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  • Writer's pictureNandan Gautam

My invisible teachers (and what they taught me)

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

I learnt more about music from the albums I listened to than the teachers who tried to teach me (I was a terrible student). An album revealed to me what the musicians stood for and exactly how the elements worked with each other in a song or piece of music. Everything I know about composing/creating music has come from several incredible albums that I must have heard over a thousand times... Here are seven of them in no particular order:

1. The First Circle - Pat Metheny Group (1984)

When I first heard this album, I thought to myself... exactly what the hell is this? And which planet does it come from? It wasn't jazz. it wasn't rock. It wasn't ambient. It wasn't world music... Though it had elements of all of these. Music was never the same ever again. This was a symphony. This was the sound of the universe. And each note sat beautifully in its own pristine space. When Lyle Mays, pianist and co-composer of the tune along with Pat Metheny, starts his piano solo on the title track, Mozart could have very well been smiling upon him. For this could be considered one of those rare solos that feel as if each note was worked upon for months and written down before the final version was rendered. Except it wasn't. It was made up, in that very instant, in the recording studio. And I have no doubt that everyone who sat there listening knew that this solo would become a lesson in spontaneous composition (much like those who happened to hear 'The Koln Concert' by Keith Jarrett when he spontaneously composed that piece of music. With 'The First Circle' I learnt that music wasn't a tune or a song. It could be an entire landscape filled with open skies, waterfalls and a glorious sunset, all coming together in harmony to create a masterpiece of unequalled beauty. The Pat Metheny Group continued to make so many great albums since their first one in 1978, I can't think of a group that stands for what music is truly about. If there ever was a bunch of people that could be considered a group, then this was the definite one for me. And Pat Metheny, along with Lyle Mays (his co-composer and pianist) must take all the credit for this. The fact that their tunes are sophisticated as well as accessible and touching, is what makes them one of the greatest jazz-world fusion acts of the 21st century.

2. The Gift of Time - Jean Luc Ponty (1987)

The opening notes of this album were electronic. Synthesizers playing melodies on top of melodies, like a modern day trance album (just without those mind numbing beats). And the notes would slowly twist and turn ever so gradually until the song was an entirely new one. And then the violin solo would begin on top of that labyrinth of textures. It was like flying on a unicorn, and Ponty was the charioteer who was taking me to places, like any master improviser, that I had never been to. This was contemporary jazz fusion with a pop-ish slant while never getting syrupy... and that what always hit the sweet spot for me. Critics always seem to prefer the early works of an artist, "before he went commercial" but what makes Ponty an amazing artist and composer is that, like other great artists, he never saw the difference between art music and commercial music. Would you prefer a song with no melody at all? Just a bunch of notes flying around... Not me. Not only does Ponty create great hooks and repeating motifs, he is able to improvise over them and create another set of sub melodies - blurring the distinction between the main melody of the song and the improvised content. This is what 'The Gift of Time' does so successfully.

3. 52nd Street - Billy Joel (1978)

I heard this album when I was 8 years old and like any other great pop album, the moment you grew tired of one song, there was always another to take its place and so on and so on. It started with Big Shot, and then Honesty, and then Rosalinda's Eyes. And just when I thought it couldn't get better, I discovered Zanzibar. And for those four or five minutes I was that musician playing his guitar in a bar somewhere in Zanzibar. Was it pop? It was too sophisticated for that. Was it Rock? It didn't have the energy, some would say. Was it jazz? The chord changes were certainly jazzy. But the truth was - it was all and it was none. 52nd Street has no bad songs. Each one is like a well crafted dish. It tastes good. It looks good and like a good wine, it ages well. I can still listen to this album and I think, "Why didn't he make more albums like this?" I guess in my heart I love good jazz and a good solo! Throw that in with evocative melodies and great writing, and you have a concoction that is hard to beat. It would take me another twelve years before I discovered Steely Dan, who created this very alchemy of pop, rock and jazz, adding their own twist (see next album) that was so smooth and heady, I still miss that band to this date. Almost every single day.

