Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why is jazz guitar so harmonically under developed?

So it's been a very long time since I've done a blog post. I let it slip my mind and now it's almost been a year since I posted anything. The opinions I expressed last year still hold today and I will get back into those issues later on, but for this post I thought I'd blog about something that I have been thinking about for over 2 years now as well as something that I have been trying to address through my playing over the last year or so. This something is the apparent lack of harmonic development of the jazz guitar since it's emergence as a solo instrument in the late 30s.

So what do I mean by harmonic development? If we look at the jazz guitar from the bebop era, the lines and vocabulary that guitarists such as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow etc. were using were pretty much in line with the vocabulary of the saxophonists and pianists of the era. However, as jazz developed through the 50s and 60s, the harmonic landscape of jazz really started to open up. Innovators such as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock changed the harmonic language of jazz forever and for me, it really seems as if the guitar never really caught up with the piano and saxophone when all these great changes were being made.

I think one of the main reason why jazz guitar never really made the switch to chromatic harmony was because we never really had a John Coltrane, a Herbie Hancock or a McCoy Tyner to pave the way for us. We were - and for the most part still are - completely spellbound by Wes Montgomery and rightly so as he was one of the leading exponents of the guitar being a solo instrument. One could argue that Jim Hall lead the way for chromatic substitution, and while this is true to an extent, his innovations were mostly chordal in nature as opposed to single note lines. I am not saying that people like Hall, Wes, and Tal Farlow can't play - obviously they can- I am saying that the guitarists vocabulary never really delved into the harmonic worlds opened up by Coltrane et al.

So what about the modern players like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg and Lage Lund? They are innovative but in a different way. I think the way we see the fretboard is being changed by Rosenwinkel especially, the use of non traditional positions and "technically wrong" leaps around the strings has widened the intervallic structures of improvisational lines on the guitar. The lines are getting more saxophonistic/pianistic in intervallic note choice, but these lines still remain pretty much inside the chord scale of the moment - to use some Berklee terminology.
There are a few guitarists who are managing to expand the harmonic vocabulary of the guitar and personally I think these are two of the most interesting guitar players in jazz right now. Firstly we have Nelson Veras, a Brazillian born guitar player who has been living in Paris for a number of years now. The first thing I noticed about Nelson's playing - long before I became interested in chromatic harmony- was his almost flawless left hand technique it was only later on I realised how developed he was harmonically. His harmonic application is very advanced and he uses some Messiaenic modes in his improvisation which is demonstrated here. The video posted below is with dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje's group. This really demonstrates his use of chromatic harmony over a relatively simple chord progression (I love this tune though!)

The other guitarist is Lionel Loueke. Lionel has been part of Herbie Hancock's band since 2006 and it is obvious he has been hugely influenced by's Herbie's harmonic approach. Also he is just such an original voice on the instrument fusing chromatic jazz language with traditional African music.

I am a firm believer in learning the tradition, I don't think you can jump into chromatic harmony without studying the bebop language but I think as guitarists we need to look beyond the vocabulary of Wes, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Pat Martino and look at players like Coltrane, McCoy, David Liebman, Woody Shaw, Herbie Hancock and Steve Coleman. These harmonic innovators should not be ignored on our instrument, we should embrace this language and apply it to the techniques that Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund and all the other modern jazz guitarists are pioneering. I think that would make an interesting change in the direction of the guitar in jazz.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Jazz, DIY, punk and me.

It's very rare to see the words jazz, DIY and punk all in the same sentence but I think that they're all closely related and have all played a very important part in my life. The majority of music I play these days is jazz and it's been at least 3 years since I've played a punk gig, but it is from my experience of being in both of those scenes that I have come to realise that there are a lot of similarities in the approach of both jazz and punk music.

For those of you who don't know, when I was 15 I was part of a punk band called The Spungos. We played west coast American style punk influenced by bands like NOFX and Strung Out. The band lasted for roughly 4 years and during that time we became heavily involved in the DIY aspect of punk music. All of us were part of a collective called the Basta! Youth Collective which was made up of about 25 people aged between 15-18. The collective put on gigs, organised tours, released compilation cd's and zines as well as taking over an abandoned parish hall in Greystones, Co.Wicklow. When I think about it now, it was amazing how we managed to be so organised and determined to do something different at such a young age and it is definitely something I'm extremely proud of being a part of. It is also something that inspired me to help start the PRIME collective.

