Posts from the ‘Piano’ Category

Covers vs Originals … ?

Many of us start life as creative, professional musicians with an absolute aversion to playing anyone elses music ever at all. No way! We want to tell our own stories and have something original and unique to say that no-one else has. For others, it’s the opposite – not everyone is a natural at songwriting and composing and there is a fine career to be had just playing and interpreting what’s already been written.

I prioritise my own material 95% – confident to call myself in general terms a ‘jazz musician’ as the idiomatic jazz references in my work are unmistakable. Over the years I’ve found an increasingly interesting (and sometimes rocky) relationship between covers and original music and getting known for doing both.

Here’s my Top Ten (and somewhat random) Tips and crazy notions to navigate and have fun with the covers/originals balance.

  1. Never forget that what lies in your own brain, imagination and invention is your gift to the world. You have a duty to bring it forth. Original art is everything. You’ll know if you have something to say with your songs as they will write you – you won’t have a choice. Never block the flow, you will make yourself ill if you do. Trust that you have something to say and get out of the way of creation speaking through you!

  2. As a child, I was told off, (in a grudgingly admiring way) by my piano tutor for using our lessons to show her my own compositions. She wanted me to focus on the Purcell (yuk …) and Mozart (yawn …) that we had to study. In her head, this was clearly the concert pianist path. I was more interested in making up my own chord sequences, although I felt guilty for including a hooky progression from a current TV show.

  3.  It was at this point that she was more helpful and told me not to worry about little steals and derivations and that the famous composers quoted from each other all the time – both deliberately and unconsciously.

  4. One huge and obvious advantage of sticking to your own work is that the royalties and rights are yours. No need to negotiate or buy access or clear it with anyone before you record. If original work is your default process then you find yourself wanting to record a cover and then sell the resulting album, it can feel (and is) somewhat more complicated.

  5. An advantage of doing covers is that (for me) there is a blissful and much needed buffer zone of objectivity. What a relief to leave my own stories behind and put something less risky on the line! If the audience rejects it, (either the storyline or the melody) it’s so much less personal.

  6. Approaching and arranging  great popular standards can and will make you a better player and composer for your own stuff. Tackle John Coltranes ‘Giant Steps’ just for fun – it’s such a good theory lesson and can be treated and redone in endless ways. (A repertoire of classic covers also serves as ready teaching material.) Program your set so that you hit a new audience with 4 originals, then a really popular standard that shows off your skills but continues the theme. Like dominos, make sure they’re connected by something – subject matter/mood/tempo/key. If you can get your original songs mistaken for classics then this is a good thing and means you’re writing the standards of the future! I had a (not very pleasant but certainly interesting) post gig scenario once at the Isle of Wight jazz festival. A well known festival director accused me of plagiarising my own songs. He was drunk and out of order and quite aggressive. Horrible – but it was proof that my songs are strong!

  7. Unless the fee is really good, (weddings!) only choose covers that you genuinely love and will stand the test of time and endless repetition as part of your set. Be steadfast in refusing requests (to perform/arrange/prepare/record/deliver) popular songs that you honestly don’t like – it will erode your soul.

  8. Check out other musicians who’ve covered songs maybe more or less successfully than the original songwriter. What makes a great song? One that can be endlessly reinterpreted or one that is untouchable? I fell in love with Carmen McCraes version of ‘New York State of Mind’, then Oleta Adams version – long before I realised that Billy Joel wrote it. It’s a truly solid song, great melody, feel, structure and storytelling. Removed enough from the author that it can live an independent life. In my own set, I include a few K pop songs – which have been translated (into Japanese) for the (huge) Japanese market. One of these, ‘Juliette’ started off as ‘Deal With It’ released by ‘High School Musical’ singer, Corbin Bleu. Then K pop giants Seoul Media bought the rights and transformed it utterly for their top boy band ShinEE – but kept the melody and structure. (Geeks and enthusiasts, listen to the original HERE. The Korean cover/transformation HERE and the Japanese translation HERE.)

  9. Choose wisely – though if you fall on your face, that’s half the fun. I refuse to do Joni Mitchell covers, despite being asked. To ‘superfans’, she is an immortal (rightly so!) and only Joni can do Joni. Likewise Prince – if you attempt it, better do it right! When choosing a cover, have fun taking it as far away from its original incarnation as you can. Mess with the tempo and instrumentation. Strip everything back to the song. See if you can take an industrial metal number and redo it for acoustic jazz guitar. Check out Amy Winehouses version of The Beatles ‘All My Loving’ – which in my opinion is better than the original.

  10. In these days of social media and Youtube – well placed (and non copyright infringing) cover versions and treatments of other artists songs can really work in your favour by drawing fans into your world, your website, your mailing list. The next generation of music lovers is always growing up in waves, discovering the great artists for the first time – they may be led to your version first – or next – through search engines, key words and hash tags.

No one has covered my work to my knowledge. How would I feel … I think I would hate it! I want to be the unique legend that non-one else can do! (But one day I guess it might happen.)

 

Here’s a clip of me singing ‘Feeling Good’ (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly) in Trafalgar Square, with my own pre-recorded piano arrangement. (I like this song so much, I later did a different version for guitar.)

Lastly, find out what you need to know to protect your work (copyright – there’s more than one way to do it) and tread respectfully and honestly around others. If your songs are out there, live, recorded or online – there are multiple royalty avenues that you can and should access. Be clear (onstage and everywhere else) about the intellectual ownership of your own work and seek advice before recording others.

 

Resources:

 

Musicians Union – Benefits, protection, legal advice, community.

 

BASCA – British Academy of Songwriters, composers and authors.

 

Performing Rights Society – Music copyright, royalties and licensing.

 


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A Woman’s Worth…

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(The picture is of Norma Jean Wofford, also known as ‘The Duchess’ – lead guitarist with Bo Diddley from ’62-’66. She doesn’t appear in the book I’m talking about here, but this image goes very well with my blog post title. There were dozens of artists that I could have envisaged in the project. Would I like to see Giving Birth to Sound volume II and III and beyond? Yes.  Also a CD compilation and a dedicated music festival? You bet. I’m dreaming big…)

This post is about the worth and significance of musicians – female ones in particular – our capacity as story-tellers, mediums, healers, visionaries, agitators, collaborators entertainers and communicators. Every week, I am still riding the wave of momentum generated by ‘Giving Birth To Sound’ – the new book by Cologne jazz publisher Buddy’s Knife. With a foreword by legendary jazz pianist Amina Claudine Myers and featuring 48 female musicians – including myself. Over a year ago, I was approached by the editor, Renate da Rin. Would I like to be interviewed for a book about female musicians in jazz and creative music? I was up for it of course, and now suddenly the book has arrived and it’s an absolute dream. I am honoured and happy to be sitting side by side with some of my influences and industry legends. A rich collection of personal histories and records of incredible achievement. The contributions have all been translated into English but each artist tells of a very personal relationship to sound, with a diverse range of nationalities, cultures, languages and instrumentation.

All the artists in the book are receiving our copies at different times and reading the final creation at different paces. Needless to say, with a sense of unfolding wonder and high hopes for further contact and projects. This feels unstoppable! For my part, I feel determined to draw attention to what has been achieved here and why it’s important. Despite distinct differences in age, race, language, education and geography, attitude to music, society and concepts of ‘womanhood’, there are common themes amongst the participants – which speak volumes about the times we are living in. An awareness of injustice, a recognition of global inequality and an economic climate where poverty is being demonised and money worshipped, the natural world being destroyed. A recognition that things are in some ways worse not better. A proud, fearless independence, but love of collaboration. An almost mystical, ecstatic reverie that comes from the creative process. Early exposure not just to musical stimulus, but to the worlds of the imagination. A generous passion and hope for the music above all – often expressed in words that are non-linear, poetic, idiomatic and rhapsodic. The book actually reads like a piece of music itself.

Women and girls have been told so many times that we can’t do stuff – either that we’re weak, incompetent and decorative … or in other periods of history and geography, that we are only good for sex, childcare, menial labour and social scapegoating, physical/emotional punchbags, with no access to self-improvement. I don’t say that lightly. In some areas, women have lower status than a domestic animal. Though happily, neither extreme is my own personal experience – the reality of worldwide abuse of women and girls is now so widely known about, that the concept of  female emancipation can no longer be ridiculed as some special interest feminist minority issue. It’s affecting the gender which is actually the majority. So it brings me joy when I see initiatives that really celebrate women. Our stories need to be heard. Some of them are shocking.

