In his biography of Debussy, Eric Frederick Jensen records a conversation between the great pianist and composer and his friend and mentor Ernest Giraud. Debussy plays a series of intervals on the piano – notated in the book as impossible-to-parse mix of apparently random clusters and wider leaps – and Giraud asks him what they are. “Incomplete chords, floating” replies Debussy, “One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door”. Giraud replies by playing a simple diatonic progression that suggests A minor and asks “Do you find this lovely?” – Debussy enthusiastically assents, and Giraud then plays another progression – a series of 3rd inversion major triads descending in whole steps. “How would you get out of this?” he asks Debussy. “I’m not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd”. To which Debussy replies “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”
This last statement is a wonderful piece of fin-de-siecle aestheticism worthy of Oscar Wilde, prefiguring the kind of statement made by self-consciously decadent Edwardians like Aleister ‘Do what thou wilt’ Crowley and revived to varying emancipatory effect in the swinging sixties (guys generally benefitted more than gals). Let’s link this specifically to jazz: Debussy was ahead of his time in many ways, including as the recipient of one of the earliest ever colostomy operations, and his search for open doors led him to an investigation into early forms of African-American music. He was not unique in this: awareness of African-American music was part of the cultural repertoire of the Belle Epoque. The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Europe in 1873 to wide acclaim and even got a gig performing to Queen Victoria, and Dvorak studied with Harry T Burleigh and, after the latter played him Go Down Moses, famously declared “Why, this is as great as a Beethoven theme!” Though the terms of Debussy’s engagement may now seem problematical (Golliwog’s Cakewalk contains a package of condescending attitudes along with its brilliant musicality), his desire to travel where he wished and search for new doors nonetheless instigated a dialogue between the worlds of classical and jazz that has continued, often uneasily, ever since.
Jazz, it is generally agreed, arose from a conjunction of folk and popular commercial forms. Early recordings from the likes of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith document how the syncopations and microtonal ambiguities of the blues were adapted to fit into the orderly front parlour of European musical theory, with regular bar lengths, theme-and-variations structure and tidy harmonic resolution. Dvorak responded to the melodic vitality of spirituals, and Debussy seems to have been most inspired by the rhythmic elements of ragtime: in return, jazz was to borrow from his harmonic innovations, but at a far slower pace. By the early 1930s, jazz bands were cautiously extending their major chords to include 6ths as sweetener: Artie Shaw added some chromatic bass to Nightmare and Django Reinhardt wrote a song called Nuages, (like Debussy), with all kinds of chromatic melody notes, diminished superimpositions, altered dominant substitutions and minor/major modulations, but these were already old hat by classical standards. Jazz harmony remained firmly wedded to the comforting resolution of the ii-V-I harmonic movement, a series of steps that lead inevitably towards a home tonality, like a train running towards its terminus. In fact, a comparison of pop composer Cole Porter’s original harmony for Love For Sale with the versions reproduced in the jazz fake books of the world’s jam sessions shows how Porter’s chords have been rationalised by successive generations of jazz players to conform more closely to the ii-V-I pattern.
This column has previously noted how conceptions of jazz have constantly oscillated between conformity and subversion, both socially and musically. Coleman Hawkins could combine earthy blues phrases and gestural smears with unstable extended chords borrowed from Ravel. Parker and Gillespie mixed dance band swing with the rhythmic innovations of Stravinsky. Duke Ellington embraced dissonance and politicised it as well, declaring “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part.” Bill Evans borrowed from Debussy’s chords and Monk used his synthetic scales, yet as long as jazz remained tied to the Great American Songbook the ii-V-I remained as a default, tugging the harmony back towards the centre, no matter how much composers like John Coltrane might try to disguise it by piling substitution upon substitution.
