Interview with Michael J Bolton: That keeps the music pure, honest and easier to relate: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz composer, producer and bassist Michael J Bolton. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

Michael J Bolton: – To improvise in jazz you have to develop a strong technical facility and a good grasp of the language incorporating bebop, blues and contemporary sounds. This will develop the ear along with transcribing the masters from the past. The goal is to be in the moment, follow your ear to create melodies and a sense of form that’s relatable to the listener especially non musicians.

JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

MJB: – The language of jazz wasn’t developed in colleges it evolved on the bandstand, late night jam sessions, people exchanging ideas, experimentation and studying recordings going back to the days of wind up gramophones. The curriculum has to encompass three to five years (including Masters level) where everything is presented for study and consideration. Students are encouraged to fully absorb and apply the knowledge presented to them whether it’s appropriate in context or not, of course that’s pretty subjective so no absolutes there.

I find here in the UK there is an over emphasis on reharmonization and de-construction often just for the sake of it. It can become a little scientific as apposed to an expressive artform. You have to know the history of the music, do a lot of listening and playing on the bandstand to really get it. I didn’t study jazz as such but played a lot of it during my college years on casual gigs to go out and play and earn some money. I did a more wide ranging course that was more popular music based with elements of sound recording, music tech and composition as a core. Joe Zawinul said years ago that “Today musicians are over trained”. I think what he meant was that there are far less individual voices and characters than say up until the 80s. Part of the reason is the environment isn’t there any longer and most musicians who are serious about getting their jazz skills well developed are going to go to college and study it in the same way as classical musicians.

It’s hard to see an alternative really as the scene that developed the jazz greats started to disappear with the emergence of rock music as the culturally dominant force back in the 60s, over fifty years ago!

JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?

MJB: – The business is tough, life is tough and nobody is entitled to a free ride though it helps if you’re born into the right circles and know the right people. Being a musician or an artist is a luxury so be grateful that it’s even possible at all. Keep going despite all the knocks as it’s never going to be easy no matter how successful you become or appear to be. Passionate people don’t quit, artist have to create, musicians have to play! Society needs them so stay out there!

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

MJB: – I embrace all the music I love, have played and listened to over the years. I see no musical boundaries really and think as an artist I should be free to draw upon and combine elements as I compose. Listening to Earthrise you will hear the influence of Jazz Fusion, progressive rock, jazz funk, contemporary jazz, string arrangements and soundscapes. I’m not a purist in any sense. I like to approach my writing freely, the soloists on the album where given time and space to make meaningful contributions to the music and I’m as “hands off” as possible, then you get their interpretation and personality. This brings so many amazing things to the music that I cannot do or conceive of myself.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MJB: – For me at this point I don’t really think about or analyse things when I’m playing or writing.

I just work in an aural way and let ideas come through without questioning their quality, just get them down and develop them or disguard them later if it’s not happening!

All the knowledge I’ve gained from study and playing is there in the background but I don’t draw on it in any conscious or preconceived way. For me that keeps the music pure, honest and easier to relate to (I hope). As Miles said years ago “Learn everything and then forget it!” easier for him than me and I haven’t learnt everything yet nor will I!

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

MJB: – I think there’s an audience out there for my music but I’m still in the process of reaching out to them. My music is based in the sounds of the 70s, fusion and prog with lots of funky grooves. So if you loved Weather Report, Return to Forever, Focus, Earth wind and Fire, George Duke and Miles have a listen and come on board. The album was mixed, mastered and orchestrated by David Hentschel who straddles both prog and jazz through his work with Genesis and the Yellowjackets among many others.

Once I’ve developed an audience I wouldn’t wish to alienate them by moving too far away from their taste or expectations. Without an audience an artist can’t really exist so one is just as important as the other.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

MJB: – The main thing really is learning from and being humbled by the musicians I’ve played with in the past. I have to thank Gary Boyle in particular for showing me how to keep the door open so musicians can freely bring their own voice and personality to the music. I’ve employed that ever since and you can hear the results on Earthrise from the contributions of Mike Walker, Neil Yates, Marc Russo and Tim Garland in particular. Gary recorded as a solo artist and a member of British jazz rock group Isotope, Stomu Yamashta’s East Wind and Brian Auger. He’s on the soundtrack of the Man who Fell to Earth with Yamashta!

