A couple of years ago I was at a record date that featured a saxophonist. At one point, as he was doing a take of a blues, his girl friend walked into the control room and waved a hello to him. I judged that the saxophonist was not satisfied with the way the take was going, but in any case, in response to the girl’s arrival, he began to play wild wrong notes and runs, as a kind of mutual joke between them. At the end, when he entered the booth to give his girl friend a more direct hello, the a&r man on the date, with complete seriousness, said he thought the take had been just wonderful and wanted to use it.
I admit to having been, first, incredulous at and, finally, depressed by the event. The a&r man has been involved with jazz as a fan and producer for years. Yet he apparently did not hear the dizzy goofs the musician was making or his deliberateness in making them.
Thinking back over the incident, I realize now that it may be one-sided to judge the record producer harshly.
Perhaps, after all, he was having a basically honest and commendable response to the music. What he heard—or more properly, what he felt—in the saxophonist’s playing was his joy at seeing his girl friend and the emotional evidence of their irreverant musical joke. In other words, the a&r man was exhibiting something valid, human, and basic in his response to music, something without which the music would not exist for anyone. But I wonder whether such a response is enough.
Before I go further, I must admit my technical vulnerability. I make musical mistakes. And I am not interested in showing up anybody else’s mistakes as such.
I can imagine that, to a musician, the kind of comment that he sometimes hears can be puzzling. For example, I see in a recent record review in a national magazine that a particular performance, done by an important saxophonist of long standing, is “brilliant.”
What the saxophonist did on that record was to read through an old and not very well-known ballad 1 1/2 times, almost verbatim. He added a few decorations here and there, some embellishments and fills between phrases. And he delayed and anticipated a couple of phrases for about half a beat. These are the simple facts of the matter, and, assuming that I have heard the record well, they are beyond dispute and not matters of opinion. Perhaps such a nearly straight reading is the saxophonist’s idea of the best thing for him to do with that particular ballad.
Then again, I read from a well-known writer, in the set of liner notes for another LP, that such and such a selection on the record is a prime example of the way a leader can take a much-played standard and find new meaning in it. But a listening reveals that the body of that performance consists of solos by three sidemen and no solos by the leader. Further, the chord changes the leader assigned his sidemen are, to my ear at least, more or less the ones usually heard on that piece.
Another colleague spoke recently in print of “the usual jazz criteria.” Well, what are they?
Let’s go back to our first reviewer and the saxophonist’s ballad, which he called “brilliant.” Suppose the reviewer had said to himself, “What I am hearing here is essentially melodic paraphrase and embellishment. Now the highest standards for such melodic paraphrases of popular ballads were brilliantly established by Louis Armstrong in the early ’30s and buttressed soon after by Coleman Hawkins.” Such are criteria that have long been generally accepted as standards of achievement. Our reviewer might then say to himself, “This saxophonist’s reading of this ballad seems brilliant to me. Why do I think so? Brilliant, after all, is not a cheap word. I know that Louis Armstrong has unquestionably done such paraphrases brilliantly. And Coleman Hawkins has done such embellishing brilliantly. How does this saxophonist’s ballad compare with their best work? What, exactly, has this saxophonist actually done to this ballad? Now, let me ask myself again, do I really think that this is ‘brilliant’? And, if so, just how and why is it brilliant?”
And what of our liner-note writer? In his case, it would be easier to say how the leader found something new in the overworked standard his group performed. The leader’s contribution was simply to throw out the written melody of the standard altogether and devise a fresh one. Furthermore, the fresh melody is, by a clearly defensible criteria, a more interesting melody and one certainly much more appropriate to the leader’s music.
How? And why? These are the critical questions. the answers are not necessarily obscure or technical. When they are answered honestly, we all benefit; indeed, we are indebted to any man who tries to answer them as honestly as he can.
By Martin Williams
[Originally published in Down Beat, December 5, 1963, p. 40]