Jazzin’ it up

June 14, 2008

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UCLA has turned out a number of outstanding saxophonist-composers that have gone on to do well. The first was Dave Koz. Dave took my electronic music class back in the 1980s. He orchestrated one of the numbers from John Hall and Amy Wooley’s LUST AND GREED IN THE SHOPPING MALL performed by the UCLA Synthesizer Ensemble, conducted by me. Dave orchestrated the song “Sex Sells” (way before Joni’s song by the same name) and did an amazing job. He may thank me for being his teacher, but Dave was and always will be Dave. All a teacher can do is encourage that Dave-ness to come out.

Dave has gone on to become Dave Koz, and is one of the founding fathers of Smooth Jazz. No matter where I go in the world, I hear his music playing is spas, restaurants, stores… Dave has done well.

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The second one is Hitomi, aka Hitomi Oba who took a couple of years of music theory with me as well as some composition and electronic music. She did her undergraduate work at UCLA and just finished her MA in composition under Paul Chihara. Hitomi’s first CD, FIRST FLIGHT has just been released and is selling like sushi in Japan. Having heard about this good fortune I was interested to hear what the music was like. That day, she gifted me a copy of the CD. I listened to it on the way home from school. I was amazed at the sophistication of her lines, her tone, and treatments of a CD full of standards (with 2 of her own). FIRST FLIGHT

I can’t help but liken her sound to John Coltrane. Now, I am NOT a jazz expert, but damned if I didn’t walk into a Starbucks and I heard tenor sax playing. I looked for the PLAYING NOW sign and sure enough it was Coltrane. I got back in my car, turned the CD came back on and it was Hitomi. No, she’s not imitating Coltrane, she has digested him and building on his tradition.

As I listen to how she “plays” a melody, it made me think about how one would describe the technique of “jazzing up” a melody. If I am honest with myself, “jazzing it up” means playing as though you are tired, or weary, or drunk, or stoned. It is somehow a chore to stay with the beat, so you just stagger through an alternate rhythmic world that magically gets back to the beat at just the right moment. More notes are added to the tune as a running commentary on the original. (I am referring more to slow songs or ballads, not up-tempo numbers.)

It is easy for me to imagine John Coltrane stoned or tired or drunk, or just being himself and playing this music. But as I look at the sweet eyes and not stoned or drunk face of Hitomi, and hear her play saxophone, I am confused. In my mind’s eye, I imagine a black male playing in a smoky nightclub, and when I open my eyes I see a beautiful, slight, Asian woman. Is there a gender bender issue going on here that makes her already terrific performances even sexier? It doesn’t matter, Hitomi is terrific. It is not smooth jazz, it is take-your-jazz-like-a-man (er, woman) jazz.

[Photo credit: Dave Koz photo © Judhi Prasetyo.]

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