How to open a jazz solo: Frelon Brun

Although I’ve known and loved Filles de Kilimanjaro for more years than I care to admit, it was only recently that the gem of a phrase that is the opening to Davis’ solo on ‘Frelon Brun’ has struck me.

CBS, 1968

The album itself represents a point in Davis’ career as he was changing from the more modal explorations of his second great quintet (with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter, bass and Tony Williams, drums) to the embracing of electric instruments and paraphernalia that would form the basis of albums from Water Babies (itself a collection of studio session ‘leftovers’ from 1967-68) through to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Filles marks a transitional moment, yet is full of the trademark devices that characterised Davis’ approach from Kind of Blue through to Silent Way.

The fourth track on the album, ‘Frelon Brun,’ is characterised by a shuffling percussion punctuated by a decisive rising-sixth figure in the bass and left-hand of the keyboard beneath a sparse melodic line in trumpet and saxophone.

Once the skeletal melody has been played, there’s a short section where the accompanying textures move to the foreground, before the trumpet solo begins. There is a pleasing symmetry in the way it ascends a scale of Bb major, beginning and ending on the fifth degree of the scale, and then peaks briefly on the sixth, hops and skips back down to the starting note, and then does a short decorative burst as it settles.

There’s also a wonderful way in which Davis repeats the skipping rhythmic figure of the first four notes, but misplaces the primary beat such that what began as a downbeat on the second beat of the bar begins the next four notes as an upbeat; the downbeat therefore falls on the first beat of the bar, turning the last two notes into an iamb (to borrow a poetic term) and a feminine ending.

Listen for yourself, as the solo starts at about 45 seconds.

Click to enlarge

The phrase shows the truth of the maxim, ‘Less is more;’ the simplicity of the arch-shape, scalic ascent and rhythmic repetition combines to create a striking opening gesture to Davis’ solo.


Infectious creativity: Squarepusher’s Feed Me Weird Things

A dazzling mix of inventive percussion samples and electric bass improvisation makes Squarepusher’s eclectic mix of drum and bass and electronica-infused jazz utterly beguiling. Listen to ‘The Squarepusher Theme’ or ‘The Swifty’ on the 1996 album ‘Feed Me Weird Things‘ and you get the idea.

There’s a relentless restlessness about it, particularly the opening of ‘The Swifty’ that feels like the music is always pushing to find its own stability, an endless quest for solidity in spite of the regular beat which is overshadowed and often relegated to such an extent you can almost forget it’s there.

There’s shades of the late, great Jaco Pastorious about the bass-playing when it enters at 2′ 27”, but that’s not a bad influence to display in your music. The bass meditates on the two chords shifting between a major seventh on C and extended minor chord on F, with a great melodic sense, before the percussion kicks in to turn up the rhythmic momentum and the bass follows suit.

The unstoppable energy about both the rhythm and the bass in ‘The Squarepusher Theme’ is infectious.

What a clarion call with which to open the door into your debut album!

The opening 1′ 18” lulls you with bouncing, repetitive electronic ostinati, and then – bam! – in comes the percussion, and you’re on for the ride in ‘Theme from Ernest Borgnine.’

Not to mention the nimble footwork (and fretwork) of  ‘Kodack,’ or the Stanley-Clarke-like  ‘Deep Fried Pizza.’


(Preview tracks via LastFM).

Going on for Miles: Tutu’s not that bad!

It’s very easy to criticise Miles Davis’ latter albums. The 1980’s  and early 90’s were a particularly unkind period for jazz, by and large; it went terribly saccharine, commercial, and the use of electronic drums and electric keyboards meant that much of the jazz from the decade has dated terribly. You’ve only got to listen to Kenny G’s Songbird or some of the Chick Corea Elektric Band, or the most sugary of David Sanborn, to hear it.

Davis’ comeback after five years of silence from 1975-1980 was marked with The Man With The Horn, which heralded the release of a batch of albums replete with keyboards and electronic drums; You’re Under Arrest, Star People, Tutu, Amandla, Aura. There’s the sank-without-trace soundtrack to Siesta, another partnership between Miles and bassist Marcus Miller.

And yet: I can’t help having a secret affection for Tutu. It’s terribly gauche to admit to such a thing amongst circles of jazz purists: mention it at parties and people suddenly see someone across the other side of the room with whom they must urgently speak, or need to refresh their not-that-empty glass from the kitchen all of a sudden.

I admit, none of the albums from The Man With The Horn onwards until the end, stand in comparison to greats from earlier in his career, such as Kind of Blue or In a Silent Way or…well, the list is almost endless. But there’s a cocky swagger to the album, a neat ducking-and-diving apparent in both Davis’ playing as well as in the music itself that sounds as though the music has a smile on its face. It’s winking at you, as if to say “Hey, I’m not as good as Filles de Kilimanjaro or Live at the Blackhawk but hell: I’m here!”

During his career, Miles had forged enough new directions, opened enough doors into new avenues for jazz to pursue, that he can be forgiven if, in the last part of his life, the records lacked the innovative spark of the earlier decades.

Star People and You’re Under Arrest, I can live without. But Tutu: I have a soft spot for it. Now go and refresh your glass.

(Preview tracks via LastFM).

