Sunday, October 15, 2006

Thinking the Jazz Standard

Paul Berliner got it right about Jazz: It is primarily an aural/oral tradition, and oral formulaic theory provides a decent model for beginning to explain how the music works, at least mechanically. Oh, there are caveats. (One noteworthy critique of the whole approach is here). But essentially Berliner accurately describes how the music works.

An example in support of Berliner's approach: The jazz standard almost invariably includes only the song's 32 bar refrain. There are exceptions of course. John Coltrane's recording of Strayhorn's "Lush Life" is one. By and large however the jazz standard is a 32 bar form, and bebop compositions that become standards typically have 32 bars, sometimes just 16, or 12 if they're based on a blues. Introductions, if they are formalized, tend to be just four or eight bars, and reserved for the pianist or the principal soloist. The shared form for soloing is almost always 32 bars or fewer.

As I was flipping through an old songbook–with an introduction by none other than Richard Rodgers–it crossed my mind that the introductions to various standards just aren't very musically interesting, not very memorable. "S'wonderful," "But not for me": Great tunes but who needs 32 bars just to get to the refrain? Some tunes do have marvelous introductions. Anything by Vernon Duke for instance. Now can you remember the last time you heard anybody do the first 32 bars of "Autumn in New York?"

Three imperatives of bop mitigate against long forms: (1) no matter what instrument you play, you've got to handle the phraseology on the fly, to invent variations that will mesh with the others in the group; (2) you got to come out swinging; and (3) you've got to say something. The mode of saying something in bop is recontextualizing, signifying. Bop is always simultaneously a second order discourse and a primary yearning for one's voice, and this tension drives the music into shorter repeatable forms.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:44 AM.


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