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Oh man, that was sweet. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to “So What” until after I had read your e-mail. Totally different listening experience. Very, very cool.
I think I’m tracking with everything you’ve said so far. In “So What” I definitely saw the intro, the head on the front and back end, and understood (for the first time) what the soloists are doing in terms of exploring the
floor but staying in the form. Despite it only being two notes, I was able to pick up on the form throughout the soloing, mostly because I tried to hum what I heard in the head during some of the soloing to see if I could make sense of how they line up. In fact, I think the simple head made it easier to see how the form and soloing lined up because I had less to keep straight in my mind. So, I think I get that.
I don’t think my ear is nearly subtle enough (yet) to pick up on what the other guys are doing to dialogue with the soloist. It just sounds like they’re doing their own thing (within the form) regardless of what the soloist is doing. So maybe you can help me understand what it sounds like to dialogue with the soloist well and what it sounds like to do it poorly so I can see the distinction.
One other thing I’m not able to pick up on yet is how the transitions between soloists are signaled. I know you said that the soloist has the “floor” as long as he wants, and that’s always been my impression of soloists, but you also said that the soloist “plays something that sounds like a conclusion,” and I’m definitely not hearing that. I can’t hear any difference between the way Miles or Coltrane wrap up and the way Evans wraps up. I did clearly see what you said about how Coltrane picks up on Miles’ conclusion and is ready for it, but how no
one picks up on Evans’ conclusion and so they have to tread water for 8 bars, but ALL of the conclusions sounded abrupt to me. Nothing in me ever said, “Oh, he’s about to finish.” So maybe you can help me hear
that at some point.
So, here’s my response to Bryan, addressing the issues of musical dialogue and conclusions in solos…
Musical Dialogue, AABA, and Melody vs. Chops
Well, as far as the dialogue goes, a helpful thing for me is to imagine that I’m actually in the band. So pretend you’re there, with the musicians, playing along, and try to let each of the soloists suggest things for you to play. Of course, you’re just taking their suggestions – you’re not actually going to play anything. These “suggestions” just amount to what you’re hearing, the things that are being played by the other musicians, but if you treat them as suggestions then you’ll be listening for a direction from what you’re hearing. That way, you’re listening with an ear that goes deeper than just an outside observer. This is the difference between active and passive listening. You have to think like you’re in the band. Once you’re doing that, picture each musician “suggesting” things not only to you, but to the other musicians as well, and try to hear the things the other musicians are do in response. The soloist has the floor, but the other musicians, as they respond to the soloist’s suggestions, might in turn suggest things to the soloist.
For some specific examples of good interaction, listen to the very beginning of Miles’ solo. Check out how Evans starts out by just playing the “horn hits” from the head, but then at 1:39 he just lays out and listens to Miles. Then check out his direct “response” at 1:52 to what Miles played right before then. At the top of the next time through the form, Paul Chambers (bassist) changes his line up quite a bit and that really alters the overall vibe. You can hear Evans also change as a result, but then at 2:43 , Chambers returns to a walk pattern and Evans goes back to the ideas he was playing earlier. Also, check out the Eflat dorian section on Miles’ second time through the form (2:57). Toward the end of those 8 bars, you can hear Evans wait for Miles to do something before he chimes in. Again, all of this is known as “comping”… Miles is soloing, and Evans/Chambers are comping.
It would be important at this point to get some additional terminology in your vocab. First, the various sections in a form are labeled with algebra variables. We’ll call the first 8 bars the “A” section, which then repeats, and then the Eflat dorian section would be the “B” section, and the last 8 bars are another “A.” So the form of this tune would be described as “AABA,” and if I were to identify the section at 5:43, I would call it “the first B section of Cannonball’s solo.” Next vocab item: “Blowing.” This is a slang term for soloing, because at the beginning of the Jazz movement only horn players took solos (the rhythm section just played the groove and chord changes). So the only people who were soloing were people whose instruments needed air, so “blowing” became what they did during the solo section. Nowadays, I would say something about “blowing” even to a bassist, who of course doesn’t use any air. “Blowing” is just slang for all solos.
