This post misses the 10th anniversary of his death by a few minutes. Sorry I’m late, but I would like to share one of my favorite songs, by a man whose achievements in the Beatles might have been overshadowed, but could not have been eschewed.
Archive for November, 2011
Miles Davis was active in the 40′s, and his career spanned until his death in 1991. He was not only a part of most new movements in jazz during his life, he was often at the forefront of each. Like Art Blakey, he was a bandleader whose two classic quintets — one formed during the 50′s and one in the early 60′s — jump-started the careers of several all-time greats. Miles himself wasn’t as deft a performer as the men with whom he surrounded himself; but that became part of his appeal. Jazz pedagogues cite Miles as having perfected the art of turning mistakes into opportunities. His pensive, brooding style — not quite fiery enough for bop — was especially well-suited for a subgenre that would become known as “cool.”
In 1948, Miles teamed up with pianist and arranger Gil Evans to form a nonet featuring the usual jazz instruments, plus the unorthodox additions of tuba and french horn. During the height of the bebop explosion, the nonet was slowing things down and smoothing them out. They released a series of recordings, later released as a compilation, under the name “Birth of the Cool,” in 1956.
Cool jazz is hard to describe, but it’s unmistakable when you hear it. The dynamics are less dramatic. Soloists’ phrasing is less pointed, their accents subdued. Medium-down tempo swing is played with slightly “straighter” eighths. This music can be described as mellow and introspective.
Miles abandoned the nonet shortly after its formation and released a series of hard bop albums with a quintet including John Coltrane. In 1957 the group disbanded, and reunited in 1958 with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto sax. One year later, they recorded the album Kind of Blue, which has become one of jazz’s most essential albums.
The heads on Kind of Blue were conceived as mere sketches — simple themes that only serve to set a mood before clearing the way for improvisation. In bebop and hard bop, chord changes would occur once or twice per bar; but in Mile’s brand of cool jazz, they often occurred every eight or sixteen bars, giving soloists time to explore modes related to underlying harmonies. Here is a live performance of a classic modal tune, the opening track from Kind of Blue, entitled “So What”:
Cool jazz could easily be perceived as jazz for intellectuals. Watch any video of Bill Evans, and you’ll see a man locked in a trance, his sharp focus manifested in his perfectly balanced lines. Dave Brubeck forged a career playing college campuses. Composer/arranger Gunther Schuller, who began his career in the Birth of the Cool nonet, later became president of the New England Conservatory, and a proponent of “Third Stream,” music that blurs the line between jazz and classical. Miles himself may not have been a member of the intellectual elite, but his misanthropic tendencies certainly project an air of pretentiousness; he would often play with sunglasses on, apparently to prevent him from being distracted by the presence of an audience. For presumably the same reason, he would also play with his back the the crowd.
“West Coast” jazz is an offshoot of cool, with its performers hailing from California: Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, and Jimmy Giuffre. Their music lives up to its name — sunny, breezy, and light. Desmond joked, “I have won several prizes as the world’s slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.”
The more different we all strive to be from one another, the less unique we each seem to become. Artists that are different for the sake of being different come off as trying too hard. Those who give us just what we expect are relatable, but they are doomed to historical irrelevance. Thelonious Sphere Monk found the ideal blend of novelty and accessibility required to cement a reputation as indisputably unique. He worked within the framework of bop, but colored far outside the lines.
Monk deserves his own entry in this series, because his music transcends any specific subgenre or style period. Whereas other jazz icons like Miles Davis were noteworthy because of how they exemplified the state of the art, Monk is noteworthy because of how he defied the state of the art.
Thelonious Monk was among the musicians who invented bop at Minton’s Playhouse. Although his career spans three decades, he wrote most of his classic works during the space of a few years between the late 40′s and early 50′s.
Monk’s compositions can often be raggy or bluesy, but also tend to have a quirky, angular feel. His improvisations aren’t as technically brilliant as they are rhythmically jarring. His use of space is legendary.
You could say he belongs in the bebop camp, but during the 50′s his groups took on a more hard bop flavor. At around 1957, he worked with John Coltrane, just after Coltrane was ousted from Miles’s quintet for heroin abuse. During this time, Coltrane was entering his “Sheet’s of Sound” phase. If you want a jaw-dropping snapshot of both these men at their peak, check out the album Live at the Five Spot/Discovery!
