|Photo of Matt Schofield courtesy of theiridium.com|
Saturday, November 22, 2014
A couple things about this article make it a good introduction to new Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) contributor, Jon Hendrickson, and his writing. First is that he describes the intensity of connecting with a musician’s live performance in the intimacy of a small club, an experience that was utterly new for him. Though this experience is something many of us are familiar with, very few have ever written about it. Second, the artist he saw was the very talented British blues guitarist/singer/composer, Matt Schofield, who is doing something that I haven’t witnessed in years—he plays a blues guitar so inventive and fresh that he blows right past comparisons to Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn, or anyone else. – CLH
By Jon Hendrickson
I live in a backwater of civilization in the southeast corner of El Dorado County, California, known as Fair Play. The origin of the name is a matter of local debate, but is no doubt rooted in the gold rush which began about 30 miles from here and made California rich and famous. A burgeoning wine industry has found a toehold here amid the oak- and pine-forested Sierra Nevada foothills, but those who have discovered the delights of Fair Play have done so only as the result of deliberate exploratory intention.
Fair Play is not on the way to anywhere else, and it is about as far from anywhere as you can get and still be somewhere. Most of the relatively few people who live here came from somewhere else and brought with them a vast array of backgrounds, skills and interests. They like living here, I suspect, for a lot of the same reasons I do. Life here is more unhurried and less crowded. And the circle of acquaintance is not so large as to dilute the sense of wonder when confronted with yet another revelation you get by paying attention to something or someone you might otherwise overlook, except for the fact that there are fewer of them to pay attention to.
There are discoveries that are more momentous than others, but you get used to them coming regularly enough, to the point that they’re no longer remarkable. For example, I distinctly remember becoming aware of air entering and exiting my mouth and nose, and the day or so I spent exploring the limits of my ability to breathe faster, slower or not at all. Such are the discoveries of earliest childhood. Later discoveries, like figuring out you can balance on two wheels or float on water, come less frequently and less remarkably until, after several decades, it seems that you even forget what discovery is all about.
I have a very good, long-term friend, Carl Hager, who I have known as “Cully” for the last 47 years or so because his father was also a “Carl.” We wrote a satire column for our high school newspaper during our senior year under the byline, “The Dipertni Bros.” In more recent years, he has been doing his best to get me to appreciate his favorite music, jazz. And he’s not one with merely a casual appreciation of the genre. He can wax eloquent for hours on the finest minutiae of the evolution of jazz before Miles Davis and from Miles Davis forward. And this knowledge is a tool he puts to good use plying the trade of writer, commentator, critic. He has dedicated years of focused study of the music, its practitioners, their roots and inspirations and relationships with other musicians and their peculiar styles of music. He has cultivated acquaintances and friendships among jazz musicians and other enthusiasts and was asked by a very critically acclaimed artist to write the liner notes for one of her new albums. He has set a very high bar for comparison. So high, in fact, that long ago I decided a bar is just a hurdle and I’m more of a lawn darts kind of guy. So, while Carl has inspired me to take up the pen again, I am no more a music critic than Helen Keller. However, Carl has also reminded me not to be deterred by fear of my ignorance. Besides, Carl lives a hard five-hour drive away and the opportunities to absorb his passion firsthand are few and far between. And this essay is actually about an influence almost as strong, but much closer at hand.
My friend Ian Schofield, the prodigious proprietor of the Pub at Fair Play, is an even more prodigious aficionado of THE BLUES. It seems that he holds THE BLUES in such biblical reverence that he could be expected to capitalize the personal pronouns referring to Stevie Ray Vaughan, B. B. King and Albert Collins. Ian is very much like my friend Carl, not only in his enthusiasm for his favorite musical genre, but also in the extent to which the arcana of his favorite musical genre is a complete mystery to me.
My musical aptitude is the same as my aptitude at math, which is virtually nil. That’s why I relate to and describe my world with words and pictures, not numbers. In other words, I’m the kind of guy who causes people like Ian and Carl to roll their eyes when I attempt to join their conversations with their other, more attuned, acquaintances. Fortunately for me, I’m not sure there are that many people in Fair Play who are as attuned to THE BLUES as Ian is and, because he’s my friend and takes pity on me, he allows me to hang around—occasionally some glimmer of understanding breaks through and I get a little closer to “getting it.” “A little closer” would be about an inch further along Fairplay Road where “getting it” would be a half hour up the road.
