The following post continues a review of the book, What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz, by Jonny King. The boldface paragraph introductions correspond with actual book chapter titles.
The Set List. The Gershwin brothers and Cole Porter gave us popular tunes in the 30’s and 40’s that became jazz standards simply because they were great tunes. Later, creative musicians transformed the melodies, chord structures, and progressions to effect an emotion they wished to convey. With each recording the artist was breathing new life into an old and recognized melody, believing they were creating something new and they were. The standard sounded fresh and different and thus was worthy of recording again and again; as many as fifty different versions. King writes of Keith Jarrett’s multiple recordings of the same tune at different times by the same band personnel, yet managing to sound different and fresh each time.
Young musicians including Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman are again finding ways to recreate the romantic music of the 30’s and 40’s that was first transformed by their bop heroes of the 50’s and 60’s; in this way they are accepting the challenge to breathe new life into a standard. King gives another reason for why the standards do not die—the pop tunes apparently have chord progressions that can be largely preserved while the jazz leader blankets this structure with personal melodic interpretation—the result swings. Add to the many jazz standards the creative compositions of Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins and others and you have the collection of music known as jazz.
Ballads. The ballad song-form may have the connotation of being slow and romantic, but “. . . all the chops in the world won’t rescue you from harsh scrutiny if you don’t have the maturity and confidence to play lyrically as the moment requires. . . The tenor player’s tone, the trumpeter’s vibrato, and the pianist’s chord voicings and touch are all ruthlessly laid bare to a now-silent audience (120).” The slow-tempo puts pressure and spotlight on the patient technique of the musician. King gives us an interesting discussion of Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk performing as balladeers. Describing their respective tenor and pianist roles in the recording of the Monk composition, “Reflections” in 1957, “Monk’s solo, spurred by (drummer Art) Blakey’s double-time beat, is basically a reinterpretation of the simple melody of ‘Reflections’. He twists and turns the essential notes and phrasing, but constantly refers back to the head that Newk (Rollins) played. Part of the spirit of his solo is an almost deliberate looseness and sloppiness, a willingness to clang his way around the tune’s form. . . Monk playfully bangs out the melody of ‘Reflections’ and punctuates it with raining runs and shattering chord clusters.” Describing Rollins’ solo, “. . . more than Monk, he alternates references to the song’s melody with explosive bursts that span the full range of the horn. Like the song’s composer, Newk approaches the piece with a split personality, alternating between the tender and the eruptive.”
In their performance on this piece, these two bop stalwarts are playing with an equal level of intensity and staying true to their individual personalities–“recognize the consistent voices these two masters bring to everything they write and play (129).” This is interesting descriptive narrative of a classic piece of music, but would it not be a valuable addition to have the recording on your stereo player? Not having that privilege, my response was to read deliberately and multiple times. Maybe you do not have time for that; if so, this book can serve as a valuable reference to be read periodically. The book is quite readable and the chapters are brief and stand alone.
The Blues. Being able to play the “blues” requires not only the transmission of a feeling known to us all, but playing “a particular form of song and set of chord changes (108).” This song structure was employed by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others from jazz origins through the bebop era. King provides a sheet music illustration (109) of blues chord changes over a twelve-bar music form in the key of G that begins with the F7 chord and jumps up to the Bb7 chord and on to other chords, adding that there are infinite variations on this progression. Returning to that blues feeling, “Even as it denotes a particular musical structure, the ‘blues’ also evokes a certain spiritual and soulful way of playing (109).” King cites the tune “Moanin” by Bobby Timmons and also Jimmy Smith’s funky album Back at the Chicken Shack as classics capturing this style of play.
South, East, and West of the Border. Recognizing the role of international music in the development of jazz, King analyzes the work of McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, and Herbie Hancock. Tyner’s playing is described as “volcanic.” Analyzing McCoy’s “African Village,” King states “Herbie Lewis begins with ‘double stops’ on the bass, two notes played simultaneously like a chord.” Following this song section, “. . . other band members, either McCoy or Bobby Hutcherson (vibraphonist) or both, add a small shakerlike percussion instrument and cowbells as (Freddie) Waits’ insistent drumbeat grows more intense. The focus here is on rhythm.” McCoy and Hutcherson then return to the melody of “African Village”–McCoy employs a “pentatonic scale,” giving the melody an African sound in the A section (the song form is AABA); the bridge is then played using a dimished scale creating a sense of tension before returning to the A section restoring a sense of calm to the piece. In describing Hutcherson’s solo, “On the E-minor vamp of ‘African Village,’ he plays simple melodies, blindingly fast runs, and shimmering trills. He also departs frequently from the basic E-minor sound to set up dissonances and tensions, in a sense improvising new harmonies over the simple E-minor sound.” King aids the reader by explaining the meaning of terms AABA form, vamp, dissonance, and modal playing–necessary understandings to get through this extended parsing of a tune’s elements. Apply your new knowledge to the study of the following tunes in this chapter: Morgan’s “Ca-Lee-So” from Delightfulee recorded in 1966, and Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” from Maiden Voyage (1965).
Out. For those players wishing to dispense with obeying written chord structures and time signatures, read how to go your own nonconventional way in this chapter. Sometimes referred to as “free jazz,” this music is part of the avant garde movement in the arts. Not necessarily inaccessible, King points to the work of Miles Davis in the 1960’s and projects lead by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock as sufficiently complex to fit this category. Few would object to describing the journeys of Ornette Coleman as “out.” In this book, King analyzes the Ornette tune “Round Trip” from the 1969 album New York Is Now. There is no pianist in the studio on this date–a common Coleman election. King states, “If you’re not going to play chord changes, why have a pianist’s chord voicing intrude (152).” After Coleman and (Dewey) Redman establish the melody, Elvin (Jones) and Jimmy (Garrison) start walking and swinging in a traditional spang-a-lang . . . (playing) together in a ‘loosely expressive’ manner. Moving from the rhythm section to a description of the tune’s solos, King describes the playing of alto saxophonist Coleman and tenor Redman as a dialog–“call and response, question and answer, squeak up high and rasp down low.” King goes from discussing the orderly, but free styling of the soloists, back to the light and loose playing of Jones and Garrison, “what they do well is to capture the unconfined swell of the piece without ever losing sight of the beat that makes even this freedom swing hard (154).”
King finishes this chapter on non-conventional music by comparing the work of jazz free-formers with the writing of James Joyce in Ulysees and the evolution of painting history. Just as Joyce cast aside the use of common language grammar, the musicians have sought to bend and rewrite jazz language forms to suit their creative mood state; and, in both canvas art and jazz, King notes the shifts from “exact replication to suggestion to total abstraction.” This transformation in jazz over time is driven by the players’ radical stance that helps advance an art form to a new developmental stage.