Thursday, May 20, 2010
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.