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Phil's Jazz Pleasures October 2020

Just what is Jazz?

 
People often say to me “just what is jazz. I like some of the music you play but then it goes all difficult to follow and a bit complex; silly to be honest. Indulgent, in fact!”
 
I want to try to explain this month just what is distinctive about jazz music and why it could be good to keep listening – even through the seemingly more tough parts!
 
Improvisation is typically an important element of most jazz performances. Musicians play solos which they can make up on the spot, usually around some already existing tune or theme. This requires considerable skill in not simply reproducing the precise notes written by the composer as in classical music. Most jazz is very rhythmic, has a forward momentum called "swing," and uses "bent" or "blue" notes. The music has considerable artifice and is emotionally charged. You can also often hear "call-and-response" patterns in jazz, in which one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers others. Jazz musicians set considerable weight on finding their own distinctive styles.
 
I want to try and develop this by using two compositions showing how different jazz, and other skilled, musicians interpret in very different ways exactly the same basic score or tune.
 
My first piece is the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You.
 
The first version I have selected is by Charlie Parker, not least as a memorial (100 years since he was born} but more because he was almost certainly the greatest jazz musician of all time! Parker’s more or less seamless alto sax playing – he practised between 11 and 15 hours a day – fronts a full orchestra with strings to great effect. My second choice is also played by a big band – the immediately recognisable Glenn Miller Orchestra with Ray Eberle on vocals. My third pick is Fred Hersch’s delightful live solo piano bringing real emotion to bear. Then a near perfect rendition by the trumpeter Roy Hargrove and his mid 90s quintet is my penultimate choice. Last, but by no means least, Ella Fitzgerald lends her extraordinary young voice to the piece and is joined by Louis Armstrong on vocals and trumpet. What a true delight!
 
The second jazz tune I am using is Charlie Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.
 
One has to kick off with the amazing original version by Mingus himself. The second track on the epochal Ah Hum album released in 1959. Mingus wrote it as an elegy to Lester Young, the great saxophonist,  who had died two months prior to the recording and was famous for wearing wide brimmed pork pie hats.
 
Some of the other most wonderful versions of this song are not always by jazz musicians. Jeff Beck, Britain’s eminent rock guitarist recorded an inspired version. Rock fans will enjoy this and hopefully listen to more jazz as a result. Third, there is a version performed live by the original Pentangle group. Pentangle were a superb British late 60s folk rock group with the jazz/blues bass player Danny Thompson plus two of Britain’s greatest ever folk guitarists – Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Again one can hope that this interpretation might prompt “folkies” to listen to more jazz. It is a truly lovely listen.
 
Joni Mitchell, the terrifically talented singer songwriter, explored jazz themes and syncopation throughout her career, turning fully to jazz in more recent years. In 1979 she recorded an album dedicated to, and entitled, Mingus and this contains the song. Finally, to show we at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues are well up to date there is a very contemporary version, using Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, by the Italian jazz singer Amalia Gre’ recorded last year and which I think is awesome.
 

This Month’s Playlist

 

Five Versions of The Nearness of You

  1. Charlie Parker on Ballads, 2003 Remastered Version
  2. Ray Eberle with the Glenn Miller Orchestra on I Got Rhythm
  3. Fred Hersch on Let Yourself Go (Live at Jordan Hall)
  4. Roy Hargrove on Family
  5. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on The Complete Ella and Louis on Verve
 

Five Versions of Goodbye Porkpie Hat

  1. Charlie Mingus on Ah Hum
  2. Jeff Beck on Wired
  3. Pentangle on Sweet Child
  4. Joni Mitchell on Mingus
  5. Amelia Gre’ on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat