My brother is a professional jazz musician. How cool is that? He decided that was his thing back in high school, maybe junior high even, and that is all he’s ever done. He went to North Texas State, which is one of two schools you can go to if you want to be a serious jazz player. He studied trumpet with the guy who taught Maynard Ferguson and Doc Severinsen. When he got out of school, he went to work on cruise ships. Imagine that. Good looking guy, fit, young, playing jazz on a cruise ship filled with lonely women. Lucky bastard.
Anyway, while he was on the cruise ships, they just played standards. “Standards” is jazz lingo for all the songs that everyone knows. “The Great American Songbook.” I introduced you to The Real Book back in my piece about the song Inchworm. It’s basically the songs in that book. And he told me that memorizing and playing every song, in every key, is the thing that taught him to be a great improviser. He is one of the best soloists you’ll ever hear. Amazing horn player.
One of the things that this encyclopedic knowledge of songs imparts is the ability to “quote” while soloing. I mentioned this before in my piece about Listen Here. The soloist plays a bit of a different song during his solo. If you listen to a lot of jazz, you hear this all the time. And if you listen obsessively, you not only recognize the quote, but know exactly what song it is quoting.
Here’s a simple example. First, the original:
Softly as in a Morning Sunrise is a song from a pretty obscure 1928 operetta, but it’s a popular jazz tune. This clip is from Daniel Sadownick’s album There Will Be a Day.
Now listen to this bit of a solo by Brian Bromberg on from The Eclipse on his album Compared to That (which, by the way, is a really kick-ass album).
I hope you can tell that’s the same tune. Obviously, the tempo is different, and he’s playing around the melody a little, but that’s what a quote typically sounds like.
This practice goes way back in jazz. Here is a fun one. First the original:
This is Blue Monk by Thelonious Monk from the live Carnegie Hall recording he did with John Coltrane.
Now check out this solo from Straight No Chaser on Miles Davis’ ’58 Sessions album:
That’s Bill Evans on piano. The song Straight No Chaser was written, of course, by Thelonious Monk. Bill is quoting one Monk song in his solo during another Monk song. So this is kind of a little joke that Bill is making, to amuse the other band members.
That’s an important point to make about quoting. We don’t do it for the audience members, whom we assume probably aren’t going to get it. We do it for the other guys in the band, whom we assume totally are going to get it.
My brother has taken this to a high art, even going so far as to compose songs packing quotes from more than a dozen other songs in them. He has a brass quintet version of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas that quotes Puff the Magic Dragon, Pachelbel’s Canon, and the “hold the pickles” song from that Burger King ad in the ‘7os. Have I mentioned that he’s a fucking genius?
Anyway, that brings me to my favorite quote. First, some context. The best selling jazz album of all time is Miles’ Kind of Blue. The first track on that album is So What. Here’s the start of Miles’ solo on that:
That’s probably the most recognizable solo ever. Remember, that’s not part of the written music (“the head”), it’s just something Miles came up with on the spot during the recording session.
Now check out this bit of Branford Marsalis’ solo in The Ballad of Chet Kincaid, from his album Crazy People Music:
See what he did there? He quoted the second phrase of the solo in So What. And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that somebody in the band actually laughed out loud when he heard it! Quoting another song’s head is one thing, quoting a solo is quite another, but quoting the middle of a solo — that’s some serious next-level shit right there. And you know that he didn’t plan that. It just occurred to him while he was playing. Damn.
So that’s why I’m giving Branford Marsalis the honor of my favorite quote ever. Pure fucking genius.