This story is really about how my acquaintance with Ian led me to one of those discoveries that may not be as revelatory as discovering your breath, but it’s close. Ian’s son, Matt, lives in his native Manchester, England, and he plays the guitar and sings. But he doesn’t just play and sing. He can REALLY play and sing. He is very well known among aficionados of THE BLUES in England and Europe and is acquiring a following in this country—he toured various venues and festivals in the east part of the country and Canada earlier this year, including a pass through the west coast, and is currently touring the UK. Ian had previously turned me on to Matt’s playing by showing me a couple DVDs and I had whetted my enthusiasm for Matt’s music by watching some of his performances on YouTube. When Ian told me Matt was coming to Harlow’s in Sacramento for a single show on Friday, July 18, I jumped on the opportunity to score a couple tickets as soon as they were available and made reservations for a table.
Listening to CDs or watching DVDs is not anything like live music. This is especially true when you’re seated ten feet from the stage, and Harlow’s is a tremendous venue for this kind of performance. If I had been paying attention, as I have now started to do, to B. B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan, I would have seen the inspiration for what I was hearing, but I don’t think it would have really prepared me for the depth and intensity of what I was experiencing. As he was warming up, I became more and more keenly aware of how much of himself Matt was putting into his playing, how his guitar was really an extension not just of his arms and fingers, but of his psyche, all of his emotional and mental energy permeating the entire room. And the communion of guitar, keyboard (longtime collaborator Jonny Henderson) and drums (a remarkable performance by San Francisco’s Ronnie Smith in his first performance with the band) transformed my experience of this music into something not too far short of euphoric, pervading every sense of my being, although my senses of smell and taste are still a little confused. If pressed, I would have to say THE BLUES smells and tastes pretty much like beer.
Shortly after the intermission, Matt brought Mick Martin onto the stage. Mick is a local legend of THE BLUES. He has had his own band for something like 40 years or more, laying down some of the most incredible blues harmonica anywhere on local audiences. He also hosts a local public radio program on Saturday mornings featuring THE BLUES and was the first person to play Matt Schofield’s music on the radio anywhere on the planet. So, Matt not only is very grateful to Mick for what he’s done for his career, he genuinely enjoys playing with the man when he can.
When the two-hour concert ended, I felt like I had run a marathon, or at least what I imagine I would have felt like if I ever had run a marathon. I had been wrapped in a kind of sound I had never heard before, especially live and so close that it felt like I was right next to the band, because I was. On further reflection, I think what I thought would be a good introduction to THE BLUES was much more a perfect performance of perfect music that transcended cubby-hole labels. The lyrics were bluesy (I think THE BLUES has a rule that the first line of every stanza has to end with “baby”), but I had also heard some of the best rock guitar I have ever heard in my life, and the jazziness was pleasantly energetic, making much more sense to me than anything I’ve heard of Miles Davis.
I managed to find my way to the front of the club to purchase a CD of Matt’s latest album and get him to sign it for me. I think he would have signed it for me even if I didn’t know his dad; he seems like that nice a kid. But I have always stood in awe of the kind of talent that I had seen and felt and heard that night, so it was hard for me to just make light conversation.
On the way home that night a few thoughts occurred to me. First, percussion of the rhythm and intensity sustained as it was for about two hours does, in fact, act as something of a laxative.
Second, while there were a few other people there whom I know from the Pub at Fair Play and the local south county area, the room was mostly filled with enthusiasts of THE BLUES from all over the Sacramento area, and probably some who had come from even further away than we had.
And finally, yet again I was struck with the richness of experience I have encountered because of what the people I’ve met have chosen to share with me, in and near the place I call home.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
I have a personal confession to make. Seriously. If confessions make you laugh uncomfortably, that’s okay. This one makes me laugh sometimes, too—whenever it isn’t making me weep for joy.
I’m a writer. Not a blogger. Not a music journalist. Not a jazz advocate. Not a social crusader. Not a champion of the arts.
