Sunday, November 14, 2010

Playing Jazz

A simple tune, notes strung out like beads

Nothing to it.

You’ve heard it a thousand times, same beads rattled by karaoke singers, mangled by out-of-tuners.

Something like “ The Girl from Ipanema.

Overplayed. Ovebelted. A crowd-pleaser. A convenient song to pick up and muck around with. How many times have you said there oughta be a law prohibiting playing songs like this? You play it anyway.

Tentatively you peck out chords to introduce the tune. F followed by Gb7 flat 5. Once, twice, a few times more until you decide to dip into the water.

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walkin’…

There really was a girl from Ipanema who used to amble by Antonio as he was having his caipirinha. She was a sort of Lolita to the cafe crowd (male, of course). If she was still alive today she’d be a prune.

Tall and tan and old and wrinkly
The crone from Ipanema goes shufflin’…

Then comes that interesting bridge which, despite its familiarity, still manages to charm. Ebmin chord on F. The aural equivalent of a plain duckling suddenly blossoming into a swan. I can think of few other songs that have such a startling and exotic bridge as this (at least on first hearing). Maybe Prelude to a Kiss, Ruby my Dear, Chelsea Bridge… Even though lounge musicians have given it a bad name and snobbish jazzers have put it firmly in the “corny” status, TGFI remains popular. I suspect it’s the only bossanova song the populace at large is really familiar with.

Improv time. Start with the same starting note - G - and then slowly pick up the outline of a completely different tune while still following the chord progression. I don’t have a plan, except to keep it simple at first, and then build up to some kind of a climax down the line. A bit of foreplay in an extended piece of lovemaking.

Some musicians like to barrel into improvisation by executing lines and rapid runs that only serve their egos. Lines that shout out “ME! ME! ME!”

I like to start incognito. I construct a line from little dots, little points. A hint, tentative beginnings, little questions. I am Seurat starting to paint La Grande Jatte. OK, maybe just a little drawing.

I start to flesh out fuller and more defined phrases. I fill in the spaces between notes with appoggiaturas and blues in chromatic seconds. Grace notes arching from fourths. Accents and cadences falling on odd notes in unexpected places. I make a conscious effort to surprise because there is no point in playing the same stale bromides. I am not always successful, but I try.

Sometimes I fall into wild guesswork, hackneyed phrases, learned scales. After all, I am what I hear. There is nothing new under the sun. I have heard and transcribed solos by Oscar, Chick, Jarett, Shearing, Miles and many others. They either come out whole or subtly transformed by my present emotion, which could be joy, pain, sorrow, indifference, annoyance, or exuberance. Sometimes I play them with a hint of envy and despair because I feel so inferior to these giants. Right now, though, I’m into the moment and hear nothing but myself and my fellow peformers weaving their respective melodic woofs.

Maybe I hear a motif from the alto sax and I latch on to it, examining it, scratching at it like a kitten playing with a ball of twine. The twine starts to unravel. I form a sentence from his adverb.

TGFI is a bossanova. I dance to its rhythm. The drummer keeps time, the bassist thumps on his bass, but more than listening to their cadence I listen to an inner syncopation. I leap inside and make out like a carnival dancer in Rio. If I do not, my improvisation will sound like In the Mood in drag. I avoid unnecessary movements, occasionally lifting an eyebrow or closing my eyes in embarrassed rapture. I am no moanin’ Keith Jarett though, and I prefer it this way. I let my fingers do the actual dancin’.

Jazz is a strange form of musicmaking. You’re free to play whatever, however you want. It is on the spot composition, in scope limited only by your imagination and technique. But, as in classical music, you need to conform to certain rules and conventions. And the most important one is your playing must exhibit a “feel” for the blues. A mere juxtaposition of conventional scales however ingenious does not a jazz improvisation make. You have to imbue your soloing with the blues, that stuff of black suffering lodged in the space between notes in the scale that can’t be written out, but simply felt. I try to feel like a black man, with not much success. Still, there is no way around it. Funny, though. Sometimes – oftentimes – I hear pianists play this blue note, yet their playing is as soulless as stone. Many times I’ve caught myself going through playing the “blues” without noticing a whiff of sentiment in my playing. Horrifying, but an ever-present possibility. The secret to getting the “feel”? No answer there. You’ll know, and your audience will know, when you have it. When it’s there, it’s there. When it’s not, it’s not.

I use, as have many others before me, this jazz feel to flavor this bossa song. Because jazz is the nearest thing we have to a universal style, a way that gives a completely new life to other songs, whatever their source or origin. It lends itself superbly to enlivening up a dour Brahms adagio or putting a fresh lilt on a simple folk song.

It is possible to play jazz by yourself, alone. It is way, way better, absolutely preferable, to play jazz with an ensemble, minimum two participants, maximum whatever. Because jazz is extemporaneous, you get your strength reinforced by others. You feed off each other’s energy, scale (or fall from) musical heights together. When the vibes are good, musicians become as one. The audience can feel it in their performance. When the “feel” is there, they become hands in a field, calling out the blues to distant gods, plunking and wailing and fretting till they come down to join you. And who are these gods? Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and a host of others. They become, for a magical moment, part of a greater brotherhood.

Am I done yet jazzifying that Girl from Ipanema?

Not just yet. I play a final loop involving Fmin7 and Bb7 chords, sometimes F7 and Eb7, over and over again, until I resolve the whole thing into a final Fmajor9.

It is then that I would have realized that I have given the Girl from Ipanema a complete makeover, smoothed out her wrinkly skin, taken the blah out of her corniness, revived her libido and created something else: a performance that gives a new persona to an otherwise tired song.

When I’ve done this, I would have played jazz.

Speaking of "Girl from Ipanema"'. here's my favorite version sung and played by Eliane Elias.

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