Learning by listening

Posted by on Mar 7, 2015

Learning  by listening

Jazz musicians learn and develop by listening as well as by playing. It doesn’t matter which starts first in my opinion, but I know that going to hear live jazz and exploring it on record and through radio have been vital aspects in my own musical growth. It has both excited me about the possibilities for my own music and taught me invaluable lessons of approach and execution. There may be exceptions – maybe – who have pursued a solitary path with originality and inventiveness. Even so they probably need other musicians to play with in order to fulfil their creative impulses, and in jazz ‘playing with’ has to mean ‘listening to’ in my book.

What brings this to mind? I was recently the guest on Alan Musson’s excellent show ‘Jazz Kaleidoscope’ (The Bridge Radio) which afforded me the opportunity to choose almost two hours of music for the show. As you would expect, I spent a considerable time trawling through my CDs to put my playlist together. With so much to choose from I had to deal sternly with myself to arrive at a list that truly justified its selection.

So what criteria carried the day? In the end there were two themes: one was to do with people crossing boundaries and playing in someone else’s yard. It’s more than ‘crossover’, which for me occasionally suggests cleverness without a further musical need or justification, like riding two bicycles at once. So for example ‘Hands’, Dave Holland’s collaboration with Spanish guitarist and head of Flamenco dynasty Pepe Habichuela; Dave confides in the liner notes that it took him a couple of years to work out what he should really play! Or Roland Kirk’s treatment of ‘Say A Little Prayer’, which expands a brilliant popular song into an anthem for Martin Luther King and all the tribulations of the African-American people, regretfully as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.

The other strand was about me acknowledging those who inspired me, and whose creativity and artistry helped to illuminate my path as I was finding my way. This rather large number of artists comprises many American but also many British musicians. Thinking again about Jack Bruce, (see my post ‘Jack Bruce – Recollections and Reflections’) I was thrilled to rediscover on Gilles Peterson’s ‘Impressed Vol. 1’ the marvellous ‘Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe’ by the New Jazz Orchestra. Not only is Jack Bruce on double bass, helping to hold Neil Ardley’s superb composition together with flair and authority, but there’s a gorgeous, lyrical flugelhorn passage from Ian Carr and an astonishing two-horn entry from Dick Heckstall-Smith that still knocks me breathless nearly 50 years after I first heard it. In fact this was my top track for the programme – the one I definitely had to play above all the rest.

That whole era of British Jazz was so fertile, open and dynamic, and it was happening just as I was beginning to explore my own musical identity. I am really grateful to have experienced it at the time, and also to GP for putting together a fitting reminder of so much that should not be forgotten.

Now I’m over at Stourbridge (home of The Bridge Radio), and something amazing happens. Alan and I are talking about the tracks I’ve brought along (the full playlist is below), and the time is flying by. We’re well into the second hour when the studio phone goes and he picks up.  ‘Hello stranger’ he says, aware that Don Ellis’s ‘Turkish Bath’ has only a couple of minutes to run.

‘That was another bass player, Ron Mathewson,’ he tells me afterwards, and I am stunned. Ron Mathewson – my absolute top British double bassist of all time! I first saw Ron in about 1965 at Hornsey Town Hall with Ronnie Scott. They played ‘A Taste of Honey’ and the band left Ron the stage for the bass solo, which was immense and seemed to flow effortlessly for about 10 minutes! Later I got to know Ron through the Barry Jazz Summer Schools, where he was unfailingly generous in encouraging all the student bass players, and we hung out once or twice afterwards. I still clean my bass strings the way he taught me. His withdrawal from the scene left a huge musical void, in my view.

Anyway, Alan put out the word over the air and Ron, a regular listener to the show as it turns out, phoned in again to talk to me. I was stoked! We had a brief but warm chat – I don’t know who of us was the more surprised – but it was fantastic to be talking to him again. I certainly hope it won’t be the last time.

Thanks very much again to Alan Musson and Jazz Kaleidoscope for allowing me so much time to play some of my favourite tracks and re-connect with so much of my musical past.


1.     King Curtis – ‘Dah Du Dah’ from the album ‘The New Scene of King Curtis’ with Nat Adderley and Wynton Kelly

2.    Rabih Abou-Khalil – ‘Tsarka’ from the album ‘Blue Camel’ with Charlie Mariano and Kenny Wheeler

3.    Herbie Hancock – ‘Edith and the King Pin’ from the album ‘River – The Joni Letters’ with Tina Turner and Wayne Shorter

4.    Neil Ardley’s New Jazz Orchestra – ‘Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe’ from the album ‘Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe’ with Jack Bruce, Ian Carr     and Dick Heckstall-Smith

5.    Tim Ries – ‘Paint it Black’ from the album ‘The Rolling Stones Project’ with Brian Blade, Bill Charlap and John Patitucci

6.    Nathan East – ‘Sir Duke’ from the album ‘Nathan East’ with horns arranged by Tom Scott

7.    Kurt Elling – ‘A New Body and Soul’ from the album ‘Night Moves’ with Laurence Hobgood and Christian McBride

8.    Dave Holland – ‘El Ritmo Me Lleva’ from the album ‘Hands’ with Pepe Habichuela

9.    Don Ellis – ‘Turkish Bath’ from the album ‘Electric Bath’ with Don Ellis Orchestra

10.  Mike Osborne Trio – ‘Alfie’ from the album ‘The Birmingham Jazz Concert’ with Harry Miller and Tony Levin

11.   Roland Kirk – ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ from the album ‘Volunteered Slavery’ with Ron Burton and Joe Texidor