Quincy Jones, Jacob Collier

I read this excellent and frank interview with Quincy Jones, which has startled a few. Some questioned the veracity of some of this answers but it all rings true to me. A long time Quincy fan, since I heard his beautiful arrangements on Paul Simon’s 1973 album ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’ – I particularly love ‘American Tune’ – he has by now become one of music’s unabashed greats.

Favourite quote:

Is there innovation happening in modern pop music?
Hell no. It’s just loops, beats, rhymes and hooks. What is there for me to learn from that? There ain’t no fucking songs. The song is the power; the singer is the messenger. The greatest singer in the world cannot save a bad song. I learned that 50 years ago, and it’s the single greatest lesson I ever learned as a producer. If you don’t have a great song, it doesn’t matter what else you put around it.

Still discoveries proliferate. In 2016 the BBC staged a prom concert as a tribute to the man, and that is where I chanced upon Jacob Collier, a beautiful talent who Quincy picked up early and produced.

The first time I heard this, the hairs on my neck went up, and my eyes filled with tears. Not for sadness, but for beauty. I couldn’t even begin to grasp what the music was doing, how it was formed, as its immediate effect was overwhelming. If you aren’t particularly romantic, or a lover of jazz and soul, it may leave you cold. But if you do appreciate jazz, soul, and great musical talent, and you don’t yet know this song, ‘In The Real Early Morning’, prepare to be astounded.

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David Bowie’s Birthday

I still can’t believe what David Bowie did on the 8th January 2013. Take a decade off for good behaviour, then show up unexpectedly and place the question “Where are we now?” into everyone’s consciousness. After so long a silence it is quite a remarkable achievement. Shut up for ten years, record a secret album, release new song on 66th birthday suprising everyone and entering top ten charts everywhere. Classy.

It wasn’t just the audacity and the coolness of the carefully maintained anti-hype which made it such a great event. It’s a very intelligent choice, to come in quietly. A nostalgic, observational song it’s a surprising choice of comeback but a good one, which catches the seriousness of these entropic times perfectly.

That Bowie scored a hit is no surprise. An intelligent man who has known and worked with highly creative people in many fields all his life, his early success could have been a one-hit wonder – he worked hard to get the audience he has. Tony Oursler’s video is a huge part of this. But by producing a complex meditative piece, a personal retrospective with a plaintive, questioning chorus, a lyric full of Berlin place-names sung in a sometimes frail voice, he makes an artistic statement which is typical Bowie, pleases fans everywhere and adds a few million more, no doubt.

If Bowie has genius it’s as much in his reading of the times we inhabit. The new song’s observant, nostalgic mood is a perfect foil for all the noisy self-assertion out there. Bang on for this historical moment, unrest everywhere, civil wars, bullets and bombs, it’s sympathetic to the mood of now. Berlin was a city under siege when Bowie lived there, with a free and bomenian culture. In the din of the endless regurgitated pop music machine, it stands out as an original as it catches a general mood. There’s a brand new dance, but I don’t know it’s name.

Having heard the question I can’t wait for the album, which is supposed to be full of variety and quite rocky. Perhaps that’s another subterfuge. Anyway, he got everyone’s attention most beautifully.

To quote another English poet from south London, the artist William Blake,

“The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.”

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Reinventing Ritual

Dean plays acoustic guitar

The image is of myself playing Richard’s guitar several hours into a wake.

Recently, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of attending several funerals. I’ve not been with hardcore drugs gangs, suicidal goths or trick motor cyclists – there just happened to have been a series of deaths this year. It’s a sad by-product of being in one’s 40s.

I’m quite used to being with my Generation X peers, hanging around, socialising, making merry, and being creatively spontaneous, but it’s quite another thing having to conform to society’s expectations after all this time. Few of us are even married.

Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing and mostly we don’t care, but in doing what feels natural, we are stripping away the hackneyed remnants of centuries, and in being true to our punk generation, we’re returning to more elemental ways of expression. The fact that we are re-inventing rituals doesn’t even occur to us, but that is what we are doing.

I feel that the future of my own performance should include ritual in some way – not constructed from other rituals, but emerging from the realities of life as it is lived.

The only performer I have ever seen who has really pulled this off is David Byrne, during his arty Talking Heads days. Somehow he managed to absorb as well as model charismatic movement and gesture – in particular the wonderful video for “Once in a Lifetime” shows this clearly, with dress, choreography and declamation all orginating from Pentacostal preachers.

