Pentatonic Licks with the Altered Dominant Chord

What? Another Stormhorn post so soon?

Yes, I’m on a roll. This post is a continuation from the last post, which offered a couple practical exercises on angular playing using pentatonic scales. As I promised in that post, this next one explores the relationship between pentatonics and altered dominant harmony. But as with the previous post, my objective here is not to go all theoretical on you but to offer a few practical exercises for developing facility with pentatonics in the V7 alt context.

Still, for these exercises to make sense, a bit of theory is necessary. By altered dominant, I’m referring to the V+7(#9) chord, otherwise known as the V7 alt. Jamey Aebersold long ago introduced the simpler spelling V7+9, and since that’s the one I’m used to and it’s convenient, that’s the spelling I’ll use. The chord is called “altered” because very little about it–just the root, third, and flat seventh–is unaltered. The fourth and fifth are both raised a half step, and both sharp and flat ninths are included.

The scale of choice for the V7+9 chord is the diminished whole tone scale (dim WT). It is actually a mode of the melodic minor scale built on its seventh degree. For example, a B dim WT is built off the C melodic minor scale, thus: B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A, and octave.

Within the dim WT scale lies a single major pentatonic scale built on the scale’s tritone (augmented fourth).* So, again using the B dim WT as our model, the resident pentatonic is F: F, G, A, C, D. These notes constitute all the scale’s altered tone plus the flat seventh, thus: +4, +5, b7, b9, #9.

For me, the question is, how do I relate the sound of a major pentatonic scale to an altered dominant whose root is a tritone away? It’s not a sound that sticks readily to my ear.

The four exercises shown here–licks, really–are designed to help you drill your fingers and ears on the dominant chord and corelate them to the pentatonic scale. To my thinking, at least at this stage in my development, I want to resolve the pentatonic scale to one of the basic chord tones, and I want to have those chord tones–the root, third, augmented fifth, and flat seventh, always in mind.

To that end, the first exercise introduces a motif I also use in the rest of the exercises. It focuses on the lower part of an A7+9 chord, starting with the sharp and flat ninths and then establishing the third and the root. Following that little four-note figure is a well-known pentatonic lick based on the tritone, Eb. Finally, the exercise resolves to the root of the chord.

Exercise two starts with the pentatonic lick, then arpeggiates the A7+9 and explores the dim WT more fully, and concludes with the four-note motif, described above, resolving to the sharp five of the chord.

The third and fourth exercises, now focusing on the D7+9, begin with the motif, then move into more angular versions of the pentatonic scale. Note that in the fourth exercise, I’ve opted to focus on the F minor pentatonic. It is the relative minor of the Ab major, so none of the notes involved have changed; it’s just a different way of thinking about the pentatonic scale.

I recommend that you spend some time with each exercise in just the key it’s written in, playing it slowly and trying the absorb the sound of the pentatonic scale in relation to the sound of its parent dim WT scale and the V+7 chord. Then work at memorizing each lick in all twelve keys.

That’s it. They rest is up to you. I wish you fun and fruitful practicing.

ERRATUM: In exercise four, the first note in the second bar should be an Ab, not an A natural. With this post finally put to bed, I don’t have the patience to spend the time required (more than you’d believe) to add a lousy little flat. So kindly make the adjustment mentally.

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* You could argue that there are other pentatonics that also fit the altered dominant chord. True, but they’re all modified in one way or another. The only natural major pentatonic that derives from the diminished whole tone scale is the one I’ve described.

Pentatonic Angularity for Jazz Improv: Two Exercises

When was the last time I shared a practical exercise for jazz improvisation on Stormhorn.com? It has been ages, hasn’t it.

So let me rectify that as best I can by giving you something substantial to chew on, or better yet, to take to the woodshed with you and work into your fingers and your playing.

Lately I’ve been revisiting pentatonic scales, with an eye on two things: (1) their usefulness in angular playing, and (2) their relationship to altered dominants. I’ll look at item two in a future post. Right now, let’s turn our attention to pentatonics as a source for angularity–that is, breaking out of the linear, scalar mode of playing by using broader intervals, particularly fourths, to create novelty and interest.

You can think of a pentatonic scale as a major scale (or a mixolydian or lydian mode) with a couple teeth knocked out. The fourth and seventh scale degrees are missing, creating a five-note scale with a couple built-in gaps. Those two gaps, as you begin to work with intervals in the scale, create broader leaps, and angularity arises naturally.

The two exercises in this post will help you build technical finesse with broader intervals in the pentatonic scale. Work out the first exercise till you’ve got it mastered in all twelve keys throughout the entire range of your instrument. Then move on to the second exercise and do the same, revisiting the first as you need to in order to help it “stick.”

Both exercises are built off of the relative minor of the Eb major pentatonic scale. I’ve assigned them to the C-7 chord; however, you can also use them with the EbM7 and Eb7 chords, as well as a few other chords which I’ll leave it to you to work out in your head and your playing. My concern here isn’t to deal in depth with theory and application but simply to give you something you can wrap your fingers around. You can trust I’m doing my best to gain command of them too. We’re traveling this path together. Practice diligently–and, as always, have fun!

Tips on Jazz Guitar for Beginners–Guest Post by Marc-Andre Seguin

Greetings, friends! My postings in Stormhorn are admittedly sporadic these days, but this blog is still very much alive. Storm chasing this year has been nonexistent for me, but that’s no surprise; it has been a lousy storm season for chasers across the board, even for those who live in Tornado Alley. But the musical side of things is going strong, and I’ve got a few practical ideas to share about pentatonic scales, altered scales, and their relationship. I just need to make the time to transcribe them and put them in print.

Guitar instructor Marc-Andre Seguin, however, has got some perspectives that are ready at hand to share. Perspectives from instrumentalists other than saxophonists such as I are most welcome; we can all learn from each other, and beginning jazz instrumentalists of every stripe can profit from Marc. His bio follows at the end, so I’ll spare you a lengthier introduction and hand the microphone over to him.

Tips on Jazz Guitar for Beginners

By Marc-Andre Seguin

Starting out on jazz guitar isn’t easy. The intricacies of the jazz language can seem insurmountable without direction. Here are a few tips to get you started on the path of jazz guitar mastery.

Listen

Without even picking up the guitar, it’s important to constantly listen to jazz recordings. Simply by hearing this style, many concepts are internalized, such as rhythm, phrasing, harmony and improvisation. Great recordings are available from legendary guitarists such as Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, to name just a few, and they should be constantly playing in your ears.

But don’t stop at guitarists. It’s crucial to listen to other instruments as well. John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and others have made immense contributions to the style. So vary your listening habits to include these and other major contributors to the language.

Practice

Playing jazz involves muscle memory and good reflexes, and these are cultivated in the shed. Although the genre is often intellectual, most improvisations rely on unconscious movements to make the connection with our inner ear. It’s important to have a solid foundation on which to build our musical messages. Following are some simple approaches to practicing chords and scales.

Chords

There’s a simple approach to mastering the many voicings for guitar: start small and build up your chordal database little by little. Root forms of chords are the building blocks to more complex and extended variations. These forms can be learned starting from the sixth and fifth strings and, once memorized, can be practiced by reading out the chords of a standard.

There are four main chord types to learn: the major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, and minor 7b5. With these barebones varieties, you’ll be able to play most of the jazz repertoire.

Scales

Once you’ve memorized chords, you’re ready to apply the correct scales over them. Scales require a relatively large investment of time to learn, since there are multiple positions of the same scale all along the neck. The easiest approach is to methodically learn each scale and keep it in your fingers for an extended period until it becomes second nature.

Learn

To progress quickly, constantly learn new material. The more you explore the genre, the more fluent you will become in its language. Here are aspects in which you should invest your time.

