HomeBlogsRandomNotesLLC's blogJazz Throwdown: The Tom Anderson Retort

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As soon as I read Deke’s recent article on the future of vocal jazz, I tweeted at Amy Malkoff and called dibs on writing a response.

Regarding that article, let me first say this: I agree with... half of it? Two thirds? A not insignificant amount of it, at any rate. Deke makes a number of excellent points, and I’ll (briefly, only for the sake of space & time and not to minimize their importance) acknowledge and reinforce those here.

But where I disagree with Deke’s points, I disagree strongly enough, and with enough experience and reasoning behind that disagreement, that I felt compelled to present an alternate perspective on the topic.

Quick background: I am, like Deke, a longtime aficionado and practitioner of jazz. I’ve been involved with jazz music (studying, playing, writing) for almost twenty years. I attended college on a jazz piano scholarship, played on a Grammy-nominated jazz album, and was one of the pianists in the collegiate big band that DownBeat Magazine named the best in the country. As a professional arranger, my clients include vocal jazz giants like Cluster and the Swingle Singers, and as a music fan, I’ve got... [spends twenty minutes going through entire iTunes library] ...let’s just call it “a lot” of jazz music in my rotation. (I stopped counting after a thousand.)

So. Boring part done. Let’s do this.

“Frankly, I'm sick of the stiff, heartless, poorly rendered wax museum that passes for jazz vocal harmony nowadays[.]”

Hear, hear. *snaps*

“Jazz needs at least some element of fluidity, flexibility, spontaneity. Granted, scat singing is not easy and sometimes isn't appropriate, but there should still be something loose, something playful, something unhinged.”

This issue - which arises not just with jazz but even with more familiar contemporary genres like pop, R&B, and country - is one of my most frequent and vitriolic complaints about how my arrangements are sung. College groups in particular seem to have an overriding (and, to me, inexplicable) fascination with singing all of their backing parts like Bach cantatas. I can’t begin to count the number of vocal performances and recordings I’ve heard that have been compromised or outright vitiated by rigid, overly (<-- note the qualifier!) precise diction and articulation, and my conversations with other creative-side aca pros lead me to believe that my experience is no fluke. Guys, we write this stuff assuming you know how to sing colloquially. Throw us a bone.

“Don't look to choral jazz for inspiration; look instead to instrumental jazz and the close harmony groups from 50 years ago[.]”

Oh. Um... oh no. Were there... were there actually people looking to choral jazz for inspiration? Wait, now that I think about it... there’s choral jazz? Okay, this has to stop at once. Please. And if you do stumble across it, may it only inspire you to find more fruitful uses of your time and energies, like chewing sandpaper or commenting on YouTube videos.

As for close harmony groups from decades back, in addition to Deke’s excellent list, please also take the time to look into the Singers Unlimited, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Los, and - especially useful here for their impeccable marriage of complexity & texture with emotional resonance & broad accessibility - the Beach Boys. (Not their surf crap, either. The good stuff.) If you don’t find stuff in the arranging of Brian Wilson and Gene Puerling to learn from, you are simply not listening.

“Blend in other styles of music if it suits you.... Learn to scat. For real.... The timbre is only a small part; the rest is phrasing, feel, mood and... scatting!”

Not much to say here other than “yep”.

Now, the fun part. *cracks knuckles*

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit:

“You want intellectual music? Exhibit A: Schoenberg and his serial tone rows. The largest musical failure in the past century.”

Right. Such a colossal failure that they’ve been required study for every student of music theory and composition in the western hemisphere for decades. Clearly they didn’t make much of an impact. Do I listen to Webern in my spare time? I do not. But there’s no way to call serialism a “musical failure” and not just be out-and-out wrong.

Furthermore: you bet your ass I want intellectual music. I want emotional music first, but given the choice between something that’s merely emotional and something emotional that also makes my brain work, I’ll take the latter every single time. And you know what else? Every once in a while, I like having music that’s purely intellectual. I like thinking. Give me complexity. Give me music I have to digest. I can do that and be moved at the same time, I assure you. In fact, I’d much prefer to be. Challenge me and I’ll appreciate your music on more levels - heck, I’ll appreciate it just-plain-more.

