“So long as the human spirit thrives on this
Music in some living form will accompany and sustain it
And give it expressive meaning.”
- Aaron Copland, composer
This quote was chiseled into the side of the building across the street
from the venue where I saw the monumental show described below, and was the
first thing I saw upon exiting.
Jam band: A newer word coined to describe an ideological framework and stylistic
phenomenon originally heard in older music, specifically American jazz traditions
of the 1950s and ‘60s. Fueled by social forces that inspired civil rights movements
and cultural shifts, jazz music became intellectually challenging, unadulterated,
and cathartic. Visionary players like John Coltrane began taking interpretative
freedoms with harmony, melody, meter, and time. Seemingly formless and extended
solos had purists irate and resentful, but a huge part of Coltrane’s legacy, and
that of his peers--Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Ornette Coleman,
Rashied Ali--is the lasting effect they had on improvisation and rhythmic
and percussive relationships. Catch phrases like "free-form" and "avant garde"
became applicable to an increasing number of musicians, a reference not so much
to sound as to experimental style and a willingness to supplicate themselves to
the music created. A friend recently reminded me of a quote in Relix by
Bob Weir, which essentially said he believes that jazz bands are the original
jam bands due to their similarities in approach. Then I read an assertion that
the music of jam bands has become a “gateway genre” for a younger generation that
has cycled back to jazz. Is it the case that musically and stylistically thinking,
we’ve come full circle and that jam bands possess enough of the essence of jazz’s
traditions and legacies to bring jazz back into commercial mainstream music? Recently,
I had a chance to check these ideas out for myself when the Rashied
Ali Quintet played Seattle’s new swanky dinner club, The
Rashied Ali replaced Elvin Jones as John Coltrane's main drummer for
the last three years of Coltrane's life. When you read biographies about Ali
and his drumming style, you often see words like "innovator, "transcending,"
and "revolutionize." He is responsible for refining the role of the drummer’s
interaction within an ensemble by “trying to find something else to do instead
of just play time.” He understood people kept the beat going in their heads
whether he played or not, and so he began to play around the same way that Coltrane
did, taking the listener to task. He played his drums in a melodic way while
never acquiescing to the primal importance of the swing in jazz. Drummer Billy
Martin agrees, “Not only was Rashied Ali an extremely powerful influence
on my playing when listening to late Coltrane recordings in my youth, he recently
blew my mind when I heard him in Europe with a small ensemble… He is a universal
treasure.” And so it follows that the interplay between drummers and bassists
became increasingly important when fleshing out a tune and giving it direction.
In fact, many tunes in jazz music are written specifically for the bass, while
other players vamp, playing around the roots.
Bassist Reggie Workman also seems to bridge the old and new within the
jazz world. In the way that Ali is referred to as an innovator, Workman is described
as "technically gifted" and "brilliant." He plays across a spectrum of styles,
has recorded with many of the original heavy hitters of the jazz scene, including
John Coltrane, and has enjoyed a musical relationship with Rashied Ali for many
years. His more recent compositions and recordings traverse tradition but also
look to the future evolution of jazz. He has successfully incorporated Eastern
influences and instruments not so common to the genre, such as electronics and
harp, into both free and more straightforward jazz. Clearly he embraces the
versatility of jazz and neither he nor Ali are afraid of pushing its limits
while remaining true to their historical experiences; for them playing is the
expression of their love of music.
Photo from reggieworkman.com
The three remaining members of Ali's quintet, Ravi Coltrane (son of
John and Alice), Jumaane Smith, and Andy Coe, are of a younger
generation and are only beginning to make names for themselves. There was tremendous
cross-generational significance with two legends playing with the son of one
of their contemporaries, along with two talented young fellas who could conceivably
be their grandchildren. Both Ali and Workman, along with continuous playing
and recording, have parlayed their experience and expertise into educational
roles for younger generations; indeed, the younger Coltrane was mentored extensively
by Ali. Raised by his pianist mother after his dad died, Ravi had a musical
upbringing, but did not get into jazz until his 20s. Being a saxophone player,
comparisons with his father’s frenzied flights are inevitable, but he strives
to make a niche for himself and no doubt, he will. Among others, he currently
plays with Pharaoh Sanders, one of his father’s contemporaries.
