Music. When it comes right down to it, the only real parallel that can be drawn with FC Barcelona is music. For four years, this club, under its coach Pep Guardiola, made music. I don’t want to go into the litany of titles, successes, records. Been there, done that. I want to talk about the creative delight of this club of ours, and the magic that it worked under its bandleader.
You get to thinking about music, and you start to wonder about types of tuneage. Classical is too rigid, even in its most modern, fearless iterations. It’s still a collection of notes on a page that you play until there are no more notes. Rock ‘n’ roll is amazing, but we need something with more virtuosity. Yes, there are virtuoso rock players, but too often their music is soulless. Blues? Nope. Again, great music, but too often simplistic and formulaic, even at its highest levels, unfortunately.
Jazz …. yeah. It’s music that has a structure, but one in which its players are free to deviate from in the solo setting, even as the band takes flight, coming back together to re-state the tune’s melody, revel in its syncopated delights. Jazz is it, the only music that, to me, encapsulates what the eye sees as our club does its thing on the pitch.
With this in mind, we’re going to take the starting XI and a few key alternate players, and figure out what jazz musicians they would be. The first few will have videos here, with links for the rest. I hope that jazzheads out there will come up with their own performer-player matches. Now, let’s have some fun:
Pep Guardiola: Count Basie. As a composer, Basie went the great Duke Ellington one better. His exploration of rhythm, pace, meter and use of the big band redefined the genre in a way that made him (prior to his shuckin’ and jivin’ days), a new style of big band leader. Because Basie’s bands were so much more than glorified dance ensembles — they were hard-driving, creative jazz ensembles. The below clip is from 1950. The jazz is straight, but it isn’t. The rhythm is jumping, with chord structures that show off the music’s roots in the blues. Simple but adventurous, like the tactical notions of the man who created a team for the ages. Everybody knows exactly what to do, where to be. It’s the whole that is irresistible.
Messi: Cecil Taylor. Innately physical, robustly so, with no seeming regard for how anything was done before, even as he uses traditional jazz structure to present his music. It isn’t that difficult to see Taylor play, hear his music and think of Messi. Taylor was educated at the very traditional Juilliard, knowledge that, like Messi’s Masia training, allowed him to have the knowledge base from which to depart from the structure. What makes Taylor so amazing is the way that he, and only he, puts notes together. Watch a mazy, crazy Messi run in which the defense is absolutely certain that it knows what is going to happen next, then is confounded by a moment of absolute genius. Taylor is the freest of free jazz players, as Messi is an unfettered football genius.
Xavi: Art Blakey. Blakey is renowned for being a drummer bandleader that often didn’t take a solo, preferring to lead from the back, with a Stonehenge-like sense of rhythm and timing. And he made everybody around him great, calming showboating soloists with a mighty tom-tom thwack, buttressing and augmenting the quality of musicians from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis. It was difficult to understand how amazing Blakey was, just as it is sometimes difficult (or was for a while, until he became too obvious to ignore) to understand how amazing Xavi is. “He just makes these simple little passes,” just as Blakey drops in exquisite fills, or explodes into life at the precise moment that a song begins to lag rhythmically.
Iniesta: Thelonious Monk. What Monk did made sense to somebody, maybe not even Monk. He created a new language for jazz piano, aggressively using both right and left hands in a revolutionary way. Pianists often favor a hand or more traditionally, use one for rhythm and the other for solo flights of fancy. Monk’s compositions relied upon blocky, almost child-like approaches to the instrument, herky-jerky, up-and-back structures that almost sound like he’s creating a song as he goes along. Witness Iniesta, shuffling along the baseline, playing with a defender’s rhythm before sliding past him with a completely improvised move. Footballers can do what Iniesta does, as jazz pianists can do what Monk did — after seeing the initial moment of creation. But the artist has moved on.
David Villa: Lee Morgan. Stylish, straight and to the point, Morgan’s playing was known for its beautiful melody and unerring sense of style. That was, however, coupled with a virtuosity that sneaked up on you. Morgan wasn’t fond of stratospheric runs that ascended the register, or blizzards of notes to show how fleet his fingers were. As with Villa and his uncanny sense of a match’s rhythm and pace, Morgan was all about the whole song rather than a soloist’s individualism. Even as bandleader, he was in perfect tune with the rest of the ensemble. You’d never catch him running off on a John Coltrane-esque flight of solo fancy. Watch how Villa keeps an eye on the man with the ball, mirroring his moves, sliding up and back, his move a moment of logic rather than logic-defying, a la Messi.
Alexis Sanchez: Johnny Griffin. Dynamic muscularity characterized Griffin’s playing, along with a seeming inability to sit still. Detractors said that Griffin’s playing was “everywhere all at once,” dense clusters of notes that took what John Coltrane started with his modal progressions, but used them as a lever into bold, aggressive solos that were innately musical. Then all of a sudden, he would go someplace weird, even as the band, because of the structure of his work, knew exactly what he was doing. It’s no coincidence that Sanchez seems to already have formed a bond with his attack mates. His constant, dynamic motion nonetheless finds him in places that make perfect sense, at the ready for a teammate who doesn’t quite know how, but voila ….
