Articles Where's The Melody?

Where's The Melody?

posted: 11/12/08 @ 05:19:am

Originally featured in the Tucson Jazz Society Newsletter


While many of you are experienced jazz listeners, more and more new fans are discovering the joys of jazz for the first time. To the new audience member, watching a jazz show is like watching the inner workings of a beehive. Most jazz performances follow a flow of events that are fairly predictable and can be easily recognized. For our example, let's say there's a typical quartet on the bandstand comprised of the following: sax, piano, bass and drums. The horn player is the default melody player, the rest of the group being referred to as the rhythm section. The rhythm section primarily backs up the horn player, but also takes their turns as soloists too. A tune is chosen, sometimes decided upon in advance, often picked within moments of it's being performed. When you see musicians talking to each other in between tunes, the conversation may sound like this - "what do you wanna play?" "I dunno, wadda YOU wanna play?"

Once the vehicle for improvisational brilliance is decided upon, the horn player snaps a tempo to alert the rhythm section of his/her intentions, ranging anywhere from a mellow, relaxed ballad to a head spinning, cramp inducing up-tempo. At this point the pianist will be asked to provide an intro, in many cases a specific intro may be written on the sheet music (called the "chart"), but many times when no charts are to be had, the pianist has to improvise this crucial stage in the performance. Intros can be 2, 4 or 8 measures (called "bars") long and may be taken from the last melodic section of the tune (called the "last four" or "last eight" depending on the length). After the intro, the saxophonist plays the melody ("blows the head"), once through if the tune is 32 or 64 bars long, or twice through if it's a 12 or 16 bar song. After the head, there is often a "break" where the rhythm section hits a strong downbeat and stops two bars from the end of the tune to allow the sax player to start their solo with a bang.

Typically, the horn player blows first, but that can be altered to create some variety. Once the solos are in motion, the horn player will attempt to convey a story based on an event, the event being the tune of the moment. He/she will tell you everything they know about the chord structures in the song, the scales that form melodic lines through the song, how many other melodies can be superimposed over the song, how often they've listened to John Coltrane's recording of the song, how many hours they've practiced with Music-Minus-One over the song, and sometimes in the case of a masterful improviser; how they actually FEEL at that moment playing the song. When the horn player is done, there may be another break for the pianist's solo. The pianist then takes his/her turn telling you about the event (tune) while the horn player takes a much deserved (and often much welcomed) breather off to the side. This usually involves a pensive look, nodding of the head, perhaps snapping of the fingers and in only the rarest cases, balancing of the checkbook. The pianist takes over with great flourish. Due to the nature of having ten fingers (usually) and 88 keys (usually), the pianist is capable of creating broad strokes across the canvas of the tune's structure. Skilled pianists take great delight in the re-structuring of a tune's harmony (called "re-harm" by them, or just "harm" by an unsuspecting bassist), often to the point where you think the band has changed songs mid-stream. A crafty pianist with his trusty left-hand man (bassist) in tow can take the listener on a journey to far off lands, just hope they paid for a roundtrip ticket!

After the pianist is through, there may once again be a break for the bass solo. The bass solo is a particularly tricky affair. As the bassist is primarily concerned with creating the groove and keeping the form of the tune safe from the guerilla-like harmonic attacks of the pianist, they may not have spent as much time developing their own soloistic concept, or perhaps they cut school the day the teacher talked about bass solos. Regardless, the drop in volume that heralds the bass solo is often the best time for audience members to converse. So much so, that bass solos have become the cutting edge in couples therapy. Take a pair that hasn't talked to each other in years, put them in a room with a bass player soloing, and voila! Instant conversation. Perhaps the bass player HAS developed their ability to solo (it happens)—then the listener is asked to listen intently as the low frequencies swirl together, creating a sensation that is usually associated with fast Mexican food. If the bassist is truly skilled and wants his/her ideas to actually be heard, they may resort to thumb position; when the left thumb is removed from the tip of the bassist's nose and placed on the upper part of the bass fingerboard. This allows the bassist a whole new world of expression and out-of-tuneness. With skill and luck, the hardy bassist drops back down to their practical melodic range and brings the tune back to earth, just in time to give the drummer some.

After the bass solo, you will witness the drummer display what his/her parent's got after paying for years of lessons. Sometimes the drummer gets to alternate 4 or 8 bars with the other members of the band (called "trading 4's or 8's"). This is usually signaled by the horn player holding up 4 fingers, but sometimes - they forget 3 of them. The drummer then attempts to squeeze as much as possible out of their shining moment in the sun, and as many obscure sub-divisions of the beat as possible into each 4 bar break. At this point, a skilled audience member may spy the bass player furiously stamping their foot in half notes, attempting to ascertain the precise moment to start playing again. Many times, the drummer is cut loose from the mooring and allowed to solo over the structure of the song. Good drummers know that the melody of the song is the best way to keep their place in the music, and will often attempt to let the audience know that they know the melody by playing it on the drums. For this reason, many drummers choose to carry 6 or more tom toms perfectly tuned.

Once the drummer has allowed the other members of the band to find a suitable landing strip, the sax player takes brass in hand and re-launches the melody (called the "out head"). The melody is played, and without prior discussion the band will spontaneously create an ending. This material is drawn from a list of possibilities common to the style, but most often resembling the end of Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train", unless a "tag" is commandeered by the sax player, effectively delaying the decision for the length of another full tune. The song finally ends, the audience is amazed at the marvel of improvisation they have just witnessed, and yet the skilled jazz musician knows that these things happen all the time, in fact they will happen again very soon. "What do you want to play?" "I dunno...wadda YOU want to play?".....