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Monday, October 2, 2017

What's the Right Tempo For That Tune?

There aren't that many categories for song tempos in jazz: up/fast, medium-up, medium, medium-slow and ballad/slow, but the permutations are endless. Is there a "right" tempo for a tune? 
Some songs seem to invite a wide latitude of tempo without losing their internal musical-emotional logic. I'd suggest as examples Autumn Leaves, But Not For Me, Come Rain or Come Shine, Our Love is Here to Stay...On the other hand, there are a lot of tunes that really call out for a narrow range of tempos-Good Morning Heartache, St. Thomas, After You've Gone, Donna Lee, Liza...

I find there are certain musicians who seem to always call tunes at the tempo I would choose, like Bobby Hackett, Roy Eldridge and Benny Golson. There are some who stretch tempi a little bit and make them work-Miles Davis (usually slower) and Art Pepper (usually faster) come to mind.

There are musicians like Charles Mingus and Steven Bernstein who sometimes re-work tunes so that they become almost indistinguishable from the standard versions. In this new aesthetic territory, the tempo becomes highly frangible

Then, there are tempo choices that just seem wrong-headed; where either the sentiment of the song or the contour of the melody clashes with the speed at which it's played. It's easier to see this in sung versions where you can hear the words, but in instrumental versions, it can also be irksome.

Let's start by comparing an original conception with a jazz re-working and listen to Kurt Weill play his composition "Speak Low," at 116 beats per minute, followed by Sonny Clark's version of the tune at 170 beats per minute:

In the Clark version, there is a shift between "Latin" and swing in the rhythm section, harmonized background horn parts, virtuosic bop playing. This version does not "Speak Low," but it does build on what the tune offers and essentially creates a convincing new tune on the bones of the old.

In this version of  "Dancing in the Dark," the tempo is a little bit faster than when first introduced in the film "The Bandwagon." The quality of Astaire's delivery does give the sense of this tempo, or something close to it,  being the "right" one.

The very slow tempo Cannonball Adderley chose for the same tune, his melodic ornamentations, interpolations and alterations were extreme enough that for several spins, I wasn't sure if I was hearing the standard or an original ballad by Adderly. See if you can buy into this approach.

Here are two versions of "Young and Foolish." The first is typical of the tempo usually chosen for the tune; perhaps even a bit slower. 

In the above, Mark Murphy takes the same tune way up. He uses "stop-times," key changes and horn obligatti for variety and creates a completely different approach. He renders an viable alternate vision, but to me, the lyrics don't really work at this tempo. There's a ruefulness to them that gets steamrolled. 

Here's a Clark Terry revamp of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." 

The melody actually fits well in this tempo and the performance is terrific. The original emotional impact of the song is swept away here, but its intent is so far away from the original that this version can be taken on its own virtuosic, up tempo terms.

Many jazz people take "My Shining Hour" at an up tempo. I happen to think that the song deserves to be heard at a slower tempo, which is how I do it when I play it. Here are two contrasting versions. 

Degustibus non disputatum est, of course, but I think it's fair to say that when choosing how fast to play an instrumental, there can be a lot of latitude-melodies can often sustain themselves in a wide range of tempos. But, in choosing to alter the usual tempo of a tune with known lyrics, musicians need to reckon with the emotional weight and meaning of the lyrics. 

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