Friday, February 27, 2009

Ian Carr 1933 - 2009: A Personal Tribute

It’s a sad and rare day when I get to write here about a significant figure in British music with a direct and personal influence on my life. For this reason, I’m not going to write too much about Ian Carr’s career and body of work. There are already some excellent obituaries online (to which I shall link at the end of the piece) that cover all this in much more detail than I can manage. It will suffice to say that those not familiar with Ian’s music and his considerable role in the jazz-rock movement should at least check out ‘Out of the Long Dark’ or the first two Nucleus albums (‘Elastic Rock’ and ‘We’ll Talk About It Later’). His playing is also well showcased on Neil Ardley’s adventurous ‘Greek Variations’ and ‘Kaleidoscope of Rainbows’ amongst many other notable sessions. His major contribution had finally been recognised in 2006 with the BBC Services to Jazz award, but by this time he was sadly already afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. In this piece, I want to write more about Ian as an educator, the domain in which I came into contact with him and where I benefited from his considerable musicianship, experience and wisdom.

I was fortunate to attend a prestigious fee paying school with impressive facilities – computers with sequencing software for every student, numerous instruments, concert halls and a recording studio- but there were many ways in which the school’s music department was sorely lacking. One of these was its attitude to jazz. Everyone involved in teaching and performing jazz in the school was well meaning and polite – but they were not specialists and viewed improvisation as a skill far from the reach of teenage minds. Solos for the school jazz band tended to be written out, and there was an unappetising focus on the hoariest of standards, always played exactly ‘as written’ in a staid and organised ‘music for schools’ fashion. Spontaneity and interaction were not exactly encouraged.

Thank goodness, then, for Ian’s workshops at Weekend Arts College, then located in a dilapidated but vibrant shack next to Kentish Town West train station (now located in the classier environment of Hampstead Town Hall). I first attended Ian Carr’s workshops in September 1995, when I was just 14 years old. I had already developed a taste for jazz at least in part from my Dad’s record collection but also from Gerry Hunt’s wonderful classes for younger children at the college on Saturdays. Here I earned myself a bit of a reputation for being prepared to try out almost any instrument, from steel pan to bass guitar, but more focus and higher standards were demanded from Ian's classes. I duly opted to concentrate on drums. At £1.50 for three hours, these classes cost a small fraction of my school music lessons but contributed so much more to my knowledge and experience. In Ian’s classes, improvisation was an essential ingredient of music, and a liberating force.

Crucially, making mistakes was an inherent part of the learning process. Ian was always full of pithy, wise phrases, but the one I remember most clearly is ‘jazz is the art of recovery’. It was in Ian’s classes where I learned the value of getting things wrong. The important mark of a good musician was in how they took risks and recovered when things didn’t quite work: ‘If you fail, fail again but fail more successfully’. Improvised music was a necessarily imperfect art form where learning never stops, no matter what standard you might attain.

Ian was therefore as passionate about the learning process as he was about teaching us – ‘I’m still learning every day - if you have stopped learning, you should stop altogether’, he often used to say. Although he could certainly be a tough taskmaster with some very strong, ingrained opinions, he also enjoyed working with his students as much as working for them. As a result, he was never patronising. When we eventually got to perform our repertoire for the term, he would often play with us, and would be tremendously guilty about taking a long solo for himself when his passion and enthusiasm simply wouldn’t allow him to sit out. He once told a guitarist in our group: ‘Tom, I’m so sorry, I think I took your solo – but it was so damn groovy I just had to play!’ In these situations, he couldn’t be stopped and, as a rhythm section, we got the undoubted benefit of supporting him.

Ian could be particularly tough on the rhythm section, and as a somewhat unconfident teenager, this could sometimes present a challenge. It would sometimes feel as if he might be singling out particular individuals for censure over apparently trivial issues. Only when our analysis of the structure and function of a piece of music progressed did it become clear how sensitive and attuned his attention to detail was. As a trumpeter and keyboardist, he didn’t teach me so much about playing the drums but he taught me a great deal about music and the wider role of the drums within it. He would often put drummers on the spot with questions about harmony or possible scales, making it clear that drummers could not get away with just hitting things and knowing next to nothing about the form or harmonic structure of the music. He was particularly intolerant of virtuosity for its own sake – bass players had to master a solid and dependable walking feel before they varied their placements and he would be far more enthusiastic about a drummer with comfortable time feel than one with dexterous chops and poor judgment over which ideas to play. I remember him castigating poor Alex Gould (a technically excellent drummer) for not placing the cross-rim on beat four of the bar during ‘Milestones’. ‘That rimshot on beat four is the absolute crux of the piece!’ he would enthuse – ‘it cannot be put just where you want it!’ I learnt quickly to focus on my ride cymbal feel and get to grips with the structure of the piece, before attempting to impose my individual contribution.

