Thursday, September 14, 2017

Caricature and Syncopation – The Art of The Unexpected

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In Art, caricature is generally a gross exaggeration and/or oversimplification of someone’s features.

In Jazz, syncopation comes from a rhythmic displacement created by articulating weaker beats or metrical positions that do not fall on any of the main beats of the bar, while stronger beats are not articulated.

Because both caricature and syncopation come as a surprise to the senses, they take us to unexpected places and cause a feeling of wonderment.

Indeed, because of its unpredictable nature, the eminent Jazz author, Whitney Balliett, exclaimed that Jazz was “The Sound of Surprise.”

Caricatures have a long association with political lampooning such as those that appear in editorial cartoons.

Movie stars are often the subject of caricatures in entertainment magazines.

The word “caricature” comes from the Italian “caricare” which means “loaded portrait.”

When human faces are drawn with a resemblance to some other animals, Italians call this “caricatura.”

While not, per se, antisocial, caricatures often carry a counter-culture connotation, something outside the mainstream of society or something that is unconventional.

Almost from its inception, Jazz, too, was deemed inappropriate music for normative society.

Jazz’s syncopated rhythms were startling to the measured-metered-ears of those in staid society. In their sedate and serious view, Jazz sounded reckless and wild and was sometimes referred to as “Jungle music.”

Of course, the rejection that parents gave Jazz when it first appeared in the 1920’s and 1930’s was just what it needed to make it more attractive to the younger generations of those decades.

Although it may sound herky-jerky, frenetic and out-of-control, the “irregularities” of Jazz syncopation are in reality a fairly sophisticated process.

The same can be said of caricature.

Before one can alter the prevailing standards of an art form, one has to master them.

Caricaturists are often highly accomplished artists who prefer to take their art in unexpected directions.

If you will, they become practitioners of “The View of Surprise.”

A similar level of sophistication is required of the Jazz musician in order to master the intricacies of syncopation as described below by Barry Kernfield in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. [pp. 87-88; paragraphing modified]

Irregular articulations.

“The character and vitality of jazz derive to a considerable extent from the irregularity of its rhythms. While rhythmic tension can be created by the setting up of conflicting patterns (…) between the explicitly stated beat and the lines played against it, greater subtlety results from rhythmic articulations that shift and change in their relation to the beat.

Syncopation, which is fundamental to jazz rhythm and ubi­quitous in both arranged and improvised pieces, involves the shifting of articulations from stronger beats to weaker ones or to metrical positions that do not fall on any of the main beats of the bar; the strong beats are silent, either because a rest occurs in those positions or because the articulation of a pre­ceding weak beat is tied over (…).

Syncopation depends for its effect on a persisting sensation of the beat against which the articulated notes set up strong rhythmic contradictions; unless the beat is preserved in another voice in the ensemble or is swiftly reasserted, the listener loses his consciousness of the metrical framework, or even of the beat itself, and the syncopated pattern ceases to be perceived as such.

Examples of syncopation are most obvious in (but by no means restricted to) performances in which a steady pattern of accents placed on the beat (for example, the two-beat formula of a ragtime bass line or an unchanging jazz-rock drum ostinato) provides an accompaniment against which syncopated lines are creat­ed. Some fundamental rhythmic devices in jazz are based on syncopated patterns (…).

In the process known as ‘turning the rhythm (or beat or time) around’ the meter is accidentally or deliberately rede­fined over a long period by the displacement of accents or the disturbance of phrase structures. The repositioning of strong and weak beats in the metrical unit of the bar, by means of dynamic accent, harmonic change, and the shaping of melodic lines, is at first perceived in conflict with the established meter, but gradually the ear is persuaded that the new positions are regular and a shift in the meter is thus achieved.

Exciting, even disorienting, effects can be created if different members of the ensemble pursue their own independent definitions of the meter.”

While there is no formal relationship between caricature and Jazz syncopation, frequent readers to the blog know of the editorial staff’s fondness for combing Art and Jazz in videos produced with the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities of StudioCerra.

In order to illustrate both caricature and Jazz syncopation the following video features the work of caricaturist Charles Bragg and the music of tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s quintet.

Both have their own websites which you can visit via and, respectively.

The music is Ralph’s original composition A Little Silver in My Pocket on which he is joined by Jim Beard on keyboards, Jon Herington on guitar, Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar and Ben Perowsky on drums.  The tune was named in honor of Ralph’s time as a member of Jazz great Horace Silver’s quintet and it can be found on his Movin’ On Criss Cross CD [#1066]

Although the song’ structure is not particularly complicated, it is made to sound so because of the way it is syncopated, particularly by bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Ben Perowsky.

A Little Silver in My Pocket has it all - rhythmic displacement, shifting meters, odd time signatures, turned time, irregular beats – all of which are more startling to the ear because of where Ben Perowsky places the articulated beats to create the underlying syncopation of the tune.

Speaking of Perowsky, stick around if you can to 5:37 minutes and listen to how Ben really heightens the tune’s fade-out with a series of super, drums licks.

Talk about “irregular articulations!”

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