My personal approach to comping was heavily affected by Monk. I believe him to be one of the great accompanists. From him, I learned about motivic repetition, restatement of thematic material, using sparse textures, and the value of simply laying out.
Here is one of the finest examples of communication between soloist and accompanist I have ever heard. In “Reflections,” from Sonny Rollins’ album Sonny Rollins vol. 2, Monk opens with a descending run followed by a melodic second in a higher register, which he then decides to play incessantly throughout the piece in various harmonic contexts, almost as if he wishes to test Rollins’s patience. Rollins plays along, echoing the motive himself. This interchange transforms a tender ballad into more of a shared joke. By 6:21, any attempts at subtlety have gone out the window; and at 6:31, I swear I can hear Rollins struggle to keep his mouthpiece centered as his lips tighten in a quite involuntary smirk.
For me, listening to this is one of those “Bright Moments” Rahsaan Roland Kirk spoke of; it justifies living.
The 1988 documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is an engaging look at Monk later in his career, with concert footage and interviews with people who were close to him, including his son, drummer T.S. Monk and patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, to whom Thelonious dedicated his composition “Pannonica.”
Hard Bop is the quintessential jazz style: From the early 50′s through today, it is the centerpiece of the jazz scene — the highest point on the trunk of the family tree, beyond which other sub-genres have grown their own branches. In colleges and conservatories, it is the predominant area of focus. You can still frequently hear it in clubs.
Hard Bop was largely the invention of drummer/band leader Art Blakey, and pianist/composer Horace Silver. They reportedly grew tired of the self-indulgent jamming of the bebop scene, and wanted to provide audiences something more engaging. Art Blakey’s group, the Jazz Messengers, and all the artists whose careers the group spawned, began with the melodic and harmonic language of bebop and infused it with the soul of Gospel and R&B. They also treated their small groups as they would big bands, with harmonized melodies, coordinated hits, and arrangements with tempo and meter changes, and textures that would vary from section to section. In the hands of hard bop artists, composing for the small group became an art in itself.
Whereas a typical live bebop set includes medium tempo swing pieces, burners, ballads, and the occasional cha cha or other latin number, hard bop added afro-cuban, bossa nova, boogaloo and other grooves to the repertoire. In this Horace Silver clip, notice the 12/8 groove, harmonized horns, and doubled bass line. Horace’s solo also shows how the bebop tradition of angular melodies against tense harmonies was not abandoned, but progressed onward.
The first years of hard bop, ranging from around 1951 to 1963, is also referred to as the “Blue Note Era,” because many of the premiere artists were recording on the Blue Note label. If you’re looking to expand your jazz collection, anything from Blue Note during this era is a safe option.
During the 40′s, prodigious improvisors Charlie Parker (a.k.a. “Bird”), Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Christian, among others, converged on Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem for sessions that ultimately resulted in the birth of a style onomatopoeically named “Bebop.”
Bebop (“bop,” for short) was a stark contrast to its predecessor. Swing was performed by large groups; its sound filled ballrooms. Bop was more intimate — suited for the clubs. Swing was for dancing; bop was for deliberate, attentive listening. Swing awakened the primal, lustful urges. Bop’s appeal was highly intellectual — abstract music for its own sake.
The public’s reaction to bebop was mixed. Some critics felt that its emergence marked the beginning of jazz’s decline. But time has proven bebop to be the most vital development in jazz. It has given us several tropes that remain integral to the jazz experience: The use of small combos featuring one or two horns, drum patterns that utilize the ride cymbal for timekeeping and reserve the kick drum for accents (a stark contrast to pre-bop style of using the bass drum on all fours), and the standardization of certain chord changes, like those employed in “I Got Rhythm.” But what I believe to be the most significant aspect of bebop is its approach to melody.
Improvisations in bebop were far more angular and chromatic than in swing. Passages were faster, and incorporated notes that were alterations or extensions of the underlying harmonies. “Where is the melody?” was, and remains, a common complaint from those who fail to see bop’s appeal. Still, the language of improvisation was forever changed. To this day, a jazz musician’s respect among his peers is measured largely by his fluency in the bebop idiom.
Here are Bird and Dizzy performing a staple of bop music, “Hot House”:
I see a strong connection between the contours of bebop phrases and those of melodies by baroque composers. Several jazz musicians do, in fact, practice by reading Bach’s scores, and I feel it is no accident. There seems to be a universality to the components of well-crafted melodies, regardless of style, idiom, or era (tonal melodies, at least).
