Take three at a time: an approach to learning major scales and ii-V-I progressions in all keys along with tunes from The Real Book (Volume I, sixth edition)

This post is in response to questions often asked by my students.  ‘What tunes should I practice during my summer break from lessons?’, they ask. Or: ‘How can I get better at learning tunes from a fake book chart (i.e., just melody line with chord symbols above)?’ One way to begin working toward these goals is to expand your knowledge of major scale key signatures and fingerings, and major ii-V-I progressions, to the point where you are familiar with these skills in all twelve keys.

‘Learn it in all twelve keys!’ is common refrain in jazz education which often makes it sound like a student should learn a tune or a melodic pattern or a voicing in all twelve keys at one sitting. While this can be valuable, it is also important to relate such concepts to the context of a tune.  With this thought in mind, I have found a number of tunes in The Real Book (Volume 1, sixth edition, published by Hal Leonard) that use the major ii-V-I progression in at least three keys and so are good exercises in constructing voicings for the progression in those keys. I have come up with a tune list that allows one to learn major ii-V-I progressions in all twelve keys through learning a series of six tunes. You can assemble your own list of six tunes through making various combinations of tunes that I have outlined below. The only tune one has to learn to complete this series is the Miles Davis and Eddie Vinson’s Tune Up; other than that, one can assemble the list according to one’s preferences. There are tune options that follow more of a modern jazz/bop direction (which may be more of interest to players interested in instrumental performance) and others that follow more of a ‘standard tune’ direction (which may be more of interest to those interested in singing and vocal accompanying.)

Learn one tune each from Group 1 and Group 2 (starting with either group). These groups include the keys that pianists usually learn first, as they have more straightforward fingering (i.e., RH starts on the thumb, etc.) Once you have learned these two tunes and the six keys through which they move, you can learn one pair of tunes in Group 3 (by choosing one from each of the pairs listed) and one pair in Group 4 (by choosing one of the three pairs listed.) The tunes in these later groups begin in the more basic keys introduced by the first two groups and modulate into keys with more challenging fingerings and ‘keyboard topography’. When you finish the group of six tunes, you will have learned the major ii-V-I progression in all twelve keys.

Group 1 – keys of G, F, Eb (keys shown in exercise) – choose one of three tunes:            Ornithology, How High the Moon, or Laura (not in Real Book Volume One)


Group 2 – keys of D, C, Bb – one tune – learn Tune Up


Group 3 – keys of Ab, Gb, E – choose one from each pair:-

learn I’ll Remember April
 or All The Things You Are

AND Broadway (key of Eb) or Recordame (also uses Bb)


Group 4 – Db, B, A–

learn One Note Samba (includes ii-V-I in Db and B) and I Love You (includes ii-V-I in A)

OR Solar (includes ii-V-I in Db) and
Cherokee (includes ii-V-I in B and A; if root position voicing is used, requires special solution for last four bars of bridge)

OR One Note Samba and Cherokee

Along with learning a tune or pair of tunes in each group, learn the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ exercise below in the three keys of the key group in which you are working.  This exercise takes hands-together scales and chords and two handed combinations of chords and scales through a series of three keys descending by whole steps.  (For Groups 2, 3 and 4 you will need to transpose the exercise below; for group 3, transpose a half step up; for Groups 2 and 4, transpose down to the keys indicated.)ii-V-I in three keys (Doubles and Combinations)

Although root position voicings are useful for building basic knowledge of jazz harmony and making simple arrangements, and are used at times by a number of great players in jazz piano history, they can also (like the ‘blues scale’) become a trap if used exclusively. In addition to learning root position voicings for the ii-V-I progression in each key, it is also important to learn various rootless voicings for it in each key, particularly the most common which are sometimes referred to as ‘off the 7th’ and ‘off the 3rd’. There are a number of books that deal with rootless voicings; I most often use Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg as I find it has the most straightforward layout, but they can also be found in books by Dan Haerle and Michele Weir. Each exercise on the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ sheet (major scale followed by ii-V-I in the same key, ii-V-I in LH with ‘thirteen up and down’ major scale in RH, ii-V-I in RH with quarter note walking bass pattern in LH) can and should be repeated with 3 or 4 note A form or B form rootless voicings (Degreg chapters 4 and 3) replacing root position voicings.

In order to create variety in an arrangement where the form is repeated multiple times, learn the tune three ways:

1) with LH root position voicings (along with the melody in the RH),

2) with rootless voicings in the RH (using either ‘off the 7th’ or ‘off the 3rd’ voicings, or a combination of both) and roots in the LH

3)with rootless voicings in the LH, in the same range where the RH played them, combined with a single note line in the RH (either the melody, or a scale outline, or a bop tune or solo transcription based on the changes of the tune.) For this approach, it is often necessary to move the melodic line up an octave in the RH.

