Finding the “Voice” in Jazz by Steve Provizer

‘Voice’ has always been seen as the sine qua non of jazz-the quality that separates it from other genres and either marks a musician as worthy of attention or consigns him to mediocrity. Someone with very sharp ears might be able to tell the difference between Maurice Andre and Wynton Marsalis playing the Haydn Trumpet concerto, but it’s damned hard. In any case, we evaluate the composer, the orchestra and the performer as a unit.

But, when you listen to Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge battling it out at the JATP, it’s all about the soloist. And no one much cares who wrote the tune.

For me, the fundamental parts of Voice in jazz are tone, note choice, dynamics, approach to solo construction and the relative amount of space/silence. Choice of material, sidemen, and size of group can also play a part.

Radical departures from the norm, things like playing in the Taj Mahal, offbeat instruments, playing more than one horn at a time-can help mark someone as having a “voice.” But none of these elements is definitive in itself. They all interact.

Tone-the note itself-is arguably the fundamental element.

The deep history of the music makes building a “Voice-tone” a challenge. Looking just at sax and trumpet playing, we can see the territory has been well staked out. In alto sax, for example-Hodges, Bird, Konitz, Buster Smith, Jimmy Dorsey, Earl Bostic, Julius Hemphill, Jackie McLean, John Zorn-these people represent the exploration of an enormous tonal range.

On the trumpet, look at Armstrong, Bix, Eldridge, Shavers, Cootie Williams, Miles, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy, Sweets Edison, Harry James, Clifford, Woody Shaw, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Freddie Hubbard, Marsalis/Blanchard. Of course, you can slice it real thin, take percentages of one or the other, mix and match-find the cracks between other people’s Voice-Tones. Use recombinant Voice-genetics to try and derive something new.

The extent to which this is a conscious process is completely individual. For some, it’s a question of natural seepage. Others go to great lengths to see if they can re-create certain people’s sound.

There are a lot of equipment parameters that can be changed: mouthpieces, reeds, mutes, lead pipes, bore size, bracing techniques, metal alloys, use of microphones, electronic manipulation and recording techniques…But technology doesn’t have all the answers. Many tenor players have copied his equipment down to the last detail, but never managed to sound like Stan Getz.

And, of course, if you do manage to carve out a distinctive tone, you still gotta say something.

I don’t want this thesis length, so will pick up that issue in a later post (or ignore it, as per my “manifesto”).

I definitely won’t tackle the proposition that if you find a voice, an audience will find you.