 (Here’s what I wrote to the editors:)

”The more I read of the book, the more I am blown away, with love and inspiration, heart quakes and shakes, tears of solidarity and empathy and also a fair bit of socio-political outrage. Today, reading the story of the musician who was accused as a child of being a liar – (TWICE) as her work was so advanced they didn’t believe it was hers… (this happened to me at school, with a play I wrote.)”  * I remember too, after a performance at the Isle of Wight Jazz festival, being approached by the (drunk) director of another prominent UK jazz festival. He accused me of not being the author of my own songs, which he threatened to  research and expose as classic standards which I had in fact plagiarised. Talk about a compliment and insult at the same time. I later received an apology …

 (I also wrote this to the editors:)

”I have to say, a book, (so much more than just a ‘book’) of this nature could not have happened at this time in the UK. We’re beset here with a governmental drive towards austerity that is unbelievable. But there are valiant pockets of rebellion and creativity resourcefulness, generosity and people-power all the more amazing, as we are operating against the odds here. A common theme amongst some of the contributors seems to be the increasing punishment of the poor and of poverty by government and media, affecting all artists – so maybe this economic trend is worldwide. BUT I am so thankful to you creative jazz loving folks at Buddys Knife – for your intellectual courage, determination and artistic integrity in doing this project.
Each one of these 48 contributors is not just a musical creator, but leader, visionary and dare I say it – shaman/sorcerer/witch/wizard/world-bridger and changer of epic proportions. Each with her own networks of international creativity. There are some global possibilities here. As with all creations – a mixture of strong desire/intent and a trust and ALLOWING… the inevitability and momentum of dreams coming to fruit : ) Thinking big. Loving large. Powering the imagination. Women are rising again.”

Here is the intro on the back cover, which says it beautifully. Here’s why you need to read this book! Please order it and buy copies for your friends, libraries, schools, jazz cafes. By doing so you will be helping to support the next stage of our journey – you too will be ‘giving birth to sound!’

”Giving Birth to Sound is about Her-story as told by some of the most brilliant and creative women musicians in the world. Individual thinkers and movers who have been brave enough to devote their lives to the making of music the way they hear it. They were not afraid to sing and speak in the name of sound, showing us that they are a family of unique individuals, separate but united. Read their words and listen to their music whenever you can – it will take you even closer to the great mystery called life.”
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   How to buy the book:
   http://www.buddysknife.de/our-titles/
   info@buddysknife.de
   Available on amazon.com and amazon.de.
Thank you for reading!

 

 

 

The ‘Woodshed’

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(Image from The Girls in The Band.)

The ‘woodshed’. That place where jazzers go to practice. How to explain to friends, family, loved ones and significant others, (and even some fellow musicians), the sovereignty, the absolute non-negotiable sanctity of the woodshed? How to really convey this?

I spend hours and hours and hours alone, in a room with myself and my instrument (s). And I love it. I think I love it more than anything or anyone. Only the pure ecstasy of performing – of going to the other end of the scale, of  extrovert, gregarious all out curtain-up showtime beats it. Very little else. Anyone who has had to fight for this sacred chunk of devoted artistic time can recognise its true value. Painters and writers know. Also nuns, monks, hermits, ascetics, celibates and renunciates.

Things I might do in the ‘woodshed’ might include the following: composition/arrangement, then drilling through and memorising guitar parts for various solo or collaborative projects. Or, maybe the world has literally DISAPPEARED because a song is coming through, coaxing, teasing or exploding its way through the veil. For me, new music comes unbidden, uninvited and with extravagant pomp and splendour. An idea grabs onto a random hook or scale that I was practising anyway, then not just one song but 4, then a surrounding concept album are suddenly THERE, all at once, demanding refinement. It’s a visceral experience of birthing something that will have its way and just HAS to come through. A feeling both ravenous and ravening. Or I might be just in a hypnotic grip of scales and arpeggios, diminished  and major 7ths all up and down the fretboard. Stamina for hands and fingers. For ages. Or the geeky joy of 2 handed tapping in kind of Nu metal/classical way that is frank and pure indulgence. People might fairly observe that playing guitar or indeed anything on your own for hours is kind of wanky. Well, maybe, but we all need that too. For myself, I feel an intense kind of dialogue  with music as a companion and the instrument as a partner that gives back exactly what I give out.

But yes, it’s a love affair.

The woodshed is about more than practice and preparation. (These are of course, essential, but as we know, can be overdone at the expense of spontaneity and creativity onstage, in the moment.) It’s about maintaining a bedrock of physical and technical ease. Being good to go. It’s about knowing the material backwards. Being able to tap into that wellspring of  energy. I cannot feel good about stepping onstage, unless I know I have taken care of my practice. I have to connect with that source every day, if possible. It’s nothing less than a spiritual discipline. Even though I also do a fair bit of staring into space, dreaming and scratching my head…

I could rhapsodise further but…the woodshed calls…’bye for now.

 

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(Trombone player, Melba Liston featured in The Girls in The Band.) 

