Songs Sung Blue

The power of music upon human beings is a mystery.  Why should a collection of sounds of specifically related frequencies, occurring in a particular order be able to exert such power over the way we feel. Courtesy of the BBC News online magazine, I discovered today that two studies recently carried out by American universities showed that music has the power to provide solace when we’re feeling down.  Amazing that it can do so, but probably not surprising since we’ve all experienced it.

What was interesting was that the two studies produced such contrasting results. The first, conducted by the University of Missouri, showed that more than a quantum of solace could be found by playing cheerful, upbeat music.  For me it also needs to have a strong driving beat too.  Much as the sentiment of Bobby McFerrin‘s Don’t Worry, Be Happy is in the right place, it’s way too laid back to give me any sort of lift, whereas in contrast The Ballad of Vilcabamba by Bill Bruford with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez is good raw material for smile creation.

Contrast this with the second study, conducted by a group of academic institutions including no less than the University of California, Berkeley.  This found that those in negative moods may find their healing through music which expresses a similar mood.  Now I’ve never been a fan of Leonard Cohen, the crown prince of pessimism, but looking through my music collection it’s certainly easier to find “comfort in melancholy” as Joni Mitchell puts in Hejira.  Her earlier album Blue is full of promising material.  Then there is the constant ache of Paul Buchanan’s voice in The Blue Nile, another regular visitor to my playlists. Miles Davis‘ Kind of Blue has featured before in these blogs, and then there’s the Blue Nights album by Bruford & Levin’s Upper Extremities, where the colour plays out in various hues across the track listing.   Today’s earworm has been provided by an American blues singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt.  Can there be a sadder song than her biggest hit?

So how do we reconcile the two studies?  I’m no musicologist so you won’t find the answer here, but I can add another quirky note.  Walking across the Market Place in Durham this evening I encountered this busker.  His expression and demeanour tell one story, but from his disproportionately small recorder he filled the space with melody that would have had any foot tapping along with him. Maybe a third study is required that says it doesn’t matter what type of music it is.  It’s all good.


I can’t believe I resorted to a Neil Diamond song for the title today.  What came over me?


The Gateshead International Jazz Festival is one of the important annual events on the calendar at The Sage, and has played host to a diverse range of artists who fly the flag for jazz over the years.  My personal highlight was seeing Bill Bruford play one of his last gigs before retirement, improvising duets with Michiel Borstlap.  I still live in hope that he will reconsider his decision not to play again.

Andy Sheppard, Treibhaus Innsbruck 2009, conce...
Andy Sheppard, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to British Jazz, there are two names who have been standard bearers for the last quarter century; Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, and last night they shared the same stage, though not simultaneously.  Though each is a virtuoso on both soprano and tenor sax that is pretty much where the similarities end.  Pine is a giant of West Indian origin, with a greying goatee and immaculately conditioned dreads, he could easily pass for the audition for the next Predator movie.

Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232
Courtney Pine - Fri 22 July 2011 -0232 (Photo credit: The Queen's Hall)

He is gregarious and fun loving with a flamboyant playing style that reflects his personality.  Recent gigs have seen him turn to the bass clarinet over his trademark saxes.

Sheppard is physically smaller, but no less a talent.  He favours anonymous grey suits and shirts which blend with his trademark crew-cut, although these days this is predominantly silver.  His playing style can be just as frenetic, but more often that note embodies a breathy, smoky, mellowness that matches his understated stage presence.

Each was on great form last night, but it was the remarkable musicians with them that drew my attention.

Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer)
Sebastian Rochford (jazz drummer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen Seb Rochford playing with Sheppard before and he is a huge talent (and as a drummer perhaps an heir to Bruford’s crown), though he is visually as fascinating.  He sports an incredible head of hair, like some oversized, lop sided afro, which barely moves in performance, such is the apparent effortlessness with which he produces his rhythmic interventions.  He plays a minimal drum kit, yet with sticks, mallets, brushes and bare hands delivers more than many would believe possible.

If Seb’s hair is notable, then so is that of Zoe Rahman, pianist in Pine’s current line up as

Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman
Jazz pianist Zoe Rahman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

well as leader of her own trio.  Born of Bengali parents, she is an Oxford graduate who has only recently begun to explore her ethnic roots though her music.  Seated at the piano this frail looking girl with finely sculpted features seems unremarkable until you notice her hair, a black cascade which falls beyond the piano stool supporting her.  When she plays any thoughts of frailty are lost; she is a powerhouse of technique and seems completely at home in an otherwise Afro-Caribbean band.

When looking for someone to photograph today then I knew I must find someone with great hair to continue the theme.  You have no idea how difficult that is on a Sunday in Sunderland.  The early morning beachcombers generally care less for their appearance than for exercising their dogs, and as for the town centre shoppers… the less said the better I think.  Even a stakeout at Marks and Spencer proved fruitless.

I gave up on the town and was returning to my car when I spotted Pam on the Wear Bridge and my prayers were answered.  She is the third Nigerian to have featured in my portrait a day project and is a student in computer engineering at Sunderland University.  Great hair, great smile, great personality – more Pine than Sheppard!