Funky Structures

The two bands I’m working with right now are both making albums this year. So I’ve been listening out for ways to structure albums. I found a lot to like in Charlie Hunter’s 2010 release, entitled Gentlemen, I Regret To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.

Because this album is modern I feel pretty bad linking to it on Youtube. If you dig it, buy it. My copy arrived last week and I instantly realised I wanted to blog about it.

The hook for today’s article is a term I made up, “funky structures”. By that I mean, ways of organising groove music on the medium or large scale (bigger than phrase or riff). Jazz/blues/hip hop/funk/techno etc. are built on cycles. Ideas of development, drama and narrative arc that suit European art music are not always the best explanations for those African-American-derived styles.

Layering is a technique familiar from techno and funk, where new elements are added predictably to a cycle. A canonical example would be Herbie Hancock’s 1973 version of Watermelon Man. The rather paradoxical thing about layering is that every new part adds to the groove, yet the groove is fully present in the initial, smallest texture. I’ll get back to that later.

How does Charlie Hunter use it? Here is the order of added elements on the album’s first track:

(Charlie Hunter plays the basslines on this album on the bottom two strings of a custom 7-string guitar, but for convenience I’ll talk about the bass parts as a separate instrument.)

  • 0:00 Bass, 1-note stutter in staccato 8ths, and kick drum and high-hats.
  • 0:10 Drum fill introduces melody, snare and 8ths on hats
  • 0:31 Horns playing stabs
  • 0:41 Horns playing whole-note pads
  • 1:32 Ride cymbal
  • 1:54 Hocket-type texture as build into guitar solo

Or “Drop A Dime”:

  • 0:00 Bass and slow rock beat (a la Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks[LINK])
  • 0:17 Guitar melody
  • 0:55 Add answering horns melody
  • 1:19 Interlocking guitar-and-horns payoff section
  • 1:41 Long-note hits w/ drum fills, then solo

But, what exactly distinguishes this layering from increases of density in non-groove-based music? Well, first let’s investigate some other funky structures. If layering is gradually filling up space, what about emptying space?

Hunter places large gaps at the end of phrases in most of the tunes.

  • Track 1 0:18 has a one-bar space after three bars of melody – at 0:59 the same space is now filled by horns and guitar
  • Track 2 0:43 has a two-bar space for a long bass fill. The entire melody uses long notes which, particularly on a plucked (weak sustain) instrument like guitar, function a lot like space.
  • Track 3 0:18 has long note over two bars of groove after every two-bar phrase.
  • Track 4 again has half-and-half phrase-and-rest structure for the first part of its melody. Hunter fills one of the gaps with laconic chord stabs.
  • Track 6 has the same structure.

These intentional gaps in the melodies remind me of Thelonious Monk’s penchant for spaces in his themes in which the drummer can respond. On this Charlie Hunter album however, drummer Eric Kalb often maintains an unchanging beat through the spaces rather than improvising comments. Horns, guitar or bass sometimes comment instead. In all these cases, the point is to expose, and celebrate, the rhythm section.

There’s a tendency in blues for phrases to taper away, starting off high and active and ending up with smaller and smaller movements around the floor note, e.g. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. Hunter’s melody in “Tout Ce Qui Brille Ne Pas Or”, with its wheeling descent to a rest, uses this feeling. Whether tapering, ending on a long note, or ending on a rest, the idea is to return to the ground layer – the underlying groove/harmony.

A related gesture is the breakdown. Here, instead of leaving space in the weak parts (2nd halves) of phrases, sounds are stripped out on a strong bar (start of a section). Just to be clear on terminology, we could note that this is different to a jazz “break” which is typically before the top of a form (i.e. “A Night In Tunisia”). The breakdown/stripping out of sounds is more characteristic of electronic dance music and funk.

This structure is used in tracks 1, 4, 5, 6 at the start of solos. And tracks 3 & 8 work as breakdowns within the whole album due to their trio instrumentation.

Exposure is the key to these gestures. There is a feeling of contrast, and emotional vulnerability on the part of the remaining musicians. “Tout Ce Qui Brille” at 2:32 demonstrates how this can work really well. The second note of the guitar melody rings out with a bit of buzzing, creating a unique timbral moment that is very beautiful in context – the more so for probably being accidental.

This sense of exposure mustn’t distract players from the groove. I believe this requires a mental independence – part of you must keep track of the underlying ground, whether or not anyone else is playing it.

In a breakdown, those abilities are proved by spotlighting some part previously absorbed in the group texture. Despite the changed perspective (which might radically change how the part sounds/feels subjectively, simply by focusing attention on it) musicians must smoothly maintain their simultaneous awareness of the underlying pulse versus the musical surface.

The reason that I’m going so deeply into this topic is because I used to have difficulty navigating breaks because I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I’ve been thinking this over in order to improve my own playing.

The last specific gesture I want to mention is what could be called limited improvisation or use of routines. Quite often on this album, there is improvisation so restricted that it could be pre-written. The trumpet riff at 2:01 in “High Pockets And A Fanny Pack” probably is written because it’s repeated verbatim, but it sounds improvised when you first hear it. (I love the descent to a different harmonic level there as well.)

On “Antoine” from 1:53-2:20 there is improvisation strictly around a harmonised riff. And of course the challenge inherent in Hunter’s combined bass & guitar approach means that much of his solo vocab must have been figured out beforehand: for instance the complex key-changing double-stops line at a peak moment in the form, 4:13 in “Tout Ce Qui Brille”. This reinforces thoughts I’ve been having on the importance of familiar gestures and internalised vocab in so-called “improvisation”.

So, what’s the meaning of these structures? I shortlisted some aesthetics that I believe Charlie Hunter uses.