 The Girls in the Band is a documentary by director Judy Chaikin. Contains glorious archive footage of the great female jazz bands of the ’40’s as well as interviews and music from contemporary musicians. Enjoy this trailer and track down the full film if you can!

 


 

 

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What is Nu Jazz?

Soho Nights 4

 

What is Nu Jazz? It’s about 15 years since I really started earnestly to make a career out of my own songwriting rather than just teaching music, or the many other randomly musical things I could have done. I fell into teaching at a high level at a very young age, whilst still learning, and could have continued with just that. I’ve had many forking life paths. Still here doing it. Having to promote, package and present what I do to the world. Sometimes I get the smallest window just to zoom back and view the journey.

In the beginning, I had much feedback telling me that what I do isn’t jazz. But I think I can safely say – I’m here to stay. I call my music Nu Jazz, as it’s the most accurate I can get. It’s definitely a kind of jazz, containing too many jazz reference points not be jazz. But really it’s just an unusual, new artistic flavour with a contemporary feel which is perfect for our times. Many of my songs, people don’t believe are original – they already sound like standards. And I hope that they will be, one day.

Born in Wales, of Irish/Scottish ancestry, I come from a folk tradition and I always thought I would write in that idiom, although life had other plans. But what is folk? (‘World Music’ is, to me also folk music – traditional instruments, stories, lineages, voices and modes of expression, ancient/modern fusions, political, social, lyrical – of every genre from all over the globe.) I started off listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan – but when I moved to London my music teachers were Gospel musicians. (Gospel is surely a musical folkway in itself) Once this influence hit my folk background, the cocktail started fizzing and it was just a steady road to where I am now.  Via Junior Mance, Duke Ellington, Santana, Chick Corea, Kirk Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Yolanda Adams, Diamanda Galas, Bjork, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jhelissa Anderson, Horace Silver, Dianne Reeves, George Duke, Dinah Washington and every big jazz diva of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s plus a nice dose of helpfully termed – and extremely jazzy – ‘Nu Soul’ tapes featuring Mica Paris, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, which made a big impression on me. Jazz is a huge genre. Acid Jazz, Jazz Soul, Latin Jazz, Jazz funk, Trad Jazz, Jazz fusion, Jazz rock, Jazz blues. Take any instrument or discipline and put ‘Jazz’ in front of it.  Jazz poetry. Jazz dance. Jazz cinema. Put it in an elevator or advert, you have an instant vibe and evocation of time and place. Classic Jazz. Modern Jazz. Free Jazz. Jazz Hip Hop. Be Bop. Doo Wop. Lindy Hop. All that Jazz.  Jazz it up. We have endless permutations and examples of where ‘jazz’ of some kind is present and the associations that it conjures.

Genre definitions can be cumbersome. One of my biggest influences, Nina Simone, hated being defined as jazz, and never chose that herself. She called herself a classical musician, generically transcendent, actually. Maybe one day her legacy will birth an entirely new word – a new definition altogether.

What is Nu Jazz? A defining moment for me was being invited by Juliet Kelly to share the bill with herself and Ayanna Witter-Johnson at the Bull’s Head, in London. Juliet had called the night ‘Nu Jazz Divas’. Who was I to argue? That’s good enough for me. The common theme amongst us was a loose jazz style – but not prescription, and original, ‘Nu’ writing.

Sometimes, in the full swing of a song, at the piano, or guitar, I feel right in the heart of my journey, held by spirits of those who went before. With enough wordplay to recall Cole Porter.  Just enough bluesy snap, crackle and heartache to evoke Etta James. Enough stride to recall Ray Charles or Scott Joplin. Enough theatrics to summon up a bit of Otis. Enough space age beatnik hyper poetry to bring some Donald Fagenish Americana into the mix. And some Judy Garland high camp. The recipe starts to cook. And it can be what I say it is. It’s right at the edge and that edge expands as I want. I can talk my creation into being.

When I tried to sell the concept of ‘fusion’ to a well-known (folk) music manager, she said she didn’t get what I was fusing.  But I do. I do have a vision. It involves quite a lot of rhythm and blues, hypnotic groove, lyrical melodic flow and interruption, lush harmonic extensions contrasted with sparse geometric furnishings and colourings. Slidey, snake-like Wes Montgomery guitar stylings, structural blocks and themes, improvisational flights, the bittersweet longing of the plucked string. The smoothest and roughest textures that the voice can make. Paradox. Nu-Vintage and retro-newness and sepia toned novelty and yin/yang alchemy.  Plus some universal but specific stories of love, loss, conflict, inspiration, struggle and redemption that I’m unafraid to tell. It’s Nu Jazz, baby. It just won’t leave me alone.


 

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