I recently attended a concert by a renowned guitarist in jazz, John Scofield, something I had not done for years. As a guitarist who has studied the form it was always going to be an interesting experience. Would I be able just to listen, would my past engagement with such music and this particular musician mean a nostalgia trip, was I free enough from the past not to compare my own work to his, would a rigid format cause me to want to be elsewhere, etc.? Perhaps, I thought, because of all these questions and even more, with the hope of having a rich musical experience, it would be worth attending.
Mostly I was able to enjoy, a nowadays, unusual experience. It was indeed a chance to reflect on my own past and current relationship with this American music tradition. The music was of course skilfully performed and John’s ‘conversation’ with his own stylisations and affectations caused me to laugh and shout out on occasion. I realised how deeply rooted he is in his practice and how thoroughly American that is. This contributed to me being able to see/hear the music from a distance – as if I had nothing to do with it, but knew enough to appreciate it’s subtleties, syntax, and formulations – and so to an extent be free from comparative thoughts. But as I had been so engaged with this music’s history and this guitarist my past, at times, made itself clear. Certain ‘turns of phrase’, technical habits that largely contribute to a musicians style, jumped out at me bringing me out of the listening flow, reminding me of all the times I had heard these mannerisms before and often with the inevitability of what would come next. This is my problem, knowing his playing so well. He needs those things to help him maintain his flow and indeed the genre and his style are made up of these signals.
It is this very thoroughness of engagement with and unflagging commitment to the form, actually requiring little effort because it is so ingrained, loved and accepted by these practitioners, that provided me with a clear insight into my own artistic practice.
In my twenties the guitar was the central instrument of my creative practice and it effectively has remained so until the last few years. The genre of jazz, particularly at its margins, was a space within which I understood much of my musical activity, whilst still struggling to fully accept or know what that was for me, it was not the only context in which I understood my music practice. Where exactly was my musical practice situated, was an ongoing area of concern for me, and it was’t until I encountered mentor David Tolley that I began to conceive of the possibility of understanding the music in which I participated as existing outside of a genre, or a foreign culture.
Concurrently, there was always a parallel practice within visual arts and occasional involvements with various (often hybrid) artistic forms. These things often emerged through personal relationships or incidental opportunities, but I was receptive to creative challenges and using my facilities in different ways. Much of this multifaceted arts interest/practice is attributed to my tertiary education at progressive art schools where there was no requirement to specialise nor focus on one practice.
Faced with the thoroughness of the performance before me, its tradition being made present in the most emphatic way, even though so familiar to me, I had an experience of foreignness that helped me interpret my own practice now. Partly, I felt like a sceptic trying to deny his own skepticism.
I am not able to ‘believe’ that completely for that long, there are always questions arising within a performance that undermine my adherence to the parameters of an evolving, yet consistent and identifiable genre of performance. This is actually ‘natural’ for me, it seems that by and large, I need to construct the parameters of what it is I maybe doing, as I am doing it.
Later that night, I began to clearly see the decentralised nature of my performance practice, as it is now. It is a practice where even the use of guitar is no longer a given, and if it is employed its use will be conditional and contextual, not historically inevitable. Upon reflection from the early days until now, I see the decentralised nature of my arts practice as a whole even though there has simultaneously been committed specialisation. This created conflict between the aspiring musician wanting to live a life in music, to ‘get ahead’, be successful, to be a great player, etc. and the natural explorer following his instinct.
Fortunately for me, Tolley assured me that all my interests could be accommodated, that it was ok to be who I was, that being myself was a great thing. An idea of many centres, each one its own centre when its time was to be had, suited me.