Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Of Shoulders and Limbs
That is, giants stand on shoulders and go out on limbs... In the wake of the wide-ranging discussion following my last post, there were many directions to pursue. I decided to try and pull enough threads out of the bebop birthing saga to try and see how (and if) Charlie Parker's contributions were qualitatively different from others who created that music. This is partly about music and partly about personal mythology, with an eye cast at the question of codification. One way to start is to look at Bird's confrere Dizzy Gillespie, the man whom we naturally pair with Bird as foundational bop pillar. In terms of personality, Diz was his opposite number. He was basically reliable, able to hold big bands together for long periods of time and was a hands-on teacher for other musicians. Although Diz was an avid herb-alist, he avoided the pitfalls of addiction. If Bird's public face was the tortured genius-sometimes-do-well, Diz presented as kooky but sane, a man who happily continued the legacy of entertainer/trumpet innovator going through Bolden-Armstrong-Eldridge. The U.S. State Dept. tapped Satchmo and Diz to go overseas and represent, but it's tough to imagine, even if he'd lived-Ambassador Bird. Now, to the music. First of all, did Bird or Diz expand what the technical boundaries of their respective instruments-alto sax and trumpet? One widely accepted premise is that the saxophone is a more glib instrument. Moving in a linear way from the top to the bottom of the horn or leaping from register to register is simply easier to do. No octave key on a trumpet. Of course, Bird got around the horn with speed and agility although, just in those terms, Jimmy Dorsey was his virtuosic equal and others were close (I’m not talking about what they played). For his part, Dizzy made the trumpet do things it simply had never done. He pushed velocity in trumpet-playing, taking full advantage of false fingerings to give the illusion of a cascade-more like a cataract-of notes, and his articulation at top speeds was unsurpassed. It says something that in the last 70 years, so few trumpet players have successfully mastered trumpet technique the way Diz did. What about use of extreme registers? Alto has a range of a little less than 3 octaves (although the range of the alto was eventually pushed to harmonics high above that). The trumpet's natural range is slightly smaller. However, one of the measures of the evolution of trumpet playing was lifting the ceiling of the expected upper register. Armstrong pushed it up; was known to play a hundred high C's in a row and his big finales often led to high F's. Eldridge pushed it higher and Dizzy pushed it higher still; commonly blowing in the high Eflat to Aflat range. This register, when played well, carries tremendous emotional energy. One reason the trumpet-along with the clarinet-was the dominant instrument in the swing era was that the range of tempos typical taken during that time allowed full use of that capacity and entire arrangements were built to showcase it effectively. Yes, I know, Cat Anderson, Maynard Ferguson and a flock of lead trumpet players took the trumpet up another octave and more later on, but the stratospheric notes played by these "high-note specialists" could not have the full-bodied sound that I'm talking about. Up that high there are simply no overtones left to give a note the same depth, especially with the shallow mouthpieces they used to get that scream.. Dizzy's early work took full advantage of a ballsy high register and when he made the move to bop-he carried that through and often set up third and fourth choruses to showcase his high register. SMALL DIGRESSION There's always been a debate among trumpet players (like me) about playing high for its own sake; its "musicality." Not to belabor a point, but it's hard to imagine a trumpet player not wanting to be able to play every note the instrument is capable of producing. BACK TO BUSINESS Bird went all over the horn, but didn't stay very long in either the high or low registers and didn't use these registers for any particular dramatic purpose. It wasn’t until the late 1950's that alto players began to stretch the range of the alto into the "altissimo" register and also tried to develop multi-phonics and harmonics (to me, more viable on the tenor than the on the alto). A session like “Ascension” undertaken in 1940 would have resulted in the participants being rounded up and exiled to Camarillo or Bellevue. What about Bird's tone on the horn? In fact, apart from note choice, which we’ll talk about later, it was Bird’s tone that signaled his sharpest break from the past. I suggest there are 2 major qualities to a musician’s tone: vibrato and sonority, which work hand in hand. Essentially, we’re talking about how much someone “milks” a tone. In fact, on the alto, a fairly heavy vibrato was the norm. Hodges probably extracted the most possible juice from a single note (Apart from a wide vibrato, he got his effect not from single notes, but from sliding above and below those notes-glissandi and smears). The standard sonority was a fairly creamy broadness, thicker to achieve darkness or thinner for brightness, depending on the player and the type of band (sweet or hot). There are still traces of vibrato in Bird’s earliest recordings with McShann , but his sonority became brassier, harder, more insistent and energetic and his vibrato was basically obliterated. There are times in ballads when you hear it struggling to get back into the sound. It briefly does and is then swamped by a sense of urgency. If you’re looking for a specific progenitor for this shift in alto tone, I don’t think you’ll find it in an alto player. Hawkins, yes, but Hawkins had a rival in Lester and,as far as the tenor goes, their two major “sound” schools continued. Eventually, in the 1950’s, the so-called “cool” school reintroduced a more “legit” and vibrato’ed sound on the alto, but essentially, the sound that Bird introduced on alto became the sound that every young alto player emulated. It defined “modern” on the instrument, so much so that in retrospect it seems like, if Bird hadn’t come up with it, a bunch of chemists would have had to synthesize it in a lab and dose the whiskey at Small’s and Minton’s. Next time, Bird gets more of his due, as I look at phrasing, repertoire and where all those damn notes came from. Looking forward to readers doing the work I didn’t do and posting representative examples and counter-examples of my schema.