Nick Malcolm

October 25, 2008

Photograph by Peter Fay

Image by Peter Fay

 

Hello and thanks for visiting. This blog has a few pieces of writing I’ve done on jazz and improvisation related topics. It started life as my dissertation for a postgraduate course I did at Trinity College of Music and the articles are mainly from that project.

For gigs, biog, photos, video and contact please visit – http://www.nickmalcolm.co.uk

For audio please visit – http://www.soundcloud.com/nick-malcolm


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Played Twice : How To Fail With Monk, or Listen (again) With Foucault

November 1, 2012

 

The early poetry needs elucidation and annotation;

the later poetry needs simply to be read again and again

until we become familiar with it’s manner.

 – Helen Gardner, ‘The Art of T.S. Eliot’

 

There is a passage in Michel Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ where he describes how certain aphasiacs are unable to arrange ‘simple skeins of wool’ into any coherent pattern on a table top

‘as though that simple rectangle were unable to serve in their case as a homogenous and neutral space in which things could be placed so as to display at the same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their denomination. Within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiac will create a multiplicity of tiny fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets…But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety’

For these people, any attempt at classification contains within it its own entropy. No sooner has the aphasiac imposed order, than they destroy it – ‘creating groups then dispersing them again’. Things, it seems, fall apart. Foucault suggests in the last sentence, however, that the constant and constantly failing attempts at classification, as well as being unsuccessful, cause suffering to the classifier – ‘teetering finally on the brink of anxiety’. There’s an irreconcilable disparity between the classifier’s wish to classify and her ability to do so. And the gap between wish and ability causes suffering. Moreover, the use of the word ‘anxiety’ suggests a double resonance to this suffering; firstly, the disappointment at being unable to classify the skeins of wool with any degree of permanence, but secondly a more subtle and reflexive suffering caused by the repetition of the attempt. We may imagine Foucault’s aphasiac at her first attempt at arranging the wool. She tries, she fails. She may experience the ‘normal’ suffering of disappointment; suffering of a commonplace sort. At this point, however, the aphasiac does something very interesting. Rather than giving up she tries again, redoubling, we may imagine, her efforts and continues to do this every time she is confronted with her most recent failure. The aphasiac ‘continues to infinity’, repeatedly trying to impose order; ‘endless with no dissenting turn’ to use Auden’s phrase. Or rather it’s as if the ‘dissent’, instead of emerging as a decision to discontinue with a task that isn’t working, emerges instead as anxiety. The ‘dissent’ has to manifest somewhere else, to be transmuted into something other than stopping the task at hand. It is, to use a term from psychoanalysis, repressed.

Repression, as Freud suggested, is always an act of exchange. The conscious mind may wish to completely expel the material it represses but is never able to fully do so. So a compromising exchange is reached. The material is banished in its original form but then returns as something else; jokes, slips of the tongue or, as in Foucault’s example, neurosis. The anxiety that the aphasiac ‘teeters’ upon the edge of is their experience of their failure to arrange the wool repressed, returning in a different form. Unable or unwilling to accept their failure to arrange the wool, the aphasiac represses it. It returns, disguised as something else: as anxiety. Now central to the thought of both Freud and Foucault is the notion that things pushed to or over the edge of ‘normal’ experience are what reveal most to us about ourselves and society. Dreams, madness, slips of the tongue and unusual forms of sexuality, excluded from ‘conscious’, ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ modes of discourse are the very things that show us truth in a way that the discourses from which they are excluded never can. These fragments of experience are excluded precisely because the truths they reveal are the weaknesses in the normative modes of discourse from which they are excluded. So it is with the failure that confronts Foucault’s aphasiac. Repressed, it hovers at the edge of experience, undermining the task in hand; causing distress by hiding. Foucault describes ‘the brink of anxiety’ andanxiety, it seems, is something we can only ever be on the brink of because it is only ever on the brink of us. It adumbrates the boundary between consciousness and the unconscious, between existence and oblivion.

A usefully obtuse question to ask at this point would be ‘Why does the aphasiac ignore their obvious failure at classification and carry on becoming more and more disturbed? Why choose neurotic anxiety over commonplace failure?’ Put more subtly, why is repression something worth doing if the exchange it effects leads to the suffering caused by anxiety? Surely the original failure would be preferable to the aphasiac than the ‘brink of anxiety’ over which she now teeters? Of course, psychoanalysis could be seen as making a living out of asking this question in all its Socratic irony. By asking the patient this question, the analyst hopes to convince them to reverse the exchange, to make what was unconscious conscious, or, in the language of our example, to choose failure over anxiety. Yet one of the ways in which Freud has been criticised over the years is for the fact that he has very little to say about what constitutes the state of ‘health’ that is implied to have been reached by the reversal of this exchange, by the reversal of repression. Compared to the complexity and dark beauty of his description of mental pathology and the unconscious, Freud’s sense of an ending seem rather bathetic. With Freud, madness seems to get all the best lines. Mental health as the ability to ‘love and work’ (in the phrase wrongly attributed to Freud) seems, frankly, rather boring. The anxiety upon which Foucault’s aphasiac and Freud’s neurotic are on the brink of seems far more interesting than the humdrum failure of Winnicott’s ‘only sane’. But psychoanalysis (Winnicott in particular) is very keen on beginnings and it is this state of failure that I’d like to suggest is a necessary and liberating place to start from. I’m going to draw an analogy between Foucault’s aphasiac attempting to classify the woollen skeins and the creative artist trying to create some sort of an artistic or musical nexus from which to create. I’ll suggest that there is a polarity for artists to navigate analogous to the aphasiac’s choice between ‘failure’ and ‘anxiety’.

