Jazz – it’s a bit of a thing, isn’t it.
Described by an arcane language made up of a mixture of technical and hipster speak, huge back catalogues, a lack of obvious hits, lengthy unfathomable improvisations and a willingness to deviate from the tune all combine to make the genre difficult to get into and enjoy.
For many in the UK, their relationship with jazz is pretty much captured by the Fast Show’s Jazz Club. Louis Balfour’s use of the smug lexicon plus a pretty accurate humorous take on the musicians and songs seemed to sum it up. Even though it transpires that John Thompson himself is a jazz fan, as shown in a recent Guardian article here, I would have to admit that it is pretty intimidating.
It has taken me years to get into it myself. This is partly because of the lack of access to the music but this has been remedied by the prevalence of the streaming services, like Spotify and Tidal. It was mostly because often I didn’t have a freaking clue what was going on and without a voice or a narrative to pull you in, the music can be a turn off, quite often in the most literal sense as my other half hates anything musically discordant. “It is just a row” or “It is a bunch of people playing different things at the same time” is an oft heard response.
I was wandering around Foyles a couple of months ago and came across what looked to be an intriguing book. At face value, “How To Listen To Jazz” appears to be a bit of a Ronseal book but pretty much necessary, judging by many people’s reaction to jazz as an art form. It is written by Ted Gioia, who is an American jazz writer and musician. Graduating from Stanford with an MBA, he worked originally as a management consultant (but don’t let that put you off). Ted used to keep a piano in his office and eventually ditched the business world to move into writing about jazz as well as performing and producing. I’ve read and enjoyed his “History Of Jazz” book but still felt that there was a significant gap in my jazz education, so I picked it up.
I’ve just read the first chapter and it is written in a really engaging way with practical examples to improve your appreciation of jazz. I thought therefore it might be fun to write what I’m learning as I go.
The first chapter is about swing, rhythm and tempo. Just to differentiate, rhythms are the patterns in the music and tempo is the speed of the music. Swing is harder to define though and the chapter largely focuses on what makes good jazz (and other music) “swing”.
Here’s some of what Ted’s advice was, combined with my little bits of insight and observations:
- Whilst Ted values formal jazz education (the exaggerated flaws of which are evident in the recent movie “Whiplash”), many of the jazz greats had little or no jazz education but were fantastic listeners
- With jazz, it is more often about being around the beat than on the beat and therefore drum machines don’t work as they are too mechanised. I agree up to a point but the British breakbeat/drum’n’bass scene matched jazz with a more pre-programmed approach to percussion. This worked because of the variety in the beats Here’s “Heroes” by Roni Size. This has a mixture of “human” drums and drum tracks. It still swings though and this is the case for a significant of the UK dance scene that is influenced by jazz
- Humans are the only animals that react to rhythm. Having watched dressage (“horsey dancing”), I thought horses might but my other half N (a bit of an equestrian in her time) assures me that it is about the rider exercising control and the animal reacting to learned cues. So that’s sorted me out then
- Ted loves to hear a band going full tilt, a bit like, say Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five which can only be kept up for short bursts. This was more common in the thirties and forties. I think that is possibly down to the limits that vinyl 78s placed on the length of a particular song plus the use of jazz as music to dance to, less prevalent these days
- Ted also appreciates a really slow paced ballad when the band avoid filling the vacuum created by the lack of speed with extra twiddly bits – less is more. It is a bit like when a football team over elaborate to deliver no end result and then get caught out at the back, conceding the softest goal imaginable
- His real mark of a band’s prowess is their ability to go at a pace just above the human heartbeat. It feels to me a bit like the hardest athletics race that I remember from school, the 400m. Go off too fast (never my problem) and you will blow yourself out. Too slow and by the back straight, you’ll have too much ground to make up
- It is better to start slowly and get quicker than the reverse. I know this from personal experience. I’ve played in jazz bands and recall a version of the old standard “Blue Skies” that finished so slowly that it was a funereal “Grey Skies” by the end. We kept trying to get quicker but inevitably ended up dragging, much worse than “Whiplash”. Fortunately our tutor, the great Patrick Naylor, was a tad more benevolent.
So Ted’s suggested listening exercises are to take a student band from YouTube and listen to the lack of rhythmic coherence. Take your pick – there’s loads out there.
Then listen to the greats and hear the difference. They are more together and locked in, particularly the drummer and the bass player. He chooses a few examples of pairing that rates. Here’s a couple that I’ve picked.
Ron Carter (bass) and Paul Williams (drums) were part of Miles Davis’ second great quintet. This is a Wayne Shorter tune “Footprints” recorded in 1966. Listen to the drums first. Nothing too flash, the rhythm is mostly on the hi-hat. The bass is just repeating. And that’s it but the rhythm is constantly shifting. Simple as you like but effective as hell. It gives the tune momentum and it swings like crazy. It is a little faster than the human heartbeat but by no means a tear up.
Here’s Miles again, this time from ten years earlier with his first great quintet, with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. “Round Midnight” is a Thelonious Monk tune and I know from personal experience how hard these can be to get right. This is much slower, the rhythm section is less intrusive until the solo section roughly 3 minutes in, which it introduces with a flourish and then moves the whole thing along at a faster pace. It is a ballad but it swings.
Everything about this performance is accessible. This is possibly what people associate with the jazz they like. It is a smoky late night blues. There is nothing difficult to grasp here, it is just sheer beauty.
So that is it for the first chapter of Giola’s book. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my take on his writing. I’ve certainly open my ears to hear new things in old music.