Finding the Sublime in Jazz, an Argument for Abstraction

by Will Layman

22 November 2016

Jazz columnist Will Layman presents seven pieces of music as evidence of the beauty and urgency of pure sound in instrumental jazz.
Image from Live at Birdland Original recording remastered, Live (1997) 

Folks who don’t like jazz usually confess to being put off by music that doesn’t feature a singer and lyrics. They also don’t like that most jazz is heavy on improvisation, with instrumentalists noodling around, playing lots of seemingly random notes. Give me a melody. Give me a love song.

I like a tasty pop song as much as anyone. But I also want to argue that the abstraction—the lack of pop singing and lyrics, the presence of the mystery of improvisation at the heart of most jazz performances—is also a wonder. At the core of music, there’s an expression of feeling and meaning that implies rather than tells. A perfectly placed note or a gorgeous tone, a whipcrack rhythm or a sensual blend of instruments makes us feel things without our knowing why. That’s the magic of music.

Because jazz allows each musician to color his sound freely, infusing it with personality and expressive variation, its abstraction is of the richest variety. Jazz is high art with a big heart.

Abstraction in Art, Generally

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been chosen to receive a Nobel Prize in literature, there was a bit of a stir. Many in the literary community were upset that this choice would take attention away from a deserving but obscure literary writer in favor of an artist who has already received countless plaudits from the music community. You can argue it either way. Dylan’s use of language, in the form of song lyrics, dramatically changed popular music worldwide, bringing storytelling, wordplay, and literary sophistication to a popular art form. He elevated rock to high art.

I mention this because I have some friends who said, “His lyrics are great, but I just don’t like his music much. Or his singing.” This made me realize that I have had very nearly the opposite reaction to Dylan over the decades. I know that his lyrics are wonderful, of course. But when I listen to his music, which I love, I rarely focus on the words. I find the music alone deeply compelling—not the melody and the harmonies as much as the sound as a whole: the band, the rhythms, the voice keening against guitars, the tumbling intensity of “Like a Rolling Stone”, the wistful optimism of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, the soulful sense of purpose and destiny in a live version of “I Shall Be Released” from 1975.

You may or may not love the pure sound of these Dylan recordings, but they are undeniably expressive, independent of (but also in service of) the lyrics. The music itself tells a story. Indeed, it is the highest calling of music to tell its story or to express its emotion through sound and not just words. Similarly, cinema uses words, but its most profound calling is to tell its story and express emotion through the camera, through moving images. An actor speaks the words of a script, but what that actor does with her face or body, her gait or her sighs or her eyes, is arguably the more profound part of her art.

These parts of acting, filmmaking, and music are the less explicit parts. In portraiture, the face and upper body of Lisa Gherardini may be the explicit, obvious part of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, but just as important is the hazy, impressionist landscape behind the main figure. With Monet and his water lilies, the canvas would become almost entirely abstract, and soon enough painters of several different schools would create entirely abstract works—all color, form, texture, and intensity.

Not everyone loves “abstract art”, of course. It implies meaning and feeling rather than beating you over the head with it. But that is where art is most… artful. It’s where art makes the case for its magic.

Jazz Is a Unique Form of Instrumental Expression

The argument I’m making might well apply to any form of instrumental music. However, at least within Western culture, there are two things that make jazz special.

First, jazz lets every musician craft his own sound and even vary it from moment to moment. Classical music prescribes a “correct” tone and creates color through arrangement and orchestration. In a US culture in which individualism is nearly a religion, the fact that no two trumpet players or saxophonists sound alike provides jazz much of its power.

Second, jazz almost always involves improvisation. Today, classical music is 99 percent a slave to the written notes on the page. In jazz, there’s sophisticated composition and arrangement but it’s integrated with the performers’ spontaneous composition, not only making every performance different but also making jazz performances into conversations that reflect real-time interaction and expressions of individual emotion.

