Sunday, October 28, 2018

Box. Midnight


Did you say you saw death and danger there?

I saw you there. You were across the room. We thought we knew each other.

Some were drawing their magic circle and dancing. We looked forward to see the avant-garde. Their name stood high, up to the street. Four walls joined a club that might not have you.

We went down to be there, hear, watch, be diverted. Did we fall into a hole?

Someone could find fallen women, lost brothers, artists clinging to the rugged ledges of their angst to keep from forgetfulness.

Did you say you heard death and danger?

You surprised me with who you were. That was the only thing I could have expected. You made the room what you are. Others there who were not you told me who I am.

We heard about freedom from ones who had lost. They had not even decided what they would do when they got it back.

We saw what we might be able to do, though, if we looked well ahead, projected on the walls of our very own catacomb, before we knew we could do it.  

We escaped, we made love, and then fell upward.

You say you felt death and danger?

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Modernist Byas

This track shows Don Byas’ mastery of a standard of the hard bop repertoire, Jordu. He is thoroughly comfortable with the frequent chord changes and his style fits the rapid harmonic pivoting necessary to play or imply them.
Critics and historians don’t know what to do with Byas. They wind up giving him short shrift. He unsettles the narrative that modern jazz (aka bop, bebop, rebop) was created one day in 1942. And that is a narrative many of them take as an article of faith.

The narrative says that swing preceded modern jazz. Don Byas is both. At the same time. 

Because he can do both, musically. And he was part of both, historically.

Byas cut his eye teeth in territory big bands during the 1930s—the “Swing Era.” (Actually, he was already gigging in the late 1920s, when he was in his late teens). Then he came to New York with Basie in 1941, just after Lester Young left.

Byas then participated in jam sessions at Minton’s that were supposed to have been founding moments for the main currents of what we think of and hear as “jazz” today. (I’m sure they were in fact, but Charlie Parker did not like Minton’s and there has to be more to the story.) He was there with Thelonious Monk and Charlie Christian.

Parker heard Byas and was influenced by him. Byas probably heard Parker and in turn was influenced by him. They were original, quick, and had their ears to the ground. For those who do want to trace lineages, both greatly admired Art Tatum.

And all saxophonists to come along later knew him. When Byas played in Europe, John Coltrane used to sit in the audience, saying nothing, and listen all night (according to a Byas interview.)

Fast forward to 1970. Byas came to the US to tour with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Hard bop. Blakey knew what Byas could do. As Dizzy said simply: "Don Byas was a master."

Monday, March 26, 2018

John Coltrane is Sendin’ Out Good Vibrato


People say that modern jazz horn playing left vibrato behind, left it in the fusty old pre-modern eons of ragtime and swing. That’s what they say. But it’s not true.

John Coltrane is as progressive as you can get. He uses vibrato. Why do they say that vibrato ended with the swing era? Charlie Parker, bebop avatar, used a marked vibrato. Coltrane used it too—and he used it to striking effect even when he was at his edgiest, during his brilliantly scorching last years.

So let me say it again: Coltrane used vibrato. Coltrane used a very distinct vibrato on his slower songs. He also used it when he played fast, at times when he played a note long enough to hear vibrato.


You can hear it on “Nature Boy” from the LP released as The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Chim Chim Cheree etc.

You can hear it—on longer held notes—on “Transition,” from the album Transition. Late ‘Trane at his most cutting edge.

You can hear it in his early years, of course, with Johnny Hodges and with Tadd Dameron. (I'm saying this just in case you thought Coltrane adopted vibrato later on in his career.)

Read my lips: Coltrane used vibrato.



Ahhh, but what kind of vibrato did he use?

Actually, tremolo may be closer to what Coltrane, in particular, is using on the “Nature Boy” version linked above. Yes, it’s a consistent, rapid wave or oscillation in tone quality, but it’s more of a change of timbre than of pitch (or pitch and timbre). Tremolo.

