If we take it that a week begins at 0.00 on Sunday Morning, then this week got off to a flying start. Buoyed by a successful gig in nearby Radlett last Saturday, Her Indoors, Richard Pite and Nick Dawson have retired to The Gables for an after show reception, or drink-up, the salient features of which were Her Indoors’ home-made Chicken Soup and, as it turned out, cheap supermarket vodka from Budgen’s. The vodka was unusually popular that evening- having run out of grown up mixers like tonic, your amateur barman here cunningly substituted mango juice. It was that or oxtail soup, and as things turned out, Vodka and Mango, or, as we called it a Sri Lankan Sunrise, became a bit of a hit.
Should you choose to follow the pioneering work of the Head Barman at El Bar Armadillo, or me in the kitchen, then watch out for the Sri Lankan Sunrise. Mango Juice is a very robust mixer, and the taste of the vodka only begins to cut through if the mix is around 90% in the vodka’s favour. Consequently, although it tastes as benign as Audrey Hepburn’s smile, it has a kick like a recently startled mule. A mule which works in an Amyl Nitrate processing works. Given this, you can imagine that by around 02.15 on Sunday morning we’d fallen out of the tree off finely balanced intellectual discourse, hitting every branch of the ten deadly sins of drunken tittle tattle on the way down and were now firmly embedded in the marshy ground of inarticulacy, taking it in turns to lunge at the computer to put on our favourites from the world of Spotify. The clear winner here was Ernie Wise singing “That Riviera Touch” and now freed from the need to speak altogether, we spent a good three-quarters of an hour twisting the night away to repeated renditions of same, but with the volume slightly higher each time. It must be great fun living at The Gables plus one, from time to time.
Recently, I have come to the end of a long-term project. All my Duke Ellington music is stored in the home archive, or shed. The vast bulk of this was prepared in the distant era before computers wrote out all our music for us, and so is hand-written would be irreplaceable in the event of fire, theft or trombones. In January, I decided that this wouldn’t do, and so I embarked on a campaign to scan the lot, one piece per day. Two weeks ago, I finished loading in all the bass parts from the Second Sacred Concert, and the job was complete. Finding myself with an empty hour on my hands every morning, I’ve started to do something I’ve not really concentrated on since my teens, which is to practice my instruments. It might sound odd, with what I do for a living and all, that I have no regular practice routine, but for the last twenty years or so I have relied on the fact that I have had pretty much daily playing to keep the wheels turning. Added to this is the fact that most of my waking hours are spent on the phone reassuring brides-to-be that our version of Dancing Queen is pretty much the same as the original, or drawing floor plans for a guitar and bass duo because the client is worried about how this may impinge on the flower arranging. If it’s not that, then I am on the phone trying to get hold of a piano player for the trip to Leeds on Sunday week or something of that ilk. Running a band wouldn’t half be easier if I didn’t have any musicians or members of the public to deal with, I can tell you.
So you see, once it gets to around 5.30, I either have to get into the Volvo and drive myself off somewhere to work, or my head is so fried from matters musical that it’s about as much as I can muster to pour myself into the armchair in the home cinema, or living room, for the Simpsons at 6pm. I’ve not had the mental capacity for practice, but now with this extra hour in the day which I’ve found in the absence of operating the Ellingtonian scanner a flavour of the old teenage regime has been restored.
There are other reasons for getting back to study too. Despite my fresh=as=a=daisy youthful images available on the interweb, the fact is that I’m no spring chicken anymore, and what used to be automatically available on the younger model now has to be worked for. In playing terms, the younger models of today generally are considerably faster and better equipped that when I was at that stage. The stakes are higher these days so if I want to continue working, I find myself with a two pronged assault on the shrinking territory of the things that I can do. Therefore, the re-introduction of the daily hour of practice could not have come for me at a more fitting time.
It’s also rather relaxing. I spend a good half an hour on my scales, and a further half an hour on the acquisition of new pieces. By the end of the hour, the meditative quality of the activity has worked its calming effect, and I often feel better equipped to deal with the day’s brides and floor plans. Don’t let’s forget the survival aspect though-I remember that when I was learning, I only had to play something twice and there it was, conveniently stored in the brain. Having had my bum kicked quite hard in public recently during a terrible memory lapse in a rendition of “Confirmation”, I resolved to put this on the syllabus. I can play it from memory now, but it’s taken two weeks to get the creaking grey matter to absorb it. Back in the day, when I was in Itchy Fingers, we all played the 90-minute set without a scrap of manuscript in sight. I suppose it’s all part of the delicious process of aging. I wonder what’s going to fall off next.
As I said, part of the new regime is a return to scales, and this involves the use of some flashy ones in flashy patterns. Served up as part of a jazz solo, these can add quite a lot of zip to a performance, and so it was with some excitement that I drove to my gig as the soloist at the Tamworth Jazz Club on Monday. A long enough drive from the Gables to serve as a good period for reflection, I used the time to prepare my newly-acquired flashy patterns in the mental arsenal of things to play during a jazz solo. I was really quite excited. The gig began, I went to the part of the brain where all the new stuff was, and all I could see was static and haze! Bugger! The good people of Tamworth were therefore subjected to all my old, normal stuff, but I was aware that the fingers were playing it a bit easier than normal.
At a big music industry get together on Wednesday, I happened to bump into Tom Cawley, pianist extraordinaire and purveyor of jazz training at the Royal Academy of Music. Still worried that I’d missed the boat with my own brain and was doomed to be stuck in my own world of 1987, I mentioned the Tamworth incident. Tom said that you have to do at least six month’s worth of fiddling around at home before the new stuff starts emerging on the field of battle, and he’s one of the best we’ve got. There’s hope for me yet.