Lastly, for the concluding the solo thing, you have to think melody. These players aren’t just trying to demonstrate their chops and technique on the instrument, they are trying to compose MELODIES. This means that you want to listen to how cool the lines sound as music, and don’t just watch for instrumental fireworks. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about Jazz… that the players are always trying to floor you with their unbelievable speed and agility on the instrument. That’s boring for most musicians, because the amount of technical prowess you possess is a direct result of your practicing time, but your improvising represents something deeper… like your personality and your intelligence, so to speak. That’s why Miles is hailed the way he is, because his solos are notorious for the sheer EMOTION they deliver. He squeezes every drop of sadness out of every note that’s supposed to be sad, and so on. Try listening to his solo on this tune with that in mind. You’ll maybe be able to hear his “conclusion” a little more clearly.
The next step in the recent How To Listen To Jazz series is to see/hear the concepts demonstrated. So, everybody should go to iTunes or Amazon or whatever and download the first track from Miles Davis’ 1959 release, Kind Of Blue. The track is called “So What,” and honestly, you should just get the whole record. Click the record title about to see what Wikipedia has to say about it.
Anyway, when I began the email correspondence with Bryan, I used “So What” as an example of how true Jazz improvisation works. Here’s what I told him about the track before he listened to it…
“So What” as an Example of Head-Solo-Head Improvisation
So, now on to that Miles Davis tune. I’m curious to see if you can follow along with the form and the head/solo/head structure. The beginning is a drawn-out intro orchestrated by a friend of Miles at the time (Gil Evans), but the head starts at 0:33, and the solos start at 1:32. The form is 32 measures (typical), separated into 4 phrases of 8 bars. It’s only a single chord/scale (D dorian) for measures 1-8 and 9-16, and then measures 17-24 (1:03) are a different chord that’s only a half step up from the original chord/scale (E flat dorian). Measures 25-32 (1:18) return to the original D dorian. I should note that this head is somewhat unique because of this sparse chord progression (two chords in the whole song). Also, it’s unique in that the bassist is actively involved in playing the melody of the head. You hear him doing that “ba-doo ba-doo ba-ba ba-doo” thing, which is the main melody, and then the horns just have a two-note response. Following the form in the solos is kinda tricky because you’ve got 24 measure in a row of the same chord, layed out over the last 8 bars of the form and the first 16 bars of the next time through it. If you listen carefully though, you’ll hear these musicians clearly doing things at the beginning of each time through the form that stand out as a way to signal the start of another time around the loop. The band on this track is a sextet, with the solo order of: Miles > John Coltrane > Cannonball Adderly > Bill Evans (piano). If you’re listening with headphones then you’ll hear Coltrane and Cannonball (both guys play sax) panned left and right, respectively.
The trick with this is to avoid “mathing out” and counting everything as you attempt to follow along. Just listen to the head at the top and try to just feel it… with the 17-24 section that has a different chord and what not. You might even try humming the melody (what the bass plays at the head) and horn response hits to yourself during the solo section to help you hear the whole thing as a composition. Can you tell how many times through the form each soloist takes? Also, listen for how the rhythm section responds to the soloists, especially Bill Evans on piano. He provides super interesting chord voicings to support what each soloist plays. And then, when it’s his turn to solo, the trumpet and saxophones put the response horn line from the head behind him, as a way to give some harmonic backing to his solo beyond the walking bass line. Also interesting is the fact that the rest of the band apparently misses Evans’ cue that his solo is ending, and they just tread water for first 8 measures of the head at the end (also known as the “out-head”… 8:03). However, true to the form, they put the E flat dorian right where they should (8:31), which means that they only played the original D dorian melody for one phrase (bars 9-16), instead of two phrases (16 bars) like they’re supposed to… because they missed the chance on measures 1-8. This confused me for a while when I was younger, because I couldn’t figure out why the “out-head” at the end (the “out head”) was shorter than the “in-head” (the one played at the beginning). But, once I began actually following along with the form during the solo section (instead of just blindly listening), I noticed the treading water thing and the fact that they miss Bill Evans’ cue and therefore miss playing the melody over the first 8 bars of the out-head. What’s really cool about this is the fact that they not only kept the take, but used it as the album opener. This is just more evidence that the head merely bookends the REAL point of the music: the improvisation during the solo section.