That kind of vibrato has to come more from the larynx and the diaphragm than from the jaw or the lip itself. The latter is more mechanical, easier, and has a correspondingly more obvious and crude effect.(It's often used to cover up intonation problems, so is frowned on.) The former has a profoundly soulful, passionate effect because it comes from inside. The rapid pitch-variant vibrato is, in fact, more characteristic of some early jazz, and that approach is truly out of fashion.

I've heard that the rapid shivering of pitch, to the point where the tone seems to detach into separate repeated notes, was called the “quiver” school. That’s according to reedman Haywood Henry, who told me in the early 1990s. You might hear it on early Fletcher Henderson records or those of other Northern bands of the 20s. Here's one by Clarence Williams featuring the otherwise excellent Buster Bailey.

Soloists in the New Orleans tradition, forerunners though they may be, are not really playing in the “quiver” mode. They had vibrato aplenty—but not in the rapid, constant mode of the quiver school, a more Northern trend of that day. Louis Armstrong used a terminal vibrato: a strong attack, then a widening of the note with a corresponding widening and strengthening of the vibrato toward its end. It’s more blues oriented, I would say. Coleman Hawkins followed Louis in this.

It’s good to bear in mind that opera had enormous prestige in those days, and all of these jazz players in New Orleans and in New York listened to and respected it. It's interesting that even opera at that time had adopted vibrato fairly recently, toward the end of the 19th century, as halls grew larger, and singers and soloists used it to project. So, yes, vibrato--or a certain kind of vibrato--is rooted in its time and an article of fashion rather than necessity.

Lester Young had a more subtle approach, closer to Coltrane’s tremolo. Milt Jackson thought this was the really soulful way to play vibrato—the slow way—and he certainly put that in practice with the vibraphone rotors he called his “soul” and which were essential not only to his sound quality but his subtle rhythmic approach. 

Coltrane, meanwhile, respected Lester Young and held that respect throughout his career. Today, only Pharaoh Sanders has any element of Coltrane’s transcendent, spiritual vibrato feeling.



But those who say we are wholly past vibrato are right about one thing: vibrato has a history, and its history parallels that of jazz’s expressive, coloristic horn techniques.

Monday, December 25, 2017

. . . or else listen to Ben Webster say it in his own words (Daily Toot)

Don't be satisfied what I say about Ben Webster's phrasing. Listen to what he says about it himself.

Webster is rehearsing a Danish big band playing a transcribed arrangement of one of his solos. He wants it a certain way and they're not getting it, or not right off.

"You've got to cut it off," he says about one single note. He's saying that the how you say it is as important as the what. In this particular case, he's saying that playing one note, one very important one, shorter rather than longer is a way of emphasizing it, showing it's what you want the listener to remember.

In another clip from this rehearsal, he makes his point in a surprising metaphor, "When the bee stings you, he dies. But the stinger stays in you." Accents don't just stand out within the musical surface, they echo in our attention span, framing everything and communicating how the player feels about the notes.



Listen to the whole rehearsal, through all the different takes. (YouTube will suggest the other takes from this session to you.) It's not only revelatory: it's entertaining.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gflSLpQtoQ

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Daily Toot: Ben Webster

Ben Webster, if anyone, has that rubato, portamento quality I've tried to account for in talking about Billie Holiday. Particularly in both of their approach to rhythm.

This YT clip is as good as any example of Webster's style. 

Webster's solo, on "Did You Call Her Today"? is between 3:29 and 5:33. 



Listen to how he stretches and squeezes both the note lengths and pitches. But he has a steady beat underneath. This medium tempo is a great place to hear it, because the underlying beat is stated strongly. Both by the rhythm section, and by Webster in certain accented notes.

Students ask me: how do I practice something like that? First, I'd say, you have to have a solid sense of where the time and pitch are, down to the microtones and microbeats. 

You can bend a note--but you have to have an idea about where you're bending to or from. You have to hear it, as well as lip it. Ditto for stinging or delaying a note: how can you decide when to do that if you don't have a "groove track" in your head? 

Announcing the Daily Toot

I'm going to post a link to a performance every day (or, well, regularly I hope). It will feature a wind player, probably mostly saxophone or trumpet, or vocalist.

