January 27th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Loy Yang just latest critical asset to go offshore

EDITORIAL Behind the power shift in the Middle East

CANBERRA OBSERVED Freedom of religion just an afterthought?

GENDER POLITICS Family Court washes hands of gender-dysphoric kids

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Western sanctions have forced Russia to upskill

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China exerts soft power on our southern neighbour

ENVIRONMENT Senate committee puts marine life before people

SEXUAL ABUSE Royal commission report ignores cause of abuse

HIGHER EDUCATION Critical thinking and the culture of skepticism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS U.S. urges Taiwan rearmament to counter China threat

PHILOSOPHY A reflection on thoughts of Richard Dawkins

MUSIC Group theory: A good band is greater than its parts

CINEMA Darkest Hour: A long time till dawn

BOOK REVIEW 'Populism' and the new social divide

BOOK REVIEW Poems outshine dross of inept introduction



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Group theory: A good band is greater than its parts

by David James

News Weekly, January 27, 2018

The combination of musicians matters. It is a point that is often forgotten in the celebrity culture of modern music, where singers or leaders tend to get all the focus because they are considered to be the most marketable.

Yet a feature of the best rock and jazz is the way that the unique qualities of the players in the group come together to create a whole unit. Often the idiosyncrasies, even flaws, of the musicians work with the other musicians in the ensemble to produce effects that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

A case in point is the singer Sting. There is no doubt that he is a fine songwriter and has an exceptionally expressive voice. But his solo output has never come close to his work with The Police, despite him having his pick of the musicians from anywhere in the world. This even included getting hold of many of Miles Davis’ band for one of his albums (something that Miles Davis told this writer made him angry).

The reason is that Sting’s style worked in creative tension with the other musicians in The Police. When he hired his own sidemen, that tension disappeared. His bass playing and singing tended to be on or ahead of the beat, while drummer Stewart Copeland played behind the beat (although he did sometimes speed up the tempo, somewhat contradictorily). The tension was resolved by Andy Summers’ brilliant guitar layering.

To hear just how well this unique combination worked, listen to Every Breath You Take, which has a simple bass and guitar part and relatively straightforward melody. But the tension between the drums and bass makes it electric. It is no great surprise that Sting and Copeland argued – in a sense that is what they did musically – but the results were distinctive. Sting could never repeat the intensity. He retained his melodic gift, but rhythmically his later work has been flaccid by contrast.

These kinds of unique combinations are often what make the difference. In jazz and rock, to use the cliché, a champion team easily outpoints a team of champions. For example, the ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor said he left the band because he did not think they could play.

In terms of technical prowess, that is probably true. Taylor was far more advanced, close to a virtuoso. But in another way he was spectacularly wrong. The playing of the members of the Stones – Charlie Watts’ drumming behind the beat, Keith Richards’ swinging on the beat and Jagger’s vocal drive – has been exceptional, and when it was combined with Taylor’s more educated and virtuosic contributions the results were musically brilliant. Tellingly, when Taylor left, the Stones lost something it never replaced. Equally, Taylor’s subsequent musical ventures with more “educated” musicians have been unremarkable.

Another interesting example is Ringo Starr. Superficially, he is not an especially impressive drummer, although he is certainly proficient. Yet his tempo with the band was excellent – which allowed The Beatles to have many takes in the studio and then cut-and-paste the best parts – and he had a strong feel. And critically, in a band that featured Paul McCartney and John Lennon, both of whom had exceptional rhythmic feel, he complemented them, did not get in the way.

Then there is John Bonham, the drummer with Led Zeppelin. He was as good as any of the best jazz drummers with his feel, which combined deliciously with the other members of the band. When he died the band never sought a replacement. Guitarist Jimmy Page explained: “Each of the members was important to the sum total of what we were.” It is that sum total that really matters.

In jazz many of the great bands have involved unique combinations. The obvious example is the Duke Ellington Orchestra, whose horn section work remains inimitable. This was partly because Ellington wrote for the individuals in his band, but it was also because those band members had a unique chemistry and they stayed in the band for decades.

A more recent example is the, now unfortunately defunct, Swedish band EST. Pianist Esbjörn Svensson and drummer Magnus Öström had developed a close musical relationship since they were young. The band’s effervescent and convincingly executed rhythms reflected that unique relationship.

It is these unique relationships that have largely been lost in popular music – very little is produced live in the studio; rather it is heavily programmed – and they are often absent in jazz. In Australia, for example, there are too few true jazz bands (the Necks being an obvious exception). Rather, they are mostly ad hoc ensembles of well-established insiders who go wherever the gigs are. But, without the rich interplays between musicians, the music inevitably loses vitality.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm