Thursday, 21 October 2010

Musical Magic

You only ever get to hear an artist for the first time once; the impact will never be quite the same second time round. I heard solo bass guitarist Michael Manring for the first time at ‘Round Midnight jazz and blues bar yesterday; I’m still coming to terms with the hugely expanded boundaries of what a bass guitar can do.

Arthur C.Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems the same principle applies to bass guitar playing. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of such complete mastery of an instrument as I experienced last night; playing that was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I could see his fingers move, hear the sounds coming through the PA, but scarcely believe that the one resulted in the other.

Actually, I don’t really like that word “mastery”, in the same way that I don’t like the word “conquered” applied to mountains. Conquering implies that the climber has somehow subjugated the mountain, beating it into submission. Mastery implies a relationship of overlord to servant, one imposing their will on the other against an intransigent resistance.

What I saw and heard last night completely transcended that master-servant form of relationship. I know that without the context of the music, any words of mine are going to sound artificial, phrases drawn from a repertoire of praise-giving clich├ęs. But at risk of sounding fanciful, and as anthropomorphic as those verbs I so dislike, this was more like a symbiotic relationship – as though the instrument needs the player in order to give of itself, just as the player needs the instrument; as though both are coming together to give expression to their very being. Fanciful maybe. But yes, it really was that good, and I don’t know how else to express that.

Perhaps another quote would help. Or it might, if only I could remember it. It was from one famous jazz pianist, I think, on hearing another. It was something like “When I heard [X] play, I went home and cried and didn’t play again for a month”. If I played bass well enough, I’d probably feel that way after last night. So it’s just as well that Manring’s playing is in such an utterly different league than mine could ever be, that I need never torture myself by even stepping onto the path of wishing to play that way. If I were to judge my playing by that standard I’d surely never play another note. But then he has been said to be the best solo bass player in the world today.

It’s all just so perfect – articulation so clear and precise, notes so perfectly formed, timbre so rich, I honestly didn’t think it was possible when playing such densely complex passages on a bass. Yet this wasn’t about mere technical wizardry (yes, it’s those magic metaphors creeping in again). Manring quipped that this was “stream of consciousness” playing, and whether or not what he played was rehearsed note-for-note, it came across as a spontaneous development of musical ideas flowing from each other, but coming from a musician so at one with his instrument that he barely had to do more than think the sounds, and they would miraculously flow from his fingers. This is a terrible analogy, but rather like Clint Eastwood flying the Russian jet by thought alone in “Firefox”.

I’m feeling guilty that I’ve not mentioned Steve Lawson so far, even though he shared the billing 50/50 with Manring. But something Steve said when I was chatting briefly afterwards might go some way to excusing that. I was saying how Manring’s playing reminded me of that Arthur C. Clarke quote, and Steve responded that, when Michael played new stuff, he tended to feel that way too, but the aura of magic was less when he was playing material with which Steve was familiar.

I guess that the same principle applies. Steve’s music has become more familiar to me now, and I smile with recognition when I hear his unique style. A style which, whilst equally skilful and articulate, is both pensive and playful, and, perhaps because of that, seems less jaw-droppingly like a piece of magic, at least in the sense of the quote. Magical, yes, but perhaps not magic in such an obviously “how on earth did he do that?” kind of way.

[Did I dig myself out of the hole I dug?]

In any case, stunning as Manring’s solo playing was, the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly their final improvised duet. Hearing the musical ideas developed and passed between them was... ummm... quite magical. A fitting way to end their performance.


  1. When I saw them play last year it was a very different show. I felt then that Steve hadn't been on his best game, and Michael played more pieces with less improvisation. That show also came across as a little unbalanced, although still an unforgettable show.

    Wednesday night's show seemed more balanced, Steve's playing came across more strongly to me. Michael was clearly pushing and perhaps taking more risks. A different sort of dynamic. And a more relaxed vibe in the room, less crowded for one.

    When they improvised together it was clearly a dialogue. It doesn't get finer.

    Steve's been joking about having recorded one side of the duets, and how it could be good for those who want to play in Michael's shoes. But I wouldn't mind studying that for hints at how to arrange for two basses.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, jbk. Yes, I'd agree it was very balanced show; Steve and Michael complement each other so well. Different - Steve's half more relaxed, Michael's more intense - but complete mastery (I still can't think of a better word!) from both. Roll on the next one!

  3. Have you seen this poem by Frances Darwin Cornford? I have not heard Manring but, reading your post, I was reminded of it.

    With what attentive courtesy he bent
    Over his instrument;
    Not as a lordly conquerer who could
    Command both wire and wood,
    But as a man with a loved woman might,
    Inquiring with delight
    What slight essential things she had to say
    Before they started, he and she, to play.

  4. Oh I don't know. Considering how difficult some mountains are to climb, I can't really blame someone from saying, after surviving the ordeal of getting to the top of Mt. Everest or something, saying "I conquered that b***!"

  5. Hello Lynn - nice to hear from you! Yes that poem fits perfectly - thanks for sharing it.

    Andrea - if I remember my mountaineering history correctly, Ed Hillary's comment after the first ascent of Everest was "Well, we knocked the bastard off". I'll meet you half way and concede that the "b******" bit is justified!