Monday, May 25, 2009

Jazz Styles

A friend suggested that I devote one of my posts to definitions of various jazz styles. Actually, no definition in words could fully give a true impression of what each style sounds like, plus sometimes the styles may dovetail to create a kind of jazz hybrid. Also, there are many jazz performers who made important recordings in several styles. At any rate, I'll attempt to give brief descriptions of many of the different types and at the end of each section, I'll have links so you can hear (and in most cases see) performances which illustrate them.

New Orleans or Dixieland originated, logically, in African-American communities of New Orleans and combined elements of African and European music. King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton are among those who performed in this style, but probably the best known performer was Louis Armstrong. For a film of the trumpeter in his prime click here.

Swing, which is generally performed by big bands, had its heyday from the 1930s through the 1940s. It incorporates a brass section made up of trumpets and trombones, a reed section made up of saxophones and clarinets, and a rhythm section made up of piano, bass and drums. Sometimes there is also a guitar or violin. Vocalists are also often utilized. This type of jazz is known for its swinging or flowing rhythm, as well as brisk tempos. However, slower tempos may also be used, in the case of ballads. Generally, swing has been popular with dancers and led to the creation of the lindy and fox trot, among other dance styles. Some of the bands which were popular have included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. Since it is currently Benny Goodman's Centennial, it seems appropriate to include a performance by his orchestra. To watch it, click here.

Bebop tends to be more soloist-driven than swing, and stresses virtuosity in playing and harmonic improvisation. Among the best-known proponents of this style are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. A video example featuring Parker and Gillespie can be seen by clicking here.

Hard Bop is a harder-edged extension of bebop, incorporating r&b, gospel and the blues (although the latter could to a certain extent be sometimes found in Bebop as well). Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey are among those who made major recordings utilizing this style. For a video of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers click here.

Often the term "Funk Jazz" is used similarly to the term "Hard Bop," but the one musician who generally comes to mind as one of its innovators is Horace Silver. A fine example of his playing can be seen here.

Cool is generally perceived as more relaxed and less aggressive than Bebop, and superficially seems like a more-refined style of jazz. Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Miles Davis, often with Gil Evans, are often identified with this style. To see a video of Miles with Gil, click here.

West Coast, which refers to the jazz played in California, actually includes many types of jazz, but is usually thought of as part of the Cool Jazz movement. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank are among the major musicians associated with this music. For a video of Shorty Rogers click here.

Free is an attempt to go beyond the conventions of jazz in melodies, tempos and chords. As this style was developed it tended to go further and further into abandonment of set structures. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and late-career John Coltrane are among the ones who pushed the music to the limits. You can see Cecil Taylor playing solo piano by clicking here.

Third Stream, an amalgam of classical music and jazz, is often associated with the composer Gunther Schuller. To hear an example of a piece by the reed player Jimmy Giuffre as performed by Gunther Schuller's Orchestra, go here.

Fusion is yet another merger of jazz improvisation with other musical forms, in this case rock, funk and r&b. It generally incorporates the use of electric guitars, basses and keyboards. Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Weather Report, John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock have been major performers of this style. Click on here to watch a prime example of "electric" Herbie.

A detailed discussion of the various genres and sub-genres of jazz could go on for many posts, but I hope that this very brief overview will give you a good idea of the many developments which have taken place throughout its history.

(Photo courtesy of The Jazz Paisan)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Fearless Singer

I had planned to begin posting about various individuals who are doing their part to make sure jazz remains a thriving and developing music. This current post focuses on a performer who has done just that for most of his life, changing as the music has changed but never ceasing to be true to himself.

Mark Murphy began as someone who seemed to be out of the Sinatra, Bennett, Damone mold. He appeared on album covers wearing a red and green checked shirt with his arms folded, while leaning on a stool, or in a typical late 1950s style suit while posed on a piano and surrounded by slinky ladies. He was featured on The Steve Allen Show three times. Within a few years the singer morphed into a kind of collegiate hipster, then traveled to England in the 1960s, while the Beatles were leaving it to tour. After spending the rest of the decade in Europe singing, acting, and doing a pilot for a series in which he portrayed Jesus, Mark returned to the USA and began recording for Muse Records. He sang standards, pop covers and originals, then ultimately discovered the unique vocal style that would be his breakthrough. He recorded classics like "Stolen Moments", "Bop for Kerouac" and "Beauty and the Beast" and did gigs at clubs, theatres and festivals. Mark's look kept changing, from Indian cotton shirts, jeans and Afros, then less traditional suits, with his hair styled in a mullet, on to shiny brightly-colored shirts and dress pants or dark suits with turtlenecks, and medium-length hair. As the look changed, the singing became increasingly more adventurous.

Mark had always paid great attention to clear diction and masterful singing, with a little scatting on the side. As time went on, the scatting became more extravagant, with swoops, shifts of pitch, yodels and growls. The songs themselves were transformed with non-traditional harmonies and tempos. The actor in the singer created a sense of drama through careful emphasis as he came to particular sections of the songs, as well as in the way his expressive hands rose and fell during the performance. Mark had no qualms about letting his voice sound a bit harsh and un-pretty, if he felt it fit the particular mood he was trying to get across.

