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.

IT'S KIND OF LIKE READING SOMETHING IN ALL CAPS!

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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13 Comments:

Anonymous Jens Filipsson said...

Interesting what you say, I have thought a lot about this subject. I also really like concerts and records with a broad dynamic spectra, it adds so much to the music. Taking it away is like taking half of the thing with music away. Dynamic, among other elements in music, makes the music varied, and variety is needed if we're not gonna get tired of it pretty fast.

As a saxophone player I really like when the rythm section has the patience to wait, not always go with every impuls that I as a soloist give. Maybe instead really explore the groove, or play with some other ideas. There's very often a search for climax in jazz music, I'm one of those who often find myself ending up there, sometimes even without wanting to do so. Sometimes I even feel forced by the rest of the band to reach some kind of climax, almost getting pushed there.

I am convinced... No, I know that doing the opposite of what's expected, play around with the dynamics, really vary the music, makes it more interisting to hear for the audience, and more interesting to play for the musicians.

This is something I have discussed a lot in the bands I play with, and in some we really have put down effort in taking care of the dynamics. Usually this is something that comes up when we have done a few gigs on a tour or something and the material starts feeling "not so fresh" - the natural step then is to play around with these elements to make the music feel fresh again. In the begin you get the kick just to play the new tunes, but after a while there's a need to go deeper in the material. Luckily enough, this is the best thing that can happen, since this is when the music really starts to develop.

Feels like I lost the subject pretty much while writing this, but It's very late here where I am, and my brain does what it wants right now... :) I just found your blog, I'm sure I will come back!

4:32 PM  
Anonymous lou Jazz said...

Kareem has just launched his new audio book On the Shoulders of Giants, which is a journey through the Harlem Renaissance era. It's really insightful and revealing. www.kareemabduljabbar.com
Kareem also has his own blog with LA Times: latimes.com/kareem

4:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Bacon said...

Hear, hear on the importance of dynamics. They were very much in evidence at a Dave Douglas Quintet I went to last weekend in Birmingham, UK. All helped by the fact that the drummer was Clarence Penn, who also drives the Maria Schneider band. He responds to the soloists so subtly and sometimes challenges them too, but never overpowers. Without the quiet bits, the loud ones aren't effective either... Light and shade, fast and slow, loud and soft - the best bands do it all.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Naftali2 said...

Dear Joe,

I'm sorry to contact you via this section, but I didn't see an email link, or any other way. I have a Jazz blog also:

http://naftali2-jazzmytwocentsworth.blogspot.com/

and I'd like to trade links. I have essays, and interviews with folks like Carol Sloane, Paul Bollenback, and Lew Prince.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Ayssa in SF said...

Your blog is so interesting - I wish you updated more often, because your writing style is really fantastic. Have you checked out IODA Promonet yet? I've been poking around their catalog and they have some really great jazz in there, including Ahmad Jamal Trio.

Anyways, post more! :)

4:07 PM  
Anonymous SaxMarc said...

You've got the dynamics thing exactly right. I hear a LOT of players today who just don't seem to understand dynamics at all. As you say, it's like they're shouting all the time.

As a bari sax player, dynamics is a very important part of what I do. Gerry Mullian was a master at this; also listen to Coleman Hawkins, and the folks with Art Blakey over the years.

Thanks!

SaxMarc
www.sweetthunderjazztet.com

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Jazz licks said...

I agree. Dynamic levels for most bands are almost always loud. It takes effort to use dynamics.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. Dynamic levels for most bands are almost always loud. It takes effort to use dynamics.

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2:20 AM  
Anonymous Mus14 said...

I believe Ahmad Jamal is classically trained. Dynamics is what make the music interesting and should be used and explored in other genres of music as well. He is an amazing pianist and composer. I was first introduced to him when I was a teenager.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Edmund said...

Jazz dynamics is really important for jazz music. The good dynamic will make people enjoy listening to the music. I really like jazz music.

7:26 PM  
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