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