It’s worth noting that even jazz performances that feature a vocal are often somewhat abstracted expressions of individual emotion. From Bessie Smith to Billie Holiday to Cassandra Wilson, jazz singers typically apply techniques that twist basic melodies and change the sonority of the voice so that the lyrics are muffled, growled, elongated / shortened, or otherwise made harder to follow. Even when jazz uses words, the words tend not to dominate the performance.

In jazz, then, the feeling and emotion are artfully implied but also passionate expressions of individuals who are reacting to each other (and often the audience too) in the moment. In jazz, I’m arguing, the heart of the musicians and the heat of the moment merge to create a form of abstract expression that is anything but cold.

Seven Examples, From the Sizzling to the Sublime, of Unforgettable Emotion in Jazz

Here is a handful of examples, jazz performances where the sound alone is rich in feeling. These aren’t merely demonstrations of technical instrumental facility, but moments where an artist is exposing heart. This is how jazz moves us.

Miles Davis, “My Funny Valentine” (1964, live)

“My Funny Valentine” is a durable standard by Rogers and Hart, from the 1937 show Babes in Arms. It was recycled in the film version of Pal Joey (1957) and in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), but the life of the song was extended almost infinitely by jazz musicians, who love its motif-driven melody and moody chord changes.

Davis picked up the song in the mid-‘50s when it was all the rage, having been the lead track on Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Young Lovers from 1953. The classic Davis studio recording from 1956 is set at a ballad tempo with Davis playing the melody, his whispery Harmon mute in place. He would play the tune regularly with his bands for the next decade, but by the early ‘60s, Davis was using the song in a much more expressive and fluid way. During his 1964 concert at Lincoln Center in New York in support of civil rights causes, he played the tune with the open horn. The start of this performance is a great exhibit of how a bunch of sound—without explicit story through lyrics—can evoke a world of meaning a feeling.

The effect of the first six minutes of this recording are more powerful and expressive than any other recording of the song, with or without words. First, pianist Herbie Hancock establishes a mysterious canvas for the opening phrases or melody. Davis starts toward the bottom of his register, sounding both brass-clear and breathy, sonic qualities that evoke both majesty and a hauntedness. He makes one dramatic climb up to a bright, held note, and then he shifts the note down an octave only to slyly bend the note another quarter step downward.

Davis uses this technique several times in this melody statement and the following solo, alternating clarion, declamatory runs with bent-note asides that twist the tune back into itself. In other words, he is both optimistic and unsure. In some spots, Davis falters just a bit, exposing vulnerability, seeming to exhibit the song’s lyric (“Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak / Are you smart?”).

To my ear, the overall impression of his solo here is one of emotional desperation. He pleads a bit, screams some, he cries, and he woos. George Coleman’s saxophone solo is stately and Hancock’s is thoughtful and perfectly textured, but during the six minutes that Davis holds your ear, you know that you’re hearing a complete story—an expression of bottled-up intensity.

Charles Mingus, “The Original Faubus Fables” (1960)

In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus tried to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School with force. Two years later, bassist Charles Mingus recorded the first “Fables of Faubus” on Mingus Ah Um, and he followed that recording with a more raw quartet version, with shout-sung lyrics, on 1960’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus on the independent Candid label.

The playing here is some of the most tragicomic in jazz. The theme has an urgent, funky push-pull as well as a wild bridge in which Eric Dolphy’s alto saxophone bleats like a mad ... governor (?) while Ted Curson plays protesting burst of brass in his lowest register. But it’s during the improvising that the sense of anger and absurdity comes out. In this playing the musicians are somehow playing roles in a drama using just sound. They mock, pose, and speak back to power.

Curson seems to be playing the lament of years of segregation with a stately solo that alternates between logical melodic expression and soulful blues lamentation. Then Dolphy comes on with a statement that is more wild and untamed, shards of blues phrases flying with a combination of anger and comedy. Dolphy is a ripe tomato, almost cracking open as he rips and quavers and rises and falls like a man who has run out of breath. And options. In this emotional music, a listener gets the story and feeling directly.