Process: this album celebrates process: “how it’s said” over “what is said”, just like in that hip hop track I analysed last year. Eric Kalb’s drumming is a clear illustration. There’s huge craft and a deep moment-to-moment concentration on laid-back grooving in Kalb’s playing – but little remarkable content. It’s all about “doing it”, not expressing new ideas. The high points of the drumming are either cliched fills or attractive timbres (like the opening of “Antoine”). Along with this, the album is entirely in 4/4 and almost all tracks start with a straightforward vamp intro.

Restraint: one of the key themes of the album is holding back. This can be traced back to the instrumentation (7-string guitar, drums, trumpet, trombone, trombone). All of the instruments are technically demanding and impose physical limits. This naturally leads to slow melodies, space, sparse textures and simple comping patterns.

That restraint creates tension – used to propel songs from intro to melody in tracks 4 and 5, or to create epic payoffs whether improvised or written. A great example is from 2:50 in “Drop A Dime”. Massive horns and massive drums and fierce bluesy guitar playing (whose “hold a note over changing bass” hook epitomises Hunter’s self-developed style) – but only after a build-up of intensity over more than half the album.

Subverting sweet chords: Charlie Hunter has an interesting way of using sweet harmony within a mostly ruggedly-grooving context. He writes gorgeous, sophisticatedly harmonised sections for the horns, that are emotional peaks in the album. However, these moments are then wryly undercut by breakdowns to sparse grooving and improv. 0:38-0:45 in “Ode To My Honda Odyssey” is a neat example. The same effect happens on a large scale from 1:17-1:44. The contrast can be a little shocking, but the overall effect is to have the best of both worlds (sweetness and funkiness), while also allowing each to comment on the other. Plus, the album’s sparseness of texture – no standard “comping instrument” like piano – is a statement in itself.

To return to layering…. It seems to me to work off the same principles as the breakdowns and spaces. That is, celebrating the unity of the continuous, all-encompassing groove that is felt equally in every instrumental combination, large and small. In African-American music (and probably a lot of other musics around the world), a blurring occurs between musicians and the audience, whose vocal exclamations, finger snaps, claps, etc. – and dancing – are a valuable element in a performance. I think the joy of layering up and breaking down relates to the social feeling of a group of people entrained in the groove. Each addition or subtraction can provoke new perspectives on all the other material in a play of multiple simultaneous interpretations that are both individual and collective.

I’d better wrap up. I didn’t get around to talking about the note choices and harmony on this album which add so much to its melancholy mood – in particular, the masterful use of major-minor colour shifts. Also I would’ve liked to talk about the transparency which I think this album shares with, e.g., Thelonious Monk’s work. Well, another time.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog, as I’ve been doing it for over half a year. It has succeeded wildly in helping me figure out concepts. But I’m wondering what should my next step be, i.e., what to do with this knowledge. I’d love to write for an improvising band again, but it will take some discipline to realise these ideas.

Anyway, I’ll try do a nice technical post next week after the last few conceptual ones. See you then.

Buy the album!

Knuckles

This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Knuckle
Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.

pentageneral

  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

I gigged some Thelonious Monk tunes last week and remembered how much I love his music. And I’m not alone… one of my bass teachers was playing an all-Monk set in Italy recently – and in the school I was in last year they run a yearly Monk-themed competition.

Today I’ve less transcription than in my last Monk article, but hopefully some nice ideas. I want to explore how Monk balances bright energy emanating from the powerful tonic triad with much darker tones, within a bluesy context.

This immediately reminds me of the binary: “rootedness-displacement” which I heard Vijay Iyer quote from Paul Gilroy. The concept is that a tension between these two properties powers much African-American culture. Some musical examples would be:

  • Time feel – a metronomic pulse is emphasised (rootedness) yet skilled players play ahead of or behind the beat (displacement)
  • Phrasing – a driving beat is made as powerful as possible, yet accents are typically off the beat. In music with underlying rhythms such as clave, many parts play against the rhythm.
  • Blues melody – there is a powerful gravity towards the tonic triad and the root, yet all the expressivity is in deviations – bends and melisma – from the tonic notes.
  • Standard jazz form – 12-bar and 32-bar cycles are an unchanging ground, which yet is constantly challenged via anticipation/delay/substitution of chord changes.

As far as I can make out (here in my white suburb in Ireland…) what’s distinctively African-American is the simultaneous multiple meanings. (The ground-surface dichotomy is from African drumming, I’ve read.) The different possibilities are present, or threaten to be present, at the same time: I7 and IV7 harmonic sounds in blues; ahead and behind the beat in a swing feel; “where beat 1 is” in a polyrhythmic techno piece. Something similar may apply in Signifyin’.

Enough of my usual vague ponderings on black culture! It’s analysis time.

I’ve played this tune since I was a teenager. You can hear why a youngster would like it – it’s extremely catchy and cool-sounding.

Well A
The A section of “Well You Needn’t”

There’s a lot going on here, including a lovely low-register chromatic comping voice (more about that in a bit) and a strong 2-bar syncopation driving the phrase structure. Note the groups of 3 in the concluding phrase.

The bridge shows Monk’s mastery of 32-bar AABA form. It repeats the groups-of-3 idea up a semitone – a seamless connection. The phrase structure (one bar riff followed by one bar rest) and harmonic idea (sequencing up a semitone) are familiar from the A section – although the harmonic rhythm is slower.

Well Bridge
Bridge from “Well You Needn’t”

The B section’s second half is brilliant. The harmonic rhythm suddenly is twice as fast as the A rather than twice as slow (symmetry), and the F to Gb up-a-semitone idea is allowed to continue its movement. This makes an exhilarating sequence of 7 chromatically connected flourishes, which (together with the first two chords of the bridge) sketch out the exact movement of the A section’s low-register counter melody… and then continue past it to land on a Cb, a tritone away from the home key.

All these connective devices create a powerful flow – and perhaps the most important single device is the well-crafted pattern of syncopated accents tying everything together. For instance, the “and of 2” note that ends the bridge melody is the only such accent in the whole piece, forming a peak before the return to A. As I wrote before, Monk is really good at balancing the forces in the final bar before returning to familiar material – the top of a 12-bar blues, or the last A of today’s 32-bar examples.