Failure is a deeply conservative word. It is axiomatic to much conservative philosophy that human ability and reason are at best severely limited and at worst destructively anarchic. So most conservative ideas of the good life or good society are modest in their scope. They suggest that the recalcitrance of individual human nature be tamed by the institutions of the state or of civic society. They see a fundamental ‘failure’ as inherent to human nature and suggest that we aspire to the more modest notion of happiness that is commensurate with this. Psychoanalysis’s ‘love and work’ would seem to fit squarely into this conservative idea of a happiness of reduced expectations, a happiness predicated, paradoxically, on failure. It’s not suprising, given this association, that ‘failure’ and the kind of happiness it leads to aren’t particularly beloved of creative artists. Any history of success that failure has with this group of people is of a more Promethean kind; the artist’s heroic struggle against adversity. Not for us the smug, cautious, even bourgeois happiness of the conservative (‘smug’, ‘cautious’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘conservative’ all being adjectives directed at Freud at times). Anyone that knows me might be rather amused by the idea of me as an apologist for conservative thinking, but I would like to try and reclame the word ‘failure’ from conservatism by teasing out a subtle resonance of the idea suggested by Foucault’s anecdote: Failure as the idea of the acceptance of limitation in the face of impossible conceptions of completion. This, I think, relates closely to a central problem facing contemporary artists: given the sheer volume of information made availabe by the digitalised world and the bewildering number of starting points, diversity of genres and interdisciplinary approaches, how does the artist today begin to forge some kind of aesthetic identity for themselves? In facing this question, it seems artists need to be beware of two extremes. One, a sort of neo-conservative retreat to canonical ideas about genre that frequently end in mere imitation; an aesthetics based on a willfully small-minded engagement with art and ideas. But the second (and this would be analogous to the anxious aphasiac) would be a relationship with what is available that is so wide-ranging, so diffuse as to preclude the forming of a coherent identity. The treating of art as something to be completed rather than engaged with, to be conquered rather than related to. The artist hysterically trying to consume faster and faster in the infinite digital world, losing themselves in the process. An endless task with only one end. I suggest that both extremes would be missed opportunities to usefully or creatively answer the question posed by the infinite availability of information. Both fail by not conceiving of failure imaginatively enough. By failing at failure.

If joy is about spontaneity then spontaneous creation must be one of life’s most joyful experiences. Diverse influences juxtapose, alchemise and free-associate in ways beyond the conscious mind’s limitations. In the performing arts, these processes are compounded by the live interaction with other artists. The result is a complex, valent intimacy of beauty and suprise that proceeds from simply listening. But full engagement in such a process is predicated on exposure to and love of a wide range of influences. Real love of art and ideas is surely in part a love of their diversity; their constant reinvention and ability to confound. Great artists revel in the diversity of their influences like children playing. I’ll put it bluntly and say I don’t believe you can reach this type of spontaneity by limiting your exposure to a small, rigidly defined canon of art or ideas. A deadness creeps into the creative process and a lack of ability to react associatively. Or a slavish recreation of an older artist’s style that removes one’s own voice. Creativity becomes impersonation; listening to the past not the present. Returning to the artist’s conundrum, this shutting down to possibility would be too pessimistic a type of failure. But the opposite attempt to avoid it all together would be too utopian, ending in a failure just the same. If paucity of influence precludes making great art then so too does a relationship with influences subordinated to a quest for completion. The artist trying to reach total knowledge will never achieve it. In a world with infinite amounts of available information total knowledge is impossible. Just as with Foucault’s aphasiac, it’s only by repressing this basic fact that the quest for completion can continue. In both the aphasiac’s attempts at classification and an artist’s desire for complete knowledge the limitation imposed by reality must be repressed in order that the task continue. If this brings the aphasiac ‘to the brink of anxiety’ then it brings the creative process to an analogous place. The richness, depth and resonance that come from living with influences and from revisiting them never have time or space to flourish. Creativity becomes grasping and superficial, an endless taxonomy.

In an attempt to avoid these two extremes then, we might reconstitute ‘failure’ as a liberating acceptance of limitation. We would explore art, ideas and influences with voracity but also with a lightness of touch, without shutting ourselves off from the beauty either of their diversity or of their depth. By way of illustration and to finish, I’d like to play a recording by an artist who I think demonstrates in the music itself the balance I’m suggesting. The piece is ‘Played Twice’ by Thelonius Monk. One bar of Monk’s music is a synecdoche of his entire career. Fragments of melody or improvisation develop or manipulate phrases, phrases mirror forms of tunes. An entire performance of a Monk tune elides composition and improvisation so that one derives from the other. A Monk album or Monk band is very often a revisiting or reworking of an earlier line-up or set of tunes and as his career went on Monk constantly revisited groups of his compositions, mining them for new insights. All of these traits can be heard in ‘Played Twice’, the music reflexively encircling itself, reading itself ‘again and again’ as in Helen Gardner’s advice on reading Eliot. Monk is one of the most complete geniuses of the piano, of composition and of improvised music precisely because of his highly disciplined and creative use of limitation through repetition; in form, repertoire, line-up or improvisational materials. His work imaginatively reconstitutes ‘failure’ into a limitation that allows for profound resonance between musicians, composition and improvisation. The resulting music is erudite, playful and spontaneous art of pure joy.

 

Great Pop Uses of the Altered Dominant Chord

November 1, 2012

Surely the most seductive of all the dominant 7th alterations, the Altered Dominant Chord (b9 #9 #11 b13) is responsible for those little spine tingling jazz moments in obese pop songs. After a lifetime of self-loathing and social rejection, we jazz musicians are too cautious to express our true joy at these brief seconds of harmonic grace. Yet upon hearing them we awake and shiver with the thrill of possibility and gaze on longingly with regret at the life not chosen.

After posting this on Facebook I was amazed at the response and gratified with my friends and colleagues willingness to confess to love and knowledge of some extremely camp music. Clearly this has tapped into a long buried need like some sort of jazz confessional. Thanks to all those willing to risk becoming personal and professional pariahs in the name of truth and honesty.

Here are the best ten examples that we came up with.


1) ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ – Stevie Wonder

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-n3Ydy7ras

1.00’

Probably THE textbook example. At Stevie’s surpassing encomium, ‘I never thought true love would be, making one as lovely as she’ the Altered Chord steams into the second bar of the bridge. Grab your harmonica bebop licks chaps.

2) ‘Run To You’ – Whitney Houston

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9rCobRl-ng

1.10’

Whether it’s ‘run to you-hoo-hooooo’ or ‘come to you-hoo-ooooooooo’ in the fourth bar of the chorus, and annihilating Celine and Mariah on the way, Whitney blasts into orbit in the VI Altered dominant Space Shuttle from the Cape Canaveral of over-production. Cosmic!

The next three go together in what we’ll call the ‘Function Threesome’.

You’ve driven 764 miles down the M4. The sound check was at 11am so that you’ll be ‘out of the way’ when the guests arrive. The bride is asking if you wouldn’t mind just ‘hanging on for a couple of hours after’ so that the PA can be used by her cousin who is DJing and the band food stipulated in the contract is unremittingly beige. That postgrad at the Guildhall seems a very long time ago.

