Tuesday, June 30, 2009

All That Jazz #3: Blues

Jazz and the blues. There's little disagreement about their close relationship, their common origins and their frequent cross-overs. Considerably more controversial is the question of whether it's true, as some argue, that if you can't play the blues then you can't play jazz, or that jazz without some element of the blues ceases to be jazz. That tends on the face of it to rule out the possibility of any genuine European or other non-American jazz, and often gets brought into the argument that white men can't really play jazz - because of course white men can't really play the blues.

One of the reasons this is so arguable is that there's almost as much disagreement about the nature of 'the blues' as there is about the true essence of jazz, and hence considerable difficulty in deciding whether or not a particular track has blues in it or not. I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I Got, as the Duke Ellington song put it. Is it the long-suffering, "I woke up this mornin' and wished I was dead" misery lyrics? Is it the classic twelve-bar, I-IV-I-V-IV-I structure - and how far can you start substituting more complex chords into that structure, as Wayne Shorter does, before it ceases to be blues? Is it the regular use of the blues and pentatonic scales in improvisation, and how do you stop that becoming a cliche except by using some other scales and thus ceasing to be blues? Is it the blues scream and its instrumental equivalents, the microtones and dissonance - and at what point does that cease to be blues and start turning into nasty atonal free jazz?

All of these tracks, I think, show their links to the blues pretty clearly, whether in formal terms (Shorter's classic Footprints or the near-pastiche of Miroslav Vitous and Jan Garbarek, both using variants of the standard chord structure) or in terms of their 'feel' (a track from Mingus' Blues and Roots album, recorded specifically to show that he could do roots music as well as the more sophisticated and elaborate compositions he was best known for in 1959, and, sorry GF, Ornette Coleman, for me one of the bluesiest jazz musicians going). The real challenge would be to find a track that doesn't have any blues influence at all and yet is still recognisably and unarguably jazz, but I'll have to think about that one. Modern Jazz Quartet, maybe.



For all those of you who were hoping that I'd forgotten all about this; sorry, just been rather busy recently...

22 comments:

goneforeign said...

First off, Podbean's acting up, it won't load.
And then of course, I can't get beyond the last line of the first paragraph. You don't really want a long list....?
In this discussion I think the word 'Swing' is closely related to jazz and blues and how they interact, and I even think that swing applies to the MJQ.

goneforeign said...

OK, Podbean's got it's act together.
No argument with any of those, at least not re. 'jazz vs. not jazz', I might have issues re. the style but that's just taste and since I know you're a bass player you're excused. I assume that 'Tramp' might be 'Coleman? - It was OK, I'm not anti Coleman, it's just that he and several other jazz musicians went off in directions during the 'free jazz' era that left many of us cold, I have lot's of Coltrane but I can't stand some of his later pieces and I'm not alone, I think Coleman's in the same camp.
I heard a piece on radio a couple of days ago and they played a piece into the break that was for me a great piece of jazz/blues, I've posted it here before, it was Ray Charles - I'm gonna move to the outskirts of town, arrangement and orch. by Quincy Jones, it's from his Genius +_ Soul = Jazz album, well worth a trip to Spotty.
As I listened to those cuts I wondered if you'd listened to 'Taney County' by Charlie Haden, as a bass player you might enjoy it.

Chris said...

"The real challenge would be to find a track that doesn't have any blues influence at all and yet is still recognisably and unarguably jazz"
Couldn't you say the same about rock and blues? Blues music was the foundation of much of twentienth-century non-classical music, as later musicians absorbed it, either deliberately or by osmosis.
And isn't that what happens? A new form of music develops, becomes recognizable by some of its features, and then continues to develop into other forms. Natural evolution, which allows the older forms to continue and new, successful and unsuccessful, strains to blossom. There's a point when drawing distinctions become meaningless. IMHO, of course.

BTW there was an interview with Dr Oliver Sachs on Jon Stewart about his research on music's effects on the brain. Apparently, even after the severest stroke we don't lose our sense of rhythm and only rarely do we lose our 'appreciation' of music. I found that quite comforting. There's a programme (and a book) about it called Musical Minds. It looks like a Beeb thing as Alan Yentob narrates.

Chris said...

