Maybe I Just Don’t Get It
Jerry Lucky Commentary October 2013
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2013 All Rights Reserved
Okay, I will freely admit that some of my commentaries are…shall we say…a little on the lighter side. Not everything I think about is overly demanding or complex. Sometimes I need to have a little break in the mental gymnastics…so you’ll excuse me if I take some liberties here and just blather on about something that crops up in my cranium now and again.
I have been listening to Progressive Rock music (along with many other genres) for almost 50 years now. I started very young, I know. As a music fan, over those years I have come to know and appreciate many different genre styles that I might not have ever come across otherwise. That’s a good thing. I will always promote the idea of expanding one’s musical appreciation pallet. Now when it comes to the Prog genre specifically, one of the genres that has a very prominent place in the Prog catalog is Jazz. That would be Jazz in all its many forms.
I will freely admit that I am not what you could consider a die-hard or rabid fan of Jazz music. There are certainly things about it I enjoy or styles that I “get” but I’m not one for going to the record shop and buying jazz records. I like my jazz within the solid confines of prog rock music. So having said that let me share with you something that baffles me.
There is a style of jazz…what I have called the Jazz Combo…you know the kind of thing where there is a piano, drums, guitar and usually upright bass. It’s the kind of combo you would stereotypically see in a small smokey night-club. It comes with a long history for both live and recorded material and it’s a style that seems to come with a knowing recognition and appreciation. But here’s my problem with it; it all sounds the same.
Yeah, I know that sounds like heresy, but I mean it, it all sounds the same. To my ears there’s a bunch of noodling on the piano, playing ALL AROUND THE MELODY, drums sort of shuffling in the undergrowth, bass thumping in time and perhaps a guitar softly skittering in and out of empty musical spaces created by the piano. Now whether it’s Oscar Peterson or Diana Krall the overall sound created still sounds exceedingly similar. The style of performance is strictly dictated by the instrumentation and hence the outcome to my ears sounds the same.
Now before we go on, I am not comparing musical skill level…I totally get that Oscar Peterson will very likely have more chops than some newbie at the piano. But other than someone who can actually compare those styles with some solid sense of context and reference the different skill level, it isn’t going to mean much. Especially since the very performance style of Jazz combo is one that makes every effort to make it sound more complex than perhaps it needs to be. How can you tell that player is better than the other – by the number of notes played? By how smoothly it’s performed? By how far they get from the melody? Or all of the above? If you don’t have the context, you don’t have much to go on.
So I just don’t get it. The Jazz combo has a very prominent pride of place in the jazz community. It’s looked upon as the “classic” performance structure. But it makes me wonder – do we think of it that way because of the music or do we think of it that way because we’re simply supposed to. I guess what I’m asking is; has the jazz combo become one of those sacred cows that we worship not really knowing why that is or even second guessing the reasons why.
Listen I’ll freely admit – I don’t know a lot about Jazz – but at the same time I listen to a tremendous amount of different music and the Jazz Combo is really about the only thing that really sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of appreciation vs performance. It strikes me as totally disproportionate. Low skill level sounds the same as high skill level. It’s piano, bass, drums and guitar with everyone taking a little turn soloing.
Some might suggest – it’s so pure. Complex music distilled to its leanest components. I wouldn’t argue that. It’s just that everybody does it. I never hear a Jazz critic lambasting Jazz combo A as sounding like Jazz Combo B. How could they…they all sound the same. Take the same elements of instrumentation in a rock setting and you would very likely hear the creation of very different musical approaches. I dare say the musicians would be making every effort to sound different. And yet within the Jazz combo confines there exists what seems like a fear of pushing the envelope. Instead those who choose to perform in that cherished musical structure seem to strive to sound like one another.
It’s almost as if the structure of the instrumental line-up has dictated the musical output and no one is brave enough to say…hey, wait a minute…you sound just like those other guys. But then what do I know…it’s obvious I don’t get it. At least that’s what I think.