I made up my mind days before the Mexico City Blues gig that I would not, could not review it. It is some kind of crazy to review a gig where you’re in the band. Logic and custom sensibly warns you to walk swiftly in the opposite direction. The gig passed and I asked others if they would do the review; “You’re wrong man” they said, “You absolutely have to do it, but do it differently – tell a story about what it felt like performing for the first time, and what it felt like as a non musician being part of a high quality improvising band”. I thought about it for a while and gave in. In truth I had a world of stuff churning about in my brain and the subconscious urge to outline the experience was gnawing at me; my thoughts and impressions always seem to spill onto the page somehow (or into a poem) – so hell why not. It’s Gonzo journalism in its purest form; outlining crazy, using ones-self as the hapless protagonist.
Just over a week ago I got an email from Stephen Small. His email cut right to the chase; Would I consider performing Jack Kerouac’s poetry as part of his next gig. The invitation delighted me although I have a writers/photographers reticence about crawling out from behind the pen or the lens. Having read Kerouac from age fourteen I couldn’t resist. Those poems and that crazy-wonderful Beat vibe shaped my life and I needed to acknowledge that. I was certain that he wanted no more than one, or possibly two short verses; still daunting. I emailed Stephen asking how long we had to get this together. We’re up next Wednesday he replied, we will rehearse a few hours before the gig. Moments after agreeing a sense of terror overcame me; troublesome questions and self-doubt tumbled out the ether. Shit how do we do this, what will my voice sound like? Having never performed poems in front of an audience AND to music, I experienced brief bouts of wide-eyed terror over the next day. I confided my fears to a few knowledgeable friends, Chris Melville and poet Iain Sharp. Both were very sensible and reassuring in their advice; “Just own who you are man, own your voice. You know this stuff backwards and you know the music”, they said. When I explained the hazards of fitting existing verse to music, drummer Ron Samson told me, “Don’t worry man, we will follow you – your safe with us”. I discussed it further with Stephen and he gave me a set list. From that list I chose three poems that roughly matched the rhythms of tunes. For ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus) I chose Kerouac’s chorus 66 from ‘Orizaba 210 Blues’, for ‘Blue in Green’ (Evans/Davis) I selected the beautiful mystical 1st chorus of ‘Desolation Blues’. I was sure that two poems would be more than enough, but as a precaution I prepared a third as back up – verse 116 of ‘Mexico City Blues’ to Horace Silvers ‘Peace’.
On the day of the gig crazy set in. It started with a series of small mishaps like an email and printer crash. I immediately recognised the portents. The Sirens of the unknown were calling me into uncharted waters. Luckily I had my three poems ready – printed off in large type (as befitting a person of my age). At the last-minute, as if by divine providence, I threw a paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ poems into my bag and headed for rehearsal. What happened next was pure Zen. Jazz gig rehearsals tend to follow a formula, but viewing this process from the outside and being part of it are two very different things. From the inside your inbuilt detached observer gets fired from the cannon of weirdness. You realise just how random Jazz rehearsals are. They begin what becomes a slow descent into the controlled accident. The first hour of any rehearsal is a ‘hang’, insider jokes, war stories and talk of gear and gizmos. Then a sudden flurry of activity follows; disembodied items of musical machinery miraculously forming into new shapes. If the rehearsals are in a Jazz club the activity takes place in semi darkness. Instruments, microphones and amplifiers joined by a spaghetti of wires as the musicians stumble over precarious piles of instrument cases and zip bags. “Oh shit this channel is dead – (from out of the darkness) – don’t worry its the cable – have another in my car – its parked a few streets away. Can we route the cable through the Hadron-Collider? – clip click – sorry false alarm”.
