Posts tagged ‘music’

“Once in a Lifetime” and the case of the mysterious shifting downbeat

Monday, June 30th, 2014

For over thirty years I’ve been disturbed by the location of the downbeat in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”. I listened to it dozens of times without paying a ton of attention to the meter, and naturally heard the verses like this:

(vocal rhythms extremely approximate) and the choruses like this:

Once I paid attention, though, I realized that there were two things kind of funny about this way of hearing it. One was that the bass line was exactly the same throughout the whole song, but was shifted by half a bar when you compared the verse and the chorus. The other was that there was a half-bar hitch both going into and coming out of the chorus.

Of course you can resolve both of these issues simultaneously by just shifting your perception of the chorus by half a measure; then the bass lines up and you don’t have to throw in any 2/4 measures:

But this really isn’t the way I want to hear the chorus! I can hear it this way if I have to, but it feels artificial, like in reality the band has shifted the beat and I’m just hearing it this way for intellectual reasons.

So how did the band hear it? Did they really hear the chorus the second way and were playing in 4/4 the whole way through, or did they hear the downbeat shift and thought that it was cool that the bass line went in and out of phase throughout the song? For decades I’ve wondered what the “correct” way to hear it is.

Until now, that is, when I read Sasha Frere-Jones’s profile of the song’s producer Brian Eno in the New Yorker. From the end of the article:

Eno’s production of this transparent, polyrhythmic light box, it turns out, is based on a mistake—his own. “That song was a very good case of people not agreeing about the one,” he told me, referring to the first beat of each measure. “I always heard it in a different place from everyone else, so I just kept sort of building things onto my one.”

Aha! So my reconstruction of the song’s evolution is:

  1. The song as originally conceived by the band is in 4/4 throughout with a consistent bass groove, as in the second version of the chorus above. At this point it’s probably very natural to hear it that way.
  2. However, Eno hears it in the other way, with the chorus displaced by two beats, and starts pushing the arrangement in a direction that emphasizes that hearing.
  3. We end up with a rabbit-duck situation that has been specifically engineered to be confusing, and which was based explicitly on the producer’s confusion.

In conclusion, Eno is a genius, but we already knew that.

Bond songs

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

I recently went on a James Bond binge and watched all the canonical movies, ranking the theme songs as I went. Ethan Iverson graciously offered to host the resulting piece on his super usually-jazz-but-always-interesting blog Do The Math.

It begins:

One of the more entertaining categories of popular music of the last 50 years is the James Bond movie theme.

Having recently watched all of the canonical EON/Broccoli Bond movies, I can assert that sometimes the four minutes of opening credits is the high point of the entire film. As with any art form, my first instinct when encountering these specimens was to rank them.

Despite the wide variety of style to be found in these songs, there’s a lot of commonality too. Usually there’s a sense of danger, demonstrated by minor keys, chromaticism, or menacing orchestration. There’s often a pinch of swagger as well, though, communicating how Bond can confidently overcome any crisis no matter how dire. Of course the music also often projects sexuality; at its best this coexists with the dangerous vibe, though there is a sub-tradition of straight-up ballads. Often the main Bond theme is quoted, a tradition I found charming at first though it quickly wore on me.

My ranking is of course informed by my own prejudices about what makes a good song and what makes a good Bond song in particular. As I listened to them over and over when making this list, I developed a bit of Stockholm syndrome; even the songs I disliked the most started to take up residence in my head. But the bottom one stubbornly refused to get any better:

Continued at Do The Math.

Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 3

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

I’ve had a little more time now to study the structure of this piece.

First, I’ll lay out the form as I see it:

  • 0:00–0:13 (mm. 1–5): Intro figure
  • 0:13–0:28 (mm. 6–9): Guitar & bass cycle 1
  • 0:28–0:43 (mm. 10–15): Head
  • 0:43–0:48 (mm. 16–17): Bridging material (based on m. 2)
  • 0:48–3:31 (mm. 18–41, 42–65, 66–89): Trombone solo (based on mm. 3–4, 10–15)
  • 3:31–5:13 (mm. 90–94, 95–99, 100–104, 105–109, 110–114, 115–119, 120–124, 125–129): Guitar solo (based on mm. 183–185)
  • 5:13–7:04 (mm. 130–150, 151–171): Flute solo (based on mm. 193–213)
  • 7:04–7:21 (mm. 172–176): Guitar & bass cycle 1
  • 7:21–7:35 (mm. 177–182): Head
  • 7:35–7:59 (mm. 183–191): Guitar & bass cycle 2
  • 7:59–8:03 (m. 192): Coda intro measure
  • 8:03–8:27 (mm. 193–213): Coda
  • 8:27–8:35 (mm. 214–217): Ending tag

And here are what I could make of the harmonies of the solo sections. These were deduced by looking at both the actual comping performed during the solos and the source material that the solo structure comes from. There are some discrepancies, which is to be expected, although a few them turned out to be transcription errors, which is a good sign (for the model).

trombone solo structure

 

guitar solo structure

 

flute solo structure

Interestingly, I didn’t notice any regular correspondence between parts for the flute and trombone.