Just found out that Musical Minds is available to watch on-line from whenever July 1st starts in the US. Here's the address: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/musicminds/program.html

goneforeign said...

Chris: I thought about you a couple of days ago, I listened to a radio documentary about the origins of Mountain Bikes. As you probably know it all started on Mount Tam [Mt. Tamalpias] close-by here in Marin. It came about as a result of two lads [deadheads] who hung out in the Greatfull Dead office in San Raphael, they used their bikes, normal road bikes, for everyday transportation. They used to ride up to the top of Mt. Tam and one day decided to try riding back down on the trails, the bikes couldn't handle it, it was much too rough. They thought about it and decided to try the old Schwinn bikes, very heavy duty but hard to ride. So one of them who worked in a bike shop decided to design a frame that would handle the terrain, it would also be light enough and strong enough, he made about a dozen. From this beginning his reputation evolved and by word of mouth to a lot of kids in the Bay area who were interested in off road riding and so was born the idea of 'mountain bikes'; it all came out of the 'Dead' office. Look where it is today!
For more info check: http://www.mttam.net/

Abahachi said...

Last line of first paragraph would have an irony emoticon, if I ever used emoticons. I don't remotely agree with it (Kossoff and Green, for a start), but it is an argument that still gets trotted out regularly.

Yes, the influence of blues on the whole range of popular music in the twentieth century is enormous, but what I find interesting about its place in jazz (granted, this may be one of the things that puts off non-jazzers) is that the blues legacy is explored in a more self-conscious way, taking the different elements of the blues apart and putting them back together again in new combinations, stretching the parameters of the conventional twelve-bar blues and so forth.

The track listing:
St Louis Blues: Bessie Smith (with Louis Armstrong)
Cryin' Blues: Charles Mingus
Lonely Woman: Ornette Coleman
Footprints: Wayne Shorter
Tramp Blues: Miroslav Vitous (with Jan Garbarek)

Chris said...

Aba: sorry, I missed the irony completely. I do the same with gremlin's comments on RR (and he is such a joker!), but it is often quite difficult to hear a tone of voice in the written word...

gf: there have been a few enterprises that have sprung from the GD world (the whole tie-dye thing, for example) but I didn't know about that one.
I'm sure you're familiar with the close link between the Dead and Alembic, who developed PA technology together, including the first uni-directional microphone systems in the early seventies. They used two mikes per singer: the artist sings into one and the mixing desk cancels out everything that comes in through both mikes, leaving the voice. A vital component of the Wall Of Sound, where the music is blasting out behind the band.

Japanther said...

thanks for the tracklisting Aba, I was just about to request it!

I haven't listened all the way yet, but I like that Wayne Shorter track a lot, and his is a name that pops up a lot in my readings and research (!) so far. It seems his work varies quite a bit but is there one definitive album I should get?

Japanther said...

Oh...and I was really pleased with myself for recognising the Ornette Coleman track instantly!
Seems i'm slowly getting the hang of this jazz thing...very slowly!

nilpferd said...

Speak no evil is in my opinion the Wayne Shorter album to get first, closely followed by Adam's Apple (which features Footprints).
Hoping to catch Wayne's group sometime in November, I've never managed to see him live.
Of course, if you're taking my advice you'll also have Wayne playing on any number of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Weather Report albums..

nilpferd said...

Blues-wise I'd add that the contribution of Roma musicians to the development of jazz is often neglected, you can trace certain early threads in jazz- including the absorption of the blues- back through eastern Europe and beyond to central Asia; just as European classical composers were also influenced by, for example, Turkish and Indian music, as was Rock in the sixties and seventies.
Still, the blues as such obviously developed primarily out of African-American culture; which doesn't stop someone like John Mclaughlin becoming to jazz what Jimi Hendrix was to rock as far as the interpretation of the blues goes.

Japanther said...

thanks Nilpferd - i've just checked my notebook (yeah, I know it's nerdy to keep a notebook of records to look out for!) and I seem to have scribbled down the title "Speak No Evil" a few months ago as something to look out for but it didn't have a name with it, thanks for connecting the dots.

Abahachi said...

