Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Split Second Creativity

Madhav Chari, perhaps India's most erudite jazz pianist, continues his exploration of jazz basics, this time looking at improvisation.

One of the guiding features of Jazz is the process of improvisation, the creation of music in real time. In other words what a Jazz improviser does is compose music instantly, requiring a unique synthesis of mind, body, emotion and spirit, and a thorough knowledge of the Jazz music form.

It sounds like magic. It is magic when the musicianship is outstanding, when the musicians on stage are reacting to each other and having a spontaneous dialogue with each other, within the parameters set by the music form. In India we already have instances of improvisation in Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Regina Carter: Southern Comfort

When you don’t do a nine to five week, you have to find ways to celebrate the common joys of deserving your sustenance. One of those is to keep track of long weekends and filling them with the kind of stuff you can share on your social media timelines. This long weekend , I had three pieces of musical goodies lined up – the complete Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013, The History of the Eagles and Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort. None of these were with the intention of writing about them or even drooling over in public. I started listening to Southern Comfort late this morning, and at first was just glad to partake in her new outing. As the tracks unfolded, I found myself journeying into the roots of American jazz, folk and country with a guide who was not only acutely contemporary in her sensibilities but one who flew her craft with the brazen delicacy of a Jedi warrior. Somewhere into the fourth track – Shoo-Rye, I knew I had to write about our shared love.

The jazz violin is a strange place. Outside of bluegrass and country, it is dominated by giants like Jean Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappeli. The two violinists of recent times that have successfully taken the jazz violin out of their shadow are Regina Carter and the slightly older (and crazier) Nigel Kennedy on either side of the pond.  Both of them straddle the worlds of classical, jazz, rock and whatever it is that you can call the music of today with a finesse that is at once shrewd and profound.

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.

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