How do you visualise jazz or see it in terms of metaphor if at all? You probably do not think about it consciously in that direct way.
However at some level there is a simplification in our responses to all jazz because it is so complex.
The keys we listen to day in day out often are non-standard. And this is significant because we all, whether we like it or not, are attuned, desensitised might be a more severe way of terming this, via pop and rock culture to live with a small number of keys as is also often the case with metre, again something that is limited throughout the tune to 4/4 with most music on the radio, and yes there are fewer chord changes and little complex modulation or experimentation in mainstream pop and rock.
The instrumentation is often different even if instruments are familiar from classical music or rock. And even the amalgamation of Western and non Western music (with the incorporation say of microtonal music or Indian, Chinese or Japanese instruments) although more common now than in the say the 1950s is far from usual.
Electronic music is often extremely unfamiliar as we cannot easily visualise any instrument producing such often unearthly sounds and the input of electronica on contemporary jazz as well as advanced studio production methods freed up by digital technology is getting larger all the time.
Ultimately and you read this a lot: all the technical considerations go out the window when people react to music. It does not matter that we cannot often describe jazz in technical terms for instance and most people no matter how well versed in jazz cannot at the very least achieve an accurate transcription unless they are fresh from music college.
Also pertinently: most of us do not have perfect pitch and that does not matter a jot as there is no need to necessarily know what key a piece is in off the top of your head or what note it begins with unless you intend to play it. Even virtuoso jazz musicians cannot always interact with what they are doing in terms of explaining it musicologically.
It struck me listening to a lot of albums recently and looking at transcription sites, even with my elementary score reading ability, that some albums seem to have few words [notes] on the page even within the same four or five minutes of the duration of the ‘song’, the ‘tune’ more strictly and yet they still tell a story.
Other pieces might be like a snowstorm in terms of note population. If they were a novel they might be like Will Self’s Phone: no paragraphs even much and yet full of vivid characters, plot and also possessing the richest of unusual vocabularies. The point here: there is more organisation than might seem to be the case on first listen, certainly the case with a lot of free-jazz.
Does this matter, the number of notes? Not at all. Most of us are are not counting even in terms of bars or even notice numbers in this sense or at all. In a live situation body language with free improvisers and a natural sense of timing are far more important.
What we tend to do is and this relates back to the visualising and in terms of metaphor aspect is reacting largely emotionally as well as in other detail or familiarity-grounded ways; or we are simply driven by the beat or pulse of the piece which is a big factor in jazz. For instance, there may be a comfort zone in encountering a piano trio or a sextet that has a rhythm section plus horns playing say bop. Style can be a suffocating comfort blanket but it is a short cut into easier listening. And so we do not have to think about that as listeners among all our other determining tasks entered into however without really thinking about it. For instance if you know the style is roughly influenced by say Herbie Hancock you will know from prior listening to him that there is maybe a light funkiness, perhaps quartal harmony, or a hooky off-beat rhythm that is definitely grounded in the deepest African American jazz traditions going back as far as Earl Hines. And depending on the piece in question a deep knowledge of piano form both in the interpreting of standard material and in the case of the construction of Hancock’s own original work that might be said to be inspired by the likes of Clare Fischer and Ahmad Jamal.
The words on the page notion (that is: space and shape if you like is ultimately more important as it does not matter whether the number is large or small) you might think equates to the sheets of sound in Coltrane lore although that is more about vertical harmony and Coltrane’s Einstein-like ability to juggle modes and patterns at will in real time that ultimately can lift the spirit higher in the process of response even via this most theoretically acquired omniscale/omnimode approach fused with his interest in Eastern music that Coltrane based it all on.
In the small spaces of the blizzard somehow something always reveals itself and goes beyond.
People sometimes talk about finding the moment. Sometimes that moment only arrives later after the music itself has disappeared and something clicks inside you thinking back to the sound. Say in Ornette Coleman’s music particularly the more difficult harmolodic electric Prime Time material you can come away with something that is utterly distinctive among the millions of resonances. It might be to use slang and one of the titles from his earlier period a ‘blues connotation’ is one way of making sense of otherwise highly abstract music that somehow still chimes on an emotional level.
It might otherwise be gleaned from that free thinking bizarre sense of harmony that he created and his pan-tonal innovations that shows that fixed rules can be smashed to pieces and still act in creating a kind of elastic dissonant form that is not alien to the listeners who need a rough guide even if it contains the shock of the new precisely because it is new and thus hostile to our lazier instincts.
Subjectively loving a piece or loathing one, or a style, is coming from somewhere and is a lot more than simple taste. How we simplify and why and more to the point how jazz musicians do this in terms of performance, whether they actually are challenging themselves to innovate or not and if this is actually necessary, is what is really interesting and harder to fathom.
If the notes on the page ultimately are too challenging no matter how navigable they are to an expert sight reader, is an adherence to them in performance a hindrance more than a blessing?
At the heart of our responses is method and style. Style over substance is better every time and that does not make such a response a shallow one, it means that personality is an active preferable factor in the music created. Epic failure yes every time is better in terms of faithfulness to the notes if there is a flaw rather than limited success in their secondhand interpretation given the distance of time or possible lack of empathy towards the original material which is hugely difficult to conjure for even the most talented musicians.
A new single from MOBO-winning singer Zara McFarlane, a compelling version of ‘All Africa’ famously sung by Abbey Lincoln on Max Roach’s civil rights era 1960 album We Insist! is released on ten-inch vinyl this summer.
Produced by her drummer Moses Boyd who also appears on the single and which also includes an alternate take of the Roach/Oscar Brown Jr composition, trombonist Nathaniel Cross, bassist Jay Darwish, keyboardist Ashley Henry, percussionist Junior Alli-Balogun and tenorist Banker Golding complete the band. An album is also on the way but McFarlane emphasises on social media that the track “won't be on the album.” Released by Brownswood on 7 July, listen above.