‘Jazz’ by Henri Matisse

Jazz by Henri Matisse is a set of 20 colour stencils and more than 70 pages of calligraphic writing. Jazz was pivotal in Matisse’s transition from oil painting to the cut-out collages that dominated the last decade of his life. To create these works, Matisse cut forms out of large sheets of paper previously painted with gouache by his assistants. The cut-outs were then assembled on the wall of Matisse’s studio, under his direction.

Jazz was published by Tériade in an edition of 250. The book’s title evokes the idea of a musical structure of rhythm and repetition, expressed through the handwritten text, which is broken by the explosive improvisations of the colour plates. Matisse’s subjects are taken largely from the circus, mythology and memories of his travels. They represent either isolated figures or paired forms that suggest a dialogue between artist and model. Despite the vivid colours and folkloric themes, few of the plates are actually cheerful. Several are among Matisse’s most ominous images.

The writing of Jazz was very important for Matisse and though the pictures were mostly finished by 1944, he continued to work on the text until shortly before the book was published in September 1947. While the text gives the impression of great spontaneity, it was written out four or five times until Matisse was satisfied with the manner of expression and size of handwriting.

Matisse stated that his manuscript pages represent merely a visual accompaniment to the plates and ‘their role [was] thus purely spectacular’. Despite Matisse’s claim, the text and plates are actually subtly and consciously related. The underlying themes of art and artifice find many parallels in the text.

Jazz represents one of Matisse’s most interesting statements about his artistic development and the act of creation, which he believed results from the synthesis of instinct and intellect guided by discipline.

If Jazz, and the cutouts in general, approach the liberated abstraction of music, still Matisse never strays far from the sense of an objective world. Painter and art historian Sir Lawrence Gowing described the cutouts as ‘cutting into a primordial substance, the basic chromatic substance of painting… . With each stroke, the cutting revealed the character both of the material, the pristine substance of color, and also of an image, a subject.’

In Jazz, Matisse’s subjects are more like verbs than nouns, however. They express the feeling of leaping, flying, swimming, falling. They cut straight to the viewer’s experience rather than merely depicting someone else’s.

I The Clown
II The Circus
III Monsieur Loyal
IV The Nightmare of the White Elephant
V The Horse, the Rider and Clown
VI The Wolf
VII The Heart
VIII Icarus
IX Forms
X Pierrot’s Funeral
XI The Codomas
XII The Swimmer in the Tank
XIII The Sword Swallower
XIV The Cowboy
XV The Knife Thrower
XVI Destiny
XVII Lagoon I
XIX Lagoon III
XX Toboggan

[Various sources]



Marabi piano style

Thomas Mabilesta – Zulu Piano Medley No.1


Thomas Mabeleta’s ‘Zulu Piano Medley’ is one of the few surviving recordings of  Marabi, a keyboard style popular in the shebeens. The influence of jazz, ragtime and blues is obvious, but its roots lie deep in African tradition. Early Marabi musicians were part of an underground musical culture, so were typically not recorded. As with early jazz in the US, this music confronted establishment culture. Nonetheless, the lilting melodies and catchy rhythms of Marabi found their way into the popular dance music of Southern Africa.

Joe’s Jika

Here’s an outline transcription of Joe’s Jika, by Dudu Pukwana and Spear (The Spears), from 1969. I have no way of paying the rights to publish my transcription. So, if you find it useful, please consider a donation to an appropriate charity: e.g. WaterAid, Bridges for Music, Buskaid, etc.

Joe’s Jika – transcription

Spotify Link



Pentatonic Pairs

I’ve just been looking at Willie Thomas’s teaching on ‘Pentatonic Pairs’ as a simple way of navigating ii-V-I progressions. Link

Here’s my adaptation of the technique using just four notes of the pentatonic scale (major or minor), i.e. avoiding the tonic. For each chord play the associated pentatonic pair in any order, or choose just one of the pair.

Partial pentatonic solutions to major ii-V-Is
added notes (chords 1 & 2) are ∆9ths

Partial pentatonic solutions to minor ii-V-Is
added notes (chord 1) are 4ths and m6ths

Not and end in itself, but a useful exercise nevertheless.

Chord-Tone Practice

In an earlier blog I noted the potential un-musicality of the popular chord–scale approach to jazz improvising. But there is an additional issue about this approach: i.e. the need to build skills from firm foundations, which this quote from Berklee makes clear:

‘… for beginner and intermediate-level players, the chord-scale approach has a potential downside. Many students begin studying chord scales early in their musical education and attempt to apply the knowledge acquired immediately on their instruments. Unfortunately, this often happens too soon in the student’s development as an improviser–before he or she has learned how to shape an appealing improvised melody by ear on a chord or chord progression using only, or mainly, chord tones.’ source

As a precursor (and possible antidote) to chord-scale theory, try improvising on chord tones instead, then incorporate this approach into your improvisations, as many great players do. Here’s an initial exercise to try:

Chord tone practice 01

Black Jazz & Freemasonry

Here’s a different take on Freemasonry. Can’t say I’m comfortable with it, but these articles remind us that there were times, places and circumstances in which Masonic Lodges played a less suspicious role in society.

Guardian article

Disinfo article

Nevertheless …

No Rights to The Rite

David Patrick’s brilliant adaptation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is no longer available, and the associated tour cancelled, following the threat of a bankrupting lawsuit by UK publishers Boosey & Hawkes. The Amazon CD review reads:

This stunning reworking for jazz octet of Igor Stravinsky’s masterwork retains all of the themes and most of the exquisite orchestration of the original composition. Improvisational sections appear organically out of Stravinsky’s score, allowing band members to be featured as individual soloists as the piece unfolds. Newspaper critics have described live performances of The Rite as “a triumph” and “a brash and brilliant homage”. With personnel drawn from Scotland, England and Germany, this international group is a world-class ensemble, completely at ease with each other and this incredibly complex music. David Patrick’s stylish contemporary piano playing has always worked hand in hand with his arranging and composition skills, whether writing for the dark contemporary edge of The Scottish Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, the smooth swing-feel of singers such as Todd Gordon, Carol Kidd and Jacqui Dankworth, or the avant-garde German cabaret performances of Kurt Weill obsessive singer-actor Bremner Duthie. The Times of London described Patrick’s arrangements as “exquisitely crafted throughout” and the BBC reported that “his virtuosity at the keyboard is matched only by his skills as an arranger and composer of the highest calibre”.

Ironic, given Stravinsky’s boast that mature composers steal (itself not an original assertion). See links below.

That bassoon opening

Stravinsky borrowings

Fortunately, I downloaded David Patrick’s album before the take-down.

Maybe jazz enthusiasts should boycott B&H.