Beating The System
They were once a six-piece band playing "systems jazz". Now they are seven, and the music has become even more difficult to classify. Tim Goodyer tries to solve the puzzle.
Seven-piece ensemble Man Jumping have left the "systems" tag behind on a new album for EG. What problems does their line-up pose, and how successful can they be now that their music can't be pigeon-holed?
BEFORE MAN JUMPING made their first album, they beat a path to virtually every record company in London. Almost unanimously, the reaction they met with was: "This is the best thing we've heard all year". The material was then sent to each company's marketing department, and came back with the message: "We think it's great too, but who do we sell it to?"
And there, in a nutshell, you have the dilemma facing any modern musicians who have enough courage to strike out in a musical direction of their own. If your music can't be categorised, you can't beat the system.
Man Jumping are a seven-strong collective whose chosen musical direction continues to be a cause of concern to the music industry establishment - and to journalists given the task of reviewing their music. Me? I'd call it jazz - with complications.
There's no doubt that Man Jumping's influences are many and varied; jazz, classical and systems musics meet latin, funk, calypso and rock rhythms in an invigorating fusion of rhythms and melodies that is unlikely ever to make Top of the Pops, but which moves the feet and amazes the ear regardless. You can check it out yourself on the above-mentioned album, titled Jumpcut and eventually released on Cocteau Records - if you can still find a copy in the shops. If you can't, try the second album, World Service, freshly released on MJ's new label, EG.
"EG have a healthy policy of marketing fairly whacky acts, but what goes on in the heads of A&R men is a mystery. I don't think anything goes through their heads, it all goes through lunch."
The speaker is Glyn Perrin, one of Man Jumping's four keyboard players, along with Schaun Tozer, Charlie Seaward and Orlando Gough. Perrin's the one currently wearing a wry grin.
The remaining Men Jumping are saxophonist extraordinaire Andy Blake, bass player (and part-time keyboard player) John Lunn, and drummer Simon Limbrick. Almost all of them graduated through the ranks of Lost Jockey (an ensemble that specialised in a large, fluid membership and a fusion of rock and systems music), with Limbrick joining the line-up late, missing out on Jumpcut.
"It's certainly not systems music any more", asserts Perrin, "let's get that straight. And jazz is one of those words that just seems to be convenient for a lot of people at the moment. I don't think there's very much we do that's in the true jazz tradition, but there are a lot of people here that listen to jazz."
While MJ are obviously moving away from the systems style, there's still sufficient structure in the music to prevent it straying too far. Blake's sax, while powerful and emotive, never quite attains full solo status; the textural ties are just too strong to break.
Arguments about style aside, another major force in Man Jumping's music is high technology. That's not to say the music has become an excuse for four keyboard players to indulge themselves in technical fantasies: all MJ's members are musically trained to a frightening degree (if you get my drift).
"Unless you're prepared to keep bringing in other players, technology is the only real way of incorporating tonal variation into a small band", says Perrin.
"We've been a live band since the DX", adds Blake. "It gave us our own horn section without having to drag another nine or ten people around with us. Almost from the start, Schaun and Glyn have been able to program sounds that blend in with the sorts of sound I produce."
"Then there's another dimension in tones that you can't produce with conventional instruments anyway", interjects Perrin. "Nobody in this band treats gear as little black boxes. I've read so many interviews where people have said: 'I'd love to be able to program the DX but I haven't got the time to sort it out'. If you tot up the time it takes to get to the first interesting stage of DX programming, it's about 15 hours' hard work. Thereafter you can fit it in as you go and you don't need a vast amount of technical ability; you just have to have a degree of concentration."
In an age of DX preset madness, World Service presents the listener with a refreshing selection of DX sounds which, while still FM-clear, are obviously not the result of a quick five minutes spent messing with one of the presets.
"On one of the tracks we've got eight different snare sounds... to get away from the idea that the snare you first hear in a piece is fixed."