In Part 5 I’ll post Bryan’s response after listening to “So What” and looking for the improvisation.
For those who are just getting on board, I’m in the midst of a series about how listening to Jazz is different than listening to Rock/Pop, because the two genres have a fundamentally different compositional structure. I’m using the transcripts of an email conversation I had with my friend Bryan as the outline of the series. Part 2 left off with me responding to Bryan’s questions about the difference between “jamming” and “improvising,” and I’ll use Part 3 to cover the rest of that explanation on Jazz improvisation.
The “Head/Solo/Head” Structure
The compositional structure of Rock/Pop is probably what you’re used to, because that’s what American popular music revolves around these days. The easy way to summarize the “through composed” form of a Rock/Pop song is “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus.” The idea is that Rock/Pop songs have sections, and the sections have different melodies and chord progressions. The song gets mapped out into an arrangement of those sections (maybe including a bridge or a pre-chorus also), and as a band you just follow that arrangement and play the sections correctly and you’re good to go. Rock/Pop songs obviously differ slightly from VCVCC most of the time, but the point stands. So that’s how a Rock/Pop song works… it’s a “through-composed” arrangement of sections.
Jazz, on the other hand, follows what is called a “head/solo/head” compositional structure. What this means is that, in contrast with a Rock/Pop song, a Jazz tune is essentially just a “chorus.” It has chord changes and a melody, like the chorus (and other sections) in a rock song, but in jazz you just do the one and only section over and over the whole time. The first time you play it, everybody does what they’re supposed to do: the drummer plays swing ride cymbal patterns etc, the bass player walks, the piano player plays the chord progression, and the melody instrument (trumpet or saxophone or whatever) plays the composed melody. This is called the “head.” The head is over when this first time through the “chorus” section is done, and then the band starts in right away into another time through the “chorus” section… repeating what they just got done playing. But now, because the head is over, the song is in the “solos” part of that head/solos/head structure. This means that the band keeps playing the chorus same as in the head, but the melody instrument now plays an improvised solo over the chord progression instead of the actual melody. The improviser is the soloist, and as such, he is the focal point of the song at that moment.
It’s important to know that the soloist is the real heart of Jazz. The head is played at the beginning only as a way to let the listeners in on the chord progression that the soloist will be working in, and when the solo section arrives, that’s when the song really begins (at least in the minds of Jazz fans). As the soloist, you get as many times through the form as you want (I’ve been calling it the “chorus” so far, but it’s actually known as the “form”). The whole time, the band just plays what they’re supposed to within their respective instruments’ roles… BUT, the non-soloing players listen closely to the soloist to try and support where he’s going with his improvisation. For instance, as a drummer, I might hear a particular rhythm that the soloist is messing with, and I can join in on that or counter it (maybe with something on the snare drum underneath my swing ride pattern). Then the soloist hears my accents, and that might give him some inspiration for where to go next with his improv ideas. In this way a dialogue is created, but the dialogue is always within the context of the original form (chord progression and measure layout of the “chorus”). Meanwhile, the piano player jumps in where he sees fit, and there’s room for the bass player to be contributing too. So now the whole group is “discussing” what the soloist is playing, but the soloist still has “the floor” of the discussion, so he can musically tell someone, “dude, we’re not going down that road right now” or whatever. Some side discussions can emerge, between me and the piano player maybe, but again, we have to remember that what any non-soloist plays should be centered on the soloist… and all of this is staying true to the original form.