But fear not! A twisted redemption is possible. As you solo over one of the brief altered dominant moments in the following three songs, your jazz soul will soar with Bird, Trane and Dave Sanborn and you’ll guarantee an interrogation by the jazz fan uncle in the interval.

3) ‘Horny’ – Mousse T

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4qh61nBLpQ

0.04’ (and throughout)

4) ‘Streetlife’ – The Crusaders & Randy Crawford

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSOQhIl_kXU

2.02’

5) ‘Sing It Back’ – Moloko

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DBG_uDp8Qc

0.10’ (and throughout)

6) ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ – Mariah Carey

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5bo4VDEH-U

0.36’

Nothing says Christmas like chromatic alterations to the mixolydian mode as MC reminds us here.

7) ‘Watcha Gonna Do For Me’ – The Average White Band

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHf-fQUF9yk

0.17’

Confirming Dundee’s reputation as a centre of harmonic opulence, AWB demonstrate the international reach of the altered dominant.

8) ‘Senorita’ – Justin Timberlake

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJHYDkvRB2Y

The machismo from Memphis passes the altered dominant onto the MTV generation in the first chord of his 2002 hit. Cheers Justin!

9) ‘Out Of My Life’ – Michael Jackson

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DQJPL9Yuq0

1.06’

We’d like to, as they say, slow it down a little bit now. MJ may not know whether to laugh, cry, live or die but he does know that whatever he does will be accompanied by the altered dominant. Good choice Michael.

10) ‘Love On Top’ – Beyonce

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vzzq4XQinb4

0.49’

Bringing us right up to date with her 2011 chart topper, Miss Knowles knows that the altered dominant, like love, is always on top!

 

PUBLISHED BY http://londonjazz.blogspot.co.uk August 2012

A Steve Coleman Solo

August 19, 2009

An abiding obsession of mine for the past year has been a Steve Coleman solo from a live DVD of Dave Holland’s band. They’re playing Freiburg Jazz Festival in 1986 with a line-up of:

Steve – Alto

Robin Eubanks – Trombone

Kenny Wheeler – Trumpet

Dave – Bass

Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith – Drums

A pretty heavy band! Nice the way that Kenny’s freer, lyrical playing fits into the music just as easily as the M-Base approach of Steve and Robin. If anyone is interested the DVD is called Dave Holland Quintet – Live in Freiburg (although I subsequently found out in an e-mail from Steve Coleman that it was made illegally and they didn’t get paid for it!).

The particular solo I’m talking about is from the first piece in the gig, a Dave Holland tune ‘New One’. The piece is divided into different sections – the initial head sets up a solo for Kenny, then another written section is introduced which sets up a rhythmic pattern for Robin Eubanks to solo over then another written section occurs that leads into Steve’s solo. Here’s that written section and his solo in full:

New One solo.mp3

I’m still utterly flawed by this every time I hear it (how do you sound that interesting for nearly ten minutes?). The complexity of his lines and yet the coherence within them is amazing, especially given that this is completely free, ‘time no changes’ blowing. There is no set form or set rhythmic/harmonic structure, just the preceding written material setting the mood. Also pretty incredible is Dave Holland’s ability to follow the chromatic twists of Steve’s lines so perfectly and Smitty’s wonderful drumming. Whilst a real fan of the language that Steve Coleman uses, I often find his own records a bit cold. What really makes this solo for me is to have his language set against such a killing modern jazz rhythm section, with all the swing, complexity, interaction and flexibility that they have access to. It’s really clear to me that the metric and polyrhythmic implications of what Dave and Smitty are doing is the rhythmic equivalent of Steve’s harmonic language – both are constantly on the brink of falling into atonality or atemporality, yet retain just enough basic pulse and diatonicism to prevent this from happening.

Following Liebman’s talk on transcription mentioned in a previous post, I’ve decided to finally knuckle down and transcribe this by ear. I’m now at the end of this process and it’s been a real slog, but I can hear the difference in my playing. I started by listening to the solo over and over again, at least once a day if possible. This was particularly important given the lack of set structure in the music. By repeated listening, my ear started to notice little landmarks in the solo – particular phrases that stuck out and allowed me to get my bearings. Having done this, I had a better idea of the geography of the whole thing and so moved on to detailed transcription phrase by phrase. Again following Liebman’s advice, I learnt to sing each bit before I allowed myself to play it on my horn. His point about this is that you have to be able to hear something internally if you are to really use it coherently in your playing. Otherwise it just becomes a series of (in my case) valve movements. An interesting proof of this to me was that, before I really learnt to hear this language, my attempts to reproduce it in my own improvising always ended up being a lot more ‘inside’ than I wanted them to be. The music I’d really transcribed fully and learnt to hear until that point had been much straighter changes playing, so that was all I was capable of reproducing, even when I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to play. Really having to get inside Steve’s lines interval by interval has been invaluable in remedying this. Here I am singing along:

New One Solo – Vocals.mp3

(Apologies for the cod New York alto vibrato – I didn’t realise I was doing this. I think it’s clear from this performance that Kurt Elling hasn’t got anything to wory about!).

You’ll notice of course that I haven’t done the whole solo. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it has taken me nearly three months to get this far, which I think is fair enough given the complexity of what I’m transcribing. It would probably take me a year to get the entire solo down and to be quite honest I have neither the time nor the patience. Related to this is the fact that my aim in transcribing this solo was to access a certain kind of outside language and find ways of describing it that allowed me to practise it. I felt that by this stage in the solo, I’d achieved this. I’d got a full idea of the concepts behind the playing and could carry on by extrapolating from these, rather than by transcribing more of the playing itself. It’s not that I think that Steve plays the same stuff for the rest of the solo, just that the approach behind what he’s doing doesn’t change from the first three minutes. The point of this transcription was to acquire a certain kind of knowledge, not to do the transcription itself. It might have given me a certain kind of smug satisfaction in being able to reel off the whole nine minutes, but it wouldn’t have furthered my goal any more than sticking with what I have done. Frankly, given the amount of time and effort involved, this wasn’t a good enough reason!

Having learnt to sing each bit, I then learnt to play it. There’s not much to say about this other than that it was lovely to realise how easy it was to play correctly once I’d learnt to really hear the solo deeply – how the improvement in my ear translated through to my playing so quickly.