Standards

Work at memorizing the hundreds of tunes that make up the standard repertoire of jazz musicians. Most are older, popular tunes from the “American songbook” that jazz instrumentalists have adapted to fuel improvisations. Learning them is not as daunting as it sounds; many are contrafacts: new melodies played over the chord changes of a popular song. “I Got Rhythm” is a classic example: many jazz standards use “rhythm changes” (as jazz musicians call them) for their harmony. Others are based on the blues grid, and that’s where I suggest you start. The simple heads (melodies) and chords of tunes like “C Jam Blues” and “Blue Monk” are perfect for beginning improvisers. And blues in minor keys provide a good introduction to other types of chords. A few other well-known standards that most beginners explore first are “Autumn Leaves,” “All the Things You Are,” “Blue Bossa,” and “Summertime”—and the list goes on. Learn the melody and the chord changes, then start improvising over the chords.

Licks

A classic way to absorb jazz vocabulary is to learn different licks from your favorite players. The classic, extremely profitable approach is to listen to their recordings, pick a lick you like, and then work at playing it yourself till you’ve got it right. A simpler way is to search the internet and your local bookstore for books of licks and patterns. Choose a lick, learn it in different keys, and start playing it over the standards you’re learning—and, eventually, in different positions on the guitar. The more such phrases you assimilate and begin to mix and match, the deeper will become your understanding of jazz mechanics.

Solos

Learn entire solos. If you are up to it, you can transcribe your own. Doing so is a complete jazz workout that will greatly enhance your abilities. The more you transcribe, the better you will get at it.

If you’re not up to transcribing, the internet is full of written solo transcriptions. Take advantage of them. Memorizing whole solos will show you how the pros and legends develop a jazz improvisation and how they navigate chord changes. You don’t need to stick to guitar solos, but they’re a good place to start. Some saxophone, trumpet, and piano solos can be quite hard to adapt to the guitar; however, they’re extremely valuable learning tools.

Play

If you have like-minded friends nearby who love playing jazz, get with them. I spent countless hours jamming with fellow students during my musical studies, and it was probably the most enriching experience I’ve had. Teaming with another guitarist or a bassist is an easy way to start, and you can share ideas and concepts. Playing with horn players will make you work on comping and solo playing, and playing with a pianist will force you to explore a more minimalist direction and creative ways of complementing the music.

* * *

There are many concepts to internalize in jazz. Gather information about them from various sources. Take everything at a steady pace, work your way slowly but surely through what you learn, and you’ll be surprised sooner rather than later at how it all falls into place. Happy practicing!

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind,” and teacher at JazzGuitarLessons.net, the number one online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his professional experience both as a jazz guitarist and an instructor to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

This Evening the Sun Set Later

Today marked the turning point of sunset time.

Yesterday was the year’s earliest sunset; here in Hastings, Michigan, it occurred at thirty-eight seconds past 5:07. Henceforth, beginning this evening, sunset will occur later and later every day.

The change is incremental at first. Today the Sun set only a hair’s breadth later than yesterday. My sunrise/sunset chart still shows the same time, 5:07:38, but twilight lingered two seconds longer–hardly a noteworthy difference except that it’s the beginning of seasonal change. Meteorological winter is already underway; it began on December 1. Now we’re moving toward astronomical winter, and the changing of the guard has begun.

Winter solstice is still thirteen days away. On that date, December 21, the span between sunrise and sunset will be at its narrowest and daylight time at its shortest. But already the Sun will be setting later and later. On the 21st it will set at 5:11 in my town. However, until then it will also continue to rise later and in slightly broader increments, so that the gap between sunrise and sunset will keep narrowing from now till the 21st. After that, although the Sun will still rise earlier and earlier through January 2, it will do so by comparatively smaller increments, and the accelerating lateness of sunset time will begin to outstrip the braking lateness of the sunrise.

Sounds complicated, but it’s a simple concept, and if you saw it on a graph, you’d get it right away. In a nutshell, the days of the latest sunrise (January 2) and the earliest sunset (yesterday evening) are out of sync. December 21, winter solstice, is when those two times are closest; hence, it’s the “shortest day” of the year.

Stormhorn.com Returns: A Modest But Happy Summary of The Year’s Storm Chases

Wow! More than a year has passed since I’ve posted in this blog. So much has happened, some of which amounts to a veritable sea change in my life. But I’m not going to get into that here. Relevant for Stormhorn.com is this: the site’s URLs, which acquired an unwarranted and unwanted prefix when I was forced to switch from my superb but now defunct former webhost to Bluehost, are now fixed, and this blog is properly searchable and functional again.* Already, in just a couple days, I’ve seen three sales of my book The Giant Steps Scratchpad, and hopefully this site can once again gain some traction as both a jazz saxophone resource and a chronicle of my obsession with storm chasing.

