Monday, January 3, 2011

What Ever Happened To Melody?

I've been listening to a lot of music lately, old and new.  I listen to all kinds of music, and I have a very eclectic collection of musical styles and genres in my music library.  However, the majority of music in that library is jazz, which I guess is understandable considering that I play saxophone, and the majority of music for the saxophone is in jazz.  However, what makes any music great, at least in my opinion is the presence of a very beautiful and recognizable melody, or at least a melody in general.

In the last 20 years at least, the music I've been hearing, whether jazz or pop seems to lack a melody that is recognizable.  In jazz, many players just play chords and scales in rapid succession, and pop music has so many songs with a very bland "melody", a song that has a generic quality to it, but no real original melody that would stick with you subconsciously.  It's just a song played over a typical major chord without much deviance.  Pop ballads all seem to sound the same, and the rest of popular music just repeats the same tired old formula that has been overused. 

In jazz, there are so many players these days who have developed amazing chops.  They can play every variation of every scale and chord that exists.  They can fire off at rapid speed those scales and chords at a pace that players didn't do years ago.  They know every Dizzy, Bird or Coltrane solo backwards and forwards.  So what's the problem?

The problem is that they forgot how to play a simple tune.  Actually, a simple tune in reality is not so simple to play.  I have not heard too many modern players who can take a melody, a song, and play it with soul and feeling.  The focus seems to be on harmonizing and re-harmonizing, but the song gets lost, or else the focus of the player seems to be on how good his/her chops are, but not really about the tune.  My opinion is this, if you're playing a tune then the way you play should be about the tune.  Any embellishments are about enhancing the tune, not about showing the world what amazing chops you have.

My favorite players have always played the tunes with soul and feeling.  They could also demonstrate amazing chops when they played those tunes or improvised on an extended jam.  However they all chose to play in a way that demonstrated beauty and artistry.  Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, James Moody, Charlie Parker and the list goes on.  These were players who were masters of their craft.  They could do anything, but they chose to play melodically, because it's always about the song.  Even when they embellished the tune with new and interesting harmonies, they did it with the song in mind. 

When I first began learning the saxophone, my first teacher was my father.  He laid the basis for everything I was to learn later.  His first lesson to me was in developing a tone, a sound.  He told me that my sound was the most important aspect to develop.  Next was learning the tunes.  I must know the tunes.  Later on, when I studied with Lee Konitz, he reiterated that point.  Know the tunes.  If you don't really know the song, then any re-harmonizing of that song that you do will have no real meaning.  It just becomes a mathematical exercise. In math, numbers always add up the same way, no matter how many ways you divide or multiply it.  In music, nothing is different as far as rhythm goes.  All rhythms are mathematical equations.  They all obey the same laws.  If you stick to the laws of math, you'll get math.  That is fine, but in music, there is one more equation which changes music from mere mathematics to the expression of human emotions.  That equation is melody.

A melody is an expression of our emotions.  A melody is words, sung or unsung, and words convey meaning and expression.  One of the reasons we admire so many singers is because they express with their voices the range of human emotions in song.  The best instrumentalist do the same on their instruments.  Music is a language, but a language that is understood by people that cross cultures and nationalities.  Music comes from within, or it least it's supposed to, as all art should. 

In jazz, I've been hearing too many players who have complete technical mastery of their instruments.  They know every chord and scale and their variations, and when they play they throw it all out there, yet they still cannot simply play the song.  It really isn't easy playing a simple melody with feeling and fullness of tone.  In fact, in my opinion, it's the hardest thing to do, because you can't hide behind the technical flash. Every note has to count, and that doesn't necessarily mean a million notes played in rapid succession.   

The best example I can give to what I'm talking about is to listen to Johnny Hodges play "Prelude To A Kiss" from the Ellington Indigos album.  In this recording, Johnny Hodges plays, IMHO, one of the lushest, most beautiful melodies ever played on a saxophone.  He explores every nuance of the tune, plays with amazing technical facility, yet never ever loses sight of the song.  He displays total command of his instrument.  Everything he does just adds beauty to the tune.
So many modern players should learn from this.  I have, and one day I hope to be able to do something with this much beauty and ability.I'm working on it.  I hope you will too!

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