Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pause and Remember for 5

Jazz drummer John Riley reports that famed traps-man Joe Morello passed away this morning at the age of 82.

Morello is easily one of the most heard jazz drummers of all time. He played in pianist Dave Brubeck's quartet from 1955 through 1968, bringing his subtle swing and impeccable touch to American college campuses and developing countries alike. Brubeck and Morello pioneered the use of asymmetrical time signatures in jazz, especially on Brubeck's best-selling 1959 album, "Time Out." The opening track, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," skips along with awkward yet infectious 2+2+2+3 pattern. Morello then gives a masterclass on how simple five-four time can be with his solo on the now universally-known "Take Five." After his time in the Brubeck group, Morello focused his energies on drum education. He was a technique guru and published his challenging warm-ups and exercises in a series of books called "Master Studies." He is a legend among hard core drummers of all styles and stripes for his flawless technique and willingness to pass on the tools of the trade to future generations.

When I was learning drum set in middle school, Joe was an important teacher and inspiration. Ok, I never actually had a lesson with him (even though he lived in New Jersey), but I listened to "Time Out" a lot and did my fair share of work from "Master Studies." At that time, my principle drum deity was Buddy Rich and so needless to say I was all about playing loud and fast. I had some recordings of Art Blakey and Max Roach, but their style seemed weak in comparison to the unyielding power of Buddy's single strokes behind a big band. Joe could easily keep up with Buddy in a pure speed contest which is likely what drew me to him. However, Joe had a much different touch and feel around the kit. Every tap was carefully placed and shaped. The listener wasn't beat over the head with how great his technique was.

His "Take 5" solo was particularly perplexing to me in that he used space. He literally stopped playing at certain points, then would repeat an idea, develop it more, move on to another. This kind of drum solo was from a conceptual standpoint totally different from Buddy's. It was a thread meant to lead the listener along rather than a tidal wave meant to impress the listener into submission. Joe's playing made me being to listen to drummers differently and appreciate touch and space. I don't think I would have had any interest in Paul Motian's playing with the Bill Evans trio (a massive touchstone for me now) if it wasn't for my time spent with Joe Morello on "Time Out."

I was a bona fide drum nerd by the time I was in eighth grade, at the occasional annoyance to my older brother - I couldn't stop talking about it when he drove me home from school. But I guess the annoyance ended up being a good thing when my brother's high school chemistry teacher mentioned that her husband played jazz drums after seeing my brother lead the school jazz band at an assembly. She said that her husband studied with this guy that lived in the area, but who had a pretty big career at some point. My brother mentioned that I was getting really into jazz drumming and they agreed it would be a cute idea to get me an autograph of this erstwhile famous drummer.

On Christmas morning that year, I opened a rather innocuous envelope from my brother and freaked out when I found a personalized, autographed photo of Joe Morello inside. It immediately went up on my dresser, and has sat there through my hours of practicing since then. I never ended up meeting Joe, but I did talk to my brother's chemistry teacher's husband about him. He said that Joe was enthused upon hearing of a young, aspiring jazz drummer and was happy to give a token of inspiration.

Even as his magnum opus "Take 5" becomes a well-worn musical artifact, emblematic of a time yet divorced from its makers, Joe Morello will linger as a legend among drummers he will never meet. His enthusiasm for for sharing music and knowledge still flows from his records, books, and even a little autograph.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bebop Lines and Tight Rhymes

A couple of weeks ago, Kanye West and Mos Def crashed a gig by the pianist/keyboardist/hip hop's official jazz guru Robert Glasper and the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. Lupe Fiasco was already on hand as a special guest, meaning this gig would have filled Giants Stadium, let alone the Blue Note's airliner-thin interior. CiscoNYC has the record here.

After the planned set, Mssrs. Def and West got into some spirited freestyle battling. I'm not going to pretend to be some arbiter of the match (though Kanye can make an egotistical rant sound riveting). To be frank, it was the audience involvement, especially during Kanye's go, that got me thinking.

For the the Glasper originals that opened the show, the audience was as polite as you could be at a jazz show, quietly chatting, applauding at appropriate points, etc. Even with Chris Dave digging into a massive pocket on the drums, the audience seemed to treat the whole thing as a mere sonic appetizer. When Kanye began his freestyle, the audience was deeply engaged. There were big responses when he rhymed "urine" with "touring," used big words like "Illuminati," and threw in a chorus-ending reference to "Jesus Walks."

Throughout West's performance, I couldn't help but think how they related to a great bebop solo. In any great solo, the player throws out some licks that feel irresistibly impressive - filled with lots of notes, flying in and out of the key, ending in the screaming upper range - just like West's virtuosic way with words. A well-timed musical quote, like those used by the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, can add a strong dose of humor as well. Considering that great jazz improvisers and great rap freestylers use the same improvisational techniques, the difference in contemporary audience response between a jazz solo and a piece of freestyle is jarring.

The easy answer for this discrepancy even within the Glasper gig is that young listeners haven't listened to much jazz at all and so impressive runs have no meaning to them. But then again, improvisation is well-received among the young, whether at a concert with Phish or the Roots or with the local party band that jams out over James Brown tunes. I think part of the audience response problem is the context in which people today here jazz the most - classy restaurants and concert halls. These two venues put a premium on manners and appropriate behavior, rather than letting the listener freely engage with the music by cheering or dancing.

If one moves hard-swinging jazz out of these venues and into basement rock clubs, the performance vibe skyrockets. A couple of years ago, I saw the saxophonist Joshua Redman at the Highline Ballroom, a club more inclined to more popular strains of music than what jazz is now. With most of the crowd on its feet scattered around the room, the unyielding groove of the band's two bass-two drum attack got bodies moving. And when Redman jumped into the saxophonic stratosphere (see 3:29 in the vid), there was a mighty cheer. Any listener will respond to great instrumental freestyle if there's no need for permission.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Digital Disappearance

Psst. Over here.

Yes you.

Don't make me speak louder.

So you know I've been in hiding for the past two months and cannot reveal my exact whereabouts. I've become a musical-guerrilla-partisan-mercenary, offering up my services to various groups bent on musical liberation. I have not been able to post here for fear that some may get the idea that I am not busy enough and will contact me for other jobs.

However, here are a couple of things that you can look forward here in the coming weeks:
  • A post on some new music by the guitarist Anders Nilsson
  • Ike Sturm's "Jazz Mass" and sacred music in secular spaces (but for the moment, check this out)
But more importantly, I am leaving soon for a top-secret musical mission in an unnamed Eastern European democracy. I will dispense periodic reports from the field to all those with appropriate clearance (yes, you).

This all I have time for now, but will report back soon.

Over and out.