A Shit-Lot Of Honk: Adam Simmons

There were a few years in my early 20s I was pretending to be a jazz musician. It didn’t really end so well but I did immerse myself into a Melbourne music pool where I met  many people who I didn’t understand. 

One of these fish that caught my curiosity (and who I’ve always wanted to understand) is multi-instrumentalist Adam Simmons. I used to babysit his dog. He’s a captivating character and extraordinary musician with what seems like inexhaustible determination. Here Adam convulses mass quantities of conviction and almost convinces me that tertiary music education is not entirely a soul-sucking demon…

adam simmons2

ADAM. HELLO. ARE SAXOPHONISTS ALLOWED INTO ROCK AND ROLL VENUES ANYMORE?

Just try and stop us! Rock’n’Roll would not be here without the saxophone – go back to Sam “The Man” Taylor, or Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams or Willie “Gator” Jackson and you’ll find the beginnings of rock’n’roll. Move forward and can you imagine Bruce Springsteen without Clarence Clemons or Tina Turner without her bodybuilder… errr, sax player… and who would remember Careless Whisper if there was no sax riff?

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU WERE IN ONE OF THESE PLACES?

Well, I’ll be in one tomorrow night, but if you’re specifically talking past tense, the last time was probably around May/June.

WERE YOU PLAYING AT THAT SHOW? 

The last time I’m talking about was when I checked out Kim Salmon’s Old Bar residency where he was in trio with Myles Mumford and David Brown – good stuff indeed. But a month or so before that I was leading the Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble playing Sun Ra’s music at the Northcote Social Club, where we had about fifteen people on stage, including 5 saxophonists and about 38 woodwind instruments between us! But I like doing rock venues or festivals – they are less precious than jazz venues can be and its easier to just do what you like – or maybe that’s just how I approach them. And while I do run a festival dedicated to acoustic music-making, I still love playing through a loud PA. Getting to scream out the hornline for Baker St at the Yarra Hotel to a packed room and then chuck it up an octave to lift the roof off was pretty fun a coupla years ago – and that was with The JVG Method, which forms the RRR BBQ Orchestra, who always love the extra sparkle (and balls) that me and the trumpet player add to the sound.

WOULD YOU AGREE THE  MUSIC CLIMATE HAS BECOME MORE CONSERVATIVE IN THE LAST 10 OR SO YEARS? 

It’s a whole bunch of things. Presenters making safer choices, education institutions needing to get bums on seats and produce vocationally trained musos (for how many jobs exactly?), media outlets for music increasingly limited for non-mainstream or generic music, social media increasingly separating and isolating us into different groups, streaming music services or retail outlets just serving up recommendations to things that sound like what we already know (but have also likely popped up because of payment to help them pop up), bombardment of information and accessibility to everything resulting in fatigue and then retreating to the familiar for comfort.

One possible reason that people seem more conservative might be more a matter of our own perspective not changing… maybe the fact I feel others are conservative is more that I had a whole bunch of friends that use to come and support what I did, and now they’ve become responsible and overloaded with other life things, and the audience that is going out are younger and just not into what I am doing, not coz I’m too new or radical, but maybe coz they’re younger friends are now at the vanguard, not me… that’s a pessimistic view, but I feel its important to remember that one is not at the centre of the world!

But to get more angsty again – listening to current music does leave me wishing for a little more of the human touch. David Byrne and Brian Eno have both recently discussed their approaches to music-making incorporating the imperfections and humanity of those. I also came to understand that beauty of imperfection in a mistake, a squeak, a missed note or a breath. Being able to quantise, autotune and edit sound waves are great tools, but over reliance on such things can obscure the potential emotional impact of music. It used to be that you could tell, even if imperceptibly, where you were in the song, whether the first verse or second chorus or the final chorus repeat, because of the intonation of the voice, the energy of the band, that extra bass note, the addition of a tambourine, that extra strain in the voice from having screamed for the past three minutes. But now, too often in recorded music (and those mimed performances) it feels like the singer has got one “perfect” take and then its just cut and pasted. Same thing happens when recording horn lines.