As the dust began to settle from a painful but beneficial transition, I found myself with the wherewithal to finally chase a bit more productively and independently than I have in a long time. It felt wonderful—wonderful!—to hit the Great Plains again in a vehicle that is trustworthy, economical, and comfortable for driving long distances. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota—hello, old friends. It was so good to see you again at last, such a gift to drive your highways and take in your far-reaching landscapes . . . and yes, to exult in your storms, your wild convection that transforms your skies into battlegrounds of formidable beauty.

It is a long drive from Michigan to tornado alley, eight hundred miles or more just to get to the front door. Ironically, I could have spared myself most of my first trip. It landed me in Wichita overnight, then on to chase the next day in southwest Kansas and northeastward almost to Salina. No tornadoes, though. They were there, all right, but I was out of position and uninclined to punch through a bunch of high-precip, megahail crud along the warm front in order to intercept potent-looking (on the radar) but low-visibility mesocyclones. Two days later, though, on May 20 in northwest Indiana on my way back home, the warm front was exactly the place to be, and I filmed a small but beautiful tornado south of Wolcott. It was my one confirmed tornado of the year.

A few weeks later I hit the northern plains with my friend Jim Daniels, a retired meteorologist from Grand Junction, Colorado. It was his first chase, and for me, one of the blessings, besides the good fellowship and opportunity to build our new friendship, was introducing someone to chasing who already had his conceptual toolkit assembled. No need to explain how a thunderstorm works or how to interpret radar—Jim’s a pro; I just handed him my laptop, let him explore the tools, and we were ready to rumble.

Except—no tornadoes.

Then came August and a shot at severe weather right here in Michigan. I tagged along with a slow-moving, cyclic, lowtop supercell with classic features through the western thumb area of the state. It was nicely positioned as tail-end Charlie, sucking in the good energy unimpeded. A little more instability and it could have been a bruiser. As it was, it cycled down to the point where I thought it was toast, just a green blob on GR3, at which point, faced with a long drive home, I gave up the chase. Naturally the green blob powered back up and then spun up a weak twister ten or fifteen minutes later.

I didn’t mind missing the tornado. Well, not much. I had chased about fifty miles from Chesaning to south of Mayville, about two and a quarter hours, and gotten plenty of show for my money—rapidly rotating wall clouds, a funnel or two, and some really sweet structure of the kind you rarely see in Michigan. Then on the way back, as a cold front swept in, the sunset sky was spectacular.

Waterspout season has also come and gone, and I hit the lakeshore a number of times. One of those times was fruitful, and I captured some images of a couple picturesque waterspouts out at Holland Beach. They were all the more interesting because they occurred southwest of a clearly defined mesocyclone. But I’ll save that and a pic or two for a different post. It deserves a more detailed account, don’t you agree?

Stormhorn.com is about jazz saxophone and improvisation as well as storm chasing. So if jazz is your preferred topic, stay tuned. It’ll be comin’ at ya. Got a few patterns and licks to throw at you that I think you’ll enjoy.

That’s all for now. Stormhorn.com is back in the race.

 

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* The one exception is the photo gallery. Photos in individual posts work fine, but the links on the photos page don’t work.

Also, formatting is messed up in the text of a lot of older posts. So I still have some issues to work through with BlueHost. I’ll probably have to pay to get the image gallery working right again; hopefully not so with the formatting stuff.

This Election Cycle: What Jesus and John Have to Say to Christians

The temptation for Christians to polarize against each other over politics has never been greater than this election cycle, and it’s only going to grow stronger. Here’s what it’s coming to for many:
  • If you vote for Clinton/Trump (pick one), you’re not a Christian and you’re not my brother or sister. You’re my enemy.
  • Not voting is actually a vote for the other candidate.* Therefore you’re my enemy.
  • Voting for a third party or a write-in is a wasted vote. It’s pretty much the same thing as option two, so once again, you’re my enemy.
Lots of enemies out there, according to the above logic. I’m afraid a lot of us who call ourselves Christians are going to be become tremendously embittered against other Christians—except, of course, those “other Christians” aren’t really Christians. If they were, they’d see things our way. The right way. God’s way.
 