All of the discussion going on underneath the soloist is known as “comping.” I think the term is technically short for “accompaniment,” but I like to think of it as short for “complement.” The things that I play underneath the soloist should “complement” what he’s doing. As a comping musician, what I’m playing should be making his solo better, because I’m helping to facilitate what he’s doing.
When the soloist is done with his improvising, he plays something that sounds like a conclusion, and he does this toward the end of the form, and that signals that he’s finishing up. The baton then passes to the next guy in line. If our imaginary band were a typical saxophone quartet, then the first solo would be the saxophone player, and next would be the piano. So, as the saxophone player signals the end of his solo, “the floor” then transfers to the piano player, and the process repeats. The pianist might build his solo out from where the saxophone player left off, or he might pioneer a different thing entirely. When everyone who is going to take a solo has taken one, then the band plays the head once more to end the song. Head/solos/head… just like that.
All Jazz songs follow head/solo/head. That’s where the close relationship with Blues that I mentioned comes in. On that “Out Of My Mind” JMT track, the “head” would be Mayer singing the lyric for the song, and the solo section would of course be his guitar solo, and then he sings the head again at the end. Boom. It’s as simple as that. What makes Jazz stand out from Blues is the usually complex chord progressions and measure layout in a jazz form (the “chorus” thing), whereas in Blues the form is almost always a 12-bar, “1-4-1-5-4-1” chord pattern. I won’t explain that any further, but I bet you might already know what I’m talking about there.
So again, this is how Jazz works… ALWAYS. That’s why musicians who have never met each other can play Jazz together without any prep. “Jazz Standards” are songs that are traditionally very popular for Jazz musicians to play, because the forms are really cool/interesting/fun to improvise over or whatever. Good examples of Jazz standards would be tunes like, “My Funny Valentine,” or “The Way You Look Tonight.” As a working Jazz musician, if you know songs like that, then you can easily enter into the head/solos/head dialogue and play an entire gig’s worth of “standards” with people you have never played with before (assuming that you know the role of your instrument).
In Part 4 I’ll dive into a famous Miles Davis track to use as an example of what’s been covered so far in the series, but no promises on when that will be posted, because I’m up to my ears in prep for a subbing gig I have tomorrow night.
What I wrote in Part 1 of the “How To Listen To Jazz” series was mostly copied from an email correspondence I had with my buddy Bryan McWhite last Spring. The idea to do this series actually came from those emails, because Bryan is a big music fan who confessed that he didn’t really understand Jazz and wanted to. I tried to explain how Jazz works, and it was cool to hear his responses and questions regarding the differences between Jazz and Rock/Pop. So, with his permission, I’m going to include his emails as a way to move along in the series.
How Bryan responded to the initial “improv vs. jamming” and “through composition” ideas
I think you might need to unpack the “jamming” vs. “improvising” difference for me more. You’re absolutely right that I figured jazz musicians were actually doing what you described as “jamming.” Unless I’ve heard you wrong, though, jamming kinda sounds cooler BECAUSE there’s no plan. Jamming seems like it would be harder to do because you have to keep things together and sounding good without knowing where things are going to go, whereas you made it sound like improv has some predetermined direction.
I really enjoy the idea of someone saying (with their instrument and by what they play), in the middle of a song, “Hey, let’s do this… you coming with? Let’s create something.” But unless I’m misunderstanding, that’s more like jamming rather than improvising.
Here’s a question I have, though: Something like the the end of “Who Did You Think I Was?” (from the “Where The Light Is” John Mayer Trio live album) actually sounds like what you described as improv, because it seems like there was a set chord progression – some kind of backbone they were all working off of (and that Palladino mostly sticks to). But that’s what I would have called a “jam,” not an “improvisation.”
