Arts & Leisure

By Gideon Isidro

Towards a deeper appreciation of jazz

Posted on August 02, 2016

THERE ARE many things that we like at the onset, but when we learn more about it, we get to enjoy it even more. For me, this was especially true for jazz, thanks to master classes offered during the Winds and Jazz: The CCP International Band Festival which was held this time around from July 26 to 31 at various venues at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

ROYAL HARTIGAN and Blood Drum Spirit conduct a master class as part of Winds and Jazz: The CCP International Band Festival.
For the last three jazz festivals, percussionist Royal Hartigan and his ensemble Blood Drum Spirit -- composed of bassist Wes Brown, saxophonist David Bindman, and pianist Art Hirahara -- were among the lecturers at the offered master classes. At the first festival, he discussed the history of jazz and its next-of-kin genres.

Blood Drum Spirit would hold lectures about a musical movement during the day; and in the evening, would play the music of that movement’s era. Going through the course felt like going through a time machine, seeing the growth of jazz into all its various forms.

They traced jazz back all the way to Africa, where, unlike the Western tradition of music, there was a heavier exploration of rhythm. There was also an emphasis on singing and on music being a communal -- instead of just a performance -- art.

This musical tradition was brought to America through the African slave trade, and as time passed, African-Americans began fusing Western Traditions of music into their repertoire: incorporating the choir tradition created the Spirituals (from which we can trace Gospel music); using Western instruments like the piano and upright bass resulted in Ragtime. The African-Americans also created Blues at about the same time, which was the precursor for Country, and eventually Rock music.

When African-Americans started playing orchestral instruments, the music took on a more modern sound, and the early forms of Jazz were born. Like its ancestral counterpart, Jazz continued to be communal music: people danced to it, creating the Swing. The interactive nature of the music also created Free Jazz which involves a lot of improvisation among band members.

Blood Drum Spirit returned for this year’s festival and again held a master class.

Last week, they returned to the African Tradition, giving a detailed look into the music of the Asante people of West Central Ghana. Blood Drum Spirit opened the floor by playing “Abduwa” or “deer” in the local language. I found the music reminiscent of the old MGM cartoons which used jazz as its background music. I got lost in the music; there were so many beats, I couldn’t find which to hold on to.

After playing, Blood Drum Spirit explained what was going on. Mr. Hartigan asked the audience to pick up some African instruments they had brought -- metal bells of different sizes -- and asked the attendees one by one to play individual beat patterns with the bells. Little by little, we heard the music they had just played come to life. Mr. Hartigan then proceeded to demonstrate all the beats we just played simultaneously through the drum set.

He explained “just having another pattern adds another layer of time.” It occurred to me that the multiple beats were like a tasty medley of different flavors popping in your tongue at the same time -- delicious!

All of this complication can confuse even the professionals -- band member David Bindman said: “Sometimes I do get lost, and ask... ‘Hey, where’s the downbeat?’ That’s when I stop for a while and try to find out where we are in the music. Then I start playing again.”

Blood Drum Spirit also explored the topic of improvisation. Mr. Hartigan explained that improvisation is not just found in jazz, and is actually in other musical traditions, “In an orchestra, the base content is set,” he said, referring to what music will be played and what instruments will be used, “but the emphasis and nuances depend on the conductor. Here it’s the same thing -- we don’t play just anything: we have a base content of music, but we play it a little differently depending on how we feel at the moment. The music always changes, because we always change. What we feel now is not the same way we felt yesterday; who we were 40 minutes ago is not the same as who we are right now.”

There is a need for improvisation in jazz music. “We can play the same stuff the same way all the same time, but that’s not our goal here,” said Mr. Hartigan. “We need to bring the music to a place where our spirits can talk. We all want technique in playing, but it’s not enough. We bring it to somewhere new.”

To make improvisation clearer, class participants had been asked to bring our own instruments and play with Blood Drum Spirit. While the percussions, the piano, and bass were playing in the background, Mr. Bindman told some Classical brass players who were in the class to play the D-minor scale. We found that it actually sounded good with the music. He then asked us, one by one, to improvise -- that is, to play solos with any notes along the D-minor scale. I was surprised that even though the class members came from a Classical music background, we were able to make beautiful music that blended into a jazz song.

After the master classes, I watched Blood Drum Spirit play on stage again. I understood what was going on when they were playing, and I’d say I enjoyed it twice as much as I would have without having taken the master classes.

I have written about just one of the many talented artists who taught and played during the festival. Whether a jazz artist or a jazz enthusiast, it is definitely worth the effort to set aside some time and take the classes offered during the festival -- you will learn something new and be able to have a deeper appreciation of this tradition of music. I am already looking forward to the next Jazz Festival at the CCP.