Track of the Week: “Four on Six,” by Wes Montgomery


Track of the WeekAh, jazz. I have such mixed emotions about jazz. On paper, jazz is appealing. Complex harmonies. Improvisation. Melodies that are keenly aware of the harmony and yet aren’t afraid to step out of line. Cutting edge music, really. I’m a nerd, and jazz is the nerdiest of all genres. It is an art form that works best on paper. But to my ears, jazz doesn’t work so much. As a listener, I feel like a rat in a maze, part of an experiment. Why? Well, let me explain.

  1. Unnecessarily complex harmonies. Although jazz is supposed to be a no-holds-barred genre where anything goes, try to find a jazz tune that has a simple major or minor chord in it. They’re rare. That makes me believe that there is some unwritten rule that simple triads are taboo in the world of jazz. If that’s the case, than jazz is as limiting as any other form of music. Also, if every chord has tension, where is the relief? As the listener, jazz never lets me exhale. Instead, my breath is always held in anticipation of the resolution.
  2. Self-indulgent improvisation. When I listen to a jazz solo, it rarely seems that the performer is thinking about me, the listener. He is thinking about scales, arpeggios, harmonies, atonal notes and how avant-garde he is. I may be wrong, but when a musician plays almost exclusively eighth notes for his solo, it makes me believe this is more of an exercise for himself than a performance for the audience. A big-haired metal thrasher may have flaws, but at least he remembers why he’s on stage: to entertain. Seemingly, a jazz performer says, selfishly, “I’m going to do my thing. Take it or leave it.”
  3. Lack of sound variation, especially for guitar. The electric guitar is an incredibly dynamic instrument, capable of sounding like a beautiful piano, a violin, or a saxophone. It can be sweet, aggressive and everything in between. Despite that versatility, there is just one acceptable jazz guitar sound: a semi-hollow body electric with the treble rolled off. Why are jazz musicians afraid of treble? Add some bite, people! Again, for a genre known for its cutting-edge mentality, jazz certainly is resistant to new ideas.

I realize that I’m treading on thin ice here. As a musician, I’m supposed to have a profound respect for jazz with all of its complexities. I imagine that some of my jazz-playing colleagues would spit their mocha-capa-frappa-elita-chino lattes all over their screens when reading this. But music has one — and only one — requirement: it must be pleasing to the ear. Jazz is not pleasing for the most part. It is an ongoing experiment to see how much dissonance a musician can inject into a song before I, the listener, get up and leave. I am the rat in the musician’s maze of dissonance, searching for either a tasty melodic morsel or the exit.

Anyways, after all of my grumbling, it’s time to listen to a jazz tune so you can come to your own conclusions. “Four on Six” is a tune featuring the father of modern jazz guitar, Wes Montgomery.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.

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