Some future steps:

  • Look for any rules governing the harmonic skeleton. For example, there often seem to be common intervals between one “chord” and the next.
  • Look for rules governing the flute and trombone solos; they seem to be much freer than the guitar solo.
  • See if I can find any way that the flute and trombone parts in the through-composed material (such as the head and coda) are reused or referred to. Currently only the guitar and bass parts seem to be structurally interesting.
  • Try to discover the function, if any, of the sections that I haven’t linked to any other sections yet, for example the coda intro measure (m. 192) and ending tag (mm. 214–217).

Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 2

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Over a year ago I started transcribing Henry Threadgill’s “To Undertake My Corners Open”. I got to the 90% point a long time ago, but as with many projects, it’s the last 10% that takes the most calendar time. One thing that slowed me down is that Threadgill’s flute is super sharp, especially in the high registers, approaching 50 cents by the end of the piece, playing havoc with my ability to match pitches as well as my motivation. I finally got out of that rut when I realized that he was consistently sharp and not just all over the place from one phrase to the next. Once again I could never have finished this project without the great software Transcribe!.

Here’s the PDF of the score; I won’t reproduce it here because it runs to 14 pages. Some analysis is coming up, but this has been so long in coming that I didn’t want to slow it down further by waiting until I had a complete essay written up about it. A few general points:

  • Each of the solo section has a different harmonic cycle. The trombone has 3 cycles of 95 beats, the guitar has 8 cycles of 22 beats, and the flute has 2 cycles of 96 beats. As far as I can tell they’re all completely independent.
  • The structure of each cycle definitely includes chords, or at least pitch collections, not just bass notes. They vary a bit each time around but in general the “changes” for each cycle are pretty consistent.
  • Just as the trombone cycle (mm. 18—41) is the head (mm. 1—15) slowed down,, the guitar cycle (mm. 90—95) is the little bit between the recap and coda (mm. 183—191) slowed down, and the flute cycle (mm. 130—150) is the coda (mm. 193—217) slowed down. I was particularly happy to discover this last one, since I was having trouble making sense of the coda before; I couldn’t even figure out how to bar it. If it seems a little over-barred now, it’s because I matched it to the meters of the flute cycle, and the rhythms don’t make any less sense than they would with any other barring.
  • Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like the cycles get further out harmonically as the piece progresses. The trombone solo feels very tonal in a lot of places, the guitar solo is a bit less consonant, and the flute solo feels really abstract (although perhaps the fact that he is 40 cents sharp doesn’t help).

Still to do:

  • Write out the “harmonies” of each cycle.
  • See how those harmonies compare to their “source material”.
  • Look for more rules about how the melodies and harmonies are constructed.
  • Compare to other recorded performances of the same piece to see how much is kept consistent. For example, I assume that the entire coda is through-composed, but perhaps there’s some room for variation there.

All thoughts on the analysis and/or suggestions on the transcription itself are welcome.

David Temperley: Music and Probability

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

This is a book about music cognition: attempting to understand how people understand the music they hear. Temperley’s main thesis throughout the book is that a profitable way to study music perception is to pretend that the listener is doing a Bayesian analysis to determine the structure (e.g., time signature and key) behind the musical surface (the audio signal being heard).

Bayes’ Theorem seems to be pretty hot these days. It’s a statement about probabilities, the main point of which is that the a priori likelihood of certain states is useful information when trying to figure out what state actually exists. A standard example is that if a certain disease is incredibly rare, then even if you test positive for it with an only slightly fallible test, it’s still quite unlikely that you really have it.

The whole idea that musical perception is largely about creating models in your head about what’s going on, with associated expectations about the future that can either be met or thwarted, and that composers are constantly playing with those expectations, is associated in my mind with the late Leonard Meyer, who is definitely worth reading. I recommend in particular Emotion and Meaning in Music.