It is true that as a writer, I assume all those guises at different times because of the very fact that what I love to do most is write about what I care about. When musicians hire me to write liner notes or others hire me to write for projects for them, I try to choose things I care about (or want to learn to care about), because I know these are opportunities for me to do good work. When I care very much about current world events, I enjoy writing about them in my blog. I also care very much about music and the positive effect it has on the world—as a teenager I seriously considered studying classical music theory and performance and making it my life’s work… which conflicted with my ongoing years spent in pursuing the visual arts. I wanted to do big things. My later activities as a champion of the arts, social reformer, journalist, and editor for the world’s biggest online jazz publication, all eventually led me to the conclusion that the way to best accomplish every one of them was through doing what I liked best, writing.
My Great American Novel
Here is the heart of my confession. Late last year I discovered that what I like to write most is several hundred words a day on a project that no one has yet had a chance to read. What I like—love—to write most, is the next page or two of a novel I began working on a few years ago. From time to time over the last few years, I would go back to it and work away feverishly, only to be distracted by any and all of life’s myriad concerns. But a funny thing happened. I reached a tipping point, a stage in the story’s development at which my fictional characters started talking to me. My characters were collaborating with me. If I made one of them say something that he would never say, or do something he would never do, he’d object. Suddenly, everything I care most about was given a loud voice and a place to say it. Everything.
So when I take the time to work on anything else, whether for a client who is paying me for my time, for a magazine article, or for my blog Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing), I try to make it count. Because whether it is helping me to pay the bills or not, it means spending time away from the work I am itching to get back to.
It also means that, while I once used Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) exclusively as a place to talk about—and solicit opinions about—jazz, and “Directions in Music” as Miles Davis described his revolutionary work on Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), I have recently been using it as an outlet for talking about other things that concern me. And beginning soon, any day now, another significant change is coming to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing).
Love Is All You Need
My second-most favorite thing to do in life is to read. Everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Ray Bradbury’s poetry to Bruce Fergusson’s fiction to William Strunk/E.B. White’s sage advice on the craft of writing. But when it comes to reading other people’s commentaries about music, not so much.
Somehow, the bulk of music writing has become irrelevant. And unread. A typical review is a humorless porridge of hyperbole, filled with shopworn adjectives and tortured metaphors. Why waste your time reading it when you could be doing something useful, like making a sandwich? The state of music journalism could easily be ascribed to the utter irrelevance of much of the music being produced, but that is an excuse, and a poor one. There is still a lot of good music to write about. The seven billion unpaid (mostly) reviewers working for Amazon, or elsewhere in the trenches of Web 2.0, have certainly diluted the writing pool, but even the bulk of the stuff on professional sites lacks that mysterious element that keeps you turning the page, or clicking the “Next” button at the bottom of the screen. It’s dull reading.
Back in the heyday of music journalism, writers like Ralph Gleason and Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff, et al., set a truly high standard for jazz criticism. Cameron Crowe, P.J. O’Rourke and Lester Bangs did the same for rock and roll. But the standard they set isn’t an unattainable standard at all. What has changed is that a great number of people writing about music now aren’t really writers. Worse than that, the people minding the store don’t seem to include any of the editors needed by these wannabe writers to fix them up. What’s left is an island populated with a cadre of good writers who do a decent job of self-editing… and from island’s shore to the horizon it’s a veritable sea of crap.
Whilst contemplating my role in all this—my own personal responsibility for how the world of music journalism has turned to shit—it occurred to me that I had recently read insightful, well-written music commentary from some writers I know, people with track records of style, humor, and a developed sense of journalistic professionalism. Not coincidentally, all are personal friends. It’s a funny thing with writers. Incompetent boobs who are in competition with you and making more money, or getting more work published, are objects of scorn. But damn, when you meet someone who can write his or her ass off, it’s love.
One thing led to another. Mutual admiration. A love of music (all kinds). A desire to write something so damn good that it makes your eyes water. Boredom with the same old crap. I extended the invitation to them and they all RSVP’d.
Meet the new Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing).
The writers who are going to start contributing to this blog will be introduced as is useful and appropriate. Their names will appear in their individual bylines, of course. We can work on a short one- or two-line bio for each, but they will likely want to simply be known by their work. I am really looking forward to introducing you to these writers, and the others who will follow.
Our first motto: Music is music. Jazz, blues, rock, pop, classical, avant-garde, klezmer, comb, “other”, all of them count!
