Jazz: What I'm Listening For

In assembling a review site like this, I ought to come forward with my listening criteria, but before doing that, I have to establish some basic definitions. And so: the essential characteristics of jazz are swing, harmony, and improvisation. Thatís no big deviation from what anyone else might tell you, and in writing those words, I realize that they name the content of jazz, how it moves forward, and what happens as it moves forward. (Though not in that order.)

Considering all the different ways to swing, it can be hard to define it outright. In the big picture, swing signifies whether a particular rhythm ďhappensĒ or not, either in drive or in a particular touch or flexibility. Rather than define swing to a T, I think itís fair to say that jazz is based on a particular rhythmic vitality that can come in various guises.

Harmony provides the vertical and linear content of jazz. If the question is ďwhat flavor of harmony,Ē then I say ďTonal, usually.Ē Classic jazz has taken most of its basic grammar and functions from European tonal harmony, providing many variants, extensions, and embellishments along the way. This brings up the old ďwhere did jazz come fromĒ distraction, the answers to which have never enlightened me at all. Some folks with personal axes to grind will go out of their way to emphasize jazzís African roots, pointedly omitting the elements that came from Europe. All of that business is a parlor game I avoid, because jazz is an American invention (or fusion), and thatís solid enough genealogy for me. I donít reckon tribal drum circles were ever big in Vienna, while fugues werenít born on the shores of Lake Victoria. And cultural affinities for either motherland wonít get you through a chorus of ďGiant StepsĒ, nohow.

On the topic of harmony, there is the notion of the blues being an essential element of jazz. Sometimes the Arbiters of All That Is Good and True hijack the blues as an acid test, talking about how this piece of music over here is good jazz because itís got the blues up in it, while this other piece doesnít have the blues and is therefore a dilution. In this case, the blues becomes like religion - if youíre looking for it, youíll find it, or not. (And these Arbiters have an uncanny way of finding the blues within artists they endorse, even if itís just in one note that sounds un-bluesy to the rest of us.) Yes, the blues is a fundamental part of jazz, yet thereís plenty of valid jazz that doesnít emphasize blues forms or inflections, so I personally donít think itís a requirement. Neither are the standard ďI Got RhythmĒ chord changes, even though jazz has used that form to excess as well.

This brings me to the third component, Improvisation. And Iíll spare the kind reader on the workings of that, since itís such a vast topic. But jazz is improv if nothing else.

So there are the main elements for me. There arenít a lot of boundaries I put on Jazz with the capital J, but one red flag is when machinery or automation starts creeping in. Drum machines and turntables might be fun for acid jazz or whatever, yet they can really only be decoration in real jazz. The turntable also has the hip-hop connotation, and I have to say that the fundamental musical (and conceptual) gap between jazz and hip-hop is so wide that the two shall never really meet, not on the latterís turf. Some of these samplers and so on say that theyíre ďcarrying the torchĒ or whatever - bullshit. Sit in on ďAll the Things You AreĒ or ďAireginĒ in some club before you even pretend to know what the torch is. I respect jazz as a musical tradition, and the furthest thing from the organic pulse of jazz is a drum machine and all that it dictates. Is the assumption that Bird or Coltrane would have used drum machines if they had access to them? Or put down their horns and rapped? I donít think so. Maybe Iím wrong, in which case Iíll live in my fantasy world where jazz is a human, interactive music, no posing, programming, or video shoots necessary.

After all this flapping and quacking, here are some things I listen for:

Technique. Actually, I donít listen for it, but technique is worth talking about. Beyond the basic knowledge required to play the music competently in the first place, musicians often develop their own specialized techniques, and that is something I guess I do listen for. Bill Evansí piano skills differ from McCoy Tynerís, and tastes aside, you canít deny that both of them are masterful pianists. All of my favorite players have specialized techniques that they usually acquire at the expense of being able to play like some other high caliber player. The positive definition of physical technique is ďthat which allows a player to get their ideas across efficiently and precisely.Ē Since everyoneís ideas are going to be different than the next personís, we should expect varying levels (or types) of razzle-dazzle. Good technique has little to do with the number or speed of notes played but everything to do with communicating those notes, however many there are. What you donít want to hear too often is a playerís ideas exceeding their chops, in which case woodshedding is in order. You also donít want to hear empty flash by itself. A barrel of notes with no meaning is as dismaying as a good idea disfigured by a lack of technique.

Harmony. The twentieth century was full of harmonic advances, what with classical polytonality and the like, and jazz rapidly sped up the evolution of chordal adventures. Personally, a good melody can seduce me, while harmony can send me reeling, and thatís probably why I like piano recordings so much.

Structure. Beyond the Blues (12-bar) and the Abstract Truth (32-bar rhythm changes), jazz is open to all kinds of improvisational frameworks. When good content determines an idiosyncratic form, thatís a creative victory to my ears. I also enjoy open forms, where part of the structure is set, and part of it is open to the playersí discretion.

Freedom. There are varying degrees of it, from the smallest liberties on up to Free Jazz itself. I dig free improv, in which Iím willing to abandon a need for forms. (Although much free improv creates its form; it just happens in real time.) A lot of people donít get free playing at all, in any genre, because they canít imagine music without structure, but Iíve never had trouble with that.

Interaction. I put a high premium on this because it can be the most life-affirming element of jazz performance. At the base level, interaction can be parroted phrases or call and response; at the highest level, youíve got something like the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s, where every member was reacting to everyone else every step of the way. The key factor is players listening to each other and building upon deviations in rhythm, harmony, and so on, often to a degree to where they wind up in a collective abstraction that never could have been pre-planned. It all comes down to attention.

Individual voices. Jazz is a dichotomy of individual and collective concerns, the individual being the irreducible factor. Itís a tough thing to develop your own voice in such an idiomatic music, and thatís why the big names are big.

Emotion. I list this last because it can be so difficult to quantify. But of course I get an emotional kick out of jazz - it varies from one tune or artist to the next - and without it, I would not care much about the technical aspects.

Pardon any stilted sentiments above, but thatís a little bit of where Iím coming from as a listener. (Why I listen is another discussion.) The best way to appreciate jazz, all records aside, is to hear it in person, assuming there are good gigs within striking distance. Itís music of the moment, and being present in that moment is the best way to experience it. Needless to say, the chance to hear so many great, groundbreaking players is gone, and so we treasure the recordings they left us.

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