How to listen to jazz music; A beginners guide to the jazz genre PART TWO
When it comes to tackling a task that you’ve not tried before, or have barely made an attempt to, it’s best to start slow and easy, a little bit at a time.
Find a comfortable pace and go with it.
Some people like to wade into the water a step at a time, while other prefer to dive in, head-first.
Either way works. Doesn’t matter if you’re learning a new sport or a new job skill, or gaining an appreciation for a form of music that might be outside your regular rotation.
Just like all forms of popular music, jazz can be broken down into a bunch of different categories. There’s swing, big band, traditional jazz, smooth jazz, acoustic jazz, jazz fusion, new age, free form jazz … etc.
As I mentioned in part one of this primer, my entrance into the jazz music portal came via Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
However, that gateway might not be the best for everyone’s tastes. Early 1970s Miles Davis is light years away from his early work (like the uber-classic Kind of Blue) and also his later-period masterpieces (Tutu and Amandla).
Bitches Brew’s frantic pace, jumpy rhythms and spooky ambience can be hard for some to digest. Others flock to it like a moth to a flame.
That brings to me to a major point.
Some jazz can be tough to embrace, even if you’re in love with the form of music in general, or an artist in particular.
For me, John Coltrane is, and probably always will be, in my personal top 10 list of favorite artists. I absolutely love his 1964 masterpiece A Love Supreme.
However, his Ascension album from 1965, I struggle mightily with. I just don’t care for it. By the same token, I know people who consider Ascension to be a major watershed for Coltrane. And that’s cool, too.
Miles Davis "So What"
The main thing is, if you stumble across something you don’t dig, don’t throw in the towel. Keep going. You’ll find there’s always more tasty morsels ready to be found in the wide world of jazz. Remember – one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.
National Public Radio (NPR) is an excellent source to discover a wide variety of jazz music. Your local NPR station probably has several specialty shows that are produced in-house, to go along with those that are syndicated. Jazz music plays a big role on most NPR stations and that would be a logical place for those interested to get a solid start.
Another form of radio chewing up chunks of the market in 2009 is satellite radio. Sirius and XM are becoming mainstream sources for radio listeners and most dish and cable networks even broadcast commercial free music over a wide block of channels these days. As an example – Dish Network features Sirius’ Watercolors (smooth/contemporary jazz); Real Jazz (classic jazz) and Spa (new age jazz). The bonus thing about Sirius is it tells the name of the song and the artist, invaluable information when trying to track down a song you really dig.
When you find a sub-genre of jazz that strikes your fancy – then comes the easy part. The listening.
And the beautiful thing about listening to jazz music is, you can do it in one of two ways.
First is the traditional way of listening to music – turned up. Jazz fits in at a lively party, on the back deck while barbecuing or cruising down the highway on a spectacular sunny day.
But jazz also works in another way – turned down. Perfect for a romantic interlude, while doing paperwork or even while watching TV with the sound down, jazz makes excellent background music that does not have to dominate your full attention.
As I said in part one, jazz is mood music.
It can be bright, sunny and poppy. It can also be dark, ominous and off-beat. There’s room for all in jazz.
Another exceptional component of jazz music is they way that you can listen to a particular cut and hear something new in it every time you turn it on. That’s why jazz recorded in 1959 can still sound so fresh and so alive in 2009. There’s always the chance you’ll hear an element you might have missed before.
Let’s take for example the afore-mentioned Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. In my humble opinon, this is the best jazz recording in the history of the free world.
But I digress.
Anyway, most jazz music is really “star-driven.”
So what I like to do, when first listening to a new cut, is try to pick out what the “star” or band-leader is doing on the tune.
In the case of “So What” from Kind of Blue, that would be Miles Davis on trumpet.
That’s a cool place to start – with the man.
But the brilliance of that “star-driven” jazz is, there me be four or five “stars” kicking butt on each cut.
In addition to Davis on “So What,” we also have Cannonball Adderley blowing alto saxophone. We have John Coltrane blowing tenor sax. We have Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
That folks, is a who’s-who of some of the greatest jazzers of all time.
So each time out, if you try and pick out who’s doing what, you gain a better understanding of how a piece like “So What” comes together.
It truly is like piecing together a puzzle. And once you can separate the individual pieces, the whole picture becomes focused and clear in a way that is a beautiful thing. And the next thing you know, you’re bopping like crazy to Kind of Blue and are ready to dive into the next pool.
Listening to jazz is not a complicated thing. It requires no PHD from a fancy university.
Jazz music is best appreciated with the body and soul instead of the mind, anyway. Because in the end, music, whether jazz, rock, soul, pop … or whatever, is here because we like to groove.
And jazz music is not strictly saxophone-, or piano-dominated. There’s plenty of room for guitars turned up to 11 in the genre, too. Fact is, some of the best guitarists and vocalists ever have called jazz their home. Cats like Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Django Reinhardt, along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan all gained fame via jazz music.
So regardless if you are really into rock-n-roll, country, pop or dance music, give jazz a chance.
Sprinkle in a little bit at a time and before you know it, your playlist may be filled with artists like Pat Metheny, Duke Ellington and Diana Krall.
Don’t let yourself be the only thing stopping you from embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
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