Why A Jazz Musician Can Appreciate Metal

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.
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