Music Needs Punctuation Too

A few weeks we saw Ravi Coltrane perform at in Berklee Performance Center in Boston's Back Bay. They came out full blast, like it was already the middle of the song or the set. That was pretty cool. A definite aesthetic gambit. Ravi was playing long, unbroken lines on his tenor as the rhythm section boiled underneath. The trouble was they kind of stayed in that spot. As I mentioned to my friend after the set, they didn't leave enough breathing spaces in the sound to help the audience find a way in, didn't play enough clearly defined riffs or motifs to give us something to hang our hats on. So the set, while decent, never really took off.

I recalled this when I was reading the latest JazzTimes and came across an excellent feature on what blues and R&B players can teach jazz players. The great tenor man Pee Wee Ellis recalled what he learned playing with James Brown:
One time James Brown came in with the lyrics for "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," and I just ran with it. I came up with that bass line, and that horn line was a little teedle-dee-dee, and he came up with the answer to the horns" "bomp-de-bomp." He was very big on punctuation. He called them "hits."

This was the punctuation that allowed the music to make sense. This is as important in music as in writing a paragraph. You need the commas and periods; otherwise it's just a stream of consciousness. You need to break that up into sentences. You have to take a chance and use your instincts as to where to put the punctuation.
Tenor player Ron Holloway, who I'm familiar with through his work with the late Gil Scott-Heron, added:
When you're cursing someone out, you're not rambling on or showing off your college vocabulary. You're being blunt and using short sentences with pauses for the message to sink in. It's the same in music. To play that kind of blues and R&B phrasing, the more percussive approach, you have to be thinking in those terms. If you are thinking in terms of long phrases of 8th and 16th notes, you can't do it. If you're thinking in terms of fewer notes and a bigger sound you can.
You know who really used space well to swing like hell? The dear departed master, B. B. King. In jazz, the master was Miles Davis. Each phrase he played was clearly defined, with space surrounding it to let the "message sink in" and give the rhythm section a chance to respond and join the conversation. Even when a Miles solo is less than perfect, I find myself hanging on every word. Now, maybe that solo seems less than perfect since the way Miles plays allows you to comprehend and make a judgment on what's being said. It takes some nerve to do that. There's a reason the big city con artist is known as a "fast talker." The last thing they want is to be understood.

All this being said, there's a place for the long-winded approach to the arts. Cormac McCarthy, a master of fiction, actually prefers to use very little punctuation. It's a conscious decision, proximity to the dread run-on sentence notwithstanding.  Of course, Ravi's father, John, was famous for his "sheets of sound" and long, long solos. Again, a conscious aesthetic choice. But if you really want to reach people, especially in a live setting, punctuation and breathing room rules.

The performance above is from Miles' classic quintet from the 50s. Miles' opening solo is a marvel of definition, and, to my ears, riveting. And Trane actually leaves a lot of space in his solo, since it wasn't the 60s yet. The Red Garland piano solo is the quintessence of swing. And dig the drumming from Philly Joe Jones in the out-choruses -- as well as the punctuation marks he provides throughout.


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