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A Way of Listening – The Diversity of Jazz

Found in: A Way of Listening

Welcome to A Way of Listening, an occasional series where we look at music from a range of angles designed to open you up to new listening opportunities and hopefully teach you a little along the way. It’s a big, exciting musical world when you listen with awareness and an open mind.



A while ago I was driving with my mother, who commented on the music playing in the car, saying something along the lines of, “I don’t like this singing. Why do they have to mess around with the tune?” The singer was Ella Fitzgerald. In my pretty eclectic musical world, Ella would sit very much at the ‘conventional’ end, but for Mum, she occurs as somewhat more radical. Does that matter? Not a bit. That’s the great thing about living in a musical democracy. Whatever you like is wonderful.

That said, the more diverse the music you enjoy, the more potential pleasure you have access to. In particular, for me, it’s kind of sad to see some people automatically closing their drawbridge on mention of the word Jazz. To summarily declare “I don’t like jazz” is to me a bit like saying “I don’t like the outdoors”. It’s tragic to deny yourself some wonderful opportunities with a simple blanket dismissal, perhaps influenced by a past unpleasant experience of some small pocket of a vast and varied world. Jazz is much bigger than you may think. In fact, the borderlines between jazz and other genres are becoming ever more blurred.

I’m not really a jazz specialist, although I love to see it live, and especially look forward each year to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. This year I saw three fabulous artists who could hardly be more different to each other. The super-cool Jose James was fairly traditional, although his tribute to Billie Holiday included live loopingEsperanza Spalding presented an elaborate show which was quite theatrical, but would have appealed to fans of cutting-edge R&B. Snarky Puppy, with its full-on big band arrangements and blistering solos, had the crowd roaring like a rock mosh pit. Happily, each of the above shows drew big audiences, but no doubt there were just as many people who would have loved them, but turned away simply because of some preconception about jazz.

So what actually is jazz then? Here’s a perspective: If a song is like a story, then a jazz musician is telling us, “The story I’m going to tell you is one you may have heard before, but I’m going to tell it my way, and share how I feel about it”. Now, I guess any musician might be able to make that claim, but compared to, say, classical music, in jazz there is the opportunity for a more radical interpretation of the story. Very commonly, the source material will be a familiar tune, but in playing it “his way”, the jazz musician may well go beyond anything we can identify as the tune. He may abandon the tune entirely by improvising freely over it. All we can do is go along for the ride and trust that we will find some common ground where we can understand and appreciate what he’s trying to communicate.

That common ground becomes a bigger playing field when we have a little appreciation of the conventions of the genre. Knowing those conventions might come from an understanding of music theory, harmony, form, chord progressions and so on, but you don’t necessarily need that kind of formal knowledge. I actually think that we all have, built-in, a more developed musical appreciation than we may acknowledge. We know what we like, but we don’t always think closely about why we like it. It’s part of my intention with this discussion to hopefully turn people on to more mindful listening.

I recommend you try to listen widely, consciously, and with an open mind, and try to bring that appreciation to a more conscious level. Listen for anything that appeals to you and ask yourself exactly what that appeal is, where the magic is. Everyone has a different sense of what makes a piece of music inspiring, and music ought to be a form of self-discovery.

When exploring what kind of jazz appeals to you, keep trying new things, but be prepared not to like all of it. Maybe some things will need more than one listen to ‘get’.

An earlier blog post on jazz has suggestions from some of our jazz-playing friends of interesting pieces that might be accessible to jazz newbies, and might well float outside your idea of what jazz is. In my list here, I look at some mainstream and less mainstream examples of jazz, and offer some advice on how to get the most from listening to each.


1. Stephane Grappelli & Yehudi Menuhin – Autumn Leaves


In a forthcoming post, I want to use this song for a close look at the different ways a tune can be interpreted. For now, this song is a great exercise in differences. Stephane was a French jazz violinist, Yehudi a classical violinist with a willingness to explore other styles. This collaboration illustrates how their backgrounds result in different approaches to a basic principle of jazz – taking a familiar melody and playing around with it. See if you can spot who’s playing when. While Yehudi stays generally in the key and on the beat, focusing on scale-based embellishments of the tune, Stephane is more fluid, bending notes, adding bluesy touches, pushing and pulling against the rhythm.


2. Gymnopedie No.1 – Fred Hersch (1989)


This is a good one to study because it shows anything can be used as source material in jazz, and any tune or chord progression can be looked at from a fresh viewpoint. It’s a good one for a person who has a resistance to jazz because it’s sourced from classical music. So, then, what makes it jazz ? I would say it fits the definition of jazz simply because it explores a tune in a new and spontaneous way.

He pretty much follows standard practice in jazz – playing the tune (often referred to in jazz as the “head”) right through once, then improvising over a sequence of chords based on the original (a “chorus”), then returning to the head (actually, in this case the slightly varied second half of the original). I love the discreet way he uses the band – starting solo, exactly like Satie’s original, introducing the double bass part-way into the head, bringing in the drums when he begins his improv, and slowly stretching a little further into exploration, then easing back to the original, all the while retaining the graceful waltz rhythm.

The piece is a great example of the use of variations on the melody. That is, he commonly uses notes from the melody but changes where they are played. Listen out for fragments of the tune appearing among his free-flowing lines.

