Blues on Bach

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while (or have explored its archives), or if you have ever seen my CD collection or my library, you may have noticed that I’m quite a fan of the music of Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (bonus points if you pick up the literary reference there!) and also of jazz.

I have noticed quite often over the years how jazzy some of Bach’s music is.  My favourite example is the opening of Prelude No. 1 in C (BWV846) from the 48.  It basically consists of a bunch of broken chords but if you analyse the chord progression it is full of major sevenths and other chords that are usually more at home in a jazz setting than a classical one (in case you’re wondering, the first 8 bars are, ignoring inversions, C, Dm7, G7, C, Am, D7, G, Cmaj7).

It is, perhaps, therefore not surprising that several musicians over the years have sought to interpret Bach’s music in a more overtly jazzy style, nor that I enjoy listening to these jazz interpretations.

Quite probably the most famous is Jacques Loussier, a jazz pianist who devoted a large proportion of his career to playing jazz arrangements of Bach’s music.  I have a compilation album drawn from several of his original albums on this theme, which I love listening to.

The only other album I have of explicitly Bach-inspired jazz is by the Modern Jazz Quartet and is entitled Blues on Bach.  I have had this album for several years and played it quite a few times but only fairly recently noticed one particular feature of it.  The album has 9 tracks, all based more-or-less closely on Bach’s works.  Five of them have relatively whimsical titles that give some clue as to which piece they are built on (such as “Precious Joy”, which is a reworking of “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”).  The other four are entitled Blues in X, where X is the key of the blues.  These are also based, fairly loosely, on Bach themes.

The keys are Bb (or B as it is called in German musical terminology), A minor, C minor and B (or H, as it appears in German) and the order of them, interspersed as they are between the other tracks, is no accident for – lo and behold! – they spell: BACH!

Incidentally, I’ve long harboured a suspicion that the German tradition of calling the notes B and H instead of Bb and B may have arisen from Bach wanting to be able to spell his own name musically, since the sequence A B H C D E F G (+ accidentals) seems considerably less logical than A B C D E F G (both in the placement of H out of sequence and the fact that that one should get its own name whereas other semitones have to be content with being called x-sharp or y-flat).  However, I’ve been unable to discover any hard evidence one way or the other (such as attested use of the note names before Bach’s time).  The Wikipedia article on musical notation doesn’t mention that possibility and indicates that the origin of the practice is unknown, suggesting it may be due to a resemblance between the letters b and h in Gothic script (see the article for quite a bit more detail).

(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 2

Last week I wrote about some of the early history of my violin playing, finishing my account on the eve of my departure for university.  The time has now come to bring my account up to date.

Prior to going to university, my violin playing in public (apart from playing it in a church band — which I’ve continued to do, along with various other instruments, to this day) was mostly confined to classical music.  When I went to university, and subsequently, my musical horizons expanded significantly.

Actually, as an undergraduate (maths) student in Nottingham, I didn’t do very much violin playing at all (at least publicly).   The mainstay of my musical life in Nottingham was the unversity’s early music ensemble, in which I played (mostly tenor) recorder and (mostly bass) viol.  I also played bass guitar in several groups, including a band from the Christian Union that played for various jazz café events.

For most of the time the CU jazz café band remained nameless, but we did eventually get named The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ (at my suggestion — partly because I was just getting back into Bagpuss at the time and mainly to avoid some even worse names that had been suggested); I think that was just in time for our final gig.  Most of the time I played bass in that band (having earlier learned to play the bass mostly by learning on the job in a jazz big band) but I did play violin for at least one or two gigs, when there was another bassist available and we were slightly short of horns (OK, so the violin is not usually considered part of the horn section, but you know what I mean).

While at university I also got hold of some books of folk tunes, foremost among them The Fiddler’s Fakebook (by David Brody, published by Oak), and started to get more into folk fiddling, although still only in the confines of my own home and only playing on my own or with members of my family.  Previously I had played some folk music with my Dad from some books he had, but the Fakebook definitely gave a big boost to my interest in this kind of music (or rather, these kinds, since it covered quite a few different folk styles).

When I moved to Bangor to do my PhD, I decided to approach the music department to find out if there were any early music opportunities, especially as I was keen to continue playing the viol and I didn’t have one of my own (I still don’t, though I’d still love to get one one day).  At the time there weren’t, but one of the members of the department, Stephen Rees, put me in touch with the local folk music scene (in particular, regular Welsh and Irish sessions taking place in local pubs), which gave me a start on playing folk music with other people and also on learning tunes by ear rather than reading them from books. I’m firmly convinced that this is the way forward for folk music, although books can be quite handy as backup sources / memory aids for tunes.

