Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Bass Groove

The double bass is a classical string instrument, traditionally played arco (with a bow). It entered jazz through the march band route, replacing the brass bass section (tuba, sousaphone, bass saxophone) to provide the bass line. Given the swing that was needed for jazz, it soon transformed itself into a pizzicato (plucked) instrument.  Plucking styles evolved to include the slap and the bounce to keep up with the loudness of the rest of the band. The signature walking bass line that we identify the blues with developed very quickly, and by the 1930s, the upright bass was a standard fixture for most jazz bands. The fretted electric bass entered the scene in the 50s. The compositional and performance dynamics of the jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) brought the role of the bass into greater focus. In addition to clever solos, which is perhaps what most listeners identify it with, the bass plays a crucial role in helping the performance hold on to rhythm, structure and harmony. In this post, we explore the masters of the jazz bass.

The Pioneers

Jimmy Blanton was the first to bring the bass up front from the 4/4 quarter note background of big bands. His style was a major contributor to the new sound of the Ellington band along with saxophonist Ben Webster.  Ellington would later record a tribute album with Ray Brown (1973) called This One’s For Blanton.

Jimmy Blanton Duke Ellington – Pitter Panther Patter (3:12) 

Leroy “Slam” Stewart is overshadowed by his peers Blanton, LaFaro, Pettiford, primarily for the complexity of his classically trained style. He played solos in the arco style while scatting an octave higher. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Jazz in Films

The main problem with portraying Jazz music on film is one of authenticity: is the film authentic to the spirit of Jazz music, including the life of Jazz musicians, the context in which they operated, and most importantly the specific music that they created.

There are four types of films: one is a straightforward audio-video recording of a Jazz concert, but in general we do not get much information about the life of the musician and the context in which they lived their music. The second is a fictional approach to Jazz, presenting the lead character as a Jazz musician, and telling a compelling story, for example the film ’Round Midnight  by French director Bertrand Tavernier. The third is a fictional biography where the director takes liberties with the main character in order to tell an engaging story, for example Bird based on the life of Jazz legend Charlie Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood. The fourth is a straightforward documentary film, and there are many such documentaries on Jazz music, and the most ambitious is Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns, a 10 part documentary that is 19 hours long.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Money Jungle: Ellington, Mingus, Roach, and now Terri Lyne Carrington

This post has been on my mind for a while, and with the Grammy drawing close and an increasing likelihood of Terri Lyne Carrington’s re-interpretation stealing the show, I realize it is time. It is time for other reasons too. Money Jungle, the album turned 50 years old last year, and is easily one of the recordings that every jazz lover should have in his collection. Featuring Duke Ellington with the much younger bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach, this album is a coming together of masters from different eras, masters with huge egos and reputations, the end result of which could easily have been disastrous but turns out to be exceptional. Ellington is the undisputed king of swing, Roach is rooted in bebop, while Mingus is a post-bop free jazz icon who challenged the very definitions of blues and hard bop.

The album was recorded on September 17, 1962, with no rehearsals, and sheet music that only outlined basic melody and harmony, with a visual descriptive cue from Ellington. For example, Ellington describes a track as "crawling around on the streets are serpents who have their heads up; these are agents and people who have exploited artists. Play that along with the music." This was the first time that the three musicians played together, having met to discuss the project only the day before. There have been three major releases of the album, the LP in 1963 featuring seven tracks, a 1987 CD release by Blue Note with six additional tracks from the session, arranged in the order they were recorded, and a 2002 remaster with eight additional tracks, with the original seven tracks in the original order at the start of the album.  My personal favorite is the 2002 release, since it allows you to experience the album as the trio had envisioned it, as well as having a clearer drum track. The session itself has some folklore around it, with Mingus walking out, only to be coaxed back by Ellington.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Madhav Chari continues his series on understanding jazz by recollecting an incident to help define swing.

There is a common misconception that Jazz music is not easily accessible to a general audience. I mean an English speaking audience from urban India with at least some tiny exposure to elements of western music. Even Bollywood music has elements of western music: this level of exposure is enough to enjoy Jazz music.
The misconception is rooted in two obvious causes: recorded music and live performances. Much of the music labeled as Jazz either by the press in India, recording industry, or by many musicians, is actually NOT Jazz music, but music incorrectly labeled as Jazz music. Live performances either of the so called Jazz legends of India in Mumbai, considered the premier Jazz center of India, or even by some foreign musicians sent by consulate organizations, can be extremely insipid, and almost always not connected to the actual energies of Jazz music.

Count Basie and Frank Sinatra

My own belief is that Jazz music played well, can communicate to this very same English speaking urban Indian audience. But the issue is quality, and the energy of the music has to connect with the Jazz of the past masters of the music. In particular the music has to “swing”.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Jazz and The Beatles

The Beatles by themselves have little reason to figure in any jazz purists’ collection, yet most of us find more than a handful of Beatles songs tucked away in albums by artists as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Wes Montgomery and Brad Mehldau. One of the reasons for this is, of course, their rising popularity at the same time that bop and free jazz were at their innovative best. The other has to be the appeal of the songs themselves. The Beatles songwriting engine was taking everything they came across and melting them into a totally new, simple, universally appealing sound.

There have been a few scholarly attempts to find jazz in The Beatles. This is not one of them, since it was not like they were not listening to jazz or were not aware of the developments in the world of jazz, but that they chose to play rock & roll, and some about of rhythm & blues. This post is a celebration of The Beatles and of Jazz, independently, and of how they speak to each other. Opinions are mine, and you are free to disagree. Do use the comments to initiate of participate in a dialog.

