I’m not Ray Chen or anything but sometimes I think about making a little video that goes from the beginning to the end of writing a new tune for myself or the trio. Sitting at the piano, locating an idea, asking questions of it, testing it for durability, finding out where it might go; the sudden discoveries and the more workaday pursuit of possibility. Who knows who’d be interested? And it hasn’t happened yet. But I think about it now and then.
Friday evening last, I was at the Lido Jazz Room with Tamara Murphy and Niko Schauble, and it was our third appearance there. Previously we have played standards, something I’d given away and have never done with Ben and Dave, but in fact on these occasions it was fun because it’s been so long and all that. Since our last Lido gig I went along there (I live very close, and can walk!) to hear Andrea Keller and one of her new ‘Transients’ trios. The program there was mostly original music, and that’s what I really love, so I thought: that’s what we’ll do.
This year I have been uncommonly prolific, turning out tunes with a greater frequency than probably ever before. Sometimes whole years go by without a new tune, but this year is different. So I was able to take a selection of nine very recent compositions to a rehearsal with Tam and Niko, and then on Friday we premiered them (alongside three token standards: ‘Night and day’, ‘Quasimodo’, and ‘I thought about you’).
Standards have not appealed to me over the last fifteen years or so primarily because of the imposing precedent set by the two piano players with whom I have found myself most frequently compared: Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. It seems no coincidence to me that it was shortly after Evans died that Jarrett went into the studio in New York with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette and made Standards vols. 1 and 2; a baton had been passed, or appropriated, or snatched, or whatever you like. And there is a manner in which Jarrett’s recorded versions of the standard tunes he has performed have imposed a kind of standard of their own: this is the way it’s done. His playing is just so persuasive; it’s difficult to get around it.
I have long felt a greater sense of authenticity (oh no he didn’t!) when performing music I’ve written myself. Obviously I have been influenced, and things in that music might easily be redolent of other music – that seems normal. But the blend is my own, I think, and to play this music with the people who were in mind when it was being written is a very great blessing. The authenticity comes of the music’s relation to ourselves and our friendships and the experiences that are ours only. The previous music we’ve played. The knowledge we bring from elsewhere. The specific coalescence of all these things, so that when one player changes the band has changed. All of which feels true, all real, all valuable.
Perhaps if there were a body of standard tunes that wasn’t played so often, or that Jarrett had kept his hands off, things might be different. When Brad Mehldau plays ‘Where do you start?’ on his album of the same name, not only has his ballad playing (in my humble and really-Tim-you-should-keep-it-to-yourself opinion) leapt miles into orbit he has made it do so on a tune with which I was completely unfamiliar but that pleases me hugely (particularly because of the amazing bridge). Also: one that I don’t think Jarrett has recorded. So it’s especially moving. But there aren’t many of those tunes, are there. Not good ones.
So for all these reasons I write (or improvise) my own. Taking original music to a gig is obviously fine if that’s what you do, although it’s probably easiest if your listeners have heard some of it before, perhaps they have a record or two, some kind of reference point. To go to the Lido with an almost completely unfamiliar program seemed like a bit of a risk, although it was one I was very keen to take. Coming out of ‘Night and day’ into the first of the originals, though – no. 39, as I recall – it felt a little like the supports had been taken away. The difference between the standard and the original repertoire felt, to me on stage, like the biggest thing in the room, and I wondered if the new music was going to go across as I’d intended.
How surprised I was. My explaining that the compositions were so recent that they don’t even have titles yet seemed to draw people in, and hearing the pieces identified by numbers apparently amused them. The audience listened with what felt like keener attention than before (although yeah, it’s a different, an individual audience and everything else, and there’s no predicting any of that) and responded so generously, applauding warmly and even in a couple of cases hanging around at the end to talk about the music with us. Niko was showing people the charts! for goodness sake (and this just about never happens).
All of which I take as a great encouragement. My fears that original music is just going to shit people or bore them or alienate them or make them long for some imagined good old days when Oscar Peterson did that thing he did or that the tune you are hearing made you nostalgic for another good old day are suddenly vaporised, as well they should be – I mean they should never have existed in the first place, right? – and we’re making something.
‘Let us make. And set the weather fair.’ as Louis MacNiece so memorably said.