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Understanding Jazz by Vinson Hill

A Layman's Approach to an Original American Art Form

Understanding Jazz is a classic work by Vinson Hill, a well-know jazz pianist and educator. This recording originates back to 1970, but his instructional methods are just as effective today. Hill's publisher, Music Minus One, has been around for years offering sheet music with play-along recordings of real jazz musicians (similar to the well-known Jamey Aebersold series.) It's definitely the next best thing to having a live jazz combo at your beck and call.

The CD lasts nearly an hour, and convenient track separators make it easy to review specific mini-lessons. Hill keeps things moving right along, hitting on the major points of scales and chords, melody and harmony, rhythm, improvisation, and form. Hill narrates with simple terms and helpful allegories. He makes the mechanics make sense, and he never talks down to his listeners.

It's true that listening to jazz is the best way to learn about jazz, but a full concert program can overwhelm the uninitiated. By isolating each element, you can train your ear more efficiently than trying to take in everything at once. Even if you know your instrument well, it's useful to learn more about your counterparts. To drive his lessons home, Hill calls upon experience jazzmen on trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass, and drums. Lesson highlights include Hill's demonstration of bluesy "crushed notes" on piano, John Lee's exploration of each component of the drum kit, Harold Lieberman's contrasted trumpet mutes, and saxophonist Frank Viv's simulation of a French horn. Hill's background information on ABA and 12-bar-blues forms is especially enlightening.

Understanding Jazz is accompanied by a delightfully dated 40 page booklet, complete with musical notation and recommendations for further study. It was published with high school students in mind, but it would also make a nice course for younger students, "comeback musicians," or anyone with large gaps in their music education. Many aspiring jazz musicians are notoriously self-taught. If that describes you, rest assured you'll find more condensed information here than almost anywhere. New insights emerge with each listen, and $29.98 is lots cheaper than travel, tuition, or even Ticketmaster.

Music Minus One used to claim "world's largest catalog of participation records." Who knows if that's still true? Surely that honor has passed to some random Japanese karaoke publisher, but it doesn't matter. The point is--whether you intend to just listen, play along, or make an in-depth study--Vinson Hill will help you better understand jazz.

Understanding Jazz is an excellent musical primer for anyone wanting a better handle on what they're hearing. Highly recommended.

-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Vinson Hill
  • CD Title: Understanding Jazz
  • Genre: Traditional / New Orleans
  • Year Released: 1997
  • Reissue Original Release: 1970
  • Record Label: Music Minus One
  • Tracks: Swanee River, narrated examples
  • Musicians: Vinson Hill (piano, narration), Harold Lieberman (trumpet), Frank Viv (clarinet, sax), Alan Raph (bass trombone), Ronnie Markowitz (bass), John Lee (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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