Thursday, 2 June 2011

Where's the melody?

Everyone loves a good melody. Something that you can hum along to, something that sticks in your head, something that has some nice chords underneath it. Yes, everyone loves a good melody. In recent years upon telling someone I play jazz or I listen mainly to jazz music, I have come up against the same response each time and that response has been "hmmm jazz is ok and all but you can't sing along to it. I love tunes you can sing along to". Ok, I am paraphrasing here but that's the general idea of the response I get. I have been thinking about that answer for a couple of weeks now and I have come to realise that jazz music is very easy to sing along to, it's just that the melody might not be as conventional or as  obvious in a modern pop/folk/rock song.

We have to go back into the history of jazz a little bit here. The majority of "jazz standards" ( a repertoire of tunes that most jazz musicians know by heart) came from Broadway musicals between 1920-30. These standards are in essence songs. Songs which people sang on stage, were recorded and played to the general audience. These were the pop songs of the 20s, 30s and 40s. With the beginning of the bebop era, jazz musicians were taking the chord progressions of the Broadway tunes and re writing their own melodies over them and it was around this time that the melodies became more obscure. Lets take a look at Frank Sinatra singing the tune All The Things You Are as it was originally written and then Dexter Gordon's Boston Bernie which is an original melody over the same chord progression.

So the first noticeable thing is that there's a tenor saxophone instead of a voice but apart from that the melody isn't that obscure that it could be deemed unsingable. So lets take a more "extreme" example. The well know jazz standard Donna Lee is a bebop tune written from the chord changes of a song called Back Home Again in Indiana. First lets listen to the original

Now the bebop version

This time the difference is huge. The melody for Donna Lee is very abstract and very fast but the one thing we can't forget is that it still is a melody! It's a series of notes over a chord progression and that is a very simple definition for a melody. It was around the end of the 40's that jazz ceased to become popular music as Rock n Roll became the new pop music of America and then most of the world.

But that doesn't mean that melody ceased to exist in jazz music or that there was some clause that if you were to play jazz music you had to abandon all sense of melody! Great melodies were and are still around. A great example is Beatrice by Sam Rivers:

It's a really simple melody with some really nice and challenging chords underneath but it's a great singable melody none the less. This brings me to a short point about chord changes. In jazz the chord changes of a tune can move into several keys within the space of 32 bars as opposed to a standard pop or rock tune which generally has no key changes at all, although sometimes the chorus of a tune might be moved up a semitone towards the end of a song such as in Bon Jovi's Living On A Prayer. Maybe jazz is not singable because it shifts around so much harmonically. But to be honest, I don't think that is true at all. All we have to do is look at all the successful pop songs composer/arranger Burt Bacharach has written over the years to show us that even a tune that has a lot of key changes can still have a singable melody.

And now on to some more contemporary jazz with great melodies. Lets start with Dublin based guitarist/composer Daniel Jacobson. I love this tune, it's got a great melody despite the fact that it is a 12 tone composition which have a tendency to be quite dissonant. The song also has lyrics which is plus too!

Loka by DanielJacobson

Next, one of my favourite tunes by Jim Black's group Alas No Axis. It's grungy, it's got distortion, it's got a great melody, it pretty much ticks all the boxes for me in terms of Rock and Jazz put together. Also the fact that the first time I heard this I thought the clarinet that is playing the melody was a guitar at the start! Who knew that distorted guitar and clarinet would blend so well!? Jim Black I guess.

Australian Pianist Andrea Keller writes some really nice melodies too. A good example of this is Life That Lingers of her album Angels and Rascals. I remember the first time I heard this being really amazed at the melody as it has some wide leaps and yet remains very singable and very memorable too.

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann and guitar player Ben Monder have made some really great music together, some of it can be quite free and atonal and then some of it can be so melodious. Animal Planet is a great example of their melodic work and also what a beast of a singer Theo Bleckmann is!

Another Irish musician, Simon Jermyn, has a bit of a knack for writing catchy melodies and this is one of my favourites. I think I visit this video at least once a month.

Simon Jermyn Quartet from A Generous Act on Vimeo.

And finally one from my favourite guitar player, Kurt Rosenwinkel. This is a great melody, the theme is quite simple and it sticks in your head so easily and yet the chords underneath move around keys alot. Also I like the fact that the melody goes into a new key even though it doesn't really seem like it.

So there is melody in jazz and there is something to sing along to. Just because it doesn't have lyrics doesn't mean you can't sing along to it! I'm always finding myself singing melodies of jazz tunes be it standards or originals and most of them are lyric-less. I think there is confusion between something that is not singable and something that doesn't have lyrics and unfortunately jazz gets lumped into the " not singable" category even though the majority of it is perfectly singable. Obviously not all jazz is singable,  free jazz would generally not be singable but then it's so aesthetically different to a composed jazz piece it's fairly incomparable.  The examples I have put up are only and handful of the great jazz melodies out there, be it from the standard repertoire or original pieces. So take some time, listen a little closer and sing along!