“No one cares about your clever chord substitutions.”

Actually, people do care. They may not be able to explain a mathematical reason why they care using Roman numerals or figured bass, but they absolutely care, because clever chord subs sound cool, and people most definitely care whether music sounds cool. And those of us enjoying music with our ears and our brains appreciate them even more. (Again, the qualifier is everything; banal chord subs sound like crap.) There’s nothing wrong with making art that can be enjoyed on more than one level. Watched any cartoons lately? How many jokes are squeezed into an episode of Spongebob or an old Looney Tunes short that go over the kids’ heads but crack up Mom and Dad? Given the chance, why wouldn’t you make something that has more than one kind of appeal?

“Drop the intellectualism and go back to basics: the blues. You want to impress me, and impress the audience? Make some great jazz with something simple. If "All Blues" was good enough for Miles [Davis], it should be good enough for you.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend that you NOT limit yourself to one very specific and simplistic form and set of chord changes, particularly one so hackneyed that it makes the ‘50s progression look like Giant Steps. Granted, there are countless ways to manipulate those changes to make them more complex/interesting, but considering his foregoing direct admonition against chord subs, one supposes that such an approach is not what Deke had in mind. (While we’re at it: “All Blues” itself has a couple of big-time chord substitutions, as well as a couple of 7#9 chords that any halfway serious jazz listener will miss if they’re not there. Plus, it’s in three.)

It’s also deeply disingenuous to suggest that Miles Davis limited himself to the blues. Miles was one of the progenitors of bebop, which is probably the most intellectually rigorous popular-music genre in human history. It’s incredibly complex and challenging. What’s more, his epochal album “Kind of Blue”, on which “All Blues” first appeared, isn’t a blues album - it’s the defining example of another branch of jazz called modal jazz, which is simpler than bop but still heavily theory-based. And the other players in Miles’ classic groups in the ‘50s and ‘60s? They included names like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams - players and writers whose names are synonymous with the most complex, intellectual, brain-twisting jazz ever made. Yes, Miles was at the forefront of the hard bop movement, which brought jazz back in a simpler (and often bluesier) direction in the mid-‘50s. But that was one moment partway through an iconoclastic five-decade career.

“Group scat singing - where the whole group singing "schwee-bee doo-bee dah-ly-ah bee-boh" together, often in harmony, needs to stop. It is embarrassing. It does not sound good. Scat syllables came about because a singer either couldn't remember the lyrics or was intentionally singing off the grid... but to standardize them results in a wooden, silly performance that reinforces people's worst impressions of jazz music.”

Nonsense. I agree that this is very rarely done well, but the frequent failure of this technique isn’t due to any intrinsic musical weakness. It’s because people sing and/or arrange it incorrectly. See the second point above, the one about being overly precise. If you scat with classical-voice-jury diction and tone, you will sound like a world-class toolbelt. But that’s equally true regardless of whether it’s done in a solo or group context. Like Deke said: learn to scat for real. Listen to enough good examples of it that you’re comfortable with it. The successful approach requires a relaxed vocal approach and an engaged mind, and until you can put those two components together, your scats will sound either stilted, musically ineffective, or both. But when a group has a grasp of how to approach scatting appropriately, it can achieve excellent results, such as on “It’s All Right With Me” by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band (featuring Take 6), or Cluster’s version of “Have You Met Miss Jones”.

Arrangers: if you want to write effective group scat sections, start with a firm understanding of techniques for scoring big band sax sections. And Deke does have one solid point above: never, ever write “schwee”. Get a grip on your syllable choices. Unless your name is Samrat Chakrabarti (and I’ll be honest, I’m not in love with your odds there), syllables are absolutely the wrong venue for trying to impress us with your creativity and crazy, out-of-the-box arranging voice. We (and I say this on behalf of both professional aca musicians and people who judge competitions and CARAs) are not impressed. If it sounds dumb, and/or especially if it’s clumsy to sing, change it.

