Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding the "Voice" in Jazz by Steve Provizer

'Voice' has always been seen as the sine qua non of jazz-the quality that separates it from other genres and either marks a musician as worthy of attention or consigns him to mediocrity. Someone with very sharp ears might be able to tell the difference between Maurice Andre and Wynton Marsalis playing the Haydn Trumpet concerto, but it's damned hard. In any case, we evaluate the composer, the orchestra and the performer as a unit.

But, when you listen to Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge battling it out at the JATP, it's all about the soloist. And no one much cares who wrote the tune.

For me, the fundamental parts of Voice in jazz are tone, note choice, dynamics, approach to solo construction and the relative amount of space/silence. Choice of material, sidemen, and size of group can also play a part.

Radical departures from the norm, things like playing in the Taj Mahal, offbeat instruments, playing more than one horn at a time-can help mark someone as having a "voice." But none of these elements is definitive in itself. They all interact.

Tone-the note itself-is arguably the fundamental element.

The deep history of the music makes building a "Voice-tone" a challenge. Looking just at sax and trumpet playing, we can see the territory has been well staked out. In alto sax, for example-Hodges, Bird, Konitz, Buster Smith, Jimmy Dorsey, Earl Bostic, Julius Hemphill, Jackie McLean, John Zorn-these people represent the exploration of an enormous tonal range.

On the trumpet, look at Armstrong, Bix, Eldridge, Shavers, Cootie Williams, Miles, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy, Sweets Edison, Harry James, Clifford, Woody Shaw, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Freddie Hubbard, Marsalis/Blanchard. Of course, you can slice it real thin, take percentages of one or the other, mix and match-find the cracks between other people's Voice-Tones. Use recombinant Voice-genetics to try and derive something new.

The extent to which this is a conscious process is completely individual. For some, it's a question of natural seepage. Others go to great lengths to see if they can re-create certain people's sound.

There are a lot of equipment parameters that can be changed: mouthpieces, reeds, mutes, lead pipes, bore size, bracing techniques, metal alloys, use of microphones, electronic manipulation and recording techniques...But technology doesn't have all the answers. Many tenor players have copied his equipment down to the last detail, but never managed to sound like Stan Getz.

And, of course, if you do manage to carve out a distinctive tone, you still gotta say something.

I don't want this thesis length, so will pick up that issue in a later post (or ignore it, as per my "manifesto").

I definitely won't tackle the proposition that if you find a voice, an audience will find you.


bigtiny said...

Let's not forget tonal explorers like Bill Dixon and Don Cherry!

Steve Provizer said...

I listed Cherry. Dixon is another...

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

It's funny, I always looked at voice as a number of elements and see it as an expression of 'lineage.'

Take Saxophones. Early on it was easy as there was really just Coleman Hawkins.

He had a tone and a melody concept.

Lester Young shows up and makes a new voice out of antithesis.

Young-uns thus had more choices and hybrids sprouted. Maybe a Lester Melody concept with a Coleman tone or vice versa. There were other distinctions of choice to mess with like rhythmic accenting and later with harmonic substitutions.

By the time you get to Dexter Gordon, gateway to Coltrane, there are a fairly astonishing selection of elements to pick and it becomes a way of declaring lineage and a persons sense of place.

Don't worry, nothing original here. It's all stuff I remember from Roland Wiggins lectures in 1975 or so.

I would argue that voice could have a broader definition applying the Wiggins outlook and spotting the ways each person shapes it is the grand game of jazz legacy inquiry still ongoing. The balance between self and other.

Chris said...

I was glad you mentioned so many aspects of style as part of the search for voice. As someone who's instrument doesn't have the range of tone that other instruments do, I have still.always been amazed how great pianists can create a recognizable sound on the instrument. Yes there is tonal variation between say Monk and Bill Evans....but tonal variation on the piano is never going to be as extreme or personal as tonal.variation on a horn or even the bass. Howeveryou can still tell Phineas Newborns from Bobby Timmons even though their tone and attack are the same....based on style factors. Tone is a major part of voice...but not the.only part.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Newborn and Timmons. Great examples. Mr. Newborn was generally castigated by cretin scribblers for being a "stylist", (scribbler code for 'I don't get it').

He attempted an audacious intertwine of a Powell foundation laced with deft Tatum surprise. I've got an old Howard McGhee Contemporary disc well larded with these Newbornisms.

Timmons had strikingly punchy rhythm accents and emphasis you can hear really well on the version of Moanin' recorded in Paris with Blakey on an old Columbia Special Products disc.

I'd nearly wince when I heard it because he hits the keys so hard you expect either his fingers or the keyboard to break and he has a way of making the whole piano board ring and shudder.

Steve Provizer said...

The fundaments of Voice definitely shift in the case of piano. At least, it's harder to specifically tease out tone than it is with horns.

Part of the wonder of listening to older piano recordings is to listen to players move through a range of spinets, uprights and grands (some of which were crap). Now it's seldom that a jazz recording is not done on a large grand. It sounds pretty, but to me there's a flattening effect. Of course, working inside the piano is one way around that.

gerardcoxblog said...