Somehow, “Faubus” cracks you up and cracks you open. It mocks even as it takes things seriously. The combination of voices here is exactly perfect for its purpose.

Louis Armstrong, “Black and Blue” (1929)

This early record from Louis Armstrong also has some lyrics but, as was common back then, the first chorus is strictly instrumental. As good as Pops’ singing is, just listen to the first minute, which is a tiny clinic in how a great player can take a simple melody and use it to show beautiful command of time and pacing, but also an elegant defiance. The melody is mournful, but Armstrong plays it with a limber sense of time and an elegant intelligence. The song as written, of course, is a complaint about the unfairness of racial discrimination. But hearing Armstrong’s radiant trumpet at the start is the hear the answer before the question has been asked.

What do we hear that evokes a sense of rising above. Armstrong takes a blue melody and he sashays it through time. The notes have a casual, loose momentum as they are placed in time—the tumble forward like the hips of a great dancer. The minor intervals say “sadness” but the sharp attack of each note and the swing of the notes through time say “I got this.”

In just 16 bars of playing, Armstrong provided his response to racism: to rise above it through excellence, elegance, and joy. Thereby fighting it by changing the very world that let it thrive. In that minute of music, you can hear Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and Mos Def being born.

Keith Jarrett, “My Song” (1981 and 2009, live)

This simple theme written by pianist Keith Jarrett first appeared on his 1978 ECM record My Song, performed by his quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The tune itself is heart-tugging and gorgeous, combining a chiming, nursery rhyme accompaniment with a few gospel flourishes and several breathtaking harmonic shifts. It’s a pretty song, and maybe that’s all it would be in hands of most musicians.

This live version for solo piano, recorded in France in 1981 in low fidelity, nevertheless catches an artist in the middle of pure lyricism and flight. Jarrett caresses the theme at the start, yes, but he does so with relatively little fuss or cuteness. He plays it with simplicity and clarity.

But at about the 2:30 mark, he begins an improvisation that seems to bend the very idea of the piano. The left hand plays the harmonic form simply and the right hand begins with a ringing, fresh melody. Soon, however, it’s as if the spirit possess Jarrett’s right hand and it begins to spin webs of melody that are fast, yes, and also precise, finally rippling melodies that are long and unexpected, quick strings of tones that rise, curl, turn, fall, twist. The curve of notes seem to bend as if they;re being played on guitar strings even though, of course, that couldn’t be. Jarrett fools your ears with a comet of notes, leaving a bending trail of fire.

There it is again, the same simple melody played by the same composer almost 30 years later. If you ever doubted that time makes us wiser, here is the proof. Jarrett takes his time beginning the familiar theme, working with denser, more darkened harmony. Listening to this is like tasting a favorite dish again, but one that has been flavored with spices that make the taste more complex, more varied—less sugar but more complexity.

When Jarrett gets to the melody, it’s still simple and beautiful, but he articulates it with more personality, bending it to feeling the way that Billie Holiday used to alter a Tin Pan Alley tune. His improvisation (beginning at the four-minute mark) is now a true conversation between both hands rather than stunning virtuosity from one, surely a recognition that life looks and feels more nuanced, complicated, mediated, and cooperative at 60 than at 30.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (featuring Wynton Marsalis), “In Case You Missed It” (1981, live)

This tune is a popping modern theme by saxophonist Bobby Watson, which he contributed to the book of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Blakey, the drummer, was over 60 when this video was made of his last famous band—famous because it featured trumpeter Wynton Marsalis before he had gone out on his own. (That’s brother Branford on alto sax.) Blakey was a jazz preacher, who reveled in teaching younger musicians and in spreading the gospel to new audiences through vigorous, high-energy, hard-edged swing.

Sometimes, in music as in sports, what’ss sublime is just seeing a great performer at full extension: a Michael Jordan dunk, the unfurled home-run swing of Bryce Harper, a full-extension touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson. The poetry can be in the astonishing mastery of craft.

