What makes great jazz music? The most important thing to remember is that the music has to move you personally, go beyond what you hear with your ears and touch your heart and soul. But if you want to get into some technicalities, here are 6 quick things to try to identify if you're listening to really great jazz music, in New Orleans or anywhere in the world!
1. IMPROVISATION is truly the heart of all jazz music. When a performer forgets what is written on the page by the composer and begins to speak with his instrument from his head and heart, you know that you are now seeing a real conversation on stage. The musicians are conversing within a set structure, the language of music. And when you see musicians who play together regularly or are good enough to find that connection instantaneously, you can see that they are truly speaking to each other, listening and receiving, through a musical dialogue.
2. SYNCOPATION is the part of jazz that really deals with rhythm. In our universe of space and time, it all comes down to vibrations. Vibrations are either on or off. This constant cycle of crests and troughs, expressed through time, causes us to experience the universe. In music, when you fool with these vibrations in a rigid form (strict rhythm), it can be slower or faster - but when you really start to play with rhythm and put variety into this structure you get what's called "Syncopation." This is what you're relating to instinctively as you dance, and what really MOVES you in jazz music.
3. BLUE NOTES: So as the musicians communicate within their special language, they work with in scales and keys. Within the scales can be certain altered notes; they'll call those BLUE NOTES. It's about creating dissonance and harmony. It's tension and resolution.
4. FREEDOM: Within the ensemble framework, musicians may take solos. Or you may hear a vocalist interpreting a melody - a vocalist version of a solo or improv. This freedom within the language of music is what lead to defining the genre of jazz. It's the talent and skill of a musician to express the feelings so genuinely and purely that make really great jazz. The old saying "Live Free or Die" applies in jazz as much as anywhere!
5. INTERACTION: No man is an island. OK, that's not to mean their are not great jazz soloists such as pianists, harpist, guitarists or other instrumentalist, but the overwhelming majority of jazz music ranges from duos to ensembles of say 20 musicians (Think big band jazz).
6. And for the finale, so to speak: FEELING. Feeling is a key element because when all is said and done, it comes down to "feeling". How the musician feels about what he's playing, how you feel about what your listening to. What feelings for both are expressed from moment to moment. That element called feeling is what can also be called emotion. So in the final analysis, great jazz music is about expressing (for the musician) and hearing (for the audience) the great range of human emotion.
These are just a few tips from a seasoned musician who has spent his life listening to jazz music. The most important thing is - keep listening! Keep playing! Listen in your heart and soul, and you'll be able to identify what makes up truly great jazz.