Wednesday, December 13, 2006

sweat dreams

i like to get up a good sweat. its been a talent of mine for as long as i can remember. it's got no less since i've had the tummy. however pas de problem. some of the best dancers i know are big guys. they can't half move the flesh. anyway getting up a head of steam is part of the fun and a bit of mass is no disadvantage there. even if the heart attack is just around the corner. but i'm not running scared of that one now. so i tend to shift and to hell with the consequences.

trouble is the ladies don't all appreciate my hard line terpsichorean ideology. some ain't so fussy of course and are happy (or at least prepared) to squash up to a hot wet boy gyrating along the path to salsa euphoria. some point blank refuse to climb aboard the human waterfall. while others, just so long as the waterfall in question realises they are acting under duress and would much rather be dancing with a person with more polite transpirational habits, will condescend to a twirl or two.

me i don't care. i just go for it. like i do when i play music. i generally perspire quite heavily on a gig. more if its a good one in a hot dive with the bass reverberating off the rafters, the pints of cooking lager flowing free and the bodies crushing and pushing together. i used to perspire so much at events like that i had to wear a sweat band. just like mark knopfler. only a little bit for the pose but mostly because there was so much juice running off my face i couldn't see the finger board if i didn't.

there haven't been so many of those sessions recently. perhaps the days of good old thumping r&b are over. r&b as in rhythm and blues that is, not its claim-jumping contemporary namesake. yeah good old fashioned r&b, music with a back beat, a bit if drive and if you're really lucky, plenty of harmonica.

maybe the lack of gigs is one reason its been such a buzz to discover salsa. i love the dancing. only wish it had been around when i was younger, thought i was cooler but was in fact stupider. i may not have spent such a colossal amount on the drink. salsa is a similar, if not more intensely uplifting experience to playing in a pumping r&b band to a hall full of grooving punters. the argot changes of course, with culture and with time, but the buzz and the beat go on.

although i love the moves i've never been the one to watch from the floor. i've always needed to be part of the action. whatever that action is. with musical action this is more so. and so i fall under a new spell. i want to play harp in a salsa band. and a tango outfit. my dream is renewed.

who does it? the only one i have heard is charlie musslewhite. and that is ONE. i'm sure the harp could deal with those trumpet lines. or do something equally useful. and the chrom can for definite do tango. i've heard joe powers. and hugo diaz.

the quest now is how to work up a sweat with a bunch of latino musicians on their own musical and geographical turf. why are they not going to blow me out? answer is they are. there must be a way round it though. how'm i going to put the dream into practice?


Sunday, December 10, 2006

hitting the big time

did my first solo public performance yesterday. played at the funky craft fair in mumbles. reasonable response. got £3 in the hat. lunch cost £4 but got a free cuppa.

i have some backing tracks on the laptop. but in the event they were too quiet so, like a good boy scout, i burned them onto a cd (can you get a badge for cd burning in extremis? i think i'll propose it to brown owl next time i catch him at it) and put that on the fair's ghetto blaster. ghetto whisperer would have been more accurate. but it gave me the volume i needed in that environment.

played st louis blues, love story, malaguena (sort of. well i knew it was malaguena anyway.) hungarian dance, georgia, speak softly love, summertime, misty and a couple of others including one of my own called left foot tango. plus a bit of diatonic. did two sets. more accurately the same set twice.

i felt i needed to get used to performing so that playing in comps would not make me so nervous. in addition to the bucks i got a couple of positive comments from the stall holders. and married women started throwing themselves at me. got chatted up by a charming lady, espoused for over the half century and some years my senior, who wondered where we had met before. and another, enthusiastic lass who could talk the spots off a leopard and whose current conubial standing turned out to be more meaningfully measured in months. nuff said.

later on went to peppers wine bar in newton road plus harps and was asked to play for brian evans the owner's dinner guests. did speak softly love. went down a storm. ended up generally tooting till the wee hours. some chrom some diatonic. so now i think i can play when i'm drunk too. just as well as i had several pints bought for me. but whether to lubricate the larynx or shut me up i am not sure.

anyway hasta la pasta, compadres, and away

Friday, September 08, 2006

laydeez an' genlmens, introducing, for one night only ... mr gerry 'pops' ezard

specialising in sinuous strands of silver sound, gerry ezard is someone for whom the word urbane could easily have been crafted. considering he has spent much of his life working amongst the polished surfaces of the furniture business this is hardly surprising. lets be fair, with prolonged exposure to all that veneer it would be more of a shock if some of the gloss hadn't rubbed off.

