by Oren Levine
The Black American music we call Jazz is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the United States, but has evolved into a truly global music, with fans and performers around the world. We had an opportunity to meet and play with some of that global community during our trip to Thailand with the DC Jazz Collective in 2019.
I learned about the American roots and global reach of the music earlier, when I lived in Israel in the early 1990s. I studied jazz piano with the great Israeli pianist Nahum Perferkovich, who had emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In one of our first lessons, Nahum told me that the rhythm of jazz was rooted in American speech. It certainly wasn’t the music of Russian speech. Nahum told me how he had traveled to New York early in his career to experience first-hand the sounds and patterns of American English that influenced the music.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to travel and join jam sessions around the world. It was always a pleasure to find musicians in Germany, France, or Singapore who spoke and played the language of jazz even though they may not have had Nahum’s immersion in the American language that it draws from. I had a similar experience in Thailand, hearing performers play this music we love at the same level as their American counterparts.
As we heard from the Thai musicians who visited Washington, they bring the influences of their own language and culture to their jazz performances and compositions. The Thai language may not be the language of jazz, but as a tonal language it has its own music that accompanies the rhythms of Thai speech. For this composition, I looked to that music of the tones and traditional Thai music for inspiration, hoping that these might open up new melodic and harmonic structures and sounds that I hadn’t used in previous writing.
It’s worth noting that it’s not possible to play traditional Thai scales on the piano or other brass and woodwind instruments used in jazz. The traditional scale divides the octave into seven equal intervals, resulting in tones that don’t match the notes available on my piano.
“Mahidol Mood” started with some musical sketches based on the five basic tones of the Thai language, which I arranged in fourths. I spent a couple of days exploring those sounds and patterns, adding harmonies based on the melody and chromatic movements. This was a conscious attempt to avoid the chord progressions associated with traditional jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. The first section of the piece features a melody based on my interpretation of the Thai tones. The second section sets up a groove based on the harmonies of the first section, adding a pentatonic melody and opening for solos against a stop time rhythmic background.
I am grateful for the opportunity to experience the culture and jazz community of Thailand with the DC Jazz Collective. I think that experience helped me think outside the compositional box and create a work that captures some of the influences of that exchange.