Then the actual rehearsal begins; The rehearsal proper being tiny fragments of music accompanied by impossibly cryptic instructions in a language that sounds like computer machine code. “Twice through the head – I’ll lay out – transition to this key at 32 – we’ll play Kathy’s Waltz in 4/4 as 3/4 is way to corny”. None of this is reassuring to a first timer, but the band leader (Stephen) managed to communicate profound information subliminally. Above all and surprisingly, I learned that he had absolute confidence in me. This gifted me a deeper understanding of the leaders role. Zen Master. The communications were less about detail than vision, their main purpose to bind the collective and set them on a path to the promised land; a guiding hand in a deeply mystical process. On the band stand the subtlest of gestures hold the collective together. A glance is a cue or a change of plan – a call to ‘Jump now’ – everyone trusted to do the business – me included. I know poetry and especially Kerouac’s poetry – it was my job in the collective to sell that. Then came the truly random bit. “We can cue you in on each piece, or just dive in where ever you think best – we can follow”. The words ‘each piece’ threw me a curve ball. “I have only three poems printed off” I added lamely (or four if you counted a crumpled excerpt from ‘Desolation Angels’ tucked into the back of the folder). “No matter – just say anything – you’re a poet – it will be fine” said Stephen. Then I remembered the paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ in my bag. “Great” said Stephen, “just pick the poems randomly – do it at the last-minute while we run through the head of each tune – perfect”. This was a band leader channeling the Zen Master – a role quite appropriate to a 1959 referencing gig – throwing me a Koan, an improbable musical puzzle, no escape route possible. When we got to the tune ‘Peace’ I gained confidence, “Ah I have something for this – yeah – Horace Silver”. At this point Stephen casually informed me that they were actually doing Ornette Coleman’s ‘Peace”, another tune entirely. Ornette, ORNETTE – holy crap – panic. Next the gig
I was tentative during my first seconds of delivery and that was entirely due to where my awareness was. I mistakenly looked out to see how it was coming across; people were giving me the thumbs up and the band sounded perfect. After that I just relaxed. Stephen’s final instructions were as brief as they were powerful. He leaned across and said to me; “There is only one thing to remember tonight and that’s to have fun”. Minutes into the gig the advice sank in and I did. As I relaxed the strangest thing happened. It was a quasi-mystical sort of thing and I can only explain it in those terms. All sense of self and separation vanished as I felt a golden thread of sound and colour run through me. I recall glancing about me and feeling totally at one with the band. These are exceptional musicians and I suspect that they were doing all the heavy lifting. They treated the poetry with respect and they treated me as an equal. As a non-musician I will never forget that. I was suddenly experiencing the music as an insider, a privileged viewpoint that few non musicians ever get to experience. I leaned across to Hadyn Godfrey (on trombone) and said, “Holy crap is it always this much fun, I’m totally tripping on this?”. As I read I started playing with the phrasing and found that as I moved, the band moved with me. Even more amazingly we managed to converse musically. Me clumsy and them eloquent, but it felt so fine, so damn fine. I have never previously experienced such power – the engine of a musical collective. I am a careful listener and I know this music backwards, but from the inside everything looks different. There is nowhere to hide but everything to gain; that’s what makes it so exciting.
The gig was about placing the famous Jazz standards of 1959 into a wider context. We all love these tunes, but few grasp the wider sociopolitical forces at work behind the times. These musicians were part of a vital modernist movement; A reaction against the suburban atrophy of racially segregated urban America. Miles, Colman, Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus, Kerouac and the Beats were counter-culture warriors, bent on ushering in a better world. A place were fresh ideas, the arts and people mattered. I will not critique my performance, that is for others. What I will do however is comment on the extraordinary Stephen Small Group – the ‘Mexico City Blues’ musicians. Stephen Small is a man of broad musical tastes, real vision and very open ears. He empowered a wonderful band and under his skilful and subtle coaxing they gave it their best. His piano never gets in the way of others, but it adds amazing texture and substance to the performances. It is deeply in the blues tradition and lovely. Instinctively he knew who to hire and what to expect of them.
Olivier Holland brought his electric bass as well as his upright bass. I hadn’t previously heard Oli on electric bass, but he is simply killing. Ron is always marvellous and as a musician said to me, “With those beats pushing at your back and pulsating through your body anything seems possible”. Neil Watson on guitar and pedal steel is another talented musician; his feel for the blues is exceptional. He also has a happy grasp of the absurd and this is an essential prerequisite for any good improvising musician. Lastly there is Hadyn Godfrey, an experienced talented trombonist who effectively added electronics to his horn for this gig. The use of pedals, a small Moog and various forms of extended technique gave the gig an other-worldly dimension. 1959 never sounded so good.
I may never get to do this again but I will not forget this night. Stephen Small did what good leaders do. He made us all believe that the improbable could become magic. He took an idea from the margins and helped us realise it in a fresh way. Jazz at its best is a controlled accident, a high wire act, an intrepid exploration. For one truly wonderful night I was a small part of that.
Stephen Small Group: Mexico City Blues – Stephen Small (leader, piano, keys), Neil Watson (fender guitar, pedal steel guitar, electronics), Hadyn Godfrey (trombone, electronics), Olivier Holland (electric bass, upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), John Fenton (Kerouac poems)
Special acknowledgement to Chris Melville for the photographs