Tag Archives: jazz

Music, artistry and the problem of popularity.

Mahler’s portentous statement about being appreciated not in his own lifetime but after his death has been negated by the Digital Age. Thanks to the affordability of home computing, music software and YouTube, bedroom music studios have become ubiquitous, amateur performances are posted on-line, and you can have your fifteen minutes of fame spread in short bursts across the globe.

But popularity’s problem exists not only in the medium, which makes performers of many but professionals of few, but in the message. Alexander Goehr identifies the beginning of the avant-garde movement as being the moment when music turned its back on the audience and lost its appeal, when it became concerned less with communication with its audience than expressing the ideas of the composer, irrespective of whether the audience related to those ideas or not. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: Stockhausen’s electronica; the New Complexity movement of the 1970s; or jazz’s escape from tonal and harmonic structures into the realms of spontaneous improvisation in free jazz in the 60s with Ornette Coleman: such times often coincide with episodes of great creativity but little commercial success – audiences can’t understand what is going on, and feel left behind.

Pop music, however, is all about instant gratification: as its name implies, it is written to appeal to people immediately, and survives (or expires) for as long as that particular musical fad holds sway – and sells records.

Jonathan Harvey considers the relationship between artist and audience in the third chapter of Music and Inspiration, where he comments on composers such as Hindemith and Copland actually altering the path of their musical development, in order to directly engage the listener once more after they felt they had alienated them.

Is it important to consider the appeal of your music as you write it ? Should the listener be taken into account ? If you are using a tonal or harmonic palette which might be difficult for the audience to follow, or are using effects and technical devices that are challenging to the ear, is that a factor that should govern the way a composition is realised ? Or, more succinctly, can a composer take the listener into account when writing without compromising their artistry, what it is they are saying and how they are saying it ?

Of course, it is not all about making the listener’s life easy: otherwise, Schoenberg would not have created the twelve-tone system, and Ferneyhough would never have written a note; and new music is all about a new listener experience. Then again, composing ought not to be about deliberately challenging the listener in such a way as to alienate them: ought it ?

Composing in the Darmstadt School in the 1960’s was aggressively confrontational, seeking willfully to alienate the listener in order, it seems, to validate its own modernity by repudiating consonant sonorities associated with tradition. As Hans Werner Henze writes, ‘Any encounter with the audience that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist.’

But time is a great agent of acclimatisation. What caused an uproar when first written, or met with audience bewilderment and critical hostility – the Rite of Spring, for instance – often settles down into becoming a part of the great canon of concert repertoire. The message a piece is trying to convey, innovations it is trying to wreak, or a musical language that at first seems incomprehensible, often crystallises over time, usually with greater listener experience.

I speak from personal experience here. When I was about 11, in a spirit of musical enquiry, I lowered onto the record-player an LP from my father’s collection, an album with a slightly far-out artistic cover depicting a sax player called, the liner notes revealed, Charlie Parker.

I’d been playing the piano from a tender age, the usual fodder of examination repertoire distilled from the Classical tradition, but this was utterly alien to me: I had no idea what was going on, and put it to the back of the stack of records. About three years later, I’d been playing some jazz pieces with a clarinettist – Benny Goodman, Count Basie – and I came across the same LP. This time, when I listened to it, I could see where the music was going, harmonically-speaking: I could hear the underlying harmonies and had a sense of the musical landscape the notes Parker’s improvisation occupied. The music hadn’t changed in the intervening years: I had, my listening experience had widened and my understanding had developed. (Although I’m not sure I will ever comprehend Free Jazz).

Perhaps composers should follow their musical Muse wherever it leads them, trusting in posterity to allow audiences to comprehend their work if the contemporary critical response is not positive. Artistic integrity versus commercial appeal: where do you stand ?

The jazz-man’s necessary beat: rhythm in Swing.

Jazz may be all about the elasticity of time, about syncopation and the louche indolence of swing, but, to paraphrase George Gershwin, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got a regular pulse. (I can see why Ira changed the lyrics…)

You can’t pull against something if it’s not firmly fixed: in jazz, that’s the hi-hat. The crisp snap of the hi-hat on the second and fourth beat of a swing tune in 4/4 represents the twin pillars of the piece’s rhythm, around which swing can loll and flounce, secure in the knowledge that it is underpinned by a rock-solid rhythmic foundation. Music is often about the suspension of time, or what the American composer Elliot Carter has called the debate between ‘chronometric time versus psychological time,’ the regular pulse of the daily passage of life pitted against a time-scale imposed by the piece of music itself. Time, in jazz, slips and slides like a novice ice-skater, but one clinging firmly to the hoarding lining the rink: the security of the drum-kit.

