27 July 2017

Post 531: WHAT IS GOING ON?

I received an interesting request. A reader said he likes traditional jazz but doesn't understand how it works. He asked me to pick a video of a band playing a tune and to 'talk him through it', explaining what is going on.

I am happy to do this and will try not to be too technical, though I think you may appreciate it if I at least make a small number of technical points that everyone should be able to grasp.
I have selected The Loose Marbles playing Take Me Out To The Ball Game in the video you may watch by clicking on this link:

We have to thank the video-maker 'Wild Bill' for filming it.

As it happens, this is also a very good performance, demonstrating well what great musicians can do with simple material.

So what do we find?

Take Me Out To The Ball Game - like hundreds of our tunes, comprises 32 bars. This means that, to get through it once, you beat one-two-three-four 32 times. The Loose Marbles choose to play through it seven times, so they play 7 x 32 = 224 bars in all. To put it another way, this means the performance contains 224 x 4 beats, making 896 beats in all - if you should wish to count! They play the tune entirely in the key of Bb, which is the most commonly used key in traditional jazz.

Throughout the performance, note how the rhythm players beat out a pulsating  but fairly gentle four-to-the bar, driving the music along in a most exciting way. (So many bands fail to achieve this.)

I have said the band runs through the tune seven times. So what happens in each of those seven choruses?

CHORUS ONE: 01 seconds - 32 seconds. Unusually, it is the clarinet who firmly states the tune, but note how tastefully he is supported by the trombone and trumpet.

CHORUS TWO: 32 seconds - 1 minute 03 seconds. This time, Barnabus on trombone presents the melody, but the clarinet and trumpet now provide decoration.

CHORUS THREE: 1 minute 03 seconds - 1 minute 36 seconds. Now the trumpet takes the lead; but the clarinet and trombone do not drop out. They give subtle, decorative support. By the end of this Chorus, the rhythm players have obviously had to go through the tune's chord progression three times, pumping out 3  x 32 x 4 beats = 384 beats! Get it? All of the rhythm players are working to the same chord chart. If they didn't, something would sound wrong. Here's how the chords for the 32 bars of this tune seem (to me) to run. You will notice that the musicians do not need to have this chart in front of them. They have memorised it.
Bb
Bb
F7
F7
Bb
Bb
F7
F7
G7
G7
Cm
Cm
C7
C7
F7
F7
Bb
Bb
F7
F7
Bb
Bb7
Eb
Eb
Eb
Bbo
Bb
G7
C7
F7
Bb
Bb

CHORUS FOUR: 1 minute 36 seconds - 2 minutes 06 seconds. For variety (and to give the 'front row' a little rest), this chorus is taken by the banjo. The great John Dixon gives us a very fine 32 bars.

CHORUS FIVE: 2 minutes 07 seconds - 2 minutes 39 seconds. Robin plays this as a percussion solo, improvising 32 bars for us. Note that, while he does so, Todd, Julie and John provide punctuation, striking some chords (for example, the first beat of every other bar) to remind us where we are in the tune.

CHORUS SIX: 2 minutes 39 - 3 minutes 08 seconds. Marla takes this as a vocal. Note how the pulsating 4-to-the-bar rhythm is maintained behind her. And, at 3 minutes 05 seconds, watch the leader Michael hold up one finger to signal to the band that he wants just one more chorus. So everybody clearly knows when the tune must be brought to an end and they can work to make this final chorus something of a climax.

CHORUS SEVEN: 3 minutes 09 seconds - 3 minutes 42 seconds. This is indeed a fine ensemble chorus. You may also note that Robin plays a double beat on the drum at 3 minutes 34 seconds and again at 3 minutes 35 seconds. This respects a very old tradition: for many decades it has been the custom in marching brass bands for the drummer to give this signal just eight bars before the end of a tune, to make absolutely sure everybody knows it is coming to an end.

The last thing to observe is that the tune ends abruptly on the third beat of the final bar - the 32nd bar. The fourth beat (the 896th beat of the performance) is left completely silent. This a clever and effective way of ending tunes - especially quick ones. Its use is widespread. (Sometimes a band adds a 'tag' or 'coda' - an extra little phrase to round the piece off; but I like the chopped 'sudden death' ending, as demonstrated so well here by The Loose Marbles.)