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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Far too many people associate jazz with elevator music. In truth, it is one of the most defining genres with an influence that still flows powerfully through the music we listen to today - except most of us probably don't know it. With the annual Dubai Jazz Festival coming up this week, now's as good a time as any to understand what the genre is all about.
"Jazz is about communication," says Dubai-based jazz guitarist Tadahiro Matsushita, who is actively involved in promoting jazz in the city. "If you listen to songs in any other genre, you get hooked after listening to it a couple of times, but with jazz, you're communicating with the song at various levels, because it involves improvisation. Every time you hear a song, you'll discover a new facet; you'll never get bored of listening to the same tune, unlike other genres. That's why jazz has that enduring appeal. Listen to a record from the '50s or '60s - it'll sound as fresh as ever," adds Matsushita, who runs the non-commercial Dubai Jazz Jam Session group and brings musicians together, while also playing mentor to new talent.
Guitarist-composer and producer Glenn Perry often shuttles between Dubai and the US to record his music and has collaborated with several notable American jazz musicians. According to him, jazz also enriches social diversity, because it allows people from different backgrounds to communicate and find common grounds to bond over.
"It's one of the most satisfying and fulfilling genres to indulge in. Different styles of jazz elevate different moods too - it can make you dance, groove, think or simply relax. Whether you are listening to the blues, swing, Dixieland, smooth jazz, vocal, bebop, fusion, or other interpretations, jazz is one of the most enjoyable and enriching styles of music to listen to, capable of expressing any emotion," explains Perry, who is also the founder and director of Dubai Music School.
Getting into the groove
At its core, jazz is based on a catchy melody or hook that forms the basis of the song. But, unlike classical music which relies on movements, jazz relies on solos and improvisations. A jazz composition can be broken down into bass line, melody, and harmony, followed by improvisations. The bassists drive the rhythms by providing the lower end of the sound spectrum; the drummer keeps the band together by holding on to the rhythm, while also breaking away to interact with other members of the band; and the guitarists and keyboardist interact with the bass and drums, and lay down the core structure of the song, before breaking off into solos and improvisations of their own.
If you're a newbie, the best way to get inducted into the genre is to listen to the greats - like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. For Dubai-based jazz and blues guitarist Tony de Souza, that's exactly how his love for jazz began. "It all began with my parents' record collection. Our house used to be littered with jazz albums from the glorious era of jazz: Nat King Cole, George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra," he says. Like Matsushita, de Souza is also what can be called a 'musical philanthropist', and is well-known among the local community for organising blues sessions with some jazz thrown in every now and then.
"Jazz is a wide field, and there are so many different styles to choose from. You could start with something mellow like Ella Fitzgerald or Aretha Franklin, and move on from there. You could also listen to Diana Ross's earlier blues recordings or Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Then you could attempt something more challenging, like Miles Davis, to develop your taste for the genre. Listening to Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong and artistes from the bebop era will help one get a deeper understanding of how the music has progressed over the years," says de Souza, who runs the Blues & Jazz Aficionados & Musicians non-commercial group.
While it's true that listening to records from the swing era (the 30s and 40s) will immediately transport one to what the genre was like in those early days, de Souza admits newcomers may perhaps find listening to contemporary recordings with influences of pop, rock, hip-hop, rap or funk easier on the ear. Pop artistes like Alicia Keys and Maroon 5 often pepper their songs with jazzy harmonies (think songs like Sunday Morning). "Canadian crooner Michael Bublé is another example of an artiste who's greatly responsible for keeping the music from the swing era alive with his jazz-pop renditions, which have a large following," adds de Souza.
'Jazz is an experience'
Interpreting jazz can seem daunting in the beginning. It's important to know that improvisation is the cornerstone of the genre and soloing, an essential component. Each instrument in the band usually take turns to solo in a song, including the vocalist, who scats while soloing - common in live settings, when a song is not restricted by time.
There is also an exciting segment during a live performance titled call-and-response. It involves two or more instruments playing counter melodies, often in tandem until they reach a crescendo only to return to the original tune. In live situations, a musician will mostly solo extempore because they are expressing emotions they feel at that moment. No two solos sound the same. Most compositions are rhythmic, and once you latch onto the groove, it's easy to immerse yourself into any tune.
Also, no two jazz musicians will play an instrument in the same manner. For instance, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, whose music defined the modern jazz era, both play the trumpet but their sound is distinctive. Crooners often improvise to change the dynamics in a song. One has to listen to different jazz recordings of the same song to know the difference. For instance, listen to Ella Fitzgerald belt out the timeless classic The Girl From Ipanema and then switch to Frank Sinatra's version; you'll notice how each singer has embellished the song by adding their feel.
"Jazz is the most musically expressive style of all," says Claudia Patrice, who sings at Marea, DIFC. "I love how the internet has opened up the perception of jazz. Today, the genre is all about fusion. Musicians have created a fresh sound and vibes to capture a new kind of audience who never thought that jazz could be so cool."
Dubai-based guitarist Boye Henry Durodola is also all praise. "The truth is: jazz has to be experienced, then only can one understand what it's all about. As a genre, it transcends music; it's a lifestyle. As a performer, it is very inclusive, in the sense that it makes us use all of the knowledge we've acquired in our respective musical journeys."
Perhaps no one has put it more simply and honestly than American upright bass player Christian McBride: "Make no mistake, this music is for everyone. Jazz is not an exclusive, elite club. Go ahead, listen to your Snoop Doggy Dog, Pearl Jam, Garth Brooks - but add a little Ellington, Basie and Coltrane to your life as well."
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