Rounding out the quintet were trumpet player Jumaane Smith and guitarist Andy
Coe, both of who graduated from Seattle’s Roosevelt High School’s acclaimed
jazz program in the late 1990s. Since graduating and leaving Seattle for New
York City, Smith has been studying with Wynton Marsalis at Julliard and
with Rashied Ali while working on his trumpet’s voice and writing compositions.
Andy Coe lives in Seattle and plays with numerous groups across the Pacific
Northwest. He honed his skills in the University of North Texas’ jazz program
before moving to New York City and meeting up with Ali. He and his brother David
formed Coe Brothers Presents and worked very hard to make this show happen.
This kind of enthusiasm is what many older musicians find thrilling about the
evolution of the scene today, and Ali’s openness and excited support was clear.
As he explained to Modern Drummer magazine, “I’m rooting for the young
musicians, I’m rooting for the future, because I think this music has a future
and it’s about finding it.”
Initially the show at the Triple Door was pretty listening-intensive, and the
first two tunes required significant concentration on my part. As the set progressed,
though, the five musicians sounded like a cohesive unit, and at times like a single
instrument. Generally speaking, the structure of the tunes was pretty straightforward:
introduction > melody/hook > head/lyrics > individual solos from each member >
close. Each tune was fairly similar in that respect, though there may have been
some shuffling of parts. The solos were, of course, highly improvisatory and loosely
followed a new, or sometimes pre-established, structure. Starting to sound familiar?
Let’s take an example that I imagine most of us are more familiar with.
Photo by Anne Cline
The Grateful Dead's
"Fire On the Mountain." This song, and much of the Dead’s music, follows
a jazz oriented structure to a tee. Both Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia
were heavily influenced by John Coltrane’s seminal albums My Favorite Things,
Africa/Brass, and A Love Supreme, and Lesh later posited that
the Grateful Dead was more like a jazz band than a traditional rock band in
their approach to music. When Miles Davis and the Bitches Brew Band,
forerunners in jazz-fusion (jazz with a rock 'n' roll beat), opened for the
Grateful Dead at The
Fillmore in 1970, Lesh and Garcia recalled their embarrassment at being
the headlining band: “Ridiculous,” said Garcia; “Made me feel so dumb,”
Photo by Anne Cline
One of jazz’s biggest influences upon jam bands is a technique known as modal
playing. Instead of relying on a definite harmony played around a standard chord
progression, modal playing uses rhythmic space as a melodic structuring element,
emphasizing one scale, usually just a couple of chords – a major and a minor.
This way, a soloist isn’t locked into a chord progression and theoretically
has the freedom to play until all the notes have been exhausted. Miles Davis
and John Coltrane pioneered modal playing, essentially improvisatory jamming
over just a couple of chords. Think about the jams and the solos in “Fire On
The Mountain,” or “Wharf Rat,” “Eyes of the World,” or even “Viola Lee Blues”--lengthy
improvisations taking place over just two or three chords. Bluegrass music,
too, has a fair amount of modal playing and of course an improvisatory nature.
The Grateful Dead’s respect for the history of jazz and other styles of music
allowed them to take these intellectual components and wed them to a rock 'n'
roll backbeat with success still unmatched.
When the members of the Grateful Dead formulated their band’s vision, they
used Coltrane’s improvisatory ideas as a template. “It was the simplest thing
to do because you didn’t have to remember any chords,” said Lesh. Plus, members
of the Dead actually played many different styles of music, and gained a flavor
that you can’t get simply by listening or imitation. Many times jazz players
sat in with the Dead, saxophone players Branford Marsalis appear on Without
A Net, and Ornette Coleman and David Murray played with them many
times as well. Garcia played on Coleman’s album Virgin Beauty in 1988.
