An Informal Forum

Paul Combs and Ray DeMarco at Rye Public Library

Last month's Jazz at the Library feature with Paul Combs and Ray DeMarco was a resounding success. We needed extra chairs to accommodate the crowd.

You might have thought from the title, "Listening for Form in Jazz," that this show might be a little daunting, but Paul put everyone at ease. "You don't need to know scales, be able to read music, rhythms, didn't have to go to a conservatory or anything to understand this. If you listen to music, you can follow everything that we're going to say today. This will enhance your enjoyment of what you already enjoy very much."

He then rearranged the chairs at the front of the room to illustrate the "square" forms he and Ray would cover. For example, the Duke's "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" is in A-A-B-A form - an eight-bar phrase which is repeated, a third eight-bar phrase wich is different (the "bridge"), and the first eight bars again. Lyrically, the bridge is the part that goes "Makes no difference if it's sweet or hot, give that rhythm everything you've got" and each of the "A" phrases ends with a touch of scat. "When it's all over," he said, "it sits in your mind as a shape, and you the listener can hang onto that. And then you start to understand why this player stopped playing and that one started playing, and why these people did what they did and everybody else came in together."

Ray amplified the point by recounting an occasion over 20 years ago, when he attended a jam session where Charlie Jennison played. "It was amazing to me," he said, "That somebody could just be soloing and going crazy and Charlie always knew where they were. So I asked him, and his answer surprised me at the time. He said, ‘I hum the melody in my head.'"

"I said, ‘Doesn't that make it difficult to listen to their solo?'"

"He just said, ‘Well...'"

"But I think that for a listener, to hum the melody in your head makes it interesting to listen to the solo. At any point in the song you're relating to what their doing. Also, the melody keeps you in the form."

Paul and Ray also covered what Paul likes to call the two-endings form, A-B-A-C, and the twelve- bar blues. For some purists this is the only blues form, but Paul likes "to define ‘blues' as an attitude and a tradition." This allows for many variations to fit within the form, including early rock 'n' roll.

The afternoon was filled with wonderful live playing by the duo illustrating how musicians are able to carry on a "conversation" back and forth and still respect te architecture of the song. Recorded examples demonstrated some of the more elaborate variety that can be achieved within the forms to the point that the form itself can become almost invisible. But by listening "into" the performance, we in the audience find more to enjoy with each new performance.

-Henry Belot, Seacoast Jazz, April 2001