Half Nelson: Cool Perfection

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For those who don't quite get East Coast cool jazz or why it's special, I have two words for you: Half Nelson. The song, credited to Miles Davis, was first recorded for Savoy in 1947 by the Miles Davis All Stars, featuring Miles Davis (tp), Charlie Parker (ts), John Lewis (p), Nelson Boyd (b) and Max Roach (d). Originally a bebop tune, the song was later picked up by Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, two exponents of the cool school.

The sound of cool jazz is distinguished by a light, airy sound, a more spacious geometry of notes and dry tones in contrast to bebop, which was more furious, dense and fiery. Pianist Lennie Tristano's staccato rhythms and snapped off ideas in the late 1940s was an influence on cool but so were modern classical approaches. In the hands of leading cool players, Half Nelson is given a flat feel, allowing the song's beauty to surface without being overly rendered or juiced. Instead, the emphasis is on chord voicings by the horns and their harmonies and counterpoint.

Yesterday, I found a perfect example of what I'm talking about. In this video of Half Nelson, the cool jazz approach becomes apparent in the horns. Here's Warne Marsh (ts), Lee Konitz (as), Don Elliot (mellophone), Billy Taylor (p), Mundell Lowe (g), Ed Safranski (b) and Ed Thigpen (d). Listen carefully to the modern chord voicings created by the horns. They appeared on the 1958 NBC TV show The Subject is Jazz, hosted by Gilbert Seldes with the music direction of Billy Taylor. First Billy plays the song in its original bop idiom. Then the septet handles it with a cool approach.

Here's Half Nelson...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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