Studying the process he went through to arrive at this extreme artistic end point, it shows me that he used a process of observation and instinct. Like many artists he also found a sympathetic working partner, in his case Brian Eno, whose biggest gift seems to be becoming an effective catalyst for others, exploring with them their expressive outlets, pushing not just the envelope but the entire stationery shop, and often arriving at quite remarkable outcomes.

Both Eno and Byrne are from an older generation, but they still speak directly to mine. Their legacy which we cherish is the inventive flair and fearlessness which distinguishes them from so many conservative artists.

If I were to model myself on Byrne, that would be missing the point entirely, but he shows me a means by which I can navigate to find my own new ritual space.

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Recording, Writing and Inspiration

Performance – Part Two.

You might want to read part one first

I distinctly remember the moment I realised I was singing a song which I had not written down or learned or planned, and which until that time had not existed, at the height of a live performance, during an encore in a small club in south London.

It had been one of those gigs which everything had conspired to wreck, but which despite or possibly because of frayed nerves, fallings out, fears about money, band members not showing up, broken instruments, strings missing and illness, we had collectively pulled off with a triumphant flourish. The audience were ours, dancing and cheering, the bar staff were grinning, the place was packed and people were still trying to come in from the cold outside. We were for that moment the focus of all the happiness in the world.

Being open to the moment, and caught by the spell, the words and the melody arrived without hindrance, and I was the conduit for the music, the singer and the song. It was freedom, and it was wonderful.

I am a writer, a crafter. In my previous collaborations with other musicians I was frequently the one with the techniques born of intense study and the benefits of education, bringing shape and harmonious order to the chaos of creative soup. I had often admired those gifted, confident souls who could just rock up, grab a guitar, and improvise a song on the spur of the moment. My own songs were born more privately and slowly, with much scribbling of pen on paper and the starting and stopping of audio recorder.

I knew that this wasn’t about quality – my crafted works were every bit as good – but I also knew that until then, somehow, I lacked the confidence just to let it out, uncensored and unchecked. It was the difference between swimming and sinking, between diving and a belly-flop. Once I had done it, I knew that I had just opened a door into the past and the future, and that it was not religion, or drugs, or academic study, that was the key, but music itself.

In the many years since finding that true freedom, I have found various ways to get into the zone. Stillness. Listening. Waiting. Trance. Dance. Movement. Playing music, listening to music, depriving myself of music. I still write like I always did, piece by piece, but, many times, I just open the door and let out whatever is in there, no matter what it is. It’s a great way of finding out who you really are.

Art Blakey the renowned jazz drummer said:

Music is a river, it must keep changing and flowing, or it will stagnate

Along with Art’s wisdom goes the oft-repeated theory that the mixed, mastered and released recording never sounds as good as the demo, the popular justification for which goes something like this: working to a script (including the structured, orderly recording process) kills spontaneity. This is not true, of course, per se, and I have heard many demos which, thrillingly inspired and raw though they may be, are far inferior to the polished recording. But likewise, the old adage about not being able to make silk purses from pig’s ears also holds true.

There is also an older concept, which echoes throughout Zen Buddhism, that the writing down of things in order to describe and define them fixes them in one place and thus limits them, robbing them of some essential essence. But even this kind of spontaneity that Zen aspires to requires the rigorous discipline of meditation and mental training to achieve.

So, written or improvised? We have the best of both worlds. Many classical baroque pieces from hundreds of years ago, give directions for soloists to improvise entire passages of play. In all live music at the highest level, variation in interpretation is expected and celebrated, and some for some genres, jazz and rock in particular, improvisation is the mainstay. Musicians treat recordings (either audio or dots on paper) as a point of departure, as a reference, not as the best or most ultimate definition of a piece of music.

To arrive at the best, most of the time, we need to find a balance between the planned and the improvised.

The map is not the territory. No matter how “perfect” a recording may be, every time the music is played, or played back, it is different, for reasons of the human environment, cultural context, acoustics, air temperature, and most importantly of all, because musicians are different.

Children, total beginners, people who don’t consider themselves musically adept can all equally well come up with staggeringly beautiful melodies, and poignant lyrics which express truths at the heart of the human condition, but they will be enjoyed, then forgotten. What differentiates a writer from everyone else is the compulsion to record, to distil and set down the concepts from which the music flows so that it can be repeated. And yet, without performance, there is nothing.