Temperley uses Bayesian analysis to simulate how listeners create a presumptive model for a given musical signal; for example, if a note arrives a little later than expected, the listener has to make an on-the-fly guess whether that is due to a syncopation (the tempo remains constant and the note is offset from its expected location relative to it) or rubato (the tempo has slowed down slightly and the note is exactly where you’d expect in the slowed-down tempo). If you have a model for the relative probability of the two cases, you have good grounds for guessing which is actually going on. (Note that the model can change according to what kind of music you’re listening to: the answer to the above question is much more likely to be rubato if it’s a classical performance and syncopation if it’s a rock performance).

Temperley creates these sorts of models to generate proposed probability distributions in varied domains, from time signatures to key determination to modulation detection. There are some good standard corpora of analyzed musical examples so he’s able to evaluate his models to existing ones fairly accurately, and they perform well though not groundbreakingly so. One nice thing is that the models tend to be fairly simple compared to many other ones in the field, which tend to be rather special-cased and apparently a bit fragile.

I was very pleased, by the way, to find that a scale-determination system that I had come up with independently in the late 90s for use in creating automatic accompaniment for MIDI renditions of karaoke songs was basically exactly the same as one of the standard systems that the academic world came up with. (The short version is that for a given timespan you take the total duration of each pitch class and take the dot-product of that 12-dimensional vector with a vector representing a signature for each hypothetical scale, then take the maximum. Not rocket science but it was nice to come up with a simple quantitative algorithm that performed well in practice.)

Even though there’s no silver bullet here, the ideas in it are quite interesting. I particularly like that the models end up being fairly straightforward and don’t require a ton of specialized tweaks, which is a promising feature. The math involved is real, but if all you care about is the music you can probably gloss over most of it if you trust the author. Worth reading if you’re interested in how people perceive music, either for its own sake or because you want to exploit it as a composer or performer.

Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 1

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid group has made some really interesting recent music in an original musical language, but I’ve seen very little discussion of what the language is, and Threadgill himself doesn’t seem to be very forthcoming. The best description I’ve found comes from guitarist Liberty Ellman in a phone conversation with Nate Chinen, but there’s still not enough detail for me to reverse-engineer it. A diagram would probably clear it all up, but it’s hard to provide a diagram over the phone!

So I started transcribing a piece to see if I could start to make some sense of it. I chose “To Undertake My Corners Open” (YouTube link) from This Brings Us To, volume 1. It’s pretty gnarly stuff, so I’m pausing a couple of minutes in to report my findings so far. If I waited until I finished the whole thing, it would be a really long time before I wrote anything, plus I would have a novel’s worth of things to say about it; this way I can write as I go, and maybe even get some feedback.

I’ve transcribed the “head” as well as the first “chorus” of the trombone solo (his solo lasts just under three cycles of a repeating bass progression). The score so far is below but it’s probably handier to look at the PDF.

 

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 1

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 2

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 3

 

Caveats: I have a pretty good ear, but this stuff is hard! It’s not particularly tonal and there are two “analog-pitch” instruments (trombone and bass). Meanwhile the guitar has nice discrete pitches but is hard to hear behind the other instruments.

The beat can be hard to identify; Threadgill tends to deliberately avoid obvious downbeats, aiming for a more homogenous pulse. I tried to switch meter only when I really had to.

I should mention that I use the fabulous Transcribe! program, and there’s no way I could have gotten remotely close to this amount of detail without it.

Does the opening phrase of the trombone remind any one else of the beginning of Berg’s Lyric Suite? Probably a coincidence, but I get the impression that Threadgill knows twelve-tone history.

I’ll come back to the head, which seems pretty through-composed, in a minute, but moving ahead to the trombone solo (the bass cycle starts at m. 18): one thing that surprised me when transcribing is that it’s a lot more normal than it sounds at first. The trombone is following the bass progression very faithfully, and even navigates it in a quite tonal manner, measures 21-27 being the clearest example. It’s mostly the guitar that colors the harmonies in an interesting and dissonant way. The thing I’m most interested to find out next is whether the guitar part’s structure is more vertical (choosing notes each measure from a harmony relative to the bass) or horizontal (charting an independent path that creates interesting harmonies by chance). Ellman’s comments give the impression that it might be the latter. Once I finish the next two choruses of this solo, I’ll have a better impression of what is consistent each time around, which will help illuminate the structure behind it.

Here’s the bass structure of the trombone solo. Like I said, it repeats three times, starting at m. 18. (I get the sense that it changes for the following guitar solo, but I haven’t listened closely yet.)

