Top Albums and Top Songs Are Commonplace: What About Great Phrases?

Many knowledgable music writers make lists of great albums or great tunes. These are “Top Ten Songs” or “Top Albums”; we’ve all seen these lists. However, what about the most minute part of musical language, the phrase Given that complete CD or album recordings are pretty high up in the musical linguistic food chain, I am bringing attention to what is the lowest element of communication: the phrase or “musical sentence.” Following this metaphor between music and language, you might say, “aren’t words (or notes) the smallest form of communication?”

Words (or notes) are the smallest part of communication, but we need to hear them in a phrase to make any sense to our ears, whether it’s music or speech. For example, if you say the word “dog,” it has no particular emotional meaning. But let’s add context. If you are walking up to your friend’s house and you see a Pitt Bull running toward you and you scream, “DOG!!,” it has meaning and is now qualified as a phrase. There is nothing meaningful that is less than a phrase in language. There are letters and words but they don’t necessarily communicate a message.

Building off of phrases, you then have sentences, paragraphs, chapter, essay or book. In a musical sense, you then have hooks or riffs, melodies, harmonies, verses, choruses, A sections, B sections, bridges, songs…and albums. Back in the 60s everyone was looking for hip musical phrases. Loads of musicians were stealing phrases by Parker, Stitt, Coltrane, Rollins et al. Musicians knew that phrases were the core of what made music work. In addition to ripping phrases from master players, I encourage you to develop an understanding of and appreciation of phrases–and work at developing your own phrases

Below, I have picked ten phrases that represent my musical values. Each one is accompanied by my reason(s) for choosing it.

Some of these phrases are burning and others are pure beauty (not that they are mutually exclusive). I have always been fascinated by phrases that thousands of musicians can physically play with ease, but don’t (perhaps because they require more imagination, heart or soul than they are able to conjure).

There are thousands of exceptional phrases in jazz history: I have picked these because they were top of mind. Several of these phrases start with a long tone and then answer with a rhythmically active answer.

Ten Great Jazz Phrases

These phrases are from five to ten seconds; and next to the title is the time code of where to hear the phrase.

1.    Freddie Hubbard – “The Core” Listen Here at 4:18-4:28
This is one of the most ferocious burning phrases I’ve heard. The way he milks
the long tone question and then at the perfect spot explodes with the descending phrase answer. Also, pay attention to the direction changes in his line.

2.    Wes Montgomery – “Round Midnight” Listen Here at 4:37
This phrase is one of the beautiful phrases in which heart and imagination trump dazzlingchops. It’s similar to seeing a painting and saying to yourself “I could have done that.”Well guess what, we didn’t and he did.   

3.    Joe Henderson – “Idle Moments” Listen Here at 7:43
Here is another phrase similar to Freddie Hubbard’s. Joe holds a long tone and then plays an active short answer. Here he demonstrates the patience that is reserved for master musicians.

4.    Frank Foster – “Yesterdays” Listen Here at 4:38
This phase starts with a long tone and a musical bend, then very modern sounding answer. What’s particularly interesting is he uses no chromatics. Just major scale melodies.

5.    Cannonball Adderley – “Minority” Listen Here at 5:43
This phrase is in 4’s at the end of the tune. I find these fours to be much more varied and interesting that his solo. This particular one is particularly powerful in that it’s not only fast but the melodic change of direction is like a bull you throwing off his back.

6.    Coltrane – “The Promise” Listen Here at 5:27
I picked this one because it’s particularly explosive because of simple melodyquestion into an incredible adventurous chromatic answer.           

7.    Richard Davis – “Fill The Woods With Laughter” Listen Here at 3:23
This is not a solo, it’s a very hip sliding bass fill.

8.    Phineas Newborn – “Dahoud” Listen Here at 2:09
This is another explosive 4. This an unworldly phrase is at a breakneck speed and uses block chords.

9.    Alan Holdsworth – “0235” Listen Here at 4:33
This is similar to Coltrane’s phrase in that he holds a long tone and then answerswith an incredible barrage of chromatic notes.

10.  Elvin Jones – “Afro Blue” Listen Here at 4:46
This phrase is something you will only hear here. At the end of MoCoy Tyner’s soloElvin Jones introduces Coltrane with a crescendo of eight notes on the bass drum.If you don’t feel deep love and respect from Elvin, go to your doctor and ask him to check your soul.

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