Talking and taking the words away: a visit from Stefon Harris (The State of the Blues, Part 2)

In a recent master class with my students at UVM, Stefon Harris talked about the connection between language and melody in an improvised solo.  While discussing the performance of a student group, he said: ‘The details of rhythm are connected to the way that you speak.  You’ve heard people say that music, it’s a language and we’re communicating with each other when we’re on stage…well, it literally comes from language.  So when I’m playing, for example, I’m always talking…sometimes people think that I’m singing, but actually I’m talking and I’m taking the words away.’  He then demonstrated this by first speaking in scat syllables, then mixing them with English words: ‘ba-da du da-da, du-du da-da, du da-da…you understand, da-dl-ah?  Oh! Now you see my phrasing…’  He then used the vibraphone to add pitches to his spoken scat syllables.   During this quick demonstration Harris made his instrument mimic his own voice laughing and asking the question ‘whaaaat?’ with a rise in pitch.  (Making instruments laugh is a long tradition in jazz; Mr. Harris’ laughing vibraphone reminded me of Clark Terry’s trumpet laughs in solos such as ‘Incoherent Blues’, which have been echoed more recently by his former student, Wynton Marsalis.)

Harris then asked the student group on stage to play a blues with him, during which he played a solo in which his phrasing on the vibes was guided by his simultaneous vocalizations (or perhaps the other way around, or perhaps both.)  After a few choruses, he stopped and said: ‘I’m not playing the rhythm, I’m not thinking the triplet, I’m just talking, I’m telling a story.  So when you do hear a melody, it should be connected to that type of fluid communication.’

A rising inflection evoking the pitch pattern of an inquisitive speaker also makes an appearance in a solo by Harris that I have been studying with my improvisation class at UVM.  It’s the third and final chorus of his solo on Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s D flat blues ‘Centerpiece’ from the Rodney Whitaker album ‘Ballads and Blues: The Brooklyn Sessions.’  (With Stefon’s permission, I have included my transcription of this solo below.)  In this chorus, Harris brilliantly uses a number of basic elements from what I call ‘the improviser’s toolbox’: varied uses of a repeated motive (the same two beat idea is used in m. 2 and 5, but on two different beats and in two different registers), referencing the original melody of the tune (in m. 4), and ‘making the changes’ i.e. using new notes ‘made available’ by a particular chord change, as he does in m. 9 and 13, where he uses notes that are not part of the pentatonic-based pitch collections he employs in m. 1-8.  One of the most challenging tools to use in the improviser’s toolbox, space, is demonstrated by the full measure of rest in m. 6.  (One of my students is working on transcribing the rest of this solo, so I’ll be adding the earlier choruses soon.)  In light of his comments from the master class, it is also clear that Stefon is not using each of these techniques in an isolated, abstract way, but using them to serve the overall goal of ‘playing’ spoken phrases rooted in language and movement.

Before the discussion of the connection between spoken language and melody, Stefon began his comments on the performance of my student’s trio by discussing the connection between full-body movement (i.e. dance) and rhythmic awareness in musical performance.  He said: ‘When you played the intro the first time I noticed that you weren’t really moving your feet.  And the thing is rhythm, it’s primarily connected to coordination.  It has nothing to do with triplets and sixteenth notes or anything like that, it’s like, can you rub your belly and make your hand go that way, right (pats head)?  So it starts with this idea of can you move your body…(taps foot on 2 and 4 and vocalizes syncopated rhythms)…you see what I’m singing is so connected to the way I’m moving my body (here he drew out the word ‘body’)…you understand, it’s a whole body experience, it starts with how you move first…so before you play this intro I want us to become a unit by tapping our feet together…and actually tapping is too polite.’  Here he had the trio stomp their feet together in time to the tempo of the song.  After this exercise the students did indeed play the song with more rhythmic connection.