 

Trombone solo structure

 

I said I would get back to the head later, and here’s why: the structure of the head is basically exactly the same but twice as fast! Even the lead-in, not pictured above, corresponds: m. 2 is mm. 16-17 at double speed.

The intro goes through one of the two G♭-D♭-C-B♭-F cycles, skips the second one, takes a weird repeated 7/4 break that could be related to the 5/4 D♭-C measure, then meets up again with the E and corresponds perfectly the rest of the way. That’s the most interesting tidbit I’ve found so far, and something I never would have noticed without writing it all out.

Note by the way that the repeated guitar figure in that 7/4 section is almost palindromic.

That’s about all I have for now. Open questions:

  • What’s the structure behind the guitar lines underneath the trombone solo? Whatever it is, it seems to be changing at about the same rate as the bass progression.
  • Are there any particular harmonic or melodic rules behind the through-composed head? Nothing has leaped out at me so far, but I haven’t looked very hard.

More later, I hope.

Wayne Shorter: “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Another step in my continuing quest to learn more about jazz by transcribing recordings. I like Wayne Shorter’s 1960s albums a lot, and “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” (YouTube video) is my favorite tune from the most famous of them, Speak No Evil. The spur to do a Shorter tune came when Ethan Iverson transcribed his solo from Lee Morgan’s “Party Time” and I found that our conceptions of Shorter’s rhythm were pretty different, largely because he is so lazy (behind the beat). There’s a fine line between playing ahead or behind the beat and syncopating; in one case you’re turning a knob in an analog way and in the other the knob has turned so far that it’s reached the next “notch” and you’ve actually created a different rhythm. Shorter straddles that line really interestingly, playing in such a fluid way that even when he’s super late you can feel the “real” rhythm that he’s relating to, like the note is a balloon on a long string tied to the beat.

I did all the parts except for Herbie Hancock’s piano comping during other solos and Elvin Jones’ drumming, so the whole thing came out to 10 pages and I won’t dump it all here, but the PDF file is here. Some thoughts I had about the song while working with it:

Those piano chords at the beginning are really tasty. I haven’t the faintest idea how to analyze them from a jazz harmony theory viewpoint; from a classical perspective I’d say they serve the same sort of function as a I64, sitting on a dominant drone, setting up a real arrival on I (which, eight bars into the head, turns out to be B♭). I’m not certain about every note in every chord but it sounds pretty right to me when I play it on the piano.

The tune itself is really interesting. It starts out in a clear G minor; then the B♭ that the melody lands on basically turns into an A♯, creating a major-seventh dissonance in the bass, and resolves to the B♮ of G major, but the line still ends like a question, largely because it curves up to the fifth (D) rather than down to the root (G). The second four measures imitate the first four but end up in the parallel major, B♭, with the melody again landing on the fifth instead of the root as the underlying B♭7 harmony immediately moves us away towards E♭. The middle eight measures have a pretty simple implicit harmony from the bass (and the solos later refer to that harmony rather than what’s going on in the melody here), but the melody instruments do a cool parallel-fourths-and-tritones thing that adds some nice dissonance. A standard ii-V-I progression brings us back to a recap of the first eight measures, in which the melody finally lands triumphantly on B♭, but the bass refuses to follow suit, obstinately sitting on C♭/B♮, forming the exact same major-seventh dissonance that was the first hint of harmonic oddness back in the third measure.

Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo feels the most classical of the three in its rhythm and harmony. He plays most straightforwardly in the bluesy middle third, a pattern the other soloists will follow.

Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax solo is really rhapsodic by comparison. He takes two choruses and I’m glad he does. It’s not super virtuosic but he stretches and pulls the beat in really interesting ways. The simplest rhythms are the ones he massages the most, like the simple eighth-note riffs starting on measure 69; they’re so laggy it’s tempting to try to notate them differently, but they’re clearly really lazy eighth notes, not some crazy syncopation. I particularly like the syncopated three-note blasts starting at measure 93, especially the way that they gradually subside back into the A section rather than exploding as you might expect them to. After I finished it I discovered Kevin Sun’s transcription of the solo, and the comparison is really interesting. We agree 99% on the pitches (unfortunately for you, my transcription is at concert pitch and his is in B♭), but we often have big disagreements on the rhythm.

Herbie Hancock’s solo is the least lyrical, in the sense of sounding like a vocal line; it comes more in little bursts of riffs. The left-hand voicings are probably the component I’m least sure of in the whole transcription; I wouldn’t be surprised if I accidentally put in something unidiomatic there. The style is really interesting to me, since my instinct when I try to improvise is still play something that sounds like a sax plus harmony, rather than this more interesting collections of riffs and stabs. The rising pattern of four triplets as he finishes is really tasty.