A while back Chris Littlefield explained to me his take on jazz as this,
“Jazz and soloing are about a language… It’s about understanding the function
of scales, chords, melody, harmony and rhythm at the same time and being proficient
enough to communicate that way.” The big picture is that Coltrane influenced
the musicians who later formed the Grateful Dead, who inadvertently influenced
every other jam band out there whether they know it or not; the Dead are jam
Photo by Anne Cline
Both the early and the late shows at the Triple Door were sold out, as were
the two nights the quintet had played in Portland, Oregon the two previous evenings.
Immediately giving credence to the ideas I’ve discussed, I noted a solid third
of the audience was under 30 years old. A red velvet curtain rose, exposing
the quintet against a black and fiber-optic lit screen, much like the ceiling
in New Orleans’ Saenger
Theatre. The set began with the Ravi Coltrane’s composition “For Zoe,” and
as the band took solos I noticed it seemed that every note played, and those
not played, seemed perfect--that this tune could not have been constructed
or played any other way. Of course with jazz or other improvisatory music, we
suspect the opposite is true, but it struck me as perfect. A tune called “Saturn”
from Rashied Ali and John Coltrane’s original album Interstellar Space
was played next. More emotive that many types of music, at times jazz sounds
to me like the repeated cycle of instrumental conflict and resolution. One moment
Workman would be furiously bowing at his impossibly large bass, the next you
could hear his calloused fingers traverse the strings. Notes, tone, and timing
often tell you more than words ever can.
With the beaming pride of a parent, Ali announced that he was renaming the
next tune “J Man,” after its composer, Jumanne Smith. The audience, filled with
friends and family, loved that, and it may have been the most blistering tune
of the evening. Sounding more elemental and aggressive than either of the previous
tunes, it was easier to follow, although complexity didn’t seem to be sacrificed.
The audience was becoming more vocal as the evening went along and many of the
graying jazzbos kept turning to look from whence the enthusiasm came, as though
their stern looks could hamper what was transpiring. Coltrane’s “Mr. PC” was
next, followed by “Night Dreamer” by Wayne Shorter, which closed the
run. The show was like a musical landscape, each tune a sight along the way,
the ebb and flow of the notes dotting it masterfully.
Photo by Anne Cline
So will jam bands be able to bridge the gap to jazz for a new generation? I’d
argue that unless artists go deep into the musical history of the American jazz
tradition and take the time to get comfortable, there will be a fundamental
communication gap. That’s not to say that music won’t be palatable, but the
integrity and quality of the craft are at stake. It’s similar to musicians educating
themselves in musical theory. The reason that the Rashied Ali Quintet show at
the Triple Door was so phenomenal is that the younger players have taken
the time to learn the history--standards, charts, scales and modes--and diligently
apply themselves to the craft of improvisatory composition. Chances are, artists
who have a pure love of music, learning styles new and old, have a far better
chance of creating something unique and meaningful than artists who think jamming
began with the Dead. It began with the freedoms taken by visionaries John Coltrane
and Miles Davis’ quartets and quintets in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It continued with
artists like the Grateful Dead, who brought jazz concepts to the mainstream.
Now it is in the capable hands of bands like Medeski
Martin & Wood, Garage
A Trois, and the Bad
Plus. It is these bands, among many others, that I now rely on to be the
soundtrack of my life, in the words of Mr. Copland, to “give it expressive meaning,”
and for that I am eternally grateful.
JamBase | Seattle
Go See Live Music!
» All About Jazz website: www.allaboutjazz.com
» Jazz website: www.jazz.com
» McNally, Dennis. “A Long strange Trip, The Inside History of the Grateful
Dead.” Broadway Books, New York. 2002
» Moses, Bob. “Rashied Ali, Mastery and Mystery,” Modern Drummer Magazine,
» Personal interview with Chris Littlefield, Summer 2003
» Rashied Ali Quintet Coe Brothers Presents press release
» Relix Magazine, Parting Shots, 2003