Encores & Curtain Calls: Beats, squares & all that jazz
“Risk is at the heart of jazz. Every note we play is a risk.”
— Steve Lacy
Contrary to what most people imagine, the dynamics of making jazz are quite simple ... even when you’ve got 20-odd jazz musicians all jamming together, such as at the Vermont Jazz Center Big Band’s 10th annual big band gala and swing dance, Friday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m.
The evening’s featured guest is legendary saxophonist Houston Person, appearing along with vocalists Mark Anagnostopulos and Rebecca Holtz, who recently appeared with Semirah Evans in the “Women in Jazz” series at The Arts Block in Greenfield.
At an elegant 74, given his lush and effortless invention on the sax, it’s hard to imagine Person is not at the height of his game and as far from being an aging hanger-on as you can get. His sound has been accurately described as “big and breathy, tasteful and polished.”
The center’s Big Band is an 18-piece ensemble, amongst whom are many soloists who will be spotlighted throughout the evening. Included will be works by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and ballads made famous during the 1930s and 1940s such as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Embraceable You,” “In the Wee Small Hours,” as well as up-tempo numbers like “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Goody Goody” and “Jump Jive and Wail.”
Even though jazz musicians use the same set of tones as other musicians, they manage to put all kinds of intriguing spins on them that makes it seem as if they’ve got their hands on a special set of jazz tones all their own: instead of red, yellow, green and blue; maybe burgundy, amber, aquamarine and indigo.
How, you may wonder, do they manage to pull off the particular trick of turning “straight” sound into “swing” sound?
First, you set up a groove, a recurring background beat pattern, some sort of consistent tattoo in the drums, bass or low end of the keyboard that the players — whether trio, quartet or beyond — can catch hold of and hook into. This ensures that, no matter how far-flung their improvisations, they’ll still be safely welded together by that common pulse, conveying at least the illusion of cohesiveness, even when they have perilously little in common.
But this groove needs to have plenty of elasticity built into it — lots of room for bending and stretching and rhythmic sleight-of-hand. You can feel this musical slight-of-hand occurring when, contentedly nodding to what seemed to be a dependably recurring beat-pattern, you find yourself suddenly stepping out over empty space, so to speak, where a beat should have been. For just a micro-moment there is the fleeting sensation of having had the carpet yanked out from under you and of hanging over empty space. Then, that elusive beat suddenly slips under your foot just in time to rescue you from the abyss and sweeps you up in its arms and carries you off, just as if it were business as usual.
Jazz pros love this “bait-and-switch” rhythmic mischief and often privately pride themselves on it as their essential claim to “cool.” It is often referred to as syncopation — the fine art of placing events where they “aren’t supposed to be.”
Right alongside this compulsive carpet-snatching, jazz folk love to take nice, predictable shapes and patterns like squares and rectangles — beat patterns that make us feel safe and secure, as in Sousa marches and polkas — and morph them into circles and ellipses. Numerically speaking, this means taking “square” number sets like 2’s and 4’s and stretching them into lopsided groupings of 3’s and 6’s. When this happens, the music begins to swing and no longer just sits there like a lump on a log.
This is almost certainly where the jazz term “square” originates, as in, “Man, he is so square!”
For some reason, jazz aficionados have failed to create a corresponding term for colleagues who swing, calling them “round” or “spherical” or some such thing.
Alright — so we’ve got the “groove,” we’ve got the “bends & stretches,” and we’ve got the “swing factor.” We’ve taken a lot of the starch out of what would otherwise have been dangerously “straight” music; you know, the kind that winds up being perfectly well-behaved, like classical and even folk.
Next comes meddling with the harmony. Ideally, you want your listeners to taste the original flavors of the bona-fide harmonies the song’s original composer set down, but you also want to let your listeners know that you’re not stuck back in 1925, when the song was born, and that, hey, you’re hip; so, upon Gershwin’s throbbing blue harmonies you lay down a contemporary wash of cobalt.
Now we need to mess with the most sacred area of all — the tune; as my brother, perfectly imitating a super-cool jazz musician admonishing his evidently too-square colleague after a gig, intoned: “Hey, man, be careful, you gotta watch out when you jam, I could almost hear the tune that time!”
There is a distinct tacit pride in many jazz musicians at avoiding anything resembling the obvious when doing renditions of ballads from the American Songbook or other classic tunes. A too-faithful rendition of the actual melody — whether by Porter, Gershwin, Kern or Sondheim — is often taken as a clear sign that the musician in question is seriously lacking in originality and depth.
Better, they conclude, to appear abstruse and brilliant and let the (by now deceased) composer take the hit than risk being labeled “superficial” by one’s colleagues.
When jazz is at its worst, its executants fail to honor their allegiance to those upon whose shoulders they stand, the composers who created the archive of timeless tunes upon which jazz musicians have ceaselessly plundered since its earliest days.
But at its best, however, jazz is capable of brilliantly illuminating the inherent beauty of those original creations in a way that lends an extended shelf-life to them, sometimes transforming a three-minute semi-precious gem into a 15-minute crown jewel.
Tickets for the Dec. 7 concert at the Vermont Jazz Center, 72 Cotton Mill Road, Brattleboro, Vt., are general admission, $25; reserved table, $28. There are special prices for local high school students. Tickets are available online at www.vtjazz.org and at In the Moment, 143 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt. To reserve tickets, 802-254-9088. Please note: A surcharge of $1 per ticket will be added to all tickets purchased with a credit card.
Also coming up in the world of jazz: The Amherst College Department of Music will present a concert by the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Bruce Diehl, Friday, Dec. 7, at
8 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall in the Arms Music Center at Amherst College. The concert is open to the public at no charge
The Amherst College Jazz Combos will perform on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m. in Room 7 of the Arms Music Center at Amherst College.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at