February 20, 2012

F4 #3: All that jazz

Better late than never! While I knew what I wanted to write about, by Friday afternoon I had no idea what I wanted to say. Fortunately, sitting on it for a day or two made all the difference! The creative floodgates opened, and I managed to scribble out a few words on one of my favourite music genre. (Typing it, on the other hand . . . here I am late Monday night.) And, at the end, I'll reveal, at last, my one weakness.

I have been musically inclined for a long time. I began taking piano lessons when I was about 9 or 10, and then learned to play trumpet in high school, where I also joined the school band in grade 10. Although my piano training was classical, by the time I reached high school they no longer had a concert band program, only a stage band.

High-school band was my first exposure to jazz. Since a stage band is essentially a big band, it was big-band music that we played: from standards by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman (I still have the trumpet solo to "In the Mood" committed to memory, even though I haven't picked a horn up in 20 years), to more contemporary numbers by Bobby Mintzer, Jay Chattaway and Rick Tait.

My interest in smaller jazz combos came later, and somewhat independently: my school didn't have a jazz combo for a couple more years, and I didn't play in it. (Never could improvise well enough.) It started by rifling the music department's large record collection, which consisted mainly of demo records and big-band albums. However, this eventually led to my sifting through my friend Jean-Yves' more eclectic record library. Though he is older than me, he is the youngest in his musically inclined family (in fact, his sister was my first piano teacher), and he had inherited a lot of hand-me-down albums. Of all us band geeks, he was probably the most musically ambitious—after high school, he became a music teacher and a modest local celebrity as a jazz player. He was always happy enough to show off some new sound he had discovered. So, in the end, I learned piano privately, trumpet in high school, and music appreciation from Jean-Yves' records.

It's hard to say what I originally found so appealing about jazz. I've been thinking about this for a few days—part of the reason this post has been delayed—and I think I've narrowed it down to three things.

First, it is intellectually complex music, a trait it shares with classical music. Probably the main reason I was never any good at improvising was that I could never wrap my head around jazz theory well enough to actually put it into practice. But jazz also has a distinct groove to it. Since I had liked classical and popular music first, to my mind, jazz just combined the best of both worlds.

Second, though it wasn't my forte, I do appreciate the improvisational aspect of jazz. Most jazz standards have a basic melody to them, but for the most part it's only chords. The musician must select appropriate notes as the harmonies go past, and compose extended melody passages on the fly. Improvisation exists in popular and classical music, but it's fair to say that without it, jazz couldn't exist at all.

Third, more than any other kind of music, it just sounds darn good live.

My jazz collection is by no means huge, but it has some breadth, by design. I like to hear different sounds and to expose myself to new artists and new instruments. I do, however, collect the works of three artists more "vertically": trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Herbie Hancock, and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. It's coincidental that these three artists happen to cover my three instruments: piano, trumpet, and voice. (I also sing in my church choir, a "hobby" that I think of as an extension to my school-band days.)

To close off, let me make a few recommendations of albums for jazz neophytes. Three of them come from my three favourite performers, but I've added a couple more notable choices, as well. I've linked to Amazon for convenience, not because they're my preferred seller; in fact, I'd be happy to see people help keep bricks-and-mortar music shops in business.

  • Kind of Blue by Miles Davis: Davis was at the forefront of many jazz styles, from hard bop to fusion, but Kind of Blue, from his modal-jazz period, is his most accessible album, as well as his most popular—and arguably the best-selling jazz album of all time.
  • Empyrean Isles by Herbie Hancock: Herbie Hancock was an alumnus of Miles Davis' quintet in the 1960s. His own quartet's sound was sparse—just him, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ron Carter on Bass, and Tony Williams on drums—but for me it always defined the jazz-combo sound. Empyrean Isles contains my favourite Hancock cut, "Cantaloupe Island."
  • Live in Berlin by Ella Fitzgerald: Ella's voice was unequalled. I've always appreciated her live recordings more than her studio albums, and this is the best. She even tried to sing "Mack the Knife," flubbed the words, and won a Grammy for it.
  • A Love Supreme by John Coltrane: Coltrane was another Davis alumnus (that's him playing saxophone in the "So What" clip above), and one of the most influential members of the "free jazz" movement. A Love Supreme is his finest album, and one of the greatest of all times. It was intended to be a spiritual album, I assume reflecting whatever part of Coltrane's rather eclectic spirituality was current at the time.
  • Finally, Heavy Weather by Weather Report. This seminal jazz-fusion band was led by—yes, another Miles Davis associate—keyboardist Joe Zawinul, and was one of the major forces behind the fusion movement of the 1970s and 80s. Heavy Weather was their best album, and contained their best-known number, an electronic version of the standard "Birdland," featuring legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius.

If you have a recommendation of your own, feel free to post it in the comments.

At last . . . my one weakness

I drank my first coffee at about 16 or 17, and was hooked, though not in that physically addicted kind of way. Usually I drink it with breakfast—or, just as likely, as breakfast. To make matters worse, I discovered espresso in 1996, while waiting for a bus to go home after seeing a movie. Note to self that night: No more double espressos after 9 pm. Nowadays I've developed enough of a tolerance for caffeine that I can drink a Red Bull after lunch and then take a nap at my desk.