Stefon’s comments reminded me that I (like many piano teachers) suggest that my students not tap their feet while playing the piano, as it adds one more task to the already complex multitasking of playing the piano with both hands.  This advice was handed down to me from a number of my teachers, and I think it can be helpful in the context of trying to simplify various aspects of a piece while practicing, in the same way one works to find the simplest fingering for a passage or practices one hand separately.  However, Stefon’s comments and his demonstration at the master class reminded me that swing feel, or indeed any dance rhythm, in music is always an expression of a wider cultural phenomenon that includes the physical act of dance.  He reminded me that certain kinds of moving before playing and certain kinds of moving while playing can improve a musical performance.  Stefon’s way of having the students move together before playing together resulted in a more rhythmically connected performance.

Stefon was also encouraging and yet persistent in requiring the students to not only listen to one another, but leave space in their playing to react to one another’s improvised ideas.  This was a great reminder that while music, like any form of communication, requires everyone to contribute ideas, it is also requires everyone to leave space: not just space to take a breath before your own next idea, but space to hear the ideas of others, so you can say (or play) something that shows you have been listening and supports a collective conversation (rather than an isolated monologue.)  Stefon’s work in getting students to listen and react to one another reminded me that listening is not simply waiting quietly for someone else to leave a space you can fill with your own ideas, but actually taking in and considering the ideas of others enough to be able to reproduce, rephrase or react to them yourself.

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Harmonic Moss, Part 5: The ‘B’ form voicing of the minor ii-V-i progression

The voicing which Phil Degreg calls the ‘B form’ of the minor ii V i progression starts with a clear demonstration of why Thelonious Monk referred to the minor 7 flat five chord as a ‘minor sixth chord with the sixth in the bass’.  The voicing of the minor seven flat five chord shown here is also, with a different bass note, a root position voicing of a minor 6th chord.  The example of a melodic pattern that outlines the voicing is adapted from Charlie Parker’s solo on the big band version of What Is This Thing Called Love (the first six notes are my addition).  Another pattern which outlines this voicing is m. 13 to m. 16 in Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House.’   The minor ii-V-i pattern shown in #5 can also be combined contrapuntally with the ‘Donna Lee’ pattern in the previous post.

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Harmonic Moss, Part 4: the ‘A’ form voicing of the minor ii-V-i progression

The previous posts in the ‘Harmonic Moss’ series dealt with various voicings, scale outlines and various melodic patterns for the major ii-V-I progression. Although I have another post, ‘What Is This Scale Called?’, which deals with scale choices over the minor ii-V-I progression, specifically with reference to two Charlie Parker solos on ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, the next two posts deal with voicings for the minor ii-V-I and ways of relating scale choices and melodic pattern to them.

This voicing is the one Phil Degreg refers to as the ‘A form voicing’ of the minor ii-V-i, but it can also be referred to as the ‘off the 7th’ voicing, in other words, the one where the rootless three note voicings for the ii chord (which is typically a minor 7 flat five) and the i chord (which is conventionally expressed as a minor 7th chord but can also be a minor 6, minor 6/9 or a minor-major 7th chord) both have the seventh degree of the chord on the bottom of the voicing. One pattern that correlates with this voicing is m. 20-21 of the Miles Davis-Charlie Parker tune ‘Donna Lee’. (Although Charlie Parker actually plays the third note and fifth notes a half step higher than shown here, the version I have used, which is consistent with how the tune has typically been published and played, reflects  a more ‘inside’ scale choice.) In step 4 of the sheet below I suggest this pattern as one of those that I suggest practicing in one hand with the ‘A form’ voicing of the minor ii-V-I in the other hand.

Besides ‘What Is This Thing’, other jazz standard tunes in which two-bar minor ii-V and/or the four bar minor ii-V-i occur at least twice include Luis Bonfa’s ‘Black Orpheus’, Deitz and Schwartz’ ‘Alone Together’, Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Woody N’ You’ and ‘A Night In Tunisia’, Kosma and Mercer’s ‘Autumn Leaves’, Victor Young’s ‘Stella by Starlight’ and ‘Beautiful Love’, Toots Theilmans’ ‘Bluesette’, Harry Warren and Gordon’s ‘There Will Never Be Another You’, Jerome Kern’s ‘Yesterdays’ and George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up The Band’.

