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The Masters and The List

  09/05/11 16:32, by , Categories: Music News, BFMN Exclusive, Monday Morning Musical Musings, Paul Bourgeois , Tags: davey graham, eric clapton, greatest, guitar, jimmy hendrix, jj cale, johnny winter, joni mitchell, lenny breau, masters, music, musicians, neil young, paul bourgeois, trey anastasio, vernon reid
Paul Bourgeois

Mastering an instrument is a personal thing. We find an instrument that fits us physically - fingers, arms, breath, lips, upper body, feet, legs… When we learn to play the instrument becomes part of us. And we find a way our instrument can express what we are. Our instrument breathes with us. It is our life. And we want to make our lives mesh with the lives of others. Me?  I am a humble harmonica player, struggling with life, trying to make sense of the world and what things, like music, mean to me.  And so, with these articles, I offer you a piece of my soul.  This is why we play.

Some-one once wrote to me that there were no masters, that the music existed independently of people. But there are masters! The music is what they create, with a freshness and an innocence and the explorations of a child.

It takes a long time before you become good enough to play with others, and there will probably be times in that period when you play with others anyway - and that’s fine - but when you reach that certain point and you want to play with somebody else, it’s not about who has the better chops. It’s style and chemistry.

Ok, the better players do tend to play together. That’s the nature of the game. But you don’t always want to play with the brilliant ones. The brilliance comes out as self expression. It shines. If you find someone with a specific style, something unique, wonderful, remember that there might be a lot that they can’t do, and what they can’t do has shaped where they do go. Their magnificence has to do with what they can do.  Same with anyone.  Find your joy.  Find your brilliance.

Neil Young

I’ll tell you something. I used to play with a brilliant musician… a master. Years ago I began playing with him, and playing together everything just opened up and flowed and I went places musically I had never gone before. It was beautiful. But, over the years I came to hate the fellow. Well, these things happen. It is natural and understandable and you don’t have to justify it. It’s just chemistry. The music still flows, you know, but I will probably never play with him again. I hope I never see him again. And, I suppose, that’s what happens to bands. Over the years they get too close and find they are incompatible.

Joni Mitchell

Ultimately, you want to find someone who can push you places you wouldn’t or couldn’t go by yourself, and they want the same. That’s fun. That’s playing. What good is anything if you can’t have fun doing it. I am thinking particularly of Trey Anastasio and Neil Young playing together at a Farm Aid 98. Trey is from the band Phish and was rated by Rolling Stone as number 73 in the hundred greatest guitar players of all time, right inbetween Johnny Winter and Joni Mitchell.  Neil is number 83. All of this is actually kind of unfair because it is so hard to rate style, and there are so many other factors to consider. Jimmie Hendrix is number one. Clapton is five.  And if he’s there - and rightly so - then there is a great need to find a place for JJ Cale. Jeff Beck is fourteen. One of my favorites, Vernon Reid is number sixty six. But how do you put numbers on that? And there might be people on the list who few have even heard of. And to tell you the truth, I am sure there are people not on the list who are technically as good as the great 100. I may even have met two of them. I don’t even think Chet Atkins or Lenny Breau or Davey Graham even made the list. There is probably a list somewhere for “Blow-Your-Mind-Fantastic". But I’m sure, for those on the “Greatest” list, it’s nice to be there, anyway.

Eric Clapton

Back to Farm Aid 98 and the two fantastic musicians who found their way together. At Farm Aid Phish plays Runaway Jim and then they move into this extended extro.  Then Neil Young, who has been just some guy in the back in a hat twiddling with an amp, suddenly comes forward and it all phases into this gorgeous psychedelic Indianesque intro and bridge running somewhere unknown and unknowable until it arrives. You can definitely see why Neil is on the list.  And he brings the sixties with him and some deep distortion.  Trey and Neil are just playing to the speakers and the feedback and the music and each other. Thousands of people in that place watching, but for them no-one else is there. And then they move from that into Neil’s Down By The River. All together that’s over thirty minutes of straight music, musicians becoming their instruments, oblivious of all else. You can see the joy of what they ARE just coming out of their faces and bodies. And the audience of thousands privileged to be there and loving it. Now that is fun. Farmers are such cool people. And sometimes farmers are also incredible guitar players who nobody else knows about except other musicians who come and sit at their feet to learn.

Jeff Beck

Ok. I have heard the counter argument about what mastering an instrument is all about. I have heard the argument from people trying to form bands. And it has to do with discipline and working together. It is just so much effort to find quality people, and then maybe the quality players are not even suited for a band. “Let’s do a perfect three minute piece for the people in the pub so they can dance and let’s get in and out and don’t you dare deviate because I wrote this.” Yeah, I get that argument. A band does need tightness, and a band does need a leader. But just as a player has to be suited to a band, a band leader has to be similarly suited. The trouble with a band, especially if the members are really good, and even if they’re not, is everyone wants to do their own thing. And sometimes they can’t do anything but their own thing. And that’s all ego, gushing out all over the place and spilling all over the floor. I don’t think a band leader can be a dictator, although sometimes he should be. I think a band leader often ends up being a baby-sitter.

Vernon Reid

For me, this is just an example how bands are held together more by chemistry than the caliber of the musicians. The caliber of the musician can only come out with discipline, but it is charisma, ego and adrenelin that makes the music flow. Tough job holding people together. The quality of individual musicians within a band may even serve to pull a band apart. People grow and change, and so bands come and go. They are very fickle things. Sometimes they just fall together for no good reason, and then they fall apart just as easily. Everyone has their own agenda. I would hate to be married to a band. As you can see, I’m bitter. I’m just coming out of a band experience. My band, man! And I’m thinking “What did I do to kill it?” Was the marriage bad or did people just drift apart? Shall we start laying blame?

Johnny Winter

The public thinks a good band should be carved in stone, that it exists for the sole purpose of entertaining the public. Like The Beatles. Who broke up The Beatles? Come off it. They had a great eight year run and then moved on and did their own stuff. Yeah, people want to play and people want to be entertained. And sometimes the person wanting, and needing, to be entertained is the musician himself.

Lenny Breau

If the joy goes out of it then it doesn’t matter what you are doing. The instrument, our instrument, is part of who we are. Our instrument is shaped to who we are. It isn’t part of the audience. If we are lucky enough to be good enough that other people want to listen to it, then wonderful. But then again, there are marvelous musicians who nobody gets, who nobody except another musician can hear and play with. And then sometimes not even then. They don’t play for the audience. They play because they can hear something inside themselves, because that part of them is growing and moving and needs expression.

And you know, it’s not about quality. It’s not about copying the riffs exactly. It’s not about who is better or worse. Sometimes, a person gets to a certain level with their playing and they plateau, and they are happy with that, and that’s fine.  And sometimes there are no limits.  And that’s fine, too.

 It’s about expressing who you are.



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