New One Solo – Trumpet.mp3

(There is one point where the solo drops below the range of the trumpet and I have to drop out for a few notes).

The last stage in Liebman’s transcription process is analysis. I would happily have posted up the written version of what I’d transcribed, but it runs into ten pages. If anybody would like a copy just let me know.

When I really started to analyse what Steve was doing, it amazed me to realise how much more traditional the language was than it sounded. I’d e-mailed him about this solo and in his reply he’d named as influences Von Freeman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Bird and Coltrane. From listening to the solo I’d expected something more like Cecil Taylor, Webern and Bartok! However, on closer inspection, most of the shapes and phrases he’s using are coming out of, particularly, Bird and Coltrane. Much of the solo has the kind of ‘bebop flow’ (George Garzone’s term) typical of Bird’s playing. More angular phrases, for instance based around fourths, are similar to Coltrane on something like ‘Resolution’ from A Love Supreme. What Steve does is slightly alter some of these phrases so as to increase the atonality and rhythmic irregularity beyond even Bird and Coltrane. This, combined with the freedom in the composition and the rhythm section is what gives us this sound world.

Here are a few of the techniques Steve uses (all timings refer to the first mp3 in this post):

–  Using different chords within a key centre. At ‘0.21 (after that amazing first leap upwards a sixth) Steve goes outlines major, diminished, whole tone and minor scales in Ab.

– Ending on ‘sour notes’ that skew the ear away from the line’s implied tonality. At ‘0.36, Steve outlines Bb minor pentatonic in fourths (the Coltrane influence) but then hits c, a natural and f#, which are dissonant to this. The effect is that the entire line sounds more out than it really is. Interesting to note that consonance and dissonance work horizontally in line as well as vertically in chords.

– Sidestepping. ‘0.41 starts up G minor and switches half way through the line up a semitone to Ab minor.

– Sequential enclosures. Often seen as a bit of blag in outside playing, but here used effectively as a means of descending from the high point of a phrase and then coming out somewhere  unexpected. (‘0.54). N.B. Miles did this is lot in the sixties.

– Intervallic playing. This is a particularly good example of how Steve adds a new twist to older methods. He might well use a fairly standard harmonic trick, for example sidestepping, but makes a particular interval, rather than the underlying harmony, the feature of the line. Fourths at ‘1.27 are a good example. He also uses sequences of the same interval, for instance thirds at ‘2.05.

– Use of expanding semitones within a fairly small interval. This is a difficult one to describe. The best example is the beginning of the phrase at ‘2.01. Steve widens the vertical parameters of the line a note a time. The note he ends on (Bb) is tonally weaker because of this.

I’ve been able to derive exercises from each of these methods that help me to reproduce them in my own way. As well as this, I have to say that simply playing and listening to the solo a lot has started to improve my playing in this area without necessarily analysing what I’m doing. As usual, I’ve found a combination of logic and intuition the best approach.

Jazz & Psychoanalysis

June 17, 2009

 

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Wallace Stevens – ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’

 

I have dedicated this book to the two people who changed my life by the way they taught me literature at school and university; and who taught me more about psychoanalysis, without mentioning it, than many of my psychoanalytic teachers did by mentioning nothing else. By teaching me how to read they taught me how to listen.

Adam Phillips – Preface to ‘Promises Promises’

 

I became interested in psychoanalysis and seriously interested in jazz about the same time. Freud’s world view doesn’t really allow for anything more fatalistic than random coincidence, but the extent to which they have remained linked in my life has been, to coin a phrase, uncanny. I got a place to study for a Masters in Psychoanalytic Studies at UCL, but decided at the last minute not to take it up in order to pursue becoming a serious musician. Origins get talked about a lot in both jazz and psychoanalysis, and it interests me that my beginnings as a jazz musician were so contingent on the decision I made about psychoanalysis. Although eventually opting for jazz, I wonder if the impulse that drew me to both subjects was the same and that continuing with jazz was a way of continuing with psychoanalysis by doing something else, what psychoanalysts might call a displacement activity.

Both jazz and psychoanalysis are done by listening (and done badly by not listening) and both have at their heart an enduring paradox between material that is utterly recalcitrant to description and attempts to describe it in useful or inspiring ways. In psychoanalysis, the analyst attempts to describe the inchoate and unruly unconscious of the patient. In jazz, particularly in jazz education, we try to find ways of describing swing and improvisation, things by nature fleeting and ephemeral, either to get better at them ourselves or the better to talk about them with others. In both instances, we try to improve ourselves (or do things to ourselves that are thought to be improving), by trying to enter the heart, as it were, of the mystery, by trying to describe the indescribable. Freud’s perceptive comment that our unconsciouses are always in excess of our attempts to describe them, finds a lovely echo in Duke Ellington’s remark that, if you have to ask what swing is, you aren’t ever going to know. What both men are saying is that the attempt to describe the essentials of their respective arts is doomed to failure, that in doing so we are locked into a perpetual pursuance of that which is always receding, or, put simply, in a perpetual state of desire. Why then are both jazz education and psychoanalysis seen to be good things by so many people? (For activities that rest upon failure, they are both doing pretty well). Or, to ask a more interesting question, how, given the essential failure engendered in both psychoanalysis and jazz education, can we make the activities more useful for the people doing them?

What both Adam Phillips and Wallace Stevens are saying (amongst other things) in the above quotations is that a good way of reaching understanding is by describing or listening to that which is close to, but not quite, the thing. That somehow by describing the boundaries, opposites or effects of something, we might be able infer something about the thing itself. Metaphor is odd in being more explicit, more incisive, than its signified – a way of returning us to the original more vividly by not starting with the original. Realising that to get somewhere we might need to start somewhere else might be something we could do more often in jazz education. That trying too directly to describe what we want to know might mean that we end up knowing it less fully or, importantly, enjoyably. Even if we do end up with an adequate description, we may find it devoid of pleasure or resonance. Freud identified something both profound and obvious in showing us that our sexuality often depended on a lack of direct description, on, literally, innuendo, and that the point at which our sexuality broke down was when we tried too literally to describe to ourselves what we desired. That enjoyment depended on not pursuing enjoyment directly. Neurotic illness might seem a little farfetched as a comparison for the situation of the jazz student, but, to return to the question above, it might be interesting to compare psychoanalytic attempts to keep the enjoyment of sexuality open with jazz students’ and teachers’ attempts to keep the inspiration of their activity alive to themselves. Might we better start to inspire and develop ourselves as musicians when we acknowledge more fully that we are dealing with that which is essentially indescribable, but that finding ways of hinting at its edges might allow the mystery at the heart of the music more fully to influence, teach and inspire us? That trying to describe the music too far is, from a psychoanalytic point of view, hysterical. That there will be points in our playing, practising and listening where trying to describe what we desire or hear might make us worse at it (or it worse to us) and that either direct experience, or indirect words, is the best we might do.