In the case of most of these tunes, it is possible to use one type of rootless voicing throughout the tune (just ‘off the 7th’ or just ‘off the 3rd’), although alternating between different types can often create closer harmony. One exception to this is ‘All The Things’, where staying with only one type of rootless voicing creates too many interruptions in voice leading.

When learning any jazz tune, it is crucial to have access not just to a chart but to a recorded version by a jazz player or singer that demonstrates how to interpret the melody with both rhythmic creativity (i.e. using a swing or Latin rhythmic approach) and melodic creativity (i.e. adding melodic ornaments and fills), as well as how to incorporate improvisation (through improvised sections of various lengths, from fills between melody phrases to half or full chorus solos.) With the tunes on this list in particular, it is helpful to practice one or two handed chordal comping with recorded version in the ‘book key’ at a moderate tempo.  Here are some suggestions of recordings of this type to use:


How High The Moon – Chet Baker from ‘Chet’ album

Laura – Charlie Parker with Strings

Tune Up – Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

All The Things You Are – Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’

(Rollins begins by improvising on the changes rather than stating the melody, so this can be used for practicing chords only)

Broadway – Art Pepper

Recordame – Bobby Hutcherson

One Note Samba – Coleman Hawkins (from Desafinado)

Cherokee – Modern Jazz Quartet

I’ll Remember April – Jim Hall and Ron Carter from Alone Together (Live), Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’, Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

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Pairings, part two: left hand walking bass with right hand chordal comping by Kenny Barron, John Coates Jr. and G.F. Handel (or, Spring Comping Trip)

The piano, more than any other instrument, has the capacity to evoke the sound of a group of players.  In the Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’ that I transcribed in the last post, it could be argued that his left hand bass line and right hand melody line have just as much independence as do Slam Stewart and Don Byas in their duo version of ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Great stride players like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson incorporated into their solo playing the chordal, bass and melodic parts that Nat King Cole later divided up among the members of his trio.  Another category I have been interested in recently is that of great jazz pianists who excel in a duo context.  For me, Kenny Barron’s work on the duo album ‘People Time’ with Stan Getz places him at the top of this list, although he has made many other great duo recordings, including his work with Frank Morgan and Regina Carter.

One of the most important skills for the duo player is the ability to walk quarter or half note bass in the left hand while comping chords in the right.  As an accompanist, I have always found that this is a crucial way of establishing a rhythmic connection with soloists, both those who are experienced musicians and those whose sense of rhythm needs some guidance.  Throughout most of ‘People Time’, Kenny Barron and Stan Getz display a nearly telepathic connection that allows both of them to play with great rhythmic freedom while still maintaining a clear sense of moving together.   The excerpt I transcribed below, from Barron’s comping on ‘Like Someone In Love’, is a comparatively rare instance where his accompaniment of Getz moves into more deliberate timekeeping.  It is a great example of an active quarter-note bassline combined with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand.  Although this technique is only one of many that Barron uses, for most jazz duo situations, the ability to combine strong left hand walking bass with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand is a crucial survival skill for the pianist.  Barron also employs a number of refreshing chord substitutions on this great standard.  I have transcribed just the first sixteen bars of this chorus, as my idea is that this should serve as a model for your own duo comping, rather than a score from which to perform.Like Someone In Love Kenny Barron comping

John Coates Jr. is what I would call a ‘municipal monster pianist‘ (the term I coined to describe Dave McKenna in the last post.) For more than 50 years,  Coates’ home base was Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where he played at the Deer Head Inn.  (As one newspaper article attests, Coates‘ playing was an influence on the young Keith Jarrett, who grew up in that area; a more recent article reports that Coates has relocated to California.)  Much of Coates‘ recorded output is solo piano music in an improvisational folk-jazz gumbo style that makes clear the extent of his influence on Jarrett.  The excerpt below is from a great version of the standard ‘Moonglow’ on a duo album he made with the fantastic vocalist Nancy Reed at the Deer Head in 2007.  I was not aware of Reed’s singing before hearing this recording, but hearing her made me an instant fan; in addition to being a highly inventive and swinging vocalist, she is equally gifted bass player and I look forward to checking out her music more.  Coates‘ left hand walks in a manner similar to McKenna’s (although Coates’ bassline here uses an even lower range than the McKenna excerpt) while his right hand deftly alternates between chordal comping phrases and single-note fills.John Coates Moonglow

