The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Paul Dunmall: The FMR Years

(Soundworld; Rayleigh, Essex, UK)


Paul Dunmall + Tony Levin                                                                                         ©John Sharpe 2013

Music In The Big Key: Paul Dunmall’s Musical Vision

From the Foreword by Beni Williams:
 Paul Dunmall’s “Big Key” – an all-embracing musical vision

At many points in his career, renowned British saxophonist Paul Dunmall has been asked about his approach to improvisation – what his “concept” is; how and why he plays the way he does. That is a very big, important, and dauntingly difficult question for any serious artist. Accurately answering it has been on Paul’s “to-do” list for quite some time. The question has arisen in all sorts of performance contexts: whether in leading his own diverse ensembles; in collaborating with respected European and American jazz, folk, and classical musicians; or in working with the seminal British improvisation group Mujician.

It is immediately clear from any of the live performances or from the wealth of studio work, that his unique and forceful playing is driven by an equally strong and uncompromising idea. And it is this elusive thing, the core idea behind the playing, the creative thought giving rise to specific lines and phrases that comprise an instantly recognizable style – known in jazz as an individual player’s “concept” – that most intrigues anyone with more than a passing interest in the field of improvised music in general, and improvised jazz in particular. More than any other question, it is this that most exercises the mind of critic, musicologist, and enthusiast alike. For the aspiring player, an effective answer – one that can be realized through practice – is akin to the Holy Grail.

It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, to those familiar with his constant activity, increasingly prolific recorded output, and sheer dedication to his art over more than thirty years as an internationally sought-after player, that Paul Dunmall has found little enough time to fully explain his bewilderingly rich and varied mode of expression. Firstly, because he’s usually too busy employing it, letting the music do the talking, so to speak; secondly, because it is always developing and expanding into new areas; and thirdly, because it’s a huge and intensely personal subject. So it almost came as a surprise when, during a recent break in his performance schedule, a way of clearly explaining his concept finally suggested itself – out of the blue.

As it often is with answers to near unfathomable questions, metaphor finally came to his aid, and the “Big Key” was born – a simple, powerful metaphor for Paul Dunmall’s musical approach. This provided a seed that flowered into a detailed account, the more it was turned over and discussed; an account that quickly grew into the fully-fledged musical vision set forth in this work; a vision that has naturally evolved alongside his style; an inclusive vision of all music, flowing from a harmonically grounded yet consciously alternative concept that reaches down to the foundations on which his playing, and the playing of many improvisers is built. All of it stemming from core ideas that have been in play from the start of his career.

Paul Dunmall’s “Big Key” concept, in music theoretical terms, is a surprising and radical contribution. It is a way of re-thinking music from the inside out, without essentially altering any of its components; a clear, communicable idea that exponentially expands the musical space around the player, opening up vast new possibilities and radically altering how she utilizes these components; a re-drawing of existing boundaries, and a multi-dimensional route-plan for re-orienting one’s playing in terms of what is actually possible, rather than what we have been bound by convention – and many conservative jazz theory textbooks – to believe and to follow. And what is it that can limit our expression more than the essential ideas that furnish and nourish it? If they are limited, our mode of expression must so be limited.

With Paul Dunmall’s low-key, humble explanation of his personal view of music, an explanation that he insists is “really very simple,” something we have only occasionally glimpsed comes into full view – a broader vision of the musical dimension around us; one that brings our own playing into sharp focus. He also insists that this is not a method or a system of rules. There is nothing prescriptive about “The Big Key,” it is rather an entirely new, multi-dimensional picture of what actually already exists all around us in any performance situation. In effect, speaking as an ordinary musician, it is like discovering a new planet of music where everything is strangely familiar, yet altered – like a “twin Earth” – but an Earth whose creative potential is much more accessible, where empathy is paramount, where external reality contains more raw material for what we are driven to express; a world that is better arranged in its capacity to respond to our creative impulses and release them.

