incredibly well received here – with John [McLaughlin] of course in the band – but nonetheless there are elements in the jazz community that have issues with “fusion” or a certain way of presenting the music –

CC: Yup.

MI:  – the complexion of the music. And as someone who has been very inspired by your music I’ve sometimes despaired somewhat with people who would hear say for example Dave Wekl’s drumming style and the second they hear that they don’t want to hear anything else just because of the complexion of his drumming, despite him being a very creative artist.

CC:  Yeah, well you know I apply that same philosophy of the freedom of a person to have his own taste, I apply it to everybody. I apply it to the audience, I apply it to the critics, I apply it to other musicians. People are free to like what they like, or not like what they don’t like and to change their minds at any point in time.  And it’s actually one of the basic human rights that should really be acknowledged very, very strongly which is the freedom to think. And the idea that respecting the rights of others that way, and people’s ability and freedom to think, is what will make some peacefulness in the world, you know? [laughs]

MI: But you’re almost saying there that you respect the right of someone to be disrespectful, if you like. One could say that. Would you say that?

CC: Well, nah, I don’t respect the person being disrespectful but I understand that it can happen and, you know, there are various ways you handle that. I particularly ignore like just carping criticism, I just ignore it.

MI: Yes exactly, and the people who hear things that way won’t show up and the ones that hear what you’re doing will be showing up in droves. We’re very much looking forward to having the band here. Can you say anything about this particular collaboration with John McLaughlin and the band on the musical level that could characterise it?

CC: Well, it’s a complete adventure and very exciting to me. I’ve always wanted to learn more about how John makes music. He’s an amazing artist and an amazing musician and so the best way to do it is to work with him [laughs]. And that’s exactly what I’m doing and I’m learning a ton of new things and it’s a great pleasure. It’s a very exciting band and I’m looking forward to coming to play.

MI: Well many, many people are doing likewise here. Chick it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

CC:  Yeah, well same here, and thanks for your interest, man. And good luck with your music.

MI: Thank you Chick.

Art and intention

We have bound the idea of art up into the idea of intention. Art is made by a person who sees themself as an artist, with no other agenda informing the process other than the making of art. This has become the prerequisite for the creation of art. It’s a very new idea – about 200 years old, a time-span which is a pimple on the body of human civilisation.

When 19th-century anthropologists examined artifacts that showed rare beauty from older and/or non-Western civilisations they often saw these as objects of art. Often they later learned that they were functional objects, created by artisans to serve a particular need, process or institution within the culture. Did this then disqualify them as art objects? These cultures that lacked people who saw their function as solely the creation of art without intersection with any other functional purpose, did they then have no art?

For example: an argument, sometimes put, that music in advertising can’t be art because of advertising’s seedy history and intention, is a moral one that cannot possibly be sustained. On the one hand any fair reading would say that advertising can sometimes be benign – a simple entreaty to conduct an exchange, often for things most people would agree are valuable. (Coltrane’s performances and recordings were – and are in the case of the recordings – advertised). On the other hand advertising can be sinister, pervasive and steeped in greed. Even if you argue that on balance advertising comes out as pernicious, does this then disqualify those that serve it as being artists? If we say it does, that leads into some problematic areas if we are prepared to be consistent.

Organised religion can sometimes be a benign force. But few would disagree that in the long historical view it has often – probably mostly – been the very opposite, and in a way that makes the institution of advertising look like a school picnic. I don’t recall any powerful advertisers using torture and murder as a means of dealing with apostates and heretics who do not believe in their products! So if one strictly accepts that kind of “moral” argument put about the pedigree of art, then anything created in the service of organised religion is open to the same kind of critique. There goes Bach and Messiaen for starters. Also the aristocrats of 18th century Europe were morally bankrupt by any reckoning. There goes Papa Haydn and Mozart.

