As the great man once said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. But what is swing? How do you tell if it’s got it or not? Well, if you have to ask… If non-jazzers think of jazz rhythm, I suspect they focus on two things, exemplified by the Sonny Rollins track last time: it’s played mostly on the cymbals, with the bass and snare drums used for irregular emphasis, and it involves those irregular quavers (DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da etc.). Like more or less any statement about jazz, there’s some truth in that, up to a point, but only up to a point; lots of jazz records from the 1930s to the 1960s (and later ones imitating that style) feature that sort of rhythm, but plenty of others don’t. Sometimes the rhythm is syncopated, sometimes it isn’t; sometimes it’s played on the cymbals, sometimes it’s played on the bass and piano while the percussion gets to do its own thing (see nilpferd’s brilliant analysis of Tony Williams’ playing on Miles Smiles), sometimes it’s played on broomsticks or rocks or the floor (the great Han Bennink). Sometimes it swings obviously, sometimes it doesn’t obviously swing in a traditional sense.
I think Ellington is right that rhythm lies at the heart of jazz; the great stylistic changes, from ragtime and New Orleans jazz to swing, to bebop, to hard bop and post-bop, to the New Thing, to jazz rock and fusion, were all marked by new styles and conceptions of rhythm. But ‘swing’, I think, isn’t a particular sort of rhythm so much as the right sort of rhythm, the rhythm that feels right for a particular context. Jazz is marked not by a special style but by a concern with time and timing, an interest in exploring how far things can be stretched and manipulated before they fall apart altogether. That may be a matter of a soloist interacting with the rhythm section and playing around with the beat and the chord sequence, or of the rhythm section taking centre stage rather than just providing the backing.
Duke Ellington’s Orchestra explores how many different rhythmic patterns, played by different instrument sections, can be fitted into a single song without losing the underlying swing. Sarah Vaughan exemplifies the fact, known by a lot of the greatest jazz soloists, that having a great sense of rhythm frequently means not keeping to the basic beat but working around it (contrast a couple of the soloists on this track; for me, Herbie Mann’s flute solo exemplifies a failure to swing). The Tomasz Stanko track, with Tony Oxley on percussion, switches the function of keeping the beat to the bass, and thinks about abandoning clear divisions between bars altogether. The Esbjorn Svensson Trio experiment with non-swinging rock rhythms; Matthew Shipp explores (with a real drummer) the influence of contemporary electronic beats.
Finally, a track that is probably too familiar to many of us, too much part of the wallpaper, too laden with images and associations – but just listen to that drummer. Dave Brubeck sticks to the same piano riff all the way through, Paul Desmond plays short phrases as a means of sticking closely to the song’s structure in the face of an unfamiliar five beats to the bar, but Joe Morello merrily shifts the accent around and plays with its possibilities. The only drum solo I actually love, and it also worked brilliantly in Pleasantville…
What Aba came up with last week re. jazz and reaching new audiences had been on my mind also for quite some time, I’d had the same thoughts but as I said in the comments, I would approach it quite differently.
I find it very difficult to express my thoughts on this topic, there’s a conflict between the idea that jazz is grounded in free expression and improvisation and has evolved through artists going in new directions and in some cases the directions they go in. The former I can accept and you’ll find examples of it in my playlist but jazz reached a point in the 60’s-70’s where a small group of musicians took it in a direction that I and many others couldn’t accept, that was about when we started hearing discussions about “what defines jazz?”, somewhat similar to what we were hearing here last week, “what is pop?” A lot of people, myself included, chose to ignore jazz if that was what it had become, I found solace with 60’s pop and reggae and didn’t participate in the then current jazz to any degree, all of my jazz record buying involved music of prior era’s.
The idea of ‘Free Jazz’ doesn’t bother me, I choose not to listen to it but I do resent it’s adherents aquisition of the concept of ‘jazz'; jazz is a black music based in the blues that for decades has expressed the turmoil and suppression in that community, I can’t accept any group that thinks that they can apply the name of jazz to the cacophonous sounds that they’re creating. Jazz is a beautiful and exciting music, it’s performed by artists who are usually supreme on their instruments, it’s intended to be enjoyed both physically, intellectually and emotionally, ‘free jazz’ fulfills none of those, it’s the sound of a sick society in conflict with itself. If those are the sounds that they choose to make, let them find another name for it, their sad efforts have nothing in common with jazz.
Obviously we’re dealing with a subjective topic, everyone has a different tastes and different values but there’s something that’s been obvious to me since before I joined this group; from what little discussion there is on this topic it seems as though there’s a feeling amongst some, but not all re. jazz; it’s that it’s something that evolved in the mid ’60’s as a result of a small group of musicians, the names I hear most often are Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans and Ornette. It’s such a limited perspective, there’s so much more.
I would like to present a variety of jazz musicians that date back to the beginnings of jazz, musicians that laid the groundwork for these and all contemporary artists.
I don’t know if the name Ralph J. Gleason rings any bells, he was the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and a very popular music critic, I found a quote in his liner notes on the Ray Charles album that seems relevant;
“Jazz’s new listeners, no matter at what point they entered the jazz world, have an overriding tendency to be swept up in the continuum of jazz recordings. They seldom stop and go back to something ten years old. He wrote that in 1970, I think it’s still appropriate today except I would expand the ten years.
