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A Bottle, a Rag, and a Pint of Gasoline

AAJ Staff By

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Jazz? Ask for a definition of this music, and you're bound to start a volatile discussion.

My grandfather will tell you with a quickly drawn breath that jazz is noise, non-structured and irreverent of the conventional wisdom musicians have learned from centuries of practice. His thoughts on jazz conjure images of a plague set upon the world of musical composition. Though conversations usually end with a head shaking and "I just don't understand it," more than once in an elevator he's turned and said, "This fellow has a nice melody to him."

A favored past neighbor would pick up on this softer theme, arguing that the sounds which wafted from his speakers out the screen porch and into the early evening thunderstorm made up jazz. That it went well with company, and summer twilight, but shouldn't intrude on conversation.

Pleasant melodies aside, it's the beaded-forehead-wrinkling, spit-valve-dripping dissonance cast out in basement clubs, tightly packed dives, and other sultry settings that drew my ear to jazz. While not always quick in tempo, the sounds that tug for my attention hold the latent heat to change my mood. In the coolest forms it relies on tensions built between played notes, as well as the ones left out, to lift riffs above the realm of otherwise gutless mush—there's nothing smooth about that.

Instrumentation stands out as a defining point for many people. Of course the standards take center stage, but unlike other styles, jazz relies on the construction rather than the tools used to build it. Whether hands manipulate the keys of a treasured sax or a crossfader and black vinyl on slip mats, it demands precision spontaneity within a logical structure. Just listen to a jazzman speaking to his flock through the muddied words of Scat, ranting tongues moving devout parishioners, and claim that this music depends on traditional instruments.

Recordings that turn my head carry an underlying theme saying, "So here's how it is. You don't like it, go listen to something else." It's showy and unapologetic, yet not in a presumptuous manner. Combining reverence for it's past with a spirited love for ignoring convention, jazz appeals to the intellect while stroking the senses for all they're worth.

Sound a bit vague and non-confrontational? Leaving you to wonder whether what you hear is jazz, or just the music that makes it up? Jazz drives. It evolves onstage in a way that commands focus. It's about the energy, the movement—even in minimalist pieces. People who "don't understand it" miss this essential quality. Those who feel it "shouldn't intrude" miss the point entirely.

Fans know the roots of jazz music. The stages it took during formative years and the "Giant Steps" made to turn one of the only true American art forms into "A Love Supreme" of international stature. What they often don't know is how to define it beyond a dictionary's scope. A circle of aficionados will trade thoughts until vocally dizzy, and while the infamous line "If you have to ask, you'll never know" doesn't ring completely true, it certainly helps simmer hot heads until the set break ends.

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