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Heavy Flute & Crime Jazz - is this jazz to you?


NICK – “Come A Little Closer” (from The Metrogrande Sessions)

Welcome to WEEK 264 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #90 & S4Ep32)

Heavy Flute & Crime Jazz – Cool is Where You Find It

What is jazz? At this point there are so many subdivisions that it’s not easy to define. That word – “JAZZ” – 100% evokes different sounds & ideas in every person’s head. For me, jazz has to have some form of improvisation – freedom within form – and it has to be funky, at least a little. If I were doing a podcast on jazz in general, I’d throw down some more descriptions, and even get into what I think jazz ISN’T. But that’s not what this week is about.

I ask the question because this week’s spotlight albums are likely NOT the first things that come to mind when most people think of jazz. Take Heavy Flute – a compilation of jazz cuts from the 1960s & 1970s featuring flute solos. Released in 2000 (and now out of print and nowhere to be found on streaming services), it was an instant classic for me. Say “flute” to someone, and the first words that come to their mind are unlikely to be “funky” or “cool”. Yet this album proves without a doubt that the flute can be both. Ian Anderson knows this. So does Lizzo. And Walt Parazaider of Chicago.

The songs on this album range from lyrical to percussive & everything in between. When you listen to it – and I do suggest looking up every song, you’re gonna get a big 1960s/70s vibe. And you’re gonna be surprised at how diverse & freakin’ cool & funky it is. My favorite is no question Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He treats the flute like everything from what it’s meant to be to a percussion instrument to a microphone. What he did was practically punk. The dude weirded out in all the best ways, and clearly influenced Walt Parazaider’s solos. Herbie Mann is a close second fave on this album, but you could start with any track and be blown away. Pun intended.

Crime Jazz was released in two parts (Music in the First Degree & Music in the Second Degree). Both albums came out in 1997, and are also out of print & impossible to find on streaming. They feature ensemble jazz made especially for crime movies & TV. Think of the themes to Mission: Impossible (the old TV show, not the movie series) or Peter Gunn. Though the first one isn’t featured in this compilation, you will find other compositions by the great Lalo Schifrin. The second was by Henry Mancini and performed by Quincy Jones and his Orchestra. Check out Elmer Bernstein’s tracks too. He's always been a fave of mine.

I have mixed feelings about soundtrack music. When it’s done well, it complements the action & emotion. When it’s done poorly, it dictates what you’re supposed to feel. Crime jazz – which had precursors in the 1940s, but really came of age in the 1950s, and exploded in the 1960s & 1970s – is a perfect example of both. That cool, funky, horn & strings laden, noirish feel can be all you need to get you in the right mind frame. But it can also get super heavy handed and cliché, and music like this has often been lovingly parodied in more contemporary comedies (Police Squad & Naked Gun probably started that, and Will Ferrell’s movies come to mind too). What’s amazing are three things: 1. No matter the quality & context, when you hear music like this you immediately think of a crime story; 2. TV & film has been intermittently cool & forward thinking for decades; and 3. The music on this compilation kicks ass all over the place, and, like Heavy Flute in a very different way, is another example of how you can find cool-funky music in unexpected places.

The influence this music has had on me is esoteric. It directs me subconsciously to never bow to sentimentalism, and to always look for empty spaces and funkiness. It reminds me that music is as much a mood as a sound, and that how you record something is as important as how you write it. I’ve recorded very little jazz or jazz-influenced music, so I’m gonna offer up this song as a close cousin and example of the qualities I just mentioned:

NICK – “Come A Little Closer” (from The Metrogrande Sessions)

Do you know any of this music? When you listen to it, what does it evoke in you? Are you into jazz, and if so is any of this the kind of jazz you like? Discuss dammit!

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