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Evaluating jazz: A methodology developed for the stylistic analysis of modern jazz artists John Mclaughlin and Pat Metheny

Aaron Stroessner, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Evaluating Jazz details the methodology created that was utilized in the stylistic analysis of jazz guitarists John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny. The methodology was inspired by the book Guidelines for Style Analysis written by noted musicologist Jan LaRue and is accomplished through detailed observation. John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny are among most influential jazz guitarists of the modern era and expanded the jazz audience through vastly different means. Two representative albums are compared: Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire (featuring John McLaughlin) and Pat Metheny Group’s Still Life (Talking). LaRue’s methodology involves the separation of music into Five Elements (Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Form). In adapting LaRue to jazz, each element is then divided into Composed and Improvised Foregrounds, creating ten unique vantage points that are analyzed for concept, (simple/complex, disordered/ordered, sparse/dense, consistent/contrasting) mood, and eclecticism. While LaRue suggests these criteria, he doesn’t organize them into relevant hierarchies in Guidelines For Style Analysis, nor do any other sources researched, necessitating the creation of guiding principles in order to consistently apply criteria. While conceptual extremes are often used in describing other art forms, they are rarely used in music. Conceptual extremes broaden musical comprehension by considering the listener’s perspective. Although listeners might not be aware of musical features and terminology, they may be quite comfortable assessing whether or not a sample of music is complex, ordered, dense, or consistent. As suggested by LaRue, conceptual observations are reduced to quantifications of “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” which minimizes the influence of the analyst and ultimately allows for statistical evaluation to compare the composed and improvised expressions of both artists. Evaluation of the two artists reveals vast differences in concept: Rhythm and Sound rank as McLaughlin’s most complex composed and improvised elements, while Melody and Form rank as the most simple. Conversely, composed Melody and improvised Form rank as Metheny’s most complex elements, while composed Rhythm and improvised Sound rank as the most simple. Order, density, and contrast reveal various contributions to complexity and simplicity. The adaptation of LaRue’s Five Elements into composed and improvised categories provides insight into their relationship.

Subject Area

Music|Music education

Recommended Citation

Stroessner, Aaron, "Evaluating jazz: A methodology developed for the stylistic analysis of modern jazz artists John Mclaughlin and Pat Metheny" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI10102751.