Seasonally-adjusted listening: it’s Bill Frisell time

Genre-defying: Bill Frisell

I have no doubt that seasonally-affected traits exist in terms of my listening habits. As soon as the spring weather rolls around, the stock of in-car listening discs changes from choral works and Tippett symphonies to Joni Mitchell albums and Debussy piano works.

And also to Bill Frisell. There’s something about his dusty, heat-haze-infused music that means it bursts anew from my disc collection in spring and summer, but goes into hibernation in the late autumn and winter months.

I love Frisell’s tape-loop trickery, his playing with repeated ostinati and improvisations over riffs and motifs generated from his own sampler, his genre-defying inventiveness: simply listen to his album, Unspeakable, to get an idea of just how many boundaries Frisell crosses with his music-making. The warm, shimmering haze of the opening track immediately speaks (no pun intended) of warmer climates, lazy days and the heat of summer.

Or there’s ‘Good Old People’ from The Intercontinentals, that puts you in mind of a porch-front jam session on a New England clap-board house.

I’m amid an eight-disc odyssey with the great guitarist, having lain them all aside since September last year, and I’m always hearing new things and being surprised anew each year how much I’ve missed them. My latest purchase is the excellent double album East-West, which has hardly been out of the CD player.

Spring is here, and it’s Frisell time: do not adjust your (head)sets.

Low down but not so dirty: the wonder of the bass clarinet

The bass clarinet often gets overlooked. Lacking the visual elegance of the usual clarinet, not considered a melodic instrument like its sibling, it often sits at the back of the orchestra unloved and forlorn.

A shame, because, in the right hands, it is more than capable of holding its own against its smaller cousin.

If those hands belong to British jazz multi-reedsman, John Surman, the bass clarinet is transformed; here it is adding a graceful, lyrical bass-line to ‘Roundelay;’

Or there’s the murky opening to Tansy Davies’ brilliant Wild Card, premiered at last year’s Proms, where the instrument blows raspberries in the background; the piece represents a journey through a deck of Tarot cards, and the opening ‘Devil’ card is full of implied menace as the bass clarinet looms and lurks underneath.

Jazz player Benny Maupin is another king of the instrument, as he demonstrates in the ominous opening to ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ on Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion masterpiece, Bitches Brew;

The bass clarinet’s darker-hued colour appealed to Ravel, who uses it in the opening to his orchestral dance of death,  La Valse, his paean to the vanishing world of the Viennese waltz.

The bass clarinet: subtle, lyrical and wondrously colourful.

Health Warning

The next person who says to me, “Oh, I love jazz: I’m really into Michael Bublé’ is going to get killed. Several times over.

Do you feel lucky...

They MAY say, “Oh, I LOVE jazz, AND I also happen to listen to Michael Bublé,’ in the same way as they may say ‘Oh, I love good opera singers AND I’m also really into Russell Watson,’ or ‘I like human beings AND Alan Sugar;’ OR they may say ‘I love Easy Listening / Crooning, HENCE I’m really into Michael Bublé.’

Those are the only permutations that are acceptable.

Got it ?

How do you listen to jazz ?

 At the heart of jazz lies improvisation: the spontaneous creation of musical material, usually based on a pre-defined series of chords ‘borrowed’ from a tune. (I’m not counting free jazz, which operates differently). ‘Rhythm Changes’ is a jazz musician’s shorthand for a set of chords, originally from Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, that has been used for many other tunes, and was the basis of many compositions in the Bebop period.

Listening to jazz, it seems to me – especially to improvisation – involves a two-tier listening system. In order to appreciate exactly what the soloist is doing, how creative they are being, how inventive they are being with the material, the listener needs to follow the improvisation in relation to the chord sequence being used.

People often lament the incomprehensibility of jazz: ‘I don’t understand it, it makes no sense, it’s just noise.’ One way of breaking through this seeming lack of sense in jazz is to follow the chain of chords being used whilst the improvisation is unfolding: mapping the solo onto the harmonic framework. In this manner, the listener can see where the soloist is, and by working through the underlying chord sequence at the same time as the soloist, appreciate what’s going on.

Following the rhythmic pattern, the number of beats in the bar, also helps; you can understand the rhythmic impulse behind the improvised phrases, sense why the player finished the phrase where they did. Indian musicians do this: the rhythmic cycle, known as the tal, is a defined number of beats – including five, eleven, sixteen – and the improvised section of the piece, known as the jhala, sees the musicians working through the cycle of beats always to finish on the first beat. Audiences follow this rhythmic cycle during the improvisation, and show their appreciation when the soloist finishes in the right place.

The two-tier system of listening to a jazz piece means following both solo improvisation and the combined harmonic and rhythmic sequence underneath it. You can then hear when the improvisation is extending the chord to embrace added notes, or follow the structure of the piece to know whether you’re hearing the verse or the chorus.

I realise this presupposes some understanding of music theory in the listener, which is not always the case. It’s up to you what clues you follow, what structures or relationships, to help you make sense of what’s going on. But even counting the beats helps: the hi-hat on beats two and four in swing 4/4 time, the bass-drum falling on the first beat in swing 3/4 time, or the rim-shot on the last beat of the bar in a piece like Milestones.

It’s all about making sense of the material, and following what the soloist is doing with them. Simply letting the music wash over you without listening actively can leave you feeling lost, adrift. Working through the changes with the player will help you navigate the often choppy waters of jazz.

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