For more reading, see the Wikipedia article on Bebop.
My favorite book analyzing the bop vocabulary is Bert Ligon’s Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony Connecting Chords With Linear Harmony. In this text, Ligon breaks down the elements that give bop its character, and provides hundreds of examples from recorded music.
Between the 1920s and 1940s, jazz progressed from being collectively improvised to being read from charts, but still featuring soloists one at a time (thanks in part to Louis Armstrong). Lush arrangements for big bands filled the halls in dance clubs. By now phonographs and radios had found their way into homes across the country, and band leaders were becoming superstars. The big bands were career factories; from these groups emerged soloists that would form their own small combos and become the next era’s great innovators. More on that later. Here’s Duke:
I see the progression from dixieland to swing as an echo of the developments that occurred in classical music between the baroque and classical eras. Counterpoint gave way to homophony. Intricate, highly embellished melodies became more elegantly lyrical. Dynamic range increased. Timbre and texture grew more varied. Music that started in church and private parties migrated to concert halls and ballrooms.
The swing era marks the only time in history in which jazz was the most popular American music style, especially if we employ a broad definition of jazz. Some groups, fronted by men like Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo, played “sweet” music that was mostly suited for a polite dance floor, and doesn’t hold much street cred with today’s jazz afficionados. Other groups, like those led by Benny Goodman, had crossover appeal, their music being suitable for both the airwaves and the practice studios of a generation of up-and-comers. Guitarists should be familiar with Charlie Christian, who came out of Goodman’s group as one of the founders of a new style called bebop.
As promised, I would like to present a video crash course in jazz history. There isn’t much good footage of the earliest music called “jazz,” but here is as good a place to start as any:
I’m not going to get into the muddy details of jazz’s origins. What’s worth knowing is that it began in New Orleans with groups that played in a highly contrapuntal style known later as “Dixieland.” Out of the dixieland scene emerged several performers who coaxed highly expressive phrases from their instruments — howling, swooping, moaning phrases that befuddled the conservatory-trained.
White audiences packed the clubs in Chicago and New York, to be dazzled by the energetic and exotic stylings of displaced New Orleans jazzmen. From a cultural standpoint, this was somewhat of an exploitative situation. But thanks to the attention he garnered from his exploits in the big cities, Louis Armstrong’s influence reached all who would play jazz then, and forever after.
The above video doesn’t feature Armstrong in a dixieland setting, but with a group that played written arrangements — an advance brought on by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson. At the time, you either played in a “sweet” group, which played lyrical dance music for society gigs, or you played “hot” jazz, like the tune in the video. Hot jazz pushed tempi into breakneck territory, and prominently featured soloists.
Every time a soloist enjoys the spotlight, he plays in Louis Armstrong’s shadow. Armstrong’s legacy is the art of soloing itself. Certainly, there were solo sections in prior band and orchestra music, and concerti showcasing the skills of soloists throughout entire opuses. But Armstrong brought individualism and personality to the soloist role. Since his emergence, we now look to soloists not as mere reproducers of written material, but as men and women with something unique to say.
I was once asked why, as a jazz musician, I am also a metal fan. The simplest answer is, “Why would I like anything, metal or otherwise? It just sounds good to me.” But that would make for a brief and uninteresting blog post, so let’s see if we can’t define aspects of metal that should appeal to a jazz musician.
First, there are some good reasons jazz fans shouldn’t like metal. Namely:
- There is little to no improvisation in metal.
- The metal that most people know of — pop fare by the likes of Mötley Crüe and Poison — generally does not earn the respect of serious musicians. Its performers seem more concerned with their rock lifestyles than bettering themselves as artists, and the material they release lacks invention.
- The hard rock and metal experience relies largely on production — loud volumes, heavily EQ’ed drums, and processed guitars, whereas jazz focuses on raw musical material, adaptable to a myriad of contexts.
- Pop metal seems rather juvenile in its glorification of excess and debauchery, and more underground forms of metal seem obsessed with the macabre. More universally appreciated subject matter, like romance and nostalgia, lies within the domain of jazz (at least that which has lyrics).
- Metal generally has a more limited sonic range. Metal arrangements feature mostly the traditional rock rhythm section: guitar, bass, and drums, with occasional keyboards. In jazz, there is no restriction: We have not only all the rhythm section, but all brass and woodwinds, and even the occasional harp, harmonica, or violin.
