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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Death of the Fast Tempo?

For various reasons I’ve been listening to lots of concerts by very good young musicians recently – mostly performance exams at my school and another. In all I’d estimate I’ve heard forty eight sets of music over the past four weeks or so. Allowing about forty minutes per set, that’s about thirty two hours of music. Thirty two hours of music played by some very high level young improvising musicians, all of whom were given carte blanche to present any kind of music they liked, in any style or genre of improvised music. During the course of these thirty two hours I heard a myriad of approaches and influences and there were many interesting things to hear. But what really struck me was that during those thirty two hours of music, presented by forty different young musicians, I heard maybe five pieces that could in any way be described as ‘fast’.

This is something I’ve noticed over recent years, the moving away (very slowly!) from the playing of fast tempos by young musicians. It’s hard to know why this is, or whether there’s one reason for it, or many reasons, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the playing of fast tempos in contemporary jazz has greatly decreased over the past fifteen years or so.

The Bebop era put fast tempos on the map – of course people had played fast before that – Art Tatum most notably, but the idea of a whole band playing at 300+BPM only became commonplace after 1940 and was the weapon of choice of the young bebop musicians when they wanted to show off their virtuosity or wanted to see off the competition. In the end it wasn’t just note choices or rhythmic feel that differentiated the swing era musicians from the post-Parker guys – it was also the sheer speed at which the newer music was often played. Most of the swing era guys couldn’t live with the pace, and they often got their retaliation in first by claiming that the music was all empty virtuosity, while the bebop guys derided the lack of ability of the older musicians to keep up.

When Hard Bop evolved in the early to mid-50s, the incredibly fast tempos of the bebop era were not as commonplace in that they didn't automatically feature, but they were still a feature of the contemporary jazz landscape as shown by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach recording of Cherokee taken at a sprightly 360BPM

Other hard bop giants also investigated breakneck tempos - Coltrane for example on 'Soft Lights and Sweet Music' and 'Countdown', Sonny Rollins on 'The Bridge' and here, even earlier, taken from 'Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders', he playes 'The Song is You' at an extraordinary 420 BPM

Heading into the 60s, Miles Davis, not someone noted for his love of fast playing though he must have experienced it many times in his years with Parker, embraced frenetic tempos when he put together the young and impetuous rhythm section of Hancock, Carter and Williams who were fearless when it came to fast tempos. Fronted by Davis and a succession of virtuoso tenor players - George Coleman, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter - the band took a delight in live performance of playing sometimes almost impossible tempos. Four and More the group's first live album is testament to this with one blistering piece after another being played in a seemingly effortless way. 'Walkin' is a great example of this - they start at an incredibly fast tempo and then rush!

Although that other great figure of the 60s - John Coltrane - didn't revisit the fast tempos of his 'Sheets of Sound' period, the tradition remained in the music and resurfaced with a vengeance in what was then known as 'Jazz-Rock' (and is now known as fusion). Of the big four of this period - Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Chick Corea and John Mclaughlin - Corea and McLaughlin in particular regularly used very fast tempos in their pieces revelling in their virtuosity. McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra became particularly well known for this and 'One Word' from the seminal Birds of Fire album is a classic example of how well and easily they could play very fast pieces.

Into the 80s and the tradition lives on both in the performances of traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis and in more forward thinking players such as Dave Holland and Steve Coleman whose Change The Guard became an underground classic of its kind.

Then came the 90s and................... the playing of fast tempos began to slowly become less and less common as the music changed, moving largely away from the swing idiom and more into the realm of straight 8s. Of course there was still swing playing going on and there were people still playing tunes very fast, but less and less of them. And in the mid 2000s I began to notice that young musicians almost never played pieces at tempos much over 180 BPM. What they considered fast I, and colleagues of the same age, would consider to be bright medium. I know when I was young, myself and my musician friends would practice like crazy to be able to play fast, knowing it would be expected of us in certain situations. Now young musicians seem to rarely be interested in this part of the tempo spectrum.

So why did this come about? Why has the playing of tempos faster than 250 BPM become a rarity among young musicians? It could be for a number of reasons, but I think one of the main reasons is that the (non-jazz) music they like to listen to, and are influenced by, is not generally music that is played at fast tempos. In general very little rock music is played very fast and a huge amount of music even within the jazz idiom of the past 15 years, tends to be of a medium straight 8s nature. So the playing of fast tempos is just not heard much anymore and it’s hard for young musicians to have many role models for this kind of playing. The situation is probably a little different in the US than in Europe where the swing idiom, from which the very fast tempo tradition comes, is more deeply embedded in the musical culture. Though having said that, it’s arguable as to how much a piece is truly swinging when it gets above a certain speed - the sheer velocity of the notes tends to straighten the rhythms out.

I think it’s a shame to see this tradition die out in jazz for several reasons, the main one being that a whole part of the tempo range is being ignored and forgotten. For my money I get very tired of the narrow tempo range within which musicians often operate these days - tune after tune at nearly the same tempo or pretty close. And I think it’s a mistake to think that just changing the atmosphere or feel of pieces are by themselves a guarantor of variety in the listener’s ear. Of course musicians are often guilty of thinking that regular audience members hear the kind of detail they, (the musicians) do - believing that the audience will be wowed by a 7/4 meter, or a reharmonisation of a standard chord progression. Audiences rarely recognise these kinds of subtleties, but one thing they do notice are tempos – slow-fast-medium – these are things that are real to non-musicians, in the same way that loud and quiet are, and musicians need to be aware of what creates the most impact on an audience when setting out to create the architecture of a piece of music or of a set.

Another reason to play fast tempos is because it feels different! There’s a feeling you get when playing a really fast piece – a sense of onrushing excitement, like driving a fast car – that you can’t get from any other tempo. It’s very demanding, (perhaps another reason many people shy away from it), and to negotiate a piece at a very fast tempo you need to be almost thinking in slow motion while physically playing very fast – you need to perceive the space between the beats despite the fact that they are flying past. You need to be very physically and mentally relaxed to play fast and you need to combine that with stamina. (Lack of stamina may be another reason for the lack of prevalence of fast tempos too – in earlier times with the plethora of gigs that musicians played it was easier to build up your physical stamina than it is in the current scene with its shorter tours and more sporadic gigs). Playing fast is often derided as being shallow and mere display – and of course it can be. But it can also be very creative and at its best can create a sense of exhilaration that you can’t get playing at any other tempo.

As an experiment, take any 10 albums you’ve bought that have been recorded in the past 10 years, and see how many genuinely fast tunes there are on it – allowing 280 BPM as being the very lower limit of what can be considered ‘fast’. If you manage to find more than 5 pieces on those ten albums then you’re definitely listening to different music than I am – and if you do find those pieces, please let me know!

To finish, here’s Miles band in 1967 tearing up ‘Walking’ at speed. Speed thrills!