How I tried to answer Bryan’s questions
Yes, you are onto something with the John Mayer thing. The end of “Who Did You Think I Was” is a perfect example of true improvising (which, by the way, is a riff that quotes the HendrixBand Of Gypsies album). The John Mayer Trio knows that they are “free” to play what they want… within the context of that chord progression you identified (and the roles of their respective instruments). Another great example would be the slow blues tune fromWhere The Light Is … I think it’s called “Out of my Mind.” Mayer is definitely soloing over a predetermined set of chord changes on that song, and Jordan/Palladino are playing along with him in that chord progression, but it’s obvious that as a band they’re not just going through the motions. The music lifts and falls and breathes, and they are listening intently to one another so as to respond accordingly… but they all knew they weren’t going to turn the “jam” into a disco song or something. There are parameters to their “jam,” and so in that sense they were improvising and not really jamming.
Also, I should mention the reality that there are often two uses of the word “jam.” One is just a synonym for rock (verb), as in, “check out these guys just rocking (jamming) out over here.” This usage has nothing to do with predetermined vs spontaneous anything… it just acknowledges the intensity level of the music. You hit on this by thinking that the end of that Mayer tune was a “jam.” The other definition of “jam” would be the one I’m suggesting: having at it with no idea what will happen, and no real foundation on which to build. This is more or less what bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish are known for (which is where the genre “jamband” gets it’s name). You’re right… it IS pretty cool when musicians can blindly go somewhere together and make it sound hip, which is why people like Phish. But, that’s never been the Jazz tradition. Jazz musicians actually look down on the Phish-style jamming somewhat, at least compared to true improvising. The reason is basically just that jamming is easier. Think of it this way: on “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” the comedians are given some sort of prompt and then they can do WHATEVER they want. But on Christopher Guest films like “Spinal Tap” or “Best In Show,” those actors are improvising but all the while knowing that they have to maneuver the dialogue along the plot lines. They can’t just totally change the scene the way Michael Scott does (NBC’s The Office) in his community acting classes by just shooting the other characters out of nowhere. Another great analogy that I read about a while back would be Iranian films in the last few years. There has been a big movement of avant-garde films out of Iran, which is surprising because of the strict government enforcement of the Islamic laws. One of these film makers was being interviewed by this American journalist, and he was asked something to the effect of, “isn’t it a bummer to try and make cool films when you have such narrow sidelines within which you must work… isn’t that stifling creatively?” This Iranian responded by basically reminding the journalist that it’s not a big deal when an American film maker puts out an avant garde shock art film, because it’s so easy to do that in our culture. Nothing is sacred in America. You can do or say whatever you want. Therefore, because of the immense restrictions in speech and content that exist in Iran, it’s VERY impressive that a film maker can produce something that is truly avant garde and shocking, all while “following the rules.”
Point: it’s much more difficult (and more impactful) to accomplish something extraordinary when there are rules, as opposed to operating in a completely free environment. This is essentially the backbone concept for Jazz improvising.
I should note that your description of the “hey, I’m going somewhere here… want to come?” mentality is totally dead-on for how Jazz musicians dialogue with each other. It’s just that Jazz musicians can’t go WHEREVER they want, because they have to “follow the rules.” Within that, there’s tons of room for venturing out to new ideas, but it’s always in the context of the parameters. Again, with the Christopher Guest improv comedy, I imagine those guys get done with a take sometimes and the producers are like, “oh man, I can’t BELIEVE you went that way with it!” Those guys have to follow the plot, but then one of them suggests something in the improvised dialogue that makes everything go a direction that nobody saw coming, but it still fits the plot and they all know it.
—- I’ll break off the post at this point, and we’ll get to the explanation of the Jazz compositional structure (Head/Solo/Head) in Part 3.
