Hard Swingin’ Music for Hard Weather

When everything gets shut down due to inclement weather, you feel like you’ve been blessed with extra time.  In response to a Twitter post from Ted Gioia (jazz historian), who mentioned a thread on Reddit about “the hardest swinging” jazz tunes, I decided to create a playlist. I posted individual YouTube links – one per Tweet – as the ‘snow day’ went along and it was a hoot revisiting some of my long-time jazz favourites.

The core of the list is comprised of pieces that I’ve been fond of for about as long as I’ve been interested in jazz.  I consider most of these to be “formative tracks” in a way. For example, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” and Stan Getz’s rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” are two of the pieces that I remember from my earliest listening sessions.  Since I’m a sax player and, as a result, created a list that is “sax heavy” (no apologies for that though!), I rounded it out through a conscious effort to provide some contrast. There are a couple featuring a piano trio (well, one is a quartet that includes an extra percussionist) and a couple large ensemble pieces.  The Ahmad Jamal and the Charles Mingus pieces are two that I’ve fallen in love with much more recently

As much as I love other types of music, there’s nothing quite like the “swing feel” in jazz when it’s done really well – in other words, when the music “swings hard.” When I came across Jamal’s live version of “Poinciana” just this past month, I remarked in the YouTube comments just how much the music swings.  It’s a remarkable thing when you encounter it really, when the music makes you want to move along to it.  I say this to point out a key concept: not all great jazz, even that which can be said to swing, swings as “hard” (or as well) as other great jazz. At least, in my opinion.  Also, slower tempos tend to be more indicative of this quality, but not always.

I imagine I’ll make a repeated effort to continue what I’ve started here because it’s such awesome music!  But to begin with, here are 10 tracks (with YouTube links) in no particular order:

“I’m An Old Cowhand” – Sonny Rollins

“Bloomdido” – Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie

“Poinciana” – Ahmad Jamal

“Wayne’s Thang” – Kenny Garrett

“Moanin'” – Charles Mingus

“Blues for C.M” – Dave Holland Big Band

“The Way You Look Tonight” – Stan Getz

“Autumn Leaves” – Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis

“Night Train” – Oscar Peterson

“Take Five” – Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck



Annika Socolofsky and the value of discordance

New Jersey-based composer Annika Socolofsky (AN-ih-kuh SO-co-lawv-skee) posted something really funny on Twitter: that she’s considering creating an ‘anti-bio’ based on negative views she’s received, particularly those of a regular Daily Gazette reviewer who consistently refers to her music as “discordant” (which is hilarious in itself – I’ll get to that in a sec).

I hope Ms. Socolofsky follows through on this because 1) it would show her sense of humour 2) readers would find this fun 3) it would instigate curiosity about her music 4) it’d be an unusual thing to encounter on a composer’s website.

She also mentioned something else interesting: “Meanwhile, I’m not sure I know of any living composers who are more tonally-oriented and melody-driven than me. Such a weird beef to have…”

Of course, as per #3 above, all this made me very curious indeed.  I became determined to check out Ms. Socolofsky’s music and, fortunately, she has provided several SoundCloud links on her website.

But even before I got there, and as I was tweeting encouragement to go for the ‘anti-bio’ thing, I kept thinking, “this reviewer doesn’t seem to know much about the subject at hand.” Why? Because saying a new music composer is ‘discordant’ is kind of like referring to a comedian as ‘witty.’  In other words, that characteristic might not always be present in the art, but it sort of goes with the territory, in general.  I mean, has this reviewer even heard of Arnold Schoenberg or listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? – stuff from a hundred years ago that marked pioneering forays into non-tonal, discordant music?

So, yes, it is a very “weird beef” for a critic to have!  Of course, there has been concerted, and more recent effort toward valuing tonality in new music, even a veering far away from discordance, as much of the minimalist movement has tended to do.  However, for many of today’s composers, playing with degrees of discordance is as essential as the age-old manipulation of consonance-versus-dissonance is, more generally – as fundamental as notions of repetition-versus-contrast.

What I’m mainly getting at is this: being “discordant” is not only NOT A BAD THING, it is necessary to express certain things artistically.  The critical question is: “how is discordance handled?”

I’m no Daily Gazette reviewer but, as far as I’m concerned – now after listening to several of her compositions – Ms. Socolofsky handles it brilliantly.  She is indeed “tonally-oriented” and “melody-driven”; she is also very colourful and evocative with a wide emotional palette. She’s not always going to hand you something that’s “pretty” but who would want that all the time? I love the way, for instance, she often blends singable melody (she is a singer as well, after all) within in an ebb-and-flow of sometimes strident and, on other other hand, more soothing textures.  She draws on many elements to shape her compositions but control of  consonance and discordance is a key facet of her artistry.

My favourites so far are “Hush” (for string orchestra + electronics) and “One wish, your honey lips” (for flute quartet), both having their share of colourful dissonance but also shining through with aching beauty at times (and the two often aren’t mutually exclusive). “Bulgarity” for saxophone quartet is a boisterous and virtuosic dance that will make you smile (and, for the record, thoroughly lacks in what certain Daily Gazette reviewers might remotely call “discordant”).



The Beauty of HONK!

No horn? No problem. Here are some shakers.

No rhythm? No problem. Just make a joyful noise.

You don’t have to even play an instrument; you can dance or juggle or do a hand-stand, etc. The only limit is your imagination.

Anyone can be involved in HONK! – literally, anyone. Among the many characteristics that make the HONK! street band movement beautiful is its inclusivity.

As Tim Sars, of Vancouver’s The Carnival Band, is fond of saying to anyone around to listen: “You’re all in the band.”

The Carnival Band’s website says further: “We believe community music is grounded in collaboration, with the aim of empowering the individuals involved.”  They invite anyone with an interest, even loaning instruments and providing instruction.

The Party Band from Lowell, Massachusetts says, “Open rehearsals encourage players of all skill levels and dedication to attend and join our cause, none are turned away.”

In Toronto, you can come play with Street Brass. We don’t have instruments to lend, sadly, but we can hook you up with some spoons at the very least.

Beyond being directly involved in the music-making, the second key aspect of “inclusivity” involves the participatory nature of the performance, the breaking down of the (very common) barrier between audience and performer. “Bands don’t just play for the people; they play among the people and invite them to join the fun” (honkest.org).

There are so many divisive, polarizing aspects to the world. HONK! actively thwarts this. On the one hand celebrating tremendous diversity in expression (musical and otherwise), HONK! is one tribe and openly invites you to be part of it.

HONK! ON (HONK! Ontario) is July 26-28 in Toronto (details TBA).

HONK ON Postcard

The Sound of HONK!

One of the things I absolutely love about the HONK! world is its musical eclecticism. The predominant unifying factor is the general timbre, which emanates from the use of brass  instruments, saxophones and percussion (other woodwinds and mobile instruments like accordion are also common – I even saw one musician playing electric bass with an amp on a little trailer!)

However, in terms of musical idioms or the kinds music played, pretty much anything goes.  According to the HONK! Fest website:

“bands draw inspiration from sources as diverse as Klezmer, Balkan and Romani music, Brazilian Samba, Afrobeat and Highlife, Punk, Funk, and Hip Hop, as well as the New Orleans second line tradition, and deliver it with all the passion and spirit of Mardi Gras and Carnival.” [honkfest.org]

That’s a lot of fun music right there.  If you go to the HONK! website and check out the bands that have been involved, you can follow links to their sites to hear samples of what they play.

Now go hear some HONK! [Band List]