A Songwriter Names Names
A supremely modal love, the worst player on stage, and small venue heroes
I have made it a point not to use anybody’s real names in these notes, but this edition will be different. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Wednesday Night Jazz at Barking Legs Theater
I’m not a jazz guitarist. I’m too lazy. My excuse is that learning and practicing the theory that goes with playing jazz well enough to make it unconscious took too much time away from songwriting and arranging. But really, I’m lazy.
But I go to a show like the Wednesday Night Jazz series and I’m immediately reminded of how much I THINK like a jazz soloist.
I can play the changes, following the chord patterns, but I’m a boring traditional soloist. I prefer to play modally, which some people argue is lazier. But I’m lazy.
I fell in love with A Love Supreme when I was eighteen, just one of millions of young improvisers called by the freedom of Coltrane’s playing, which was made more poignant by the steady underpinnings of Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and McCoy Tyner.
It’s almost a cliche to be influenced by Trane, but there was nobody else who did what he did. McCoy Tyner’s block chords and open spaces on piano teach a lesson in accompaniment that applies to any instrument. A Love Supreme is a perfect amalgamation of structure, freedom, improvisation, and arrangement.
I’ve held it up as the gold standard of all music. Trane picked his musicians as much for what they could hear as much as for what they could play. Elvin Jones could blow the doors off of a club, while staying underneath the soloists. That’s a rare ability. Jimmy Garrison doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for his bass playing but with Trane, Jones and Tyner his role was always to be impeccably steady.
Try being impeccably steady. Try playing with a bass player who isn’t.
I’m trying to find whatever it is that will allow me to make my own Love Supreme, so the first Monday of every month I run a show in the lounge at Barking Legs Theater called Chattanooga Super Session that brings local musicians I like on stage to play unrehearsed, and without many rules.
I based the idea on the albums released in 1968 by keyboardist Al Kooper, who brought in his favorite cats and recorded an album of covers with coherent and intentional improvisation and expression.
My goal was to find musicians who could create the same experience live and play without needing rehearsal. It would be fun and I might find my next band.
The drummer, Pate Russell, gets short shrift here, which is a shame because he’s every bit as critical to what makes those nights work as the two primary soloists, but there’s another entire journal entry (or whatever the hell this is) to write about what he does and what it takes to be a great drummer.
Pate also is an owner of a restaurant/venue in the Saint Elmo neighborhood called The Woodshop.
A drummer who owns a club? What can you say?
The two main soloists, Craig Pratt, a guitarist from North Georgia, and Gordon Inman, a woodwind player from Chattanooga, have that unusual ability to know when to stay out of the way.
I know that sounds like damning with strange praise, but it only takes a few minutes at any show to realize that, given the chance, most musicians just play the only shit they know, regardless of how it actually sounds. It’s a rare player who knows to lay out until they really do KNOW what’s going on.
I’m sure I did this shameful shit when I was an eager kid, because that’s the whole point of learning by doing. I knew older musicians who tried to straighten me out, and kept at it until I got the message.
Not everybody is lucky enough to have that.
Did I just pick a fight with my peers? I guess I did.
There are reasons why I mostly play solo.
I’d love to have a small band, but I believe in paying musicians for their time, and I don’t have enough money to pay for regular rehearsal.
I don’t make enough money at each show to pay three or four other musicians a fair wage.
And I have a very specific vision for how my shows are presented. More musicians make it harder to keep that vision without the multiple rehearsals I can’t afford.
Because I’m so particular and ornery I rarely get the chance to experience the other side of the coin that is musical freedom and expression resulting simply from the joy of interacting with other musicians.
And that’s why I created Chattanooga Super Sessions. As leader, I could retain the illusion of control while participating in one evening every month of unrestrained chaos and improvisation.
I got lucky that the two improvisers I wanted the most were willing to say yes to the following email: “You are invited to leap directly from the cliffs of Moher…”
The first time I heard North Georgia musician Craig Pratt play, I knew I was hearing one of the best guitar players I’d ever heard. He seemed to know every bit of the fretboard, yet it was his economy of playing that blew me away.
It took me almost 4 years to get around to inviting Craig to play a show, but I was immediately rewarded with a guitar player who instinctively knows how to play with a singer and lyricist.
He’s impossible to stump and when he solos he composes beautiful full melodies. At the last show he did something so cool that I actually laughed out loud, like the great music writer Nat Hentoff was prone to do when he’d hear a solo that knocked his socks off.
Chattanooga Woodwind player Gordon Inman is a free-thinking musical cat who plays any, and all, genres of music. Another brilliant soloist, his sixth sense for when and where to solo is unmatched except by Craig, which means their back and forth exchanges, each building on the other’s ideas, are world class.
The music I play, based around roots and blues genres, doesn’t really give these players the challenge they deserve, but they do more within the limitations than I could have imagined..
Ask anybody who has seen the show. They will tell you that they can’t believe that there was never any rehearsal. It all seems orchestrated and intentional.
Pate Russell plays drums like a roots-music jack Dejonette, filling in only the right spaces and never jumping on top of the lyrics. I know that’s not easy to do, but it’s a particularly big ask when the song is brand new to your ears.
As for the changes that I’m too lazy to learn?
I rarely solo on Monday nights. I meant to, when I planned the shows, but I’ve always had a rule that I try to hire musicians who make me the worst player on stage, and when that happens, I’m smart enough to act the part. So, I’m the rhythm guitarist. I’m a lucky man.
My friend, the Glasgow journalist Paul Kerr, whose reviews, along with the radio show and writings of my other good Glasgow friend, Celtic Radio’s Mike Ritchie, were instrumental in opening up the UK to touring, reached out to ask me if it would be okay if he wrote about me at the Americana-UK website for a feature called “Small Venue Heroes.”
Apparently, a few acts that had been featured were offended to be called small venue heroes. Paul was kind enough to check with me and I told him that I’d be flattered. As a guy who was a “no venues hero” for much of his career, I had to laugh.
Playing original music at smaller venues is a gift and I don’t take those opportunities lightly.
Like acting on film versus acting on stage, the intimate environment requires a different performance approach to playing a bigger room. With the audience so close to the performer, dynamics are felt as much as heard, so playing smaller places forces a performer to develop a keen sense of how to play quietly and how to play forcefully without being overbearing.
The work is more satisfying, as well, because the performer often can feel changes in mood in the room right as they happen and not just when the song ends and they can judge the level of applause.
Success is more immediate and satisfying. Failure is more deeply scarring, as well.
One advantage to playing a smaller joint is that the audience is usually comprised of people who have heard more than one song and not just the hit (that I wish I had). They tend to be more in tune with the overall body of work and because of that, I can pace a show in any way that I feel presents best that body of work.
And I have some sense of how lucky I am that an audience is willing to be connected so intimately to my performance for a couple of hours. A small venue is likely to provide an engaged, communal experience that me songs are well-suited for.
The article is available at the following link and I’m proud as hell that somebody felt that I deserved to be called a hero, even if calling somebody a hero is a stretch for any musician or songwriter.
Americana-UK- Paul Kerr-Small Venue Heroes
I don’t know if I’m a hero. I’m probably just a guy who caught a few breaks and is now lucky enough to be able to play WITH his heroes.
I think it’s heroic to show up and play for people.
And I think that anybody during this day and age who is willing to seek out a communal experience is a hero.
The Line-up is subject to change, but the next show will be December 5th.
I hope you’ll come see me/us in one of these small venues, like the lounge at Barking Legs. We can seek that Love Supreme together. We can rise and fall together on each of the changes.
To quote David Bowie, “we can be heroes, just for one day.”
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