It was really through Ian’s classes that I learned how to listen. It’s this quality he recognised in my playing at the time – an ability to listen to the contributions of other members of an ensemble and to play supportively. He also directed my listening in the broader sense, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz history and artists’ discographies. He would be offer very specific recommendations – Oliver Nelson’s ‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ was one of ‘the key albums of the 1960s’, whilst ‘Tales of Another’ by Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette was another of his all time favourites. I doubt I would have even heard of George Russell, a major but underestimated presence in jazz history, were it not for Ian’s praise of him and subsequent radio broadcast.

It was often hard to elicit praise from Ian but when it came, he would deliver it in spectacular fashion. We worked on an aggressive, driving rendition of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’ (still among my favourites of his compositions) to which Ian remarked: ‘Daniel that was so deep down in the swamp I thought you’d changed colour!’ Lack of political correctness aside, I could only take that as a very sincere compliment.

Then there were his wonderful, lengthy stories – of encounters with Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, of his experiences performing (those infamous ‘double diminisheds!’) and, latterly, writing. He had certainly experienced a lot in his lengthy and illustrious career, not all of it positive, but all of it somehow valuable and informative.

Perhaps Ian’s most transparent flaw was his innate suspicion of free improvisation. More recently, having enjoyed the music of Evan Parker, Tim Berne, David Torne and many others, I’m not sure that I share Ian’s views here. He certainly saw few limits to improvising within a compositional structure – indeed, his teaching often emphasised just how wide the choice of scales and ideas could be. Yet whenever we requested to improvise completely freely, he was well out of his teaching comfort zone. Fairly understandably, our attempts at free improvisation were often tentative, sometimes even plain embarrassing. Perhaps Ian merely felt we needed to get to grips with a tradition and a language first. I remain unsure as to what his true opinions were here but I think it stemmed from his emphasis on the importance of time to all music. He felt that ‘time’ could never be entirely abandoned (‘play two notes, or even the same note twice, and you are playing time’) and maybe therefore that the free improvisers’ quest to escape these strictures was rather futile. Indeed, the possibilities of playing time were so vast that it needn’t be seen as a stricture at all.

It could sometimes feel as if Ian was condemning you with faint praise. His final report on me said something like ‘Daniel is starting to become a very good drummer’. It was perhaps the phrase that followed that that was more significant though, and I’m only now starting to understand what he meant. ‘Where he goes now is up to him’. This seemed quite an ambiguous and mysterious statement to my 18 year old self but it now seems very simple. A clear conception of your direction and what you want to achieve is vital to your progress as a musician. I certainly don’t regret studying history instead of music. At the time, I was quite hot-headed and fervently believed that studying music or literature might risk destroying my personal passions for the art I loved. I now believe this opinion to be ignorant and naive and am finally, ten years on, taking the steps I think Ian was encouraging me to take then. I’m doing it later than most, but there is still time and I will long be grateful to Ian for setting me off on a very long road.

I was lucky to catch Ian at the end of his teaching career. His playing had started to deteriorate and he would often be visibly frustrated by this in classes, although he had lost none of his enthusiasm for the music or for communicating. He retired from WAC a year after I left to study history at University. Subsequently, Tim Whitehead, Jonny Phillips and Ricky Mian have all ably stepped into his shoes, inheriting and developing a great tradition of jazz education at the college.

It’s deeply sad that Ian’s career was cruelly cut short by health problems at precisely the time he was gaining both a new audience and the wider recognition he’d long deserved. He’d often been unfairly portrayed as being in the shadow of his hero, Miles Davis, when his contribution to jazz-rock was actually contemporaneous with that of Miles. Some extraordinary musicians passed through Ian’s workshops at WAC - Julian Joseph, Courtney Pine, Jason Rebello, Mark and Michael Mondesir and many of the pack of musicians now revitalising British music – Zoe Rahman, Naadia Sheriff, Tom Herbert, Tom Skinner, Dave Okumu, Jesse Hackett of Elmore Judd and many others. This is testament to his manifest qualities as a teacher and his legacy will live on through these musicians for many years to come. Personally, I respect him for managing to combine pretty much all of my personal interests in one career. He composed music that crossed the often unnecessary boundaries between classical, jazz and rock (accompanied by an open-minded appreciation for a variety of musical forms), he wrote passionately and authoritatively about jazz, and even became an excellent broadcaster too.

Some links to more informative and objective obituaries covering Ian’s life and music:


Anonymous said...

That was a very nice tribute to Ian. Thanks for that.

Anonymous said...

I really felt that. A great loss.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written tribute. Great quotes - I can hear Ian saying those things as if it were yesterday! I'll really miss him.

Ebor Holdings said...

A fascinating insight.

Just right.


radiocitizen said...

I was sad to hear of Ian Carr's passing. I thoroughly enjoyed his biography of Miles Davis and his part in the DVD bio of Miles' life. Even though I only came to know of him recently, Carr seemed like a very nice man.

Farewell, traveller.

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