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Harmonic Moss, Part 3: Route 37, a voicing-based melodic line

This melody line  combines patterns from the posts on one-bar ii-V progressions (‘Give it up for the root (position pattern)s‘ and ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris‘)  and with those introduced in the posts on longer ii-V-I patterns (Harmonic Moss Parts 1 and 2 and Six Degrees of Bud Powell, part ii-V-I).   The written left-hand comping models the concept of creating a conversational approach to a two-chord progression by using left hand voicings as ‘bookends’ for an intervening right hand phrase, as well as the concept of using rhythmic placement of chords to accent melodic anticipations (i.e.places where the melodic line lands on the next change a half beat or more before the appearance of the chord symbol and/0r the arrival of the change in a quarter note bassline, a very common occurrence in a bop line.)   A rough recording of the tune can be heard here.

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Simple Paris Dancers: a bop-style rhythm changes

‘Simple Paris Dancers’ is a through-composed bebop-style melody line on the ‘Rhythm Changes’ progression. ‘Rhythm Changes’ refers to the chord changes from the George and Ira Gershwin tune ‘I Got Rhythm’, which has been used by jazz players in many eras as a harmonic basis for original compositions. The changes used in my tune reflect the more harmonically intricate approach that bop player-composers like Charlie Parker (in ‘Anthropology’, ‘Shaw ‘Nuff’ and many other tunes) and Benny Harris (in ‘Crazeology’, aka ‘Bud’s Bubble’, aka ‘Little Benny’) took to the form. This contrasts with the approach of swing-era players who tended to look at the progression as a series of larger harmonic regions; one example of this is Lester Young’s solo on ‘Lester Leaps In’.

My tune is based on the bop rhythm changes outline.  I am posting only the recording of the outline and not notating it in keeping with Barry Harris’ practice of teaching jazz theory concepts by ear and without staff notation. (We do assemble the line slowly in class and use a kind of rap to aid with memorization of it.) In order to give a complete performance of ‘Simple Paris Dancers’ or any other rhythm changes tune (in other words, a performance that includes an improvised solo), it is helpful to practice some sort of melodic outline of the progression using scales (as in the pre-bop rhythm changes outline we study), or arpeggios, or a combination of both as in the bop rhythm changes outline. Practicing the outline should help with giving you an understanding of the melodic and harmonic context of rhythm changes, both conceptually and in terms of physical memory. For pianists, the scale outline helps map out the B-flat major topography of the progression. Although the scale outline is fairly repetitive, it is intended to prepare you for improvising on rhythm changes in the same way that running laps around the perimeter of a playing field warms you up to play a game. It familiarizes you with the landscape in which you will be playing (largely B flat major, but also the 7th scales in D, G, C and F) and the general pace at which you need to move through the landscape (eighth notes). It also models the 7th chord harmony of the progression through its ‘7 up and down’ patterns which emphasize the structure of the chords by stopping short of the octave and the concept of leaving space in solos with the rests at the end of each scale.

The title of the tune refers to three of the tune’s melodic sources. I began composing this tune as an eight-bar example for my improvisation class to show how the Shaker hymn tune ‘Simple Gifts’ has the same basic harmonic and phrase structure as ‘I Got Rhythm’ and can be converted into a jazz line by adding swing eighth notes, the bop rhythmic approach of emphasizing upbeats as well as beginning and ending most phrases on upbeats (two instances of what Hal Galper calls ‘forward motion’ in a melodic line), and bop-style chromaticism (or what Barry Harris calls ‘half-steps’.) I’ve revised the tune a lot since it started life as a class example, but the remnants of bar 1 (‘tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free’) and bar 9 (‘when true simplicity is gained’) of ‘Simple Gifts’ can still be seen in the corresponding measures of my tune. ‘Paris’ refers a part of my tune where I use a pattern from bar 2 of John Lewis’ ‘Afternoon in Paris’ makes an appearance, and ‘Dancers’ refers to a pattern from Duke Elllington and Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ that I use. Both of those patterns are also discussed in my blog Give It Up For The Root (Position Pattern)s! It also uses in m. 3 what Barry Harris calls the ‘turnaround lick’ (which can be found in the tune Reets and I by the similarly named Benny Harris); in m. 10 it uses what Barry Harris calls the ‘4 lick’ (which can also be found at the end of Charlie Parker’s ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo), and throughout the bridge it uses the half step between the root and the 7th of the ‘seventh scale’ (a.k.a. mixolydian scale.)