This past Saturday night I played with Twin Cities guitarist/composer Cory Wong‘s quartet down at the Artist’s Quarter in St. Paul. For those who don’t know, the Artist’s Quarter is the big St. Paul Jazz club, and I don’t play there very often. In fact, I don’t play Jazz very often period anymore (more on that here). Anyway, it was super fun, and I was reminded again of the huge differences between the languages of Rock/Pop and jazz. Coincidentally, I’ve also spent the last few weeks discussing the differences between Rock and Jazz with a student of mine – an advanced student who I was surprised to find didn’t already know these differences.
The lessons with this student and the gig last night reminded me that last Spring I intended to do a series of posts on listening to Jazz. I guess now is as good a time as any to follow up on that. The truth is that most people don’t fully understand what Jazz is and how it’s different from the popular music of today’s culture. I’m not pretending to be an expert on this topic, but I do have a fair amount of experience with it, and hopefully a little explaining will help those of you who have always somewhat liked Jazz but never felt like you really understood it.
So here we go…
How To Listen To Jazz, Part 1: Song Structure
Rock music uses a format called “through composing,” which basically just means that the song is composed all the way through. Every section of the song, every beat of each section… it’s all predetermined and happens the same way at every performance. Jazz music, on the other hand, is largely “improvised,” which means that the musicians are feeling the music and responding in the moment to one another in a dialogue of sorts, and therefore the performances will differ from day to day depending on the inspiration/mood of the musicians (along with many other factors).
Most music fans know this fundamental “determined-vs-improv” difference between Rock and Jazz structuring, however, the “Jazz civilians” often make a fatal error in equating improvising in Jazz with what they know as jamming. The difference is huge. Jamming is something musicians do when they have nothing else to do. Someone spontaneously composes a riff or rhythm, and everyone else chimes in with something that goes along with the spontaneous composition, and pretty soon things are sounding pretty cool. BUT… the musicians have no real direction. There’s no end game in view – they are just waiting to see what everyone else will do, and responding accordingly within the role of their particular instrument.
As I said, most Jazz civilians assume that jamming is the same as the improvisation found in Jazz music. You might hear a Jazz noob at a Jazz club say something like, “man, listen to these guys jam… I love it.” But what does a listener love when listening with the assumption that the musicians are only jamming? For me, the experience of listening to cool music and eating a good meal are very similar. A delicious, well-prepared dish just tastes good, and it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that. You don’t have to be a food critic to enjoy food, and you don’t have to be a Jazz snob to, at least on some level, enjoy Jazz. For most music fans, simply the sound of Jazz music “tastes” good – i.e., is pleasant to listen to.
But, in contrast to the food analogy, think of a movie you like. A great movie always involves great acting, cinematography, scenery, lighting, etc… but the most important part of a good film is the PLOT. Everybody knows that, when you’re watching a movie, the actors and scenes aren’t there simply for visual pleasure. There’s more to it. Characters are developing, situations are emerging, circumstances are changing… and pretty soon, as the viewer, you actually feel involved. You begin sympathizing with the characters, and you might even start anticipating what will happen next. You feel the urge to cheer on the protagonist, and you feel very real dislike for the antagonist. The movie might even bring you to tears, or make your heart beat rise sharply in genuine fear. None of this would happen if there were no discernable plot. Again, you don’t have to be a movie critic to enjoy a movie, but you do need to follow the plot if you want to get the most out of it. Enter the difference between jamming and improvising. Improvising, while of course having room for personal expression and spontaneous creating, relies heavily on LOTS of predetermined elements. Chord changes, the number of measures in each part of the progression… the parameters of the dialogue are many. Jazz improvising takes place within the context of those parameters – it’s so much more than just a jam – and that context gives much more meaning to the notes that are played. The context is the plot, and not knowing the context suddenly takes all the REAL meaning out of the music.
So, while Rock/Pop uses “through composition” as it’s main structure, Jazz music uses an improvising format known as “Head/Solo/Head.” More on this in Part 2…