I quoted Adam Phillip’s tribute to two of his teachers at the beginning of this post and would like to pay the same  to him here. Many of my ideas and passions about music (and other things) have been inspired by or modelled on his work. I am definitely a better musician and happier person because of his writing. 

Ornette

May 18, 2009

 

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of my lessons with Chris Batchelor looking at Ornette’s playing and trying to find ways of describing what he’s doing that make sense. I’ve loved his playing since I first heard him a couple of years ago but have always been nonplussed as to exactly how he gets the sounds he does. I think Ornette is one of those people whose playing people avoid talking about by talking about it. The same bits of received wisdom – time-no-changes, based around a key centre, bluesy – tend to get trotted out when he comes up for discussion.  The problem with these descriptions is that they’re not very useful as tools in the practice room. They tend to end, rather than begin, a real investigation of his music and certainly lack the detail and cogency of his own lines. Given this state of affairs, I’m even more grateful to have had Chris teaching me about Ornette, as he’s somebody who has really investigated his methods deeply.

Chris’ first point is that form is still very important to Ornette, particularly in the early records. A lot of his approach on these albums is based on playing off a set form, even when the changes within it are more or less improvised. Take this solo from ‘Face of the Bass’ off Change of the Century:

Face of the Bass Solo.mp3

I hadn’t realised previously that this is actually following rhythm changes form exactly. You might think this obvious in listening to it, but the fact that I hadn’t realised this until now might illustrate how descriptions of music can foreclose our ability to listen properly to it (or maybe it just illustrates my inability!). Time no changes is such a pervasive description of Ornette, that the fact that there was more going on in the music than freely improvised melody had stayed hidden to me. Re-listening to this solo with the form in my ear answers a question I always had about Ornette’s improvising, which is how he created so much tension, release and structure in music that was (nominally) free.

The crucial harmonic feature of rhythm changes is the contrast between the tonic based A sections and the jump up a major third at the bridge. Ornette reduces the harmony to this essential binary opposition, (or what Chris calls the ‘thing and not the thing’), generalising the smaller scale harmony in order to focus the improvisation on the form.  Having made the contrast between the different sections of the piece the point of his solo, he then disguises the joins between them with his phrasing. Listen back to the solo and notice how four bars before the second bridge he starts a new phrase that suggests the bridge is already starting. It actually doesn’t start for another four bars (and the harmony he is playing confirms this) but the effect is to disguise the communication of clear form to the listener, although Ornette himself is clearly aware of it. 

A lot of the freedom in Ornette’s early music comes from this way of playing with and against the forms by using unusual phrasing. An interesting implication of this is that Ornette’s early records may well have been the main influence on Miles’ band’s approach to standards in the sixties. Miles was not particularly kind about Ornette’s music, but the extent to which standard forms remain preserved, yet heavily disguised in Miles’ music of the time certainly has a direct precedent in Ornette’s approach. (The asymmetrical articulation patterns and chromatic lines in Don Cherry’s playing on the same records are also echoed strongly in Miles’ own playing). A final point to make about this solo is the extent to which a traditional 2-3 clave underpins so many of the phrases – clapping this through against the solo, one is struck by the frequency with which it occurs. I don’t know enough about this to speculate on its implications, although it provides a lovely example of jazz’s ‘Spanish tinge’.

This is all well and good, but it was not long before Ornette stopped playing pieces with set form. We need to try to find ways of talking about how he plays so effectively when this is removed. There are many examples of great solos on formless tunes (‘Congeniality’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, ‘Mr and Mrs People’) so how does he keep the coherence of form based improvisation in these open settings without simply staying at the tonic? An answer might be that it is his use of harmony, specifically the relationships he creates between consecutive harmonic areas, which allows him to improvise a form as he proceeds. Whilst this does not have the objective symmetry of rhythm changes, it does manage to create a sense of formal coherence through the logic of the harmonic progression – by allowing the content to create the form.

I wanted to come up with a way of recreating this approach as something that I might practise – it is best shown visually rather than verbally. (Click on this link to see the diagram – you’ll need adobe reader as it’s a PDF file):

Ornette Free Diatonicism 0001

Simply put, Ornette is using particular pivot notes (or sometimes chords) to get from the original key centre to alternative key centres and back again. He tends to play a phrase in the original key and subtly emphasise the pivot note so that our ears are prepared for the modulation, which is often where the end of the phrase moves to. It’s a unique way of playing very out and very in at the same time (Simon Purcell’s nice phrase for this is ‘Free-Diatonicism’). What had always puzzled me about Ornette’s playing was how he managed to sound so harmonically free and yet so diatonic at the same time, and this is the best description I’ve come up with that answers the question and recreate that sound world. It’s a fascinating approach and is different to post-Coltrane derived ways of playing out that are based more around substitutions, shapes or patterns. Some of Ornette’s later music (for example the double album In All Languages) takes this approach to an incredibly condensed degree, using carefully placed pivot notes to gradually change the tonality almost imperceptibly over time. As somebody who enjoys ambivalence and multiple possibilities of meaning, I find this kind of playing extremely attractive, particularly in the way that it ‘keeps the door open’ (another Chris phrase) to the other musicians in the band.

Dave Liebman

April 30, 2009

 

 

You gotta four hundred bottle of wine you gotta have the right shit to eat wit’ it

                                                                                                                                      – Dave Liebman

Dave Liebman has been talking almost constantly for three hours. After one and half, there had been a short break in which the audience of Trinity College Jazz department students and staff went, nursing a mixture of fear, admiration and disbelief to the college cafe to get coffee. Liebman spent the break practising the piano. On our return, we were met with What d’ ya see me doing in the break? Certainly not getting fuckin’ coffee, which you can’t drink in this country anyway.

Liebman’s intensity, both musical and personal, is legendary and it is much in evidence during his two days at college. A wonderful combination of kindness and invective, intellect and expletive, he is absolutely genuine (and the most New York person I’ve ever met). Not bad for a man who’s over sixty, wears what looks like a painful leg brace and has spent much of the last thirty years in airports.