Another thing I’ve thought about in relation to this lack of connection with music now is to do with the reduction of sound quality in recordings. MP3’s strip out a lot of the richness, complexity of tone and I strongly feel that this also strips away qualities that draws a listener to a particular sound. Plus the fact we generally listen to music on shitty headphones or laptop speakers or car stereos. Listen to some Youtube clip with compressed audio on a laptop and compare that with going to hear the real thing live and see what difference it makes to the impact – and that’s the same whether its listening to a Bach cello suite or some crazy punk band. If music loses the capacity to emotionally connect, but we still crave it, then I think we head for music that reminds us of music that we did connect with, something familiar to hang on to.

 

THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF MUSIC RUBBISHES THE SOUL, THE IMAGINATION, THE UNBLEMISHED, INSTINCTIVE CREATIVE IMPULSE. I DON’T EXPECT YOU WILL AGREE WITH ME HERE, WILL YOU?

I’m not going to be as harsh as you – I usually tend to be in the middle so if you take one side, I’ll look at it from the other. Yes, there are times I feel there is a certain sameness and blandness about what comes out of tertiary institutions, but shit – they’re still young! Maybe there is a reason it takes longer to become a fully qualified doctor.

As someone who went through one of these soul-sapping, robotic factories, my experience from the inside was one of great diversity of ideas – from both students and lecturers. True, I thought everyone would be into free jazz like Ornette and Art Ensemble of Chicago and contemporary stuff (new at the time) like John Zorn’s Naked City and Last Exit, but they were mostly all playing more bebop and middle Coltrane-esque kinda jazz. So maybe I stuck out a bit. Could’ve been my lack of technique as well… My time was not perfect at VCA (which I readily acknowledge now that I could’ve put more in) but I came out a much better musician then when I went in.

As a teacher at a couple of institutions these days, including VCA, I don’t really try to fit in to a system – there is no real agenda pushed by the institution on to me. Yes, the students do have certain requirements that I try to help them fulfil, but usually I do my best to balance what the student is looking for and what I perceive as areas of need and interest for their development. One of my failings as a teacher is that I don’t have a system. I don’t just give all the answers… or maybe, I give way too many answers but then follow up with more questions. I endeavour to be honest about my own practice and encourage my students to try and do the same, finding their strengths, acknowledging and working on weaknesses. Rob Vincs talked about learning to improvise as slowly stripping away barriers, be they physical technique issues, aural skills or mental, so as to get as direct a connection as possible between initial thought and sound from your instrument. Being honest, without filters… not easy to do – and no real system to teach that. And this is where I am not as sought after as a teacher as others, in my humble opinion… most often I have people coming to me for tone development and fundamental technique, which is great because they are things that I didn’t have and my various teachers (especially Lachlan Davidson) worked hard to help me. But I have had students then say, “thanks for that but now I’m going to so-and-so to learn about improvising”. Which is sorta cool, coz I know there are many players with greater knowledge than I, but I also feel I have some interesting and maybe non-conventional understandings about harmony, theory, melodic construction, etc… especially across a bunch of genres and instruments. But often the search is for quick answers – “What scale do I need to be the most hip cat on the block?” – rather than a slower exploration of how things actually sound and what effect do they create.

Partly its about control of information – put a system around something and then authority is created and gatekeepers become necessary. Codifying a style makes it easier to teach through identifying those things that anyone can do, even if requiring a little practice. Learning to play bebop requires understanding of certain rules, playing rock’n’roll has rules, whatever… these rules help make a style what it is. But it feels like in the beginning, the various pioneers were the ones breaking the rules, whether consciously or not but they just wanted to find a way to express themselves. But this is not easy to teach. What is easier to teach, especially to large groups as necessitated by current institutional funding models, are systems, general rules, things that will help get you to a place quickly… such as learning chord/scale relationships, or Coltrane changes or transcribing solos to learn the different choices made by your idols. The more challenging thing to teach is how to use those tools to help your creativity in the moment rather than just get stuck looking at the tool over and over again. Going back to that idea of control over information – even Ornette Coleman does this in free jazz, in my humble opinion, through his esoteric glimpses into his theory around Harmolodics – presenting something that is easily transmitted, such as musical theory, this scale goes over this chord, substitute this chord for this chord or playing in all twelve keys, can put one in a position of authority over a certain idea/concept/approach. Mastering these ideas are just about rote practice and its easier to quantify whether or not one is successful and so can be assessed and judged. But getting someone to listen and respond authentically in the moment to other musicians, their surrounding environment, the presence of an audience and to their own inner search and need to express (if they know what they want to express!), this is much harder to teach or to judge quantitatively the success or otherwise.