Having been part of the Dublin Jazz scene for the last 2 years now, I haven't felt that far removed from the punk scene I used to be part of. Sure the music is totally different but there are a lot of aspects that are the same, namely that both jazz and punk are minority music. I'd even go as far to say that in general punk and hardcore gigs are better attended than most jazz gigs in Dublin, although maybe I'll keep the reasons why that is for another blog post. The majority of jazz musicians organise their own gigs and tours like most other punk/hardcore bands, fund their own records and some start there own labels. Door prices for gigs are extremely reasonable and currently a lot of jazz gigs are starting to adopt a policy of suggested donations rather than a fixed door price. This is something you don't see a lot of in the punk/harcore scene. Wheres the proof? Well lets start with Dublin first. ReDiviDeR, a band led by drummer Matt Jacobson are going to be releasing an album in November. The majority of the cost of recording, mixing, mastering and duplication is coming straight out of his pocket. The album is going to be released on Irish label Diatribe. Diatribe is a label  run by two musicians, Nick Roth and Daniel Jacobson, and music-enthusiast John Cosgrove. Singer Edel Meade runs The Jazz Kitchen, a weekly gig on Tuesday nights at The Grand Social. There is no cover charge for the gig and it is done in a totally not for profit way.  Bottlenote, another Dublin based collective have been organising a not for profit festival every year for the past number of years. These are just small examples of what's happening here in Dublin.

The DIY aesthetic also exists outside of Ireland. In London you have the Loop Collective and the F-ire Collective, in America you have collectives such as Search and Restore and not for  profit performance spaces like IBeam and The Stone. Some artists have also created their own labels such as Dave Binney's Mythology Records and Dave Douglas's Greenleaf Music. Once again these are only a handfull of examples.

It's hard to get rid of the elitist stigma that is applied to jazz musicians from other musical scenes. It's even harder when jazz music is virtually non existent in the media so this post is to show that the majority of jazz musicians have the same drive and passion for playing music as any other musicians in any other scene be it indie rock, punk, hardcore or metal. Jazz musicians will play gigs for little to no money because they love the music and enjoy playing. I think that if the jazz scene didn't have a DIY ethic I wouldn't be that attracted to the music at all. And now for some Kneebody to play us out.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Where's the melody?

Everyone loves a good melody. Something that you can hum along to, something that sticks in your head, something that has some nice chords underneath it. Yes, everyone loves a good melody. In recent years upon telling someone I play jazz or I listen mainly to jazz music, I have come up against the same response each time and that response has been "hmmm jazz is ok and all but you can't sing along to it. I love tunes you can sing along to". Ok, I am paraphrasing here but that's the general idea of the response I get. I have been thinking about that answer for a couple of weeks now and I have come to realise that jazz music is very easy to sing along to, it's just that the melody might not be as conventional or as  obvious in a modern pop/folk/rock song.

We have to go back into the history of jazz a little bit here. The majority of "jazz standards" ( a repertoire of tunes that most jazz musicians know by heart) came from Broadway musicals between 1920-30. These standards are in essence songs. Songs which people sang on stage, were recorded and played to the general audience. These were the pop songs of the 20s, 30s and 40s. With the beginning of the bebop era, jazz musicians were taking the chord progressions of the Broadway tunes and re writing their own melodies over them and it was around this time that the melodies became more obscure. Lets take a look at Frank Sinatra singing the tune All The Things You Are as it was originally written and then Dexter Gordon's Boston Bernie which is an original melody over the same chord progression.

So the first noticeable thing is that there's a tenor saxophone instead of a voice but apart from that the melody isn't that obscure that it could be deemed unsingable. So lets take a more "extreme" example. The well know jazz standard Donna Lee is a bebop tune written from the chord changes of a song called Back Home Again in Indiana. First lets listen to the original

Now the bebop version

This time the difference is huge. The melody for Donna Lee is very abstract and very fast but the one thing we can't forget is that it still is a melody! It's a series of notes over a chord progression and that is a very simple definition for a melody. It was around the end of the 40's that jazz ceased to become popular music as Rock n Roll became the new pop music of America and then most of the world.

But that doesn't mean that melody ceased to exist in jazz music or that there was some clause that if you were to play jazz music you had to abandon all sense of melody! Great melodies were and are still around. A great example is Beatrice by Sam Rivers:

It's a really simple melody with some really nice and challenging chords underneath but it's a great singable melody none the less. This brings me to a short point about chord changes. In jazz the chord changes of a tune can move into several keys within the space of 32 bars as opposed to a standard pop or rock tune which generally has no key changes at all, although sometimes the chorus of a tune might be moved up a semitone towards the end of a song such as in Bon Jovi's Living On A Prayer. Maybe jazz is not singable because it shifts around so much harmonically. But to be honest, I don't think that is true at all. All we have to do is look at all the successful pop songs composer/arranger Burt Bacharach has written over the years to show us that even a tune that has a lot of key changes can still have a singable melody.

