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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jazz As A Group Thing

One of the most fun things about playing jazz is the interaction between you and your band mates. All musical ensembles depend upon the ability of the individuals to listen to one another in order to create a cohesive group performance. But due to its improvisatory nature, playing jazz demands that each musician make instantaneous decisions about many aspects of their performance. With orchestral, chamber and other forms of "concert" music, many of these decisions were made by the composer. Such parameters as pitches, rhythms, articulations, dynamics etc. are pre-determined (to varying degrees) in the written score. Conversely, while jazz musicians usually start with a written composition, that piece is often merely a sketch - perhaps just a melody and a set of chord changes - which gets filled in with great detail by the players during each unique performance.

In light of this, then, it's ironic that jazz is often thought of as the domain of the soloist. When (and if) civilians think about jazz, they often conjure up the visual or aural image of a favorite musician they may have heard (or heard of). For many people, jazz IS Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald or (shudder) Kenny G. But for others, it may be an ensemble that is at the top of a listener's mind: Duke Ellington's Orchestra, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Bill Evans Trio, Weather Report, The Jazz Messengers and so on.

So there is this long-standing tension between jazz as an ensemble vs. a soloistic art. One or the other aspect has been ascendant throughout the history of the music, although most of the time it seems like there's been a pretty fair balance. These two aspects seem to co-exist peacefully most of the time.

Musicians by necessity concentrate our efforts on improving our individual skills. We spend a lot of time learning how to improvise so that we'll know what to do when it's our turn to "take a solo". Most of the time we're confined to our practice spaces, surrounded by all the materials that help us further our personal growth - instrument(s), metronome and tuner, recordings, transcriptions, play-along tracks (!) and so on. It's only rhythm section players who actively focus on their accompaniment skills, but even this practicing takes place primarily in a musical vacuum. The only time most of us consider what it means to play in an ensemble is when we're either rehearsing or performing.

So let's invest a little time thinking about jazz as an ensemble music. To do this I'm going to start near the beginning of recorded jazz and point out some of the techniques I hear being used to achieve each group's particular sound.

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: Struttin' with Some Barbecue (1927)

This classic recording demonstrates the use of improvised counterpoint to support the main melody of the tune. The dividing line between what's written and what's spontaneously created is deliberately blurry here. Listen to how Johnny Dodds (clarinet) and Kid Ory (trombone) weave through the harmonies as Louis states the melody. Dodds and Ory are, of course, separated by their disparate instrumental ranges, but the counterpoint they create goes beyond just staying out of each other's way.

The absence of bass and drums makes it very easy to hear what's going on. The simple clarity of Lil Hardin Armstrong's piano and Johnny St. Cyrs's banjo gives the band a kind of "lighter than air" vibe which brings the melody instruments even more into the foreground. Think of how different this is from the modern standard performance mode where one person plays the melody and everyone else accompanies. As we move forward we'll get to hear how these textural possibilities develop over time.

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