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Blog // Sounds
September 14, 2009

Jazz As An Act Of Biographical Mourning

Long-suffering readers of this blog will know that a few years back I was close to releasing my debut solo album. Then I chickened out.

Well, actually that is a little harsh. I took a critical listen to what I was doing and decided that it simply wasn’t good enough.

Having spent some time recently listening to back to some sessions from 2005 and 2006 I think that was the right call. Lots of good ideas, some interesting performances, but not enough quality to sustain a listening experience.

The big problems were quite clear. First off, I lacked the production skills to bring the songs to life. One the one hand, I’ve been writing and recording my own material since I was 16 and I’ve had experience in professional recording studios. But, on the other hand, my experience at running a recording studio, working a desk and mixing was, prior to 2004, very limited. Sure, I had owned a 4 track tape recorder and then an 8 track digital HD recorder, but my competence was only really up to producing “good enough” demos.

Although, I had quite a bit of arranging, I had always relied on interaction with live musicians to bring those arrangements (which looking back on them were often little more than sketched out ideas) to life. Arranging for the digital and sample based studio, especially when you are working solo, is a far more demanding gig. You need to fine tune every detail. I wasn’t really up to creating the kinds of variation-rich and sonically tight arrangements required for this kind of work.

In fact, I really didn’t know how to use the tools at the most basic level. Logic Pro baffled me at first. The courses with BerkleeMusic haven’t just helped me refine my musical chops and arranging skills, they’ve helped me learn how to use Logic and the other programmes I rely on (Reason, Kontakt, Sibelius etc).

But, there was a second and more psychologically complex issue holding me back.

Up until recently, music had almost always been a serious passion and hobby for me, rather than a profession. In the winter of 2003, I couldn’t continue with my academic career and my PhD programme, so I decided to turn to music full-time. It was a decision forced on me by circumstances, one that I had previously resisted.

The idea of recording an album was a way to make sense of a difficult time. I had made a decision in 2001 that I would try to record a solo album. But, back then it was a low priority behind the really important things, like finishing my PhD, writing a book and getting tenure.

Then that was all blown away and the album was one of the few attainable goals I had left. I’ve already mentioned that I wasn’t technically ready for it, but I also wasn’t emotionally ready for it either. Devoting myself to music full-time made me face a lot of the hurts and disappointments that I had forgotten from my early days as a guitarist, including some more recent wounds from my time as a church musician.

One thing I only recently realised was how the struggle to complete the album was fuelled by not having fully come to grips with the transition in career – from academic to musician. To be blunt, I hadn’t grieved properly. Listening back to a lot of the music I was writing and recording from ’04-’06 this sense of grief came back to me, again and again.

It’s not that the music is sad – some of it is quite joyful. But, there is an element there of loss, transition and rebirth. Leaving the life we had in London, moving through the years in India and facing the uncertainty and disappointment of our time in Hong Kong animates that music.

Only when I started to realise this a few months back, did the project come back to life. Every time I grab hold of that thought, the wheels turn again.

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