in gerry's case the sheen is particularly noticeable in his music. as in conversation, he doesn't do loud. when he plays its more about statement than nailing a melody home. but that's not to say it's light-weight. far from it. its just that you'ld never hear him being called a rough diamond. with gerry the finish goes all the way through, but theres no denying what you get on the surface can only be described as ..... polish.

in my experience different performers have different radii of musical impact. it may be just a fancy but i find some don't reach me at all until i'm really close to them. whereas others can touch me across a crowded room.

i don't think its about amplification. it may be about personality projection or the difference between playing to yourself and playing to the back of the hall. i don't know. but i do know that i once gigged with an adept banjo man whose music sounded to me as dry as dust. until i stood next to him. then i understood the guy's delicately crafted poetry which was a very timid and sensitive animal indeed. a complete contrast to the harsh persona he offered to the world. weird stuff, huh?

i first met gerry during my quest for instruction in the arcane art of the muffigan. his name had been suggested as one of the few chromatic harmonica teachers in south wales. so i gave him a call. he invited me round for an hour. i left after two. with a sheaf of charts and a vague idea how to tongue block. 'see you in a month,' i said. and never went back.

well when i say never, actually i did go back after about a year during which i had sporadically taught myself the tongue technique. it was just after christmas and i didn't have much to do so i overcame the embarrassment of the broken word and called again. his welcome was just as enthusiastic.

this time however i decided to commit to a regular session. establishing the pattern for the next nine months, before the first lesson finished we had agreed time and place for the second. gerry gave me plenty to work on and i gave myself the time to do it. up until the national harmonica league's weekend festival at the end of october.

we studied around a pristine table top, protected by a thick mat against accidental engraving by sharp metal edges, in gerry's dining room. surrounded by elegant furniture we worked hard. we worked on reading. mine was rubbish. we worked on a duet. which we actually performed in the october event. and came second. (out of three. but then they do say that two out of three ain't bad. who am i to argue?) i worked on several simple solo pieces. which were beautiful. i thoroughly enjoyed myself. talked when i should have been listening, usually stayed over time, had to be encouraged to bugger off, and struggled to get to grips with this new pocket-sized groove tool.

i learnt a lot but probably what will stay in my mind for longest was gerry's demonstration of his sound. 'you've got to bare down on it, patrick,' he said just before he got the resonance rolling. 'like this.' i recognised the shining notes. beautiful as usual. 'wonder what he's on about,' i thought. 'bare down on it? maybe the old boy's losing it?'

and then, as if i had made an indiscreet remark about zinadine zidane's sister, i felt like i had been butted in the chest. i had to catch my breath. i even took a step back. it was gerry's tone. still as polished and non aggressive as ever. but now with an unfamiliar emotional intensity. and a kick like a rhino.

for someone like me who has always gone for the more directly stated attack, what during the seventies we used to call raunchy (yes we did), that was a big lesson. like a mortar round coming out of a water pistol. no mean feat and a very neat technique.

now i think about it he hasn't shown me how to do it yet. i'll have to get on his case. urbane or not. i need to know.

more to come.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

the chromatic versus diatonic debate: a guitar player's view

coming from a guitar background as i do there is nothing quite so mind numbing as listening to someone banging on about the superiority of diatonics over chromatics. or vice versa*. with us twangers there are differences, yes, but even the most partisan strummer and twiddler can accept the diversity within the genre of instruments referred to as guitars.

from classics to strats, dobros to archtops, national steels to country jumbos, macaferris to ovations (a lot of people do think of an ovation as a guitar actually) and 335s to les pauls, they might have a name in common but they have massively different characteristics. thank heavens. and can be used for different things.

i see the diatonic versus chromatic debate in the same way. they are different. vive la difference. they have different strengths. you can do different things on them and i for one really enjoy listening to them both.

i think that any conflict that exists does so primarily in the ear of the beholder. maybe not even there. maybe just in the closed mind-set. in my opinion it just ain't the instruments. its what people do with them that counts. and that is down to the breadth of each player's personal horizon.

