|Jazz Format and the Road to Freedom|
|Written by Richard Kimball|
Mutually exclusive, format and freedom, it would seem. America’s indigenous classical music, known above all for its freedom … you’d imagine that shackling it with a format would ruin it, make it sound canned. And that classical thing … what’s up with that? I mean, you’ve got classical music, and you’ve got jazz – two different things.
Freedom, breaking the rules, doing your own thing. Freedom from what, breaking what rules, doing your own as opposed to whose thing?
Let’s suppose Richard – that’s me - the bass player (I got into jazz first as a bass player before I transferred over to jazz on the piano), Al - the singing piano player, Sonny - the singing drummer, are all thrown together by our cheap and tacky quasi-gangster agent on a gig at a country club. The agent told the client “Deese guys are seasoned, they been around – they played here, they played there, they can do anything, they’ll knock your socks off.” Of course Al and Sonny knew each other – minimally, but I’d never met them, and we’d never played together. No sweat. How’d we do? Not bad. How come? The jazz format.
Playing the Head and Chorus
We do have to make a couple other decisions: who’s gonna play the head? So we take turns playing solos on the choruses. Some time the leader just looks at the next guy whose turn it is, and he picks it up. Other times, no signals are given and nobody knows what to do next – nevertheless, the beat goes on, like a train; so does the structure of the tune, and sooner or later somebody jumps in and picks up the ball. This could even be cool - that moment of suspense, the ship sailing with no one at the helm. It could also be disaster; it all depends.
After this comes the choruses (in the classical world, the development section). What are choruses? I didn’t know for years why we called them choruses until one day I was accompanying a Broadway style singer who insisted on singing the verse to the song. The verse in popular songs is very much like the old recitative from opera in which the singer is really supposed to be talking, but because it’s an opera, they do kind of a cross between talking and singing. Lots of starts and stops, pauses. It often sounds funny to us, especially if it’s in English, and they’re saying mundane stuff like “Pass the salt” or “He shall pay with his life!” After this, (in opera), the singer goes into a song commenting in some way on the action or the emotions – an aria. In pop music, the recitative part is called the verse, and the aria part is what we call “the tune," and that’s what we play for “choruses." Jazz guys rarely play the verse – it so rarely has any metrical structure, they just get right to business with the chorus, and each time around is called another chorus. However, jazz singers often sing the verse as a cool kind of long intro.
Trading fours or eights. This is an age old practice which still works great. Somebody’ll say, “Fours!” just before the end of a chorus. He’ll then start the next chorus by soloing on the first four bars. Then the drummer’ll jump in for the next four, then the next player, then back to the drummer, alternating for as long as it seems cool until the leader raises his finger or his eyebrows indicating “We’re headin’ into the out chorus, (the recapitulation in classical music). It’s basically played like the head, maybe with a bit more spirit or variation.
The ending. This is how you can tell if a band is “tight” or not. Things can often fall apart, and the drummer will throw in lots of drum and cymbal rolls, the pianist slathering on tremolos and arpeggios to disguise the disarray – like putting lots of gravy on a failed cooking effort - and impress the audience dramatically. However, if guys are experienced, there are a whole bunch of standard formats for endings, and if just one of the guys starts one, the others will instantly recognize it and follow suit. One of the most common is the tag ending.
The tag ending is simply playing the last harmonic sequence (usually four bars) over and over, perhaps taking turns to improvise on it, and maybe even building the whole thing up, increasing tension, heavier textually into a major section of the whole “arrangement." The danger can be that nobody’s sure just how far to carry it out, and God help the guy who suddenly decides to go for the close when somebody else was just getting’ goin’. As the tacitly decided last tag comes up, every body follows through on the final chord change, perhaps making each chord of the – say – four chord sequence twice as long (a way of seeming to slow down without actually slowing the beat), and landing on a big chord. Ruffles and flourishes. More rehearsed bands might have a clever short or even complicated ending that’s all written out, but for now, we’re the pick-up band trying to “act as if” by relying on formats.
A word about time. No matter how fast or slow, the time of the group, or even of the soloist playing a single, is really the fundamental element that communicates more than any other thing. It’s very often even taken for granted by the players, themselves, but if it “ain’t together," then nothing is. It’s so interesting how classical and jazz musicians (in general all popular style players) differ with regard to time – to tempo. The great classical artists are real good at holding a tempo and then having subtle slow downs and speed ups, maybe just hanging out a little on one note so you hardly notice it. That’s a big part of their freedom of interpretation. It’s not freedom from the notes, but another kind – freedom of interpretation.
In popular music, the beat goes on, and on, and on. It’s metronomic. I know some drummers that can hold a tempo so precisely you could set your watch by it. Often there’s a rub when classical guys, especially soloists, maybe guys who’ve played a lot of solo piano (yeah, like me) get together with a rock solid rhythm section. We’re used to little variations, and they even can speed up (rush) or slow down (drag) without even thinking about it. In a jazz context this is real bad. Rushing causes an unpleasant tension, and dragging just grinds you down. I remember a guy I know who was playing drums with a singing piano player who was on speed. The bass player was on “downs”. My friend used to shake his head and laugh painfully about the results.