John Coates’ solo playing, documented on the collection ‘The Omnisound Years’, is the work for which he is best known and is well worth checking out.   With interpretations of tunes by Neil Diamond, The Beatles and Cole Porter, this compilation suggests the catholic (in the sense of ‘universal’) breadth of Coates’ repertoire during the 1960s and 70s when the recordings were made.  In his composition Prologue, Coates synthesizes these diverse influences, beginning with an intro that would be at home in an Elton John tune, progressing through some more jazzlike modulation and into a solo that makes shrewd and tasteful use of bebop language.  Like the classic live recordings of Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard and Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, on these recordings Coates is heard in a context of ambient sounds, including dinner conversation, clinking silverware and even a passing car at one point in ‘Prologue’.  The listener gets a strong sense that this music was created in and for a particular social setting, and a particular room.  Although the arc of the melody in ‘Prologue’ has a meditative quality, there is also an energy to Coates’ playing which I think derives from a natural inclination a solo player can develop in live situations to mirror the level of activity in the room where they are playing.

Coates’ solo piano music has a site-specific nature which can also be found in the solo keyboard music of G.F. Handel.  Handel’s keyboard music, in contrast to his concert works, was created for intimate, informal situations such as small social gatherings and concert intermissions (where the level of background noise was likely comparable to that heard behind Coates’ Prologue.)  Handel’s Aria with Variations from his Suite no. 1 in B Flat Major  contains, in its second variation, a valuable etude in combining left hand walking bass and right hand chordal comping.  (A score for the piece can be found here.)  In addition, this piece also prominently features a number of other techniques which are important skills for jazz pianists, including left hand walking bass with right hand melody (in the first variation) and left hand-right hand conversation (in the third.)

Postscript: I have always enjoyed duo work; some recent recordings I’ve done in that format include a version of eden ahbez’ ‘Nature Boy’ on vocalist Allison Mann’s album For My Mother and Father, and a version of ‘All of You’ that can be heard on the ReverbNation page for Birdcode, a new band that I’ve been working in with bassist John Rivers, drummer Caleb Bronz, and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.

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Pairings, part one: left-hand walking bass and right hand lines in Dave McKenna, Bach and Handel

The concept of food pairings is one that I’ve learned a great deal about from my wife, Amber deLaurentis, a great pianist, vocalist and songwriter who happens to be an amazing artist in the kitchen as well. In food pairing, one chooses a garnish for the way it brings out the flavor in a salad or a cut of meat; or one chooses a beverage for the way it brings out the flavor in the food it accompanies.

When I studied classical piano repertoire with Elizabeth Metcalfe and Sylvia Parker in the mid to late 1990s, following my studies of jazz with teachers including Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, Tom McClung and Bruce Sklar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I noticed that a number of keyboard techniques I had learned as a jazz player also showed up in classical piano repertoire. The techniques that jazz players call left-hand walking bass, left-hand stride accompaniment and left-hand chordal comping, for example, can all be found in various pieces from standard classical solo piano literature. As a piano teacher, I’ve started to notice that applying a given technique (for instance, walking bass) to a jazz tune can be easier if it is studied side by side with a classical piece that calls for the same technique; the ‘pairing‘ can bring out the ‘flavor‘ in both pieces. To use more technical (and less appetizing) language, the classical pieces can function as etudes that help a jazz player develop facility with a particular technique.  Making these kinds of connections with classical repertoire can can also introduce jazz pianists to the value and relevance of studying classical solo piano literature in general, as a way to build technique, develop their sound. and as an end in itself.  This is the first in a series of posts on pairings of classical and jazz pieces that can be useful (and hopefully enjoyable) in the practice room (and maybe also in adventurously programmed performances.)

In first couple pairings I’ll be connecting classical pieces with transcriptions from two great players, Dave McKenna and John Coates, Jr., who might be called ‘municipal monster pianists.’ Both McKenna and Coates are well-known among fellow musicians and in certain pockets of the listening public despite the fact that they largely avoided the typical touring routine of the professional jazz musician and chose instead to make a long-term commitment to playing solo piano at one venue close to their place of residence.  (McKenna played six nights a week throughout the most of the 1980s at the Plaza Bar in the Copley Square Hotel in Boston.)  Given their preference for solo piano playing, as well as the fact that they were also great accompanists, it is no coincidence that McKenna and Coates both mastered the technique of walking bass lines with the left hand. The transcription below is an excerpt from a Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’  which can be heard and seen on YouTube.  (The tune begins at :29 on the video; one of the reasons I chose to transcribe this ‘C Jam Blues’ is that it’s a notch or two slower than McKenna’s commercially released versions of the tune.) McKenna combines an eighth-note-based solo full of bop-style melodic invention with a quarter-note bass line where he manages to be inventive while also keeping his left hand largely below C3.  I suggest first learning to play the head of ‘C Jam Blues’ in the right hand while playing the first twelve bars of walking bass in the left, and then learning McKenna’s solo line in the right hand.   (I have found the right hand pattern in m. 16-17 particularly fun to transpose  through the circle of descending fifths while playing dominant 7th chords through the circle of fifths in the left hand.)Dave McKenna solo on C Jam Blues - Full Score


