Monday, February 11, 2013

Just a minute

In fiction writing, a scene typically lasts a half page to a page and a half -- in reading time, 30 to 90 seconds. Even if the setting remains for longer than that, it's broken into sub-scenes -- each a complete figure of conflict, action, and resolution -- that fit the 30-to-90 boundary.

The bugaboo that arises if the scene extends too long most often is defined as the sagging middle. The action isn't active enough. It sags into redundancies or loiters aimlessly.

Music's the same. A pop song might have a verse, a bridge, a chorus, a verse, a middle eight, a verse and a chorus. Six or seven movements in two to four minutes. Each has to stand on its own, within the rise-and-fall arc of the overall song.

So how do jam bands or jazz combos pull off 12-minute excursions that prolong each verse, chorus, or bridge? Not well usually. Often, story-telling sags into vague noodling. But over the weekend, I saw two examples of tight groups adhering to the rules even while expanding well past the four-minute mark.

On Sunday night at SFJazz, bassist Dave Holland led his Prism fusion quartet through six compositions that averaged 12 minutes. I don't know, but I would guess they followed typical 32-bar segmenting, or in some cases doubled 12-bar blues breaks. Think one second per bar, so the idea is to chop things into 32-second or 24-second segments, which fits the low end of the fiction-scene scheme. The first complication that arises in extended pieces is that a 32-bar verse might be repeated twice or three times in a row. Now you're at the high end of a fiction scene, where the sagging middle starts to be prevalent. And there's a further complication in the rules of fusion established forty-plus years ago by Miles Davis: chord changes don't push the story every one to four bars, but can be delayed for eight bars, or 16, or the chord can remain for all 32.

So how did these long, minimalist compositions hold my interest like a 3-minute pop song? They did. I think a key was guitarist Kevin Eubanks' 15-year apprenticeship as the house band leader for the Tonight Show. From 1995 to 2010 Eubanks interrupted a jazz career that had established him as a master of serious jazz with lightning chops and deep composition credits. Twelve-minute songs. But for five nights a week, he zinged out four- or eight- or at most 16-bar flurries of recognizable melodies and flashy pyrotechnics.  His improvisational work with Prism was the melodic centerpiece last night, and much of his storytelling urgency seemed to be supported by his capacity for finding rock-star riffs to punctuate his extended stories with mini-stories -- which part was the counterpoint? -- that boosted the tension and helped it rise and fall.

Prism's encore was a relatively brisk seven minutes, but to my mind it might have been two minutes, it felt so economical and simply resolved.

In the clip below, notice at the beginning how Eubanks duets with Holland as if his guitar is a bass, glissing and letting plucked strings extend. Then in the last third, Eubanks adds the world of Jimmy Page and riff blues. Prism was in a fiery, celebratory mood last night, and the piece sounded less abstract than this version. But maybe that was just the intensity of being there live.

The night before, I danced at Brick and Mortar to the rock jam band New Monsoon. Like Eubanks, lead guitarist Jeff Miller can be pyrotechnical and dazzling. Like Eubanks, he keeps his ear to great riff rock that grounds and accentuates his storytelling. And like Eubanks, he finds himself telling a new story every 30 to 90 seconds.

New Monsoon surfaced 15 years ago as eclectics who added tablas, raga harmonics, a didgeridoo, timbales, and Cuban rhythms to the Grateful Dead ancestry that all jam bands descend from. Saturday night, they kept it stripped down to the rock and roll that they were steeped in growing up. They closed their first set with a nearly note-by-note reconstruction of Hendrix's Fire.

Hearing Eubanks hearken Led Zeppelin, it made me think that it was no accident that Hendrix exploded onto the scene in London. The simple, thudding, hormonal riffs in British Blues -- Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Stones, Who, Cream, and Hendrix, too -- were their own thing. Charlie Parker reached into his youth and curved himself around I Got Rhythm. When Dave Holland was a kid in England, British Blues was on the radio. No wonder it returns to ground his new music. And it wasn't hard to find the Neil Young and Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers of their youth in New Monsoon's driving, riff-loving soliloquies.

Here's New Monsoon a few years back, when raga themes served the same grounding purpose.