Charlie Rouse, long-time associate of Monk, also used darkness at peak moments: check the b9 at 2:30 in “Well You Needn’t” on the last bar of the bridge. (I’d love to know the history of this bluesy phrygian sound… Paul Gonsalvez features it in his famous Newport solo.)

The way Monk uses chromaticism in the “Well You Needn’t” bridge is revealing. It is a voice movement away and then towards the 5th (C) of the key. The accelerating harmonic rhythm gives a sensation of exhilarating unleashed energy. At the end there is the gesture of the descending line overshooting its C start point to reach B, a note outside the key. We’ll see this exact concept elsewhere: the momentum of a movement carrying it outside the key at the end of a section. Rouse’ b9 is an example too.

Just to connect this to some past themes and buzzwords… Monk is virtuosically “navigating the form”, he’s using the “hidden energy” trope of black cool, and his music works in metaphors of movement (accelerating, momentum), so that it has “directionality”.

Let’s have a quick look at “Monk’s Dream”, title track of the 1962 album. Now, alas, I’m far from qualified to deal with the beautiful chords that comp the melody. As Vijay Iyer puts it:

“These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant.”

I’d struggle to get even a doubtful transcription of the chords in “Monk’s Dream”, so I’ll just talk melody.

Dream A
The A Section of “Monk’s Dream”, pathetically lacking in the chords I can’t transcribe

There’s an obvious resemblance to “Well You Needn’t”: the opening tonic arpeggio and the first phrase repeated every two bars with variations.

(I love how Monk’s voicing absorbs the major 7th on beat 1 of the tune into a gorgeous timbral object, so much so that it fits seamlessly in a bluesy tonality.)

The first bars run up and down a distinctive cell that I think of as III minor pentatonic over I (E minor pentatonic over C bass). After reading Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe, I’m on the look out for the tendency to emphasise the 3rd and 6th so much that the melody outlines a VI minor or III minor modality against the I major key. “Just Friends” is a great example – the melody is mostly in the relative minor mode (including melodic minor 7 and 6).

The end of the A section involves a chromatic run taking us outside of the key – sound familiar? Like “Well You Needn’t”, the chromaticism seems to fit in between notes of the tonic triad frame. It finishes with a salient b2.

The B section is audacious. It uses the crude directionality of a melody climbing from root to octave – all over a I chord! And, apart from a #4 (part of the idiomatic blues run 3 4 #4 5), only C mixolydian notes are used. So, the only drive comes from the ascending contour and the syncopation.

Dream Bridge
Bridge melody of “Monk’s Dream”

Nothing more is required because of Monk’s adeptness with timbre and call-and-response. Drummer Frankie Dunlop neatly fills the gaps, while gorgeous chords followed by a lovely change from sustain-pedal tremolo to choked staccato tell a story in textures. Notice John Ore’s bassline reverting from 4 notes to 2 notes to the bar in the bridge’s final measure – somehow compensating a bit for the lack of cadential emphasis returning to the A section.

Well it’s nearly time to sign off (and leave some tunes to analyse another time). What did I learn?

Vijay Iyer’s article helped me sum it all up. Monk’s music feels really good pretty much all the time. He deals in groove, flow and sound. His compositions let those things happen. There’s an urgent creativity there, but it never impedes those qualities.

In my last couple of articles I’ve reflected on applying new concepts to my own music. I’ll do that again now.

First lesson: moments of the simplest, strongest possible melody – if the rhythms are hip – can and should be the opposite of corny. More subtly, they can work in an “extended blues” aesthetic that coherently incorporates major-minor ambiguity (i.e. modal interchange), symmetry, and the crunchiest dissonances. And finally, this style of melody should be used as an aid in constructing powerful large-scale shapes (again, with slick rhythm).

More generally, I had a glimpse of an idea, building on my initial investigations into independence, laying back, and gestural playing: what if every musical decision I made was by feel, by awareness of body sensations/embodied knowledge?

That’s a wide-ranging thought, and it reminds me of Vijay Iyer saying that the heritage of great jazz contains “codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings”.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week.

What I Learned from Hollering Blues for an Hour

Last week I mentioned my growing interest in the kind of melodies I might naturally sing. So I decided to sit down (in a soundproofed area) and record myself singing freely.

I soon realised there were no original “natural” melodies inside me waiting to be mystically released. Everything I sang was familiar. I ended up using one basic pentatonic melodic skeleton:

Blues Singing Skeleton 1

Which tended to grow into something like this:

Blues Singing Skeleton 2

What “I felt like singing” turned out to be often unnotateable: blues material relying on fast, gliding ornaments, flexible pitch areas and emphasis on overtones.

What’s more, these effects were all highly reliant on the physicality of my voice, i.e. they combined:

  • switching between head, throat and chest voice
  • use of vocal fry (growling)
  • yodelling-type leaps
  • nasal tone
  • humming
  • breathiness

I’m no singer of course, but if you’re curious what I was sounding like here’s a fragment:

My conclusion – and this is a familiar theme here – it’s just as meaningful to understand these blues phrases as body movements (i.e. in your throat, lungs and mouth) than as melodies.

That’s all very well to say, but the nice thing about doing this exercise just once is that I can feel a new awareness of this physical basis. When I was singing I imitated some familiar sounds: John Lee Hooker’s “hey hey”s and Andy Bey’s hiccup-y pentatonic noodlings. Now I know how those sounds feel to perform.

Also, since doing the exercise, melodic fragments have been coming spontaneously to my mind together with an impression of how they feel to sing. Seeing as melody has been a weak point for me in the past, it’s cool to have little ideas springing to mind fully formed (heard and felt) like that.

It was also nice to grapple a bit with the different registers of the voice. That’s a singer’s bread and butter, but it was novel for me to feel different parts of the blues scale as inhabiting different registers of my voice, e.g. everything above the octave was in my head voice when singing in B, and I could use this to create breaks and yodels.