for example i really enjoy the blues and r&b and am the first to recognise the impact of this genre on 20th and possibly 21st century music. and yes it can be - but i hope we would all agree isn't always - great music to listen to and to play .... BUT we do need to recognise that if the talent that made this magic from a combination of thin air, dust and bad whiskey had been focussing on how music was made nearly a century earlier, in other words on how music SHOULD be played .... the blues just would not have happened. full stop.

the musicians who made the blues were innovators who could pull a riff out of a piece of wire nailed to a shed door. so while all respect is due to the music it wouldn't hurt if the idea of development started creeping into some blues disciples' headphones. rather than spending valuable playing time, not to mention the money, trying to replicate little big willy frogmorton's distinctive harp tone which he originally achieved on an instrument of hand carved whalebone and buffalo hide with his head six inches under the mud on the south bank of the snake-lash river in catfish creek, mississippi at 3:47 pm on friday 13th june 1922, i suggest maybe we could look to the future.

so why don't we stop bitching about how wrong the other guy/girl is. and by default pumping our own approach up. lets honour the guys who made the stuff, rather than slavishly copying them and get on and make some music. while we've still got the breath to blow. and suck of course.

* having said that its often not as ennui inducing as listening to them actually play. in my experience those who choose to exercise their intellect on such trivia tend towards the extra tedious in their musicality also. whether they play with a slide or not.

© Patrick Ellis 2005

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

from the top

the deal was, the devil got my soul. in return i could play the blues. in the event the bastard short changed me. but thats what you got to expect if you negotiate with a supernatural entity who, in most Western religions, is the central embodiment of evil.

i should have known. he's caught me over a capuccino before now. just by hanging onto that fistful of pound coins when my attention was elsewhere he smilingly transformed an expensive cup of milky coffee into an exorbitantly expensive cup of milky coffee. but way back then i still trusted the hornèd old reptile.

these days i like to think i can see him coming. so it was something of a disappointment when, on my way TO the pub one summer evening, he slipped a near lethal manhole cover under my shoe and i hit the deck with a substantial bump.

i tore some stuff in my foot. worse than that tho, and infinitely more sneaky, as i landed the scaly sod caught me one in the neck. ever since i have been ... ahem ... bedevilled with multiple nerve problems in
my right arm.

in that instant my guitar playing was stuffed. not to mention the mandolin. my passion, and a significant part of my income, were removed. just like that. although i suppose in his diabolical way he was keeping his side of the bargain. from that point on my experience of the blues intensified significantly. now i really had something to play about.

despite his smart little moves mephisto the great dis-illusionist had missed a trick. as luck would have it my dalliance with stringed instruments had been a second act. the first love of my musical life had been that fundamental tool of the groove, the trumpet of the blues angels, a 7/6d hohner super vamper.

i can
still see my first harp. several lengthwise windings of tape bandage keeping it on the right side of mortality long after the cover plate tacks had snuck through the pearly gates into tack heaven.

did that bandage stick! it stuck to everything. especially when moistened with enthusiastic teenage saliva and thrust uncased into a jacket pocket. a dirt and fluff magnet beyond compare.

oh god, talk about filthy. but not then, to me. to me it was beautiful. and in tune despite having the reeds roughly jabbed with a matchstick if they ever got stuck. which from time to time they unaccountably did. who knows what they were made of but they couldn't half soak up a bashing. and that was before playing the little demon.

to get slightly more technical, i am talking diatonic here.
you know what i'm saying brothers and sisters ... the little one without the knob on its side. the harmonica that is mostly used for the blues. because ... it sounds great. in fact that high wail is so good that a lot of audiences just love to hear the thing regardless of the skill with which it is being tooted. trust me. i can bear witness. probably even done it myself.

over the years i had kept my hand, or more accurately, lips in. when i wasn't playing guitar anybody who didn't tell me to shut up or bugger off or both could expect to find me a-honking, a-tooting and a-wailing along side them at the slightest opportunity.

after the fall i realised that if i was going to keep on making music it was going to be on harmonica. and this would mean raising my game above the morass of hound dog howlers who, having paid their £20 or so, reckon they're as good as charlie musselwhite or rod piazza any day of the week and don't understand why they aren't fronting the blues band. now!

i felt i needed to be able to offer something different. so i decided i'd learn to play the chromatic. i bought one from an acknowledged dealer. it was crap. what to do?

buy another. (this time a hering special 48. a name dripping derring-do nautical machismo, and hopefully appropriate for the charts with which i was trying to navigate a scarey new ocean of dots and lines into the deep end of which i found myself plunging.) and get help.

i made enquiries and eventually beat a path to the door of the shadowy national harmonica league. i went straight to the top. and spoke to the chairman.

