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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part II

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.

Jonny King

Jonny King

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.


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Jonny King’s Primer On Jazz–Part I

What Jazz Is bookKing, Jonny. What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide To Understanding and Listening To Jazz. Walker and Company. New York. 1997. 162 pages.

King, a highly experienced jazz pianist, qualifies as an insider; he also writes well. He begins with the premise that jazz is not well understood by non-musicians. The book serves as a primer for beginning and intermediate level jazz fans wanting to advance their technical understanding of an exciting art form. I will present this review in a series. A subsequent part(s) will review the author’s narrative on playlist selection, the jazz standard, the playing of a ballad, the blues, and “out” music. Here, in this first part, I will describe the early content of the book: the language of jazz and the concepts fundamental to its essence; and, the roles that the musicians in the band perform in improvising individually and as a group. My objective is to motivate you to read the book. The bold headings are actual book chapter titles.

Where’s the melody? With jazz music, if the ensemble is playing a standard that the listener knows, the melodic lines that you could sing happily may be lost to the musicians’ improvisation. The recognizable tune may only be sensed in the opening and closing choruses. In group play or during solos, the musician will depart or with pleasure run away from the melody to insert phrases of his choosing, not wishing to conform to standard. With this free expression, the musician is determined to place his personal stamp on a piece and make it his own. The original tune as written belongs to another era, another attitude, and may need reformulation for what is hip today. This attitude of transformation may be attributed to the vast styles of music available for selection, such as classical and African rhythms; and, a significant dose of defiance and personality quirks possessed by the players growing out of the African-American cultural experience have shaped the jazz idiom.

The language of jazz. Author King describes a song as containing melody, harmony, and rhythm. A lead sheet (illustrated by King) prepared for jazz play will contain the chord changes (progression) and the time spacing for the playing of a chord (harmony). Also written on the lead sheet are the notes to be played in succession and the speed and timing of note play (melody). There is clearly a form to the song as set by the composer or arranger. The musician may play the tune strictly as written, but more than likely will improvise with unwritten pauses or a strange note that yet blends into the melody. A four-note or three-note chord may be played with a change in a note or two of that chord to tamper with the mood conveyed. The musician is making a point and the tune remains logical and coherent as the unit knows where they are going, but the route taken differs. The musician is substituting known jazz phrases, or “licks,” for the written ones. This may be called improvisation.

Spang-A-Lang: A Feel and a Groove. Jazz swings. Snapping your fingers, or bobbing your head? If it swings, it’s jazz! Swing is as unique to jazz as is improvisation. King describes the different styles of various drummers—how each swings or drives the other musicians to provide the groove. Individuals include Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. They all had a “relaxed intensity” in their playing.

The Rhythm Section. The work of the drummer is integral to the forward motion of the group and the rhythmic feel conveyed. King introduces the drum set and the associated sounds: the hi-hat, snare drum, bass drum, tom tom, and the ride cymbal and crash cymbal; chit chit, chhh, thwack, dum, da-da-dum, and ssshhhhh. King places the drummer’s level of importance to the jazz ensemble over its role in the classical or rock groups. Jazz drummers have unique characteristics, ways of expressing themselves. Drummers do not play chords nor do they construct melody; they “comp” (accompany) for the soloist and push the tempo much like a point guard in basketball. King refers often to the work of drummer Art Blakey and the ever-changing groups he headed for many years. For contrast, the style preferences of Elvin Jones are addressed.

The other elements of the rhythm section are discussed—the acoustic bass and the piano. “Beyond rhythm, which is the collective responsibility of all members of the rhythm section, the pianist and bassist (and/or guitarist) must establish the harmonic content of the tune (30).” This means managing chord changes that the soloists can play over. The bassist and drummer establish the rhythm and lock into the tempo early on—the groove of the song. This book has interesting sections elaborating upon these rhythm player responsibilities, as well as the work of the more visible front line players.

The Front Line (And Others In Between). King then moves to discussing in turn the roles of the saxophone as “jazz’s signature instrument,” the “egomaniacal” trumpet player, other woodwinds, guitar, vibes, organ, and the vocalists. Throughout this discussion, King cites the legendary players and their expressive styles of playing. Having read this far, you will be ready to show off your newfound knowledge of jazz by dropping the names of the greats, the legends—Ellington, Armstrong, Hawkins, Goodman, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Powell, Basie, FitzGerald, Holiday, etc. You need to have the supply of nicknames to toss about as Jonny King does liberally—Duke, Hawk, Bird, Diz, Newk, Prez, Bu, Trane, PC, Lady Day, and Bags; give your friends the illusion you are on a first-name basis with giants—everyone does it!

Stay tuned for Part II of this review to come in a couple of weeks.

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