I noticed one really interesting thing trying to sing these blues phrases. A lot of the mannerisms I’m imitating clearly signify emotion: wails, groans, fall-offs. However, to make them work, they have to be practised till they’re in muscle memory. So they’re practised patterns and not spontaneous outbreaks.

This invalidates the (completely patronising) myth that blues was a direct, naive expression of the pain of the black folk. Emotions in blues are only as sincerely felt as an actor’s performance. Although the performer may completely inhabit the persona, he/she can snap out of it at will.

This explains how ostensibly depressive blues has always been party music. The performer makes a game of its seemingly dark emotions – ambiguously either lampooning them them through exaggeration and stylisation, or seriously inhabiting them. Weariness, sickness, defeat are turned into stylisms subject to slick manipulation. Thus, the bluesman or woman can both conquer them and yield to them. (Albert Murray makes a similar point in Stomping The Blues.) That keeping-in-tension of alternate mindstates recalls Dubois’ “Double Consciousness”. (African Americans’ survival ability to simultaneously navigate white and black cultural values.)

The use of dark emotions has sometimes confused outsider fans of black music. For example, in the awesome slide-guitar blues I discussed a few weeks ago, by white rockers Canned Heat, we can hear singer (and blues collector) Bob Hite call for a “real quiet and ghostly” vibe from the band. This phrase comes from a white record collector tradition of interpreting deep blues as “eerie”, “ghostly” or “weird”. But performers like Skip James, Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson – who did indeed use wailing, plangent sounds and sing about death and the devil – did not think of their songs in these terms, as far as I know. To them it was probably mostly about sex: “sinful music” was its well-documented reputation.

I think certain rappers in more recent decades generated a similar confusion. For example, Big L’s lyrics seem depraved and appalling on their own terms. However, in context, I believe they were mostly a stylistic innovation to keep Big L ahead of the competition.

Well, this week’s post was mostly just re-emphasising some ideas. But this kind of thing helps me form my artistic direction. For example, if I was to start a new art music project now (say along the lines of my old band Nature) I would immediately ask myself – should the vocal lines be notateable as written music? Or is there another way to create them that would suit me and the singer better, and afford more expressivity in the areas I like? Or, for instance, why not base the melody around the singer’s range, using the breaks between registers as part of the music? And why feel the need to deviate from one mode/scale? What if I wrote write in my key, and then transposed so that the same effects happen in the singer’s preferred key?

Interesting stuff. Pretty basic too, of course, but trying to sing for myself hammered it all home nicely!

Encountering Some Trad

For the first time in my life I’ve been checking out some Irish traditional music. It’s something I know sweet nothing about. (Meaning you get a mercifully brief post today.)

So far I’ve really enjoyed it. I thought I’d give my jazz/bluesman’s thoughts on a couple of pieces I’ve worked on.

This all ties in with the awesome book I reviewed recently, van der Merwe’s Origins Of The Popular Style. After reading it I’m primed to find unexpected resemblances between Irish and African-American music. Van der Merwe opened my mind to how constant and complex interchanges between African, British and Irish cultures were the backdrop for the development of blues in the US. That book also put me in the mood for simple, modal melodies.

The first thing I liked about trad was that it’s dance music played with “metronomic” pulse, i.e. without the expressive tempo alterations of Western classical music. So, it grooves.

As well as that, I heard time feels that were triplet-based and exploited the flexibility of triplets. In jazz, a “swing 8ths” jazz feel can encompass placements of the off-beat varying from almost in the middle of the beat to right at the end. In a similarly physical way (by physical I mean deriving from the movements of playing the instrument), the different phrases of this piece lean differently against the steady beat, depending on how complex a figure is being fit into each beat (2 or 3 notes, or much more when trills and ornaments are used):

At this slow tempo, the piece has a ceremonial and martial feel befitting the title. The fanfare-like phrase at 0:20-0:25, and the overall use of a mixolydian mode, evokes “natural horn” instruments that can only play overtones of a single note.

(The King of Laois referred to, by the way, is the Irish nobleman Rory O’Moore who, after the violent destruction of his clan, led a rebellion against the English Crown in 1641.)

The mixolydian mode, distinguished from a major scale by its use of a flattened seventh note, is common in Irish trad. That flattened seventh, and in particular its use as a plaintive high note is common to blues, English folk song and Irish trad. You can hear it a 0:58 in this pretty tune by famous 70s Irish folk band Planxty.

Notice how the accompanying chord is an F, bVII in the key of G major. The chord after is a C, the IV of the key, with an A melody note. The chord progression F C gives a more “modal” feeling than the other possibility, G7 C, which would be strongly “functional”.

I’m honestly completely ignorant as to the history of chordal accompaniment in this tradition. Nowadays it’s part of the standard trad session format. But it’s clear that the melodies are by far more important, and they’re what has come down the centuries. Not all of them are modal, though. This awesome little piece is clearly harmonically oriented.

Tying back to what I said earlier, again there are varieties of triplet feel: compare the percussive start of the phrase at 0:33 with the smoother triplet at 0:35. The former has the first two notes shortened and the third lengthened, while the latter is more rhythmically even. I won’t start pontificating about a style I’m ignorant of, but these kinds of subtleties clearly add to the lilt and groove of the tune. Nicely played, anonymous Youtube whistle guy.

But I was talking about harmony. The second strain at 0:22, for instance, sketches a clear I V I V harmony. Interestingly the cell outlining the first V chord starts with B, the 6th of the key and the 9th of the implied A7 (or A9) chord. Another interesting implication is the II- we hear from the low E at 0:07. Very simple stuff, of course. But clearly the writer understood basic chord progressions and upper structures. I can’t find info on Google but I’ve heard this tune is 200 years old.

It sounds silly to say, but in a way this music reminds me of bebop! Not in its mood or texture, but in its construction from blocks (typically either arpeggios or diatonic cells like 3 4 3 1 or 6 5 6 8), use of interspersed triplets and sixteenths (often generated by turns/trills) and outlining of syncopations by accenting notes (for example a high note) within a steady stream of swung notes.