There is no course of indoctrination required, no complex pseudo-mathematics to grasp, and no musical theorem to learn. Paul Dunmall’s “Big Key” concept is deceptively simple, almost passive, but I would contend that it is at once a revelation and a powerful tool for self-expression. All one has to do is take it on board, as a mindset through which one purposively re-imagines where one is standing; a musical cosmology in which to locate the expressive self, if you will. If you give yourself to the hard task of being open to new things, and embrace this singular and powerful insight, a new vista will unfold – a vista which contains a world of previously unseen possibilities.

This is an idea which, though simple in essence, can give rise to extremely complex emergent forms. Capturing and expressing these forms will take practice, like learning to speak all over again. The sixty saxophone studies are intended as an aid in this, because they beautifully illustrate the kind of linear expressions which this concept makes possible.

From Philip Gibbs’ interview with Paul Dunmall on the Big Key

Philip Gibbs: Now, about “Big Key” – You’ve drawn a circle, here, with all the keys written inside. On the periphery is microtonal stuff ...

Paul Dunmall: No. On the periphery is the “squeaky-bonk” stuff – screechy noises – all that sort of thing. Microtonal music, I thought of, as coming out of that big circle, sort of leaking out. Because it’s kind of very transitional material – microtonal things – for example that quartertone stuff ...

PG: It’s straddling the two dimensions ...

PD: Yeah. It’s like the thin upper atmosphere. But the “squeaky-bonk” stuff ...

PG: Is right out ...

PD: ... right out there.

PG: But, then ... what you do, as an improviser, operating from the Big Key is, basically – “anything goes”? – I mean, is there anything that’s off limits? Does the Big Key simply mean I can just play anything – at anytime?

PD: ... um ... sort of ...

PG: So what are the exceptions?

PD: Well, it does mean that you can play anything, and yet, because it’s based around what I think of as concrete – that Big Key is the big circle, all the keys are in there, but they’re also actual notes, solid notes – that’s the Big Key – and all of that other stuff on the outside is periphery stuff – as far as I’m concerned. But not to other people. Some musicians might find that more interesting – but I like proper notes – and thinking “how am I going to use it?” – and “what phrases can I make?” – while actually using real notes – but occasionally using sounds ...

PG: So you’re still keeping intact the musical elements of melodic line, harmony and rhythm?

PD: Yes

PG: But you’re not limiting yourself to using them in any set or conventional way – for you, those elements can be juxtaposed, mixed up and messed about with as much as you need, to express what you want to express ...

PD: Yeah. So my playing would be centered on that key-related stuff – although it isn’t usually just one single key, you know – in the Big Key – all those notes that are within that “proper notes” zone – but I will like to go out and check some sounds. But again, it depends on who you’re playing with – if they’re going to do that – or it feels appropriate to actually go into the outer atmosphere – then you do it. And solo work, I suppose – (sigh) – well, I suppose solo work is just the same – it’s just that when you’re playing with other people, they might draw you there. So, yes. There’s no limits. Of course, you can’t have any limits. If you put a limit on yourself ... But what I’m saying is – that’s how I would approach it, whereas some players would be always on the periphery – would never go into where I base all my playing – on the proper notes – rhythms – in fact, I think the early squeaky-bonkers did that on purpose. That was frowned upon – a melodic line.

PG: That’s kind of a difference, because the hardcore squeaky-bonkers set out with the intention of purposely avoiding any of that, whereas that doesn’t work for you ...

PD: Yeah. Because that immediately puts a limitation on what you can do – I understand why they’re doing it – to explore that outer atmosphere – but I do think it’s limited.

PG: I think the same. There’s all those musical elements. Surely it hasn’t all been done yet, so why not use that, as well, to create something original?

PD: Of course – There’s got to be – That’s music, isn’t it.

PG: As you said before, it’s good that some of those guys have explored that outer atmosphere, so that it can be almost brought back to the mainstream.

PD: Well, you might listen to that and it would add another color to your thing. Yeah, I think it certainly has.

PG: So the Big Key, there, is always expanding?