One can imagine a story of extraterrestrials hundreds of thousands of years in the future unearthing artifacts from a human civilisation long since extinct:

From his remote viewing platform, Grock delighted in the recently-discovered images of the human form presented before him. In the reverence for proportion and nuance, the play of light and shade, he saw the handiwork of inspired minds, as he did in listening to the rustling pitches that emerged from the sounds that accompanied it, creating a powerful synergy. He felt the creative power of the universal spirit blazing forth. As his rapture reached its apotheosis it was suddenly interrupted by the voice of his assistant. “They used it to sell soap” said Kandor. Grock made a note and returned to his reverie, which was not thereby diminished.

In the twentieth-century we questioned every assumption about art, except the holy grail of “intention”. The point is not to make a case for advertising as the new location for art – not at all. But since advertising is the last place we would expect to find art according to our received 19th century wisdoms (advertising is about commerce, and twentieth century critical theory is steeped in Marxism) it is a useful way to underpin a polemic. If you wish to confront an orthodoxy (in this case forms of critical theory) with a heresy, sleep with the enemy!

One personal story to end. I once visited a gallery with my wife, a visual artist. I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to visual art, and was keen to be educated. The particular exhibition was typically radical in a way of a certain brand of contemporary fine art. The paintings were just simple designs. A red square inside a yellow square. A blank canvass with a few dots on it. I resisted the work. My wife urged me to suspend my ideas about what art should be be. To not dwell on the artist’s skills, or lack thereof. To not be bound in expectations about what a gallery should contain. To simply allow my senses to be impinged upon by the interplay of colour and shape per se. So I forgot all my ideas about art and I had a deep aesthetic experience. However, I remained in that frame of mind when I left the gallery and the first thing I saw was a colour advertising poster. Maintaining my non-judgemental frame of reference I simply saw proportions and colours colliding. And my aesthetic experience continued.

Art spills over into and through life itself. There are no “restricted areas” where it cannot flow.

Naive and Sentimental

The great contemporary composer John Adams wrote a wonderful orchestral piece called “Naive and Sentimental Music”. It was brilliantly polemical titling on his part as he proudly described his music in terms that were complete anathema to the modern art movement (both in classical music and jazz) where the right thing for art to be doing – especially post-WW2 – was being tough, edgy and cynical. Or at least world-weary.

Adams pointed out that the word “sentimental” has only quite recently come to mean tacky. It used to mean filled with human feeling, a pretty good call for an artist. Similarly with “naive”. It has a patronisingly pejorative tone now. It used to mean “without pretension”, not a bad thing at times. Modernism has a lot to answer for and art can be enriched by the taking down of some of its received wisdoms (without necessarily rejecting its very real fruits).

The Italian composer who recently died Gian Carlo Menotti despaired thus about the artistic times he lived in: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it”. He found that odd. I think it is odd.

To me there is room in art to welcome the sentimental as there is room in life for the sentimental. We quite readily recognise how cold-hearted it would be to reject all sentimental gestures in life, but not always so easily in our aesthetic stances. All of us are moved regularly by the sentimental in our personal lives. My wife cut carefully and lovingly around the body figures in a photo of my daughter when she was six sitting on my knee with her arm around my shoulder. She then superimposed the figures over cut-out pictures of flowers so that Dad and daughter looked like they were floating in an enchanted forest. She then framed it and presented it to me. Everything about it was sentimental in the extreme. And I love it.

From the personal to the artistic: much music I love is sentimental. Schumann, Chopin, Ravel of course but also some of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart who are not thought of as “romantic” but still managed to include it with everything else they do. Bartok can be sentimental. So can Prokoviev. And Schoenberg. The entire so-called Great American Song Book is sentimental and I consider it one of the major treasures of twentieth century music, to rival any collection of art songs of any time. When Coltrane plays “My One and Only Love” and Johnny Hartmann sings it the song is of course elevated greatly from its pop origins. But to me that elevation has the effect of making it even more sentimental along with everything else it does. The song expresses an incredibly sentimental idea – the deep wells of unflinchingly steadfast devotion and adoration found in long-term romantic love – and when Coltrane and Johnny do it I feel that the sentimental core of the song is even more strongly brought to the fore, along with the more powerful intellectual and spiritual content they bring to it. One doesn’t cancel out the other. They don’t improve the song by taking out the sentiment – they do so by ultimately making it even more sentimental and in a more lasting and multi-dimensional way.