Listen to the opening of Milestones, where the crisp homophony of the sideways triadic motion in the saxes and trumpet only works because the percussion defines exactly where the beats against which they are pulling lie: the driving ride cymbal and crisp rim-shot anchoring the beats.

And Dave Brubeck’s Take Five succeeds because the bass player roots the pulse firmly on the tonic ‘E’ every time the five-beat cycle begins anew, along with the pianist’s left-hand and a solid kick on the bass-drum.

(And, as an extra bonus, I love the descisive thwack on the snare(less) drum that marks the beginning of Desmond’s alto-sax solo when the tune ends in this clip).

The writer Michael Hall’s epithet which titles this post is spot on: the hi-hat provides the necessary beat. Next time you’re playing in a jazz ensemble, or improvising a solo, or simply listening to some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, keep an ear out for the drummer: he’s holding it all together.

Prom Piece Preview: One Note Samba.

The Chorus piece for this year’s ArtsFest Prom is nearly finished.

With the arrangement for Chamber Choir now all but completed, I was left with no displacement-activity excuse to avoid getting to grips with what has turned out to be something of a monster. There’ll even be an array of Latin percussion as well, if I can organise it.

Herewith a sneak preview of the first few pages: if you’re singing with the Chorus in the Prom concert, this is a little taste of what you’re letting yourself in for…

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The Slippery Eel: Jazz and the hunger for re-invention.

What is it about jazz that attracts listeners so much ? What is the eternal appeal of jazz music ? Is it it the subversiveness, the way jazz undermines so-called ‘rules’ of classical music of related keys, permitted harmonies, ‘blue’ notes;’ its creativity, its reliance on spontaneous composition at the moment of improvisation; its rhythmic drive ? Or something of all of these ?

For me, the great allure of jazz is its constant hunger for new things: like a fire, jazz is forever consuming other forms in its path in its endless quest to re-invent itself. 

As jazz moved out of the Swing era into Bebop, it began to develop more advanced melodic, harmonic and rhythmic principles. An apocryphal legend has it that jazz musicians deliberately created more rhythmically and melodically complicated pieces to stop random amateurs being able to sit in on their sets and churn out the same old array of standards and popular tunes that were becoming dull.  Out came the effortless lyrical invention of Charlie Parker, the fierce muted trumpet tones of Dizzy Gillespie, both of them working through the rapid chord changes in each bar with supreme skill.

Never content to sit and contemplate its own achievements, jazz promptly reacted against its own complexity in Bebop and stepped back to Cool, a return to modality and simplicity in both melody and harmony. Kind of Blue stands as a laid-back testimony to the new austerity in jazz; So What features very few chords, a skeletal introduction from Bill Evans on the piano; jazz cocks its hat over its eyes and sits back with a cigarette dangling from its lips.

Jazz has always been open to embracing new technologies; think of the electric keyboards in the 1960’s with Herbie Hancock (who first played electric keyboard on the Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro), or the wah-wah pedals and amplification effects in the 1970’s with British trumpeter Ian Carr’s ‘Nucleus,’ or the sampling keyboards in the 1980’s with Hancock and Joe Zawinul. Jazz looked at the lifestyle of rock music in the 60’s and decided it wanted some of the action that was being handed out to Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix; jazz’s infatuation with the glamour and popularity of rock musicians (not to mention the large fees rock musicians could command) led eventually to the cultural epiphany in the famous Isle of Wight festival, where both Hendrix and Davis played (though alas not together), immortalised in Murray Lerner’s film ‘Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue.’

Jazz has also been willing to embracing new musical cultures: Indian music in the 70’s with the dizzying technical displays of John Mclaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra or the more thoughtful Indo-Jazz fusion of Joe Meyer and John Harriott; or African harmonies and rhythms in Coltrane’s solo career; Brazilian and Spanish influences in the music of Chick Corea’s fusion band Return to Forever.

Then there’s the hard-nosed funk-rock and jungle-infused music of one-time Miles Davis guitarist, John Scofield, or the experiments with hip-hop beats and DJ’s on decks in the music of Courtney Pine or (more latterly) Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. Reactionaries like Wynton Marsalis may preach the supremacy of swing – and swing in a variety of time-signatures, sure, but it’s still swing – but jazz will always hunger for new elements, for the cyclical rhythms of Indian ragas or the polyrhythms of African drumming. (In Marsalis’ defence, though, he’s technically untouchable  and swings like a demon.)

Like a slippery eel, just when you think you’ve grasped jazz, it scoots away from you and goes somewhere you hadn’t expected. Pronounced dead or locked in a dead-end by an endless succession of worthy critics for many years, jazz will still always forge a new dynamic, a different and exciting path.

Come to the next Jazz @ 5 in the Gulbenkian Foyer on Wednesday March 25th and hear some of these elements for yourself.

So What is there, if anything, that appeals to you about jazz ?