I was once caught up in the jazz snobbery that often leads otherwise reasonable musicians to look down their noses. I still hold that jazz musicians, all things considered, are the best trained. They not only must achieve a high level of technical proficiency, but they must also have a working knowledge of some rather high-level theoretical concepts, which must be applied at the speed of thought during improvisations. But I also recognize that the most elite jazz musician is one who enjoys listening to and learning from other styles. We know that Charlie Parker, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, and many others were inclusive; their interest in the popular styles of their day is evident in their own work.
What can a jazz musician appreciate in metal? Here are some possible answers:
- Metal encourages virtuosity. This should be the most self-evident answer. While associating in both metal and jazz circles, I have picked up on a competitive vibe that seems unmatched in any other genre, save perhaps for bluegrass. Metal gave us the archetypical “shredder,” first in Ritchie Blackmore, then in a long succession including Uli John Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. Before all of them, there was John Coltrane. His “sheets of sound” period, circa late 50′s, set a standard for shredding that has been unmatched since. Go back even farther, and you have bebop artists playing complex changes at breakneck speeds. The “burner” is a staple of any live jazz set. Today, former metal instrumentalist and Shrapnel Records recording artist Greg Howe plays funk and fusion in a way that ought to appeal equally to fans of shred and jazz alike.
- Metal’s complex harmonic palette. In his documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, anthropologist Sam Dunn describes the origins of metal as having one foot in the blues, the other in high romanticism. This is not unlike early jazz, which could be described as one part blues, one part impressionism. The only foundational difference between the two is a choice of which European school to emulate. As in jazz, metal gradually incorporated more cacophonic elements. Jazz brought us Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders; metal brought us Napalm Death and Mr. Bungle.
- Metal musician’s fascination with exotic scales. Neither metal artists nor jazz artists seem content with the classical major/minor model. Jazz pedagogy is heavily focused on chord/scale relations, as is the typical metal guitarist. Steve Vai’s “The Riddle” is an exploration of how various modes fit over an E pedal. Joe Satriani found a modern use for Verdi’s Enigmatic Scale.
- Tutti. A defining characteristic of big band jazz is the tight coordination of rhythmic hits. Metal gives us an experience not unlike the big band “shout chorus.” Progressive groups like Messhugah are masters of polyrhythm. Dream Theater has their drummer in lock step with bass and guitar. Arch Enemy and Lamb of God underscore their straight-up rock riffing with big, fat, punchy kicks.
- The “cliff effect.” I once saw an IMAX film in which one scene was shot from the point of view of a helicopter flying over the rim of the Grand Canyon. I watched the shadow of the helicopter sweeping over the blurred landscape just a few dozen yards below; then suddenly, the ground dropped out of sight. I find that both jazz and metal music has a knack for similarly exhilarating, lump-in-your-throat moments. In jazz, the “cliff effect” occurs most frequently during solo breaks. Just check out Charlie Parker’s break in “A Night in Tunisia” at 1:15. Goosebumps. Breaks and fills create a sense of instability — a tension which is only broken when the performers land back on their feet. In metal, breaks aren’t as spontaneous — they’re usually carefully written — but the visceral effect is similar. Check out the drum break in Slayer’s “Angel of Death” (jump straight to 4:20):
- Careful attention paid to the craft of music making. In metal, as in jazz and other genres, performers care very much about the quality of their craftsmanship. A song in either style is more than just a catchy lyric or melodic hook; it is the product of years of preparation in practice, and a meticulous creative process full of tough decisions.
Beginning with my next post, I’d like to launch both a “History of Metal” and “History of Jazz” video series here. This is my way of celebrating two styles I hold dear. Stay tuned.
I first heard Richie Kotzen on one of those flexible records that used to come with each issue of Guitar Player magazine. Even though he was a latecomer to the 80′s shred party, he brought a truly original style to a scene crowded with sound-alikes.
Here’s a stunning solo from an instructional video he did in 1989. Sorry about the sound quality, which isn’t entirely due to his preference for Laney amps.
Like many others in his class, he mellowed out a bit. His repertoire has grown more rootsy. He ditched the Ibanez RG’s for Fender Strats and Teles. I have even spotted him going pickless. And he’s singing. Singing quite well.
Whether you’re still on the anti-shred bandwagon, or like me, you never hopped aboard, there’s plenty to like in this guy’s playing.