If you like you can play the above video and listen while reading the blog post. Note though some links below go to other YouTube music vids, so you might want to listen to them one at a time. Or just read. Whatever.
Heading home via Leicester Square tube station the other day, on the concourse at the bottom of the escalators a busker was laying down some cool jazz licks on a keyboard. The synthesized beat was fast but otherwise nothing special, straight four-four, disco-ish. As I descended he was soloing over a nondescript chord change, or it might have been only one chord. His soloing was fluid and imaginative, but – as, it must be said, with many jazz tunes during the improvisatory section – it wasn’t clear what the piece actually was at this point. Not that it mattered – it needn’t have been anything in particular. I wasn’t even wondering what the tune was, just following the solo as I headed round the corner towards the platform for Euston. And right then, he stopped soloing and returned to the theme. I didn’t quite catch it at first, but it was tip-of-my-tongue familiar; a standard, but was it Moanin’? Blue Train? So What?
No. It was… Take Five. I’ve heard it all now, I thought.
Take Five is a Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck classic that was, I believe, written especially for an album of tunes in unusual time signatures. For the uninitiated, four-four or 4/4 or “common time” is, as its name suggests, the beat behind 95% of modern musical compositions from a heavy rock number to a nondescript pop song; probably only 3/4 (waltz time) comes close in terms of popularity. Take Five though was written in 5/4, or five beats to the bar rather than four. You don’t even really need to know this – it’s such a great piece of music that it simply sounds funky, not weird.
What sounds weird is if you try and chop out that extra beat and squeeze the melody into a normal 4/4 signature. I wish I’d had a tape-recorder on me at the time, as it’s hard to explain exactly what it sounded like, but the whole effect was a bit like the most recent version of the (appropriately enough, as we’re talking time) Doctor Who theme tune or something, with some glossing-over of that extraneous fifth beat to make it work. I still can’t decide whether the busker was a genius or an idiot, but I sure wish he hadn’t stopped soloing…
If you’re still not clear what I’m on about, or do but can’t imagine what Take Five sounds like with a beat-o-dectomy, musical comedian Bill Bailey does a useful (and very funny) demonstration of different time signatures in this clip from an old episode of Room 101. Enjoy.