As a writer, I am most interested in what happens when you don’t try to dam the river, but rather, let music be your raft, the vessel to take you and those with you into places which are inaccessible by other means. For me this works well as a balance to the techniques I have learned and invented. The best improvisors have spent all their lives mastering their craft, but in the moment, none of that knowledge is conscious, and it is not actually even necessary.

Performance is creation, and creation is learning, finding out where the music wants to go and going with it, from the beginning of time, to the end of time.

What great fortune musicians have.

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In the days before recording changed music forever, performance was ubiquitous. Songs were kept alive by people whose performances maintained, interpreted and adapted the music, yet despite the leaky boat of human memory, the essentials were kept surprisingly constant as they were passed from singer to singer down the generations.

When music was written down, the coded instructions, note pitches, intervals, pace (Andantino, Prestissimo) became an idealised fixed point of reference. When recording became established with the invention of the phonograph, recorded performances of music became the de facto reference point(s) for all other renditions. The song was now tied down, and wandering too far from this location would give the academic cause to make a judgement that the song no longer remained the same.

Now, bringing this into the modern age, we observe fragmentation happening as recorded music moves once more away from “permanent” versions and into multiple. But remixes, mashups both licit and illicit, cover versions and reduxes all rely on the reference back to an original, i.e. a first finished, mixed and mastered recording. Even the rough demo of the song refers retrospectively to a future “perfect version”.

Recordings have done much to spread appreciation of music, to advance cultural exchange and understanding, but placing recordings at the top of the musical (financial) tree has had a major side effect. The invention of the camera caused the once widespread skill of drawing to practically disappear in the broad population, and similarly, recording and playback devices have removed the commonplace playing of instruments and singing together (there is historical evidence for this.) We have diminished the role of music and our collective sense of it by coming to rely on recordings rather than performances as the musical fountain from which we drink.

The recording is only as good as the performance it captures, and the performance is only as good as the song, (mind-blowing jazz versions of “Three Blind Mice” and death-metal cloned blasts of anger being exceptions to this rule) and even if the recording is good and the performance worth studying, it is as stuck in time as a butterfly on a pin.

Recordings are really just snapshots of a particular location, just a single view from the musical hill. Shifting your feet a couple of inches, moving your eyes and ears in another direction gives you a different experience of the same location. Look, there’s a golden eagle, which we wouldn’t have seen if we had kept looking at the sunset.


When we started Rise and Shine, our songwriting show, by writing and recording songs about the news along with our audience, we were letting people into the act of creation. Creative improvisation, songwriting, arrangement and production are fascinating to many people, but the strange thing that happened to me was during this time was that my concept of the centre of music shifted.

Essentially, our live performances were producing the songs, but because we were simultanously broadcasting interactively and recording, the act of writing was captured along with the end results. It made me think about where the song really lives. I felt that adding broadcast to the normally closeted processes of writing and recording restored the energy, and returned music to its natural communal function.

As I produced and worked each song into its “finished” version, I recalled thousands of live performances where a combination of practice, musical discipline and being alive to the possibilities of the moment had produced sizzling, hair-raising, inspirational performances which communicating directly to the audience had a value which words struggle to express.

One of my favourite ever music quotes is from the Incredible String Band:

Music is an energy which runs from the beginning of time to the end of time, and musicians are lucky enough to get to play it

People who follow gurus and teachers call this raised level of contact “transmission” – the transfer which happens in the presence of the master. Listening to a fiddle player down the pub gives you something of this, and watching the best surround-sound video recording does not.

However much you appreciate a wonderful recording, you know that any applause you give will fall on ears deaf to your reaction. In live performance, our responses are registered, responded to, incorporated. Just picture the reactions of those around you if you were to clap and cheer after hearing one of your favourite tracks on an iPod!

Transmission is a two-way process, requiring the ears and eyes of the performer as well as the audience. The simple internet broadcast of spontaneous performance as it gave birth to repeatable musical structure, aka songwriting, did achieve a more elevated state of communication than simple playback to a largely passive audience.

Experimenting with the Rise and Shine show, writing this blog, and reading, has really set me thinking about how music works, and what it is that we are seeking from it on the internet, what it is we are likely to get, and beyond that, the value of writing and recording songs and music in general.

There is more to this train of thought to come in my next post.

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