I'd agree completely with nilpferd: Speak No Evil, then Adam's Apple, then the two Miles Davis Albums ESP and Miles Smiles, all of which together will give a pretty good idea of both his improvising and his song-writing. His 70s work in Weather Report is interesting but very textural, just part of the overall effect; great stuff, but I find it quite hard to associate it with the 60s performances that I love.

I saw Shorter live about eight years ago, and thought it was superb; he's still playing well, unlike a lot of veterans, and with the aid of an excellent band he conducts a dissection or deconstruction of classic tunes, audibly thinking through them. The Footprints Live! album didn't get great reviews, but I thought it was good, and it's a fair reflection of what he was doing then.

DaddyPig said...

I've never quite found a way into Ornette Coleman, but this recent review, where he guested, made me wish I'd been there:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jun/19/bobby-mcferrin-review-festival-hall

I'm looking forward to listening to the playlist, Abahachi. As for the jazz-blues question, my first thought is: I think it's one of those interesting questions that makes for good discussions and can help to hear things in new ways - but it doesn't have a proper answer and it wouldn't be very rock'n'roll (or jazzy or bluesy) to actually go in search of one.

goneforeign said...

Chris: Just had a look at the musical minds site; I've long been interested in Sachs, I read his book Musicophilia within the last year and posted something about it here.
I fell off a ladder and shattered my ankle about 10 years ago, it put me in a cast and a wheelchair for about 6 months. A friend recommended an Oliver Sachs book on a similar subject, it's 'A leg to stand on', his personal story of something similar which is amazing. If you're close to a library check it out.

DaddyPig said...

The playlist is going down beautifully with a glass of wine. The children are in bed, MummyPig is watching a soap recorded earlier, but I've found some headphones to listen without providing an inappropriate soundtrack.

I've just been reading Humphrey Lyttelton's "Last Chorus", and his appreciation of what made Louis Armstrong great made me want to go back and listen to the kind of thing you've put on here.

Mingus played the blues ferociusly and could pentatonically out-riff any rock band. (Is that Eric Dolphy on baritone sax ?)

Loved the Ornette Coleman, bluesy indeed, so much that it reminds me of Monk's "Round Midnight" ?

"Footprints" keeps the blues chord structure but departs from the traditional harmonies with all those 4ths.

As for the definition question... I've just half-remembered an anecdote from the Miles Davis autobiography. I think he and John Coltrane are discussing whether there's anything a jazz musician can't play in a 12-bar blues. Davis suggested that you couldn't play the major 3rd of the scale over the IV chord (ie. make a major 7th chord), so Coltrane went up on stage and did exactly that and made it work... So the lesson is that jazz stretches the definiton of the blues as far as it'll go, and probably further.

Jazz seems to pride itself mostly on being able to incorporate whatever it wants to (the last Leeds jazz gig I went to, too long ago, featured a lot of Swiss yodelling) and especially anything from the diverse populations of the USA. I wonder if all the flattened 5th substitutions in jazz originate in Jewish scales ?

Anyway, thanks Abahachi. Got me listening and thinking, as well as rambling.

goneforeign said...

DP: Glad to find another Humph fan hereabouts, I brought my copy of Second Chorus with me when I left UK in '58, it's still got the dust cover on it, it's copywright Macgibbon &Kee, 1958 and cost me 15 shillings net. I should read it again.

goneforeign said...

DP: Glad to find another Humph fan hereabouts, I brought my copy of Second Chorus with me when I left UK in '58, it's still got the dust cover on it, it's copywright Macgibbon &Kee, 1958 and cost me 15 shillings net. I should read it again.

Abahachi said...

According to the sleeve notes it's Pepper Adams on baritone sax, but I see what you mean. Never heard of Adams otherwise; I'd take this as another example of Mingus' astonishing ability to take some relatively ordinary musicians and help them do extraordinary things in the context of his ensemble. Not to say that all of his musicians were ordinary, but an awful lot of them were never half as good apart from him.

goneforeign said...

Aba: I'm surprised you've never heard of him, I thought he was a household name. There's even a Wiki page devoted to him.

DaddyPig said...

Thanks goneforeign, didn't realise that Last Chorus was the end of a series, I shall look up the earlier ones as well as lots of the music.

goneforeign said...

An earlier one that I also have is "I play as I please'.
Plus I brought several of his albums. I like Humph a lot, I like his writing, his philosophy and his music.