Take five and all that jazz


Photo of sax player by Konstantin Aal www.unsplash.com

Warwick’s annual Jumpers and Jazz festival took me back to a day at the dentist in Maleny. I was lying prone, mouth jammed with all sorts of stuff. Soft, melodic saxophone music drifted down from the ceiling (with the poster of the Blue Mountains).
“Than Gltz?” I garbled.
Roger removed the suction hose “What’s that now?”
“Is that Stan Getz?”
“No, but good guess,” he said, replacing the suction hose.
“What’s your best guess?”
“Chrli Prker,” I choked out.
“No, not Charlie Parker – it’s Paul Desmond.”
“Ach, Dve bubck!” I replied and the conversation went on like that.

People who know I write songs often take a stab at my influences – is it Paul Kelly, Loudon Wainwright, Joni? Well, yes, but my first musical interest as a teenager (15) was jazz. Somewhere (probably in a box in the garage), are six Dave Brubeck quartet LPs. I have promised to will all such albums to my jazz-mad niece.

After I emerged from a childhood of listening to my parents’ records (classical, Scottish, opera) I discovered jazz.
First was pianist Phineas Newborn Jnr, who was famous for playing entire pieces with just the left hand. Then came the Modern Jazz Quartet, Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and so on. Then I discovered blues. But before I could truly get immersed in waking up one morning (with an awful aching head..Ed), along came the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Dave Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond pioneered jazz in unconventional timings, headlined of course by the remarkable Take Five (1959). Despite the dire misgivings of his record company’s sales force at the time, Brubeck insisted it be released and was rewarded with an unlikely No 1 hit. In 1961, singer Carmen McRae also sang a version of Paul Desmond’s composition on the album Take Five Live. Ah, you didn’t know it had words, did you?

Take Five is a nod to the unconventional tempo of 5/4 (five beats to the measure), which means your drummer has to be masterful). Brubeck was interviewed in 1995 by Paul Zollo in his 730-page book, Songwriters on Songwriting. My well-thumbed copy reveals Brubeck telling Zollo how the record company’s sales people tried to cut Take Five off at the knees. They said it would not work because it wasn’t in 4/4 and people couldn’t dance to it. Moreover, they baulked at Brubeck’s album Time Out because it was all original tunes in odd time signatures.
“So I was breaking a whole bunch of rules. And then the album turned out to be the strongest selling album in years. So they were wrong!” he told Zollo.
“It’s still the most played jazz tune, maybe in the world.”
A few film makers agreed.Take Five was also used in movies including Mighty Aphrodite and Pleasantville.

Brubeck and Desmond may have pioneered 5/4 in popular music, but others picked up on it, namely film composer Lalo Schifrin. His thematic introduction to Mission Impossible is impossible, once heard, to remove from the ear. There are many others. Musician Dylan Ryche curated a Spotify playist of 48 songs in 5/4 dubbed – ‘Why not?’
Here you will find songs by Taylor Swift, Sting, Glenn Hansard, Jethro Tull, Radiohead, Sky, Blind Faith, Primus and that Andrew Lloyd Webber earworm from Jesus Christ Superstar, ‘Everything’s Alright’.
I’m not convinced that listening to multiple songs in 5/4 counts as entertainment, but the playlist shows that imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

My personal favourite 5/4 composition is multi instrumentalist and beatboxer Mal Webb’s re-creation of Geoff Mack’s Australian country standard, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’. This required him to find 67 Australian place names with five syllables, in itself a giant task. You may have bumped in to Mal leading workshops or impromptu brass bands when we used to have big music festivals.

So last week when I was out walking along Warwick’s main street, I could hear Blue Rondo a la Turk (Brubeck), streaming out of speakers attached to street light poles.
Warwick’s Jumper and Jazz festival kicked off last Wednesday with volunteers dressing street trees in the ‘yarn bombing’ style. The statue of one-time Queensland Premier T.J Byrnes in the town’s main intersection was dressed in a multi-coloured shawl and beanie. A stage was erected in front of the town hall and jazz performers started doing their soundchecks. Jazz, as you’d know, don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
But musicians should never really be boxed in to any one genre. Just as rock bands relish the solos (lead guitar, drums, bass), so too jazz musicians will cheerfully improvise for 20 minutes or more.
If you have never heard of Miles Davis, have a listen on Spotify – you will be astonished. I have two Miles Davis albums, the 1959 album Kind of Blue, which contained the aforementioned So What – a classic modal jazz tune. In 1970 or so I bought the double LP, Bitches Brew which runs for 94 minutes but contains only six tracks. It is not easy listening (but it’s yours eventually, dear niece!)

Meanwhile, close to the wood stove
I’ve been trying to avoid using the word ‘meanwhile’ when I want to move on to something else. So this time I will say, in due course, we (the acapella choir, East Street Singers), contributed to the jazz festival. Jumpers and Jazz was not held in 2020 so this year it’s been a case of blowing the dust off the songbooks which contain tunes you’d all know – Bill Bailey, Chatanooga Choo Choo, Five Foot Two and so on. There are some pretty melodies in there by real composers (as opposed to self-taught songwriters). They include The Way You Look Tonight, Moon River and Blue Moon. Some of us have been on a steep learning curve for today’s shopping centre gig, but we have a really good teacher, Jill Hulme, who also arranged some of the songs.
The various Jumpers and Jazz activities, including live music, art exhibitions, tree jumpers tours, sheep dog trials, car rallies and steam train excursions, have drawn a lot of visitors to the town. Because we are outside the Greater Brisbane Covid zone we feel less constrained in crowds, although quite a few people are wearing masks.

While spending this week committing jazz songs to memory, I realised how seldom I use unconventional timing in my own songs.
Most are in 4/4, some in 3/4 (waltz time), 2/4 (think bluegrass) and occasionally 6/8 which is like a speeded up waltz.
Our bush band occasionally required me to to play jigs in 9/8 (Rocky Road to Dublin, Blue Rondo a la Turk), but in the main I avoid tricky timings.
I should have said it is not a new concept – classical composers like Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Mr Bach have been confounding conductors since the 19th century with various tempo changes. Celtic and eastern European musicians also relish dance tunes in odd time signatures.
So here’s one you all know – Pink Floyd’s Money (from Dark Side of the Moon). Now you can impress your friends by saying (learnedly) “that’s in 7/4, you know?”
Which reminds me of the time a musician friend posted a meme on Facebook, as a response to people complaining about the (Covid) times we live in.
“These are not difficult times”, it said “ 5/4,5/8 6/8,7/8 9/8,11/8 and 13/8…these are difficult times.”

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