The ballad, tunes played at a slow tempo, occupies a special place in the jazz canon right up to the present day. In the same way as emerging jazz talent need to confirm their jazz chops in the many obligatory modern jazz idioms from bop through to jazz funk, free jazz and beyond, all jazz musicians need to exhibit mastery of the particular challenges posed by ballad playing and show real awareness of jazz masters of earlier generations who made ballad playing their forte.
I know from personal experience of playing ballads at gigs that doing justice to the «head” (the tune) and telling a compelling improvisatory story at slow or very slow tempi is one of the hardest challenges in our music. It is easy to fall into the trap of throwing rapid clusters of notes at fast tunes. In ballads every note counts. Somewhat counter-intuitively I have also learnt that the easiest way to lower the volume of a noisy audience is to play a ballad!
In this chapter and in the accompanying playlist I am going to focus on horn players with room for only two vocalists; Chet Baker’s immortal vocal rendition of You Don’t Know What Love Is (and Chet turns in a limpid solo on trumpet too) and George Adams’s vocal rendition of Charles Mingus’s homage to Duke. In Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.
I could, and maybe will devote a future feature on the place of ballads in jazz piano trios which is a whole story in itself. I can’t recall a piano trio performance or recording which does not showcase ballad playing.
From the perspective of an audience at a live gig there is nothing that quite equates to the hush that often greets the last notes of a beautifully played ballad, with the ensuing applause being held back while those final notes fade away.
I have frequently referred to the distinctive sound world of jazz and the immediately recognizable sounds of great jazz performers.
In almost all cases I can think of ballad playing forms an important and consistent part of the repertoire of all jazz musicians both good and great. In the case of Ben Webster whose early career on tenor with Duke Ellington was distinguished by his muscular, high temp playing, he devoted the last 20 years of his career almost exclusively to ballad playing., often taken at the very slowest tempi. His achingly sad rendition of Danny Boy is an example.
Here’s Ben Webster playing Billy Eckstein’s Chelsea Bridge with Stan Tracey’s trio who would have been backing him at Ronnie Scott’s. at the time this performance was recorded
John Coltrane is most usually associated throughout his 20 year career with dynamic and intensive high tempo playing, pushing himself to the very limits of his musical capacity, going to and beyond the very edge of what seemed possible. And yet, throughout his career, right up to his final years when Trane began to explore the outer reaches of unrestrained , deeply spiritual free jazz he continued to both play and write ballads, and to play them with an equal dedication and intensity as he brought to his more distinctive “sheets of sound” repertoire You will find four Trane ballads on the playlist drawn from different stages of his career with the rarely played I want To Talk About You dating back to his early recordings in the mid 50’s. Very few musicians have played In A Sentimental Mood so exquisitely and here we hear Coltrane playing it with its author; Duke Ellington.
Dexter Gordon was a supreme balladeer. He insisted that getting under the skin of the lyrics was the key to great ballad playing. I heard him at Ronnie Scott’s a few times playing the ballad most associated with Dexter, You’ve Changed always prefaced by his slow, spoken incantation of the lyrics. You’ll find his classic Blue Note version on the playlist. Dexter must have played this tune many thousands of times.
You will not be surprised to find three selections featuring Sonny Rollins on the playlist drawn from is early, mid, and later periods of recording career. He had a particular affinity for reviving obscure tunes which became jazz standards in his hands. Ballad playing provided a perfect backdrop for Sonny’s unrivalled tone and he too was a connoisseur of the lyrics.
Two of the ballads in my selection were written in memory of recently passed jazz giants; Benny Golson’s I Remember Clifford a moving long-form tribute to the star trumpeter who died in a car crash at 26, here immortalized by the playing of the equally brilliant near contemporary of Clifford, Lee Morgan.. Brown one of the few narcotics-free products of the bebop generation, Morgan whose short but extraordinary career was blighted by addiction. Charles Mingus’s haunting dedication to Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, could only have been written in ballad form
Ballad originals are often penned in dedication to people who were significant in the lives of the composer. Trane’s originals, Naima, and Lonnie’s Lament. Sam Rivers’s beautiful evocation of his wife Beatrice. Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes was dedicated to his baby daughter. A whole playlist could be dedicated to these dedicatees!