I am eleven years old. Presented with a guitar as a Christmas present, I’m a little uncertain what to do with it. It’s sitting on the stand right in front of me, just waiting for me to do something. That’s the catch: I have to make it work. I find myself plucking the high E string; the B string and G string. I kept repeating this without even taking the guitar off the stand…there’s something about this sound that reminds me of a sad story. I can’t quite place what story it is…but it’s a sad one.
Thinking about this now, I was quite right to think it was sad. I was essentially playing a minor arpeggio: “minor” being a sound synonymous with “sadness” in music. Of course, I was just eleven and was unaware of any of this on a conscious level, yet that was my first encounter of making music beyond the mumbled whimpers of singing in school choirs or inflicting grievous bodily harm on glockenspiels in a primary school music lesson. After this brief Christmas day flirtation and some uninspiring lessons, I gave up on the guitar.
For reasons now forgotten, at age 14 my interest was rekindled, sparking a fire that burns brightly to this day. I began as a Beatles’ obsessive (some things never change), drawn as much to the visual aspect of Paul McCartney’s left-handedness (being a lef-handed-player myself) as to the beauty of their influential canon. Shortly after this I discovered the playing of Andy Summers through my mother’s dusty record collection, finding years of inspiration in pursuit of unlocking the secrets of his lush chordal work.
Around this time I also stumbled across a copy of Kind of Blue in a bargain bin in a supermarket. I bought this not knowing exactly what it was, or how important and inspiring it would be for me.
Remaining mostly self-taught, I was fortunate to find like minds and inspiring mentors (David Burke, Jim McCansh) in particular) during my time at high school. I learned many lessons playing with bassist Ross Imlach and drummer George Fyfe, the three of us often congregating in a practice room at lunch times and jamming on modal, one chord vamps (a la Kind of Blue) for an entire hour. After a year of so of this we took to playing gigs based around on a marriage of our free approach to improvisation and poppy vocal hooks, developing a very small but very devout following in the Falkirk area. The “free” aspect of this band was one of the key elements that I have always looked for since in my playing career, but it is sadly in short supply.
As I grew from strumming folk chords to eventually practicing around six hours a day, playing with in this outfit offered a fertile environment to try out new ideas. I would not be the musician I am today without their friendship and adventurous natures.
My high school assembly hall stage offered many wonderful experiences. My first public performance was on that stage, shared with five other guitarists crowed around a single microphone strumming the chords to “San Fransisco Bay Blues“. A year later, on the same stage, I was the frontline in a small band playing lead to “Apache” by the Shadows. A further year, a static stage: I’m fronting a three piece band playing mostly improvised material. The next year I’m standing in the doorway of the recital room at Craighouse campus, looking onto the next stage of my musical life.
This was 2010, and I had enrolled at Napier University to study Popular Music. Here I was taught the finer points of music business, music technology and ensemble performance whilst pushing my theoretical knowledge, playing abilities and improvisational skills to an advanced level. Learning to read music – a not altogether unfamiliar but fairly weak ability of mine at that point – unlocked a whole new avenue of work, now finding myself playing in a variety of pit bands and stage shows.
My lasting memory of uni will always be the amazing incentive to improve that is provided when one is in a community of equal (and often better) musicians. Hearing someone else do something I can’t and then unlocked of puzzle of why I can’t or finding my own way to do it has been a constant source of inspiration throughout my music career.
During a ensemble exam in my first year, I found myself randomly paired with drummer Fraser De Banzie and bassist Dunkan Robertson. Even when grooving our way through an oddball selection box of chart tunes (noticeably a questionably countrified Stevie Wonder tune) there was a clear musical chemistry at play. Laurence Murray – known on campus for his blusey command of the fretboard – was recruited at a party immediately following the exam. Playing our first gig a mere weeks later, we debuted at a uni band night where we unleashed our unique brand of funky pop into the world. Since then we have released three EPs and a much publicized cover of Duran Duran’s Girls on Film whilst touring venues throughout the country. The band folded in 2015, almost three years to the day of our first gig as everyone happily moved on to do their own thing. I honestly feel that we all moulded, for better or for worse, each other into the musicians we are today and would not be where we are today without the mutual education KFA granted. It was just the right time to move on.
In my final year at Napier I found myself composing my first solo release, a jazz funk EP entited: Synæsthesiattack. The release was a refreshing departure from Kung Fu Academy, allowing me to exorcise some truly strange music that had been inhabiting my head for some time. I eventually decided not to release this material, but instead spent most of 2015 reshaping and rewriting the music for a larger ensemble, which I hope to gig as part of my own solo project once all the arrangements are in place.
Following my graduation from Edinburgh Napier, I was hired by international touring artist Andromeda Turre as her musical director and lead guitarist during her Edinburgh Fringe Festival show Kiss Me. Playing with a singer of the calibre and experience of Andromeda was a tremendous experience, not only due to her complete command of her voice and the stage but also for her generosity in allowing the band and I a lot of freedom in interpreting her original music. We also went into the studio and recorded an as-yet-unreleased EP of highlights from this show.
On a side note, during that Festival run I took part in I consider to be the most enjoyable musical experiences of my career. After one show, DunKan Roberson, Ben Collard, Sam Bidgood, Andromeda and I attended an early hours open mic night at Banshee Labyrinth. Taking to the stage around 2am we played a heavily improvised, joyously free set based a couple of tunes we all knew (Hot Stuff; Detroit; Stratus) and, frankly, tore the place up. Detroit was particularly special and I really wish we had recorded that evening. It was what Jim Hall would dub one of his “Magic Moments” that he fearlessly spent his career seeking.
Come 2016 I joined the swing function band Radio Pachuco, finding myself with a packed calendar of weddings, corporate events, parties and bar dates. This band also granted me a wonderful opportunity to write arrangements (the unusual line-up of tenor saxophone, clarinet, guitar and no piano providing a number of exciting challenges and explorations) and finally allowed me to play jazz professionally in the company of some wonderful musicians.
Much time has passed since that first fateful Christmas day encounter with the guitar. Sometimes I still catch myself reaching over to where it sits on the stand, plucking the high E string; the B string and G string. There’s still something about this sound that reminds me of sad story. I can’t quite place what story it is…but it’s a sad one.
Maybe I’ll figure it out once day.