The peak of magic here, from 3:50 to 5:15 is the young Marsalis’s solo, which is essentially 90 seconds of heart-stopping calisthenics. Marsalis, barely out of his teens, can play anything on the trumpet. And. So. He. Does. He plays low and tricky, high and skipping, funky half-valve blue notes. He flutters up and down like a hummingbird. He glisses the horn as if it were a tiny trombone.

He astonishes, and because it’s on videotape you can see Blakey, mouth hanging open, have trouble believing what he’s hearing. No one else on the stand is as talented (even if Bill Pierce, the tenor player, is wiser and more sage in 1981) and everyone in the room knows it. You hear those 90 seconds and can see the whole future for this kid and the music he will make.

Herbie Hancock with Freddie Hubbard and others, “Canteloupe Island” (1985, live)

Here’s a better trumpet solo, if a very different one. Freddie Hubbard was a few years short of 50 when he appeared at this all-star concert with Miles Davis’s 1964 rhythm section and Joe Henderson on tenor sax. The tune is Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” (later made famous for being sampled for the hip-hop novelty “Cantloop (Flip Fantasia)” by US3).

What you hear on Hubbard’s solo is different that the athleticism of Marsalis. From its very first note, this solo on a blues form is total conviction and badass certainty. Every last note of this solo is knife strike to your heart—some of them sharp punctures, some tricky swipes, some slow, light strokes that barely break the skin, and some little stabs of sadness. The colors of this solo are not pastels or grey tones but bright primary colors streaked with blue. Dark blue.

Everything on this track is fantastic—just dig the heady challenge of the tenor solo by Joe Henderson or the stabbing rhythms of Hancock, but everything Hubbard does is just a little more cocksure and ultra-fantastic. And after they play the melody one more time, the three soloists trade back and forth with Hubbard running the show like a circus-master.

The sound of confidence is infectious.

John Coltrane, “Naima” (1965, live)

If I had to ask someone to listen to just one jazz musician play just one thing, it would be this. In 1955, saxophonist John Coltrane wrote a ballad, “Naima”, for his wife. Formally, it’s an interesting piece of music, with a series of chords shifting over just two “pedal point” notes in the bass, all fitted around a serene melody that seems to reach up to the stars. But forget technique and dig the feeling.

The original recording of “Naima” is from 1959: controlled, beautiful, tempered. By 1965, Coltrane’s life had dramatically changed. He left Naima in 1963 and was using his music, more and more, to seek something spiritual. The performance here traces a lifetime. Trane begins respectfully, playing the melody and theme with gentle affection. But after McCoy Tyner’s piano solo, he returns with an improvisation that is volcanic. While it screams and shrieks, it is not with anger, and this is not “free jazz” that abandons the melody or form.

Rather, Coltrane keeps the melody mostly under his fingers but surrounds it will a flow of energy that cracks down to the bottom of his register, bounces back up in torrents that reach for the clouds, and then flows around the notes. This is not a long solo, an indulgence—it’s a sculpture of rapture. It sounds like something that’s being created, forged in a hot oven. Lava spouts and sizzles and flows with majesty, too. In a whoosh the band brings us back to the melody, unadorned and simple, followed by Coltrane’s melodic ascent up seven tones to a last beautiful reach into an ending.

From contentment and calm, a soul grows restless, it strives to something greater but within defined limit, and then it returns home. What a journey.

And there I give you seven steps to heaven. Examples of emotion expressed in musical abstraction that I believe make the case for this music as something sublime, artful, intense, beautiful. There are many more musicians, and many different kinds of music could lay their claim with equal authority. But jazz, too often maligned as boring or “all the same” or irrelevant, remains one of the great forms of American expression. Yes, it’s abstract expression. It asks you to see into it and interpret. It requires active listening. But it also reaches across and grabs you by the heart with sounds that are fiercely, defiantly individual.

What could be a clearer statement of the complexity and beauty in American culture?

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