Our second motto: No more dull music writing!
Our third motto: Reading about music is fun!
Our fourth motto: Anything you can do in connection with music—reading, writing, cooking and eating food, quaffing craft beer or sipping California wine, playing sports, falling in love, having sex—all are potential topics for music writing!
Our fifth motto: The more mottos, the better!
Well, Love Is Almost All You Need
One last thing, another confession: I lied earlier. I am certainly a writer, but I am also a blogger. And a music journalist. And a jazz advocate, a social crusader, and as it happens, a very pissed-off champion of the arts. If you are a writer about music and haven’t been out of the house lately (it happens all the time), the worlds of music recording and performance, and particularly songwriting, are in serious trouble. There will be much more to report on this in coming weeks and months, but if the decline in CD sales and rapid consumer movement to streaming services continues at the rate it has been, without some adjustment of current royalty schedules with ASCAP and BMI, Don McLean is going to have to write American Pie, Vol. II, including a new version of “Vincent” for all the songwriters who decide jumping off a bridge is preferable to living through the day the music actually dies for good.
Spotify and Pandora are the new faces of Napster. Theft is theft. Whether there are laws sanctioning or preventing it is irrelevant. These services have managed to convince themselves that their business models can operate without the messy problem of paying the songwriters who create the music they are flogging. Taken to its logical conclusion, their plundering approach will at some point very soon—if it hasn’t already—deprive all the affected songwriters of any substantial royalties, and eventually starve them out of existence. At which point, all these pathetic vultures will have to offer is old music written by people who have died or moved on.
For you students of Twentieth Century music, remember the Beatles and their historical Magical Mystery tour of 1960-1970? Amongst musicians, jazzers and otherwise, it is widely understood that the era of the Beatles is what changed everything. Certainly there were many, many other musicians who had an enormous impact on the world around them. But not like the Beatles. I can remember where I was the first time I heard Abbey Road, but the thing that makes my memory so significant is that Béla Fleck can remember where he was when he heard it for the first time, too. So can Stanley Clarke. So can George Benson. So can John (and Bucky) Pizzarelli. So can you.
For anyone who was around to see it happen (or anyone who can see or hear adequately right now) the impact on this civilization of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show is right in there with NASA landing a man on the moon.
Now consider what life in the second half of the Twentieth Century would have been like if the John Lennon and Paul McCartney hadn’t come along—it’s like imagining what life would have been like if Mozart hadn’t come along, only worse (I’m kidding) (sort of). Can you imagine it? Really? Because I can’t.
If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched It’s A Wonderful Life recently, now would be a good time. Our actions and inactions have an impact on all that follows in our wake. Even a brief study of history reveals that all the different conditions in the world are the result of an endless series of causes and effects. One thing leads to the next in a chain of events. Nothing you see today was pre-determined, but in many ways it could have been predicted. If, due to music licensing laws and regulations, Lennon and McCartney had been unable to make enough in songwriting royalties to keep the Beatles fed and clothed, it is unlikely the famous London club scene of the 1960s would have flourished to the extent that Dave Holland ended up playing a regular gig at Ronnie Scott’s club, where Miles Davis saw him and extended the invitation to come to New York when Bitches Brew was recorded. Without Holland’s startling transformation in moving from acoustic bass to electric, Miles might not have felt the need to hire the brilliant electric guitarist John McLaughlin for the session, and McLaughlin might never have gone on to make Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973).
A couple weeks ago, Taylor Swift announced she was pulling all her music from Spotify. To a cynical jazz fan, a spoiled millionaire pop star making a public statement might seem like gratuitous grandstanding. But three days ago, as Google was preparing to launch its own YouTube monster death star subscription service, Music Key, to compete with Spotify and Pandora in the music streaming racket, industry titan Irving Azoff announced that he was poised to take the libraries of 42 of his clients out of the running—artists such as John Lennon, Pharrell Williams, the Eagles, Smokey Robinson, George and Ira Gershwin—unless Google ignores the ASCAP/BMI model and renegotiates higher songwriting royalty rates for his clients.
There’s hope. Maybe we could make it cool to buy CDs or LPs or downloads again, instead of stealing them like abandoned shopping carts to support our humble lifestyles.
Let’s keep the music alive.