Stepping back to my own experience, being educated was vital to my development – whether that was the fact I got to play music everyday with people who were interested and enthusiastic about playing music, whether it was the concepts that got thrown at me, or whether it was just the chance to meet people that became the beginning of a larger network of contacts and connecting points into the larger music scene.

DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE ANYBODY HAS SURVIVED MUSIC SCHOOL WITH THEIR UNHINDERED IMAGINATION INTACT?

Well, talking personally again… I like to think I have managed that but not without a little detour. I kinda remember coming out of VCA being better at playing more conventional jazz, but also trying to retain my wild side. But maybe I separated these for a bit. Until one day – it might actually have been my first duo jam with Tim O’Dwyer before I joined Bucketrider – I found myself kinda bringing both together – more of the extended noise bits in with the more just playing interesting melodic contractions. It reminded me of things I used to do prior to VCA. Another similar thing was doing a reunion gig with The Valiants, an R&B band (the old kind) I played in with my Dad just before VCA. The gig was a year or two after I’d graduated and I’d been playing in a jazz group of VCA friends along with my Dad (Paul Simmons) and my stepmother, Diana Gilbert. In the jazz group, which became the Adam Simmons Quartet, Dad and I would do long extended solos and we had both improved as players, so we really looked forward to The Valiants reunion coz it was going to be so easy and fun. Turned out to be a bit of a mindfuck – suddenly instead of 8 minutes for a solo, there was only 8 bars. You couldn’t spend a minute or two slowly working out what you were talking about, you had to nail it from the first note! No fucking around. It felt like I had to pull my head out of my arse after VCA and make it real again.

But maybe a couple of thoughts on retaining and developing one’s imagination.

So first of all, don’t fight education – if I get political for a moment, that’s kinda what the Liberal Government is pushing, as well as the mainstream media, in ignoring or suppressing expert opinion in favour of popular opinion. Look at the interviews on breakfast television where they used to interview experts and people involved in actual events/topics, but now they just speak to other media commentators, or the hosts just shift chairs and interview each other!! Be aware of one’s limitations and find ways to break those down, rather than fortifying them.

Just say yes – do everything you can, play things you like and don’t like. You’ll learn from each situation – and often its been negative ones for me that have helped clarify my ideas the strongest. But don’t just reject ideas because you can’t do them or don’t understand them. Be informed, understand things and then you can make a real choice.

Listen to critics – don’t believe everything they say, but try and understand where they are coming from. They may have a point. But then again, sometimes they are totally wrong. Find critics that get where you’re coming from – be they personal friends, family or media. Fortunately I’ve had a few people that have enjoyed my work but they also tell me when things don’t succeed. These are the critics that are invaluable. Try and just ignore the ones that don’t understand or judge things from totally the wrong perspective. One small example was being likened to Ornette Coleman at South Street competitions when I was about 18. The adjudicator was a classical saxophonist and maybe he knew Ornette’s name as synonymous with free jazz, but if he actually knew anything, the fact I was playing “The Old Rugged Cross” on tenor sax not alto, might’ve led him to the much more relevant comparison to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or if he listened to how I played, it was actually much more inspired by Albert Ayler or Pharaoh Sanders. Or even worse… someone writing that my technique of playing sax into the piano was extremely effective, when it was actually someone else doing that on the same night.

Just remember who you are, what you like, what inspires you. Its not always easy to do – and sometimes it shifts, and probably it should. But watch out for those people who dismiss other styles altogether. I started out dismissing electronic/techno music back when I was at VCA and most of us “real” musicians felt it was simplistic, naive and not worth our time. And then one night after a gig, playing chess with pianist Ben Winkelman, he put on some techno music on while we played at a nice listening volume and I started actually listening… it was actually interesting. It helped change my outlook, and opened me up to other musical worlds, which I have not necessarily shifted to, but I’ve co-opted bits from and brought them into whatever kind of thing it is that I do. So knowing who you are, but being willing for that to grow and develop.

This is all applicable whether you’re in an institution or going on your own road. Either way you need to learn.

adam conducts

WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE ABOUT MUSIC EDUCATION? 

Something I’ve wondered about in the last year or so, is whether singing should be mandatory. Anyone can sing, but there is the need to connect the brain correctly to use the voice appropriately. Developing that connection of ear/brain/voice is vital in learning to express oneself freely.

