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EVERY CLARINETIST MUST ENDURE comparison with Benny Goodman and his ability to play lyrically at fast tempos. I might go so far as to say that nobody else I can think of has been able to play as melodically at such tempos as Benny. That is one reason it was his trademark.

Some years later, when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker led the bebop onslaught, they played tempos that sometimes made Benny’s blistering excursions seem almost tame. So every saxophonist now endures comparison with Parker and every trumpet player with Gillespie and every pianist with Art Tatum just as every player of any other instrument seems destined to live up to a predecessor’s technical prowess.

But as Benny blazed, Duke Ellington and some other greats swung more slowly. Ellington’s groups rarely played fast yet they carved out a top spot in jazz history. And despite the bop revolution’s indelible influence, by the early 1950s the “Cool” era espoused more relaxed tempos and emphasized melodic improvisation with more carefully chosen notes.

Why, then, do so many listeners rate a musician’s ability by how many notes he can cram into a measure?

To inject controversy yet again I suggest a reason: Because those listeners are unable to differentiate between “music” and “instrumental sounds”. When the nuance a musician puts on a note or the choice of the note itself means little to the ear or the emotion, the intellect falls back on what it can quantify: Technique. But even the most precise torrent of notes impresses us for a relatively short time, then degenerates into stultifying gobbledygook.

Many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time preferred slower tempos and fewer notes. Perhaps two of the best known were trumpet players Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Compare their elegance to the meaningless runs you hear next time somebody tries to impress you with an endless string of 32nd notes at a wild gallop. The thrill you may feel as you anticipate whether the speedster will hit a wrong note inevitably will come in second to the emotional impact of a few important notes at just the right time. I bet if you could take just one recording to that proverbial desert island it would be something moderate and melodic.

Listen to your own favorite selections and see whether you agree.

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