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This review looks at performances from ‘The Jahm Band’, a psychedelic, funk-jazz fusion group based in North Antrim and singer songwriter ‘Tom McRae’ who are two performing artists/group who share the same or similar (self-proclaimed) chaotic approach to improvisation within their perspective music/sounds. However within the context of a live performance, this same attitude towards extemporization within their art form yields vastly different results. So at what point in the creative process do similar foundations become streets apart?

‘The Jahm Band’ (Are Ye Jahmin’ or Wha?!)

The Jahm Band are a collection of musicians who play ‘funky, groovy transcendental hoodoo music’ which was originally set up by Will Hawkins, Ciaran Laverty and Dave Hoy a few years ago. ‘The Jahm Band’ is now made up of six fantastic musicians from around Northern Ireland.

The music of ‘The Jahm Band’ is exactly as the name suggests, a series of ‘jahms’, each with the fundamental component of being primarily improvised (within a very loosely fixed medium) which is defined by the quality of musicians within the group as well as a love for what they are creating.

Primarily in hindsight of this performance I would suggest that this is a group of individuals who share the ideal that their music is ‘played by a group of musicians who choose one another’s company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is performed’*. This is evident in the simple fact that at several intervals throughout the performance, extended friends of the group (myself included) were invited on stage for a brief ‘jahm’ as the atmosphere/mood of the music/venue compelled the group to do so. Surely this introduced a substantial element of free improvisation as control was passed ‘not to chance, but to other musicians’*, whether or not said persons were aware of any fixed mediums. This isn’t to say that the group lacked direction and required the participation of the audience, indeed quite the opposite. In relation to the inspiration for improvisation, the flamenco guitarist Paco Pena said that ‘anything which has art in it would have an effect. For example, the way people move – you could see someone moving gracefully and that inspires you’. I believe this to be the case when concerning ‘The Jahm Band’. Whilst the main protagonist of the group (Will Hawkins – Guitar) is heavily influenced by the music of Robert Fripp (which was evident at points in the performance) whose music embraces ‘instant creation’, however when the audience began to ‘get their GRooVe on’ this had a very definite effect on the group, spurring them on. This like the cameo musicians served to inspire the group giving their ‘transcendental mission’ momentum!

The improvisational structure I feel was dictated by the members of the group as individuals acting within the institution that is ‘The Jahm Band’. Phasing and ‘Grooves’ would be exchanged with band members and opposed to repeating what has been ‘said’ created their own phrases within the ‘Grooves’ allowing each piece to explored, treating every error as an ‘unintentional rightness’. Needless to say this practice (in order to be carried out effectively) requires considerably high levels of communication which in some cases took the form of whispers, nods and in some cases it was almost possible to see the musicians passing notes, ideas and responsibility across the stage through the way the notes phrases were played and where emphasis was placed at defining moment of the performance.

If was definitely one of these gigs that had the audience holding their breath at every stager and fall, at every sustain and trill, and at the final crescendo the release of the group was shared by the audience which for me defined the special relationship between an audience and improvised music.

Tom McRae

Tom McRae is recognized for his intelligent and sensitive song writing, his haunting vocals and the energy and warmth which he puts into his live gigs, which needless to say is all that was presented and them some at ‘The Limelight’ on Monday 12th November. The gig was apart of his European tour to promote his recently released 3rd studio album ‘King of Cards’. His influences as expressed on www.myspace.com/tommcrae are ‘Gravity, poverty, some childhood issues, and Burl Ives’ which gives some indication of his character as opposed to his music which could be described as being somewhat bleak and depressing. This contradiction does however highlight that (in my opinion) he has a real sense of humour.

Opposed to the performance of ‘The Jahm Band’, any musical improvisation that takes place is rigidly defined by his fixed medium which in this case are the songs from his latest and previous albums which people have come to hear.

After the show I had the opportunity of asking him how he approaches or perceives his use of improvisation within his own music, to which he replied that one factor (similar to that of ‘The Jahm Band’) is that he and the rest of the band enjoy what they are playing. This appears to be a common train of thought with improvisers the world over, as Derek Bailey says in ‘Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music’, ’don’t be afraid of being wrong, just afraid of being uninteresting’ which to me suggests enjoying yourself.

The performance was much more than on of a musical nature, it could also be compared with that of a stand-up comedy act, which in my opinion was second to none. His use of ‘ad-libbing’ to engage the audience both between and during songs allowed for the audience, I believe, to have a definite presence in the performance as performers. The constant interjection of question and answer between audience and performer was very reminiscent of the improvisation that is employed in Rock music as defined my Derek Bailey.

One final key element of this performance which I found particularly compelling was that, although it says on the ticket ‘Tom McRae’ he went to lengths to introduce the rest of the band to the audience (Oli and Olli, Johnny Sound, Stevie Guitars) and included them in his interaction with the crowd. This allowed much of the bands personalities to come forth making them more than simply ‘the men behind the man’ but equals within the performance along with Tom and the audience. The familiarity made the band members embellishments on the original themes much more evident bring improvisation to the forefront of the performance which I believe made the experience all the more engaging and entertaining. The bands relaxed and jovial approach to the performance turned songs of a serious nature into one of light-hearted camaraderie which I believe to be the result of the group adapting (dare I say improvising) to the mood of the audience making them much more accessible.

Although the actual implementation of a similar idea of improvisation, in relation to these two performances yielded very different results is not to suggest that one was ‘better’ than the other, just different. Speaking in strictly musical terms the improvisation of Tom McRae was very rigidly defined, not going beyond the confines of the set pieces, were as The Jahm Band in some cases even went beyond the tempered scale of the West (due to the wizardry of one Will Hawkins).

As an avid supporter of local music (music from Ireland) I am compelled to vote in favour of ‘The Jahm Band’, that is if this were a competition, however I feel that both performances captured what I believe to be possibly the single most important factor of any improvisation and that is to play with you heart as opposed to your head, because as Steve Howe said ‘if you try to closely to look at inspiration it disappears… Untangible’!

Darren McLaughlin

*All references and quotes were taken from:

Improvisation – It’s Nature and Practice in Music. Derek Bailey

www.tommcrae.com

www.mysoace.com/tommcrae

www.myspace.com/thejahmband

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