"Using the jazz"

Pitchfork has an interview with She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), whose music I don’t know very well. But this passage caught my attention:

ZD: For “In the Sun”, I originally composed it with a classic jazz chord progression — with a little chromatic step — and it was slower. But we got in the studio and Matt was like, “Why don’t we put a Bee Gees beat on it?” And it totally came to life in a way I didn’t expect.

MW: We were able to use those same chords, but it doesn’t sound like jazz, it just sounds rich. People like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Marr are geniuses at bringing in those major seventh and sixth and ninth chords in different ways.

ZD: I love a sixth chord. It’s fun to take things from Gershwin and Cole Porter– something a little more complex– and make it sound like pop music. There are a million examples of not feeling the jazz, but using the jazz. [laughs] Carole King does it a lot.

Joni Mitchell’s later records are like jazz. […]

A lot to unpack here, but mainly I want to concur entirely with their love for that unique jazz/not-jazz period in pop music, as I’ve noted before. “Songs with a weird and incredibly specific blend of jazz and rock harmony, carefully voiced and easy to get wrong on the first attempt” is how I put it last spring. Pat Metheny and I stumbled onto the topic during our recent interview and he said this brand of ’70s pop is “almost like chamber music” in terms of the specificity it demands of musicians.

I think the emergence of this sound might have had to do with the easy exchange that took place between studio musicians and jazz players back in the ’70s and before. In the case of the Philly soul scene, the studio players were the jazz players in many cases, and the city’s R&B tradition could not but bear their imprint. Of course the same was true elsewhere. That’s not to say the studio players were the ones writing the songs — they weren’t. But the songwriters knew what kind of material studio cats could deal with, what they could make sound great. So maybe there was a reciprocal dynamic here that led to everyone “using the jazz,” as Deschanel puts it.

Steely Dan is often thought of as the jazz-nerd pop band par excellence, but their notoriously weird harmonic choices aren’t always so weird when put next to some of the other pop music of the time. “Any Major Dude” from Pretzel Logic has some of the quasi-country twang of the band’s earliest years, and the first chord of the verse is a plain, rock-style A major. But in the phrase “when the demon is at your door,” on the word “door” you must play an A major 7th, a fleeting “jazz” chord. As the tonic chord, no less. Elsewhere in the song a major 7th would sound terrible. But on “door,” it’s the straight A major that sounds oddly incomplete, even wrong. Why? It’s just the way the song came together. Nothing can really explain why. (In the chorus, right before the words “any major dude,” the A is now a bluesy dominant A9 or A13 — yet another sound incompatible in theory, but perfect in context.)

In Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin,” similarly, there’s an ongoing tension between C minor and C major, but the C major is just plain C major, while the C minor is richer, jazzier (a minor 9th voicing works well). Again, nothing can really explain this instance of not-jazz bumping into jazz, why it fits. It just does.

Moreover, the first thing we all learn is that major chords sound bright and cheery, and minor chords the opposite. Why is Joni Mitchell’s C major so dark and sad? Because it’s placed right next to Ab major 7th, or more accurately Eb/Ab. Something about that movement from Ab to C makes the C able to break your heart. The same cadence, with a different melodic contour but a similar emotional effect, occurs in Pat Metheny’s “Farmer’s Trust,” which appeared on record very soon after Metheny toured with Mitchell for the live album that became Shadows and Light. It’s less a matter of copying, in my view, than of great minds thinking alike, although that is a matter for another post…

[Update – re the inevitability of the A major 7 in “Any Major Dude,” I wrote: “Why? It’s just the way the song came together. Nothing can really explain why.” Well, not exactly true. The entire phrase “when the demon is at your door” unfolds over B minor 7 to E7 to A major 7, a jazz II-V-I progression on a silver platter. So of course the A major 7 chord sounds right. What’s worth noting, then, is the presence of a II-V-I progression in a rock song, and the fact that it sounds so logical that even I overlooked it.]

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