Category Archives: Jazz and blues

Sonny Rollins and thematic improvisation

 

Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7 marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.

Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.

Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.

This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts 2015-155).

Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

“Parker’s mood” redux

 

Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood (1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.

Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.

This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X [1999] 221–35; RILM Abstracts 1999-13483.

Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

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Jazzomat

 

The Jazzomat Research Project takes up the challenge of jazz research in the age of digitalization, opening up a new field of analytical exploration by providing computational tools as well as a comprehensive corpus of improvisations with MeloSpyGUI and the Weimar Jazz Database.

The volume Inside the Jazzomat: New perspectives for jazz research (Mainz: Schott, 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-48411) presents the main concepts and approaches of the ongoing project, and includes several case studies that demonstrate how these approaches can be included in jazz analysis in various ways.

Above, a graphic related to Jazzomat’s DTL Pattern Similarity Search; below, Don Byas’s recording of Body and soul, one of the book’s case studies.

More posts about jazz are here.

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Filed under Analysis, Jazz and blues, Resources

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

 

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Howlin’ Wolf and “Back door man”

 

In June 1960, after nine years of recording and over two decades of touring and performing, Howlin’ Wolf and some trusted sidemen entered Chess Studios in Chicago to cut three sides. Wolf was 50 years old and an established act; yet everything about the session’s results, and particularly the song Back door man, seems elusive and interstitial.

Jim Crow racial segregation—at least one of the many meanings of the song’s title—was then both legally discredited and locally practiced, in the North as well as the South. Minimal, sinister, and edgy, fueled by images of violence, betrayal, and polymorphous sexual bravado, structured throughout by riddles and dialectical reversals, Back door man is a sort of historical puzzle, fusing Jim Crow sound, Jim Crow sex, and Jim Crow space; it implies as well a theory of how sound and subject formation, and subject formation through sound, arise out of Jim Crow violence.

This according to “Back door man: Howlin’ Wolf and the sound of Jim Crow” by Eric Lott (American quarterly LXIII/3 [September 2011] 697–710; RILM Abstracts 2011-27928).

Today is Howlin’ Wolf’s 110th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers

T-bone Walker’s legacy

 

One of the most important and enduring icons of blues history, the charismatic T-Bone Walker radically transformed the music with a combination of instrumental virtuosity and stylistic and technical innovation throughout a career of unusual longevity and legendary significance.

Walker invented both the electric blues guitar concept and the sound identified with it. Incorporating jazz changes with blues innovations of his own design, he created a new guitar sound with a horn-like richness that was emulated by guitarists everywhere, but especially in his home state. Everybody that picked up a guitar in Texas wanted to sound like T-Bone, and his onstage acrobatics, complete with signature splits, were directly responsible for similarly extroverted stage antics by later performers such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.

This according to “Walker, T-Bone” by Michael Point (Encyclopedia of the blues, 2006); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is T-bone Walker’s 110th birthday! Above, T-Bone Walker (1972) by Heinrich Klaffs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Below, a performance from 1966.

BONUS: Walker’s signature hit Stormy Monday.

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Ornette Coleman and harmolodics

 

In an interview, Ornette Coleman discussed the musical philosophy and compositional/improvisational method that he called harmolodics.

“Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop.”

“If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.”

“Harmolodics doesn’t change something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.”

Quoted in “Dialing up Ornette” by Bill Shoemaker (JazzTimes XXV/10 [December 1995] pp. 42–44).

Today would have been Coleman’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2008 (photo by Frank Schindelbeck; below, a performance from Coleman’s harmolodic funk period.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Theory

James Reese Europe, ragtime hero

 

James Reese Europe was a composer, conductor, and organizer of the black community. A pioneer in jazz, he led the Clef Club Orchestra and other organizations in New York, and during World War I his 369th Infantry Regiment “Hellfighters” band was among the first exporters of jazz to Europe.

Working with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Europe was a prominent figure in black musical theater. He also worked with Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook, as well as the dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. His career was cut short in 1919, when he was murdered by a member of his own orchestra.

This according to A life in ragtime: A biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger (New York: Oxford, 1995).

Today would have been Europe’s 140th birthday! Below, one of his signature hits—W.C. Handy’s Memphis blues.

 

BONUS: A brief documentary focusing on Europe’s military career.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Django Reinhardt and U.S. jazz

 

While he was perhaps the most famous and adept practitioner of American jazz in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, the Manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt was an outsider—both culturally and geographically—to the U.S. jazz scene. For this reason, scholars have had difficulty placing him securely in American jazz history.

Reinhardt only visited the U.S. once, in 1946, as a guest of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A recording made during that tour, A blues riff, presents a complex musical negotiation of contrasting musical and cultural values. What is heard in this performance is not just a debate over what notes to play when, but over what the philosopher Henri Lefebvre called representational spaces. The task of locating Reinhardt in jazz history requires a new theoretical appreciation for the material importance of space and place in the shaping of musical performance.

This according to “Negotiating A blues riff: Listening for Django Reinhardt’s place in American jazz” by Andrew Berish (Jazz perspectives III/3 [December 2009] pp. 233–64).

Today is Reinhardt’s 110th birthday!

Above, Reinhardt in 1946, the year of the recording; below, the recording itself.

Related article: Grappelli, South, and Reinhardt play Bach

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Roy DeCarava’s photographic aesthetic

 

The legacy of Roy DeCarava, particularly his collection The sound I saw: Improvisation on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon, 2001), illuminates how his photographic method, both in individual photographs and in the way they are sequenced, absorbed jazz technique and mimicked jazz performance.

DeCarava’s aesthetic can be seen as both a distinctively black aesthetic and a profoundly inclusive one. His unflinching but caring eye is cast over the debris of the ghetto as well as the ecstasy of the jazz solo, and it observes the cramped but welcoming dark of the metonymic Harlem hallway.

This according to “‘And you slip into the breaks and look around’: Jazz and everyday life in the photographs of Roy DeCarava” by Richard Ings, an essay included in The hearing eye: Jazz & blues influences in African American visual art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 303–31).

Today is DeCarava’s 100th birthday!

Above, Dancers (Dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, 1956) by Roy DeCarava is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Below, a brief documentary.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Visual art