Recognition. January 2009.

I have been playing jazz on the iPod through the hifi.

I just recognised a tune from the first note: a cymbal crash. I heard the sound and started singing (well, I call it singing…) the theme as it came in.

From that simple sound, I knew the tune and all its parts – the tempo, mostly – and knew all the rest.

It was of course a tune I knew well, and particularly like: Spiritual, by John Coltrane, from the Afro Blue Impressions album (which you can listen to for free on all of it. If you don’t know it, it is a brilliant album, full of exciting, life-affirming music. Go listen!)

I am pretty good at recognising artists from tunes, and often early on into a tune: a couple of notes in to what is playing now I knew it was Colin Steele – a trumpeter.

But I am still surprised that I recognised Spiritual from the first cymbal beat.

My last partner used to quiz me repeatedly on how I recognised pieces of music. I could never say; it annoyed the hell out of her. How do I know Coltrane when I hear him? How do I know that the saxophonist I’m listening to now is Andy Sheppard? (The really interesting thing is that I have just realised it is Andy Sheppard; but it is not an Andy Sheppard CD, which I had thought it was – it is a Gil Evans’ big band CD.)

Part of it is down to recognising the tune; a lot of it is down to recognising the style – but I don’t know how I recognise a musicians’ style: I know it’s Sheppard, but I can’t say why. Yesterday, shuffle threw up a piano trio piece, and I knew the bassist was Charlie Mingus. But I couldn’t say how I knew. Miles stands out on trumpet.

Part of it is in the music, too. I have little early jazz, so it is either going to be Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington – easy to tell apart. Small group 1940s jazz – either Lester Young (Count Basie) or Ellington again. The main practitioners of bebop are pretty easy to identify, too. Jazzrock? I have only a handful of jazzrock CDs, and they are ok to tell apart.

I suppose I should be good at recognising drummers, anyway. Art Blakey is a dead giveaway – something in the way he did his fills: there is something instantly recognisable about Blakey. Elvin Jones – the drummer most associated with Coltrane – had a unique style, too.

But I am still surprised to identify him off a single cymbal beat.

The human brain is really rather remarkable.


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