Wednesday, August 5, 2009

AccuJazz News: Roll-Out Continues With "Mellow Jazz"

This week's new channel, Mellow Jazz, celebrates the softer side of jazz. It's not just about mood music, though it probably would make a pretty tasteful soundtrack to your next dinner party. It's about showcasing the sometimes-overlooked art of the jazz ballad.

A little perspective: throughout jazz history, jazz has mainly been defined by explosive, infectious rhythms. It wasn't any sort of new harmonic concept or innovative instrumentation that was so exciting about the early New Orleans jazz bands; it was their syncopated, "hot" rhythms that set them apart. Even most of the subsequent innovations in jazz had rhythmic experiments at their core: Latin jazz with its imported Cuban and Brazilian beats, bebop with its faster tempos and super-syncopated melodies, free jazz with its abstraction of rhythm, and fusion with its brazen back beats and odd time signatures.

BUT: there's a flip side to all this rhythm-centric development in jazz: the soul-searching, romantic jazz ballad. Now, of course rhythm still plays a role in ballads, but it's usually not the main event (There are some exceptions: when the Oscar Peterson would play ballads, they were effectively saying: "Hey, we can play at half your tempo and still swing twice as hard!").

With the slowing down of tempos and stretching out of harmonic and melodic motion, there is more room for nuance and less chances to hide behind empty technique. The performer is challenged to use the open rhythmic space to tell a story, not just play notes.

Early masters of the lyrical ballad include Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, and virtually all jazz musicians include ballads as a portion of their repertoire. Even Ornette Coleman did "Embraceable You" on his classic LP, "This is Our Music." With so many jazz musicians to choose from, the Mellow Jazz playlist end up being much less monotonous than you'd think: there's the sensous bossa nova of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, the ornate pianism of Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, big band ballads by Basie and Ellington, and romantic vocals from Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves and more. Some of the expansive modern music often labeled as "ECM jazz" even makes the cut, making for an often relaxing, but always interesting listening experience.

Go ahead and give it a listen, then let me know what you think. Also, let me know how it works as the soundtrack to your next dinner party or makeout session.

Next week: Decade: '90s.


  1. I like to spin the mellow stuff late at night while reading. Favorites are Charlie Haden's sublime Night and the City, and the wonderful duets of Houston Person and Ron Carter.

  2. Tim,

    Sorry I just now noticed your comment. We don't have either of those discs; I'll have to try and change that! Thanks for the tips (and for the comment).