Also, the “fractal” aspect that Steve Coleman finds in Charlie Parker’s music, whereby strongly melodic movements are found at different levels of scale, is present here: the first note of each bar could be isolated into a completely coherent melody of its own.

I enjoyed discovering these tunes. These days, I feel I’m homing in on my preferred melodic style after many, many years of believing that I would discover it in some advanced harmonic concept. Actually, it’s been under my nose all this time: I like modal melodies and melodies with simple, strong harmonic implications. This kind of thing, say:

Somehow, the idea that I should try write or work with the sort of melodies I enjoy or naturally sing has taken a long time to filter into my head! I think it’s almost impossible to go through jazz education without acquiring a prejudice in favour of complex or systematic melodies (i.e. derived from symmetry, synthetic scales, bitonality, or what-have-you). But at the end of the day, only your inner melodic ear – the part that responds natively to melody – can tell you what sounds good.

I’m not writing jazz at the moment, but I think when I return to it I’ll have a much stronger idea of what materials to work with than ever before.

Anyway! Hope you enjoyed my naive dip into Irish trad. Here I am trying to play “Pat Ward’s Jig”. I was pleased to find that all the hours I’ve spent in my life noodling blues lines meant that I was able to approximate some of the beautiful ornaments that characterise this style. (Of course, this is trifling compared to the art of a trad musician who has studied an entire system and aesthetic of ornamentation.)

And here’s the proper version I based mine on.

See you next time! Please comment if you’ve any thoughts, whether about Irish music or about developing and discovering your own melodic style.

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

monk_words
Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:

 

Lick
… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.

five20spot20blues

(That’s from this cool site… http://www.kyushu-ns.ac.jp/~allan/Documents/Monk-Trans-F.html)

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Why would I ever compare playing jazz to playing videogames? Apart from the obvious answer that I’m a big fan of both.

Well, they both depend on what gamers call “twitch”: instinctive use of patterns kept in muscle memory, and triggered subconsciously.

To achieve this, musicians and competitive gamers practise intricate finger and hand movements, chained together and timed precisely. (E.g. a fighting game might give only 1/60th of a second in which to counter an opponent’s attack).

Aggressive competition defines much online gaming and was also a celebrated aspect of early jazz and bebop. Speed, rhythmic intelligence and imaginative reharmonisations were prized in those scenes, demonstrated at jam sessions, battles and cutting contests.

Speed, timing and rule-breaking shortcuts are the hallmarks of video game speedrunning, where enthusiasts develop techniques and exploit glitches to achieve impossible trajectories and velocities…

I’m gonna get a little more abstract now. Hold onto your hats. Both video games and music are virtual worlds. They transport us to somewhere imaginary. They also change instantly in response to the performer’s decisions. (Bandmates providing the reaction in the one case, the computer and/or other players providing it in the other.)

And, music and games both happen in virtual space. The perception of space in music is complex, but here are some known aspects:

  • High notes are heard as being above low notes and never the other way around (although some cultures use a different binary, e.g. thin-thick). More here.
  • Our hearing automatically interprets stereo differences, echoes and reverberations to give us an impression of our surroundings. In music these effects are called “spatialisation”. They have always been an area of cutting-edge technology, because their virtual spaces seems so futuristic. Psychedelic music has always relied on spatialisation!
  • Most importantly, “music is the sound of human movement”. We interpret rhythm by imagining, using our kinesthetic sense, the body movements that could produce it.
  • Loosely speaking, musicians and informed listeners tend to imagine music as made of shapes (phrases, sections) and to imagine points in a cycle as locations. So, a jazz musician might ask another, “What are you playing on (or over) bar 5 of the form?”
  • These spaces must be learned off for high level performance. Set sequences of moves (i.e. licks in bebop, or a chain of jumps in a game) are used to navigate the space.

In general, I think the African-American tradition of improvisational music has game-like qualities anyway: misdirection, illusion, masking, changing context. Steve Coleman turned me on to this stuff. Further parallels can be drawn with sports, martial arts, and forms of ritual speech like telling tall tales.

So, music/games is obviously a fun analogy to ponder. But, beyond that, it suggested to me some interesting crossover ideas.

“Let’s Play” videos, of gamers commentating their own playthroughs, have become massively popular in the last few years. Could improvised music work with a commentary?

Actually, it traditionally does: non-verbal exclamations of approval, musical imitations, and jokes (“knock knock” at 0:50). Or in classic hip hop lyrics that turn attention to the present moment, “You’re in awe when I’m gripping my mic cord”, “Hey you sayin’ what the hell is this shit/Reaching for the cover, turning up your deck”.  I wonder could a contemporary artist build off these traditions and consciously add forms of commentary to improvised performance?

Visuals help a lot to make games accessible. The technology is available to visualise the harmonic choices made by improvisors – most simply, how about assigning a different colour to each note?

The practices of “modders” who repurpose commercial game content seem to mesh well with how jazzers used showtunes or classical music etudes for their own creative ends. Here, for example, is a level released in 2014 (for free) that uses content from a 1996 game in ways the original creators could not have imagined.

metmon2l.jpg
by Simon O’Callaghan

The open-source movement, meanwhile, reminds me of the great common pool of licks and ideas that jazz musicians take from and give to.

With my last band, Glitchpuke, I consciously copied indie game “development logs”by including analysis of my own mistakes in the band blog.

And these days, I’m feeling inspired by game level designers – particularly, their cycle of repeatedly exploring and then refining a space. I want to have a band that does that.

Can games learn from jazz? One thing I’m anticipating with interest is the appearance of black-coded movement/performance styles in virtual reality. As a point of comparison, think how twerking rapidly entered the cultural mainstream from both corporate music videos and home-made ones on Youtube – probably generating a lot of money for some people.

Okay, I’m gonna start rolling it up now, but first I’ll look at some instructive differences between jazz and videogames culture.

Games culture started in by far the more privileged milieu: prestigious US universities that turned Cold War funding into technologies like programming languages, the personal computer and the internet. As Jeru The Damaja put it, “Chips that powered nuclear bombs power my SEGA.” The people involved were predominantly white and guaranteed of social acceptance in the middle classes.

PDP Team

By contrast, jazz originated in African-American urban communities which experienced much racism and poverty, crime and corruption.

Then again, today, all kinds of people are represented in improvised music and in gaming. A book could be written about the changing demographics of each. Jazz has become broadly academicised, with its mass appeal claimed by rock, hip hop, dance etc. Gaming has gone from embodying both tech culture privilege and geeky outsiderhood, to hosting vocal feminist, transgender and non-Western communities. All these changes have provoked gatekeeping reactions of many kinds.

To wrap up, and to reassure any musician friends reading, I want to point out areas where computer gaming can’t compete with music performance.

  • Nuanced expression is one. Although performance capture technology and detail of simulation are always advancing, the complex, multi-layered, intimate connection of a live instrumental performance won’t be digitised for years to come.
  • Gaming, as we currently know it, is not a fully-fledged form of expression – you can’t convey feelings by how you jump around a map. Although maybe this fellow would disagree:
  • Finally, games are dependent on technology. Of course, you could say this about electronic music. But for me, that’s a major mark against electronic music – if it takes you a minute to start your computer and another to load up your preset banks, you can’t claim to have the immediacy of raising a horn to your lips and blowing.

Hope you enjoyed that! Back to my usual music chat next week! As always, your comments are welcome and you can show appreciation by liking or following on WordPress, or liking/sharing on Facebook.

Truck on Down and Dig Me, Jack

Today’s (tonight’s) post will be a quick one because I spent my time on another idea that didn’t work out! I’m gonna talk about Louis Jordan, one of the all-time great African-American entertainers, who (this isn’t just my opinion) doesn’t get his due in jazz circles. Specifically, I want to try investigate coded meanings in his songs and lyrics.

Louis Jordan was a famous hit-making bandleader who churned out dozens of singles in the 40s and 50s. They’re in a distinctive style, with heavy piano basslines, powerful swing/shuffle grooves, bluesy harmonised vocals, lots of blues vocabulary in general, and sax and piano solos.

Jordan’s persona as a singer is also distinctive – he is hip, ironic, and uses a lot of jive talk and witty rhymes. His music has been called proto-rap and proto-rock’n’roll, and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown were all influenced by him. I really like a lot of his music, for one thing because it grooves and has great riffs and solos, but also because of the humour and double entendres in the lyrics.

I’m going to speculate that Jordan covertly attacked white oppression in his songs. But let’s start with an obvious double entendre from 1946 just to see how he works.

So, to put it bluntly, this song is about the sexual potential of underage girls, as you may have guessed from the title. The innuendo is transparent, but by placing himself in the moralising position of warning males away from girls who are too young, Jordan somewhat lightens the effect. It’s still a creepy song by today’s standards! Not one of my favourites.

“Blue Lite Boogie” (1950) is not so bad, because Jordan plays up the humour and pathos of his persona, the guy who’s too old and uncool for a really hip party, “I was like a chaperone”. But the undercurrent of teenage sexuality can still be pieced together. The partygoers are “bobby-soxers” doing “the boogie real slow with the blue light way down low”. They are too young to drink, seeing as the police find only “ice cream and lemonade” after a raid. Plus the atmosphere of the tune is so blue it borders on the debauched! But I quite like that nasty vocal harmony.

Let’s move on to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”. This song has been covered by the white Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel, as well as by B.B. King and James Brown! All the cover versions present it as a light-hearted number. A late version by Louis Jordan on French TV is extremely interesting for its introduction:

Important points:
– this is for a white audience
– Jordan plays up to the stereotype that black Americans like chicken. He visibly decides to switch to an exaggerated accent “And I’m sure that – you know ah lu-uv chicken.”
– he references his previous song about chickens, which could only be “This Chick’s Too Young To Fry”

I’m not well-informed enough to know a name for Jordan’s use of stereotype, but I think I recognise it. It’s an evasive maneouvre of acting out what’s expected of a black performer so as to let the white audience think they have his measure, while they actually don’t at all. And Jordan references “Too Young To Fry” which is built on innuendo, but in such a way that only someone who knew his back catalogue would understand. So, this song is getting an introduction heavy with double meaning.

What is the song about? It is sung in the persona of “us”, the “chickens”. It’s a song of protest addressed to a farmer who “shouts”, “butts in”, “stompin’ around and shakin’ the ground”, disturbing the chickens who have their own business to attend to, “We got things to do”. There are references to the farmer’s authority as manager – he does the locking up of the property – and that he menaces the chickens with a gun. A final element is that this is music for urban black people, for whom the rural countryside was a memory of even more extreme racism than they experienced in the cities.

So, I think the farmer represents terrorising white authority and the chickens black people who just want to be left alone. Interestingly, in the 70s performance, Jordan gives some genuinely disturbing shouts “oh no uh uh oh no” over the song’s ending, eyes wide as if with fear, before switching instantly to his genial smile. I’d tentatively interpret it as an angry challenge to his audience to recognise to real meaning of the song.

I have no idea if B.B. King, James Brown and Asleep At The Wheel thought about this perspective on the song. Maybe they all did.

A more light-hearted, yet more viciously ironic look at a similar theme is “Cole Slaw”. I’m certain that this song is slagging off Southern whites for their European diet and manners. It’s also an absolutely bad-ass honking horn arrangement.

The lyrics are very funny with their silly rhymes on “-aw”, yet cuttingly sarcastic, “it ain’t nothing but some cabbage raw”, “just a simple Southern treat”, “that’s good strategy without a flaw”. Frankly I think this is a simmeringly angry song. The ending confirms it, with a mocking repetition of “cole slaw” followed by dark hits on a V7 with sour bends up to its 3rd and b7th.

