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.’

Awesome.

(Preview tracks via LastFM).

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.

All strung out: top three current jazz guitarists ?

A reductive list like ‘Top Five Jazz Albums of All Time’ or ‘Your 100 Greatest Classical Melodies’ is, depending on your point of view, either a great way of distilling your tastes and crystallising them into yielding a clear outcome, or a fruitless exercise that’s unnecessarily limiting and pretty pointless. I tend to move between the two: sometimes I think it’s an instructive way of working out what or whom I admire and why, whereas at other times I think “Well, I can have all those albums on my mp3 player anyway, so why bother choosing ?’

Today, I’m in the former mood, if only because it allows me to leap to the defence of a jazz guitarist who, I think, often gets eclipsed in such days of list-making mania.

If challenged, I would say that the top three jazz guitarists currently playing are (in no particular order), John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny. Of course, ‘great’ as an adjective also embraces popular and commerical success, as well as ‘list-maker thinks they are fantastic.’

But I’d like to make a plea for replacing Pat Metheny with John Abercrombie. For me, Abercrombie is a marvellously under-rated player, with eloquent melodic lines, wonderful dexterity and a lithe improvisatory feel. This is not to say that Metheny isn’t also blessed with these skills, as he clearly is. But for me, there’s just something a little too saccharine about a large chunk of Metheny’s output, a little too much Californian sunshine. I like Bright Size Life and the second, slightly more esoteric, of his Works albums on the ECM label; but there’s an awful lot that is too sickly-sweet for me.

Facing West

Every Summer Night

If I were to replace Metheny in the top three with John Abercrombie, I would then have to work out why I hadn’t included such luminaries as John McLaughlin and Ralph Towner, and then start weighing up the relative commercial appeal of each against the other, before throwing up my hands in frustration and gravitating to the ‘utterly pointless and fruitless / all on my mp3 player’ argument.

Here’s Abercrombie playing with Ralph Towner (having my cake and eating it ?) on the excellent Sargasso Sea.

It’s a tricky one. Who would you pick, if challenged to undertake such a useful / pointless (delete as appropriate) task ?

Drummed out: no Dave Weckl for me

I can’t help it: when it comes to jazz drummers, I can’t abide Dave Weckl. This is a great tragedy, as Chick Corea is one of the greatest jazz pianists, and worked a lot with Weckl. I have numerous discs – the Elektric Band, the Akoustic Band – that Corea made with Weckl, and I love listening to them. Apart from the drumming.

I suppose I was spoilt: my earliest jazz listening involved drummers like Jack de Johnette, Mike Melillo, Grady Tate, Ed Thigpen, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey,  and ‘Philly’ Joe Jones. Nowadays, my listening also encompasses the great Bill Stewart (with John Scofield or the late Michael Brecker), Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts (Wynton Marsalis), Michal Wiskiewicz (Marcin Wailewsi trio), Manu Katché, and John Marshall (John Surman).

There’s a great artistry to jazz drumming: keeping the pulse unobtrusively, but being flexible and aware enough to comment on the phrases being improvised around it, punctuating occasional passages, providing a timeless groove, or gently simmering beneath. There are countless albums, too numerous to mention most of them here, where the drumming makes them: think of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew or In A Silent Way, Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood, Michael Brecker’s Time Is Of The Essence, or John Surman’s Stranger than Fiction.

For me, there’s something just too impersonal about Weckl. His timing is meticulous, his technique polished, his embellishments and decorations robust. But, looking back on those adjectives I’ve just employed to describe Weckl’s playing, none of them are particularly personal: they could be applied to machinery.

Perhaps that’s, simply, what it is: he’s just too mechanical, not quite as warm as de Johnette, lacking the delicate artistry of Marshall or the wonderful warmth of Jones, the subtle nuances of Katché or the creativity of Stewart.

Here he is with the Elektric Band in the bebop-indebted ‘Got A Match;’ it’s highly polished, but somehow just lacks any warmth.

Now listen to Manu Katché on ‘Number One’ from the album Neighbourhood, released on the always-reliable ECM label.

I will keep persevering with Dave Weckl; perhaps I’m missing something. That may well be the case. But, in the meantime, sorry, Dave; it just doesn’t grab me. I need the warmth too.

Do you ?

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