In The Unbearable Lightness Of Being the jolly Czech chauvinist Milan Kundera compares diatonic harmony with hierarchical social structures through the metaphor of chess, the Tonic with the King. The ii-V-I survived the post-war social upheavals and even had a glorious Indian summer in the pop conformity of the 1950s, but as the 60s approached and social norms were loosened, musicians were increasingly chafing at its restrictive triteness: Frank Zappa was to refer to “that moron ii-V-I syndrome … the goddam jazz guys with their ii-V-I, the bottom line of straight white person music”. To many it seemed that Coltrane had reached the limit of adding more harmonic content; the only way to ‘travel where one wishes, to leave by any door’ was to go to the other extreme, and Miles Davis, inspired by the minimalist stylings of Ahmad Jamal, started experimenting with taking harmonic content out of the songs, removing chords, adding long, harmonically ambiguous vamps that didn’t resolve, paving the way for a disarticulation of harmony and eventually of rhythm and tone as well in the wilder reaches of the free scene. Is it just coincidence that the next generation of young musicians, as they abandoned jazz for the anything-goes world of 60s rock music, abandoned the ii-V-I as well? Miles’ and Coltrane’s modal experiments were hugely influential on the Beatles and the Byrds – in return, by the 1970s Miles had abandoned functional harmony altogether.
This is of course a broad-brush analysis but compare the material in Herbie Hancock’s 1995 The New Standard album to any Songbook-based ‘standards’ trio (why not start with Keith Jarrett’s state-of-the-art statements which include many of the classics, up to and including Autumn Leaves) to see how comprehensively modern popular music has left functional harmony behind, and how much the mainstream of jazz language still relies on functional harmony as the backdrop against which it can exercise its personality. In pop music, despite the best attempts of such as Donald Fagen, the trend has been towards less chords, and weaker links between those chords: you will search in vain in the works of Max Martin for the cycle of 5ths progression or the considered use of modulation in the bridge. The decline of functional harmony has been linked to a general dumbing down of musical culture: less is just less. Do we agree?
The current musical landscape is certainly dominated by the monolithic likes of Drake’s Passion Fruit with its non-triadic arpeggios, or God’s Plan with its mistily ambiguous minor vamp. While re-workings of the Pachelbel’s canon progression still regularly crop up in the charts, its also true that the commercial public’s ears are far more attuned to minimalism and ambiguity than ever before. One might see this as resonant with a loss of certainty in existing hierarchic structures and an increasing tolerance for individualism and self-definition. Or maybe people are just too tired to take on the strident certainties of densely harmonic progression and just want to drift around in a tepid lake of ambient modality while they wait for their Uber Eats to arrive. But every action invites reaction, so let’s finish up with the prodigious talent that is Jacob Collier.
Music teachers around the world owe Collier an eternal debt of gratitude for making music theory not just accessible but actually fun, exciting and relevant. His instinctive feel for the new affordances of YouTube tech, combined with an enthusiasm as limitless as his musical understanding, have placed him at the forefront of a movement to return the content to music. In his acceptance speech at this year’s JazzFM awards he described how he would listen to pop radio as a child and hear extra notes in every chord: his mission now seems to be to play all those notes and share the results on socials. His latest offering is a reworking of Lionel Richie’s evergreen party favourite, All Night Long. The harmony is thoroughly enriched with substituted and added chords and daring modulations, but that’s just the beginning. How did Lionel’s original ever manage to capture our attention without a full orchestral arrangement, a six-piece vocal choir, a hip hop breakdown, Jackson Five quotes, an audience participation section, a modern jazz-fusion piano solo, multiple re-harmonised breakdowns and a full samba percussion team? How hungry for extra content are we, and how much extra content can a song take before it splits open at the seams?
There is indeed a season for everything. Artistic process is both noble and fascinating in its own right, and music is a finely developed art form, but more content doesn’t always equate with more communication and after seven minutes of Collier’s exuberant virtuosity I feel the need to lie down in a darkened room with some Morton Gould. Jazz borrows from all forms and its endless flexibility enables it to tread the line between complexity and simplicity as it continues to travel freely, to seek new doors.