It is significant that the quotation at the top of this post should have been a conclusion to some advice about ear training. Liebman learned his jazz on what he calls ‘the street’ (I can’t get away with using that phrase without quotation marks) and it shows. There is something hard-bitten, intellectually tough about both his teaching and his playing that comes from years of trying to produce high art with pragmatism. Even when talking about musical topics of the utmost complexity, (check out his book A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody) he is concerned with practical ways that musicians can master these areas. Jazz is wonderful for many reasons, but one would be the extent to which it is both a practical and theoretical art form, one concerned with ideas but also hours in the day, with complex music theory and earning a living. Annoying as the practical side of jazz can be to the pursuit of musical ideals, Liebman’s talk is a timely reminder that it is exactly the chastening circumstances of being a jazz musician that make us think harder about how and what we practise. That having to master certain things to be employable and only having certain hours in the day when we can practise them raises the stakes of what we’re doing. The overall and moving message of what he says to us is that this music, and the opportunity to play it, is precious. As he put it, You’re lucky people – don’t you fuck around.   

Transcription is the heart the practise routine for Liebman and it would be worth outlining his transcription method here. It divides into three parts:

1 Singing 

2 Playing

3 Analysing

You take a solo and listen to it repeatedly till you can sing it perfectly, including all inflection, bends, smears, ornaments etc… Then, and only then, you play it on your instrument. Finally, you write it out and analyse what the improviser is doing so that you can derive exercises and practise methods from what they do.

This is a very detailed and thorough method. It means that you could easily base your entire playing approach on three or four solos, given that the scope for deriving ideas and concepts from a great solo is vast. Liebman also stresses playing and singing along with the recording so that you ‘become’ the improviser you are transcribing. Arthur Miller once said that he learnt to write plays by copying out Shakespeare by hand so as to enter his thought process and Liebman is suggesting something similar here. Both Miller and Liebman’s procedures smack of a peculiarly American mixture of mysticism and irreverence in relation to the acquisition of knowledge. They want us both to commune with the tradition in a sort of spiritual symbiosis and then to take it to bits in the garage out back. This idea of tradition as a place where we commune with the masters as people as well as repositories of musical ideas comes through in Liebman’s own anecdotes. It’s not often that I get to ask somebody what they learnt from playing with Miles Davis, so I took my opportunity. Liebman said two things. First, that however much fun you might be having on the road with your band, when you got on stage each night you were engaged in serious business. The moment you started playing, that was it – life or death. Secondly, he said that however complex jazz harmony or composition got, this music was about rhythm. This was the constant running through Miles entire career and, by extension, the whole of jazz history. There is a lovely story he told which sums all this up. He was over at Miles’ apartment sometime in the seventies and he and a few other musicians were in the lounge, with Miles off in another room. It was quite normal for Miles to totally ignore you even when you were at his house and he was rarely communicative, let alone warm. Liebman had been playing with Miles for a little while now. Quite suddenly, Miles came in and reached behind his sofa where he kept paintings. He pulled out a large photograph. It was the original of one that has since become famous, showing Louis Armstrong very late in his life, probably in 1969/70 smiling at the camera. Miles is leaning his head gently on his shoulder and looking up at Louis in admiration. Miles took the photo, walked over to Liebman and whispered in his ear ‘You’re part of that now’.  

All of the advice and methods Dave Liebman has shared over the past few days have got me thinking and I’ll use a lot of them in my own practising. And yet the deepest lesson has come just from being around him for some time, so directly and authentically is he connected to jazz and its history and so generous and celebratory in his sharing of it. Fundamentally, it is the pure joy of playing and listening to jazz that I rely on for inspiration. Liebman has been a wonderful reminder of this.

Dave Douglas’ Parallel Worlds

March 12, 2009

Parallel Worlds

 

This album is a recent discovery of mine and I’ve been really blow away by it. I love it when a particular record or player manages to answer questions I’m posing myself as to how to move forward in a particular musical direction. Trying to develop one’s own approach to improvisation can feel extremely lonely a lot of the time. Hearing those same ideas being addressed in the playing of a great musician is very vindicating and, of course, enlightening.

This album exemplifies a lot of the things I’m trying to work towards. Highly chromatic free bop language, a kind of post-modern willingness to jump between different repertoires, unusual instrumentation and composition and arrangement that, whilst highly sophisticated, is an aid rather than an impediment to improvisation

The album starts with an arrangement of Webern’s Sehr Bewegt and this acts as a kind of mood setter for the entire album. An unoriginal but important thing to say about much of Webern’s music is that each note or gesture is a complete entity unto itself. Any sense of the ‘piece as a whole’ is gained from the cumulative effect of each part, rather than each gesture being subordinated to an overriding musical narrative. One find one’s ears being pulled in two opposing directions- on the one hand towards an atomised listening experience and on the other towards a more traditional experience of the piece of the whole. I think this compositional aesthetic rather beautifully illustrates an idea that runs through the entire album (and this blog) which is that discontinuity, fragmentation and aphorism can be as valuable as linear continuity. Webern isn’t trying to give us a winner between part and whole, but rather show us that the tension between these two elements is the inspiring thing.

Douglas’ playing throughout Parallel Worlds embodies a similar tension, and furthermore relates this notion squarely to the jazz tradition – one of the beautiful things about this album is that it is very much coming out of the music’s history (particularly jazz trumpet’s history) and yet seems to be a radical departure from it. As an example, here is the head and trumpet solo from the second track ‘Parallel Worlds’:

 02 Parallel Worlds. mp3

On first listening, this is a solo all about continuity, both within itself and with the tradition. Douglas’ lines are long and flowing, revelling in bebop shapes (all be it highly chromaticised) and are supported by an immaculately swinging rhythm section. But the head itself is highly pointillistic, drawing our ears more to the note as individually articulated gesture than as part of a continuous line. This is still in our ears when the solo begins and so we’re unconvinced that the traditional narrative flow of the solo is quite the whole story. Its linear flow is undercut in our hearing of it by the strangeness of the head. It’s as if the solo’s exuberant continuity is an almost hysterical attempt to convince us that this is a normal jazz piece. As in Sehr Bewegt, one’s primary listening experience isn’t of either narrative continuity (the solo) or of a completely atomised series of gestures (the head) but the discontinuity and tension between these two elements. We’re hearing this piece from a position of uncomfortable indecision opened up by tension between head and solo, continuity and its lack. It’s not so much that the elements of the piece are in themselves unusual, but that they are unusual in being so grindingly juxtaposed. As with much musical innovation, it isn’t the materials themselves which are new, but rather the way we are invited to hear them.

