Mike Harris, Rifftides reader, surreptitious recordist (Bill Evans: The Secret Sessions) and avocational pianist, sent this query:
I wonder if Alan Broadbent could expand a bit on the thought he expresses, in your Wall Street Journal article about Bill Evans, that his “aim was to have a swinging eighth-note?” I have long speculated as to just what it is that makes the quality of his gentle swing so appealingly distinctive, and perhaps it is this concept of a “swinging eighth-note” that is the key to his secret sauce?
Alan Broadbent graciously sent his reply:
Trying to describe, in lay terms, the art of rhythm (jazz) is a bit like how Gustav Mahler described the act of composing: “It’s like making a trumpet. First you take some air, then you wrap metal around it.”
The pushing and pulling of a musical phrase over a steady beat by a soloist, the tension and release of a phrase, is what creates a profound feeling of swing. This is not what singers call “back phrasing”, which is a forced and conscious affect to try and produce the same thing. This is actually an engagement between the soloist’s inner feeling for the time and the time itself. Unlike classical, fusion and pop music which is just the beat, the jazz musician/soloist is creating a magnetic force between his “pole” and the beat’s “pole.” Lennie Tristano believed this to be a “life force” inherent in human existence. His axiom was, “Jazz is not a style, it is a feeling.”
Imagine a small sailboat in a lake, its mast a metaphor for the steady beat (the drummer). To get the thing moving I don’t sit with my fellow sailors in the middle of the boat. I lean a bit to the side to let the sail engage the wind (the tempo), then a bit to the other side, then sometimes in the middle, all the while getting the feel of the other sailors counterbalancing my moves. Too much to the left or right and everybody tips over, too much in the middle and we become dead weight. Within a single eighth-note phrase there are many ways of leaning each note to the right, left and middle, depending on the stress of the moment and which side of the boat needs adjustment. All of this the sailors or musicians do intuitively according to the weight needed to propel everyone on board forward.
This swing is not to be confused with swing dance music or “the blues” which are triplet feels (think “In The Mood” and B.B. King). It is closer to the atom, so to speak, and therefore closer to the truth of artistic human experience. This is not just my opinion but is borne out in the history of the music. Louis Armstrong invented it (see his “Dinah” in Paris 1933).
Interestingly, you can see videos of the Masai tribe singing a cappella where a soloist comes forward and does the same thing, creating tension against the chorus, but without the art of Louis’s notes, of course), Lester Young polished it and Charlie Parker took it to its limits. Billie Holiday and Bud Powell are extraordinary examples of the art. Upon this feeling they then made beautiful music. And within this milieu there are, indeed, many different “styles”. Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly (who was the key to my unlocking the mystery) and Hank Jones are a few contemporaries who come to mind.
This is going to cause some flack, but it is undeniable: A good example of the difference between a “dance swing” feeling and a “profound swing” feeling would be to compare the respective eighth-note feeling of George Shearing, whom I love (triplets), and Bud Powell (profound eighth note), who speaks to me of deeper things. The same with Coleman Hawkins (triplets) and Lester Young (profound eighth note); Rosemary Clooney/Lena Horne (triplets) and Billie Holiday/Carmen McRae (profound eighth) anddare I sayOscar Peterson (triplets) and Bud Powell (most profound of all eighth notes). It’s the rhythm that produces the notes and not the other way around.
It would be easier to demonstrate on the piano this eighth-note propulsion, and it is something that a young musician has to find with other players in order to learn how to do it. But a listener may also feel this mysterious tension in an unaccompanied solo by, say, Sonny Rollins, or by Tristano, as in The New Tristano. Once the feeling is mastered, then it is up to the musicality of the young musician to create his own path without limit. Recently, during a radio interview where some of my music was played, I witnessed the interviewer’s disinterested young tech guy playing the CDs of my orchestral arrangements. A medium tempo trio tune of mine was playing and in the corner of my eye I could see this young person involuntarily moving his body to the time. I stood up and exclaimed “You see? That’s exactly what I mean!”
And what is it, this jazz time that speaks to me? It is the link between intelligence (musical construction) and universal human experience (feelings, emotions) expressed in the moment of artistic creation, a portal to unconditional love, beauty and ecstasy, the quality that gives our existence meaning, a sailboat in the lake of life.
Many thanks to Mr. Broadbent for his fascinating essay.