Musicians do different things – end of story

This article is also published in Resonate magazine

I have what are, on the face of it, some odd experiences regarding genre labels. A few recent examples: I have never argued with the proposition that my CD Resurgence is a jazz recording. Yet I accepted an award at the Classical Music Awards for ‘Instrumental Work of the Year’ for the CD’s opening track Walk a Golden Mile.

A couple of days ago I did a 25-minute free improvisation at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Jazz:Now Festival. Enjoying a new Steinway concert grand, I made a whole bunch of contrasting sounds, damping strings etc. All very abstract and sounding like modernist concert piano music. Yet it seemed readily accepted under the jazz umbrella.

Perhaps one of the keys is process rather than resulting soundworld. Walk a Golden Mile is carefully scored, in much the same way as I would write a concert work. There are no improvised ‘solos’, though accompanying parts are improvised. I constructed a canon between the sax and guitar. It’s a piece generated by a written text throughout, much more so than in a head/solos jazz chart.

And unlike modernist, classical, notated piano music, the solo Opera House performance was, after all, improvised. So, in a way, it’s possible for what sounds like one genre to have more in common with the other one in its generation.

But in the end it seems to me that it is an incidental choice to focus on the differences between genres as being intrinsic rather than of passing interest to note. Of course playing jazz is very different from playing classical repertoire. But playing Bach is very different from playing John Cage. And Dixieland jazz is very different from free jazz. There are as many differences within each genre as between them. Musicians do different things. End of story.

I work with the skill set I have, and with my musical interests. It seems natural to me to want to write ‘classical’ concert works, play jazz, play classical repertoire, try to write some pop tunes and retain an interest in music for film/tv/theatre/musical theatre. As a Western musician growing up in this time, it seems obvious to aspire to do that much at least, yet it’s often regarded as exceptionally diverse. Others choose to master non-Western traditions or play multiple instruments. I’m not as versatile or exceptional as that.

In terms of career development, I’m sure my apparent diversity tends to slow things down. In the classical world, I am thought of as a jazz musician. In the jazz world, as a classical musician. I feel I get a bit of the outsider’s cold-shouldering in both camps. There still seems to be a wall between the two, and people are surprised that I can pass back and forth through it again and again as I show up with the perhaps faintly offensive odour of what lies on the other side. I’m not aware of a wall at all. I’m still the 5-year old who heard it as all music, the differences being interesting and necessary to the process of creating it but not at all the main game. In what I would call the “main game” there are no differences. Sound is affective or it is not. The musician is either inspired or not. In trying to interrogate what lies behind those possible outcomes the lessons I learn are identical and precisely applicable regardless of the genre. As an audience member, it’s no different at the other end. Genres are cosmetic. A cut of suit, hairstyle or a bit of a lip-gloss; it all helps with the presentation and stamps in some individuality. But let’s meet the person.

Religious Experiences

Published by Sunday Herald Sun

Keith Jarrett ‘Belonging’ Band
Village Vanguard, New York City, May 1979

“You’d better come down real early if you want to get in”, said the man on the telephone from the Village Vanguard, New York’s legendary jazz club.

I had come to the Big Apple for a sojourn of indefinite length at the age of 20, and in order to make my savings last was slumming it at the Bryant, a seedy residential hotel  that was also used as a ‘halfway house’ for prisoners on parole. Hearing my jazz heroes in the flesh was one of my main reasons for coming.

Back in Australia, I had practically worn out my vinyl copy of My Song, by pianist Keith Jarrett’s European quartet (or ‘Belonging’ band). And here they were playing in what amounted to the next suburb!

Never one to take well-meaning advice lightly, I took my place at the top of the stairs that descended to the jazz cellar a full three hours before show time. I had stopped in at a second-hand bookshop on the way for some reading material to pass the time, and somehow ended up with a copy of an esoteric book called The Hollow Earth. As a queue formed behind me that ultimately wound around several blocks, I read crackpot theories of strange civilisations inside the Earth, allegedly accessible by holes at the North and South Poles. It certainly prepared my mind to be truly accepting of what it was about to receive.

When the doors finally opened, the nice man from the club seemed genuinely taken aback by the length of the queue. America loves a winner, and my place at the very head of the queue got his vote. “You must have been here all day” he said, as he waved me in without charging me.

Having the club fully to myself for a minute, I rushed to the best seat in the house. Well-known to musicians, it was right at the side of the stage next to the drum kit. It felt like you were virtually onstage and from the position of the piano, which was facing vertically into the band, I knew I would be staring Mr Jarrett straight in the face from a few metres away.

The ensuing performance was beyond revelation. More like an epiphany – the band played with so much spirit that they seemed no longer to posses bodies. At one point Keith, whose back was to the audience, looked momentarily horrified, and spun around to look at the assemblage. It was like he had forgotten that the audience was there and needed to check that they hadn’t gotten up and left. I was stunned when Jarrett moved from piano to timbales (small drums on stands played with sticks) to add some percussion. It was some of the most exciting drumming I had ever heard.

I tumbled out of the club, my head ringing with the potent melodies and rhythms that seemed to transcend ‘jazz’, or any other form of categorisation. I felt I had heard a universal folk/art music, a musical voice of the planet itself (this was years before so-called ‘World Music’ became a mere record industry category).

Back in my one room, with its rented upright piano, I poured out my impressions and interpretations of that experience for days. I was good friends with a black American pianist named Lance Hayward who lived in the room next door. He was blind, and I often used to escort him down to his regular gig at the Village Corner, where he played solo jazz standards and knocked back little shots of vodka like they were prescribed medicine. More than forty years my senior, and having approved of some of the more traditional music I had played for him, he banged on my door and said “I don’t think that’s jazz, but it sounds pretty nice”.

Later that year, I found out that the performance had been recorded, and it was released on the ECM label under the title of Nude Ants. Interestingly, I bought the record and was intensely disappointed. It just wasn’t the same as being there. Maybe that demonstrates that a true ‘religious experience’ only occurs when you decide to get off your backside and actually go to ‘church’.

Honourable Mentions

McCoy Tyner Band, New York City, 1979
Chick Corea, ‘Return to Forever’, Regent Theatre, Sydney, 1977
Bill Evans Trio, Bottom Line, New York City, 1979

Five 2010 highlights

This article is also published at

  1. This year I got to know some more of the music of Australian pianist/composer/improviser Tim Stevens a little better through some disks that he sent me, including a preview hot off the press of his soon-to-be-released album Scare Quotes. I think Tim’s music is special in a singular way; he has a deep gift for real substance and integrity and creates magical, beautiful shapes in his writing. It’s often all so devotional in its content and feeling. When the trio does free improvisations they’re remarkable essays in economy and integrity. I like that Scare Quotes brings both Tim’s tunes and the trio’s extemporisations together in the one document.
  2. I attended two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and these made the world look a very different colour. Sometimes you’re just hearing the very best on all levels that human beings are capable of, such as their reading of Mahler Symphony No. 1. Simon Rattle is an extraordinary conductor; often he stops beating overtly for a bit and just lets them play giving the odd linking gesture. I understand that performances of the same piece are significantly different from night to night and from second to second with that band. It’s a myth that classical players don’t improvise just because the notes are the same every time! Whoever imagined music was just about notes? In jazz there’s often pretence toward improvisation, where in reality generic licks or templates are being strung together. It’s a rare ensemble or individual – whether it’s in classical or jazz – that does truly improvise.
  3. I got to know more of the music of William Walton this year, like his Five Bagatelles for guitar solo and his First Symphony (I’ve been into the Second Symphony since I was a kid). It’s part of an ongoing love affair with British composers. I don’t have “favourite composers” but Walton is someone with whom I identify probably more than any other (it kills me that he died as late as 1983 and that in theory I could have met him when I was a young adult). I love the deep, unceasing craft of it all (not least the stunning orchestration) and its melodicism and lyricism that burrows deeply into your soul. It’s so obvious that he enjoyed jazz, even though you don’t hear “jazz” elements so much as just great added-note harmony and suave rhythms. He was/is definitely under-appreciated and any artist who sometimes feels the same (and who doesn’t sometimes?) can take solace that one so mighty was not valued as he might have been even by his own countrymen.
  4. The music of guitarist Allan Holdsworth is an absolute treasure trove. I’ve been listening more to him and discussing the intimate details of his voicings and lines with James Muller. James truly believes Holdsworth is a musician of the stature of Coltrane, and I think there’s a pretty sound case for that. The sheer exhilaration of his inventive sweeps and the bitter-sweet, dark poignancy with which he leavens it all makes me soar above the clouds, as does Muller himself.
  5. Speaking of James Muller, an obvious highlight was being in the studio for two days with James, Matt Keegan, Brett Hirst and Tim Firth recording the new Resurgence band album Aurora. What a band to write for and play in! The sessions were so relaxed and chilled even as we tacked the most intense and difficult music. Recording at Studios 301 is the way recording should be and engineer Richard Lush made it all sound beautiful despite having to be in a wheelchair – he was only just out of rehab after a mysterious spinal illness. I got to live at the studio apartment during the recording and mixing, we brought in a Steinway concert grand and I ended up being the one taking the project through to its release in early December on my own label.


