Shortly after moving to Sweden, my sister-in-law gave me a ride back to my apartment. After a bit of chatting she said she had a cd I had to hear. It was Jan Johansson’s “Jazz på Svenska” cd. She said he is Sweden’s best jazz pianist, and I think even Sweden’s best selling jazz album. Having never heard of him and doubtful Sweden could produce some great jazz I was skeptical. Wow was I instantly hooked. Apparently he had collected old folk melodies from around the country and jazzed them up with his bassist.
A nice thing with jazz in comparison with classical is it is easier, or maybe even mandatory to develop a unique and instantly recognizable style and sound. That certainly is also true with this fascinating pianist. Sadly he died young, we will never get to know what heights he might have achieved. Jan Johannson can swing with such phenomenal delicacy, his improvising is quite spare and he utilizes an occasional wrong sounding note so deliciously. I am always instantly drawn into the sound world he creates, please give a few of his recordings a try, I would be quite surprised to hear you don’t also love his sound and style.
This was a particularly difficult melody for me to work with, I think I somehow got lucky when I pushed record that day. I tried to honor the gentle pulse he creates throughout the piece while also keeping track of what both hands are independently doing trying to improvise contrapuntally. I usually get quite lost when I try working with this melody. His rendition of the nostalgic folk melody is simply outstanding. I am hard-pressed to think of another musician that swings and breathes with such calm finesse.
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Schubert’s late A major piano sonata
In all seriousness, is there another composer who wrote as many and consistently lovely melodies as Franz Schubert? It is unfathomable. Really. To take a single note, and then some specific moment in time later offer another, and another and have those strings of tones turn out to be gloriously beautiful melodies that capture the hearts of millions, generation after generation is extraordinarily rare. To have created so many beautiful melodies in his short 32 years is a complete mystery.
When we think of classical music, we are mostly talking about maybe ten really great composers, and a couple dozen more second tier composers. What we ignore is the literally thousands of long since forgotten composers, maybe quite capable in the art of composition, but just couldn’t string notes together into melodies that captivated and endured. Not to mention the long list of already forgotten twentieth century composers who thought that that specific ability was both undesirable and unnecessary. Aha, now I understand! The sheer impossibility of it all meant, composers needed to come up with a way of bypassing the need to first of all have to create captivating or at least catchy melodies. No mystery how that turned out. This possibly may explain why pop music exploded to the extent that it did. The general public got tired of waiting for the presumed stewards of fine music to produce something worth listening to, and have ever since, resisted returning.
Anyway, The main theme from the last movement of his late A major piano sonata is one such melody. I melted into my chair the first time I heard that movement and on a pensive day would place this melody into my list of top five favorite melodies of all time.
This melody was much easier to get comfortable with for improvising and it became a favorite to work with when my mood turned inward.
The recording I most often turn to, which is also the first I heard is a recording by Claudio Arrau. If you have the time, listen from start to finish in one sitting, the whole sonata is fantastic, the second movement is in and of itself a masterpiece, and the final movement, from which this melody comes will make the most sense if you hear the whole thing in entirety. It creates the right setting to delve into the serenity and gentle ebullience of that final movement. Be warned, that requires a good 35 minutes of calm attention.
If you are going crazy wondering where you have heard this melody before, it was used as the opening theme song for the old sitcom ‘Wings’.
There is an incredible cd with Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin. The entire cd is wonderful but I especially love their rendition of the the timeless standard ‘autumn leaves.’ Since then I have loved the simple yet enduring melodies.
Whenever I work on my fugal improvising I alternate between my own melodies I write especially for this purpose and other favorite melodies searching for those that seem to without much resistance work well as fugal melodies. This is one such melody, and when I am feeling calm and melancholic this seems to be a natural choice to train on.
As a child and young teen I loved pop music, especially the hard rock bands of the 70’s and early 80’s. Then rather abruptly, I switched completely to classical music in my late teens. I have never really loved jazz, I have some favorite pieces and a few jazz musicians I love, but as a genre it never became an obsession. The jazz style is fascinating and I admire greatly those that are truly great at it, as I have struggled myself to find the jazz groove and sound. To swing like the greats is still a mystery, something probably most devote their lives to attaining. It probably can’t quite be simply taught in school. I actually think there are only a select few classical pianists that also swing and breathe to perfection.
The reason I think improvising in a fugal style turned out to be so perfect is for, I guess the opposite side of the coin of what I think jazz got so wrong.
When we say we love a particular genre of music, or composer, or band, it’s probably barely true at all. To take an extreme example, can I say I love Vivaldi if I love the ‘Four Seasons’? When I was younger I loved the rock band Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson and his cohorts I will still proclaim are geniuses. Only a few of his many albums although, can I say I love in entirety. Each time they put out an album, I was hesitant to purchase it, completely unsure if I would think the whole album is a masterpiece like I consider a select few. Can I with any accuracy say I love Jethro Tull, or is it more true to say I love a list of their songs? And what that comes down to is, the melodies they create and what they do with them.
I have listened to and studied the scores of all the Beethoven piano sonatas, and even though it is easy to say I love Beethoven, there are plenty of his 32 piano sonatas that I will never listen to again and that is perfectly fine. They simply do not resonate with me like a small list do, the melodies just don’t grab my attention, even if I know they are all masterworks. I would be surprised to meet even an ardent Beatles fan that feels a strong connection to every one of their songs. There is nothing wrong with this, the point I am trying to make is, it is the melodies and the handling of those melodies that captures the imagination of each of us. Certain bands and composers may have a particularly long list of pieces that inspire us, but it must be quite rare that it is 100 percent. That’s my thought anyway, maybe I am wrong, or maybe it’s just semantics.
So what does that have to do with what I think jazz got so wrong. It is quite possible to listen to a jazz ensemble play ‘autumn leaves’ and barely once get to hear the actual unadulterated melody. The swinging of the group can be perfect and the soloing truly expert, but one can be hard pressed often to have any clue what the actual tune they’re playing is. At that point, the phrase “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” isn’t just a catchy phrase to tease the second tier musicians with, but a profound statement on what might be lacking in jazz.
If I can return to the Beethoven piano sonatas, the famous and much loved ‘tempest’ sonata I know is an expertly written sonata, is one I don’t particularly care for as the melodies don’t really capture my imagination. Would even Beethoven have a problem with this if I in the next breath say Beethoven sits firmly in my humble list of top five greatest musicians ever? Each of us creates our own list of music that captivates us, and I think for most of us it is mostly based on the melodies of certain songs and pieces and the handling of those melodies.
If one evening I feel in the mood to listen to a particular Chopin nocturne, I may click through a few possible videos on YouTube, each time I know I will at least be able to hear the melodies I am craving, even if I end up clicking to another pianists rendition a little too hastily.
In jazz the basic jumping off point is to take a song, honor the harmonic structure while “ignoring” the melodic substance, improvising to your best ability. In improvising in a fugal style I get to honor the melodies I love so much while ignoring the harmonic structure of the piece, getting to experiment with different possibilities in that arena instead.
Before you might think I have it out for jazz, if I could swing and improvise like a jazz master and had an equally capable bassist and drummer to jam with I probably wouldn’t look back. And even though it seems to me like the jazz world is struggling, I think the classical music world is struggling far worse, imploding from within, those in charge of handling the future of classical music are doing a poor job of creating any interest, and many I believe, are actually doing the exact opposite of what might be productive at this point. Which, having caught the tail end of the golden years of classical music is hard to grasp and even harder to accept. Many people can become quite avid listeners and consumers of classical music with the right introduction.