Looking back on my recent posts, I see that I’ve been Very Serious in every one of them, which really isn’t like me at all. I guess this has been a Serious Time. Lots of work, much of it not very much fun, sick kids, friends going through hard times. Serious stuff. But I want to do something fun this week, if for no other reason than because I need to, for my own well being.
I’ve posted before, elsewhere, about how important music is to my work. When I’m writing a book, I have to have music on. And not just any music. I don’t do real well listening to rock or pop in any of its incarnations, mostly because I find that lyrics throw me off. The last thing I need when I’m writing is someone else’s words kicking around in my head, repeating themselves in melodic, catchy little phrases.
I also can’t listen to classical music. Too static. Our best friends here in town are both musicians and music professors. They’re both into classical music and they’ve introduced Nancy and me to some wonderful performances. I enjoy classical; Nancy and I went to hear the Nashville Symphony a couple of weeks ago and had a great time. But when I’ve tried writing to classical, I’ve found it stultifying. For me it’s like trying to do gymnastics in a tie and jacket. It just doesn’t work.
So what does work? Instrumental music with a strong improvisational element. Specifically jazz and bluegrass. I listen to a ton of both. I find that listening to improvisation frees up my writing, helps me tap into a creative thread, almost as if I’m playing riffs right along with the musicians. As I mentioned months ago in that previous post about music, when I used to play guitar more often than I do now I did a lot of instrumental soloing, and the feeling I get from writing on a good day is very much the same as I used to get from playing. I have the sense that I’m in sync with a creative process that’s larger than just me. And the music I listen to helps that along.
I know that some other writers are pretty picky about the music they listen to when writing, and that others feel they can’t have any music going at all. I’d like to hear what you all listen to when you write, if anything.
But first, here are my top ten favorite discs to write to (in no particular order):
1. Skip, Hop & Wobble — Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer. Virtuoso bluegrass musicians playing acoustic instruments. But this is way more than mere bluegrass. It has elements of jazz, folk, celtic, and, yes, bluegrass. This is one of my desert island albums. If I were trapped on an island for ten years with nothing but food, water, and five albums of my choice, this would be one of them.
2. Kind of Blue — Miles Davis. This will come as no great revelation to fans of jazz. It’s generally recognized as one of the great jazz albums of all time. It’s another of my desert island discs, and a terrific writing album as well. Brooding, melodic, and still stunningly fresh fifty years after its release.
3. Drive — Bela Fleck. A bluegrass standard, although again, the music is far more complex than what most people think of as “bluegrass”. Terrific musicians, including not only Fleck, but also Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Stuart Duncan, Marc O’Connor, and Mark Schatz.
4. True Blue — Mark Whitfield. Young jazz guitarist playing with an all-star back-up ensemble that includes Branford Marsalis, Nicolas Payton, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and the late Kenny Kirkland. As the album title implies, there’s a blues undertone to the entire album. Not a weak cut in the mix.
5. Hot Dawg — David Grisman. In the 1970s, mandolinist David Grisman coined the term “Dawg Music” to describe his then unique brand of jazz-influenced bluegrass. Drawing on the music of Stephan Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, Grisman created a new sound that has since had a huge influence on a generation of bluegrass musicians (including many of those already mentioned here: Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Marc O’Connor, Tony Rice). Hot Dawg may well be the best of Grisman’s albums from that period.
6. Get Inside — Johnny A. A new favorite, a recent gift from one of my brothers. Johnny A.’s music combines elements of blues, rock, and jazz into a sound unlike anything being put out by anyone else on the music scene. His albums are entirely instrumental and they rock.
7. Not All Who Wander Are Lost — Chris Thile. Mandolin-playing magician of Nickel Creek fame. Don’t laugh at this, but Chris Thile may be the closest thing modern acoustic music has to Mozart. He released his first solo album at the age of eleven and his second at age sixteen. Not All Who Wander… is his third solo effort. It came out in 2001 in between the first and second Nickel Creek albums, and it features performances by, among others, Fleck, Douglas, Meyer, Duncan, Bryan Sutton, and Sara and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek. Thile wrote or co-wrote every piece on the disc, proving that he’s not only a brilliant musician, but also a brilliant composer.
8. Payton’s Place — Nicolas Payton. Payton is a jazz trumpeter and he and his quartet are joined on this album by trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis, as well as sax star Joshua Redman. There are a few standards on the disc mixed in with an impressive selection of original compositions.
9. Telluride Sessions — Strength in Numbers. Okay, I feel like I’m repeating myself a bit here. Strength in Numbers is a bluegrass “supergroup” consisting of — surprise!– Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Marc O’Connor, Sam Bush, and Edgar Meyer. All I can say in my own defense is that this is truly remarkable music written and performed by spectacularly accomplished musicians. We are living in a golden age of acoustic music. Each of the musicians on this disc has redefined his instrument; together they have taken bluegrass to places the genre’s founders never even dreamed of going.
10. Question and Answer — Pat Metheny, with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes. Pat Metheny’s music is often dismissed by jazz purists as being too New Age to be real jazz. But he’s an incredible guitarist, and when he chooses to play straight up jazz, as he does on this release from 1990, he is as good as any jazz guitarist out there.
So, there it is. My top ten list. I’m embarrassed to find that there isn’t a single title by a woman on the entire list. It’s surprising, because I have lots of discs by women. But few of them are jazz and bluegrass, and fewer still are entirely instrumental — my criteria for writing music.