The breath of life, after all, runs through all our days. Highlights of the piece, as I see them, will be offered in the text, briefly.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Billie Holiday’s Emotional Life, and Words

We often hear of Billie Holiday’s ability to convey emotion and her freedom in how she places and paints the words of a song. Past that, there is a sense that what she is doing is ineffable: beyond words. 


In his truly loquacious “The Swing Era,” Gunther Schuller says that what she does is “in the deepest sense inexplicable.” (529.) I’m not sure if the root word “to explain” is one I would choose. Whose art, if it’s worth speaking of, is in fact wholly “explicable"? And which, especially, “in the deepest sense?” To hear of “explaining” something that rich and varied feels suspiciously like an urge to fit it into a preset method or scheme, to control it.

Still, I can’t accept there are no words at all for the ways Holiday, or others of her caliber, achieves such compelling emotional effects.

Billie Holiday’s manner of interpretation comes from fully inhabiting jazz as improvised music. She interrogates her own feelings about the song in the moment, at nearly every moment, for almost every word, in every performance. She uses an ample range of nuances of timbre, pitch, and timing to create a “solo,” like a horn player’s. The effect is to mirror how emotions work, in their subtlety. The musical surface of Holiday’s delivery of the words mirrors the dynamics of emotional life itself.

Holiday, then, does more than just convey raw emotions like happiness or sadness, though they are there. She is certainly not just pressing musical “buttons” to elicit them. It’s not that simple. Subtlety and nuance in her phrasing convey more complex feelings and experiences of them. Listen to her remarkable performance of “My Man.” Around the song’s eulogy for the lover who beats and who cheats, she manages to convey regret, remorse, but also passion, defiance, delirium, and transcendence. There are “mixed feelings” after all: recalled, distanced, qualified, however intense they may be as raw experience.

We have the sense that she has lived and triumphed, or at least survived, ennobling those things. That is the basis for our identification with her and feeling that she represents us. A simple transmission of basic emotions we already experience every day would not have that artistic effect.

There is craft in this, and craft can be approached with words (even “explaining” that that craft is inferior to its practice: it ultimately has to be internalized in the mind and body of the performer). Like the great jazz instrumentalists, and many singers and players outside of that which is called jazz, she has uncanny timing. She’s free, but also rooted.

Free, that is, to linger on one note, and stop another short, as speech does. To push and pull, stretch and sculpt each word or phrase like the clay a sculptor lovingly treats. That is a singer’s particular musical vocation: to modulate timbre as speech does in syllables. Try this: say the word “yes” very slowly and you will hear a wide scope of timbres our tongues and lips can shape in order to communicate. Then say “yes” that slowly to a lover and you will know how music or sound has the possibility to re-create or re-enact emotional life.

Added to her mastery of tone and timbre, Holiday is also firmly rooted in the beat or groove set by her fellow musicians. For all her rubato phrasing, she hits many notes squarely on the beat. That is her “secret.” She places certain words, or their onset, on the quarter or eighth note, in sync with group’s overall pulse, which anchors other syllables or tropes that delay or anticipate wildly. She uses accents, and that is essential to swing. I have confirmed this approach to the secrets of Holiday’s rhythmic feeling in discussion with Catherine Russell, who should know. (See also John Szwed’s thorough and essential treatment of Holiday’s singing style, both from an interpretive and technical point of view, in “Billie Holiday: the Musician and the Myth,” especially chapters six and seven.)

Another freedom Holiday famously allows herself is the liberty she takes with written melodies, which is a form of improvisation like any other. She stays fairly close to the melody, and does not scat (create a solo out of non-verbal syllables) nor leave the meter altogether. What she accomplishes is a tasteful rethinking of original melody, rather than a radically different layer on top of the song structure or chords. Her ad lib on the written song generally winds up to be one that could qualify for a publishable song itself. An example is the nearly perfect performance of Night and Day, a masterful song she somehow comments on and does justice to at the same time.

I am not saying anyone should borrow what Holiday feels about a song. They should be asking how they themselves feel about it, at all times.