A jazz musician is always treading a fine line between the familiar and the unfamiliar – he is asking himself “what will be the effect of playing this note over this chord?”. He wants to stretch the boundaries for the sake of exploration, but he knows that if he pushes too far he will lose his listener. For this interpretation, Hersch is very respectful, never venturing too far from the feel of the original, but he can’t resist occasionally pushing the envelope with some more tense harmonies (e.g. 2:31 or 3:38 – 3:45).


3. Something – Lalah Hathaway & Snarky Puppy



If you think jazz is about elaborate playing but predictable instrumentation and arrangements, this will give you something more to enjoy. Snarky Puppy are a big band with big ideas, including complex arrangements, imaginative collaborations and ferociously funky grooves.

First thing to do would be to listen to the original version from Lalah Hathaway’s 1990 debut album. It’s a smooth R&B track, but in her collaboration with Snarky Puppy, they decided to go for a much more elaborate arrangement that would serve as an extended vehicle for her vocal improvisation as well as the skills of some of the members of this truly awesome band. It’s great to see the players so thoroughly enjoying themselves, especially their delight at her self-harmonising around 6:13 (how does she do that?).

Other highlights include the way they mess with the rhythm at around 2:00, the high-funk breaks around 4:35 and 6:35, and the way Lalah leads us through the changes with her saxophone-like scatting. You can see how this performance earned them a Grammy.


4. Misty – Two versions



Jazz has a ‘canon’ of songs that all good players are expected to know. This song, composed by pianist Erroll Garner, is one of the most famous. The thing is, once a song is well-enough known, the spirit of adventure inherent in jazz is bound to want to bend and stretch the tune in some way, just to keep it interesting. Hearing the same song sung the same way too many times and you’ll be thirsting for something fresh about it.

Julie London plays it pretty straight, keeping the tune very recognisable. If you don’t know the song, this version is a good place to familiarise yourself with it – the better you know the basic tune, the better you’ll appreciate the new perspective offered by a more adventurous interpreter.

That’s where Sarah Vaughan steps in. Sometimes called “jazz’s diva”, her impeccable technique and soulful sensitivity is legendary. This particular performance is a great example of someone getting into the zone, appearing so fragile and vulnerable introducing the song, admitting to being nervous, but transforming into something goddess-like the moment she begins to sing.

Sarah is a master of ‘phrasing’ – deliberately shifting the placement of notes, sometimes delaying, sometimes rushing. The fun is in your expectations being confounded – the phrase happens at a moment you don’t expect. This can happen with notes as well as rhythm, as we hear right at the end. We know the note she’s supposed to finish on, and anticipate that resolution, and she leaves us hanging for a while on “too much in…” until she lands with a surprise bluesy flourish.


5. É Luxo Só – Rosa Passos (2011)


I’ll try my best not to rave too much about this gorgeous number – to me, Brazilian jazz is bliss on a stick. I could do an entire post just about this song (and I hope at the very least I can write more about Brazilian music in the future), but for now I’ll try to limit myself to a key point about jazz that this song ably illustrates.

Although more than anything jazz is about improvisation, improvisation doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it needs a setting, something to bounce off. And there’s plenty of improvisation that’s not jazz (did you know that improvisation used to be common in classical music? That’s another discussion for another time). The thing that might best distinguish jazz from other genres is a slippery creature sometimes called the groove – the rhythmic feel that underpins the song and provides something for the players to engage with. In mainstream jazz, the most common feel is known as “swing”. In its simplest form, swing is the rhythm Simply Music students know well as Humpty Dumpty. It’s evident here in the “hump-ty dum…” of the drums. Something about that feel lends itself to being pushed and pulled by the singer or the soloist in a way that makes you want to sway your body and tap your feet.

But jazz doesn’t end at swing, and our Brazilian track has its own character. What it has in common with swing and other rhythms that are considered ‘jazzy” is an indefinable thing – an elegance, a combination of forward movement and looseness – due in some measure to the art of syncopation – the emphasis of beats that are usually not prominent. Brazilian (and other latin) music is so full of syncopation that the basic beat can be hard to distinguish.

The feel here is heightened by its complexity. You could listen many times to each instrument to understand its part – which beats it is emphasising – and you would find patterns and repetition in each one, but there is a special magic that happens when they are put together. The soloists are the icing on the cake, playfully picking out moments that highlight the rhythmic interactions. Listen to Rosa’s singing from around 1:10 as she glides over the busy groove then brings in a little phrase “Éta samba cai pra lá, cai pra cá, cai pra lá”, which weaves in and out of the rhythm. The guitar playing in the outro is another great example of syncopation. Try counting along – if you can.


6. Breathing Underwater – Hiatus Kaiyote


I’m lucky to live in Melbourne, a town with a famously diverse music scene. Any night of the week, great musicians play in funky clubs to enthusiastic but usually small audiences. If you want to make a living here, you need to be versatile, and if you have good jazz training you’ll have the skills to take on a variety of gigs. But if you also have imagination, you might be able to create something really fresh. Hiatus Kaiyote use their considerable chops in search of a hybrid that defies categorisation. Just when you start to feel the groove, they turn it upside down just for fun. Is it even jazz (they lost out to Snarky Puppy at the 2013 Grammys)? If not, what actually is it? It’s not always easy listening, but you can’t fail to admire the fierce imagination of these young shape-shifters.

Are you supposed to like every piece in this list? Absolutely not. But at least if you understand what you’re listening to and are consciously rejecting it, you will develop a keener appreciation of how much there is to like. Feel free to leave a comment with a favourite of your own, and why.