Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Without Form-No Function

The importance of form in jazz is grossly under-appreciated. It’s the vessel that jazz is poured into. It shapes the music overtly and subtly and if there is no synergy between the blowing and the form, the music won’t resonate.

Form is a kind of grammar, which means it may work in one circumstance, but not in another. One rule is: don’t end a sentence with a preposition (“…the vessel that jazz is poured into”). Well, that’s the arbitrary superimposition of a rule on a thought. The formation of a thought can transcend that rule and rearranging your sentence just to avoid that grammatical no-no results in a different thought=bad communication. In jazz, the creation of different forms would seem to be have been necessitated by changes in thought. And yet, is it so?

The revolutions of the 50’s-60’s blew the doors off the most-used jazz forms: blues variations, “rhythm” changes, some Latin vectors and well-worn modal pathways. The stretching of harmony with chord substitutions, bitonality, dropping chordal instruments, solos spun off in endless linearity, finally, free blowing; these pounded against the walls and threatened to blow down the house that Duke, the Great American Songbook, Dizzy and others built. And yet, the traditional forms more than survived. They persisted-and continue to dominate. Is it just that these forms are so flexible that they can absorb this kind of brutal buffeting? Are other, newer forms so singular to the creator they can’t be adopted for wider use? Whatever the reason, these venerable forms have the capacity to create an intense bond between audience and musician.

I’ve been having a strong bonding experience myself, with a recording called “Locking Horns,” recorded in 1957, featuring Zoot Sims and Joe Newman, with O.P. on bass, Adrian Acea piano and Osie Johnson-drums. The compositions on this LP fall squarely into the forms I described above. There’s a rhythm-changes based melody, a Mambo with latinized “A-Train”-type changes, a minor blues, a “When Sunny Gets Blue”-type ballad, an up-boppish “Tune Up” type and so on. Actually, all the tunes are originals, which is pretty unusual and ambitious for a mainstream recording of that era. But the point is, the forms used and the playing of the musicians fit perfectly. Essentially, it’s a swing-bop fusion which is right in the musicians' groove, but which also stretches them. It’s a creative melding that allows this recording to still be intensely satisfying some 50 years later.

The vocabulary of improvisation has changed since Sims/Newman, but our brains still crave stories. The great jazz improvisers found not just the right notes, but the right form for the notes. In an era of “meta,” this may be more difficult than it once was. Maybe it’s more rare; maybe not. Navigating the shoals of novelty-for-novelty’s-sake on one end and this-seems-to-sell-well on the other has always been difficult. In the end, to make the link between composition and improvisation powerful, you must understand how a form allows or makes it harder for you to tell the story you can tell-not someone else’s.


Stanley Jason Zappa said...

"There is always a form"
--Bill Dixon

"You want Henry James"
--John Crouse

if there is no synergy between the blowing and the form, the music won’t resonate.

Is that really true? Will the music not resonate, or will our judgement of the music not resonate? Will the music not resonate forever, or can that resonance (or more accurately, our perception of that resonance) change depending upon, oh, i dunno, say, the extra-musical vicissitudes of capitalism?

Is there a difference between improvisation and composition? Do the two need "linking?"

These are just questions....

great post!


Steve Provizer said...

Thanks, SJZ. Yea, those are definitely questions... My posting just nibbled at the edges of the form/blowing interconnection which is, itself, just one part of the larger discussion about why we do or don't connect emotionally with someone's playing or composition.

We have passed on the periphery of that territory in prior discussions about the pluses and minuses of restrictions imposed by recordings through jazz history. That part of the discussion was more concrete and seemed useful, so in a future post, I aim to focus on just what this word form actually means. Suggestions-on the concrete, metaphorical or symbolic level-are welcome.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

A very interesting topic, as there is (always) this constant movement towards and away from "form"--in the pre-arrange, pre-determined, pre-agreed upon 'structural' sense of the word.

Even more interesting is who is advocating "retrenchment" in improvisation, what the incentives are for "reeling it it," who is providing those incentives, and what their motivation is for doing so. (And while the internet is the perfect place for passing judgement on those who accept these incentives, that's probably another blog post for another time...)

Does "form" (it's centrality) have anything to do with production and market realities? Are those production and market realities musician driven, or something to which the musician must adapt?

