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These are some of my favourite albums - in no particular order. They are all albums that work as a whole, with no bad tracks to speak of...

  • Van Morisson - The Healing Game
  • Duncan Bridgeman & Jamie Catto - One Giant Leap
  • Tiffany Ekhardt - Nino's Cafe
  • Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert
  • Van Morisson - Astral Weeks
  • Marvin Gaye - What's Going On?
  • Joni Mitchell - Blue
  • Julian 'Cannon Ball' Adderly - Something Else
  • Pierre Dørge - Ballad Around the Left Corner
  • Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
  • Van Morisson - St. Dominic's Preview
  • Pharoah Sanders - Thembi
  • Björk - Post
  • Tord Gustavsen Trio - Ground
  • Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Collossus
  • Topaz - Under Shotover
  • Nitin Sawney - Beyond Skin
  • John Martyn - Solid Air
  • Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks (official bootleg version)
  • Bob Dylan - Time out of Mind
  • Sade - Lover's Rock
  • John Martyn - Bless the Weather


As you can see, I have a tendency to lean towards jazz.

Jazz, and improvised music in general, comes from a place of openness and ease, where the musician trusts his own instincts and those of his fellow musicians. It's not that players of composed music don't have that quality of looseness and trust - good ones do - but when you improvise, you are forced to a far greater extent to rely on something you don't understand, and that requires a leap of faith that makes playing, and listening, more exciting, more emotionally involving, ...and yes, more risky. Sometimes, improvised music is awful: if you're not in the groove, then you have no pre-learnt patterns to fall back on.

The thing about the human brain - or nervous system - is that it registers things before understanding them. Much of what is perceived never comes into conscious awareness, but even when it does, there is a time lag between perception and conception. For some activities, such as playing chess, that time lag is unimportant, but for many, including playing music, the time lag matters.

What this means is that we are constantly responding - reacting - to situations that we haven't yet understood. Remember the advice to count to ten before replying to an upsetting comment in a conversation? That's different: that's because of the tendency to misunderstand when we are upset. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about what happens before we've even had a chance to misunderstand - before the nervous system's understanding-function has processed anything at all.

Most people's reaction time - that is the time between a stimulus and a voluntary response - is about a third of a second. For fighter pilots and other super-individuals it might be a quarter of a second. Musicians, responding to what they hear in an ensemble, or singers in a choir, are clearly not using this reaction process to decide which note to play next, or for how long, or how loudly. In music, a third of a second is a very long time indeed.

I think it's a common experience among musicians - and artists in general - that their best work seems to just happen, without a sense of them having consciously directed it. I heard an artist on the radio today saying that the one or two good paintings she produces in a year seem to come through her rather than from her, and don't seem to be her work at all. She said "My best work I'm not responsible for. I'm only responsible for the rubbish I have to throw away."

Most improvised music is rubbish and is 'thrown away', but some is utterly sublime. When it's good, there is nothing better. There are rare, magical performances where the musicians (and audience too, though they very rarely have any idea of their part in the process) are all tuned in to the same 'vibe', and it's worth wading through all the pretentious nonsense to find them, ...I think.

Flamenco performers call it 'duende'. It's when the winding snake of your mind opens its eyes and you find that you are looking out through those wild snake eyes. From the point of view of the snake, time doesn't exist - which means hope and fear don't exist; stage-fright doesn't exist; ego doesn't exist. All performers know that state of mind don't they? That's what they live for isn't it? When an actor knows he 'has the audience in the palm of his hand' - when there is no separation between actor/part/performance/audience. It's the place where complete self-control and uninhibited sponaneity merge into a single state. Duende.

Over the years, I've played flute, tenor saxophone, Spanish guitar, penny whistle and cello.

The flute was my first instrument, and the only one for which I am vaguely literate. For that reason, it is the instrument I use to work tunes out on most often. When I visualise a musical note, I don't see it on a stave or on a keyboard; I see it on the keys of a flute. I still enjoy playing flute very much. It's a lovely instrument to improvise on, and it works well in an ensemble, cutting through and being heard quite easily.

I don't quite know why flute players tend to stand on one leg when they play, but I know I'm not the only one. There must be some good physiological reason for it.

Saxophone is lovely. I wish I had one now, but they are expensive and I sold mine to pay the rent many years ago (which is a very 'jazz' thing to do of course). I also used to repair them for a living - back in the 80's. I was good at fixing them. Less good at fixing flutes. Well. I was OK at fixing flutes, but I was often less than completely satisfied when I did a full overhaul on a flute, though I did a good job with saxophones.

In recent years I've been singing more. I got the idea that for me playing wind instruments was in some way a substitute for singing, so I decided to knock the flute on the head and learn to play guitar so I could accompany my own voice. That has worked to some extent, but I've also come to love the Spanish guitar for its own sake. I've not really got on well with steel string guitars, though I can see they have a certain charm. For late-night noodling, or just sitting around while people hang out and chat, Spanish guitar works well. I've not studied any notes or chords or other technical stuff; I just like to noodle mostly, and it seems people like the noises I make when I noodle away to myself...

I also like the word 'noodle'. I don't know where it comes from, but it's a bit like the word 'doodle' - in its original sense of doing anything vaguely creative in an absent-minded way. Interestingly, the word 'doodle', in its present meaning of absent minded drawing, came into use I believe as a result of the film, Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

...and I've come back to wind instruments now: I no longer see them as a substitute for singing.

The cello is a very recent thing for me. I got the idea a year or so ago that it might be nice to have a go at that, and this Spring I got hold of one on e-Bay. I've had a few lessons, but I think that was a mistake. Nothing wrong with the lessons, and I learnt a lot, but I mysteriously stopped playing after starting the lessons. I guess it became like work in some way.

I shall have another go this Autumn I think, and just noodle away in my usual manner. You can't go wrong really with a cello. It's a very easy instrument to play - nothing like a violin. Of course it takes a lot of work to learn to play well, but while you're learning it still sounds pleasant. I've noticed a lot of accoustic groups (folk and such) are using a cello for a bass/tenor accompaniment these days, and it works very well. I've been enjoying bowing a simple pattern and singing against that to play with the harmonies.

Last winter I was playing quite a lot of music, but not so much now. I'd like to play more - find more people to play with. Maybe this Autumn/Winter...

Copyright © 1999-2007 Paul Mackilligin