Walking bass was also a common technique in the Baroque era; the bass lines in J.S. Bach’s orchestral music, for example, are often nearly as strong and independent as the melodic lines further up in the contrapuntal texture. A microcosm of this bass independence can be heard in the Gavotte from his English Suite in G Minor.  Although the left hand bass line alternates between quarter-note walking and brief flurries of eighth notes, there are enough eighth notes in the right hand line that I find it the piece comparable to a jazz situation with walking bass and an improvised eighth-note line.

Finally, I discovered the Allemande from Handel’s Keyboard Suite in B Flat Major through a recording by Keith Jarrett, who first became known as a jazz pianist but is equally known today through his classical recordings. This piece combines the same kind of quarter-note walking bass and with an eighth-note-based melody that is slightly less ornate than that of the Bach Gavotte.

I encourage pianists looking to develop their facility with walking bass to try practicing either the Bach or the Handel side by side with my McKenna transcription.  In an upcoming post I will look at how great jazz pianists combine left hand walking and right hand chordal comping in duo situations.

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The State of The Blues, Part One: Helen Sung’s solo on C Jam Blues

This is the first in a series of posts featuring transcriptions I’ve done of contemporary jazz pianists soloing on the blues progression.  Sometimes in the work of contemporary players such as Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson (who studied with Hersch), it can seem as though the Horace Silver-Wynton Kelly tradition of conversation between left hand chords and right hand melodic phrases in a solo is becoming a thing of the past, even when playing over more standard progressions.  This thought led me to search through the tundra of modern jazz piano playing for examples of contemporary players using the conversational style.  It turns out plenty of players still use this approach, and many have found a way to use it for expressing more modern ideas.

In the first two choruses of her solo on C Jam Blues (from the version on her album reConceptions), Helen Sung adeptly uses a mixture of three-note rootless voicings (for example m. 1-6), two-note guide tone voicing (m. 10), smaller cluster voicings (m. 7 and 19) and, starting in the second chorus, McCoy Tyner-style perfect-fifth ‘bombs’ in her left hand.  This comping supports and converses with a right-hand line that seamlessly weaves together crisp Wynton-Kelly style phrases (as in m. 2-9) and brief but pungent excursions like m. 10 and m. 13-14 that slip away from the harmony and imply harmonic extensions and alterations.  Sung’s playing swings hard throughout, from the morse-code simplicity of the head to the exploratory and virtuosic conclusion of the solo beyond the choruses shown here.  Sung’s work as a recording artist and composer is well worth checking out, including her albums ‘Going Express’ and ‘Helenistique’ (which includes a great version of ‘Cottontail’.)  (Note: This transcription was posted with Helen Sung’s permission.)Helen Sung solo on C Jam B

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‘You Need To Lift It’: A Visit From Henry Butler

Four of my piano students recently played in a workshop with the great Henry Butler, one of the prime exponents of the New Orleans piano style. (Many thanks Steve MacQueen and Madeline Bell from the Flynn as well as Dr. Alex Stewart at UVM for their help in organizing the workshop.) From earlier albums like ‘Fivin’ Around’ to the more recent ‘PiaNOLA’ and the just-released ‘Viper’s Drag’, Butler’s playing has carried forward the innovations of New Orleans pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair and James Booker and featured Butler’s own unique fusions of harmony (from gospel, blues, jazz, etc.) and modernistic melodic motion.

