April 23rd 2016

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Articles from this issue:

Euthanasia: Application of the lesson from cultural history (Part 2)

SPECIAL FEATURE Defence White Paper: Being defenceless invites attack

CANBERRA OBSERVED Banking inquiry suddenly top of Labor's agenda

EDITORIAL Turnbull's school funding plan will help Shorten

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA embeds sexualisation of children in schools

FEMINISM AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Time is ripe to counter the bad-mouthing with truth

SEX EDUCATION "Gender identity" puts vulnerable kids in danger: Pediatricians

THE GENDER AGENDA When schools make Christian kids feel like the enemy

BRITISH POLITICS Corbyn: eccentric, yes; harmless, not so much

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Dear LGBTQs, Christians want for you what you want


MUSIC Jazz: from common tongue to cliquey dialect

CINEMA The bleak dawn of justice: Batman v Superman

BOOK REVIEW Pius XII acts sub rosa

BOOK REVIEW Meet the new userers


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Jazz: from common tongue to cliquey dialect

by David James

News Weekly, April 23, 2016

Modern jazz has reached such a high level of sophistication it is hard to imagine how it might increase in complexity. Instrumental technique, especially on piano and guitar, has become so advanced any further improvements would probably be largely imperceptible to listeners. Harmonic knowledge is exceptionally deep, the complexity of phrasing is advanced and the rhythmic complexity endlessly ornate.

Jazz saxophonist and

composer John Coltrane.

So, why is it so often strangely unsatisfying, especially for those not well versed in the vocabulary of the form? Why does the jazz of the 1950s and 1960s seem so much more memorable and engaging?

Two answers occur. One is that “swing” – the deeply physical and engaging lilt of jazz, which can be traced back to the funeral marches and second line dancing in New Orleans – is considered by many modern players to be a little old hat, almost beneath their dignity. It is partly understandable. If younger jazz players want to do something new then swing has certainly already been done.

But it is not a choice that is designed to appeal to listeners. Musicians with swing are able to connect, in a very physical way, with audiences. Swing was one of the secrets of greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, both of whom swung to an extraordinary degree, largely because of their having been immersed in blues.

It is also the case in popular music. The main reason Michael Jackson stood out so much was his swing. Watch fans singing and dancing to Jackson’s music at his concerts and you will witness the universality of swing’s appeal.

The second reason jazz has faded as a popular form is not defensible at all. In the eras in which jazz was popular there was a great emphasis on melody. The so-called “standards”, which formed the basis of the repertoire from about 1930 to 1970, were deeply melodic and memorable popular songs.

It meant that jazz improvisers from that period were heavily focused on melody in their improvisations. Even the frenetic tenor saxophonist John Coltrane – who spawned colonies of imitators, none of whom comes anywhere near his level of intensity – not only played his melodies with great attention, he also wrote melodies of considerable simplicity (Equinox, Blue Trane, Naima, After the Rain). They sit in stark contrast to his “sheets of sound” approach to improvisation, but there is no conflict. Melody is a vital aspect of music, perhaps its most important. Take it away and the form will start to lose contact with its audience.

The trumpeter Miles Davis did not write many great melodies – although he was not above taking credit for songs written by other people – but his improvisations were some of the most melodic ever produced. In a sense he did not need to write melodies because everything he did was so melodic. His interpretation of songs, including modern popular songs such as Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper, remain the best creations of melodic subtlety ever achieved in modern jazz.

Then of course there were creators of great melodies like Duke Ellington, the finest composer in American jazz (Satin Doll, Cottontail, Take the A Train). In Brazil there was Antonio Carlos Jobim, who created a crossover between Brazilian samba and jazz improvisation (One Note Samba, The Girl from Ipanema, Stone Flower). These were great producers of melody and their writing has endured.

Melody writing is the great leveller in music. It is difficult to do well, and it cannot be taught. Unlike almost every other aspect of music, especially harmony and orchestration, anyone, even a child, can create a melody. There is no need to be educated.

But very few can do it memorably. The difference between a good, great or poor melody is usually infinitely small. Make slight adjustments to great melodies of Beethoven, Handel or Mozart, for example, and see how they collapse.

When jazz was adopted by the tertiary sector, made more academic rather than a music for night clubs and bars, there was an inevitable tendency to focus on what could be taught, especially if it was complex. This applied especially to harmony, which is endlessly complex and requires education. It also applies to rhythm, structure, form, orchestration, maybe aesthetics. But it does not apply to melody, because melody cannot really be taught.

The result is that modern jazz players, schooled in tertiary institutions, pay little attention to melodies. When they compose pieces there is almost an exclusive concentration on how it will work as a vehicle for improvisation. The melodies tend to be produced cursorily, and there is little reference made to them in the improvisation.

The result is that the jazz tends to become a specialised language only for initiates, especially other jazz players, but often opaque to others. It is a mistake that jazz players need to rectify.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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