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MJB: – The standards are way older than that, fifty years ago is the era of the Beatles, Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Bod Dylan et al. Since then you’ve had Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and countless others all writing great songs.

The standards are mostly from the 20s to the 50s and many, many of them are great songs.

The Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving berlin et al. The standard are part of the core curriculum at jazz colleges and are presented as vehicles for improvisation sometimes forgetting that they were originally popular songs or show tunes with vocals and lyrics reflecting the times in which they were written.

As a working jazz musician you’re bound to become familiar with most of them through giging and they’re still out there and being played often at weddings or functions. For the general listener today they aren’t going to hear them so much and of course lyrically they reference another time and place though many human emotions and experiences transcend those boundaries. You may hear Michael Buble, Dianna Krall or an old Sinatra recording singing a standard but access to these things s limited now as people can choose what they like and be oblivious to everything else. As a kid in the 60s and 70s you’d hear these songs on the radio or in reruns of old musical films with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. We only had three TV stations and not many options for radio, now the choice along with streaming is overwhelming so there’s very few times when a great many people are exposed to the same thing at once.

JBN: – And lastly, being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?

MJB: – Not really, I don’t do much teaching these days and writing is ok in the right environment.

I need time and space so I can get into the right frame of mind and start exploring and getting ideas mostly at the piano. Then it’s development again. Wayne Shorter was asked “What’s the secret of composition?” his answer “Imagination!” He’s a great writer.

JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?

MJB: – I try not to copy in any preconceived way but there’s so much music in my mind from years of playing and listening it’s hard to prove that I have an original approach. I haven’t done anything radical or outside the box and am guided by the things I like and enjoy. You can hear the influences in my writing but it’s not a copy or a “tribute” or “reimagining” neither of which interest me in the slightest. I’m trying to do my own thing and of course others can judge how successful or not I am, informed by their own taste and opinions.

Once the music is written I revert to musician mode, I now have to perform and not create. It’s a different head space, as a bass player working on someone else’s music I can be creative guided by the writer or if it’s a commercial gig I have to recreate the bass parts close to the originals if I want to get re-booked.

JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?

MJB: – It has to be a feeling as music works on that level, that’s why it’s so universal. People relate to it regardless of language or culture. This is particularly true of instrumental music as there are no words, message or story to tell. It’s all about how the music makes you feel even if that’s just a rhythmic pulse that gets inside you. I hope my music makes people feel something that they can’t articulate in words and that they want to come back to it to relive the experience.

JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life?If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

MJB: – I’d like to do a film, that would be good. I’m still unpublished so I need to persue that to get those kind of opportunities.

I’d also like to play Earthrise live, interviews like this should help and people can check out my music and see if they’re into it which will get things moving in the right direction.

If I could change one thing it would be that artists get a reasonable payment from streaming and YouTube etc as for most of us it amounts to virtually nothing. Check artists out on streaming platforms but support them by buying their physical products or paid downloads otherwise the artist can’t continue to create for you. Earthrise is available to stream from August 30th, you can buy it on CD or Vinyl which I paid for myself. This is often the way these days. Artists are self funded which can be good creatively but the financial aspect is really tough. We all want something for nothing, or at least I think we do but a CD or Record isn’t going to cost much, it supports the artist and you own something real and tangible to enjoy. The artwork by Mark karvon is outstanding, the pictures and booklet in the CD are worth having.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

MJB: – Recently it’s been Genesis, Mike Oldfield, Queen, Jeff Lorber, Earth Wind and Fire and Bitches Brew, 50 this month!

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

MJB: – Earthrise is really about the beauty and fragility of the Earth. Although it celebrates project Apollo and Apollo 50 it concludes like the first Astronauts who went to the Moon on Apollo 8 that they actually discovered the Earth, the blue marble in the dark vastness of space.

We must try to adjust our ways to protect life on this planet or things are going to get really bad if not impossible.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

MJB: – Ok, three gigs. See Charlie Parker at Birdland on a good night, Weather Report at the Hollywood bowl when Jaco was in his pomp and Hendrix at Woodstock, that’ll do me.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

MJB: – Will the electric bass ever be accepted by old school jazz musicians? If not, why not?

JBN: – Thanks for answers. I think already have accepted …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

MJB: – Not sure on this one, all I can say is listen to Earthrise, get behind it and let’s see where we can take it. I’m on a mission to bring back fusion!

Thanks for the interest and interview and thanks for reading 😊

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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