I transcribed Ron Carter’s bass all the way through because I noticed that transcribing the bass is something that Ethan does, and I learned a lot from it that I’m sure will be useful for my left hand. It’s tough to hear the bass and sometimes he’s between pitches, so you may not agree with me about every note. In general I was impressed by how he was able to sustain interest but not distract from the soloing going on on top of him.

I’ll try to pick something more simple next time! Maybe something from the 50s. In the meantime, comments and proposed corrections are encouraged.

Perri Knize: Grand Obsession

Monday, August 20th, 2012

I recently spent a fair amount of time and energy researching a piano purchase, and as I had always concentrated more on the notes than on the instrument making them, it was very educational both to listen closely to a bunch of pianos and to read about differences in construction, tone, action, etc. After all that, Grand Obsession looked interesting; it’s a work of non-fiction about piano manufacture and maintenance (such as all the work that is done on the feel of the physical mechanism, the tuning, and the tone of the sound), wrapped in a personal story about the author’s quest to find the perfect piano and then get the perfect tone on it.

The information on the piano industry was pretty much all very interesting. Knize got to have in-depth conversations with lots of different sorts of people—manufactures, dealers, tuners, voicers, other players—and I learned a lot from them. There is one chapter on “physics” with exciting updates on topics like “vibrational healing” and the fact that apparently string theory implies that each of us has a fundamental frequency that our “cellular structures respond to”, but I am going to be charitable and just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

The framing story was more problematic for me. The author spends over a year traveling over the whole country in a quest for the sole piano (within her budget) that she can possibly stand the sound of, and then spends a few more years obsessively trying to get it to sound tolerable to her ears after it arrives with a tone that she doesn’t like. The following passage, after an episode replacing the hammers, is representative:

Something is dreadfully wrong with the piano. It sounds horrible. Strident. Harsh. Too much sound pouring from the belly, sound that clashes against itself until it turns into a storm of dissonance that whips itself into a furious tornado of ringing tones that actually hurt my ears. (p. 217)

The reader is constantly reminded of how exquisitely sensitive Knize’s ears are, to the point that I wonder how she can enjoy listening to 90% of piano recordings out there. I don’t doubt that she does have sensitive hearing, but it feels to me like a drawback, like being a supertaster is for many people, rather than a feature. The capper for me is that she (at least during the time that the book covers) is not a very accomplished pianist; the repertoire that she describes learning is pretty basic. It’s actually a little sad to me how much time she spends trying to optimize her piano that could be spent playing it instead. The book reads a bit to me like the story of a someone who decided to write a novel and then immediately spent two years searching for the perfect font.

In the end, I learned to pay attention to the parts that interested me and skim over the parts that bugged me, so I don’t regret reading it, and if she had been less obsessed with finding the perfect sound, she probably wouldn’t have been inspired to write it in the first place. By the end, though, I was ready to move on to an authorial voice I could empathize with a bit more.

 

Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volumes 2-5

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I wrote about volume 1 of Richard Taruskin’s history of Western music a couple of years ago. Although I finished volume 2 shortly thereafter, I never got around to writing about it, and then I stalled on the whole thing early into volume 3 until this year, when I got motivated again and ended up tearing through the rest of it in the space of a month.

See my old post for opinions on his style in general, which I haven’t really changed my mind about. One big difference is that once he got to the year 1700 or so, I was suddenly about 80% familiar with the music being described rather than 10%. You may question the wisdom of reading 2000 pages of material on a subject that I already knew pretty well, but it was actually quite nice; it’s fun to nod sagely in approval as the author declaims to readers things that you already know, and having the context of that 80% made me appreciate the remaining 20% more than I otherwise would. I also knew the repertoire a lot better than the history, so it was nice to get a sense of the connective tissue that lies between all of those individual works.

Taruskin tells a good story, and he is pretty good at not falling prey to the temptation in a history book to divide everything very neatly into discrete boxes. In fact he takes great pains to blur the traditionally stark lines between Baroque and Classical music (in the mid 18th century) and tonal and atonal music (in the early 20th century), showing that there was much more of a continuum at the time than often appears in retrospect.

