The album that I have chosen to write my final paper on and relate to jazz is an album called An Awesome Wave. This album is one of my favorite albums of all time. Specifically, the fourth song on the track Breeze Blocks is the one that has influenced me the most. I have listened to this song since the year of its release and it remains to be one of my favorites to this day. That is why I have chosen to do my paper on it.
An Awesome Wave is the debut album from the band known as alt-j. It was released on May, 25 2012 by Infectious Records. The album reached a top 15 charts in the UK in 2012 and was also on many other top charts for other European countries; however, it did not fare so well in the US when it hit its peak of #80 in 2013. In 2012, it won the British Barclaycard Mercury Prize and in 2013 won Album of the Year from the Ivor Novello Awards. The albums name comes from a quote in the 2000 movie American Psycho. Along with the name of the album coming from film a lot of the songs in the album are references to different works of art, film, and literature.
Alt-J, also known by the symbol, is an indie, hip-hop, pop band that was formed in 2007 in Leeds, England. Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Sonny Green (drums) met at Leeds University. In 2009 they started recording their first album An Awesome Wave; because they were recording in student halls, their noise had to be kept to a minimum, so they did not use bass guitars or bass drums, which created the bands unusual sound for this album. Alt-j is still producing music today, and released a new song called REDUXER on September 28, 2018.
Jazz’s influence on modern and popular music is usually overlooked. Many genres have unknowingly or knowingly borrowed from it, because of its deep history in American music, and alt-j is no exception. We will start by talking about An Awesome Wave’s rhythm. Jazz has used a large array of different rhythms in its time. Mainly, its heavy use of syncopation which was popular in the Swing Era, alt-j uses a large amount of syncopation especially in the first two songs of the album Intro and Interlude 1. Their use of syncopation really has things start moving forward with its fun energy and brightness often found in the jazz music of the 20’s that makes you just want to get up and dance.
One thing that I have found with this album is that it is sometimes difficult to understand. In an interview with a reporter from Loud and Quiet Magazine Gwil Sainsbury said, The beginning of the album isn’t really representative of the rest of the record. I think it’s best to confuse the audience at the beginning and freak them out. If they can get through that, they’re going to get through the rest of the album and love it. That is an approach I think many jazz players have used in their music. Sort of in line with the Avant Garde era, it is a very different style of playing that is harder to understand.
We could almost say that they were playing those first songs in a more complexed way for their own enjoyment, which was a huge theme in the 40’s or Bebop era. During the Bebop era it was a time for musicians to play for themselves and not the enjoyment of others. They could compete against one another and just have fun and not care about what the listeners really thought, which sounds exactly like what they did in the beginning of that album.
As we discussed in class the popular form for jazz music is AABA which is the way a song is played and/or repeated. In most of the songs played by alt-j they use a ABAB form which is more common for modern pop and hip-hop. While the ABAB form was not used as much in jazz music there are still plenty of songs that use it such as Moanin’ composed by Bobby Timmons, and played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which was a listening example in our class this year. While most songs in An Awesome Wave are not the AABA form, I believe their song Fitzpleasure is one that does follow that form.
The song Fitzpleasure is probably the most interesting piece of music on that album. The song sounds like it was written by a schizophrenic, or someone on acid, or both. Which is luckily also a type of jazz. If Sun Ra were more into hip-hop or indie type music, then I feel that he would write something along the lines of this song. The song starts out monophonic with them singing a sort of chant, this continues throughout the rest of the song in various parts of it. With the chanting in the song the instruments start to respond to it, so now we have a call and response happening. It then continues to now more a sort of homophonic sound. The lyrics of the song are nearly indecipherable which also fits in with the beginning of Dead Man Blues by Jelly Roll Morton. Like Dead Man Blues, some of the words are possible to make out but the majority are just gibberish.
Although the instruments used in An Awesome Wave are not what is commonly used in most jazz bands there are still some similarities. There is no brass instruments used in the album but there is still the use of many instruments and their same roles are still used somewhat. For instance, the drums are used for the main rhythm section used throughout the songs, which is also how it is used in most jazz songs. The piano is also used for the rhythm and harmony, along with accompanying the singer and the melody. The guitar is used for accompaniment and also roots of the music. Later they started to use a bass guitar when they had a record label and a use for the instrument which was played by Gwil Sainsbury and later Joe Newman.
A lot of alt-j’s music has to do with a sad and bitter story. Like with the song Breezeblocks, Breezeblocks tells the story of a desperate man’s attempts to win over his love’s affections again as she has grown disillusioned, and the desperate yearning and longing that comes with love lost. In the music video for the song we see a girl that is cannot come to grips with the man she loves getting married to another girl, so she ends up kidnapping the fianc and hiding her from the groom. To me that seems like a very sad story, and although it is very cathartic it does not seem like a very healthy way to release your emotions.
On the other hand, the blues were created for this exact type of thing. The origins come from an incredibly horrible time in our history. The blues were a way for people in that time to free themselves temporarily from their hardships through music. That is exactly what I feel like alt-j is trying to do and express through all of their music. Although they do not have a very bluesy feel to their music you can tell that they and the people that created the blues have the same feelings even if it wasn’t as intense as the slaves were. Alt-j has always been using music as a type of therapy for their hardships which is always been in a theme in jazz. That is one of the reasons that I love alt-j and have loved taking this class.
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