And now on to some more contemporary jazz with great melodies. Lets start with Dublin based guitarist/composer Daniel Jacobson. I love this tune, it's got a great melody despite the fact that it is a 12 tone composition which have a tendency to be quite dissonant. The song also has lyrics which is plus too!

Loka by DanielJacobson

Next, one of my favourite tunes by Jim Black's group Alas No Axis. It's grungy, it's got distortion, it's got a great melody, it pretty much ticks all the boxes for me in terms of Rock and Jazz put together. Also the fact that the first time I heard this I thought the clarinet that is playing the melody was a guitar at the start! Who knew that distorted guitar and clarinet would blend so well!? Jim Black I guess.

Australian Pianist Andrea Keller writes some really nice melodies too. A good example of this is Life That Lingers of her album Angels and Rascals. I remember the first time I heard this being really amazed at the melody as it has some wide leaps and yet remains very singable and very memorable too.

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann and guitar player Ben Monder have made some really great music together, some of it can be quite free and atonal and then some of it can be so melodious. Animal Planet is a great example of their melodic work and also what a beast of a singer Theo Bleckmann is!

Another Irish musician, Simon Jermyn, has a bit of a knack for writing catchy melodies and this is one of my favourites. I think I visit this video at least once a month.

Simon Jermyn Quartet from A Generous Act on Vimeo.

And finally one from my favourite guitar player, Kurt Rosenwinkel. This is a great melody, the theme is quite simple and it sticks in your head so easily and yet the chords underneath move around keys alot. Also I like the fact that the melody goes into a new key even though it doesn't really seem like it.

So there is melody in jazz and there is something to sing along to. Just because it doesn't have lyrics doesn't mean you can't sing along to it! I'm always finding myself singing melodies of jazz tunes be it standards or originals and most of them are lyric-less. I think there is confusion between something that is not singable and something that doesn't have lyrics and unfortunately jazz gets lumped into the " not singable" category even though the majority of it is perfectly singable. Obviously not all jazz is singable,  free jazz would generally not be singable but then it's so aesthetically different to a composed jazz piece it's fairly incomparable.  The examples I have put up are only and handful of the great jazz melodies out there, be it from the standard repertoire or original pieces. So take some time, listen a little closer and sing along!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Q: Where is Jazz in the Media? A: Nowhere.

About 2 months ago myself and drummer Matt Jacobson formed a new collective to try and get jazz music back into the media and to get more people to come out and check out live jazz happening in Dublin. Since starting this collective, I have become increasingly aware of how little focus is given to jazz- both Irish and international- in print and broadcasting media. Lets take The Irish Times' arts and entertainment magazine The Ticket for example. This is a magazine that covers a wide variety of the arts from film, theater and literature to most of the various categories and sub-genres of music. The coverage that jazz gets in this magazine is pathetic, 2 album reviews and gig listings and yet while there are a lot of exciting things stirring in the Irish jazz scene as of late, the editors of The Ticket seem to think it's much more worth while interviewing Dappy a member of the palpably awful N-Dubz about fishing in Dublin as well as asking him why he uses made up words such as "brap". Even in the gig listings every genre except jazz has at least one featured concert of the week and it's not as if there isn't anything worth writing about. Scanning through this week's jazz listings I can pick out at least 2 gigs that would be worth highlighting!

Dappy: voice of a generation.

Broadcasting media is no better either. While John Kelly's The View on RTE does have the occasional jazz group on its program, that's about as good as it gets. Other Voices, another RTE program, broadcasts concerts of non mainstream bands and yet I have never seen one jazz act on it. I've caught glimpses of the latest series of Other Voices and it seems like the only way to get on that program is to play on vintage looking instruments, play music somewhere between 50's rock and roll and 80's synth pop and if you have a piano or a small glockenspiel or any other kind of "eclectic" instrument, you're a shoe in! Of course there are exceptions but the majority of the music that I have seen on there falls into that category. The radio branch of RTE is much the same. Its arts program Arena does occasionally feature jazz, most recently saxophonist Alex Mathias, but once again not as much as it should. The music featured on Arena falls into a similar vein of what is played on Other Voices and of course there are the occasional exceptions such as Owensie and Croupier, bands that I think are doing interesting things musically.

