Saturday, February 14, 2009

Big Bands, Small Combos, & Duets

The difference between big band jazz and the small combo (3 to 9 musicians) is analogous to the difference between a novel and a short story. In the former, the larger picture usually subsumes most of the individual elements, with the exception of a central character or two. The main character watches the rise and fall of a Louisiana tyrant who pulls all the other characters into orbit around him. The jazz version has a solo horn play against the theme provided by an orchestra. Here is an example: Art Pepper playing against an orchestra:
Art Pepper/Our Song/Winter Moon
In the latter, a handful of characters come into focus against one another. A lonely furniture salesman negotiates the transfer of an antique table from a wife, only to find out that a mistress wants it. In the jazz version, the main horn establishes himself against the rhythm section, and then encounters the other instruments one at a time. Listen to this cut by the Jimmy Giuffre 3:
The Jimmy Giuffre 3/Two Kinds of Blues/Hollywood and Newport Live
If my analogy is any good, let me propose that the jazz duet and solo album is analogous to poetry. Everything is cut down to the bare skeleton of story. Each word, or note, has to stand for a vast realm of things. Here is a cut from Mal Waldron's last album, a duet with Avant Guard sax man Archie Shepp. This is jazz distilled into its essence. Be amazed.
Archie Shepp & Mel Waldron/Everything Happens to Me/Left Alone Revisited
This was Waldron's final tribute to Billy Holiday. Sadness and beauty inscribed with brilliant economy.

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