Going Inside Jazz

 

Yes, it’s an accepted fact that music is the universal language. And unlike other standard forms of music, I think jazz is the spontaneous conversation platform. We never play a song the same way twice, nor do we fear to break from its form for some individual expression. And in that lies so much of the beauty of jazz, and of its players.

Now I know… jazz has gotten a bad rap from so many listeners over the years, and to a great degree, rightly so. Much of the honking, squealing and atonal slaughter of a potentially beautifully art form has actually been a musical communication from those players, about their anger and their hatred for how the world is, in their eyes. Precisely because music is an international language, all emotions can be expressed through it. Music that tells of anger and sorrow is somehow more obnoxious and intolerable than an angry painting, or an angry poem. I love most forms of music to one degree or another, but I can’t stand angry music, either. And I’m sorry the powers that be felt it important to put so much of our angry jazz out into the world.

Unfortunately, artists provide us with many mirrors to what is happening in their lives and in their society right now. Angry, harsh and dissonant jazz is trying to tell us something, but most of us (including me) hear only an ugliness that we simply won’t tolerate. I like a good protest song and a mirror into our society as well as anyone, when it’s done in what I would consider to be good taste. There’s a conflict in there, I know, but there it is. For example, Joni Mitchell has protested many things in her music, but done in a style that most of us can appreciate, and hear again and again. But, especially in the last 20-some years, popular radio stations have pushed so much meaningless crap into our eardrums that we’ve properly dumbed-down and now can tolerate only “smooth jazz” which has itself become something of a virus that shows no sign of going away.

Taking A Look Inside Jazz

What I want to do here is show my friends just how expressive, how conversational jazz can be, and how it’s done. Jazz is so much more fun to listen to when one is aware of the interplay between the musicians. Most of that interplay is happy, playful, fun and puts a nice spotlight on the musical form itself, and how spontaneous and humorous its players can be! It’s especially fun when one knows the song and can hear, and understand how the musicians of the moment are interpreting it.

Size Matters

Small jazz groups usually do this best… a quintet, a quartet or a trio. My favorite group is the quartet. As a piano player, I like to have one lead instrument, usually played by one who feels the song and sets the interpretive tone for that song. It’s a luxury for a piano player to have a good lead horn or vocal to start off the tune, as the piano has time to get into the tune and the feeling it’s trying to portray. By the time the piano solo comes up, the player is settled in and is usually somewhat inspired by what the lead horn has already played. I nearly always play a better solo when I follow a lead horn, or vocalist.


Steve, Paul Miller and Billy Degnats at the Intercontinental hotel,  2004

It’s been my good fortune to play with a lot of excellent trios, as great players always inspire me. I also love the trio format, of course… I get to be “the leader,” usually setting the tempo and the mood for the song. Piano, bass and drums are all expressive instruments (as is the guitar in a small group) so the potential for an emotional performance and great conversation between the players seems more likely.

 LynDeramus                                                                   Craig Herndon

Here is an example for you. It was recorded in Tom and Janet Wells’ home back in ’98 – ’99. A fantastic 6’5” Yamaha Grand… god I loved playing that piano! We set up two mics for the drums, a mic for the bass and one for the piano, and ran them into a small, portable 4-channel mixer which went into a two-track Tascam portable recorder. We played 11 songs that afternoon and I have saved them all. The recording came out wonderfully clear and well-balanced. The players, Lyn Deramus on bass, Craig Herndon on drums, were outstanding. I’m not happy with my playing that afternoon, but oh well, it was live, and there are good moments worth sharing.

The tune I hope you’ll listen to is a Herbie Hancock piece, Dolphin Dance. And here’s the deal… all three of us know this song, have played it with others before, but never together. How we play the chords, handle the rhythms and overall feel of the tune will be done on the fly, as we begin playing it. Our version of this is fairly cool as it shows how we listen, and respond, to each other on the spur of the moment… which to my mind, is one of the magical elements of jazz in the first place! As a player, it’s almost nirvana when 3 or 4 players all get in the same groove on a tune… finest feeling in the world!

Anyway, here’s the tune. Listen to the piano and drums… and the bass and piano, how we all are hearing each other and responding. I played some different chords that Lyn adjusted to, and Craig delicately enhanced everything we were doing… some of the most musical and sensitive drumming I’ve ever heard. But that was Craig.

 

Hope you were able to hear, and enjoy some of the interplay between us, as that is much of the reason I have loved jazz all my life. A good player can truly play what’s in his heart in the jazz idiom. Ask singers Cheryl Wilson and Jimmy helms if you don’t believe me. They have put their hearts into their music throughout their great careers, and they know the reward for always doing it that way, as do their audiences!



 

 

 

Cheryl Wilson                                                                            Jimmy Helms

I don’t hear much“conversational jazz” any more. Seems to me like the jazz of the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s was far better in that regard. I hear a lot of big, and largely insensitive egos banging away these days in the medium of jazz music, with little to no regard for his fellow players, or for any emotion the tune might want to portray. Rather they seem content to buffet us with reams of meaningless notes designed only to impress by great technique and rhythmic pounding in an obvious attempt to beat us into submission. I don’t like any of it, obviously.

It would be my wish that you can find some good quality jazz to listen to. I would be delighted if you paid attention to the interplay of instruments, and the enjoyment that comes from that. That’s what jazz started to be, that’s why it endured as long as it did, and that’s why I still love it so today.

Steve Hulse