Some players are known for their time. That’s not just their ability to hold the tempo (prerequisite) but also just where they “come down” on the beat. Some players are a little “on top” of the beat, and others, a little “laid back”. Again, the coolness of this is all dependent on the tempo being rock solid and the player’s ability to be just so very slightly off the beat in either direction, depending on the style. It really gives a strong effect, one way or the other. This is done without any question about the tempo moving faster or slower. That’s the ticket.
Teddy’s time. Let’s go back to that gig in the sixties with Al the singing piano player and Sonny the singing drummer, me on bass, at that country club we played for the first time together. Al and Sonny had both worked with a bass player named Teddy. They kept talking about how great he was and kidding me, saying it really didn’t matter what note I played (I was in music school at the time and took great exception to this claim). Chuckling, they talked about how Teddy played “clamp bass." This was their description of his not really fingering the precise notes as a schooled player would, but just wrapping his whole hand around the fingerboard over a place that would approximate the pitch desired on the string he was plucking. These guys really looked up to Teddy’s playing, saying he had great “time." I was jealous and kind of pissed because I had studied symphonic bass, and though I wasn’t a great technician, I had a beautiful sound and I knew what I was doing. They also mentioned that Teddy had good pot. That’s it, I thought. They wouldn’t have known the difference, anyhow.
I never met Teddy, but one day I ran across a recording by a jazz icon. Reading the credits I saw that Teddy was on the date, playing bass. Wow! I couldn’t wait to listen. No kidding, what I heard - that band – really together, really swinging, tight. Focusing on Teddy, I heard a kind of indistinct semi thump on each beat. Couldn’t really tell the exact pitch, but something about it … the time … it was rock solid. Ted was just so tiny-of-a-bit off the center of the beat – I couldn’t even tell which way – but it was cool, and it never wavered. He didn’t play a lot of other notes – he wouldn’t’ve been able to, anyhow – to distract from the time. Yeah, somehow he supported the harmony closely enough, because the piano player was laying it down clearly. Ted was close enough to the bass notes we expected to hear from what the piano player played to sort of make the ear accept what Teddy played as correct. Ted had great time. He was cool. The rest of the guy in the band could relax and just play knowing Teddy was on the job, consistent and unwavering.
We hear a lot about syncopation. Most jazz has it a lot. It helps give that swing feeling. It’s simply the expectation of something happening on usually a strong beat being displaced a little bit, often a half beat ahead. Brazilian music is so rife with this, that often one will find self taught Brazilian musicians so used to playing these syncopated anticipations – this playing a note belonging on the down beat, for example (the first beat of a bar) a half beat ahead – and with emphasis – that they think it actually is the down beat. And they won’t take no for an answer.
There’s this one Brazilian guy in particular (Guy Thiago) I know who is now pretty successful as a composer and who came here to the U.S. in the sixties, a young retiring soccer coach from one of Brazil’s world famous teams. He came to start a new life as a musician. We met in sixty-seven. I was entranced by the simple but quite sophisticated originality in his singing and guitar playing – all self taught. We played together, me on bass, (totally new to Brazilian styles). Quite soon I noticed that whenever we talked about the down beat, he played it a half beat ahead and insisted he was right on the beat. That’s the way they did it in his country, and to him, that was it. He didn’t even know he was syncopating. It took some time for us to have a meeting of minds over this.
The deal always with syncopation is that you can’t let it influence the tempo. When you come down a little ahead of the beat, for example, that cannot become the new place for the beat. Each time that happened, some time would be lost, the tempo getting faster and faster. No no no! In American swing, there is lots of syncopation, too. You can take a real stodgy protestant hymn, and if you put syncopation in the right spots, it’ll swing like crazy. Part of the swing feel, you might say, comes from a variation that musicians automatically put on running notes. Say, if you’ve got a passage that goes da da da da / da da da da / da da da da / etc., (even notes), the players will instinctively play it a little bit closer to daa de daa de / daa de daa de/ daa de daa de / daaaaaaaa. Kind of like groups of three, with their playing just the first and third one … triplets. The guys who play in a style considered a little more “hip” will disguise that somewhat so it almost sounds perfectly even. Believe it or not, some of these guys (like me) will swear it is even, when it very well may not be. They just can’t resist a slight swing to it. Very often when a jazz guy plays classical music, you’ll hear just a little bit of swing. Sometimes it really adds to the effect, although he may or may not be aware of it.
So you’ve got the tune, the key, the feel, the intro (or right on it), who’s gonna do what during the choruses, maybe trading fours (or eights), perhaps, and (often not) an ending discussed, and you’re off to the races, assuming you’ve got your own personal repertoire of idiomatic jazz expressions - rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic, as your bag of tools, to work with along the way. And these things, developed right here in the States, using lots of indigenous and African forms, developing over many generations and synthesized together with classical elements of development, harmony, and form are what makes Jazz, America’s Classical Music. And back at that gig in the sixties, voilá, an instant seasoned jazz band that’ll knock your socks off.