In the mid-70s, Beck supported John McLaughlin’s jazz-rock group Mahavishnu Orchestra on tour, an experience that radically changed how he saw music. “Watching [McLaughlin] and the sax player trading solos, I thought, ‘This is me’,” he said in 2016.
Inspired, Beck embraced jazz fusion fully on the George Martin-produced Blow By Blow. A platinum-selling hit in the US which peaked at No 4, it was Beck’s most commercially successful album ever, but he later expressed regret. “I shouldn’t have done Blow By Blow,” he told Guitar Player in 1990. “I wish I had stayed with earthy rock’n’roll. When you’re surrounded with very musical people like Max Middleton and Clive Chaman, you’re in a prison, and you have to play along with that.
About the last sentence, I get it. But I suspect he knew his guitar better than his own mind. Somebody once said that apart from a three year period when Hendrix ruled, Beck was the most inventive rock guitarist of his lifetime. Maybe.
I first saw him around the time of the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s. (youtube link here). Two favourites: Stratus, a Billy Cobham tune with that funky rhythm that keeps catching you after you think you have it (but you never do), which precedes his signature version of the Stevie Wonder song Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers (the latter ~10:40 in). Yes, the rest of us should give up our guitars, shut up, and just listen.
Then there is the matter of Tal Wilkenfeld, who, it appears, picked up a guitar one day and then via Chick Corea was playing on the above gig a few days later. I took some convincing she was even old enough to be in high school.
One of the most extraordinary things about history’s most extraordinary musician is the fact that this man’s music, which exerts such a magnetic attraction for us today, and against which we tend to measure much of the achievement in the art of music in the last two centuries, had absolutely no effect on either the musicians or the public of his own day.” (Glenn Gould)
Gould, Canada’s best-known classical musician, is exaggerating, but only slightly. He adds that Bach (1685-1750) was not ahead of his time. Rather, “according to the musical disposition of that day, he was generations behind it”. He used forms – particularly the fugue – that were unfashionable in the early 18th century. Mozart was born six years after Bach died, and when the baroque era in music gave way to the classical period – with the new form of the symphony at the helm – Bach’s legacy languished. It was not until 100 years after his death that his work was revisited, starting a revival that has never ceased. Today, Bach’s music – often programmed in recitals with the most demanding contemporary compositions – has a freakish ability to sound perpetually modern. It’s a miracle of timelessness.
In 1720 the composer and organist Johann Adam Reincken heard Bach improvise on an old Lutheran hymn: “I thought that this art was dead,” Reincken said, “but I see that it lives in you.” In the early 1720s others wondered whether Bach, still in his thirties, might be missing a trick by scoffing at new forms and shunning opera altogether. It was during this time, though, that he produced works now recognised as being among his most enduring and profound: the Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, and, exactly 300 years ago this year, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Sydney Brenner, talking about biology, remarked that it was important to be 180° out of phase with the research mainstream — ahead is OK, but behind is best.
As ever, some beautiful cadences in an obituary in the Economist. This one is of Chick Corea.
Sometimes he wrote phrases down, or composed at a keyboard so they were stored. All too often, though, he couldn’t catch them. Music, like a waterfall, never stayed still, and nor did bands. But that was good. Every change of players brought in something fresh.
He treated music more like a swimming pool, where he just jumped in and had fun.
In short, he was not to be tied down, not even to success
Beautiful obituary of the wonderful classical guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream. Some of this story I knew already.
Almost as he started his long love affair with the guitar, Julian Bream was aware he was doing something disreputable. When he was caught as a teenager practising Bach in the Royal College of Music, he was warned not to bring that instrument into the building again. It lowered the tone.
Even the Army shared the snobbery
Signing on to do his National Service in an army band, he was told he could play piano and cello, fine, but the guitar only “occasionally”.
And it is not just rock musicians who sleep in the van before driving back up the M1 (note: an Austin, rather than a Transit)
Audiences clapped long and hard when he performed in the Wigmore Hall at 18, in 1951, but as he toured round Britain in the mid-1950s, sleeping in his Austin van to save on hotels, not many came to hear him.
Those from the home of the guitar were no less enthusiastic about this man from those Isles.
