Thursday, February 5, 2009

Jazz & Accessibility 2: Andrew Hill & Evan Parker

Back last year I posted a piece on jazz and accessibility, and proposed a five part "accessibility scale" from A1 (most accessible) to A5 jazz. Since then I have been listening to a much wider range of jazz, and my own ear for the music has become considerably more flexible. But I think that my categories hold up pretty well, and I return to the project now. I will refer to them by the slightly more elegant terms: Page One to Page Five Jazz.

  1. Page One is jazz style with no or almost no improvisation going on. Think of Frank Sinatra or a lot of Ella Fitzgerald.
  2. Page Two is solid melody with improvisation providing a little entertainment in gaps. Think Diana Krall.
  3. Page Three is the heart of modern jazz: the improvisation is center stage, but the improvisation is strictly dedicated to milking the melody of every drop of beauty. Almost all bop falls into this category, with hardbop perhaps more loyal to the melody than classic bebop. In page three jazz, almost all the lines sound traditional and the instruments tend to be strictly familiar.
  4. Page Four jazz reverses the relation between improvisation and melody, with the latter only a launch pad or in many cases merely an excuse for the exploration of abstract musical ideas. The trend toward abstraction will often be evident even song titles like Part A, or Composition No. 45. Page Four jazz also includes a fondness for odd sounding instruments and playing around the extreme ends of the horns, with a lot of hysterical squealing. This is where avant garde or free jazz should be parked.
  5. Page Five leaves all familiar concepts like melody and coherent rhythms. There is definitely something like music going on there, but no human being could walk away humming the tune as there ain't no tune to hum. I was once quite contemptuous of this kind of jazz. I remain skeptical, but every now and then I find myself enjoying it.
I have been fond of hardbop jazz for at least for thirty years or more, but only recently, as I have indulged myself in a lot of jazz collecting, have I acquired a taste for pages four and five. I am very grateful to the jazz artists who have worked at this kind of music, because I think that it is sometimes great art and listening to it can enable one to hear more fundamental jazz better. But Pages Four and Five will always belong only to a very small audience.

Well, here are some samples to back up my text.

Page One Jazz
Ella Fitzgerald/I Got Rhythm/Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook
Page Two Jazz
Diana Krall/Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me/Steppin' Out
Don't get the idea that there is anything wrong with Page One or Page Two jazz. I really like both of the above numbers.

Page Three Jazz
Tina Brooks/Star Eyes/Minor Move
Tina Brooks was another minor jazz genie who killed himself off before he could carve a large body of work. But Minor Move is a fine album, with a really good band: Lee Morgan (tp) Tina Brooks (ts) Sonny Clark (p) Doug Watkins (b) Art Blakey (d). There is a lot of Lee here, and this is straight ahead Page Three bop.

Page Four Jazz
Andrew Hill/Dedication/Point of Departure
Hill is a brilliant piano player and avant garde composer. Point of Departure should be in every jazz library. Kenny Dorham (tp) Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute, bass clarinet) Joe Henderson (ts) Richard Davis (b) and Tony Williams (d). The ubiguitous Dolphy snorts and oogles his way under the line.

Page Five Jazz
Evan Parker/Haines Last Tape/The Snake Decides
And now for something completely different, try Evan Parker. The Snake Decides is a very difficult disc to come by, but I got it. Its solo horn twilight zone. I can't say I whistle this one on the way to work, but it does display a magnificent command of his instrument. There are moments when I spin this up on my iPod, put on the headphones, and sit inside Parker's horn. But only a few such moments. As one critic put it, his solo recordings "aren't for the sqeemish.

Well, that's the spectrum. Let me know what you think.


  1. The last reminds me of my childhood red wagon, more specifically the left wheel on the rear axle, which, having enjoyed the special attention of a our local tom, squealed most loudly.

  2. Anon:

    Thanks for the comment. I have to confess that your zen koan defeats me. Perhaps a little gloss on the text would be helpful?

  3. I can appreciate your 'Page One to Page Five Jazz' concept, but where would you classify Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus? For me, they both play bebop, but surely not very different from the music of Andrew Hill.
    Ornette Coleman's "The shape of jazz to come" has tunes one can hum along to (Lonely Woman/Peace, thus bringing the start of free jazz into Page Three?
    A lot of Page Five Jazz misses me altogether (as does Dixieland), but I can enjoy someone like Anthony Braxton when he plays (bebop)tunes I am familiar with. Sometimes, I only appreciate/understand the more 'difficult' musicians when I listen on my i-pod to the same tune played by artists from different genres.


  4. The Zen Master sat in stony silence, ipod buds in his ears, contemplating the question I had put before him. And the question was this: "O Zen Master, how do I enjoy this music, music which Master Ken has placed on his blog and called good, music which sounds much like the wheel which has never been oiled?"

    The Zen Master sat for a long time after the music had played, meditating with the intensely that only a true zen master can bring forth. At long last, my master rose suddenly from the rock on which he sat, placed the ipod upon the ground before him, and with a strength and speed surprising for a man his age, hoisted the rock upon the ipod, thereupon crushing it into many pieces.

    And I was enlightened.