A solo piano recording of ‘Simple Paris Dancers’ (in a slightly different earlier version) can be heard here. I welcome comments of all kinds, including your favorite tunes and solos on the rhythm changes progression (tunes in the Real Book that use it include ‘Anthropology’, ‘Cottontail’ and ‘Dexterity’, but rhythm changes tunes have also been recorded by artists from Nat King Cole to Phish) or thoughts on practicing scale outlines. I’d also consider posting recordings of ‘Simple Paris Dancers’ being performed solo or with accompaniment on any instrument followed by a chorus of solo.

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Everybody's Inside Blues: 'making the changes' in a blues line

‘Everybody’s Inside Blues’ is a through-composed melody line on the twelve-bar ‘jazz blues’ progression.  A concert chart for the tune is below; here’s a link to a recording of it from a gig I played with guitarist Steve Blair and bassist Jeremy Hill.  It is written in the style of Charlie Parker compositions on those changes such as ‘Cheryl’, ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’ and ‘Chi-Chi’, and illustrates a couple of concepts related to improvising on the blues form. It’s a melody line that ‘makes the changes’ (jazz terminology for outlining the chord progression by highlighting the differences between chords.)  In order to understand what this means, it is crucial to study and learn to play the basic seventh scale outline of the F blues progression. (The seventh scale outline can be heard at the beginning of the linked recording; it is followed by two more choruses that break the the seventh scale outline down to a pentascale outline and then a triad outline.  Learning one of these simpler versions first may be helpful if your technique is more basic.)  Pianists should learn the scale outline with their right hand while playing the chord progression in their left, and players of all other instruments should practice playing the outline with the accompaniment that can be heard at 1:24 after the choruses of scale outline.

Many improvisers, particularly rock and traditional blues players, take an approach to improvising on the blues that is less chord-oriented and uses one or two scales (as in Eric Clapton’s solo on Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’). The one-or-two-scale approach to improvising on the blues is a musical game where working within a limited space challenges the player to come up with multiple strategies for using that space, something like half-court basketball.  ‘Making the changes’ is a musical game with more goals, using a more harmonically complex version of the blues progression, that many jazz improvisers engage in either for an entire solo (as in Charlie Parker’s solo on ‘Billie’s Bounce’) or for certain sections of a solo (such as Art Farmer in his solo on Sonny Clark’s ‘Cool Struttin’. This can be heard at 2:11 in the linked recording.) This approach to the blues could be compared to slalom skiing, where the time of an average event is comparable to the time of an average drive to the hoop in half-court basketball, but the skier has to navigate a number of pre-ordained obstacles and cover more ground during that time, while the half-court hoops player battles a moving obstacle in a more limited space.

The seventh scale outline of the F blues indicates the kinds of parameters within which jazz players work when they strive to ‘make the changes’. The most prevalent scale in the outline is the one built off the root of the tonic chord, the F 7th scale (the F major scale with the 7th flatted), which is used in bars 1, 3-4, 7 and 11). The three other scales in the outline each alter the pitch collection of the F 7th scale by a single note: the Bb 7th scale makes an Ab ‘available’ in bars 2, 5 and 6 (replacing the A in the F 7th scale), the alteration of the F 7th scale in m. 8, which accompanies the arrival of the D7b9 chord, makes an F# available (replacing F natural for that bar), and the C 7th scale in m. 9-10 and 12, which outlines the Gm7 and C7 chords, makes an E natural available in those bars (replacing the E flat).