And from Spain, the spiritual and historical home of the guitar, came the loudest scorn of all. An Englishman playing a guitar, said one virtuoso, was a kind of blasphemy.
What I didn’t know was that he was essentially self-taught. This is common in rock, folk, and jazz and blues, but I assume rare in Classical music. Although Segovia was moderately well known, perhaps the lack of popularity of the guitar in the UK made this necessary. Readers of this rag will know that I am fascinated by autodidacts and what skills you can — and cannot —learn to a high level without formal instruction. My prejudice is also-taught: the energy needed to acquire mastery alone is worth so much more than the competence gained on the transactional shoulders of others. Passion and perspective are worth more than 50 IQ points, as they say.
There are limits, however. In this video he talks about his fingers and technique:
‘Unfortunately the Almighty bequeathed me with a very clumsy pair of hands… and very slow’ (link)
He had form on the lute as well, playing with the nails rather than the fingers, and again faced the distain of the ‘experts’.
Below, a video on why Bream thought of himself as a meat and potatoes Englishman.
Most of the music I enjoy I came to via my brother (Al of Penglas in West Cork). There are a few exceptions: I discovered Ralph Towner and the whole ECM catalogue after an aside in an interview with Larry Coryell; and Mahler, and morning music, from my time in Vienna.
I can remember one particular album that Alun bought as something special. It was a compilation and cost 19/11, and not surprisingly had a blue cover: The World of Blues Power. To my ear the music was incredibly varied, such that I couldn’t imagine how this was a coherent genre. Some tracks I disliked intensely whilst others were just magical. Amongst the latter were three tracks featuring John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. On two, Eric Clapton was the lead: Steppin Out, which I later learned to play (badly), and All the Love, the guitar part of which — still to this day— makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. If you listen 1’22” in you hear what digital amps and gear now refer to as the British Blues sound (or some such similar name). It is slowhand playing slowly. Magical. A giant beneficial mutation in the history of the blues.
The third track, Greeny, was very different. It was John Mayall again, but this time with the late Peter Green who died just two days ago. The guitar was just so different, a delta of influences. BB King captures both the sound and Green:
He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.
The best way to foster mediocrity is to found a Center for Excellence.
This is a quote from a comment by DrOFnothing on a good article by Rich DeMillo a few years back. It reminds me of my observation than shiny new research buildings often mean that the quality (but maybe not the volume) of reseach will deteriorate. This is just intellectual regression to the mean. You get the funding for the new building based on the trajectory of those who were in the old building — but with a delay. Scale, consistency and originality have a troubled relationship. Just compare the early flowerings of jazz-rock fusion (below) with the technically masterful but ultimately sterile stuff that came later.
And when they say you are a dreamer, a fool, and deluded, I will use a nice inversion by Lincoln Allison:
Of course, you’re assuming that none of this will ever happen. But you assumed that Brexit and Trump would never happen, didn’t you?
(Smashing things is however easier than building things).
I have forgotten which search rabbit hole I was down, but ended up at Robert Wyatt’s Wikipedia page. I know this story, or at least I knew the tale, but was uncertain about the veracity. The older I get the more I think social change happens ever faster. Yes, there is another more mundane explanation.
Two months later Wyatt put out a single, a cover version of “I’m a Believer”, which hit number 29 in the UK chart. Both were produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. There were strong arguments with the producer of Top of the Pops surrounding Wyatt’s performance of “I’m a Believer”, on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair “was not suitable for family viewing”, the producer wanting Wyatt to appear on a normal chair. Wyatt won the day and “lost his rag but not the wheelchair”.
Someone once called Vieux Farka Touré the “Hendrix of the Sahara”.
Kinda cool… FT.
Chris Squire has died. A great bass guitarist, if not fashion stylist. But, as ever, what hits you in the first few bars, after the bass, is Buford’s snare work. There is timing, and then there is Bill Bruford.
BB King has died. What a life.
“I was a regular hand when I was seven. I picked cotton. I drove tractors. Children grew up not thinking that this is what they must do. We thought this was the thing to do to help your family,” he said.
When the weather was bad and he couldn’t work in the cotton fields, he walked 10 miles to a one-room school before dropping out in the 10th grade.
I saw him just once, on a double bill with Miles Davis in Vienna, sometime in 86/87. Just listen: one note fills.