My Dad used to nag me to sing more when I was a kid, telling me it would help me. I didn’t really listen until years and years later… but he was right!

But exposure to different music is vital – my kids listened to all sorts of stuff as babies and toddlers – at the age of 3, Noah was demanding Ray Charles and Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (referred to as the “sleepy music) as his  bedtime music. And Lily would always want “The Pussy Music” – which was Debussy. They’d watch The Wiggles and Hi-5 on the TV but when they wanted to listen to music, it was all kinds of “real” music, not just for kids. I think too much of what kids get is watered down, simple and lacking in substance. Its kind of like the ubiquitous kids meals – always spag bol, chicken nuggets, meat patties or fried fish. Lets just keep it simple, give them cheap shit coz its easy, while we eat the healthy stuff. Travelling with kids a couple of years ago in Europe highlighted this – in France it was very similar to here with kid’s meals, whereas in Italy and Spain there was just one menu and we all ordered from the same menu.  I’m not suggesting we hit kindergarten kids with Napalm Death straight up, but mix it up, give’em all sorts of experiences – including lots of live musicians in actual performance! – and they’ll get much broader experiences.

I doubt much will change – I cynically feel that despite the constant release of studies about the value of music and the benefits of learning music, there is very little political will to do anything about it. And maybe this is because of the risk that the studies are actually correct – if music can help by increasing intelligence, developing empathy and building social cohesion, for instance, then there will be a real risk that a more unified, vocal majority may emerge calling for greater humanitarian solutions to many of society’s challenges, reducing the power of certain sectors of government and business.

WHAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS A MUSICIAN?

Hmmm… You’ll probably be able to glean from what I’ve already been talking about that I don’t take this music thing lightly. And I am getting grumpier as I get older and more cynical as I understand and know more. But at the same time, I try to remember I blow air through a metal (or wooden or bamboo) tube and wiggle my fingers.

I am an entertainer, so maybe its simply to make people happy. But I don’t want to just fill in time or empty space as just colour, movement, sound… I try to create experiences that people will remember, something that surprises them, offer a hint of something new or unexpected. I often refer to myself as a storyteller when asked what kind of music I play. I’m not literally telling stories, but somehow sound can create a sense of emotional journey through time. This is a kind of entertainment.

But I feel music operates at a deeper level than the word “entertainment” implies and this is present in all styles. It may not feel like pop music or folk or kids music (examples only) are deep, but they are still music. Music is unique in the way it can bring us together. To justify my pursuit of music as a career, I came to the position that making people happy was a desirable and noble thing to do (partly with the help of reading Rodin). But over the years I have changed and now I wholeheartedly believe that music is a fundamental part of human existence. For our survival over the millennia, we have needed to work together, be able to communicate, to connect – music does these things and has been utilised as a ritual tool across all cultures.

This means I feel a responsibility to my audience and my fellow musicians to treat them carefully and respectfully. This does NOT mean to serve up puerile shit that does not challenge – much the opposite! I have developed skills that allow me to control this energy we call “music” – indeed, we’re talking about transmission of kinetic energy through vibrating air particles – and so, having this energy at my disposal, I can use it to create experiences that can open up different worlds, blow people’s minds and bring them back gently down, or maybe leave them up in space, gawking at the immensity of things. Musicians are magical – maybe some are shonky sleight-of-hand only, some are illusionists, while others are true magicians or shamans.

But just as the priest leads his people, he is at the same time one of them. As a musician, I also have to recognise the music is made with the audience, not in spite of them. The experience is a shared one, whether actively or passively engaging. So in this way, my responsibility as a musician is to my community and in turn myself as well.

AS A YOUNG KID DID YOU LIE IN BED AT NIGHT WISHING YOU WERE BLACK? 
Hmmm… not that I remember. The closest I get to that kind of thinking would be when I was a teenager and reading my Dad’s books on Zen – I’d also just learnt about the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and its connection to Zen. Rather than dreaming about being black, I was dreaming of going to Japan, becoming a Zen monk, studying shakuhachi and getting hit over the head with a stick to become enlightened. That’s kinda the same, isn’t it?
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Be aware there is not much stopping this man. Keep a look-in at his website HERE. 

And watch this schizophrenic collage of one of his most recent projects… 

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