Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Makes Jazz Swing? an Expert's Advice on How to Listen

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Makes Jazz Swing? an Expert's Advice on How to Listen

Article excerpt


By Barry Kernfeld

Yale University Press

247 pp., $40

(CD included)

'What to Listen For in Jazz" echoes composer Aaron Copland's classic, "What to Listen for in Music." Try a more active kind of listening, "whether you listen to Mozart or Duke Ellington," wrote Copland. He said only the closest listening can unravel the intricacy of a jazz band, America's "own original contribution to new orchestral timbres."

How do you listen closely to a jazz band when all you want to do is tap your foot? That's what Barry Kernfeld explains in both words and music with the help of 21 vintage tracks on an accompanying CD. His audience: serious inquirers who may or may not know much about jazz.

If you don't read music you could almost learn while listening to Billie Holiday's vocal reconstruction of "Georgia on My Mind." In the book, it is written out to compare it measure for measure with (a) Hoagy Carmichael's original melody and (b) Holiday's "take 2" version (not, alas, on the CD).

The CD illustrates rhythm, form, types of improvisation, etc. - not a history of jazz. Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wynton Marsalis are just a few of the stars omitted .

But a sense of the jazz spectrum comes alive in tracks from 1923 (New Orleans Rhythm Kings) to 1987 (Ornette Coleman and Prime Time). And wonderful connections leap the years when hand-clapping joins the electronic sounds of Weather Report to drive a climactic passage - the way an old-fashioned tom-tom backbeat does in a Jelly Roll Morton track.

Tips for discerning various kinds of improvisation: Keep the familiar tune of "Sweet Sue - Just You" in mind to grasp what Earl Hines's spectacular piano variations do to it. Wait for "Blue Skies" to peek through Duke Ellington's stratospheric "Trumpet No End" which is based on it. Don't try to hum along with the Coleman Hawkins saxophone version of "The Man I Love," a whole new swinging thing.

What about John Coltrane's "free jazz?" Thirty years later, its "collective improvisation" still sounds chaotic at first - as Stravinsky's 82-year-old "Rite of Spring" still means noisy modern music to many concertgoers. …

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