June 29th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY John Setka, for all his faults, is the perfect scapegoat

FIGHTING FUND NCC president Patrick J. Byrne outlines the goals for 2019

SPECIAL FEATURE Author Rod Dreher brings St Benedict to bear on our decline and fall

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One million protest China's attack on Hong Kong's freedom

GENDER POLITICS Vatican issues document on gender ideology

POLITICS AND SOCIETY New secularist strategies to bury Christianity

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 4: Ancient Jewish view of the cosmos

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal: An account from the live streaming

BANKING FEATURE Greed works ... at least for a while and for a few

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 2: What feminism should be

IDEOLOGY WARS Roger Scruton and the Tories: a sorry tale

MUSIC Melodic abundance: John, Paul, Duke and Antonio

CINEMA The End: Staging the apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Scenes from Dante's Inferno

BOOK REVIEW Mrs Gould: she who drew the pictures



NATIONAL AFFAIRS A Q&A to clarify issues in Cardinal Pell's appeal

HUMOUR A Western flop lob-story and that

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Melodic abundance: John, Paul, Duke and Antonio

by David James

News Weekly, June 29, 2019

George Martin, who produced many of the Beatles’ albums, argued that Paul McCartney and John Lennon should rank alongside some of the great composers of Western music because they penned so many great melodies. Good composers, he said, come up with a few memorable melodies. But only those in the very top rank create more than 100.

It should be noted that the Beatles were essentially two composers, whereas classical composers typically wrote alone. The exceptional quality of their music derived from the unusual combination of Lennon’s directness and rhythm and McCartney’s harmonic sophistication and lyricism.

But it is an intriguing comment from Martin, and raises an ancillary question about jazz. Only two composers qualify for Martin’s requirement of having written dozens of timeless melodies: Duke Ellington and the Brazilian, Antonio Carlos Jobim. They both produced works that became part of the standard jazz repertoire (unlike the Beatles’ songs, which tend to be too idiosyncratic harmonically to work well as vehicles for improvisation). They were also both composers in the sense that they wrote for ensembles and orchestras; they did more than just write songs.

So, who is better? If we are looking for jazz pedigree, the answer has to be Ellington. For most of his career, he was a bandleader, and he defined that style. Many of the musicians enjoyed long tenures with him, and he composed to their strengths.

The list of Ellington’s best songs is extra­ordinary and there is little sign of repetitiveness: I Got it Bad, In a Sentimental Mood, Satin Doll, Mood Indigo, Take the A Train, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It‘Ain’t Got That Swing), Come Sunday, East St Louis Toodle-oo, Sophisticated Lady.

What is especially noticeable about them is the Duke’s delight in melodic shape and his exceptional craft in creating them – which he then completed with an advanced harmonic language. Ellington had a recognisable style, but there was no indication of a repeated formula.

Ellington ventured into classical-style compositions. His piece, Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro, is a brilliant and distinctive work, but it was poorly received at the time and he did not perform it again. He subsequently went in the direction of chamber-style pieces, penning long suites, including: Liberian Suite, Harlem, and Such Sweet Thunder, a tribute to Shakespeare.

Jobim was equally gifted. He came out of a background that was not directly connected to jazz: Brazilian samba. But he was at least as influential as Ellington – indeed, probably more so because he invented a style, the bossa nova (a derivation of samba) almost single-handed. Ellington could hardly be said to have developed jazz itself; rather he took it to places that it had not gone before.

Jobim was a synthesiser. He was especially influenced by the melodic and harmonic approach of Chopin, and also incorporated advanced jazz and blues harmony with great effect. He then blended that with the floating, pushed melodic phrasing of Brazilian singing.

The result was a startling output of memorable pieces: Desafinado, Wave, Felicidade, Águas de Março (Waters of March), Agua de Beber, Borzegium, If You Never Come to Me, Favela and The Girl From Ipanema (this last has unfor­tunately been featured in too many elevators, but it is still superbly written).

Like Ellington, there is remarkably little repetition in Jobim’s melodies. And, like Ellington, Jobim was also very interested in, if not classical composition, then at least distinctive forms of orchestration. Although it is here that his writing tends to date, however. His arrangements with lush strings, flutes and muted horns now sound overly sentimental to the modern ear.

Where Ellington had some skill in counterpoint, Jobim was mainly concerned with melody and harmony and his orchestration tended only to add colour.

Both writers were not afraid of absolute simplicity. Compare C Jam Blues by Ellington with Jobim’s Águas de Março (the recording featuring a duet between Elis Regina and Jobim is the best).


In both pieces we see mastery exhibited with only two or three notes, the phrasing delicious in its transparency. Águas de Março is the winner, though. Especially when sung by Regina, the notes seem to float almost impossibly over the backing rhythm, with subtle, displaced shifts of pure delight.

Making comparisons between such greats is not about who is better, of course. It is to see what they achieved from a slightly different perspective. Jazz has never produced compositions to match what they did.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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