Busquets: Dizzy Gillespie. Equally capable of leading his own band or perfectly echoing the motions of a genius bandmate, Gillespie was the man who catalyzed the movement, the collection of players that became bebop. His playing was smart, elegant and perfect. He was the best trumpeter on the planet in his day, but you rarely knew it from his playing as much as from the way that every song that he played, everything that he did, just made sense. His solos always set up the next player flawlessly, whether he was bandleader or genius accompanist, as he essentially is in this clip with the great Charlie Parker.
Valdes: Ray Brown. The bass player’s bass player, Brown had a reassuring, immense sound that always, always worked. His job was support — musical support that formed the backbone of every song, even if he never took a solo. He drives the tune as Valdes often drives play from the back, after reassuringly cradling the ball in his arms. Brown will thump and snap if the song calls for it. But usually, he’s smooth and controlled, always there even when he isn’t obviously there, at the service of the composition.
Alves: Jean-Michel Pilc. Pilc is a remarkable pianist, a virtuoso who is also a trickster, performer of music that will not sit still, rhythmically or intellectually. Pilc is here, Pilc is there, delicate notes when required, staccato flurries of tone clusters at other times or full-on free playing elbow bombs. He’s equally adept driving a song along, or filling in with his band in an ensemble approach of exquisite beauty but always, always, you get the humor in Pilc’s music, the simple joy of a person who is among the best in the world at what he does, letting it all hang out.
Pique: Ken Vandermark. You might not know Vandermark unless you’re a devotee of the Chicago school of free/improvised playing, or happen to frequent European jazz clubs, where you will often find Vandermark. This reedist began life hiding behind his charts, rigidly making his way through a song before growing in comfort and stature as a bandleader. Now, he’s often chartless, sensing what a song needs, driving it at times, laying in the cut at other times. But even as a bandleader and soloist, he always has the unit at heart, even when ambition makes him flub the occasional note or phrase.
Puyol: Peter Brotzmann. You have to be a 24-karat, stone-cold man to even think about taking the stage with Brotzmann, the most aggressive, brawny, tsunami of a saxophonist to ever take a jazz stage. His playing is all strength and stamina, feet planted, big slabs of sound emanating from his saxophone in a way that is omnipresent. He demands the absolute best from every band member, each and every time. If you don’t deliver, Brotzmann will simply blow over you like Puyol, charging hither and yon like a mop-topped fireman, making plays that teammates are either too timid to make, or not sufficiently committed to make.
Abidal: John Coltrane. Omnipresent, but in a much cooler, calmer way than Puyol’s kamikaze attack, Abidal plays with an almost indescribable beauty. Listen to how Coltrane stacks note upon note, cluster upon cluster, modal melodies that come at the listener in an almost dizzying array of sound. Coltrane’s playing wasn’t as much a solo as an extended meditation upon the melody, always cool, always there and always reassuring. Modern saxophonists hurl down gauntlets for the next soloist. Coltrane’s melodious edifices left off where the song and the next player needed. No more, no less.
Keita: Charlie Rouse. This reedist was best known as Monk’s saxophonist. A brilliant player in his own right, Rouse shone because he understood how to co-exist with genius, how to do exactly what the band needed to make Monk’s music make the most sense. Always calm, always with the right note, Rouse was a smooth, stylish accompanist who held down the band in a way that a rhythm section often did. When Monk was driving his bassist and drummer nuts, listen (if you go exploring) the way that Rouse becomes the rhythm. It’s brilliant, almost metronomic. Like Keita, as he echoes and augments what Xavi and/or Iniesta do.
Mascherano: Mike Reed. Quick. Identify the bandleader in this clip. Drummer Reed is a Chicago player who is involved in countless ensembles. He reads a song, and is capable of giving it exactly what it needs. In this case, it’s fills, dump truckloads of fills, augmenting the front men, getting their backs when they need a rhythmic goad, sliding in with a burst of rhythm that always, always keeps the song moving. Sonically, Reed has your back. The drums are another melody instrument, becoming part of the ensemble rather than a mere rhythm instrument. Reed does everything, as Mascherano will stop, tackle, rise and bring the ball forward on the attack, delivering it to a midfielder, then receding.
Pedro: Matthew Shipp. Wow. This cover of “Autumn Leaves,” by the colossal reedist David S. Ware, features Shipp, a pianist who also has a couple of other groups. But you almost have to listen through Ware’s brawn to get your mind around what Shipp is doing, which is essentially running around the basic melody, coming in as needed with an artful, dynamic cascade of notes before running away again, but never far. If you look, No. 17 is always there, always running, always finding his way to unoccupied spots in the melody that is Barca just as Shipp, a titan in his own right, does with Ware.
So. I wanted to focus on this year’s crew, before any additions or subtractions are made. And no, I don’t have everybody, such as the Killer Bs who made their way into the side. And I’d love to tell you that it was a struggle to come up with parallels for players and musicians, but with the exception of Pedro, who taxed the font a wee bit, the rest were, for me, as obvious as night and day. At any rate, have fun, and as usual, thanks for reading.