Okay, one more for you, which, if I’m right, is also a mocking song but with a more problematic target.

“Five Guys Named Moe” brought Jordan to the attention of white audiences and was his early breakthrough hit. It’s about a band whose members are all called “Moe” and who “came out of nowhere” to be “the talk of rhythm town”. Jordan presented this (as you see in the video) as if the “five guys named Moe” were his band. However, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that the notable Moes in the US were all Eastern European Jews. I don’t have much more to go on, but I think this song might be satirising the success of Jewish pop songwriters and musicians. The use of a moment of barbershop harmony at 0:29 is interesting. Although barbershop was probably an African-American style originally, by its 1940s revival it seems to have been coded as white. For instance, Norman Rockwell depicted it thusly in 1936:

9360926
“Sharp Harmony” by Norman Rockwell

So, Jordan was not including barbershop harmony to be hip. I have read that anti-Semitism was widespread in black communities in the first half of the 20th century, and I suspect, that, although it’s a nifty tune, “Five Guys Named Moe” might be a reflection of that. Check out Joe Jackson’s great version by the way (off his album of jump blues covers, Jumpin’ Jive, that first introduced me to Louis Jordan’s songs, featuring pumping electric bass by Graham Maby – not as swinging as the originals but an excellent effort).

To finish, a tune that I’m not really sure if I’ve figured out.

There is definitely some Signifying and double entendre going on here. For one thing, unlike his earlier hits, “Beans And Cornbread” (1949) makes references to traditional, rural black styles of work and church music. Check out the interlocking of the vocal harmony with the bluesy hollers, “I’ll be ready”. Even more countrified are the wordless vocal effects at 1:03 and 1:28. The whole outro references the call and answer of a preacher and his congregation. Jordan puts overwrought tremblings and whoops in his voice, then hams up a naive gospel ending over a corny I V I cadence. This is in contrast to the key-changing slickness of the intro. What the heck is going on?

The lyrics describe how two food items, beans and cornbread, have a fight, then “Beans” goes on a sentimental rant about how they should be friends and socialise together all the time, “Every Saturday night, we should hang out!” And a long list of foods that go together are referenced.

There’s one line that might be the key, “Beans told cornbread, it makes no difference what you think about me, but it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you.” So, very clearly, theirs is not a friendship of equals. My tentative reading is that, basically, “Beans” represents whites who are offensively over-familiar to blacks (“Cornbread”) and who use their privileged position to insist on fraternity while ignoring injustice.

Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. As always, please leave a comment if you have any, and also follow the blog to make sure you won’t miss my weekly posts! Till next time.

Manifesting

[I edited this piece on 27/01/2016 to make a stronger start by moving some stuff to the end.]

Today I want to focus on an idea from my first post. I claimed that Gang Starr’s 1993 hip hop track “The Planet” celebrates the process of making music and developing skills. This idea of an African-American “processual” aesthetic stayed in my head. Recently I realised what it was missing: how respect for creative work applies to creative work happening right now – in the moment and “in time” to the beat.

Hip hop and jazz and jazz both value a performer opening their imagination and voicing ideas while staying cool (represented by controlled time feel and timbre). In jazz this is called spontaneous composition. Although rap is usually much less free than jazz soloing, it nonetheless privileges the idea of improvisation. Many features of rap are clearly improvisers’ techniques: routines and cliches which give the rapper time to think, repeating of words or lines as if correcting a mistake, and free, intuitive association of thoughts or sounds.

I believe that hip hop values in particular the willed act of in-the-moment creative expression. This is clear in the spoken introductions prefacing so many classic tracks. They are a ritual hyping up of the upcoming creative act. For example…

Burnt Batch’s “Artform” features a beautiful spoken intro and outro that lays out the song’s purpose: to “explain this artform of hip hop”.

It invokes two qualities of virtuosic improvisation: transportive/visionary power, “take me on another journey”, and unexpected switches of scale, “in a twisted world where everything is in the palm of your hand”. The speaker’s voice creates a great vibe by using the pitching, although not the strict rhythm, of rap. Still, his timing is very intentional, as in the hesitant “You know what I mean it’s like… takin’ a trip… you ain’t comin’ back” finishing right before the bass-heavy beat enters with a snare drop and a sublime laid-back kick on the downbeat at 0:24. It’s a lovely build-up.

These intros represent and stylise the social function of cheering on the performer. This is a facet of call-and-response, an archetypal feature of African and African-American music. A clear example of that is the chorus chant in Freestyle Fellowship’s “Cornbread”.

T-Spoon Iodine calls out “Aceyalone I hear ya” to the main performer, reacting and spurring him on. By the way, this brilliant rap has many indicators of improvisation – free association, leaps of imagination, playing with sounds, filler lines, etc. – whether or not it was spontaneous.

Big L, in this radio performance, claims that he is improvising “I  don’t know how I’ma do this” even though the actual rap is pre-written. It’s just one of a few stock phrases he uses to build up to his rap – and a good demonstration of the idea of improv in hip hop.

His tone of voice and even facial expression change when he switches to full-on rapping. This mental transition, and the “here it comes” feeling, are integral parts of the performance – as are the exclamations and contributions of the others in the studio. I believe that in this aesthetic, there is a unification of intention, invention, utterance and audience reaction. There is no word in standard English that covers all of these (“expounding” and “holding forth” have no connotation of creativity) – but later we’ll see what terms rappers themselves have used.

Let’s not forget that I’m looking at a little slice of music history here. Actually, I should put my hand up and say first of all that categorising and defining aspects of black music that I only know from records puts me at risk of making the similar mistakes, and perpetuating the same racialised dynamics, that plagued many white blues/jazz commentators. I try stay aware of that!