What The Beatles Heard

Finding The Beatles in jazz is not only easier, but as mentioned earlier, almost inevitable. In this post, we look at what The Beatles were listening to, what they played, and what jazz made of them. Though their formative years coincided with the boom period of modern jazz, there is little to suggest that they were listening to anything other than the new sound of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. But these forms themselves were born out of jazz, out of the blues, and out of the beat driven three-chord structures of American popular music.

The Beatles grew up in a musical world dominated by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course, Elvis Presley. Chuck Berry was among the first to turn his stage presence into a part of the performance. Little Richards, the R&B superstar, never strayed too far from his gospel roots, and even switched entirely over to gospel at the peak of his career, only to return to R&B again.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Good Medicine

My post on the history of the blues led to a stimulating and insightful dialog with my friend, Madhav Chari. Chari is not only one of the finest jazz pianists of our times, but also carries with him a deep commitment to jazz education. When I asked him if I could reproduce our dialog in the form of a post on this blog, he gifted me a set of articles instead. So it is my greatest pleasure to introduce this series of posts by guest blogger Madhav Chari. Enjoy!

“Ev’ry day, ev’ry day I have the blues.
Ev’ry day, ev’ry day I have the blues.
When you see me worry baby, ’cause it’s you I hate to lose”.

The great Jazz singer Joe Williams sang these lyrics with the Count Basie orchestra in the classic recording “Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings”.

There is a misconception that blues music is sad, melancholy, and perpetually prone to depression. In the western world, primarily America, the “blues” refers to a range of emotions that include sadness, melancholy, depression, the general feeling of being down and out, and weighed down with the world. Blues lyrics even carry these messages.

But blues music is not “blues” as in emotionally feeling low: singers use a wide range of emotions to tell a story, and if the only story they communicated musically was one of sadness, the music would get tiring very soon.

Blues music is music that “gets rid of the blues”, in other words it is that type of music that keeps the blues away, music that is good medicine to cure you when you get the blues.

When Jazz musicians “swing the blues”, they are addressing a type of attitude here that is tongue and cheek, even when the lyrics might be sad they may sing it with a certain flair that connotes anything but sadness, and by swinging the blues we mean performing blues music with the un-definable yet strongly perceived rhythmic push that undergirds much of Jazz music. It also reflects an attitude that if something is terrible, the way to deal with it is a state of certain nonchalance and a positive attitude, certainly a state of elegance while confronted with adversity.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Jazz: The Language of the Heart

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jazz is that it is an all American artform. The second is that it is joyous, swingy, funky, recreational music, the kind that you can play in the background while you tend to your accounts, whatever they may be. While the roots of jazz extend across the globe, from the darkness of Africa to the cool chic of the European renaissance, from the folk forms of the Mexicans & native American Indians to the microtonalities of India & middle east, it was the American circumstance that threw all these into ingredients into one cauldron & brought it to a boil. And it is joyous celebrant music, since it really is the expression of the strength needed to overcome the struggle of daily life & turn even the harshest of social persecutions into a reason to rejoice.

Today’s listening post is about looking at jazz differently. Jazz is largely a comment on social inequity, hypocrisy & discrimination. However, instead of being a messenger of gloom, jazz turns it into a uniquely participative art form, one that engages you & demands your attention, you accounts be damned. This playlist is meant to nudge you into thinking about where we come from & where we are headed as a civilization. Playing time: 60 minutes.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Life and Times of Pandit Ravi Shankar

My secret Santa gifted me The Living Room Sessions Part One after I read about it in some of the articles that began doing the rounds after Pandit Ravi Shankar’s death on December 11, 2012. It was fascinating to hear the informal recording of the 91-year-old with his old friend Tanmoy Bose on tabla. The four pieces, which includes one in Raga Satyajit, a spontaneous creation in honor of his friend, the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, are delicately nuanced with some very intricate embellishments, and seem set for a permanent place near the top of the pile for all Indian classical music lovers. His phrasing is subtle and lyrical, and these pieces lack the flashy question marks that several of his later recordings made a habit of. At 91, he sounds like he has finally found what he sought all his life, peace and certainty.

I wrote in detail about my understanding of the life and times of Ravi Shankar over at Parth's blog. Do take a look. Click below to read it.

Read the whole post>>

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bollywood Jazz

There are times when words are totally unnecessary. Here are two videos from this evening's MTV Unplugged featuring A.R. Rahman. These transcend genres. Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

10 Albums to Restore Your Faith in Music

A friend recently wanted to “refurbish” her library on her iPod and asked me for some suggestions. Our tastes in music have a large degree of overlap, so I set out enthusiastically, only to realize how difficult it was to come up with a finite list for great listening. At a time when not a lot of contemporary popular music seems to have a chance of surviving beyond a few years, here is a list of albums that should restore your faith in music.

1. Surprise – Paul Simon
You know the Live at Central Park Concert by heart, you use their lyrics to help you deal with daily strife, and you still hang on to the Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. cassette that no longer plays. You will be surprised by the urban contemporary tone (without losing out on the lyricism or the wit of the older songs) of this one from Paul Simon.

2. Mercury Falling – Sting
I love everything by Sting. Almost. This album is his maturest best, balancing musical ideas with sentimentality, technology with originality, and middle age cynicism with hopeless romanticism. Two other good but relatively less popular/known listens from Sting would be All This Time which he was recording while 9/11 happened and Live at The Perugia Jazz Festival which sees him freewheeling and improvising like never before.

3. My Rock – Walk Off the Earth
New India band that I found thanks to youtube! Nice and original sound, neat covers. They only have two albums out so far, and they make for good listening. They do not strictly fall into the category of serious music, but they bring a freshness that takes you back to the time when The Beach Boys and The Beatles were putting out there initial music. Their music videos are a visual treat unlike anything you have seen before.

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