1 September 2013

Terry Pack Interview

Bassist Terry Pack has been making music for more than forty years. He met up with Sussex Jazz Mag editor Charlie Anderson to talk about his love of jazz and teaching.


    I arrived at Terry Pack’s home in Hove just as he had kittens, two white ones to be precise. We were soon joined by musician, composer and friend Phil Thornton, a friendship dating back to the Seventies and the beginning of Terry Pack’s career in music.

    I began by asking Terry what first drew him towards jazz. “It’s hard to know. I think when you’re a young musician there’s some music that just captivates you and it just becomes part of the way you want to play. You hear people and you think ‘I’d like to be able to play that, or like that’. Phil agreed, “Right from when you were young, you were drawn towards the jazz end.”After a brief pause, Terry had honed in on the area that attracted him the most. “I think it’s the interplay, more than anything else.”

Having played progressive rock during the Seventies Terry understands the clear difference between the two genres. “In rock, the soloing is over a platform that doesn’t alter. I think that’s generally true in most rock playing, the rhythm section grooves away and the soloist plays as though playing along with a tape. And I think often on recordings, even recordings I love, like Steely Dan records, they record a rhythm track and then they get three or four different soloists to solo on it and then picked the one they like. So the element of interaction is not there. The soloist can interact with what they hear on the track but the accompanists can’t react to them. And I think it’s the conversational dialogue element of it that most appeals to me.”

“And it’s never the same…twice. Even if you set out to make it similar (that’s true with all music) but when there’s improvising involved, it goes where it goes. Sometimes to the point where it meanders along without going anywhere in particular. And that can be a problem too.” Phil Thornton agrees, “I’m not a jazz player but I completely agree with Terry. When you’ve got the interaction of people actually playing together it can’t be beaten.”

Terry continued, “The best music is when people really listen to each other and don’t just try and get their notes right. But there is a stage in your development as a musician where you have to be just preoccupied with getting your bit right. And we all have to go through that, I think. But it’s when people can’t get beyond that. It think that’s probably the difference. The really good players are in charge of what they’re doing to the extent that they’re really interested in everybody else.”

Phil, an experienced band leader and musician, has seen this at first hand. “There’s a personality thing as well that goes on. And it’s not always the obvious social grouping that comes out in the music. I’ve been in bands where there’s been the leader and everything but when it actually comes to jamming and actually improvising, sometimes it’s the quiet one in the corner that’s actually the leader.”

Terry was quick to point out the changing roles that players have within an ensemble. “I think that when the music is to some extent improvised the leader changes. There’s a baton change. The soloist is the leader at that moment. And you know, this jazz etiquette thing. Less experienced players don’t know. So singers just plough in on the bridge. The piano player could be launching into the most brilliant idea but because it’s the bridge the singer goes ‘well, I come in there cos on that Ella Fitzgerald record I’ve heard she comes back in on the bridge. It’s like bad actors, they’re not actually listening to other people."

Phil pointed out “There’s a difference between the spirit of jazz and the musical genre of jazz”. Terry thought about his recent experiences and agreed, “Yes, just because people profess to play it doesn’t mean to say they’ve actually understood the concept. I’ve played with Indian flute player Deepak Ram a couple of times recently. He comes out of a completely different tradition. But he and the tabla player are in a sense jazz players. They’ve got a scale and they’ve got a time but that’s all they have. And so, thereafter, for me and Andy Williams who are playing with them, we’re trying to respect their traditions and feeling hopelessly inadequate all the time. But they like playing with us because spiritually we feel we’re on the same page as they are. We see music in the same way. Even if the language and the noises are different.” Phil agreed saying, “It’s a language all on it’s own”. Terry continued, “It is a beautiful language though and the thing about it like all music is that you can end up having dialogues with people whose language outside of music you don’t speak at all. You could communicate with people ultra-linguistically through music. That makes it special too. It’s a bit like dancing with someone. You cut through an awful lot of stuff. You learn an awful lot about someone if you dance with them. You soon work out whether this person is an empathetic partner. I think that’s why dancing is so important in all cultures. You can’t deceive anyone."

“Especially recently in teaching, I’m more and more pre-occupied with the primacy of rhythm. I even call it the ‘tyranny of the wrong note’, that would-be improvisers are terrified of playing a bad note. And I say ‘don’t worry about notes, just play phrases that are rhythmic’. You can have a two note phrase that’s really powerful. That’ll do you to start with and then you can work with that. You only need a punchy rhythmic statement to get going and the problem is, if you’re terrified of a bad note, your rhythm will be poor because you’ll be timid about it. And I think that cripples. And the older people get the more they’re crippled by it. It’s rather like learning a new language, they’re so frightened of making an error that they can’t begin the phrase.”

    Terry Pack is also well known as a teacher and from September will be a tutor at Brighton Jazz School. I asked him what he has gained as a musician from teaching.

    “Teaching anything is of great benefit to the teacher because it causes you necessarily to reflect on your own practice so that something you may have been doing (well or poorly) unconsciously becomes conscious”. 

    “A question posed by a student causes me to reflect very self-consciously on ‘how do I do it?’ and ‘how do the people I like and admire do it?’ And for me, practice always precedes theory. And I was talking to Mark Edwards about this. And Mark said ‘I was playing those sounds because I heard McCoy Tyner play them or I heard Oscar Peterson play them and I liked them when I was a teenager. Years later, I discovered that the name for that sound was this-or-that, the altered scale or the diminished scale or whatever it was. I was playing those sounds for 10-15 years before the name of them occurred to me’.”

    “So few people ask me about rhythm. And it’s the thing they need more than anything else. I did a lesson the other day and the student in question had said ‘I want to work on rhythmic phrases’ and there was a phrase in a piece they had to learn. It was on the offbeats. The last of the three notes hits the ‘and of four’. Because this person is classically trained it got rationalised to the one.”

    “This is often what happens with European players when they try to play syncopated rhythms. I saw a lecture by Leonard Bernstein and he was talking about jazz. It was 1957 so he’s talking to a very middle class, white audience in the USA

and he says ‘A key factor in jazz is syncopation and that means playing on the wrong beat’. And it’s hard for me to believe that syncopation was ever not there.

But when I did a little bit of playing with an orchestra I didn’t realise that everything was on the downbeat. All the phrasing. It’s all downbeat heavy.”

Terry Pack has a reputation as a great listener and he is always reliable, always keeping the music on track and always listening and reacting to the other musicians. His recent gigs have all proved fruitful. “On Sunday night I played with Jan Ponsford, Winston Clifford, Steve Lodder and Diane McLoughlin and it was everything you want a gig to be. Really good musicians, really listening to each other. Fantastic interplay. There have been a few occasions with Joss Peach with Full Circle where we’ve transcended and playing with Mark Edwards is always a thrill because he always comes from the right place."

And with the upcoming gig at The Verdict with Andy Williams, Joss Peach and Dave Trigwell, Terry says “I think it will all be about interaction."


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This interview was first published on Sunday 1st September 2013 and first appeared in issue 1 of The Sussex Jazz Mag, available here.

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