Saturday, July 14, 2007

My favourite things

In a few days it will be 40 years since John Coltrane died. The Guardian has a tribute.

Dave Brubeck is 86 and going strong. The BBC has just honoured him with a lifetime achievement award at their jazz awards.

It's rare that these two musicians are mentioned in the same breath. Coltrane was a hard-bop pioneer; Brubeck is a west-coast jazzman. Coltrane is a demigod among jazz (and, often, rock) musicians. Brubeck has always been hugely popular with the public, but always seemed to be taken less seriously in the New York-dominated jazz scene. And yet it seems to me they have much in common.

They both expanded the rhythmic and harmonic boundaries of jazz. Coltrane is perhaps best remembered for "Giant Steps", a "hurtling" composition, as the Guardian says, that "changes chords almost every beat". Brubeck is perhaps best known for the gimmicky Time Out album that explored odd metres. But long before that, he was pushing the limits of harmony too. Twentieth-century classical composers were writing "twelve-tone" music that didn't sound like music to most listeners: the twelve tones are not made equal, why should they be treated as equal? But Brubeck wrote "The Duke" (a tribute to Ellington) that casually explored all twelve chord roots within the first twelve bars, yet was consummately musical. (The best-known performance is by Miles Davis in his "Miles Ahead" album.) Brubeck explored challenging concepts of polyrhythm and polytonality while all the time remaining immensely popular with the public. Coltrane took chord substitutions to undreamt-of heights, again in a way that made sense to listeners.

I think these two musicians did what classical composers of the twentieth century unsuccessfully tried to: they broke all the traditional rules, but made music that people could listen to and relate to.

And yes -- they both recorded albums called "My Favorite Things", featuring completely contrasting takes on the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune. Coltrane's is regarded as a classic, Brubeck's is hard to obtain (I have a Japanese edition).


km said...

Love 'em both.

Indeed, "Time Out" once seemed "gimmicky", but I find it's actually aged very well. (or maybe I have.)

I once tortured a college audience with a guitar-rock version of "Take Five". The 5/4 sounded suspiciously like 4/4 (crappy drummer) and we found the A minor/ E minor pattern (from the opening bars) actually worked for the entire song. Fake chords were never so much fun.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

You didn't study in Bangalore in the mid-1990s, did you? I heard a tortured guitar-rock version by a college band there around that time. I can't remember the chords they used, if any. ("Chords? What's that?")

Take Five is actually written by Paul Desmond, though Brubeck claims credit for (a) demanding that Desmond contribute a piece to that album, and (b) suggesting the connection of the melody and the bridge segment. I'll post about Desmond one of these days.

km said...

Phew. That wasn't me.