Saturday, February 3, 2007

Whitney Balliett (1926-2007)

The jazz critic Whitney Balliett died yesterday. His style, like any distinctive style, is easily parodied, but there is no better writer to convey the sound of jazz. Here is one sample, from a long piece on Charlie Parker:

Parker had a unique tone; no other saxophonist has achieved as human a sound. It could be edgy, and even sharp. (He used the hardest and most technically difficult of reeds.) It could be soft and buzzing. Unlike most saxophonists of his time, who took their cue from Coleman Hawkins, he used almost no vibrato; when he did, it was only a flutter, a murmur. The blues lived in every room in his style, and he was one of the most striking and affecting blues improvisers we have had. His slow blues had a preaching, admonitory quality. He would begin a solo with a purposely stuttering four-or-five note announcement, pause for effect, repeat the phrase, bending its last note into silence, and then turn the phrase around backward and abruptly slip sidewise into double time, zigzag up the scale, circle around quickly at the top, and plummet down, the notes falling somewhere between silence and sound. (Parker was a master of dynamics and of the dramatic use of silence.) Another pause, and he would begin his second chorus with a dreaming, three-note figure, each of the notes running into the next but each held in prolonged, hymnlike fashion. Taken from an unexpected part of the chord, they would slip out in slow motion. He would shatter this brief spell by inserting two or three short arpeggios, disconnected and broken off, then he would float into a backpedaling half-time and shoot into another climbing-and-falling double-time run, in which he would dart in and out of nearby keys. He would pause, then close the chorus with an amen figure resembling his opening announcement.
From New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz in the Seventies (New York: Da Capo,1977)
Whitney Balliett, New Yorker Jazz Critic, Dies at 80 (New York Times)

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