It is not that I expect jazz to get as much coverage as mainstream pop and rock acts, but I do expect that it should at least make a blip on the radar of music publications such as The Ticket as well as radio and television programs like Arena and Other Voices. There is a lot of interesting music going on in the jazz scene both here in Ireland and internationally and it is music worth reporting about. It's very disheartening not only for jazz musicians but also for any creative musician/band when the likes of Dappy are deemed more report worthy by big name publications. If these journalists and broadcasters really consider themselves spokespeople for high art, they need to start looking beyond what is "hip" right now and digging deeper to find the hidden gems within jazz and other creative music. Following the current trends is easy. Finding true, honest and creative music is hard and it only gets harder when these spokespersons continue to ignore it.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Beginners Guide To Contemporary Jazz

Last year I did a survey on the perceptions of jazz. I surveyed people who didn't listen to jazz and asked them what they thought of when they hear the J word. Some of the answers I got were quite surprising, some positive, some negative but what I found most shocking was the fact that the image of jazz was still in a time freeze from the 1940s! Today in Ireland jazz has very little coverage in any form of media. This in turn is causing a huge drop in the number of people attending jazz gigs which then causes this idea that we're all dark sunglasses wearing, chain smoking, beatnik talking musicians. In this post I want to change that image and hopefully you'll find a few things in here that you will like!

I didn't really get into this music until i was 20. Jazz was around me from birth because my dad is a jazz musician but from the age of 12-19, I was into anything but jazz. I spent most of my mid teens playing in a punk band called The Spungos and I was truly happy being in that band but as I got older my tastes started to change and I spent a long time looking for the "right" music. When I first started getting into jazz I didn't dive straight into Miles Davis or John Coltrane, it would take a while to really appreciate those musicians. The first band I remember being really into was a band called White Rocket. They were using influences from various artists outside jazz such as Aphex Twin and Meshuggah who I was listening to at the time and it really appealed to me.

The majority of young jazz musicians playing now grew up in the late 80s early 90s. Most of them started off playing in rock bands before coming to jazz later on but the rock sound has never really left them when it comes to writing jazz. It is not uncommon to hear jazz groups cover pop/rock songs from the nineties and one of the first bands to really take on those tunes was The Bad Plus. Here they are playing Radiohead's Karma Police.

Here is pianist Brad Mehldau with saxophonist Joshua Redman playing their version of Nirvana's Lithium.

Not only are people covering rock songs, jazz musicians are writing lots of compositions with rock elements in them. One of my favourite bands at mixing jazz and rock together are Jim Black's AlasNoAxis. Jim grew up in Seattle Washington, home of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the influence of the grunge scene on him has transcended through his music.

Another group who are somewhere in between rock and jazz are a band called Kneebody. Some critics have branded them "unclassifiable",  a point which I'm not sure I completely agree with. To me, they are a jazz band but this is not a post on what is jazz and what isn't!

This is not only happening in America, it is happening in Ireland too. Simon Jermyn's Trot a Mouse are a great example of this. Simon's music is coming from the "post-rock" side of things and the blend of post rock and jazz works together really well.

Simon's other band Red Rocket can have some really cool heavy moments in some of their tunes.

Dublin based drummer Matt Jacobson leads a band called ReDiviDeR who also uses elements of grunge and rock in his compositions. If you like what you hear keep an ear out for their album release!

And for my own shameless self promotion, I used the end riff from a Meshuggah tune (it comes in at 1:11) to write my own composition.

There are a lot of other styles of jazz going on as well as the rock orientated stuff but I thought I would just highlight this particular style. From being in the jazz scene over the last three years I have come to learn that when it comes to music, jazz musicians are some of the most open minded people I have ever met. They are always interested in getting influences from music other than jazz in order to widen their scope on composition and improvising and it has always been this way even from the beginnings of the bebop era. This is not a post on why you should like jazz, it's more an outline of where you could start if you are interested in any way in this music. Once again due to the medias lack of interest, it is very hard for people to find a starting point and hopefully this is what I have achieved to do. If you did like some of the music on here, please come out to a gig! Also be on the lookout for a free CD of current Irish jazz coming out in the next few weeks.


Hello and welcome to my Blog! I decided to do this blog as a way of trying to promote the current jazz scene in Ireland as well as trying to show how diverse the music is. I hope I can change the current attitudes towards jazz in this country into something positive and help get audiences back into jazz venues throughout the city.