Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Listening to Jazz 101

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Friends and family members, musicians and civilians alike, all seem to get "lost" when listening to jazz. To most, once the melody of the song has been stated, the rest of the performance sounds like cacophony. Since it is the improvising that most interests us players (creative beings that we are) I'd like to offer a little assistance to those who don't understand what "all that noise" is.

Let's take a simple song, like Pop Goes the Weasel. I unfortunately hear this one WAY too much played by my friendly neighborhood ice cream truck, but it is one I think we can all sing in our heads. This internal singing mechanism is the key to being able to enjoy a jazz performance, in my opinion. OK, here's my version of the song (speak to the hand if you don't agree with the lyrics - these are the ones I grew up with):

All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,
Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

OK, got it? When the ice cream truck stops in front of my house, that song plays over and over and over again, without variation of any kind. Same stupid melody, same harmony, same rhythm, same tempo, same form. (We're not going to worry our pretty little heads about most of these terms, so don't sweat it.)

This repetition of all the elements of the song is precisely what happens in a jazz performance (leaving aside "free" jazz and music that is through-composed -- again, don't fret).

Everything about the music keeps repeating like a loop EXCEPT for the melody. What happens to that, you ask? That is what the jazz soloist is creating in the moment: a new melody based on the form, harmony, tempo etc of the originally stated piece of music.

Simply put, the jazz soloist takes the original song and plays variations of the given melody based on the harmony (what we refer to as "the changes"). And yes, this IS just what is meant in classical music by "theme and variations", the only difference is that the variations are being spontaneously composed as you're listening. It's pretty cool when you think about it.

So how does this help you listen to real jazz (as opposed to our fictional PGTW version)?
It's best to start by listening to a jazz version of a song you already know, because your task is to keep the melody playing in your mind DURING the improvised choruses. So, while the solo is going on you are using the melody as a backdrop for what the player is doing. [This, by the way, is how most jazz musicians keep their place in the music as it is being played.] If you keep the melody playing in your head you will be able to hear the soloist's new melody as a variation of the one you already know. Try it - it works.

Eventually you will be able to hear certain song forms through repetition. For example, there are many songs in the jazz repertoire based upon George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. If you can hear that song internally then you can hear and appreciate the way a jazz musician solos on that song form. That covers a lot of territory. Same thing goes for the blues -- and there are hundreds (thousands, maybe) of jazz songs based on the blues.

Find a recording of a song you know performed by a known artist (Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, you get the idea). You'll have to "practice" listening if you want to get this, but it won't be hard work, just a fun way to open yourself to a whole world of beautiful music that is by no means cacophonous!

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