Where does Jesus actually enter into this mess? Consider these words:
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43-48 NIV)
That is a tall, tall order. Thankfully, most of those whom we consider enemies because their politics and priorities differ from ours are nothing like the Romans of Jesus’s day, or the Nazis of yesterday, or ISIS today. If you were drowning, your “enemy” would throw you a lifeline, and you’d do the same for that person. The truth is, many of those “enemies” are in fact brothers and sisters in Christ. Granted, an awful lot of people who call themselves Christians are not Christians, and some truly do behave in hateful ways. But that still leaves countless followers of Jesus who simply see things differently from us, and our vilifying them may say more about the condition of our own heart than theirs. What if the one who acts most like an enemy is us?
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The apostle John minces no words about what our attitude should be—and should never be:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (1 John 2:9-11)
The Scripture quotes above are the words of two men whose motives were utterly trustworthy and untainted by any political self-interest. Their statements don’t require fact checking; you either believe them or you don’t. The question is, do you believe them—and in this political season and following, will you do your best to adhere to them? That doesn’t mean you can’t feel strongly and even indignantly. But will you guard your heart? Because in this world, intense sentiments all too easily step across the line and become self-justifying hatred.
 
Remember: The real battle isn’t about who will sit in the Oval Office. It’s about whom you will allow to control your heart.
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* Actually, it’s a vote of no confidence in either candidate. But let’s briefly consider this thinking of “Not voting is a vote for the other candidate.” Some of my friends like Trump and others support Hillary. So which “other candidate” would I be voting for by not voting? Both, apparently. Since it’s a self-cancelling exercise, the impact on either side is precisely zero.
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Microphone Shootout at Fast Trax Studio

I’ve never thought deeply (or much at all) about the subtle nuances of different microphones for recording the saxophone. Not, that is, until the other day, when veteran recording engineer Robert Reister invited me to participate in a microphone sMe at Fast Trax_Microphone Shootout RCA-77DXhootout at his Fast Trax Studio in Jenison, Michigan.

Fast Trax has been around for a long time—1986, to be precise. A lot of musicians have gone through that studio, and a lot of music has been made there. I participated in one or two projects myself in days of yore. But they were way, way yore, and I hadn’t seen the inside of Rob’s studio in a couple decades. So it came as a pleasant surprise when Rob connected with me back in December and invited me to bring my sax over after the holidays and try out some microphones.

Some microphones indeed! All top end, including a few vintage mics such as the RCA 77DX I’m blowing into in the photo. There were ten in all, which Rob ran through two different cutting-edge preamps for a total of twenty takes. Shooting for consistency, I played the head to Coltrane’s “Mr. P. C.” twenty times over—not the most creative saxophonistry, perhaps, but that wasn’t the point. This was an engaging project: plenty of fun laying down the samples tracks, and an equal amount of interest in listening to them afterward.

You can hear the results yourself in the two videos below. The sound is purely the microphones and the two preamps. No sound processing whatsoever is involved, so what you hear for each microphone is exactly what the mic itself “heard.” It’s the sound-engineering equivalent of camera RAW in photography.

To be honest, my ears aren’t that discriminating. I’d be happy recording through any of these microphones, all of which, as I’ve mentioned, have proven track records as studio horn mics. I do, however, have my preferences. What about you? Give the videos a listen. Do you have a favorite, or maybe even a couple mics you particularly like (or dislike)? Please feel free to comment. Your input is most welcome, and I’ll share it with Rob, who I’m certain will value it.

 

 

Good-Bye, Phil Woods: In Honor of an Alto Sax Legend

When I got the news last night that Phil Woods had died the day before, on September 29, 2015, I was stunned. Not Phil Woods! Not my main man, my hero on the alto sax whom, among all the luminaries of the instrument, including even Bird and Cannonball, I have admired and learned from the most. Not Phil.

But of course, why not? We all go at some point, and Phil was eighty-three and in poor health. He had lived a full life; he had seen a huge slice of jazz history and carved his own considerable niche in that history; he had accomplished things that most musicians only dream of; and in the process, he left a legacy of music richer than the mines of Moria.

I first heard of Phil back in my early twenties in music school. I heard him described as a “lyrical” player, and while I didn’t know what the word meant, I determined to find out. So I purchased an album of Phil’s titled I Remember, and “lyrical” acquired meaning through melody and timbre. Here was this beautiful tone, so full of warmth and joy and body, married to an incredible sense of swing. And here was a way with a ballad that just . . . well, I listened to the tune “Paul” over and over and over, mesmerized. The way Phil played it—so beautifully, so sensitively, so full of emotion—moved me to tears. I mean that most truly. Phil Woods could render a ballad with such sublimity and freshness and, above all, sincerity, that I would quite literally weep. His solo on Michelle Legrand’s “The Summer Knows” took my breath away the first time I heard it, and it still does. Lyrical? The word doesn’t begin to describe what Phil Woods could do with an alto sax.

But of course, ballads were just a part of what Phil played with excellence. He could cut through the most harmonically complex changes—bop tunes such as “Hallucinations”—at frantic tempos with an ease and inventiveness that left other players, even the most accomplished, in the dust. And you always knew it was Phil playing. There was no mistaking that sound and that approach.

I heard Phil play live three times. My most memorable was with my brother Pat, who, when I visited him years ago in Port Townsend, Washington, had made reservations for dinner at Jazz Alley in Seattle. There I sat, dining on steak while Phil and his combo blew incredible sounds from the stage just twenty feet from our table. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Now Phil is gone. The man and the horn that blazed their long, meteoric trail across the jazz firmament have flamed out at last. But like Bird, whom he so deeply admired, Phil lit a torch whose brightness burns in the horns of countless altoists worldwide. Phil Woods has many children. I am proud to be one of them.

Thank you, Phil. You gave this world much beauty, and you showed the way beyond Bird for alto players like me. Now you reside among the legends. You will be missed. And the music you made ensures that you will never, ever be forgotten.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: Part 2

Having dispensed with my rambling prelude, in part 1 of this article, to the question “What is jazz?” let’s get to the question itself.

What is jazz?

The answer used to be fairly simple, involving such concepts as syncopation, swing, improvisation, and African-American roots. The formats in which those elements played out were fairly straightforward. There was Dixieland. There was swing. There was big band. There was bebop.

But wait . . . bebop? In its day, there were those who maintained that bebop wasn’t jazz; it was cacophony, confusion, a bunch of chromatic scales played lightning fast and signifying nothing. “Let them beat their brains out till their flatted fifths are gone, then they’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest,” taunted Louis Armstrong in “The Boppenpoof Song,” but his abilities as a prophet didn’t match his brilliance as a trumpet player. Today no one would seriously contest the prodigious contribution of bop to the evolution of jazz.

Then along came Coltrane. Repeat the scenario. A lot of jazz buffs couldn’t stand him. Sheets of sound? Endless modal droning? That ain’t jazz, or so said the purists—then. Today it’s a different story; Trane has a lot of children and grandchildren. The thing called jazz broadened, embraced another icon, and forged ahead. Then came fusion, and more cries of protest. So it went, and so it has gone, and so it goes. Cool jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, smooth jazz, punk jazz . . . from Miles to Trane to Ornette to Zorn and beyond, the list goes on, and after a while, I feel bewildered and my head hurts. Look, I just like good music, and I like improvisation, and I admire combinations of artistry and skill at a high level, and it gets to where I honestly don’t care all that much about categorizing it. This article can’t begin to cover all the complexities of a subject that so many, many writers have already addressed, and will continue to address, in far greater depth.

So in the remainder of this post, I want to share what a few others, both musicians and non-musicians, have to say about the nature of jazz. Nothing definitive, just personal, insightful, and even humorous.

Responses to the Facebook Survey

The first to respond to my question “What is jazz?” was keyboard man Bob Van Stee: “Good question. Allegedly, Louis Armstrong was asked, and his response was, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

My good friend Ed Englerth wrote, “’Jazz is restless.’ [It can be played on] any instrument. I prefer jazz that has improvisational elements, but [it] can be written out as well.”

Camera artist Myrna Jacobs doesn’t play an instrument, and her husband, Dan, is a superb jazz trumpeter and flutist. Myrna shared in-depth:

I think a lot about jazz, and to some extent why it isn’t popular music (for the most part). But what I’ve decided is that what often passes for jazz today isn’t really jazz. It lacks life and is static, trapped in some other time, much like classical music. Creating in the moment, being true to your own emotions and being in touch with the time and place you live. A willingness to get emotional with the music is so vital. I don’t play jazz. I listen to it and, honestly, feel that much of what is played is not good.. simply copies or ideas of what it should be, rather than it just being musicians who love playing, love creating, know how to listen and being willing to put themselves out there emotionally through their notes and spaces. Great jazz can take you someplace… to another world. It’s not even about the right chords (though it plays a part and doesn’t ‘feel right’ if the player doesn’t know them in his gut). I am a huge fan of jazz music that doesn’t isolate soloists . .. but rather, all the players in the band are part of the solo in some way. They are all listening and knowing when to contribute, like a conversation. Most of all I guess that jazz at it very ultimate is a conversation…. sometimes a soloist has a lot to say, like a monologue . .. but like, in conversation, the others come in and ‘nod’, accent, repeat parts of what was said.. take off on it.. use the idea, the concept (musically). It’s not just a speech… but a conversation. I love Dixieland for the beat.. for the interplay of instruments. I love big band when it’s exciting and the power that can be generated by that many instruments is used effectively… and when it is written so that it is not just one solo after another with no relationship to each other in any way. I love a duo… of whatever instruments are used… when they are playing together.. creating together.. moving the conversation forward Sorry… I could go on and on. I have thought about this a LOT and talked about it a lot, trying to figure out why so many people do not like jazz.

Trombonist Jason Lester offered the following thoughts:

Jazz is typically defined by having extended improvisation relative to predefined melodic material: it is further distinguished from the stuff of “jam bands” and blues by harmonic content– ii V I’s, extended chords, elaborate harmonic substitution. Instrumentation is not a factor, as Bela Fleck and many other groups have demonstrated. The boundaries of jazz are (and always have been) designed to be stretched and blurred: third stream, fusion, acid, etc have allowed players to stretch and blend. This symbiosis brings new life to both jazz and to the genre it hybridizes with– some of the best Rock sax solos were dealt down by cats like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins; bringing in guitarists like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern gave Miles an entirely new sound. But improvisation and harmonic content are still the signature elements.

My response to Jason:

Given the interplay of other genres with jazz, the lines get fuzzy, don’t they. Improvisation, for instance, has long been a hallmark of rock as well as jazz (though jazz came first). Yet there’s an obvious difference between the extended improvisations of David Gilmour in Pink Floyd and John Coltrane in his classic quartet; both are masterful soloists in phenomenal groups, yet there’s no question that Floyd is rock and Trane is jazz. However, there does come a point in modern music where it’s hard to say whether you’ve got fish or fowl. You’ve mentioned harmonic complexity, and that one hits the nail on the head for me. Even the supposedly static harmony of modalism in jazz involves a complex harmonic approach not just for the soloist but also, significantly, for the rhythm section, and in particular for the chording instruments (e.g., keyboard, guitar). Once you cross over beyond swing feel into rock and Latin rhythms, it may be the harmony that’s the determinant.

Jason again: “The lines really blur when you listen to Steely Dan, James Brown, Frank Zappa, or Medeski, Martin& Wood!”

Finally, Bob Van Stee alerted me to the following video clip in which Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme answer the question “What is jazz?” in their own inimitable way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off this post.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook:

“What is jazz?”

Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not.

Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they’d opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches.

At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!”

In Light of Today

Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all.

Though, is that really the case?

I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no.

It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It’s not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days.

You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you.

Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not?

The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that’s not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now “What is jazz?” can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion.

In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry “What is jazz?” as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter.

(To be continued.)