PD: Well, it’s not really expanding. In a way, it’s kind of static, but the growth is within those keys – twelve keys or whatever, twelve notes – so, in there you’ve got ragas, you’ve got Hungarian minors, you’ve got everything scale/note-related – that’s not gonna get bigger – other than the quarter tones, which I consider on the outside, or leaking through, microtonally – so that’s not going to expand, but – within that static circle – it’s infinite again – what you can come up with – unless it grows and encircles microtonal stuff – and that becomes acceptable – conventional.

PG: You were talking about the semitone and the infinite ...

PD: I think this is a gross music – a gross physical music.

PG: Brute.

PD: From this physical school – and that other type of thing I heard in meditation, about the infinity between the semitone – I think it’s a different state of consciousness, a different state of being - and you’ll be able to find all that music in there ... I heard it – I could see it, feel it, hear it – without actually hearing symphonies coming through – but within that semitone there was just – there was an infinity of music to be discovered, but not in my ear – I didn’t feel it was a physical thing ...

PG: So, just going by the diagram, how about the rhythmic aspect?

PD: The “Big Rhythm” is the same thing – but in a different circle – so there’s all those rhythms within that. And again, you can keep – you can go in or not – so, again, there’s no limitations on that. You can keep to 4/4 3/4 there for as long as you want, or you can dispense with it, or you can go on that periphery stuff again.

PG: Almost arrhythmical ...

PD: Or those squeaky bonkers, when they’re playing it – “tss bonk” – that’s got to be some sort of rhythm. But it’s so abstract – and again, those guys didn’t want to ... playing a meter was frowned upon – so they experimented with all that – and then disposed of it.

PG: Whereas you wouldn’t purposely stay away from a rhythm if you felt it.

PD: Definitely not. Any of that idea, that you can’t do something, I think is out-of bounds.

PD: So, all of the elements of music are up for grabs?

PD: Definitely.

PG: And it’s all-inclusive ...

PD: Yep.

PG: And you just use them in any way you want to, depending on ...

PD: Depending on circumstances. What you’re doing, where you are, who your with – how much you get paid ... Ha-ha ... The important thing is, nothing’s off limits – apart from saying to yourself beforehand that something is off limits. Well, what would you consider to be off limits?

PG: Well, if you were to say: “We must play a groove” – or I presume that wouldn’t be your philosophy of playing – although you might not necessarily ever play a groove – but you wouldn’t want that to be not allowed to ...

PD: No. Because, in actual fact I do play ... Y’know, when (Tony) Levin’s doing that time – and Rogers goes into that time – he’s fantastic!

PG: So, that would be the only exception to the rule of “anything goes” – the rule that says I must do a certain thing?

PD: You could say, because it’s not going to corrupt your life, should we play – start in time – I don’t think we’ve ever actually said that, but you could do it, and I wouldn’t have a wobbler and go “Oh No! Let’s not do it!” – Yeah. OK. See where it goes. See where it leads. I mean – I’m not a purist. I’m not one of those guys – I’m down for it all – I have no problems – sometimes things possibly don’t work ...

PG: In your experience, though, is there anything that makes things happen in a more guaranteed way? Anything you can do beforehand, to make a good improvisation happen?

PD: No – I don’t think so – I mean, it’s no good turning up pissed or stoned or anything, in my opinion, I like to be absolutely clean-headed. But you can’t – Yeah, it’s good to get a good vibe going, a good atmosphere – a nice place to play. You don’t wanna play in a hole in the ground – but then, sometimes a hole in the ground will actually make you play – it’s so variable – all that stuff. It’s like ...

PG: Nothing can be pinned down?

PD: I don’t think so. I don’t really – You can play in the greatest place ... Well, we played in Holywell music room, designed for music, and it’s actually a beautiful place to play – whether the music is any better because of that, I’m not really sure – a nice acoustic makes a difference, so you can hear everything well. When you can’t hear yourself. Well, that is a drag. But you’ve still got to do it. Do your best and play, haven’t you.

PG: But at least you’re not compromised. If you can’t hear yourself ...

PD: No. I don’t think so ... No.

© Duns Limited Edition 2013; used by permission

Paul Dunmall - FMR Records

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