Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs -- Jazzing It Up

Next installment of 5 in my 25 Favorite Opening Riffs. The parameters: 1. One riff per band. 2. No vocals. 3. Must occur right at the beginning of the record. This is all totally subjective, folks, and they're in no particular order. Enjoy!

So far we've been talking rock riffs, mostly, but here are a few that venture into jazz territory -- and announce those intentions right off the bat.

Moondance / Van Morrison

Two backbeat piano chords, repeated. A few light brushes on the drums. And then That Voice, slipping in like butter. "Oh, it's a marvelous night for a moon dance...."  Talk about Less Is More.  Eventually we'll get a divine jazz solo, plus Van's jazz-freak vocal swoops and scats (it's as if he becomes the saxophone himself); pianist Jeff Labes really gets to fly with his piano improv in the middle eight. But it's those first chords -- cool, laidback, effortlessly syncopated -- that set the whole swinging thing in motion. Sometimes you only need two measures....

Undun / The Guess Who

What? No Canadians so far?  I'm sure that violates broadcasting protocols north of the border, so let's slip in this 1969 gem. It's like "Moondance"'s minor-key cousin, with a little more Latino beat.  Guitarist Randy Bachman, later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (a best riff runner-up for "Taking Care of Business") has said he based this song around some new jazz guitar chords he'd just learned; it sure doesn't sound like any other Guess Who song. That opener is quick and crafty: Three guitar chords, syncopated, with a few smacks of offbeat drums, and a percussive vocal choo-pah! on the backbeat. (We'll soon see where they got THAT idea...)

Build Me Up Buttercup / The Foundations

Stairstep guitar strums, underlaid with tambourine -- and yes, bongos! -- it's so simple, and it's all about the syncopation. (Do you sense a theme here?)  Soon enough we get the second motif, layered on in counterpoint by a percussive electric piano; it's upbeat, happy pop, and just jazzy enough to make you snap your fingers and bounce in your chair. Oh, give in to it; just get up and dance, folks; you know you want to. And the singer hasn't even started yet!

Time of the Season / The Zombies

Start to finish, this is one magnificent song (read here my full take).

But today, let's focus on that brilliantly crafted intro. Like the opening of "Under Pressure," it's pure percussion, but put together like a Swiss cuckoo clock. As I dissect it, it's two beats on a tom-tom, one thump on the bass drum, then a hand clap, then a block, then a vocal gasp. All in rapid succession, intricately syncopated; it takes a downbeat plus two beats, no time at all. Repeat three more times, and it's what, eight seconds? But by the time Colin Blunstone starts singing, we're already spooked out. Brilliant.

House of the Rising Sun / The Animals

Hilton Valentine's unspooling guitar lick, hung on stairstep notes from Chas Chandler's bass, sets the whole song up, as if he's casting a fishing line and deftly reeling us in. Minor-key glissandos, rising ominously upwards, will soon be handed over to Alan Price's prophesying organ. (Which will eventually blow things into another stratosphere in the middle eight.)  I suppose this isn't technically jazz: It's more like mission revival meets the blues. But oh, is it dark, and OH is it compelling.  Still sends shivers up my spine, every time.

1 comment:

NickS said...


Now that I've seen the final group of songs, I feel like out of the five days this group includes the most personal or quirky choices -- not that I would argue against any of them, but compared to the other four groups, it seems less specifically focused on the classics.