"I suppose that's where our trained background comes in", muses Perrin. "It gives us the ability to analyse what a sound does and how it does it. When I was learning to play the piano I had a couple of years of great perplexity when my teachers were trying to explain the thousands of different shades of tonal gradation you can produce on a piano. I was peering inside the piano, watching a hammer hit a string, and saying: 'I just don't understand - either I'm kidding myself, you're kidding yourself, or it's actually true'. And the fact is that it is true: if you listen to any good pianist from any style of music, there are enormously different sounds to be had out of the one instrument.
"So you learn what happens within a sound, especially at the front of the sound - that's the most important because that's where all the information is — and when you come to programming, that's one of the first things you have to deal with. You have to listen to what a 'real' instrument does if you want to imitate a 'real' instrument, and then apply that analysis to the synth."
It's not only FM synthesis that's played a part in the synthesised textures of Man Jumping's music. World Service calls on the services of wavetable synthesis in the form of a PPG, analogue synthesis from an Oberheim OBXa and a Roland JX8P, and the sampling power of three Akai S900s.
"There are a couple of interesting Iranian vocal sounds that we, er, lifted", confesses Tozer, "and we've been making a lot of our own vocal samples too. But using the Akai isn't just a case of lifting things and thinking they're nice. It's trying not to get the sound of acoustic instruments because the original instruments will always do it better.
"Simon's got one S900 fitted with trigger inputs so he can fire it from an Octapad. That's provided us with a lot of interesting ideas: on one of the tracks we've got eight different snare sounds which are gated to eight different vocal sounds. The aim is to get away from the idea that the snare sound you first hear in a piece is a fixed element. It's often very bombastic and you tend to filter it out after a while and ignore it. We experimented a bit with it and ended up with some incredible effects."
WHILE THE BAND themselves may consider seven a perfectly workable number of musicians to accommodate within a group, it's still beyond the levels of tolerance for most, especially when it comes to searching out a balance between everybody's musical interests. On the other hand, it does provide a larger than average pool of ideas...
"I think having everybody creatively involved in the project, rather than having a hierarchy with generals dishing out orders to the ranks, is a far more exciting way to work", says Perrin. "Musically the results tend to be far more radical: if there's anything in a track that starts to smell of compromise it gets kicked out, so what actually goes down is something everybody's happy with. The result tends to be something no one person or subgroup within the band could have come up with.
"Everyone in this band has a really committed interest to everyone else's ideas, even if they don't agree with them all the time. Everyone spends at least as much time thinking about what everybody else has produced as what they're trying to do themselves. You sit there and you worry at night: what is this part supposed to be doing in the arrangement, because I don't think it's working? So you get on the phone to the guy that's written it and spend the next two hours talking about where the piece is going. And I wouldn't sacrifice that process for the world. Sometimes there are some real crises and other times things will come together that no-one could have foreseen. You think: 'Wow, where did that come from?'. And the answer is it came from all seven of you working together. The complete band is bigger than the seven individuals that make it up."
The trouble with a line-up as big as this one, though, is that it's impossible to talk about anything without the subject becoming complicated. Take MIDI, for example. This band uses a lot of synthesisers, so the topic is bound to come up in conversation sooner or later. I talk MIDI, they talk classical arrangements...
"There seems to be a law of diminishing returns where, if you MIDI too much together, you lose the focus on the purpose of a sound", Perrin opines. "I can understand that very well from conventional classical orchestration: once you've got a flute to carry a particular part, you don't double it up with two other flutes because they start to cancel each other out."
Hmmm. Strange how rules centuries old still hold good in the face of modern technology. But what of the mysteries of the stave? How do The Dots fit into the scheme of things in 1987? Perrin takes up the challenge.
"There's a great mystery surrounding written music due to our education system: it's made it out to be some esoteric art when it isn't."
"There's a great mystery surrounding written music which I think is partly due to our education system: it's made it out to be some hyper-specialised, esoteric art when actually it isn't. In the last 20 or 30 years it's become more of a lost art.
"All my older teachers could read and 'hear' things off the stave, and that was because they didn't have access to gramophone recordings when they were young, and only to live concerts if they lived in London and could afford to go to them. Their solution was to go to the public library and borrow a score. I have a composer friend who is a great reader and can imagine huge arrangements for those very reasons. But now I'd say the vast majority of music is made by ear."
So how valuable is the lost art to seven modern, technology-obsessed musicians?
"Well, there are some pieces that we'd written and performed live that we didn't have a record of - apart from the dots — before we got into the studio. Obviously when you're playing inside a band you have a very particular perspective of what's going on. Sometimes it's only when you sit down in the studio that you realise how certain parts are supposed to go together, or why something isn't working. So the dots are quite useful — they let you see in theory how something works.
"The trouble is, a lot of the time the dots go down without a specific idea of what they represent in sound. If you change the sound of one of the parts, that can significantly alter the perspective of the piece. When you're recording, that might mean that something else has to change or even go altogether.
"The four keyboard players in the band all play quite differently; they all have different strengths and abilities. Some of us have been brought up more on pianos like me, while Charlie has always been a synth player. There are certain ways he gets around synths that it's going to take me a good while to learn."
"When we record and arrange for live work, who takes each part is determined by each players strength", elaborates Tozer. "But at the same time everybody is stretching themselves. It's not the case that there's one player who will always play the rhythm parts."
"There are times when having too much technique actively prevents you from seeing things clearly", Perrin continues. "When there are seven people out there generating a lot of energy, it can be very difficult to see the simpler side of things. There's always the temptation to develop an idea more and more.
"At the end of the process, you find yourselves having to go back and strip things down to something that's far more manageable - that's where you have to rein in your technique. Everybody here knows they can play more notes per second but that's not the point, and it doesn't mean there aren't challenges. For example, without a guitarist in the band we have certain problems. There are things that rhythm guitar players do that contribute sound in a very specific way, and we have to get round that in other ways. On any keyboard that's very difficult. There are various different solutions, but to get to the way a rhythm guitarist would actually articulate is something that interests me a lot."
Denouncing their systems background may be in keeping with Man Jumping's musical policy, but it's unlikely to help make the music more easy to pigeon-hole - and therefore sell. Which brings us back to where we were at the beginning. How much success can Perrin & Co, with their rambling line-up and unclassifiable repertoire, reasonably expect to enjoy?
"We've actually got to sell quite a lot of records to keep this band alive", Perrin confirms. "Supporting seven musicians equates to considerable commercial success, but everybody has the aim that we could generate enough work through albums, filmscores, gigging, and whatever to bring in enough money so that we don't have to do half the other things we have to do at the moment to stay solvent."
"Films are definitely an interesting area", agrees Tozer. "In the last two or three years the work we've done with dance companies has proved quite popular. We did some stuff for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre last summer and we're starting on another piece for the Second Stride company in April. It's a whole area that's developing for us. We're rather like a team where making albums, gigging, film work and dance are all important aspects."
Perrin: "There's obviously a lot more happening down on the ground than ever gets on to Radio 1 - hip hop, for example, seems to be a far more dynamic scene than pop music, certainly in its use of technology and the lack of respect for the conventional use of technology. You just carve it up and see what it does.
"But then there's this view that everything that flows out of Radio 1 is complete pap, and I don't think that anything's ever that bad. I think the listeners become a particular kind of expert about the music simply because of the amount of exposure they've had to it. They may not be able to sit down and articulate about it, but they're experts in the same way people that go to football matches are experts. If you just construct music to a formula, ultimately you're going to be crushed under your own cynicism."
"It's very dangerous to underestimate your audience in just how tough they are", Tozer concludes. "The average punter is a pretty tough cookie."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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