GROOVE APPRECIATION 101: COUNT, DUKE, MILES, AND JIMI
March 12 (Bloomberg) -- When you can't sleep because of the pressures of modern city life -- congestion, pollution, corruption, the plain unfairness of it all -- don't count sheep. Count Basie.
Curing what ails you with the music of the American pianist and bandleader is not a bad idea. ``Atomic Basie'' (Roulette), which was recorded exactly half a century ago in 1957 and has a photo of a mushroom cloud on the cover, screens out the explosions and the car crashes, like the sound of water flowing in a big fountain on a busy downtown corner.
When musicians keep good time, they are said to be swinging. Swing, as in ``It Don't Mean a Thing,'' was central to 20th- century music, from Louis Armstrong to the Rolling Stones. Basie was the embodiment of it, and, with Neal Hefti's arrangements, his band reached an apex on ``Atomic Basie.''
The concept of swing came to Western music from Africa. Until then, musicians in the European tradition didn't know that there was more than one ``correct'' way to approach the tempo. After a while, when swing begins to feed on itself, it turns into what is called a groove (also known as a slot.) A groove is a good way to get out of a rut.
A musician swings when he relates to the groove in an urgent and consistent manner. There is no such thing as a bad groove, it either grooves or it doesn't. What was special about Basie was that his rhythm section produced a groove that was sufficient unto itself. The fine solos and driving tuttis on top were enabled rather than enabling.
It occurs to me that some readers might not have any idea what I'm talking about. Once, when I told a friend that I always pay attention to the bass first, she replied: ``How can you tell it's the bass?'' It really threw me -- she was a close friend. I wondered if most people were like that. The only thing I could think of to tell her was ``listen.''
Here are examples of the infinite varieties of a groove.
``AHMAD JAMAL LIVE AT THE PERSHING'' (Chess): Direct and overwhelmingly minimal, Jamal's piano trio (Israel Crosby, bass, Vernel Fournier, drums) sounds as though they are skating to their own groove under a blue sky on ice. You can practically hear their scarves flying out behind them. ``Surrey With the Fringe on Top''` and ``But Not for Me'' were hits (in 1958).
``RELAXIN' WITH THE MILES DAVIS QUINTET'' (Prestige): The tension between Paul Chambers's bass walking right on top of the beat and Philly Joe Jones's drumming laid back behind it was at the heart of this groove. It is a good illustration of Davis's genius as a casting director. Start with ``Oleo.''
``ELLINGTON AT NEWPORT'' (Columbia): Duke Ellington's organization had trouble surviving after the end of the big band era. Then, in 1956 at Newport, powered by Sam Woodyard's big back-beat, tenorman Paul Gonsalves built such a formidable groove over 27 choruses on ``Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue'' that the following audience reaction is titled ``Pandemonium.''
``DUKE ELLINGTON & JOHN COLTRANE'' (Impulse): The rhythm sections of Ellington (Aaron Bell and Woodyard) and Coltrane (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) alternate, which adds up to an important lesson in the subtlety of good time. You can't research grooves without listening to Elvin Jones.
DUKE ELLINGTON, CHARLES MINGUS, AND MAX ROACH, ``Money Jungle'' (Blue Note): The inspiration for this article came from Basie, and it seems to be ending up more about Duke Ellington. It wasn't planned that way. No matter, a groove should be unpredictable as well as dedicated. Ellington was underrated as a pianist. Pushed by Mingus and Roach, he becomes ferocious. Start with ``Caravan.''
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE, ``Smash Hits'' (MCA): A course in Groove Appreciation would be incomplete without Jimi Hendrix. It was miraculous that, after moving to London, he found drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass guitarist Noel Redding -- white Brits weren't supposed to be able to swing so hard. Even so, Hendrix overdubbed the wondrous rising bass lines on ``Hey Joe'' and ``Fire'' himself.
Oh dear, I just remembered that most people probably don't know how to tell it's a bass. Never mind, everyone knows how to groove -- don't they? Actually, grooves seem to be going out of style in the 21st century, but that's another story.