I think physiology can be an important influence on "voice-tone". If you have fuller lips it's easier to get a fuller sound on a brass instrument (NOT intended as any kind of racial commentary). Some guys also have larger lungs.

Serious, let's not forget the blessings of nature. I feel like people avoid this topic because it implies the musician accomplishes what they do on the basis of something out of their control. For me, it's just acknowledging a physiological advantage. An advantage is not to say others at a "disadvantage" can't accomplish as much....(like, say- a bass player with small hands), only that they will have to work harder at it.

Steve Provizer said...

Gerard-I agree that an important part of the process is coming to terms with your physical capacities, gifts and lack of same. Several of my posts try to deal with that ("we have to find our own points of calibration," etc).

In a best case scenario, we discover a means of avoiding self-torture and nurture what we've got.

Chris said...

Chris....Phineas and Bobby Timmons are.two of my favorites and both can have a pretty hard touch....Timmons a little more perhaps....and yet.within a measure you know one from the other. It's more.than just tone....its chord voicing...note choice....textures...accent.

On the physiology thing....I've always bemoaned my smallish hands as they preclude me ever being a good stride player and I've always wanted to play stride well.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Cecil Taylor is a Phineas fan. I remember overhearing him at Sound Unity in the 80s making plans to go see a Newborn gig at one of the august joints, maybe the Blue Note.

He came out of Memphis as I recall and ended up in California. Period scribblers found him eccentric and perplexing and treated him so badly he was reported to have gotten a nervous breakdown from it all.

The McGhee disc I have is from 1961, "Maggie's Back in Town!" with Leroy Vinnegar and a youthful Shelly Manne filling out the Quartet.

Newborn is lively and striking, leaping out into the alloted spaces with these interesting instant accelerations, precision with a vengeance.

And Timmons, he is just a principle of earthy intellect, very muscular and supremely confident as if nothing could phase him. There is a ringing like some mist of partials hovering around the sound and its grandchild can be found in Shipp solo's even though they are cut from a very different cloth.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Oh and bigtiny, Bill's Birthday is coming soon even though he didn't make it.

I have some plans in mind. He was here last spring.

Steve Provizer said...

I always hear Phineas as similar to Randy Weston. Timmons fingers are funkified.

Matt Lavelle said...

Got to take it beyond fellas,.and you know where I'm going:

You ARE your sound.You can come at it from every technical perspective,.all valid,.but your sound is YOU.It's beyond the technical thing,.it just is,.it's your soul and your relationship to being alive.

What we do with it,.how we develop it,.how we Live,.is up to us..

I went through this working at Sam Ash as people coming in thinking a certain horn or certain mouthpiece opens the door.

Bird could play a student alto with a jacked up mouthpiece and the wrong reed,.

He would still be BIRD.

Steve Provizer said...

Matt, like I said, people try to duplicate the equipment, but can't get the sound. All those people buying Martin Committee's on Ebay will never sound like Miles.

That said, you know it's true that a large deep cup mouthpiece gives you a very different sound than a small shallow one and that one will work better with your chops than another. A large bore horn plays different than a small bore one. Those are equipment choices, and they can make a big difference.

Matt Lavelle said...


no doubt,.I had to sell trumpet mouthpieces,.and we had 3 prized Martins,.old and tired,.but folks still wanted them.The Mark 6 in sax land was the thing to.

I dig what your your saying,.the technical things do make a difference,.they should facilitate you getting the sound you want.

It's the sound itself,.what you hear in your head that I'm talking about.Like when Roy Campbell plays my trumpet,.a very,very different set-up,.he sounds just like him.

I'm sure we agree and are really saying the same thing from different perspectives or slight variations of the same one.

I played a Bach strad for 10 years,.a huge mistake,.just WRONG for me.I have a Yamaha ZENO and a Leon Merion E now,.and a lightweight Yamaha flugel that I LOVE.My trumpet is really the wrong set up,.but I'm to broke and to busy to search and rebuild/adjust.

I know a guy with a trumpet utility belt,.like Batman.He switches on the fly.

Then I heard Lester Bowie had a sack of mouthpieces and just took one at random,.(urban jazz legend?)

Steve Provizer said...

I never heard that about Lester...

People fetish-ize equipment, of course...

I think "the sound in your head" is not a fixed "thing," but is subject to (sometimes technical) influences. I know that's true in my case. I've gotten new mouthpieces, and heard myself play with a tone I never had before-and the change has led to a new voice.

Matt Lavelle said...

You know,.the recording is also a factor,.if not hearing someone live.Paul Gonsalves had like 5 different sounds,.all him.(Only discovered out of obsessive listening.(I like hearing even non-musical things on records)

The right equipment should lead to a stronger,clearer version of what may be a subjective thing,.I just have to believe in the mystical quality of the sound production source,.being who I am.

I'm running out of things to write about in Jazz as of late,.but your in the Zone.I write about things I see in the trenches of NYC and a lot of meta-psychical stuff that would be weird on Brilliant Corners.Might take a chill pill.(heh)

Onward and upward,.just no mental ward.