M2M: Walking The Talk – This Is How We Do It

One of the things about being in the music industry and also being a music writer is putting your money where your mouth is. Sometimes I have to walk the talk. In flash language I guess I’m a “participant observer”.

This week three years of hard but joyous labour ends with the release of a CD Mississippi To Mauao( M2M) which I have been producing with local blues, jazz and hip hop artists. It’s been an opportunity to collaborate with around thirty fantastic musicians and artists. All remarkable people – guitarists, drummers, computer programmers, photographers, film makers, saxophonists, trumpeters, rappers, DJs, composers……

All have been generous contributing not only their talents but also their friendship and ideas. Art after all is not a product; it is a process. It is about relationships. People talking, exchanging views, conveying judgements, defending integrity, defining excellence. Negotiating

Perhaps there is no more potent art form than jazz, to see these skills in action. The great jazz trumpeter and guardian of American jazz, Wynton Marsalis says, “Jazz is the highest form of democracy. You’ve got to negotiate. If someone plays, you’ve got to know instinctively when to get out of the way. On the bandstand jazz sets up a situation where people are arguing with their instruments. The musicians need to know when to play and when to shut up. With jazz you are arguing knowing that there are going to be great outcomes: harmony, sustained intensity, ecstasy. It’s democracy in action.”

The idea for the M2M project came after a phone call with The Master, blues maestro Midge Marsden. We were discussing music researcher Alan Lomax. On his most famous assignment Lomax went into the Mississippi region in the 1940s armed with a tape recorder. He visited gaols and recorded the sound of original bluesmen who were incarcerated there. Samples from these recordings have been famously used by many music producers and DJs – Moby employed many of these samples on his album Play; they can also be heard in the music of bands like Little Axe. And some are now woven into M2M.

From the phone call came the idea that it would be good to do an album of original music which was a snapshot of what was coming out of the ground in local jazz and blues music and how those types of music were connecting to hip hop and roots music. I began to contact musicians and to seek funding to get the project rolling.

The Bay of Plenty Polytechnic kindly granted some funding to explore issues about cross cultural music and in January 2005 I presented a paper called Mississippi To Mauao: Conversations Across Cultures at an arts conference in Hawaii. Six months later Creative Tauranga kindly assisted with funding to help with studio production and recording began.

All the way through the project there were pivotal conversations between musicians and designers, web designers and photographers , DJs and drummers, seasoned and novice musicians across different cultures and playing styles, record companies and distributors, record retailers and music marketers. It’s big.

Over three years since that phone call and hundreds of hours producing in the Torch Records studio the M2M project is ready to let loose. It’s hard letting go. After countless nights slaving over a hot computer – composing, performing, listening back, editing, analysing, mixing (negotiating with myself) it’s time to let the M2M bird out of its cage. The work has taken on a life of its own over which the musicians have no control. What started out as a documentary became sonic essays and has ended up a soundtrack for a summer daydream.

Behind the noisy studio activity and shared conversations have been private moments of panic about the music and the trust of the musicians. Sleepless nights and The Wondering. “Why do I do this?” Even successful men like Peter Jackson talk about the risk and the void into which artists pitch their work.“ I just do it (make movies) because I love doing it; I just hope when I’m finished a movie someone else out there likes it as much as I do”.

There are days when the music sounds good. And then there days when it sounds all wrong – too fast, too loud, not loud enough, too slow. There are times when you sit staring at the blinking studio LED lights barely able to get started on a mixing session.

And then there are nights when you are in the zone. A midnight decision to “just take five minutes to edit a keyboard track” becomes a seven hour marathon; a Zen out-of- body experience with the studio computer finally being shut down as the sun comes up. My neighbours will be glad the thundering studio monitors have fallen silent. For now.

Time to turn attention to the other things in life – the garden, the rusty hinge, the dog, the kids, movies. A cup of tea and a lie-down.

Here’s the thing. I know it will take just one small idea while walking on the beach and another album will have its beginnings. One bird call and there will be another whole freakin’ universe of sounds and ideas to explore. In the words of Jim Carrey, “Somebody stop me!”

Written by Liam Ryan Thursday, 14 December 2006

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