Jazz music comes with an extra bonus that others do not. Each time you listen to a tune it can sound vastly different than the last time you heard it. This, of course, happens on some level in all genres of music. The changes are often delivered by tempo, structure, arrangement, and artist interpretation. In classical music, perhaps the most structured of all genres, it is in a cadenza within a concerto that an artist will find a place for true, personal musical expression. In jazz, this personal expression is at the center of what the music is all about. This is a bonus for the listener as hearing changes, both vast and subtle, takes practice and the only way to develop this skill is to learn how to hear the music, not just listen to what is being played.
The practice of hearing, and not just listening, provides the needed tools to appreciate jazz music on a different level. One thing that is nice to do, as it forces a deeper hearing of the music, is to think about how you would describe a jazz tune to somebody who has never heard one and has no idea what the term jazz even means. This is something we all do when we listen to music, but it is often a passive practice. Bumping things up from passive to active allows us the ability to share music with others. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen a big band album called Woody Herman: 1964. As with all recordings discussed on this page, this one is on vinyl and was recorded in New York City on November 20, 22, and 23, 1963. The band is typical of a big band with five saxophones, five trumpets, a clarinet (Woody Herman), three trombones, and a rhythm section featuring the expected piano, bass, and drums. Full album information will be included at the end.
Hallelujah Time. The Genie comes out of the bottle quickly in this tune; up tempo taps on the high hat, followed by a mini shout chorus from the brass. This introduction is repeated two times and the theme persists throughout the tune. Some big band charts take a few dozen bars develop the mood and direction of the tune. This one makes it obviously clear to the listener that the journey here is going to be vicious. Two tenor saxophones chase each other throughout and by the end you are not sure who reached the line first.
Deep Purple. This tune is a slow swing where the saxophones sound as if they are swaying easily and deeply from a rubber band. The tempo is laid back with the rhythm section allowing the horns to take just a bit of a lead. Never chasing, the rhythm players follow close behind; never losing sight and allowing the soloists to lead the group as a whole. There is a feeling of a plateau where the tune sits firmly in place allowing the momentum of what was heard at the beginning to simply push things forward at a leisurely pace. Despite the easy swing of the tune, the feeling of power and intensity that was introduced in Hallelujah Time never ceases to make its presence known. The intensity builds towards the end then unexpectedly eases off to allow a brief break for a sax solo before coming to an abrupt and somewhat unexpected halt.
After You’ve Gone. The theme is briefly introduced by a celeste, an odd choice for a big band jazz chart. This is a piece for soloists, and we have them in all their perfection by a clarinet, trumpet, and finally tenor saxophone. This tune has an alternate title, The Curse of the Drink. This is fitting as the halfway point sounds as if a bottle has been passed around one too many times and the recipients are just on the edge of being out of control. The beauty of jazz, and especially jazz big band charts is that out of control is only rarely reached and the listener is left walking a tightrope not of their own making. The listener is brought into the tune, welcomed, seated, and then rushed out before the first drink can disappear. Subtle on several levels, this is a tune that grabs your ear making you ache for more.
The Strut. Starting off with a trumpet and plunger mute, yes, exactly that kind of plunger, this tune has an air of playfulness from the brass that is pushed mightily along by the rhythm section and the saxophones. Midpoint, the trumpets change mutes creating an introduction to an unmuted trumpet solo. This solo is a statement furnished with exclamation marks by the remainder of the trumpet sections. Although brief, it sets things up well for a muted trombone solo. Ever pushing forward, the rhythm section sounds as if they are late for another gig. Reluctantly, they back off and allow one more muted trumpet solo before calling things finished, allowing the trumpet section to end the tune just as they were there at the beginning.
Woody Herman: 1964.Philips (monaural) PHM 200-218.
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