Dave Douglas is quite ingenuous in mentioning Leo Smith and Lester Bowie as well as Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little among his influences.  Douglas is far too curious a musician to be constricted by notions of genre within jazz trumpet’s history, but his openness allows his own sound and phrasing to create similarly confounding listening as his compositions. His playing seems to veer between long bop like lines and free improv smears, between concern for the phrase and for the individual note. It’s lovely to hear the attention to tiny inflection and articulation common in free music and the harmonic fluency and linear exuberance of post-bop happening within the same solo. There is also a quality he has which relates to this, that of celebrating the music he’s been influenced by and somehow showing it to you in his playing. This is a difficult thing to describe – I’m not saying he sounds unoriginal, far from it. Rather it’s that his original musical personality is very much to do with a deep and catholic knowledge of the music’ past. His real skill is in finding ways of juxtaposing widely differing influences and using the resulting strangeness to show us new things about them. (One could say a very similar thing about Joe Lovano). It’s this attitude that allows him to create such a succesful album that features compositions by Ellington, Kurt Weill, Stravinsky and Webern played by a string group. Douglas intellect and open-mindedness allows the contrasts between this widely differing repertoire, as well as those of his own unique playing, to create an album balanced beautifully between coherence and fragmentation.

Stanley Crouch and Canonisation

February 9, 2009

As part of my course, I’m required to give a lecture recital on  a musical topic of my choice. I’ve decided to explore some of the similarities between Thelonius Monk and Tim Berne. It’s been really fascinating doing this. As well as getting to listen to lots of music by two artists I really love, I’ve found reading around the subject very enlightening. This has included parts of Stanley Crouch’s ‘Considering Genius’, a collection of articles and lectures he’s written about jazz and its role in American life. An aspect of his thought that I’ve found particularly relevant to the Monk/Berne area is his notion of a jazz ‘Canon’. This is a fairly specific group of artists (including Monk) whose work Crouch feels to be the best and truest of jazz. Lack of sufficient engagement with the work of these artists is the substance of his attack on the downtown New York  Avant-Garde (which must include Tim Berne). I’m not going to re-run my entire argument here (I’d be had up for double submission) but here is a little response to Crouch’s notion of a jazz canon.

 

By and large, jazz has never quite got over itself. So titanic can seem the achievements of the music’s past greats, that the only thing for many younger musicians is to mimic the style of an older player as best they can. The best compliment one can give or receive is how similar you sounded to Charlie Parker/Coltrane etc…Know your history and pay your dues, because in jazz there is no time like the past.

A logical conclusion (or logical beginning) to this state of affairs is the creation of a canon of great jazz musicians, the work of whom it is essential to be conversant with should the young jazz musician wish to be a true carrier of the jazz flame. This is very much the view that came to be taken by Wynton Marsalis (and his representative on earth Stanley Crouch) in the 1980’s, with Crouch giving quite a specific list in his writings. Lack of engagement with their jazz forbears was the main thrust of the pair’s attack on the contemporary jazz avant-garde.

However, if one looks at the musicians included in Crouch’s putative canon, one is struck by one overriding feature these musicians all share. That is, the degree to which they were willing to depart with or at least radically rework jazz norms current to their time. Every single one of these musicians was considered a radical innovator, often in a pejorative sense (Monk, Ornette Coleman, some Coltrane). We are left with a rather bizarre relationship between jazz fathers and sons where past radicalism is adduced in support of a brand of contemporary cultural conservatism, begging the question of how well jazz’s legacy is being served by such canonisation. Here it looks like imitation may be the insincerest form of flattery.

The young jazz musican, just like the child in the Freudian family, has to work out what to do with his parents (Charles Mingus, bassist and great jazz composer who said he didn’t write jazz, loved Freud’s work). From Freud’s point of view, the child who never leaves the parents has rather missed  the(ir) point and this is arguably what is going on in too slavish an adherence to the jazz canon. Charlie Parker said that improvising was about learning the changes and then forgetting them, so if the art of parenting is to eventually do yourself out of a job, then the art of becoming a jazz musician is to be able to both learn and forget what your fathers told you. Is the imitative musician who simply plays in the style of one of the canonised doing his jazz parents a service, or is he doing something else?

Clearly, knowledge of the music’s past is a vital element in becoming a creative jazz musician – it is rare for a musician to make a significant contribution to the music without really knowing what preceded them. It just seems that canonisation is rather a step too far. In particular, the specific date which marks the end of Crouch’s canon (1965-6 when Coltrane dissolved his classic quartet and free jazz broke with functional harmony and stated time) leaves the young curious jazz musician in search of their voice with a narrower musical past than he or she might need to define themselves. Every member of Crouch’s canon was a radical innovator and most innovative jazz musicians since the time of the Crouch/Marsalis hegemony have been seriously involved with music outside (as well as inside) the canon they created. The irony is of course that contemporary musicians being curious about other areas of music is a continuance of exactly the spirit of iconoclasm that marked the music’s past greats. Real innovation needs both respect for and dissatisfaction with the past. Mere preservation of the past is arguably a real threat to the music’s future.

Freddie Hubbard

January 15, 2009

 

 

Freddie sadly passed away earlier this month after a heart attack in November. Better writers than myself have described what a loss this is to jazz. Personally speaking, Freddie was probably the earliest influence on me after Miles. I can remember getting Hub Tones, getting home and sticking it on the CD player and being blown away within about two bars of ‘Your My Everything’. There are other players I listen to more these days, but for communicating the sheer joy of improvisation through his sound, he has to be the greatest for me. (Possibly after Louis Armstrong – most people are) 

The thing that consistently gets me about Freddie’s playing is, compared to other trumpet players, his totally unique time feel . He has this amazing ability to play time really loosely, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind the beat, something I more often hear in saxophone players – Coltrane, Cannonball, Wayne Shorter in his own way and Lovano all really do this. Most trumpet players play much straighter time. Miles plays off the subdivision, dividing the beat like a diamond cutter, Clifford Brown kind of spits the time out, and Wynton seems to play along way above it. None of them sound like Freddie. 