I regularly played, mostly fiddle (with a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things), in both the Irish and Welsh sessions for several years, although gradually I drifted out of the habit of going to them as I got busy with other things.  After about a year of going to the sessions, I was invited by a couple of guys I’d met there to join them for a practice in one of their houses and quickly discovered that they were recruiting a new fiddle player for their twmpath (aka barn dance or ceili(dh)) band, Defaid Du (Welsh for “black sheep” (pl.)).  We got on pretty well and I soon found myself a member of the band (also playing a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things).  My first gig with them was all the way over in Lincoln and, over the next 10 years or so we played many gigs (some excellent, some less so) in many places, mostly across North Wales but occasionally further afield.  Lincoln remained the furthest distance I travelled with that particular band, but we did also go down to Exeter one time and to the Gower Peninsula (near Swansea) a couple of times, as well as a handful of gigs in the English midlands.

Apart from the great deal of pleasure I got from playing and hanging out with the other members of the band (to say nothing of the beer), one of the things I particularly valued about being a twmpath musician was the opportunity to travel to all kinds of obscure bits of North Wales (and, as mentioned, beyond) that I probably would otherwise never have seen.  Quite often, whether I’m travelling to or through, or just talking about, a place in North Wales (or sometimes beyond), I find myself saying “I played a gig there once…”.  Sadly Defaid Du came to an end a couple of years ago when our guitarist/gig-organiser/bloke-with-PA moved to the south of England.  We did, however, have a reunion gig the other week (for the wedding of a daughter of one of my bandmates) and we have another one coming up next month (for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of the band).  It’s been great to play again together, although it has made me realise how much I miss playing twmpathau.

I have occasionally moonlighted with other local twmpath bands (especially the ever-wonderful Aderyn Prin) when their own fiddler (or on one occasion their guitarist — although I played fiddle and their fiddler played guitar, as I knew the tunes better than the chords) has been absent, and doubtless I shall continue to do so. I’ve also played a few solo gigs of folk fiddle music, including one memorable one (for me, at least) when I stood playing Welsh folk tunes for an hour or so outside the Welsh Assembly Government’s tent (at their request) at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen.

Most of my other public music-making in recent years, apart from a couple more forays into the world of classical music (about which more later), has been on other instruments — mostly basses of various descriptions. However, I have played a bit of jazz violin at jazz cafés hosted by my church (as with the Nottingham CU ones, I usually played bass for these events, but there was at least one when I could find another bass player but was short of horns). One of the other members of my new jazz band is also a bassist (as well as a trumpeter), so at some point I may get to play a bit of fiddle with the Jazz Knights if James would like to play bass.

Once again, this account of my fiddle playing seems to be growing somewhat larger than intended, so I’ll postpone the account of my classical playing in the post-university years to another post. It should only take one more post to finish bringing the narrative up to date, although I hope that I have several more posts worth of violin playing (in all kind of styles) to look forward to in the future.

Gloria in profundis

I have been a ukulele player for several years and a bass player for somewhat longer (at least 20 years by now!).

It was only fairly recently (probably a year or so back) that I discovered the existence of the bass ukulele.  A friend of mine (and fellow bass player) got one and let me have a go on it.  I was immediately impressed by how such a small instrument (it’s the same size as a standard baritone ukulele, which is roughly the size of a viola) could manage to sound so much like an upright bass (it’s even tuned the same – at the same pitch).  Although you lack the facility for bowing it, you can get a very good approximation of a plucked bass sound in a much smaller, more convenient package.

I already wrote a bit about the bass ukulele a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was due to be playing a gig with a jazz band, the Jazz Knights.  As I said then, I was borrowing a bass ukulele (the same one that I had previously seen, from the same person) for that gig.  The gig itself went really well and everyone seemed to like the bass uke.  We decided to keep going as a band.  At this point, I decided the time had come to get a bass ukulele of my own.

Looking around, I managed to find an attractive looking deal for a fretless bass ukulele at Thomann, a German online music shop.  Although evidently not such a nice instrument as the Kala uBass that I had been borrowing, this was substantially cheaper than the cheapest Kala ukulele I could find for sale (even second hand)  so I decided it would be worth a try.

My new bass uke arrived this afternoon and my first impressions of the instrument are generally positive.  Here’s what it looks like (click on the picture to see it in my Flickr photostream, where you will find other pictures of the instrument, most of them in colour):
Gloria 2b

As I suspected, it isn’t such a finely crafted instrument as the Kala but it seems to be pretty well put together nonetheless.  At first, I wasn’t at all keen on the white polyurethane strings (the Kala has black ones) but I’m getting used to them and beginning to think they actually go quite well with the white trim on the body of the instrument and the “fret” lines on the fingerboard.  It is probably just as well that the fretless fingerboard is lined, since the hand spacing is quite different from most stringed bass instruments due to the considerably shorter scale length.  Even with this visual aid to help, I’ll probably need to do a fair amount of practice to get the hang of it.  To some extent, there’s a similar problem even with a fretted bass uke (such as the Kala I was playing), but the frets are certainly more forgiving of slight inaccuracies in finger placement.

