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Soul And The Abstract Proof: Searching For Soul And Its Meaning In Jazz

Dan Bilawsky By

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What, exactly, is "soul?" This word is used so often in discussions and writings about music, but I wonder if anybody can actually define its very essence and place in the musical universe? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists no less than eight different definitions for soul and, while some of them have a decent grasp on what we may hear, they all seem to be grasping at straws to some extent. One definition—"5 b: the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment"—has some potential, but it's so vague as to be rendered useless in the search for soul in song. When I hear the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing "In A Sentimental Mood," it stirs up strong feelings and arouses emotion— and sentiment—in me, but I don't usually think of that piece as particularly "soulful."

For some people, soul and jazz are separate entities, never to merge in sound. The music of Motown or Ray Charles' records are often held up as prime examples of soul for the masses, and jazz doesn't even get brought into the equation...or does it? Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (Lions Gate, 2003) told the untold story of the oft-uncredited backing musicians who brought Motown's music to life and the large majority of them were actually jazz musicians who took a different path. While the story of these musicians might not be familiar to jazz fans, a large percentage of them probably know of Ray Charles' jazz connections with artists like Hank Crawford, David "Fathead" Newman and many others. Music fans and critics would probably categorize all of this as a jazz influence seeping into soul music, but what about the opposite. How do you define jazz with a soul influence? While I certainly don't claim to fully know the answer to that question, and anybody who does probably has a bridge to sell you, I can say that it's like determining whether or not your car needs new brakes—you know it when you hear it! With that in mind, this edition of Old, New, Borrowed and Blue will focus on soul in jazz.


Charles Mingus' music means many things to many people, but my first encounter with his work dealt more with his compositional acumen and brilliance with a pen than with soulful sounds. In my search for knowledge and continued explorations into uncharted musical waters, I checked out a copy of Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia, 1971) from my local library and it took my breath away. This album presented dense, moving music like I had never heard before—nor since—and it left me wanting to learn more about Mingus' music. Interestingly enough, it also left me assuming that all of Mingus' music would have a similar sound and vibe. The moment when I realized I was wrong came soon after, when I encountered my favorite Mingus composition—"Better Git it In Your Soul."

When I first heard this song on Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959), I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. I've read of Nat Hentoff's initial encounter that pulled him into jazz— when he first heard Artie Shaw's "Nightmare"—and, though it would take me several years to get fully sucked into this music after this incident, my reaction to this Mingus song was on a similar "gut" level. The sheer passion in this music and the balance between looseness and ensemble brilliance was something I had never encountered before. As a percussionist, my initial focus was on Dannie Richmond's drumming, but after I made a few sloppy attempts to play along with the song, I just sat and listened. In subsequent years, I had the pleasure of hearing the piece performed as part of the large-scale production of Mingus' Epitaph at Jazz At Lincoln Center and I encountered Woody Herman's stellar big band take on the song, but neither of these encounters proved to match the soul quotient of the original.


In August of 2010, I made my first visit to the Litchfield Jazz Festival in Connecticut. Before arriving, I was familiar with the the music of many of the artists on the bill—including Anat Cohen, Avery Sharpe and Arturo O'Farrill—but I was also eager to hear some music that I hadn't already encountered. Over the course of my two days on the festival grounds, I heard plenty of new sounds, but one particular performance really grabbed me and never let go. Gerald Clayton might have come onto the scene being referenced as "bassist John Clayton's son" or "saxophonist Jeff Clayton's nephew," but his individual talents and personal sound have helped him shed the genealogical tags that plague so many jazz offspring. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the jazz press eventually refers to one of the elder Clayton's as a relative of Gerald!

On this particular weekend, Gerald Clayton had his trio in tow and they were at Litchfield in support of his fantastic Two-Shade (ArtistShare, 2009). The trio's set took them through hip originals from the album—like the instantly enjoyable and humorous "Two Heads One Pillow"—but the high point of the set came with Clayton's new spin on an old favorite. Before beginning "Con Alma," Clayton joked that the translation of the song title was "with Alma," but a good part of the crowd seemed to know that "alma" actually meant "soul." Clayton managed to take this classic from the Dizzy Gillespie book and transform it into a piece characterized by rhythmic joie de vivre, rhapsodic intentions and a wide dramatic arc, while maintaining the soulful essence and melodic intentions embedded deep within this composition. I went to Litchfield knowing little about Clayton's own music, but I left as a devoted fan of his work.


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