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Blue Sands

Posted: Fri May 01, 2015 7:45 pm
by Mike McCarthy
My parents loved my sister but thought I, five years younger, was invisible. She had all the nice stuff including a record player of her very own, quite a decent one. She was blah blah blah yada yada yada ...

[An aside ... Q: For god's sake, Mike, you're 71. Haven't you gotten over this stuff yet? A: No, I haven't. I don't dwell on it but the day she whipped me with a leather belt for no reason at all [I was five] was the day she went on my s**t list. Once on that list people don't come off. It's a life sentence. But I digress ...]

My sister somehow was able to afford nice LPs, too. One of them was my introduction to modern jazz, the 1955 album "Blue Sands" by the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Here's the title track featuring Jim Hall on guitar ...
I still don' t understand it rhythmically, nor can I discern the song structure. The drums are in 8/4 time (believe it or not) and so is the guitar, but the flute is in ... I dunno ... 87/4 (is joke), which I suppose was the whole point of the piece.

At boarding school I was teaching myself to play guitar at the time, on a cheap metal stringed acoustic Kay that absolutely destroyed the fingertips of my left hand. When I brought the instrument home for Christmas I had a lot of trouble trying to cop Hall's guitar work beginning at 2:26. At least the chord at 2:38 was high up the neck so I didn't have to struggle with it. In fact, the Kay was so difficult for me to play that I detuned it by two wholetones so I could get out of, and stay out of, what guitarists call the first position. That was when I realized that Bo Diddley tuned his guitar to an open D chord, and it was when I realized that I needed to upgrade my guitar, whatever that would take.

[Another aside ... Speaking of weird time signatures, the sequenced intro to Mr. Mister's "Kyrie Eleison" is in something really bizarre like 13/4. I really don't remember exactly but I had to work it out for the Golden MIDI business. Here it is but I'm not going to work it out again, the exercise being left to you, Dear Reader ...
The pain starts to go away at 1:06, I promise, and the novocaine takes full effect at 1:10 ... But I digress.]

Nobody didn't like the Dave Brubeck Quartet's 1959 recording "Take Five" ...
However, America's interest in jazzy time signatures goes all the way back to George Gershwin's 1924 publication of "Fascinating Rhythm", the verses of which have a 4/4 melody running on top of a 3/3 instrumental chassis. It's been recorded many times, the version I'm most familiar with (and like the most) being this one ...

[An aside ... One year I went to sleepover summer camp with a girl named Georgia Godowsky. She was the daughter of Leopold Godowsky, the inventor of Technicolor, and the granddaughter of composer Leopold Godowsky. Georgia had been named in honor of her uncle, George Gershwin. But I digress.]

And now for an earical illusion, if I may coin that phrase. Cannonball Adderly's "Dis Heah" sounds rhythmically weird, but if you count it out you will find that the verses are in simple 6/4 and the choruses are a straight waltz. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, the Cannonball Adderly Quintet ..
I thought this piece came after Ray Charles' 1961 "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album, produced by Quincy Jones, but apparently I'm mistaken. "Dis Heah" seems to have been recorded in 1959 making it the earliest example of Soul Music that I'm aware of. (There are probably other examples but I'm not familiar with them.)


By now the astute reader will have noticed that I've said nothing at all about traditional modern jazz. That's because it was never a strong interest of mine. I hope that a site member will step in and pick up my slack. That said, let me give you certain views of mine ...

Modern jazz is a uniquely American musical art form. The players start by working together as an ensemble to lay down an extended musical thought.. Often that thought is an elaboration of an eight bar groove of some kind. With that chassis in place it is repeated as to length and rhythm but now a soloist improvises an interpretation of the chassis, with the other players improvising accompaniment. In a perfect world every player takes a turn as just described, and then they all get together again to reprise the chassis as an ensemble.

I'd love to find a good example for you but I can't offhand because, truly, modern jazz is not my thing and I just don't know the body of work very well. That said, here is a master of jazz, Herbie Hancock, with his 1964 release of "Cantaloupe Island", a piece we will revisit in the Funk section ...
Here the chassis lasts from timecode 0:00 to 0:35. It is repeated with the tempo picked up slightly, the trumpet melody unchanged except that trills are added. The two iterations of the chassis are complete at 1:09, when improvisation begins.

The chassis is now repeated three times, but with trumpet improvisation instead of the original trumpet melody. This phase of the piece concludes at 2:57 when it is the piano's turn.

[An aside ... During the trumpet improvisation the piece tempo picks up. If he's reading this perhaps resident producer Tom Werman will give his opinion about whether this recording is actually several different takes that have been spliced together with the aid of a razor blade. Early in his career with Columbia Music, Tom had the job of editing recordings to cut them down to lengths suitable for getting AM radio airplay, so he knows about this stuff. Remember "Long Cool Woman"? That was a Tom Werman edit, one of my all time favorite recordings. But I digress ...]

The piano solo is layered on top of another three repetitions of the chassis, but now the trumpet is entirely silent. Had I been arranging this piece I'd have tossed some quiet horn pops in just to remind people of the architectural nature of modern jazz, but that's me. I cannot -- will not -- presume to tell Herbie Hancock his business. This phase of the piece lasts till 4:27 ...

... At which time one might ordinarily expect a bass solo followed by a drums solo, or perhaps the reverse. However, and I speak as a bass player and rhythm section devotee, Hancock is smart enough to know that his job is to wake people up and make them pay attention, not to put them to sleep with solos on instruments that god intended be used in a support role only.

Therefore at 4:27 it is time for the ensemble outro. The chassis is repeated once now instead of twice or thrice (don't put them to sleep), and then the underlying 4-beat groove is faded into infinity. The man is a musical genius.

I'm going to put another link here, this one to a compilation by Jazz24 listeners who indicated, by voting, what they feel the top 100 jazz songs of all time are ...
Now I can go to jazz school any time I want, if I ever want, which I probably won't because my motto is ... If it isn't funk, it's got to be junk.

Like classical music, jazz makes me think too hard about structure. Remember what Chuck Berry said in "Rock And Roll Music" ...

I've got no kick against modern jazz,
Unless they try to play it too darn fast;
And change the beauty of the melody,
Until it sounds just like a symphony.

Well ... He's not talking about structure here, I suppose, but in a parallel universe he did.