Saturday, September 6, 2014

Musicology: Chuck Berry Performs "C'est La Vie"



Before I get into the musicology, let me just say that this is just sick. The level of mastery in Mr. Berry's performance is something to gaze upon in wonder. Part of the mastery is in the rhythmic displacement displayed throughout, both instrumentally and vocally. This is where the musicology comes in.

It goes like this. I've always been baffled how early rock and roll was referred to as "be bop." Be bop is the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilliespie, and Thelonious Monk, right? Complex music: crazy harmonies, fast tempos, tricky time signatures, etc. From today's perspective, nothing could be farther apart than rock and jazz. Watching this video clip, it becomes so clear how jazz and rock and roll could at one time have been considered kin. In fact, Chuck's phrasing and chording could be said to be closer to jazz than rock. Except that some of the chords are sprayed with a dirty sound and the licks make you want get a little wiggle in your walk, as the Big Bopper put it in "Chantilly Lace." And as Chuck demonstrates throughout, the music gets to feeling so good to him that he's just got to move. His body and the music and the guitar are one. It's the wiggle that makes this something other than jazz.

And it's the wiggle that makes it rock and roll and as opposed to just rock. Rock basically makes you want jump up and down or slam into people. The roll puts the hip shakin' in there. In terms of allegiance to the roll, the Stones are unparalleled, and it's the absence of the roll that impoverishes music today. Even hip hop, which is groove and beat oriented, inspires more head bobbing than anything else. OK, there's the twerking, too.

Another jazz connection here is the presence of the Spanish tinge, the ingredient identified by Jelly Roll Morton as essential to jazz, especially as it developed in New Orleans.* The fact that the lyrics of  "C'est La Vie" explicitly reference New Orleans, shows that Mr. Berry knew what he was doing. Yes, the master always knew what he was doing.

For Chuck Berry listening, The Definitive Collection can't be beat.

* Maybe the tinge here is more "Caribbean" than Spanish, but it definitely owes to the Crescent City, which adds so much to the gumbo of American music.

UPDATE: 09-7-14

Listen closely to early Monk, and you can hear how the equation can be flipped. Known primarily for his angular melodies that were also weirdly hummable, rhythmically speaking Monk grooved like a mother, intensifying swing into a rock precursor. Case in point: the eighth note patterns beginning at around 1:22 in "Well You Needn't." And throughout, rhythmic displacement is the rule, just as with Berry's "C'est La Vie."

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