OK, with that out of the way let’s play some records. Here’s a baker’s dozen, what I’ve selected all fall under the classification of “These are a Few of My Favorite Things”, they’re all vinyl transfers selected at random. I didn’t go out of my way to restrict the choices to pre 60’s music, it just happened that way, I could have as easily created a post 60’s list. The only parameter that I set was that I’d approximately match Aba’s list in terms of time, approx 50 mins. I started at the beginning of my records and went through saying ‘Oh, must include that…and this’, and suddenly I found I’d exceeded 50 mins. Start over or edit? I edited and accepted that I must leave out dozens, hundreds of choices! The perceptive amongst you might notice that I didn’t get beyond the ‘H’s’ but I scrambled them for playback and couldn’t resist including a ‘V’.
1. Ray Charles – Outskirts of Town. 1961. Ray as a jazz musician, The trumpet intro is by Clark Terry with another later by Phillip Guilbeau, Ray at the keyboard and a great orchestral arrangement by Quincy Jones.
2. Duke Ellington – Take the ‘A’ Train. This is a 1951 version from the Ellington Uptown album, three for the price of one: a great Ellington piano solo, a post bebop vocal by Betty Roché and a great tenor solo by Paul Gonsalves, check all the changes here, not to mention the great backing from the band.
3. Ry Cooder as a jazz musicologist – The Dream. He produced an album that investigated the roots of jazz, this cut is listed as ‘a piece of whorehouse music’. It’s approx 1900, before jazz even existed and it’s typical of what might have been played in New Orleans brothels at that period reflecting Spanish, African and Carribbean influences. From Ry’s album ‘Jazz’.
4. Stan Kenton Orch. Intermission Riff. This piece is from about 1947, Kenton had a popular all white band, June Christie was his singer, he loved brass, usually he had 5 trumpets and 5 trombones, three of each was typical. Vido Musso takes the tenor solo. He was based at the Avalon Ballroom in Southern Cal.
5. Sarah Vaughn. Cherokee. Wonderful alto solo by Cannonball Adderley, it’s from the ‘In the land of Hi-Fi’ album, remember Hi-Fi? I forgot to mention, don’t adjust your sets, many of these cuts are in ‘mono’, produced long before stereo existed.
6. Charlie Parker. Parker’s Mood. This is the original Savoy 1947 version, it includes a false start, Bird begins his second chorus after the John Lewis piano break and he hits a bad note so he deliberately hits another and then whistles a stop, they resume with a perfect take that’s became one of the great Bird solos.
I included the false start just to show how it was done before Pro-Tools.
7. Coleman Hawkins. Body and Soul. From 1939, considered by many to be the greatest tenor solo ever. ‘Bean’ [Coleman] brushes it off as ‘just a routine piece that he made up on the spot.’
8. Duke Ellington. Creole Love Call, 1927. Possibly one of my all-time favorite pieces of music.
What intrigues me is the fact that jazz was less than a decade old and here was Duke doing things like this, triple clarinet leads with the original ‘scat’ vocal, or at least a very creative use of a voice in jazz; it’s Adelaid Hall and Bubber Miley does the trumpet solo.
9. Duke Ellington. Black & Tan Fantasie, 1927. Couldn’t decide which one to use, couldn’t delete either so I include them both. Another great piece by Duke with another trumpet solo by Bubber. Just consider that only a few years earlier jazz was basically confined to N.O. and was a genre that consisted of 5-6 musicians playing totally in unison! And there were no means of communication, no media, no phones etc, apart from very early primitive records there was no way of knowing what others were doing, and yet….
10. Louis Armstrong. West End Blues. 1928. Often quoted as Louis’s greatest ever solo, it’s from his Hot 7. Also his first scat vocal, similar thing to what Duke was doing a couple of thousand miles away, another example of the enormous changes to the music in a very few years.
11. Ben Webster & Coleman Hawkins. Shine on Harvest Moon. 1957. Considered to be the two godfathers of the tenor, Hawkins was the originator and the teacher, he was playing in Europe before I was born. Ben has the nicest tone in jazz. Listen carefully and you’ll hear two tenors each with distinctive tones and styles duetting.
12. Johnny Hodges. Warm Valley, 1940 with the Ellington orch. The greatest alto player ever, he joined Duke in the late 20’s and was with him for about 40 years, Duke wrote many pieces just for him, as he did for all the soloists in the band. No one has a tone like Hodges and he does ‘impossible’ things on his horn, like glissandi on an instrument with push buttons!
13. Count Basie Orch. with vocalist Jimmy Rushing. 1938.
Sent for you yesterday. A classic swinging Basie big band blues. Basie on piano with Herschel Evans doing the tenor solo, Sweets Edison on trumpet and JR on the vocal, the all time classic Basie era.
Taking advantage of the current strong yen, I finally got the majority of the rest of my treasured record collection (well, the vinyl part anyway) shipped over last week.
The records had lain dormant in my brother’s bedroom for the last 7 years, untouched, un-played but by no means unloved. To commemorate my tearful re-union with said pieces of wax, I was going to do a normal ‘Spill post. But as I became lost in the reminisces (I know, I know it’s only 7 years!), I thought it would be fun to expand it into a full podcast and share a few memories.
All tracks were purchased (but not necessarily released) between 1998 and 2002, when I was living a stone’s throw away from the beautiful piece of architecture you can see at the top of this post.
As usual, comments and criticisms are all welcome.
N.B. I’ve put it on Boxstr and in Dropbox, and i’ve also put the individual tracks into Dropbox too. This does spoil the surprise a bit, but whenever I listen to other people’s podcasts there are always a few tracks that i’d like to have for myself, so I thought i’d drop ‘em in for whoever wants them.