One particularly interesting take was his assertion that modern music really began in the mid-1800s, not in the early 1900s where most people put the dividing line (when traditional tonality was dissolving). His point is that it was the mid-1800s when music criticism became established, one consequence of which being that composers and listeners started to think of historical progress in music, with composers having some sort of scientist-like responsibility, against which they can be evaluated, to push the boundaries of music forward. It’s that change in perception that to Taruskin really marks the beginning of the modern attitude towards composition.

As I said, there was a fair amount of material I wasn’t really familiar with, so it was nice to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of musical history, such as the development of Italian opera and early Russian and East European music. I feel like I much have a better bird’s-eye view of the developments of classical music over the last few centuries now.

Taruskin continually warns against the temptation to treat music history in a teleological way, in which music composition “makes progress” over time as composers invent and discover more advanced and “better” techniques. But I felt like he falls victim to the same trap a bit when he enters the 20th century. There is very little attention paid to some very fine 20th century composers, presumably because they don’t fit his forward-pointing narrative. Sibelius gets a couple of pages. Nielsen gets one sentence. To take a few examples of superb recent composers who have created lots of important work, Nancarrow, Lutosławski, and Nørgård are not mentioned at all. On the other hand, Roy Harris gets 13 pages (maybe he was considered a lot more important at the time than he is in retrospect, but still, it’s weird) and David Del Tredici gets 7. (There’s a general American slant to Taruskin’s 20th-century history that he acknowledges but claims to be based in fact.) Especially given that the last volume is shorter than the others by 200 pages, you’d think that he could have found room for a couple of chapters surveying some of these important composers that didn’t fit so neatly into his narrative.

Despite my issues with what he chooses to concentrate on in the 20th century, I did find the material that he did write about very interesting and thought-provoking. I think that his take on who-cares-if-you-listen complexity vs more traditionally audience-oriented music is pretty fair, although I understand why those of the complexity school (especially if you have been raised with the music-history-as-progress meme) might not think so.

I should also mention that the whole thing, all 3800+ pages of it, is also a great read. It’s not dry at all, and Taruskin occupies just the right position on the facts-vs-opinions spectrum to keep things interesting but still grounded. Not only did I learn a lot, I also enjoyed it very much and was sad when I ran out of history to read about.

Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

So I have gotten really interested in jazz over the last year. (Apparently this is de rigueur for men as they enter middle age.) I’ve always had a vague understanding of the musical syntax, and can fake playing cocktail-piano renditions of standards okay, but I’ve never really had a good knowledge of the field as a whole.

My three-pronged approach to remedying this has been 1) reading about jazz theory (largely through Bert Ligon’s Jazz Theory Resources and Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book, about which maybe more later), 2) reading about jazz history, and 3) listening to a ton of music. Reading this book, unsurprisingly, was part of prong 2.

Any book about music starts out at a disadvantage in that the actual subject it is discussing is apprehended by the ear and not the eye. With classical music, at least the score is the definition of the piece, but with popular music even a transcription is just a lens that inherently distorts the subject. The History of Jazz doesn’t even try to display musical excerpts; it’s purely text, and although the text is fairly descriptive, simply reading about the music is completely insufficient if you want to understand anything about its history.

Luckily YouTube is around to fill in the gap. I don’t know how much less I would have gotten out of this book if all I could do was read it, but being able to immediately reach out and listen to 80% of the referred-to repertoire was completely invaluable.

Anyway, the actual book itself. Given that it could only really describe the music at one level of indirection, it was actually really instructive. Jazz, especially once you get to the 1950s, consists of a giant interconnected family tree of artists and styles, and it was really impressive to me that Gioia was able to construct a fairly reasonable linear narrative navigating the entire maze, jumping on to an artist’s path for a few years, taking a couple of detours to describe his peers, and coming back to him later when his subsequent style was more relevant to the current story.

The music that I am most interested in (bebop and its descendants) doesn’t even enter the picture until halfway through the book, but that’s probably unavoidable, and the material on early jazz is really interesting. It hadn’t really occurred to me, for example, how impossible it is to disentangle jazz’s roots from the effects of slavery, which turns the love of jazz into an inherently ambivalent kind of prospect. (Another downer is that everyone seems to die young; if they make it past 40 it’s kind of surprising. I swear that being a jazz musician is more dangerous than coal mining.)

If you’re looking for a 400-page overview of the entire giant field of jazz (up through the mid-1990s), I bet it’s hard to do much better than this. It certainly gave me a broad bird’s-eye view of the genre that enabled me to focus on the artists and periods I thought I would be interested in, and when I came back to it after learning more about a given subject, its summary still seemed pretty good to me. Supplement it with YouTube and you’ve got a perfect multimedia introduction to the genre.