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Genius Guide to Jazz

How to Listen to Jazz

By Published: October 26, 2009
With the added effort come knowledge and experience (and a couple of Tecates, and maybe some flan). Once you figure out that "al pastor" doesn't mean "made by a minister," and that cilantro is not that Western movie in which Elvis is supposed to have stolen a cannon from Mexican revolutionaries but it was actually the guy who played Mr. Edwards on Little House on the Prairie, you might find yourself looking for other things that set that burrito apart from its more familiar counterpart. Your senses are engaged, you're involved.

That's active listening.

Applying that analogy to jazz, we'll start with the tortilla. The tortilla represents rhythm, because both hold everything together and both benefit from a liberal application of salsa. The jazz tortilla is made from the same basic ingredients, masa flour and water. These may be equated either with bass and drums, or the musical concept of syncopation mixed with alcohol. For our purposes, let's go with syncopation and booze, then work our way to the bass and drums.

Syncopation is the idea of placing emphasis on normally unaccented beats. To demonstrate this, listen to an average pop song while tapping your foot with the beat. You will soon find that you can divide it into measures of four beats per measure. Once you start counting along, you will notice that it goes something like "ONE-two-THREE-four." Now, try the same thing with a jazz tune (let's use Coltrane's "Blue Train"), and it will produce a different result. Not only will you be counting "one-TWO-three-FOUR," but you will find that you are now wearing a sharkskin suit and drinking a Harvey Wallbanger.

Thus is the power of syncopation.

Moving forward, if we think of the jazz tortilla as the bass and drums, we will notice several significant differences. First, the tortilla is not just some processed, benign edible wrapper. It has a character of its own, a definite texture and taste which adds a dimension that enhances the overall burrito experience. The drums aren't just relegated to basic timekeeping duties, the bass isn't just responsible for holding down the bottom end. They are unique voices with their own valuable contributions to make. Or, at least, that's what we tell them to keep them off the furniture and away from the refrigerator.

With that said.

Inside our jazz burrito, there is meat and cheese. And possibly some guacamole, maybe rice. This is our melody, our tune. Most melodies are simple, hummable, unchallenging. Indiscernible ground meat with a glob of synthetic almost-kinda-cheese-like stuff, "You Light Up My Life" with a packet of mild salsa. Jazz melodies may begin simple, but get considerably more complex as they go. This is due, in part, to improvisation.

Let's take our burrito and fill it with chunks of pork (being from Virginia, where pork is its own food group). But let's take our pork and marinate it in a blend of chili peppers, herbs and spices. There's the addition of improvisation. This allows the individual cook to take the dish and make it theirs, let their own creativity come through. Sometimes, they take chances and make something unexpected and wonderful, like adding some pineapple to the marinade. Sometimes, they take chances and make something inexplicable and seemingly wrong, like adding Raisinettes or menthol cough drops.

The hardest thing for most jazz newcomers to accept is that freedom which comes with improvisation. As with all freedoms, there is the freedom to do something weird. So long as you understand that the musicians are legitimately trying to express themselves, and are not just screwing around (for the most part), you can accept when those efforts sometimes go astray. You may also find yourself appreciating the Raisinettes in the burrito because, after all, Mexicans have been cooking with chocolate for centuries and who doesn't like raisins?

Alright, kids, this seems like as good a place as any to pause our lesson and give everyone a chance to go get one of those burritos you've been craving for 8-10 paragraphs. You may also take this opportunity to listen to some of that jazz we've been talking about. When we reconvene, I'll go into different types of jazz, how to appreciate each one, and how to choose the appropriate hat for the type of jazz you settle on as your favorite.

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.


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