4. Katy Lied - Steely Dan (1975)

Steely dan may be known for their hits like Rikki Don't Lose my Number and My Old School. And they may have a reputation of making music that was highly intellectual, cryptic and sophisticated. While all the above descriptions are true, what is even more true is that their best music was always evocative, poetic, emotional and drenched in existential angst and a strange but beautiful apathy (It was to me...). They could be singing about sneaking off with a girl in the middle of the night... or catching fish... or about a certain Dr Wu... or being surrounded by cops and wanting to not be taken alive (That's from Royal Scam, another classic). Hell I don't know what their songs were about... but they took me back to my childhood, to my adolescence and to when I was innocent. But here is the real twist - their music also took me forward in time, to when I would be a cynical old man wondering why and what all this was about... searching for meaning in 'the mechanized hum of another world'... Yes, their music was a time machine that could send me anywhere and anyplace. Literally. Their unusual and immaculately constructed chord progressions (unarguably unmatched by none till today) and their cryptic story telling that left everything to the imagination, was almost the opposite of pop. And yet their hooks were as delicious as a freshly brewed Weiss beer in a German pub. How music could be so tasty, deep and cryptic while bringing a tear to one's eye every now and then when you least expect it. That is what makes Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (the founders of an ever changing band that saw several jazz legends like Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, Vinnie Colaiuta and an endless roster of session musicians [for eg. Jeff Porcaro's drums on Chain Lightning {a song about the good stuff} or Jay Gradon's guitar solo on Peg {from Aja}] who played some of their best solos on these timeless records) the absolute geniuses and the most undiscovered great composers/writers of the 21st century. The fact that they won a Grammy award in 2000 for an album they made after a 20 year hiatus after making the greatest seven albums in pop/rock/jazz history, just goes to show how clueless the world... whatever... you get the point.

5. Five Years Later - Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie (1982)

Towner and Abercrombie were jazz giants on the guitar in their own respective bands and ensembles but when they came together for their second recording, Five Years Later after Sargasso Sea, their chemistry has possibly reached its pinnacle. These two guitarists, playing acoustic and electric guitar, wrote some of the most memorable melodies and improvised over them with such effortlessness and nuance, it was a lesson in simpatico. Improvised music suffers from the players are either showing off (playing for the audience) or self-indulgent (playing only for themselves). On this album, these two masters did neither. They just played. And it was as if God himself was playing some sort of celestial harp with both his hands. Sometimes the right hand would lead, and sometimes the left. Sometimes the music was edgy and cutting. And sometimes it was sweet and bitter. But it was always about the music. Always. And for that reason, there is not one track on that album that is not of the highest standards of recorded improvised music. Call it jazz if you like, but it goes far beyond that, with Towner sometimes using his acoustic guitar like a tabla, and Abercrombie unleashing his inner Jimi Hendrix. Towner will go down in history as one of the finest acoustic guitarists who not only was a master of the classical guitar, but a wonderful and imaginative improviser, always taking the high road, and never ever catering to popular tastes, while creating some compositional gems (Nimbus, Beneath and Evening Sky, Icarus). Abercrombie will go down in history as one of the most sensitive and free players who barely repeated a lick or a phrase. And who cared nothing for genres and formats. When he improvised, you NEVER knew what he would do next. I don't think he did either. But his albums like Timeless, Night, November and Arcade are collectors items. A must have for all guitarists and musicians alike..

6. Wardenclyffe Tower - Allan Holdsworth (1992)

If there is one man who could be given an award for being the most unknown genius of our times, then it would have to be Mr Holdsworth. Sure he was known for his groundbreaking guitar work with The Tony Williams Lifetime band in the 70s. But when I first heard him in college, it was this album that forever transformed my understanding of how music could affect us. His language was so different and so unique that even a legendary guitarist like John McLaughlin was supposed to have said, 'I have no idea what he's doing.' No one does till now. And like John Coltrane who was responsible for creating many a saxophonists in his image, Holdsworth too would influence a generation of guitarists. His self-effacing nature stood in complete contradiction to what he played. And this album shows off not his unreal mastery of the guitar or his otherworldly understanding of music harmony and theory. It shows that despite all that inherent knowledge, he spontaneously crafted solos that could pull on your heart and soul so unrelentingly that sometimes the ecstasy was torturous. It was so painfully beautiful that you felt every cell in your body exploding into a million pieces. This wasn't music. This was either a man speaking to God asking him why he created this world in this fashion or God speaking to us all, telling us that we have it all wrong. So completely wrong.

But the sheer beauty and effortless complexity of this musical conversation that takes place is at least proof that God actually exists. For me, at least.


Stay tuned for my next six albums that never became hits but should have...

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