At the point that I can not only refuse to object to, but can celebrate, the success of someone (even on my own instrument) who has – and always will have – a bigger audience than I do (whatever their aesthetic or lack thereof) there begins my real integrity as an artist.

For the Record

I’m happy to have been asked to write of the one CD I “could not live without”. At the moment that honour goes to a Decca recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 along with his great tone poem Tapiola that was recorded in London March 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The pairing of these two works in this 30-year old recording is perfect. The 7th symphony – Sibelius’s last –  is an extraordinary structure, a symphony in just one movement completed in 1924. Two years later Sibelius wrote Tapiola which could in some ways be thought of as his 8th symphony, also in one movement (his actual 8th symphony was never released to the world and in fact the composer – in perhaps the greatest known act of vandalism in Western art – threw the score into the fire).

In these late works to my mind Sibelius moves away from portraying the bustle of human affairs to paint a portrait of organic life, or matter itself. This is especially so in Tapiola named after Tapio, the forest spirit of Finnish legend. Here I find Sibelius’s symphonic writing in polar opposite to Mahler’s whose symphonies seem to be operas for orchestra, their labyrinthine plots painting the comings and goings, agonies and triumphs of their human characters (with the central character often being Mahler himself, or so it seems). In Tapiola, all the human beings have exited stage left. Life itself – as expressed through the earth or indeed the cosmos from which we all arose – seems to be the very sinews of this music. It is something of a miracle.

The performances too are magisterial. I’ve heard quite a few versions of Tapiola and this is my favourite. One can see why Christopher Nupen, the UK film-maker who made a series of extraordinary films for television about classical music, chose Vladimir Ashkenazy to conduct the musical excerpts for his two inspiring films about Sibelius. Ashkenazy’s profound sensitivity and control of this magnificent orchestra can be heard in every richly-wrought bar. Of course Sydney’s audiences and orchestra have been fully in such an embrace for some years now.

If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I have been immeasurably sustained by the generous interest Maestro Ashkenazy has recently shown in my compositions. To meet with him and play for him as I have done is a musician’s dream. A couple of weeks ago I was driving and listening to the very CD I have been writing about here, part of the immersion in preparation for writing my own first symphony to be premiered by the QSO next year. I have a hands-free system in my car for my phone, which automatically fades out the music I am listening to before putting an incoming call through to the speakers. My enjoyment of these Sibelius works had already been interrupted by two calls. When the music started to fade for the third time in my exasperation I said aloud “Can’t I please just listen to Ashkenazy in peace?” upon which I heard the warmly-delivered words “Hello, this is Ashkenazy”.