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With jazz, less is more

With jazz, less is more

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Had he not been born 400 years before jazz first swung across America, he might well have been referring to its greatest players. Consider, for example, the best-selling jazz album, ever: Kind of Blue. At the age of 32, Miles Davis invited his sextet to New York City’s 30th Street Studio to introduce them – and the world – to a new way of improvising.

Steering away from the intricate harmonies of hard bop, Davis wanted to strip jazz back, to distil it down to its purest essence. When his band members arrived, he handed them pieces of paper on which were written mere sketches: scales, melodic lines, frameworks. It was from these, rather than chords, that they would improvise.

In the liner notes, pianist Bill Evans describes Davis’s ideas as “exquisite in their simplicity”. Without any rehearsal, and over the course of just two days, Kind of Blue was laid down. Since its release on August 17, 1959, between 4.5 and 5 million copies have been sold. Only Louis Armstrong’s sales come anywhere close.

A revolutionary movement in music

The economy of Davis’s approach inspired unadulterated spontaneity and discovery. “When you go this way, you can go on forever,” he said in an interview with writer Nat Hentoff. “It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be . . . I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional strong of chords . . . there will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

Indeed, ‘modality’ – the technical term for this ingenious improvisation strategy – influenced a myriad of later albums and artists: not only in jazz, but in pop, rock and classical music, too. It is impossible to imagine Coltrane’s My Favourite Things without it, while Pink Floyd cited its impact on The Dark Side of the Moon. ‘[Kind of Blue] is like the Bible – you just have one in your house,’ quipped famous rapper Q-Tip in 2008 documentary Celebrating a Masterpiece: Kind of Blue.

The old influences the new: Ramsey Lewis, Bobby Ricketts and George Benson

Miles Davis is certainly not the only jazz icon to have recognised that the best music is often the least complex. Renowned bassist Charles Mingus once said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”. And, for saxophonist Paul Desmond, who worked with Dave Brubeck, it was crucial. “The qualities in music that I considered most important – and still do – were beauty, simplicity, originality, discrimination and sincerity,” he explained.

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”, Charles Mingus

Today’s jazz giants continue to build on this legacy. Three of the most prominent are pianist Ramsey Lewis, saxophonist Bobby Ricketts and guitarist George Benson. For them, music is not only about creating compelling compositions and unearthing new ways to play, but also about performing with sincerity, and awe-inspiring effortlessness.

Lewis, who was born in Chicago in 1935, has recognised the importance of communicating honestly since he was a child. “I started playing for our Church at nine years old and the whole idea of African American Church is that if the music doesn’t reach out and touch the parishioners, you ain’t done nothin’ yet – if you know what I’m saying,” he says. “That just became a part of my being at nine years old and when I started playing jazz it remained; you gotta reach out and touch.”

Since then, the phenomenal pianist has recorded more than eighty albums, won numerous Grammy Awards and released several hits, including ‘The In Crowd’, ‘Hang on Sloopy’ and ‘Wade in the Water’. More recently, his legacy has been demonstrated on a specially curated album. Titled A Simple Discovery, it’s the fourth CD in a series produced by Aberdeen in association with Jazz FM. Over the course of ten songs, Lewis carries the listener on a sonic adventure through his career, journeying into the realms of jazz, funk, soul and New Orleans. Moving between the gorgeous tones of a Steinway and the undeniably cool sounds of a Fender Rhodes, he includes a selection of his own tunes, as well as a couple of classics from the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Stylistics. There’s also the smash hit ‘Sun Goddess’, featuring Earth, Wind and Fire.

It only takes a few notes to write a great song

Given their popular and intellectual appeal, it is surprising that so many of Lewis’s compositions are based on just a few notes. “Ideas come to me almost all the time,” he explains, “as I’m practising – not only scales and arpeggios, I pull out Chopin, Bach and other classical music – and . . . a light goes on. Two or three notes of Bach or three or four notes of Chopin make me think, God, those four notes are great, and there I go; there’s a whole song in those three or four notes.”

Prolific saxophonist Bobby Ricketts, who is also an international star, understands. He recently took a moment out from his incredibly hectic schedule to compose a track especially for Aberdeen. Titled ‘Discovery’, it is an infectious, dynamic tune based around ¬a handful of beautifully composed motifs, in which jazz and classical influences combine. “[It is] much like an explorer sailing on a journey toward the discovery of new worlds, until the musical expedition ends with the ship returning safely to harbour at its home port,” Ricketts says.

Effortless virtuosity

In addition to their radically straightforward yet stunning compositions, Lewis, Ricketts and Benson are also famous for their effortless performances. They make virtuosity seem easy. Logic tells us that there must be hours and hours of practice behind Benson’s supersonic playing speeds. After all, he has been performing since he was seven and holds no fewer than ten Grammy Awards. However, watching him in action, it is not difficult to imagine that he was born with fret boards attached to his fingertips; either that, or he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.

According to Benson, it is all about heart. “I felt every moment of it,” he explains, discussing his album Inspiration with All About Jazz. “You can't put together a record like this without putting your heart into it. I got that from Nat King Cole. He put his heart into everything he did.” Lewis expresses a similar sentiment. “I think [it’s] the love of piano, the love of playing the piano and the love of music in general, along with the love of communicating my music to people,” he says.

So, even though jazz musicians may sometimes have a reputation for over-complicating matters, the truth is that the music’s best-respected figures are those who understand the power of simplicity. It was this insight that made Kind of Blue such a magnetic album and that continues to inform the world’s leading players today. Like Davis himself said, “I always listen to what I can leave out”.