Freddie is usually grouped with Lee Morgan and Booker Little as one of the three main Hard Bop trumpet players (you might also include Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell and Kenny Dorham), although I’ve never liked this categorisation as I think their disimilarities are more interesting than their similarities. I’ve never liked Morgan much so I won’t talk about him but Booker and Freddie (who are often paired together as rivals competing for the same musical territory) suggest completely different directions to me. Booker seems to me to a far more intellectually rigorous and abstract player, with a much more severe classical sound and time feel. Even when he’s playing comparatively straight ahead material, he seems to suggest much freer music. I think his real affinities are with Dolphy, Ornette, elements of Wayne Shorter and even things like the early seventies Braxton/Kenny Wheeler stuff, far more than with the hard-bop tradition.

Freddie on the other hand is far more steeped in soul and funky blues. I hear this as his dominant characteristic even when he’s playing on Out To Lunch or Free Jazz. However out he gets in terms of his harmony or ideas, his feel keeps suggesting more straight ahead music, making him an interesting foil to Dolphy and Ornette’s more abstract playing on those albums.  (He’s a personification of how open-minded jazz was in the early sixties, particularly Blue Note Records – is there a label around today that has the equivalent of Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Andrew Hill and Dolphy as well as Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Cannonball Adderley on their books?). If Booker is freer than his language might suggest, then Freddie is always showing us the connection between free jazz and the mainstream.

As with Booker, I think the main affinity within Freddie’s playing is not with his hard-bop trumpet colleagues (although this is clearly there) but actually with Coltrane. This isn’t news in terms of harmony – Freddie was quite open about that himself  (and quite open about what it did to his chops!) but, to return to the time feel, Freddie’s ability to be so loose and yet swing so hard comes from Coltrane. Compare Coltrane playing the head of ‘But Not For Me’:

But Not For Me.mp3 

With Freddie playing ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLS4sSwoug8

It’s interesting that this characteristic becomes more accentuated in Freddie’s playing in the seventies when he increasingly played flugelhorn as much as trumpet. The wider bore and weaker resistance of the flugel makes this kind of funky, soulful playing easier. Check out this performance of ‘Moment to Moment’ from Freddie’s 1971 album First Light:

 03 Moment To Moment.mp3

There is now a whole school of trumpet/flugel playing comprising people like Gerard Presencer, Roy Hargrove and some Till Breuner that is a kind of half way point between funk/groove music and hard-bop. It’s clear upon listening to these guys that Freddie is the dominant influence (much more than Randy Brecker or Woody Shaw, the other two contenders). I strongly suspect that Freddie’s unique funky time feel was what inspired these guys to play like this and so, in effect, create a whole new school of jazz trumpet playing.

Other obituaries:

Ethan Iverson – http://thebadplus.typepad.com/dothemath/2008/12/freddie-hubbard-1938-2008.html

Dave Douglas – http://greenleafmusic.com/blog/2009/01/listening-to-freddie-hubbard.php

Time & Feel

November 17, 2008

It’s funny how things you take for granted turn out to need so much work. I was always fairly confident that I had decent time, but that was before I recorded myself regularly. I’ve started doing this recently and the results have made uncomfortable listening. They say the camera never lies but there have been times when I wish my dictaphone did. I’ve been having lessons with the great British drummer Dave Wickins and when I listen back to the recordings of them, I’m uncomfortably behind the beat ALL THE TIME. (Slightly worrying how unaware I was of this). I guess my sense of time comes from early experiences of music and in my case that’s orchestral playing, mainly of big romantic stuff. This music is great but obviously doesn’t have the same rhythmic urgency as swing. I also listened to a lot of Kenny Wheeler when I first got seriously into jazz and, once again, his phrasing is more across/behind the beat than a lot of mainstream American jazz*.

I’ve gone back and listened to how really swinging trumpet players phrase, particularly when they play the head or bebop quaver lines.

Firstly the head. Here are two great performances of trumpet players playing heads. First is Miles playing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ from the album of the same name and second Wynton Marsalis playing ‘Just Friends’ from ‘Live at Blues Alley’.

bye-bye-blackbird-blog-mp34

just-friends-blog3 

The first thing that strikes me is how the amount of rhythmic strengh provided purely by their statements of the melody is enough to swing the band on its own. They don’t rely on their rhythm sections to do this for them (which considering the rhythm sections are Philly Joe/Paul Chambers and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts/Robert Hurst is going some). It’s like the rhythm sections are adding a whole other level of swing onto the really firm basis provided by Wynton and Miles.

I think medium tempo swingers such as these tracks are particularly tricky with regards to time and feel. Faster tempos carry themselves along more automatically and ballads have a much wider beat to play with. The reason Miles and Wynton do it so well is to do with their always feeling the quaver triplet as a subdivision under the melody,  even when holding a long note. This allows them to  land the end of the phrase with surgical accuracy in the time. The ends of Miles’ and Wynton’s phrases in the heads all end perfectly. On recordings of me, the end of melodic statements often disrupt the time by being late.

Secondly, the feel of the quavers. It’s really obvious to me that Miles and Wynton are phrasing these in a way that suits the tempo of the song. People often talk about drummers having tight or loose swing, where tight swing is where the skip quaver in the ride pattern is nearer a semi-quaver (Tony Williams)  and loose is where the skip is a much fuller quaver (Elvin Jones).

N.B. Ethan Iverson has a brilliant post on Do The Math about drums and trumpet in which he talks about this exact area. http://thebadplus.typepad.com/dothemath/2007/02/drums_and_trump.html

The key to why Wynton and Miles swing so hard on these tricky tempos is the placement and also the articulation of the skip quaver in their lines. Too late and the feel gets jerky and too early and the energy drops. With regards the articulation, I notice they often tongue the skip quaver to give the line a little bit more energy. On recordings of me, I often slur this note which makes the line sound fudged and sludgy. (This, on the other hand, works great for tenor players. Interesting how swing emerges from the instrument itself).

Thank you Wynton, Miles and Dave Wickins for making me aware of this!

*Kenny Wheeler is a phenomenal musician, arguably the most original and influential composer in European jazz, a completely unique trumpet player and improviser and a huge influence on a generation of musicians in both Europe and America. I am in no way disparaging his playing or claiming he doesn’t swing, merely that what I had unconsciously extrapolated from his music has become a problem in my playing. This is clearly my doing not Kenny’s.