One feature of this instrument that was lacking on the Kala is onboard volume and tone controls, which could be quite useful for adjusting my sound in the middle of a gig (or muting the instrument temporarily, e.g. to put it down) if I’m unable to reach the amplifier.  The flip-side is that, while the Kala had purely passive circuitry, this one is active (powered by a couple of lithium cells) and evidently won’t work if the batteries are removed (or dead).

Having played for a number of years on a borrowed upright bass called Claudia (so named by its owner), I resolved that if ever I got an upright bass of my own I would call it Gloria.  Since it currently seems unlikely that I will be getting an upright bass any time soon (certainly while I live in such a small house) and since the bass uke is such a good substitute for one, I’ve decided to call my new uke Gloria instead (I’ve also got the name Bertha reserved for the – also highly unlikely – eventuality that I should ever get a tuba to call my own).

Jazz (K)nights

Jazz is one of my favourite kinds of music, both for listening to and playing, although I don’t often get opportunities to play it these days.  Therefore, I was delighted to be offered a jazz gig (as a bass player) this coming Saturday night.  This evening I met the rest of the band (for the first time) for a practice, which went pretty well.  There won’t be any further practices before the gig.

The band – The Jazz Knights – is newly formed for this occasion and (apart from me) is made up of members of Holyhead Jazz Club.  It is currently a six-piece band, with a line up of tenor sax/clarinet (doubling), soprano sax, trombone, guitar, drums and bass.  The programme for our concert on Saturday says: “Our music ranges from Traditional [jazz], through Swing, Bossa Nova and Tin Pan Alley/Show tunes”, which seems to me to be a fair description.  The plan seems to be to keep going after this gig and maybe try to get a regular residency (perhaps once per fortnight) at a local pub.  Hopefully I’ll get to be a part of all that too.

We have a set list of 22 pieces for this particular gig.  I have probably played about 7 or 8 of them before (including a few that I’m very familiar with, like Summertime, Satin Doll and Autumn Leaves) and I was at least vaguely familiar with about half the others.  Amongst the tunes that are entirely new to me is a bossa nova piece called Wave (by Antonio Carlos Jobim), which I particularly enjoyed playing this evening.  We didn’t have time to play through the whole set at our practice, so there will be a few that I’m sightreading on the night (which is just the way I like it).

To make matters even more exciting, I am playing this gig on a borrowed bass ukulele.  This is a small instrument (roughly the size of a viola) with polyurethane strings, which plays at the same pitch (and in the same tuning) as a bass guitar or upright bass.  When amplified, it sounds remarkably like an upright bass but is significantly more portable (and easier to fit in small bungalows or on cramped stages).  The only downside is that the scale length is very short (certainly compared to most bass instruments) and therefore it takes some getting used to the different finger spacing.  It’s probably just as well that it’s a fretted instrument I’m borrowing!

The gig on Saturday is a charity gig on behalf of the Anglesey Centre of Mission.  It takes place at St Anne’s Hall, Dale Street, Menai Bridge, starting at 7:30pm (and going on until about 10pm). Tickets cost £6 and should be available on the door, although it’s a fairly small hall so space is limited.  The Jazz Knights will be playing most of the music but there will be an interlude with music from a quartet drawn from the Menai Bridge Brass Band (as it happens both Tim, our trombone player, and I also play with the Menai Bridge Band but we’re not in this quartet).


Fantastic folk-jazz fusion

I’ve been continuing to use the radio facilities for a fairly high proportion of my listening recently and it continues to turn up occasional gems.

This morning I was listening to The Be Good Tanyas artist radio, which plays music from artists deemed to be similar to this band.  I’m not sure how they go about determining similarity, but in this case the stuff that’s being played seemed to fit quite well together (unlike some artist radios I’ve tried, which come up with very random mixes of supposedly similar artists).

Anyway, one of the tracks that the radio played this morning was “Mad Tom of Bedlam” by Jolie Holland.  She was, I gather, one of the founding members of the Tanyas and continues to appear as a guest with them on a fairly regular basis.  This particular track is an old English folk ballad (though not an Old English one!) that I first heard on a Steeleye Span album in what sounds like a fairly traditional rendition (as far as I can remember it had a different name, though it was definitely the same song).  Jolie Holland has given the song a jazz twist, treating the tune quite freely and giving it a swing rhythm with drum kit accompaniment.   To my ear, this is an excellent fusion of folk and jazz.

The track is from her first studio album,  Escondida (which sounds a bit like a medical condition, although it’s actually Spanish for “hidden”).  I had previously listened to most of the album, which is available on Spotify, but I couldn’t remember it particularly well so I had another listen to it this morning.  The whole album is slightly jazz-tinged, although “Mad Tom” appears to be the most jazzy arrangement on there.  It’s definitely worth a listen if you get the chance.