("Why must good run from evil?" asked Dr. Reich)

Somewhere on that damn internet thing, someone has made a connection between Zombie Movies, Vampire Movies, and which political party is in power in Washington. Do the improviser's feelings about form (the need for "structure" etc...) speak to economic or social biases and interests? Is the presence of "form" in improvisation an indicator of something else?

I'm looking forward to more dialectic on this very topic!


Chris Rich said...

Stanley's uncle had a funny segment in his autobiography about how to get involved in music.

I'm paraphrasing..

"Pick a noise...okay, now pick another one..

If you like how it sounds, then it's bitchin' if not, it sucks."

I look at a planet's worth of form and ideas.

One problem with these suppositions is the neglect of the vast rest of the world with it's striking array of ear preferences and forms that don't fit a Northwestern European concept of song form, the tension of the diatonic, the role of timbre and many other things.

Pitanjaro music of the outback is very old and involves a long gourd tube and some tree gum for mouthpiece with some seemingly aleatoric yammering that is really telling a story, a very very old one.

The formal court music of Korea is another structure that couldn't be more strange to Northwestern Europe's diatonic obsessions. It tells its stories, we just don't know the language or context.

The Inuit womens ring games are not even necessarily thought of as music, per se in an Inuit context but if we want to think it is, that's fine with them.

One of the best gifts I got from Roland Wiggins was his systems theory application.

He described diatonic music as having a high anticipation/fulfillment bias.

You expect it to do something and it does and so you are happy. It resolves to the tonic.

Our inner child thrills when the switch is flicked and the light goes on or the button is pressed and the door bell rings and a toddler can mess with this anticipation/fulfillment for hours.

And this of course is the most useful for mercantile applications and commodity transformations in a weird west where all things must be bankable or risk pariah status.

What happens when the northwestern euro contexts in the new world are eventually eroded by the demographic shrinkage of euro mutts as all these new arrivals from several other continents shape our reality with their ears and outlooks?

As a glass bead game system, diatonicism does have a sweet formal elegance whether it's Death and the Maiden or Body and Soul but it is always fun to explore what our fellow monkeys in other lands find for pots and pans to bang on..mmmm central highland water marimbas from Hmongs...

Mmm patagonian guimbardes going boing in a manner most striking.

"that's the sound of the men working on the"

"Your closing Key is not the same and so you cause the masters pain.

But Hans Sachs draws a rule from this,

In spring it must be so 'tis plain."

Chris Rich said...

With Jazz, one might argue that the African Diaspora aesthetics of sound saved euromutts from horrific banality by finding a way to breathe life into hackneyed and stagnating forms.

Steve Provizer said...

Many avenues to pursue... SJZ-Yea, it’s all about the orgone…Let's take your interest in the way market conditions determine form choice. It's impossible to know whether improvising musicians can ever arrive into creative maturity commercially tabula rasa, or whether the pervasive existence of certain forms pre-determines the work. It's a variation of the nature/nurture discussion. In those, I usually come out definitively on the nature side, but moving this question into this arena throws my position into doubt-as does recent brain research (see Somehow, both must do the shaping and it’s too knotty a psychic problem to tackle until my ambien supply can be rejuvenated. Right now, it hurts one side of my brain, but I'm not sure which. I'm open to argument from both sides.

The marketplace/determinism question seems to have a double edge, with both edges converging in the notion of “scarcity.”

On the one hand, the base of paying customers is shrinking and resources are getting scarcer. Jazzers, of course, have always scuffled, but for some number of years, the musicians who determined the main creative through-line were able to make a living. Now, the spheres of the “professional” jazz musician and everyone else spirals ever farther apart, a process that is already very advanced. Apart from the handful of elite touring players, those making an actual living are in wedding bands-in this depression being replaced by iPods, or are teaching (uh oh, don’t want to go there). It stands to reason that the forms used in each of these bifurcated group will accordingly grow farther apart and psychologically more alien to each other’s . I’m thinking this may offer another door of entry into the famous “jazz wars.”

You reference production values. This is the other side of the “scarcity” coin. Here, it’s all about: make your own music-distribute it yourself-Don’t Worry, Be Happy! The digital desktop is affordable and available. ProTools is organized to be most easily used in certain well-worn ways, but it actually puts up little resistance to being stretched in non-traditional directions. Mastering can be done. Production of cd’s can be done on a small scale, including the cover art, etc.

The place where the scarcity rubber meets the road-the elephant in the room-is distribution and that makes the other side of my brain hurt.