by David James
The Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, a derivative and not especially amusing or insightful attempt to co-opt the themes of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, has a distinctive sound track. It is a blues called The In Crowd, played by the Ramsey Lewis trio. (Lewis pictured above)
Lewis’ piano lines in the piece are entirely predictable; they could easily be reproduced, note for note, by many of the software programs on the market. All you would have to do is hit the “blues” button, set the key and tempo, and the computer would spit out exactly the same thing.
Yet Lewis’ blues sounds nothing like machine music. It is infectious, irresistible. One reason is that it swings to an unusual degree; the rhythms are intensely seductive.
There are also highly effective dynamics, soft passages, which mask the repetition of the phrases. Yet the main reason it is so compelling is that Lewis, although producing lines that are familiar to the point of being obvious, is making every note count as if he is discovering them for the first time.
That ability to make every note count is an important mark of musical quality across music genres. Consider, for example, the exquisite performance by French soprano Patricia Petibon with the Venice Baroque Orchestra of Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga.
Using a slower tempo than usual, Petibon and the ensemble dwell on each note, delighting in the way the melody and counterpoint reveal the elegant, simple beauty that so characterises Handel’s compositions. It is pure unfolding, and when the music ends there is a kind of lingering regret that the stately progression of moments has gone.
VARIATIONS WITHIN A NOTE
In jazz, the person who most made each note count was trumpeter Miles Davis because of his virtuosic array of tone and pitch shifts. Whereas most players tend to have a homogenous and consistent sound – the development of it is the aim of the tone studies that form the basis of practice routines – Miles’ sound was constantly shifting. It is not always immediately apparent because the microtonal shifts are not easy to detect, but he was constantly moving around the pitch to create his plangent effects.
His most common approach was to start below, then move above, the pitch, but he would often reverse that movement to create a wail. Or he could stay exactly on the pitch to evoke assertion.
Pianist Herbie Hancock has recalled that Miles told members of the second great sextet, of which Hancock was a member, that they were paid to practise on the bandstand in front of the audience. At the same time, of course, Miles, like any skilled musician, practised constantly to achieve control of his instrument. The point he was making is that they should play like everything is new, make every note count because it feels fresh.
Jazz students slaving away at acquiring “licks” (commonly used motifs) and running up and down their modes and scales should take note.
A FINE COMPARISON
The difference between making every note count and looking elsewhere emerges when comparing two of the great interpreters of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Artur Schnabel and Alfred Brendel.
Schnabel’s interpretations were more adventurous and often quite loose in their reference to the score. He was concerned with experimenting with the architecture of the line to explore the shape of Beethoven’s moods as realised in the phrases and melodies. It meant that, instead of making every note count, he focused on the direction and pulse of the music. Sometimes, his interpretations are almost hard to recognise as Beethoven’s piece.
Brendel, whose interpretations exhibited a far greater fidelity to the score, achieved his effects by meticulously immersing himself in what was written, drawing everything he could out of it. His interpretations, which are more recognisable than Schnabel’s, have an immediacy that makes them sound like they came straight from the mind of the composer.
Asking which is better is a little like trying to compare the view to the east of Mount Olympus with the view to west. Both are equally magnificent. Making every note count is a mark of musical quality, but it is not the only one.
Yet, in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with music, it is an important quality to hang on to. It is respecting rarity at a time when the surfeit of music is becoming overwhelming.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.