“NO! Don't transcribe [song title]."

Flat-out wrong. This is just bad advice. Do not take it.

You want to learn about jazz? You want to get better at it? Like, not just passable, but really, legitimately good? Transcribe everything. All of it. TRANSCRIBE ALL OF THE THINGS.

Everything you dig, anyway. Solos, chord harmonizations, background figures, everything you hear that makes you respond positively. Do your best to hear it, write it down, play what you wrote down (even if that means tediously slow piano-plunking), and if it’s not right, keep at it until you’re hearing it correctly. That’s how you train both your ears and your brain, making you more adept both at analyzing and creating (and unless you want to rely entirely on Powerball-like happenstance, success at the former is absolutely an indispensable prerequisite to success at the latter).

“I'm gonna bring it home with this statement: I'd rather listen to a 2nd grade choir sing in unison than sit through a concert by most vocal jazz groups nowadays, because you know what? They bring more to the table. They bring more joy, more fear, more confusion, more personality, more honesty.”

Well, first of all, there’s no way a second grade choir brings more fear or confusion to the table than your average vocal jazz group. But, more to the point:

Vocal jazz doesn’t suck these days because people are doing more than they ought to. It sucks because people are doing - specifically, because they’re studying and preparing - less than they should. One reason vocal jazz is challenged these days is that most singers don’t understand the theory and the technique required to do jazz successfully, so when they do sing it, their brains are focused on getting the hard notes right, rather than on forging emotional connections with the music and the audience. The other principal reason is that most singers haven’t listened to enough jazz to get comfortable with how to deliver it comfortably, with the appropriate pocket, groove, diction, tone, and other qualities that make it, for lack of a better term, sound good. So how to remedy this? I think you know the answer.

Look: you don’t get ripped by walking into the gym and staring really hard at the weights. Listening, transcribing, studying, running scales and technique drills - these are things you do to get good. They’re not glamorous tasks. They’re not supposed to be. With classical music, these tasks (save transcription, owing to the fact that classical music is score-based and a lot of jazz isn’t) are universally taken as given in terms of what one does in order to improve. Why expect jazz to provide any easier a path to proficiency? And why shrink from it when there isn’t one?

Jazz is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s not power chords and four-on-the-floor beats. It’s intricate, tricky stuff that takes work to master. It’s also a savagely rewarding style (I use the term very loosely - jazz is about as much a cohesive genre as a cappella is) to study and master. Being good at jazz involves tons of technique and theory. That’s okay. In fact, that’s good. Don’t fear that or recoil from it. Take the time, put in the work, and become awesome. You can be a spectacular musician without being good at jazz. If you never listen to a Charlie Parker record or transcribe a Dizzy Gillespie solo, I will think no less of you. It’s not for everyone. Aside from food and oxygen, few things are. But if you actually put the work in to become an adept jazz musician, you will have immeasurable advantages over your contemporaries who lack that background, and that is a 100% guarantee.

In case you haven’t savvied to the running theme here: don’t run away from complexity. Don’t run away from the theoretical and the intellectual. You can nourish the mind and the spirit with exactly the same music. I wish you would. I hope you do. And even if you don't want to take my word for it, maybe you'll take the word of the late, great Miles Davis, who said in his autobiography:

"I couldn't believe that ... all them cats wouldn't go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores so they could check out what was happening. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn't believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it."

About the writer:
Tom Anderson’s arrangements can be heard on multiple issues of the BOCA, Sing!, and Voices Only compilations and on the hit NBC a cappella showcase “The Sing-Off”. His arranging clients include 5-time Grammy winners the Swingle Singers, award-winning a cappella solo artist Peter Hollens, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, and dozens of other vocal groups and studios across the country and around the world. A former member of pro a cappella groups Ball in the House and Four Shadow and original music director of UW-Eau Claire Fifth Element, Tom is the founder and owner of Random Notes LLC, an arranging service specializing in vocal music for groups of all styles, makeups, and abilities, and situated cozily online at www.random-notes.com. He is CASA’s Director of Professional Relations.

image: Miles Davis