Anyway, my point was that these techniques have a different meaning today than in the mid-90s, because they’ve been assimilated into mass culture. The chorus of Jurassic 5’s pleasant but backwards-looking “What’s Golden” (2002) uses a typical crowd-interaction/call-and-response chant as a convenient stand-in for classic hip hop: “We’re taking it back to yes-y’allin’“. What was a behaviour becomes more like a sign.

And I should also make clear that these African-derived techniques have become transplanted into other cultures. For instance I saw an all-white, all-European jazz band in JJ Smyth’s last week that made exuberant use of call-and-response, when drummer Eric Ineke punctuated bassist Ronan Guilfoyle‘s solo phrases with detailed rhythmic comments.

So with that said, and having looked at the hyping introductions, let’s examine celebration of improvisational thinking in the actual lyrics. I isolated two types of tropes: metaphorical descriptions of the in-the-moment creative act; and mind-blowing imaginative leaps. The metaphors celebrate improv with heroic comparisons, while the flights of fancy celebrate it by demonstrating mastery of it.

There are a huge number of metaphors for rapping. One important type is physical metaphors, most obviously of violence. “I’ma hit ya with the blow of death” from Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, or “I wake you with hundreds of thousands of volts” from Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury”. Rap may be viewed as  a “slang blade” (Binary Star, “Slang Blade”) or a “rappin’ sword” (EPMD, “You Gots To Chill”), or a gun, “be prepared for the mental head shots” (Company Flow, “Vital Nerve”). Also physically-derived are the many verbs used for the intentional creative act I’ve been discussing: bust, kick it, flip shit, flow, hit, drop…

One rapper was a master of these verbs and he is Guru of Gang Starr. It’s no coincidence that he popularised jazz-rap and collaborated with top jazz players: he obviously prioritised the aesthetic of spontaneous composition. Check out the incredible amount of terms for the creative act in his early track, “Manifest”:

I profess

I manifest

I select a clear message

I go for glory

I narrate, relate and equate, dictate and debate

I’m kickin’ clout

Right about to spin it

I instill

I impress upon you

Let me uplift and shift my gift

To ignite, excite and delight

I’m about to let off

I convey

I give you lyrics to live to

Guru was also conscious of the effect of using all these words in the first-person present tense: to say “I speak” is to prove the truth of the words, collapsing the distance between word and reality. Guru intentionally played with truth and “realness”, I think.

Another class of metaphors are those about unleashing, or threatening to unleash, hidden energy – an essential component of black cool, Questlove claims.

“Wanna rhyme one time, to release the steam”

“Because I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”

“My rhymes are hungry plus they haven’t been fed” – “You’re A Customer” – EPMD

“I come in peace to release the effect of my voice” – 2 Deep – Gang Starr, Step In The Arena (holy shit that is such a good line it gives me goosebumps… check it out in context, it’s at around 2:47)

“Grab the microphone and let your words rip” – “Check The Rhyme” – A Tribe Called Quest

“Your optics will not be able to detect/The deadly hypnotical gases” – “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” – Organized Konfusion

Releasing hidden energy isn’t a common trope, but it’s important to me because it crops up in a few of my absolute top-rated tracks. For instance, this line by Pharoah Monche of Organized Konfusion, comparing his rapping to a volcano, is one of the heaviest I’ve ever encountered.

“…I strike/Sight beyond sight, sound beyond sound/Which comes from below the magma, the granite, the ground/The surface will separate, dispersing harmful ashes”

(Notice the utterly virtuosic shift of perspective in one line from deep in the earth to where the listener stands on top of it, and the tricky switch-up – like a fighter or dancer’s – of the phrasing “Which comes from”, prepared by the abstraction of the previous line.) That, and the first line of his verse, “I am the one who is one with all things”, are powerful expressions of what Amiri Baraka called “the classic African sensibility… everything that exists… is part of, connected as, the same thing”.

These head-melting shifts of location, context and/or scale are a trope too: agility of imagination. E.g. Gang Starr’s “Comin’ for Datazz”:

“True indeed I believe in taking my words’ power/Across the seas and deserts through the trees and grass, and if you ain’t on point then we coming for that ass”

Just like Monche, Guru creates a progression of locations homing in on the listener. This tricky thought switches context from foreign lands and oceans to the here and now. Nas pulls a similar stunt in his classic “N.Y. State Of Mind”: “Don’t put me in your box if your shit eats tapes”, bringing the message home to the listener’s cassette player.

So what kind of conclusion can we draw from surveying these tropes and aesthetic tendencies? Well, I’m reminded of a thing Vijay Iyer said in the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in 2012: Great Black Music contains within itself the codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings.

Transformation of everyday situations by manifesting a rhyme happens to be the final hip hop trope I want to mention.

“Rhymes attract the crowd once I got em down pat” – “Slave To My Soundwave”, Lord Finesse

“When I rock street kids rejoice” – “Mostly The Voice” – Gang Starr

What I’ve picked up from thinking through all this, is a view of creativity as a social act of generosity and courage – bringing joy to a situation by unleashing, and trusting in, subconscious powers. Two kinds of discipline are involved: the woodshedding discipline of internalising patterns that can be used later in the moment; and the performance discipline of trusting in imagination and controlling sound and time feel, which comes down to being connected to your body and to the present moment.

I hope you enjoyed the read and that you picked up some new ways to listen to rap lyrics and improvise, and to think about creativity. Please comment!

[Here are two paragraphs that were originally at the start of the piece, about the politics of technology.]

Writing comments is unpaid labour, or so it was suggested on The Quietus yesterday. Is blogging similarly a donation of work to corporations monetising ad clicks? Do they deserve it for the services they provide?

I guess it comes down to whether you broadly agree with the way our technological world has gone. From a musician’s perspective, the internet reduced investment in recorded music. In return it’s given us free music to listen to, which can be handy. Vijay Iyer hopes that the spontaneous emergence of deeply organised structures from apparent disorder is the future of music. But honestly, I haven’t seen this yet on the internet – though I appreciate how Youtube, Google Drive and Facebook let me swap musical ideas with bandmates.