"is that roger trobridge? i'm looking for a chromatic teacher."

silence ... then an extended intake of breath.

"there's not many of them about

anxiety's chill talons scrabbled for a grip on my vertebrae. somewhere out in the ether i sensed a rustle of leathery wings as old nick did his best to divert me from the path of righteous endeavour. all three of us knew there was a lot riding on this one.

a pause ... "where do you live?"


"oh," said roger. "one of the best teachers in the country lives in porthcawl." (for the uninitiated porthcawl, apart from being welsh rhyming slang for 'an insignificant amount' is twenty miles down the coast from swansea.)

and that, gentle reader, is how i met gerry ezard.

more to follow ...

© patrick ellis july 2006

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the stumble

tuesday, 27th june 2006. following kevin the drummer's explanation that i should come in after a count of two (which is NOT how it kicks off on the practice cd) i launch for a second time into my debut performance at swansea jazzland. nerves now uncomfortably ajangle, here we go again. misty take two.

the b flat is strongish, the g isn't bad. then cometh the d. where the band pick it up on e maj7 and all harmonic hell breaks loose. i am overpowered by a swirling miasma of tones whose fist grabs my timorous harmonica sound by the throat and pummels it like a sardine in a tsunami. for the second time in two minutes i recognise the sensation of being, embarrassingly, comprehensively and irrefutably stuffed. my bottle evaporates big time. i grab my coat. i have fortuitously left the pork pie hat at home. intent on leaving my troubles on the doorstep on the way out, i walk.

only to have my exit blocked by the expansive mc who encourages me to finish what i've started. by now i'm so shook up i can't even say my name. but i do what the big man asks. and stumble weakly through the tune, accompanied only by the keyboard player. miraculously i get to the end of the first chorus. now for the next bit.

during rehearsal i had decided on a strategy of once through the
head (the tune) and improvise (er actually in my case, jam it) to the end. so i now find myself at the point where, in my plan, the exciting part starts. however i am so shell shocked and we are playing so slowly that i don't have the tempo to take off. so i do a few garbled phrases, fake it for another chorus and signal the keyboard to finish. which he promptly does giving me the opportunity to limp out on the d that had been sucked to a watery grave a few minutes earlier.

i am grateful to the compassion of the audience who give me a rousing round of applause. i thank them more sincerely than i have thanked any group of people i have played in front of. ever.

i return to my seat to find the comradeship of my fellow jazzers a little cooler than when i left. but not to worry, there'll be plenty of time to re-arrange that particular dynamic. the big mc comes over and asks me if i've got another number. which i don't have. and certainly wouldn't be playing now if i did. he then explains that the night is for those who want to learn to play jazz, not experienced players, and invites me back. and i will be. in a month.

'all that pain,' you may ask, 'why?'

best i can do in reponse is 'who can say?'

what is surprising is that i am back close to where i was at fourteen years old.
apparently by chance here i am walking the streets of swansea in a lived-in bomber jacket with a harmonica in my packet. do we ever grow up? i suppose some of us do. but i'll leave that to those who think its important.

i've done loads since then of course. trained for a career. found myself knee deep in local government clones. got married. worst fortnight of my life. went to college. got a couple of degrees. so now i'm educated, drank and drank and drank. met the purple bunnies. but i'm better now. lived in various parts of blighty. learned to play guitar, and
to a lesser extent, mandolin.

i've won and lost more than a bevy of girlfriends. performed in loadsa crummy bars with loadsa bands. some crummy, some not. i've played rock and roll, country (& western), blues, rhythm and blues, and folk. i've been part of seven-piece bands, six- five- and four-piece bands, trios and duos.
i've written songs. i've worked solo. in which capacity i have been known to out-number the audience.

i've played in uk and several other parts of europe. i've done tv, live radio, worked as a session man, played clubs, pubs and festivals. i've
busked on street corners. and now, four decades down the line in the world beyond 1984 and 2001, the wheel seems to have turned full circle. so .... back in abertawe with my eyes on the heavens .... lets hear it one more time.

more to come.

© patrick ellis june 2006