From the perspective of the contemporary jazz player, being able to play the ‘make the changes’ game is an essential skill which frees one from having to navigate a twelve-bar progression with one or two scales (which might be compared to the situation of having to play a 9-hole golf course with one or two clubs.) ‘Everybody’s Inside Blues’ also involves another game that improvisers play, particularly within the bop tradition: re-using a melodic motive two or more times and placing it in a different rhythmic context, harmonic context or key each time to give it a fresh sound. This game is not, like ‘making the changes’, an essential component of the improviser’s toolbox but is rather a specialty of certain players, like base stealing in baseball. Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ (discussed in my Viral Rhythm post) and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Straight No Chaser’ are both composed melodies where this kind of rhythmic re-use occurs. Charlie Parker was adept at playing the rhythmic displacement game in improvised solos, such as in the bridge of his solo on ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ where he uses the same three-beat lick two bars apart, with the second use transposed down a half step and moved from beat 3 to beat 2 of the measure. (This is discussed in my post What Is This Scale Called?)

‘Everybody’s Inside Blues’ has a number of instances where licks are re-used in a different context.   After using what Barry Harris calls the ‘5’ lick in the first three beats, I use what he calls the ‘4’ lick in two different transpositions (on the first two beats of meas. 6 and 10).  For an explanation of the 5,4,3 and 2 licks, see my post on Charlie Parker’s ‘Anthropology’.  It also uses a lick borrowed from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Hotter Than That’ solo in two different rhythmic placements (the ‘and’ of 1 in m. 4, the ‘and’ of 3 in m. 10).

These borrowed phrases are an example of another non-essential but fairly common practice in jazz improvisation: quoting melodic phrases from various sources, such as popular songs, classical pieces or other improvised solos.  Great examples of this include Clark Terry’s solo on ‘Straight No Chaser’,  which begins with a quote from ‘Frankie and Johnny’, and Dexter Gordon’s solo on ‘Sticky Wicket’, which begins with the same quote and moves on to a number of others, including ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ and ‘Entrance of The Gladiators.’

Besides using the word ‘inside’ in the jazz sense of working within the harmonic structure, the title also refers to a spring break Amber and I spent one March in Montreal, where temperatures were so frigid that we, along with much of the city’s population, did most of our walking travel in the city’s many underground tunnels.

As always, I encourage comments of any kind on this post.  I also encourage you to try writing your own through-composed melody line on blues changes that uses a line based in eighth notes to ‘make the changes’.

 

 

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You Are Here: a melodic study on ‘All The Things You Are’

‘You Are Here’ is a tune I composed based on the chord changes of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein tune ‘All The Things You Are’.  (Recordings and charts for it are below.)   One of the ways I use this tune is as an etude for players and singers who are working on improvising on ‘All The Things.’  Before one tries to improvise on the chord progression of this tune, it is important to first learn its original melody and chords, as well as a basic scale outline of its chord progression.   Click here for a recording of a scale outline which outlines the key areas of the ‘All The Things’ progression (Ab, C, Eb, G and E major) using major scales.  (The outline is played on piano with LH voicings but can be transposed an octave lower for other instruments.)

The melodic inspiration for ‘You Are Here’ comes from the compositions and solos of pioneering bebop pianist Bud Powell, who I have listened to since my teenage years and transcribed since my undergraduate years in college.  The inspiration for how to construct the tune came from a transcription and analysis by Katharine Cartwright of Ella Fitzgerald’s solo on her version of ‘St. Louis Blues’ from ‘The Birthday Concert – Live In Rome’ .  (Cartwright’s work on this solo can be read in the collection Ramblin’ On My Mind.) Cartwright shows how Fitzgerald built the solo almost completely out of quotes from other tunes, including jazz melodies and show tunes.    This process, which I think for Fitzgerald was partly preconceived and partly spontaneous, is what I would call ‘melody collage’.  For players who have studied the original melody and chord progression of a tune like ‘How High The Moon’ but still find it challenging to improvise on, I think that learning to play a melody collage on the same progression (such as Charlie Parker’s ‘Ornithology’, discussed below) and being aware of its sources, or even composing a melody collage of one’s own, can be a helpful in working toward greater fluency and spontaneity.  (Fitzgerald mentioned a number of times that she was not naturally disposed toward singing blues tunes, which would suggest that she may have found it challenging to improvise melodically on them as well.)

Cartwright’s work on Ella Fitzgerald led me to analyze Benny Harris’ bop standard ‘Ornithology’ in an earlier blog post and show how Harris’ composed tune, like Fitzgerald’s solo, was assembled from a vocabulary of ‘licks’, but in case of ‘Ornithology’ Harris was drawing all the pieces of his collage from the melodic vocabulary of a single player, Charlie Parker.  ‘Ornithology’, like some of Harris’ other lines, is based on the chord changes from an earlier tune (‘How High The Moon’), but also works as a countermelody to that tune.   In ‘You Are Here’, I challenged myself to compose a melodic line which, like ‘Ornithology’, is based on a pre-existing set of chord changes  (‘All The Things You Are’), uses excerpts from the melodic language of a single player (Bud Powell) and also works as a countermelody to the tune from which its chord changes are borrowed.

This tune can be used as a head (as I do in a short solo piano version of the tune that I recorded ), as a countermelody (as it is in the version by my band Birdcode, where I added an original long-note vocal melody to replace ‘All The Things’), or as an etude that models the use of eighth notes and bebop chromatacism in a solo.  I hope that it might lead you to to check out the music of Bud Powell (in this tune I borrowed licks from his tunes ‘Bouncin’ With Bud’ and ‘Dance of The Infidels’ and his solos on ‘Un Poco Loco’ from The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 1, ‘Cheryl’, ‘Donna Lee‘ and ‘Buzzy‘ from his one studio session with Charlie Parker, and a live version of ‘Ornithology’ for which I studied Ethan Iverson’s transcription in his blog post ‘High Bebop’. The specific page I used is here. Iverson’s series of posts titled ‘Bud Powell Anthology’ are extensive and well worth reading.)  I also hope learning ‘You Are Here’ might lead you to use more eighth notes and bop concepts in your improvising, and perhaps to compose your own melody based on ‘All The Things’ changes as a kind of slow-motion practice of the improvising process.  There are tunes by a number of great jazz players based on the ‘All The Things’ progression, such as Dexter Gordon’s ‘Boston Bernie’ and Kenny Dorham’s ‘Prince Albert’.  These tunes are interesting microcosms of their composers’ improvisational language, and learning them may give you ideas for composing a tune that imitates or contrasts their approach.  I hope you’ll also give ‘You Are Here’ a try.  I have added charts in transpositions for all common jazz instruments below.you-are-here-2a-concert   you-are-here-2a-bb  you-are-here-2a-bass-clef you-are-here-2a-eb

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Harmonic Moss, Part 2: The ‘B form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I (including a scale outline and various melodic patterns)

The ‘B form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I prominently features the 9th degree of the minor 7th chord which functions as the ii.  I find it a useful exercise to apply this voicing to tunes which both use major ii-V-I progressions repeatedly and feature the 9th of the minor 7th chord prominently in the melody, such as David Raksin’s ‘Laura’, Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’ and Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent Up House’.   The Sonny Rollins pattern shown here in step 5 is only one of many possible examples of melodic patterns that can be associated with and practiced with the ‘B form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I; another possible pattern is mentioned at the bottom of the sheet.  (For those interested in practicing ii-V-I patterns contrapuntally, either with two hands or two players, the melodic pattern in step 5 of this sheet can be contrapuntally combined with the Clifford Brown melodic pattern in the post on ‘A form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I progression.)

ii-v-i-major-b-form

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Harmonic Moss, Part 1: The ‘A form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I (including a scale outline and related melodic patterns)

This series of blog posts is titled ‘Harmonic Moss’ as it deals with rootless chord voicings, and moss is sometimes referred to as a rootless plant.  This is not the first time I’ve come across moss in reference to music; during my time in bassist Mike Gordon’s band, I appeared on a compilation called ‘Moss: The Remixes’ (downloadable for free from LivePhish.com), where an extended remix of his tune ‘The Void’ includes an improvised solo I played on a celeste to the accompaniment of percussionist Tim Sharbaugh beating polyrhythmically on Mike’s propane tank.  (The celeste is the bell-like keyboard instrument that was played on ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by his resident jazz pianist Johnny Costa, and by Thelonious Monk at the opening of ‘Pannonica’ on Monk’s Music.)  This was one of many musical vortexes I happily explored while working with Mike.  My efforts to nudge the band in a jazz direction can be heard on a live recording of the band in Vancouver from 2014, where (within a version of the tune ‘Susskind Hotel’) we perform my arrangement early jazz standard ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’.  A tour guide at the Louis Armstrong House Museum recently reminded me that this tune, often credited to other composers, is an Armstrong composition.

The sheet below shows an evolution of the ii-V-I progression from (in #1) a two-handed expansion of root position (which Phil Degreg calls ‘four voice shell extension’ and one of my students more succinctly calls ‘split voicings’), to (in #2) the rootless voicing which places the root in the left hand and the rest of the chord tones in the right, to (in #3) the ‘fourth voicing’ which combines the rootless voicing in the left hand with upper structure notes in the right, to various single note patterns in #4, 5 and 6 that combine the left hand rootless voicing with scales and melodic shapes.  An important project is to take tunes you learned with chords in root position, such as the tunes in the Root Systems posts, and learn to comp through their progressions in the style of the #2 example shown here, and play right hand melody up the octave with rootless left hand changes as shown in #4 and 5.

The melodic pattern shown in the third section of the sheet below is only one example of many patterns related to the ‘A form’ voicing of the ii-V-I progression.  When I practice a lick through all twelve keys, I find it valuable to associate it with a chord voicing.  In my experience practicing and performing jazz, the process of associating a pattern with a voicing is a subjective one, so I am not suggesting that any given melodic pattern has only one voicing with which it can be associated. I am rather suggesting that, if you want to practice a melodic pattern in one hand through all keys, it is helpful to find a chord voicing that you can see and/or hear as having a conceptual connection with that pattern, and then practice the voicing and the pattern together through all keys.  The goal of this kind of practice is to make it possible to use the pattern in combination with any other voicing or without a voicing.  Although some jazz educators warn against practicing licks, I think that taking a lick through all twelve keys is a valuable exercise, whether or not the lick becomes consciously or unconsciously integrated into your melodic vocabulary.  

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‘Now What?’: a modal melody collage

My improvisation class at UVM begins by studying tunes and chord progressions that were common in the swing and bebop eras, including the blues (in the form of the Charlie Parker tune ‘Billie’s Bounce’), ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ and rhythm changes (i.e. the changes from George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’).  It then takes a sudden turn toward modal jazz with Miles Davis‘ ‘So What’, a tune that uses the same 32-bar AABA form as ‘I Got Rhythm‘, but reduces its constant harmonic motion to just two chords, D minor seventh and E flat minor seventh.  The melody, with its one-bar bass phrases answered by a chordal phrase that uses the same rhythmic pattern as Bobby Timmons’ ‘Moanin’, lays out the D dorian and E flat dorian scales.  These scales can be created by flatting the third and seventh degrees in the D and E flat major scales.  (The tune seems to have been conceived at least partly on piano, as D dorian uses only white keys and E flat dorian uses only black keys.)  We initially learn to improvise over So What through learning an outline of the progression based on one scalar lick and two arpeggio licks.  (Note: The recording to which the link takes you has a three-beat countoff: beats 2, 3 and 4 played on the hi-hat of the drum kit.)

While having fewer harmonic goals can seem to make the improviser’s task easier, anyone who has tried to solo on ‘So What’ knows that having fewer harmonic landmarks can make it more challenging to maintain the AABA form on this tune (in other words, more challenging to remember where the second chord change arrives.)
One technique that a number of improvisers have used on this type of tune is to quote 4-bar melodic phrases from pop songs, folk songs, other solos, etc. as a way of building their solo.  This kind of quoting can be heard in Cannonball Adderley’s solo on the Miles Davis tune ‘Miles’ (often mislabeled ‘Milestones’ and confused with the John Lewis tune of that name recorded by Miles and Charlie Parker), Clark Terry’s solo on Bob Brookmeyer’s ‘Hum’, and more recently, a solo by pianist Tadataka Unno on vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli’s ‘So What Boy,’ (from her album ‘Waiting In Vain’, available on iTunes), a truly swingin’ vocal tune based on an altered version of the ‘So What’ progression.  In a number of these solos, the soloists quote tunes that originally appeared in different harmonic contexts: Adderley quotes ‘I Can’t Get Started‘, a major-key tune, as well as a phrase from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ over the A minor 7th chord in ‘Milestones’ and Unno quotes ‘Rain Check’ and ‘I Found A New Baby’ over the D minor 7th chord in ‘So What Boy‘.  (This reminds me of something that one of my jazz education mentors, Alex Stewart, mentioned to me: that he likes to play the dorian mode off the 5th of dominant 7th chords and the seventh scale (i.e. the mixolydian) off the 11th of minor 7th chords.) Gershwin’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm‘ is also quoted in (I believe) all three solos; the tune’s first four measures are used prominently by Adderley and Terry while Unno, by contrast, only hints at the second measure.  Finally, to my ear Terry and Unno both quote Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ solo.

While I wouldn’t advise a developing improviser to consciously plan to quote tunes in a solo, I think that composing solos that make deliberate use of borrowed melodic material can be a useful exercise for modeling the process of altering and fusing short patterns that occurs at a subconscious level in ‘real-time’ improvising.   The title of my tune ‘Now What?’ is a condensation of a question students might well ask when ‘So What’ is introduced in my class: ‘so far we’ve learned a bunch of tunes and melodic ideas based on major and dominant 7th chords, and suddenly we’re supposed to improvise on a couple of long minor 7th chords – now what do we play on that??‘   I composed the tune to demonstrate to my class how, in addition to using the dorian scale to improvise on the ‘So What’ progression, one can also use melodic ideas originally based in other modes and harmonic contexts.

Using other scales that use the same group of notes as the dorian scale can be an effective strategy, as it was in the Adderley, Terry and Unno solos.  When improvising over a minor seventh chord in the context of the dorian mode, one can use ideas based in the major scale starting on seventh of the chord (the tune starts with quotes from Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Hotter Than That’ and Ella Fitzgerald’s solo on ‘Cottontail’.)  One can also, to use Alex Stewart’s concept, use ideas based in the seventh scale starting on the 11th of the chord (as in the quote from John Coltrane’s solo on ‘So What’).  The tune continues with another Ella quote from the same ‘Cottontail’ solo and some patterns based on the one-bar ii-V progressions (these can be found in the ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris’ post) which outline various inversions of the minor 7th chord.  The tune goes on to use the 5-4-3-2 licks that we study in my class (these are explained in my post on Anthropology), which can be thought of as based on the major scale but can be applied in a wide variety of contexts, and ends up with some four-bar ii-V-I patterns from Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker which also work over the extended minor seventh harmony of the ‘So What’ progression.

I hope you enjoy working on this tune; my solo piano recording of it can be heard by clicking here.  (Although in this solo piano version I do it as a fast samba, keep in mind the tune can also be played or sung slower and with swing eighth notes.)  I encourage you to learn the scale/arpeggio outline first, as it shows the context on which ‘Now What’ builds.  I hope that by either listening to or working on the tune, you might also get interested in further investigating the solos that ‘Now What’ borrows from, composing your own line on the ‘So What’ progression, or most important of all, doing your own improvising on this progression.now-what-concert

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