Category Archives: bass

Self-Indulgent/Utterly Lonely

People think that free-jazz/free-improvisation is self-indulgent. I agree – but I think it misses the point. A virtuoso (Lang Lang banging away at Rachmaninov) is self-indulgent too. He indulges the worst features of a performer and the basest desires of the audience. Everyone might as well have gone to the circus and watched the trapeze act.

But free-jazz/free-improvisation indulges one person’s pure musicality against another person’s pure musicality. If an audience wants to be there, to hear the music and to hear connection, they are welcome. But the music does not depend on an audience – all that is needed are two players and the will to play.

I do most of my music making at home, alone. I overdub, cut and paste, pretend I can play the accordion and hopefully at the end of an afternoon I may have a track that sounds nice. But I long for the interaction that continually draws me to listen to free music.

This week I met with an old acquaintance who has an interest in free music and plays the drums. Here is a snippet of what we did:

I also made some recordings of myself playing the drums. And when I had some time later on in the week I put a bass vamp over the drums and did my best Cecil Taylor imitation over top of them:

I’m quite pleased with my piano playing on this. The piano is my favourite instrument, but I think it is the instrument I’m worst at. Practicing the piano is a very public thing to do and when the only material you have to play is what is inside of you, that’s hard.

The piano is also the hardest instrument to mic – but with the aid of my handy new Zoom Handy Recorder H2 I have actually been able to record some good piano sounds.

This also lacks the visceral punch of music played in the moment by a group of people. One day I might just have the balls to start a piano trio.

I know it’s self-indulgent to put seven minutes of yourself free-improvising on your music blog. But I have over 30 minutes of recordings of drums-saxophone duets, so I don’t think I was as indulgent as I could have been.

(The wonderful drums on the duet are played by Matthew Dunn.)



Chance is a funny thing. I took five days off work and went to the cottage for some relaxation.

While I was there I made some field recordings with my new portable recorder.

I recorded water:

and I recorded wind:

And I got home and went right back to work. After a vacation I am always more tired than before I went away. I almost cancelled a Monday night engagement. At the last minute I changed my mind and went. My bus home is on diversion. At 9:30 I walked passed Gallery 345 on Sorauren. Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille were playing. It was beautiful, inspiring and galvanizing. It was also depressing – to me, these guys are legends. There were less than 20 people in the house.

Henry Grimes had disappeared for 30 years. People thought he was dead. In 2002 he made a comeback.

After I saw him play I made this song. It is in no way related to the music he plays. I’m glad he’s playing it.


I’m reading a book about Glenn Gould right now. There is a quote in there about the right time to have idols – Gould puts it in the early teens, but something tells me he had a few in his adulthood – that made me feel a little ashamed of myself. I jump from one hero to the next, sucking as much inspiration as I can from them and then moving on.

John Fahey was a hero. I haven’t listened to his music in a year. Anthony Braxton was a hero – it’s been three months since I’ve heard one note he played. Two weeks ago it was Mozart – tomorrow Beethoven.

There are non-musical heroes as well – Shackleton being, of course, the most exemplary:

And there are people who break your heart:

And somehow you try to make music out of it.

And sometimes you succeed.

Render Unto Caesar

Why wind?

The wind band I have been talking about is changing. Here it is in a new form:

4 recorders

2 flutes

2 euphonium

with guitar, bass, mandolin and accordion.

Whisper the Wind

Snow Blind

A week ago I went to the Power Plant and saw new and recent works by Canadian Michael Snow. While I wasn’t particularly impressed by any of the show’s content, I enjoyed the directness and sincerity of his statements about the works. I was also excited about how interactive one of the works could be:

I’m standing by the stop-sign.

A week later at another Toronto art hotspot (The Drake Hotel) I had the privilege of hearing James Blackshaw perform. Blackshaw is an English guitarist who is very inspiring. He’s not yet thirty. His albums are beautiful, lush, well-recorded and full of a guitar sound and style that I love. That being said, I try not to listen to his music much. His music is so close in form and execution to the music I want to make that I fear being too influenced by this young Brit. What an arrogant and conceited thought! But honest.

Being in these two radically different spaces united by “art” (The Power Plant is large and auster, empty of people – the Drake was full of night-clubbers waiting for a Prince theme party to begin) I was struck by how divergent public creativity is. Michael Snow is associated with everything from Albert Ayler to the Eaton Center, Prince and Miles Davis planned on making records together, James Blackshaw curated a compilation that featured a lute-player. Ezra Pound’s great realization at the dawn of the twentieth century was that all ages are contemporary, but this week was strange.

So I listened to recordings I made when I was first hearing James Blackshaw and was pleased to find that his influence had not been pervasive – it was barely detectable outside the fact that a 12-string guitar was being finger-picked. Here is one from the vaults:


Some people suffer for their art – I’m one of them. I had just gotten my gong when I made this song and was so excited to use it. Usually you see gongs on stands, suspended gracefully in the air. Mine doesn’t have a stand. So I have to pick it up with one hand, holding it away from my body as to not dampen the sound, and bang it with my other hand. My back was in terrible pain for well over two weeks. I haven’t recorded the gong since.

And all that free jazz…

The hardest thing about making music by yourself is not playing with other people. I know this seems incredibly self-evident – but it’s worth stating. The music that has nurtured me the most has been communal music, often with a strong improvisational streak. Or to use a label that Duke Ellington would disapprove of, jazz. When you play by yourself, you don’t evolve.

While most of my working methods involve improvisation to a great degree, it is not the kind of playing that produces anything close to a jazz musician. This year I am going to try to make a concerted effort to play with more people, and to play freely. But finding like-minded people is not easy. Until then, I am content to improvise alone with multi-track recording.

Magnus, Magnus, Magnus

On this track I am playing against a rhythm that I made by slapping my body and stamping on the floor. I then edited the rhythm digitally and put seven clarinets (5 normal, 2 alto) and two trombone tracks over top of it. I was thinking of using an octet format for the clarinet group and had saved the last spot for some pure free improvisation. But in the end I thought there was something so incredibly rusty and wonky with the clarinets as they were (like an old organ grinder) that I should just leave them. So I just left them. I had the itch for some free jazz, and that is what follows. Playing over the same rhythms as the A section, but with a jazz drum kit, bass, trombone and alto clarinet on top. This is the format used by one of the greatest jazz groups I have ever heard – a mid 70s unit featuring Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. If you want to hear the real deal, you can find it here.

“Jazz” is kind of embarrassing. It’s like an uncle that was a great high-school quarter-back but now gets drunk too quickly on sherry wine at a family get-together and falls asleep in a lawn-chair with a lit cigarette. Everything about jazz seems dated now; the language, the pony-tails, the shiny jackets, the listener-supported radio stations. This is what I picture when somebody says “Jazz Musician”:

And yet I want more than anything to be a jazz musician. I think I might grow a pony-tail, buy a silvery suit, go to jazz college, form a Steely Dan cover band and repeat jokes that Frank Zappa made. Until then I’ll just learn to use the language (musical and otherwise) the best I can.

The title of this piece, Magnus, Magnus, Magnus, (latin for Great, Great, Great) is about Charles Mingus and his great relationship with Eric Dolphy. While Anthony Braxton insists that he wasn’t influenced by Dolphy, I can’t help but think that they were kindred spirits. In a way, Braxton is Shakleton to Dolphy’s Scott. You dig?