Mark always surrounded himself with equally-wonderful musicians such as sax players Richie Cole and Michael Brecker, trumpeters Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Claudio Roditi, and pianists Bill Mays, Benny Green and Lee Musiker. Most recently he has performed with trumpeter Till Bronner on CD and pianist Misha Piatigorsky at live gigs. In each case, Mark has treated these artists as collaborators, rather than just members of the bands accompanying him.

Many younger jazz singers have based their own vocal approaches on Mark's innovations. One in particular, who for the sake of discretion shall remain nameless, has "stolen from the best," as he has sometimes gotten credit for innovations that had been originally created  by the older singer. One thing most of these "musical children" will agree on, however, is that Mark Murphy is still the one who's always ahead, never performing his familiar songs in a safe, routine manner, but always expressing his own truth.

For those who want a profound experience of the legend, click here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

All in Our Beginnings

Even though I heard my first jazz performances on 78s from my dad's collection, before I even started grammar school, I didn't begin falling in love with the music until my high school years. In 1972, thanks to a friend with an extra ticket, I attended my first ever live gig, one of the concerts during the summer the Newport Jazz Festival moved to New York. This was, I believe, the year after the riots at Newport, Rhode Island, which resulted in George Wein moving the event to the Big Apple. The relocated festival was heavily promoted on tv shows both afternoon local and national late night, and I tried to watch as many appearances by participating artists as I could. Therefore I was thrilled when that friend invited me to go with her to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I recognized the names of a few of the performers: the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz. (Heck, after hearing Girl from Ipanema so often during the mid 60s, everyone seemed to know who Stan Getz was!) But there were two who were new to me: Gary Burton, who would be performing with Stan, and Pharoah Sanders, who would soon introduce my inexperienced ears to free jazz.

The big night came and my friend and I, all dressed up to go to the "City," traveled on the RR train to 59th Street and 5th Avenue. (We were so naive we didn't even realize that we could have gotten off at 57th Street and 7th Avenue, right near Carnegie Hall itself.) When we entered the venue, I immediately bought a program which was like a Who's Who of those on the scene at that point in time. (It became something I read and re-read constantly for about a week, trying to absorb as much information as I could about the music.) Ultimately my friend and I headed to our box in the mezzanine area, where we both eagerly awaited the beginning of the concert. Finally, the MJQ came on the stage, dressed so neat and proper that they probably made some members of the audience feel underdressed. To be honest, however, even though I enjoyed their sophisticated but swinging chamber jazz, I didn't completely get it. After all, the jazz I'd heard most up to this time had been big band sides, Hamp shouting "Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" and Shearing playing "Lullaby of Birdland" with a vocal chorus. After the MJQ's section, Getz and Burton came out and my friend and I liked the combination of tenor sax and vibes, although once again I'm sure I missed much of what was going on. After 37 years I don't remember when or if there was an intermission, but I do remember that the last musicians to hit the stage were Pharoah Sanders and his band. I now know why they were chosen as the closing "act." The majority of the audience seemed to have come to Carnegie Hall to hear jazz that was familiar to them. After that was out of the way, it was time for those few with more adventurous tastes. When Sanders began playing my friend and I figured he was tuning up, since we didn't hear anything approximating a melody. My friend decided that would be a good time to go to the lobby for a smoke (not yet forbidden inside certain areas of theatres). I left our box with her (just so we could talk--I've never smoked even one cig) and the two of us discussed the music we'd already heard. Finally the cigarette was history and we went back to our seats. The tuning up hadn't turned into a recognizable melody yet and after about 15 minutes my friend and I realized it never would. That was our cue to head for home, since we knew this particular style of jazz was wayyyy over our heads.

I attended just one more jazz gig with that friend, a solo appearance in the 1980s by Joe Pass, at the long-defunct Lush Life in Greenwich Village. I kept on learning about the various styles of jazz and gradually developed an appreciation for all of them--well most of them anyway. (Kenny G and most smooth jazz is still something that could drive me screaming from any room where they're played.) However, free jazz is now something I enjoy, since I've learned how to really hear and understand what's going on. Ornette Coleman has become one of my favorite jazz artists and the Sun Ra Arkestra at Iridium one Halloween night was one of my most fun experiences at any jazz club. Kind of makes me wonder what would have happened if I'd been able to listen to 1972 live Pharoah Sanders with my 2009 jazz ears!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Once more with feeling...

As a follow-up to my prior post on Vinodivino, here are links to a couple of You Tube videos showcasing members of the Jed Levy Trio: Jed himself, as well as two other members who played at the wine bar very often, pianist Misha Tsiganov and bassist Thomson Kneeland. In these videos the trio has been expanded into a quartet with the addition of drummer Alvester Garnett.

Featured are two examples of Jed's own wonderful compositions, "Two Tears" and "Giuseppe's Borgo," both of which I had the privilege of hearing live quite often at Vinodivino.

Click on this to see a performance of the first song and on this for the second one.