That Beat…

I remember when my Dad told me years ago that actually playing Jazz fast was much much easier than playing it slow, I didn’t really believe him. Only gradually did I understand that the problem is that, in order to sound right, Jazz has to sound spontaneous. When you’re going flat out there’s no alternative to that, as you haven’t really got any time to think. At slower tempos, though, it often sounds too conscious of itself. Sounding relaxed is the most difficult thing, especially when you’re not relaxed at all but a bundle of nerves (which is actually what virtually all musicians are like in front of an audience). The worst thing you can do in Jazz (as a rhythm player at any rate) is to speed up, and the temptation is always there if you’re going slow. It’s not an option when you’re at full pelt.

A great example is the version of Twelfth Street Rag recorded by Louis Armstrong and the Hot Seven. This was a hit tune from 1918 and most other bands in the 1920s played it just about as fast as they could. Louis Armstrong decided – quite rightly – that he didn’t have anything to prove by playing it that way so he turned it into a stately slow blues. The result is magical. Another advantage if it is that it is slow enough for would-be musicians to try making a transcription of the solos, which is what I did many years ago with Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo. I still have the scrawled sheets of music now to remind me of the hours I spent trying to work it out! You can hear it in low-fi on an old gramophone here; the clarinet solo starts around 2.04.

Certainly the yardstick by which traditional Jazz giants were measured was not on the up-tempo tunes – which lots of bands could play – but on slower numbers, especially that very difficult beat that is usually described for the want of a better name as mid-tempo. Too slow and it drags, too fast and it sounds forced. Real New Orleans Jazz has a wonderfully loose feel at such speeds: a cross between a lilt and a strut. It’s totally infectious.

That’s what popped into my head when I found the following track on Youtube by the band I blogged about yesterday. They nail that classic New Orleans beat right from the word go on this number called Royal Garden Blues. It’s driven along by the wonderful but relatively unknown Billie Poole doing the vocal. I really love this.

9 Responses to “That Beat…”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    A computer program to do transcription would be good. The ultimate aim is to input into a computer the characteristics of each instrument, let it listen to a recording, and have it print out the score. Now THAT’s an inverse problem.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think such codes exist for, say, piano music. The problem with wind instruments especially in Jazz is the presence of slurred and bended notes. There’s also the fact that the pitch isn’t always right owing to the recording technology and not all instruments are pitched the same way; there are clarinets pitched at A and B-flat, for example. After a bit I decided the old 78 was a bit fast. Slowing it down to 116 on the metronome gives you something more natural for the fingers on a B-flat clarinet and the whole thing then comes just about right with a key signature of F major. There’s no guarantee I got it right of course!

      I never thought of this as an inverse problem, 30-odd years ago when I tried to do it, but you’re absolutely right. It even has an unknown systematic error (record speed) to eliminate using prior information about the keys on a clarinet. Maybe I was a Bayesian before I knew it!

  2. Alan Heavens Says:

    Such programs exist, I believe, but they tend to fail because musicians (of any sort, but especially Jazz musicians of course) don’t keep to a strict beat. To do so would probably be considered unmusical for most pieces. Thus the printouts are full of hemi-demi-semi-quavers etc. Perhaps someone knows of effective codes, perhaps informed by a prior distribution of the frequency of crotchets, quavers, minims, etc?

    • telescoper Says:

      The scores for Jazz arrangements are nearly always written as 4/4 but what is actually played isn’t like that at all. The lead instruments often play significantly behind the beat in a way which is very hard to write down. The basic speed is usually very constant but the music just doesn’t suit being written down in the formal way. I guess that’s the point of it.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Varying speed of instrumental playing can be put in as a desired variable as well as a nuisance variable, although you need prior info to assign variation to one or the other.

    It’s easy enough to create a transcription routine when you know that only a single instrument is playing, but distinguishing who’s playing what in an orchestra is orders of magnitude harder. I know someone who wrote a routine that can tell how many violins are playing in unison, which is another step forward.

    Ultimately a performance is just a graph of air pressure vs time.
    On a vinyl record the info is encoded as a physical curve.


    • telescoper Says:

      The structure of a musical score reveals its limitations Across the page you have the time axis, in units represented by the time signature. Perpendicular to this is essentially a discrete Fourier transform, with the vertical position of a note representing the frequency content of the music at a particular instant. The score is therefore a sort of time-frequency graph. Of course, each instrument doesn’t produce a pure tone so the actual sound more complex, but that’s basically what it is. Both the frequency and time components are so crudely represented that it is no surprise that it’s not very precise. But, then, if it were precise music would be nearly so interesting.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    At the interval of a performance of Bach’s unaccompanied violin music I was able to speak to the performer, who told me that he played from a photocopy of Bach’s original score because it was unclear in a few places and he didn’t trust any editor. Of course he had to commit himself each time he played it.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    There are also limits of uncertainty-principle type in the resolution you can get in a frequency vs time graph. Notes in musical notation are obviously sufficiently discrete and long-lasting for transcription to be possible in principle, given knowledge of the physics of the instrument, but it is yet another thorn in this tricky inverse problem.

  6. […] across this on Youtube a while ago. It made me think of the hours I spent trying to transcribe a Johnny Dodds clarinet solo from an old record, and that came out as a single page of […]

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