Saturday, December 22, 2007

Jazz Dynamics

One of the things that impressed me the most after hearing pianist Ahmad Jamal's trio several years ago was the use of dynamics. The group could go from a whisper to a roar, often quiet quickly. It added an element that I often find lacking in many jazz groups both live and on cd.

Creative use of dynamics is another color in the musical pallete. So why do so many jazz musicians play like they only know two volume levels - on and off? I suspect a lot of it has to do with the way bands are mixed, both live and on record. Musicians often aren't in the loop - the mix is often the responsibility of the sound guy, who quiet often isn't the most musical person in the room. Groups today don't really worry about how they blend as a group naturally - because its all "in the mix". Most CDs are dynamically compressed (altered so that the loud parts quieter and the quiet parts louder) some so much so that the whole recording is all of one volume! Once you realize what's actually going on and what a good less, or moderately compressed recording can sound - it really becomes annoying.


That said there are some jazz artists today who understand the power of dynamics, and that quiet can be as intense as loud. Just looking through my top 10 list of 2007 a couple of the CDs stand out as excellent examples. Bill Charlap's trio is a great example of the creative use of dynamics in a small group which can be heard to great effect on his new live at the village vanguard cd. For a large group there is no one better at exploiting the dynamic range of a big band than Maria Schneider (though John Clayton comes close). Her new cd Sky Blue is likewise a fine example of that - she uses dynamics almost as another instrument in her arrangements. And while I wasn't specifically thinking about dynamics when I selected these two as part of my ten best CDs of 2007, I can't help but think it's not just a coincidence that they rose to the top partly because of their use of dynamics.

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