Archive for the Jazz Category

Hullo Bolinas – Gary Burton

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 31, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know why this track just came into my head but while it’s there I thought I’d share it. It’s from a rightly renowned album by Chick Corea and Gary Burton recorded at a live concert in Zurich in 1979, but this number just features Gary Burton on the vibes. I bought this album on vinyl when it first came out and was completely gobsmacked by the miraculous nature of Gary Burton’s four-mallet vibraphone playing, especially on this track. In a subsequent interview on the radio I heard Burton dismiss his extraordinary technical accomplishment, explaining that the mallets are really just like fingers and it is no harder than playing the piano. I think his modesty is misplaced, as fingers bend but mallets don’t. Or do they?

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On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

Memories of Humph

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , on April 25, 2018 by telescoper

Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on 25th April 2008

Today is a rather sad anniversary: it’s ten years to the day since the death of Humphrey Lyttelton. I posted a tribute to him here and have posted quite a few other items about Humph and his band (under this tag), including one that included this picture of my Dad (who died in 2007 and who was a lifelong fan of Humph) playing the drums with him in a pub in Newcastle:

I was reminded about Humph by the ongoing saga of this the UK Government’s scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation, who came to Britain from the West Indies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their arrival coincided with the rise of Humph’s career as a musician and bandleader; he started recording a long series of 78s for the Parlophone labour in late 1949. In the mid-50s Humph formed what he called his Paseo Jazz Band with a group of London-based Caribbean musicians and they made some lovely records, complete with infectious calypso rhythms. In his first volume of autobiography, I Play As I Please Humph wrote very frankly about the racism faced by these black musicians, even from Jazz fans. It is indeed hard to see how anyone can be a jazz fan and have such attitudes, but some people seem to manage it. Humph was one of those who welcomed this generation of immigrants with open arms, and in his book he argued strongly against racial prejudice. If he’d been alive today he would have had no time for the xenophobic attitudes espoused by the current Government that have created such a hostile environment in the UK for anyone deemed to be foreign.

Anyway, some time ago I came across this film from 1950 showing Humph’s band in full swing (playing King Oliver’s Snake Rag, a tune guaranteed to fill the dance floor) at a downstairs club on Oxford Street in London. Jazz was very much for dancing to in those days, and the opportunity to let the hair down and burn some leather on the floor must have been a welcome distraction from post-war austerity. As the voice-over says, the drinks on sale in the club were non-alcoholic, but I’m told a van used to turn up and sell beer surreptitiously outside…

Rest in peace, Humph. We still miss you.

Melancholy – Johnny Dodds

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2018 by telescoper

Well, it’s fine and sunny today and if the weather doesn’t put a spring in your step, hopefully this will. It’s a lovely old tune and something of a jazz standard called Melancholy, but this is very probably the least melancholy version of it you’ll ever hear. On top of that it’s quite an interesting piece of jazz history, as it features legendary clarinet player Johnny Dodds (who played in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and later in the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s) as did pianist Lil Hardin, but the rest of the band is from a younger generation, especially Charlie Shavers on trumpet and Teddy Bunn (a much underrated guitarist). The rhythm section has a define taste of the Swing Era rather than New Orleans, but the main thing about this is how well the different styles blend together. Enjoy!

Bird of Paradise – In Memoriam Charlie Parker

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 12, 2018 by telescoper

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the death, in 1955 aged just 34, of the great saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, also known as `Bird’.  I know a lot of people don’t really `get’ Bird’s way of playing, but for me he created some of the most beautiful and exciting sounds not only in jazz, but in any musical genre. Here, to mark his memory, is a piece called Bird of Paradise (a thinly disguised version of the Jerome Kern standard All The Things You Are) recorded in 1947 for the Dial label with a quintet that included a young (21 year-old) Miles Davis on trumpet. Miles Davis was still finding his way musically at the time of the Dial sessions, but Bird had already established himself as a powerful creative force and his solo on this number is absolutely exquisite.

Willow Weep For Me – Mary Lou Williams

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 8, 2018 by telescoper

Today is International Women’s Day, so I thought I’d post this lovely performance of the standard Willow Weep For Me, not just because it is played by the wonderfully talented pianist composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams, but because the song itself was written by Ann Ronell

45° Angle

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on February 24, 2018 by telescoper

Some time ago I posted a piece of music by Dick Twardzik from the mid-50s. The jazz piano scene in those days was so heavily dominated by Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell that pianists seem to struggle to find their own voice in the space created by those two. Twardzik certainly succeeded, though he died very young. Well, here’s another track from roughly the same period (1957) featuring another underrated musician who solved this problem in a different way. This fine track, undoubtedly influenced by Monk and Powell, but at the same time with its own sound, is by Herbie Nicholls, playing his own composition 45° Angle with the excellent George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums. Enjoy!