05 September 2007

When To Hold Your Ground

There's a moment in the Miles Davis Quintet's Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel (at 8:59 of All of Me from Disc 3 to be precise) where Wayne Shorter resolves to a D major arpeggio over an E-flat major seventh chord. The juxtaposition makes for one of those startling moments that are so characteristic of this set, and of which there are too many to count contained in it. What I find so paradoxical is that in the musical world which these performances inspired and enabled, moments like this one are exceedingly rare simply because the musical parameters don't allow for them to happen at all.

In other words, piano players in these contexts just don't play unadulterated major seventh chords, and saxophonists just don't play major arpeggios; the chances of hearing a major arpeggio superimposed over a major seventh chord a half-step away are non-existent. What you are more likely to hear is a bi-tonal chord (call it Dmaj/Ebmaj) in the piano and an "Eastern" sounding scale played by the horns. It's great that Dmaj/Ebmaj is now an acceptable chord symbol that most anyone who fancies themselves a "jazz" musician can reasonably be expected to understand. The only problem is that Wayne didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Dmaj; and Herbie didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Ebmaj7.

What enabled this moment to happen is the innovative, transitional nature of what the group was doing: they weren't so much obliterating or evading common practice as they were subverting it, maintaining it as a point of reference against which even their more subtle deviations stand out in high relief. For better or worse, this moment has itself now been absorbed into common practice, but moreso as "Dmaj/Ebmaj" than anything else. Nonetheless, if you were writing a tune and you wanted to recreate this type of moment in it, you would have to write different chord symbols in each player's part rather than writing them both, one on top of the other, as the case may be.

The ability to identify aurally what the soloist is doing harmonically (and even anticipate what they might do before it happens) has become a major topic of discussion and study in jazz education. This skill is as valuable as it is difficult to cultivate, but what is even more valuable and difficult is to have a good enough idea of what the group sounds like "out front" that reacting to a soloist doesn't have to always take the form of imitating what they just played. There are quite a few chordal players working today who, upon hearing a horn soloist play a major arpeggio a half step down, would pick up on it immediately and then play a bi-tonal at that place in the form for the rest of the solo (or maybe even spontaneously reharmonize the rest of the form using bi-tonals or altered extensions). There's no doubt that this can be effective, yet if this becomes the universal knee-jerk reaction in such situations, we disable the possibility that Herbie and Wayne realized so spectacularly in the example given above.

Listening and reacting are the essence of jazz performance, and it was this quintet that took such things to their highest level. What is interesting about this particular moment is that it was enabled by one of the more conservative performances in the collection, with the rhythm section playing very straight ahead time and the horns playing sparingly during their solos. It is precisely by creating such an "inside" vibe throughout the majority of the performance that the "outside" moments come to stand out so spectacularly. We don't tend to remember this group for delegating the freedom to subvert the changes only to one player (the soloist) at a time, but rather for their uncanny ability to do so as a unit with uniformly spectacular results. Nonetheless, there are moments of the former type, and they offer an important lesson: when it comes to improvisation of virtually any kind, it is just as important to know when to hold your ground as it is to know when to follow or imitate another player.

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