Sunday Listens: Jazz is the Lexicon of Now

It's no secret that I'm a lover of jazz.  But, what jazz means exactly varies person to person.  The narrative of this musical genre extends back to the beginnings of the 20th Century.   No wonder, then, that it bends definition.  

Step away Merriam and Webster.

Nonetheless, contemporary listeners are happy to describe a band or musician as jazz.  So, what the fuck does it mean?

There isn't any doubt that jazz, as in the heyday of jazz, influenced everybody today.  Billie, Duke, Ella, Coltrane and even Oscar (my kid's namesake) are just some of the notable names that we associate with the jazz sound.  And, pity any musician who doesn't name at least one of these as an influence.

7th chords.  Mmmm, mmmm, juicy harmony.  Not to mention the melodic freedom that comes with those juicy harmonies.

Even if you have no idea what the 7th is, or how we get there, or what kind of building our notes are building, you know 7th chords when you hear them.  Something sounds, "bluesey"?  Well, you just heard some dominant 7th chords and it was really juicy to your ears.  Mmmm, mmmmm.   Yummy!

Lately I've been obsessed with musicians who've obviously studied their ii-V-I progressions (holla jazz!).  Yet, so much more is going on.  

Both Esperanza Spalding and Xenia Rubinos have ties to Berklee College of Music (known for it's jazz instruction) and Hiatus Kaiyote hails upon the jazz from all the way over in Australia.  But complex chord progressions and odd time signatures are only the beginning.  Synthesizers, compelling storylines and atmospheric vocal lines define these artists equally to their training.

I have a theory about songwriters these days: they've had exposure to the great American song form - jazz - and they've had ample opportunities to study it in music lessons - as compared to strictly Classical.  And they've made it uniquely their own.

Here are some of my favorite jams of late.

Esperanza Spalding released an album earlier this year, "Emily's D+Evolution".  It's a great album.  I highly recommend you buy the whole thing.  It's very prog and very conceptual, coming from a strong jazz background.  I like this track:

Xenia Rubinos released her sophomore album a few months ago.  Out of Brooklyn, she brings a fresh take on the region's legendary hip hop.  She studied jazz singing at Berklee and her breathy, but large, range is used to accentuate a broad harmonic chord progression.  Note, the 7th chords!  I can't stop jamming the entire album - it's so stellar! - and it demonstrates the wonder of jazz song form with a great deal of 21st Century style thrown in.  The following track opens with a haunting vocal line that only a jazz singer could deliver with authenticity:

And so I must talk about Hiatus Kaiyote (pronounced "hiatus coyote") from Australia.  Jazz, most definitely, with a punk edge and a romantic sensibility.  It's awkward time signatures and strange meandering through thick chords is inviting rather than alienating.  Seriously, this has been my go-to on the bus to work.  As you can imagine, I arrive at work in a blissed out state.  Take this tune (and buy the whole damn album, please):

Love your 7th chords.  Mwah, mwah.  Juicy!  It's the language of now.

[Purchasing albums, from digital platforms or your local record store, help support musicians who sacrifice pretty much everything for the sake of creating life-changing sounds.]

This post is part of the Sunday Listens series where I post about music that's exciting/interesting to me.  Sometimes from the perspective of a voice teacher and usually on Sundays.  Get your week started right with awesome tuneage.

The Fine Art of Vocal Improv

Five for Friday

As a jazz singer, I do a lot of vocal improv onstage.  Every time I do so I think of the lengthy history of vocal improv that I'm inheriting.  Here are just a few examples of vocal improv I find inspiring and astounding.

1. Ella Fitzgerald "How High The Moon"

In the case of jazz it's hard not to talk about the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  She transforms herself from just another singer to a fellow musician on stage.  It is captivating and engaging.  She performed "How High the Moon" throughout her career.  It's worth watching videos of her from early on as well as renditions from when she was older.  She constantly changed and shifted her interpretation, bringing fresh ideas to the bandstand up until she was no longer able to perform.  Damn, lady!

2. Al Jarreau "Take Five"

Al Jarreau stormed onto the jazz scene in the 70's and brought with him a new style of scatting, one that incorporates vocal percussions.  Things I love about this version: the bright sounding Rhodes keyboard, and the command Al has over this song, making it something new and interesting at every moment.  It's notable that he's able to convert an instrumental tune (originally Dave Brubeck) into a vocal tune.  Something I rarely enjoy in jazz, but this one stands the test of time.

3. Bobby McFerrin "Improvisation"

Bobby McFerrin picked up what Al Jarreau threw down and took it to the edge.  Here, he creates a complex composition using only the human voice.  He uses the audience to help orchestrate different parts.  This frees him to improv widely varying ideas.  He turns down melodic paths that are quite unexpected.  I heard him once say that when he was a young singer he would practice scales and arpeggios much like a horn player would.  Over and over again he would drill the various seven-chords and all of the modes.  That kind of focus and determination is noteworthy amongst singers, but the product sings for itself.

4.  Amita Sinha Mahapatra "Raga Jaunpuri"

Improvisation was not invented by jazz musicians.  The idea of making new musical compositions in the moment is something that probably goes back to our cave ancestry.  The traditions of Northern Indian Classical music call for a composition to be stated and then freely interpreted by the performer.  Here, Amita Sinha Mahapatra elaborates upon a Raga Jaunpuri by letting herself surrender to the music itself.  The effect is trancelike, yet very similar to what jazz musicians eventually also brought to the table.

5. Natalie Dessay "V'adoro Pupille"

While Northern Indian Classical is the one of the oldest currently existing forms of musical improvisation, the practice also extends back to the Baroque era.  In Handel's day it was common to include da capo arias in operas.  The form of the da capo aria is strikingly similar to the jazz form.  The aria "V'adoro Pupille" from Handel's Guilio Cesare has an AABA form.  After the aria has been sung as written in it's entirety, also referred to as the head in jazz, the singer reprises the A section but with elaborations.  Here Natalie Dessay makes a wide departure from the head with many melismas and as many high notes as possible.