Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Doors and jazz

When you've known a band or a song for as long as you can remember, it's easy to take it for granted, to paradoxically know every note of every measure of a song by heart, and yet, to have never given it a moment's thought until something happens to jolt you out of that familiarity or force you to look at it from a different perspective.

So it is with the Doors, whose music has been part of my world since I was first aware of the world. (In fact, the band's existence, from 1965 to 1971, neatly brackets my birth during the Summer of Love, July 1967, the same year as the release of their debut album.) This past week, I had the unusual experience of driving myself to and from work every day, and the two-album best hits collection came onto the stereo at a time I could listen attentively with minimal distractions and every opportunity to sing along as loud as I liked. Combine that with the fact that, a few weeks ago, I was thinking about drums from the perspective of playing Rock Band when I listened to a few of their songs and noted a few patterns (precisely zero use of the kick drum, and lots of use of the ONE-TWO-three-four pattern, two strong and two weak beats rather than the more common one-strong-three-weak), and you end up with me stopping to consider the songs in a way that's routine for music I came to know later in my life, but rare for stuff that's "always been there".

And the one striking thing that occurred to me is, there are no doubt people who love the Doors, and even a few specific songs, but who would say that they don't like jazz, and those people are insane. To say that the Doors have jazz influences is almost redundant: almost all popular music has at least some jazz influences, and it's no stop-the-presses moment to suggest that the Doors has more than many. And that's especially noticeable in John Densmore's drumming, and to a lesser extent in Ray Manzarek's keyboard playing; the guitar and vocals are both bringing more of other sensibilities to the music.

But the jazz influence is really pronounced compared to a lot of other bands about whom one speaks of a jazz influence. I was particularly struck by the song Riders on the Storm, one of my three favorite Doors songs ever (the others being Crystal Ship and Spanish Caravan). It occurred to me that if you found someone who had never heard Riders on the Storm and played a fairly faithful cover but with a less recognizable voice, and asked them what genre it was from, they are at least as likely to say jazz as rock. It's really more of a jazz song than a rock song, and most of what suggests rock is Jim Morrison's delivery, not anything about the instruments, melodies, composition, or rhythms.

Most likely, anyone who reads this (and doesn't outright disagree with me) will probably be thinking "well, duh, that's obvious," and that's really the point, it is obvious. But I bet we all have things that we've known from our early childhood about which there are obvious things we never noticed. And no matter how many times I realize that (and I've posted about it a few times before on this very blog), I still never quite find myself sitting down and going back over the first ten years of my life to give everything the critical appraisal it would have gotten had I first encountered it at the age of 13 or later. And neither does anyone else.

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