Unlikely heroes of jazz-rock
Jan. 13, 2016
When I was in third grade, my dad bought me my first CD: a Greatest Hits record by The Ventures. I had heard “Walk Don’t Run” before and loved it, so Dad saw fit to enrich my appreciation of them.
Decades later, these songs have stuck with me, and I’m still finding new things to love about their music. Why write an article about a goofy surf rock band from the early 60s? Because now that I’ve learned more about how music works, I realize there’s so much more happening underneath the surface that I didn’t see before.
Surf rock, as a genre, is as gut-driven as it is formulaic. Surf bands have been led, very easily it seems, into the rut of simply playing the clichés: hot-rodding tremolando Telecaster riffs, noir-esque chordal vamps, indulgent drum breaks, and the rest of the list of well-worn figures that make up the usual surf recipe.
And The Ventures did all of these constantly, of course, but they avoided the pitfalls into banality everywhere they could. They seasoned their lyrical melodies with tonal and dynamic changes, all finely tuned to renew the listener’s interest at every turn. And in doing so, they rivaled the talents of a first-rate arranger. There’s a reason these guys got work doing soundtracks.
And though they have plenty of songwriting talent on their own, they were aware enough of their music-historical environment to bolster their repertoire with inspired and unexpected selections from the Great American Songbook—although I definitely didn’t know this when I was in third grade.
Here are a few examples; compare the different versions, and you’ll notice they’ve been transformed so dramatically from their jazz-standard counterparts that it’s not easy to recognize them.
- “Perfidia” is by Alberto Domínguez and popularized by Glenn Miller.
- “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is a theme from a ballet score by Richard Rodgers.
- “Lullaby of the Leaves” is one you’d hear crooned by Billy Eckstine or Ella Fitzgerald.
All these have been suitably Venturized, marrying a cinematic atmosphere of grandeur and adventure with the intrepid appeal of guitar-driven rock and roll.
The ideas of jazz harmony are at work here, but they're so well-bonded into the Ventures alloy that those elements are indistinguishable from the whole. I would argue it’s a very early and direct form of jazz fusion. But typically, the “jazz fusion” approach is to add harmonic elaborations on top of more basic rock forms. The Ventures do the opposite.
Instead, they take complex and sophisticated jazz material, and transform it into something more Spartan, streamlined, built for speed. They remove the showy chordal extensions—preferring triads whenever possible—and they machine the melodic forms down to their most basic designs. Louis Armstrong would be proud, and so would Link Wray.
The result is a sophistication that’s also widely appealing, unpretentious, durable, and immune to the insularities of both rock and jazz purists. Simply put, it’s rock music with extraordinary depth, but never at the expense of being fun; and that’s why I know you’ll love it as much as I have for all these years.