In advance of Butler’s visit, I transcribed some of Henry Butler’s piano solo on the tune ‘Some Iko’ and studied it with some of my students. It can be heard in a YouTube video featuring Butler with Steven Bernstein and the Hot Nine, the band with which he performed recently at the Flynn. The solo is a great example of how to apply bebop concepts to a simple two-chord progression, as well as of a conversational and melodic approach to comping with the left hand during a right hand melodic solo. I told Butler that I particularly liked the two-handed melodic intro that he plays before getting into the form of the tune, and he mentioned that Frank Zappa keyboardist and jazz/funk keyboard icon George Duke was one of the first people to show him this kind of two-handed technique. This reminded me that I’ve been wanting to transcribe Duke’s solo from the Zappa tune ‘Blessed Relief’. (Maybe I’ll also post a transcription I did of Art Neville’s intro chorus from the Meters tune ‘Cabbage Alley’.) In any case, here’s the beginning of Butler’s solo:Some Iko 2

In the first eight bars of this solo excerpt, Butler focuses on using the flatted third of the F7 and C7 changes, which gives the melodic line a more traditional blues flavor.  However, both the way that his line closely follows the chord changes, and the way his left hand interacts conversationally with the right (comping in spaces his right hand leaves, rather than playing chords underneath a more continuous line) are more characteristic of jazz players like Wynton Kelly.  Starting with the pickup to measure 9, Butler uses the bebop approach of placing non-scale tones or ‘half steps’ on upbeats (for instance, using the half steps between the root and 7th and the 6th and 5th of the F 7th scale in m. 10).   His blues-based opening strategy in the first eight bars grabs your attention, but the jazz chromaticism in the latter half of the solo holds it .

In the workshop at UVM a few weeks ago, Butler hit a wonderful balance of criticism and encouragement with my students. While some of the statements I’ve quoted are critical, which is to be expected in a master class, my written quotes don’t fully convey the congeniality with which he delivered these thoughts. I am really grateful for how generously he shared his prodigious knowledge and insight during an hour and a half sandwiched between his arrival in town and a house concert. (Before the workshop, we were also treated to Butler’s harmonically adventurous takes on ‘In Your Own Sweet Way‘ and ‘Love For Sale‘ while he tested out the piano.)

The workshop began with one of my UVM students playing a rendition of ‘Mood Indigo’ that opened with two choruses of stride (a head statement followed by a chorus of solo.) After listening to some of the stride solo, Mr. Butler stopped the student and said: “You’re playing this sort of in a stride style, and I hear in your right hand that you’re intimating that it’s supposed to be a triplet feel or swing feel, right? But in other parts of your playing, I wonder if you’re trying to be in the swing style or in more of an even rhythmic style.” He then demonstrated some ways of adding a swing feel to a stride left hand. (An example of this is in the discussion of ‘Blue Monk’ below.)

In discussing the student’s solo, Butler commented: “You have to compel people to listen, and the only way you’re going to be able to do that is by instituting more contrasting elements. [Your solo sounds] pretty much the same in both choruses. Your first four bars, maybe your first eight bars, could be just the way you started. And then, after that, you need to lift it. One way to lift it is by changing your phrasing to maybe a mix of sixteenth notes with maybe some of what you’re doing [i.e. eighth notes] or triplets.” He followed this with a couple choruses of his own that demonstrated rhythmic variety and swung hard. I’m going to see if I can get Mr. Butler’s permission to post audio excerpts, but in the meantime, here’s a transcription of the beginning:H Butler Mood Indigo 2

Later in the workshop another student played ‘Blue Monk’, also leading off with two choruses of stride. Through first talking and then playing a few choruses of his own on the tune, Butler made the point that stride piano is not just the ‘boom-chuck’ combination of a bass line in one range and chords in another, but that it can and should also include elements of swing feel. “If I was going to play it sort of like you were playing,” Butler began, “I would maybe do this.” He then played a stride head statement of ‘Blue Monk’ full of swing and great voice leading in the left hand. He further clarified his approach to stride on this tune by playing a chorus of left hand alone on the twelve-bar jazz blues in B flat, starting with these four bars:H Butler LH blues part 1

He then paused, perhaps remembering how one of my students had mentioned that he couldn’t reach tenths, a common interval in stride left hand parts. Butler added: “If your hands aren’t big enough to do that, you can do…” and went on to play the following excerpt.  He began by taking a different approach to the walking tenths in the last bar of the excerpt above and changing them to what I’d call jump tenths :H Butler LH blues part 2

Throughout this excerpt, Butler either jumps up a major tenth from the root of a chord to its  third(as in the first bar), or up a seventh from the root of a dominant chord to a guide tone (i.e. 7th and 3rd) voicing of it.  In these excerpts he also follows the standard jazz piano practice (described in Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg) of keeping the 3rd and 7th of every chord above C3 (i.e., the C below middle C.)

Henry Butler’s visit was an energizing experience both for myself and my students, some of whom have also gotten to play in workshops with other guest artists; over the years I have had the privilege of coordinating workshops with workshops with Arturo O’Farrill, Marcus Roberts, Donal Fox, Jason Moran and John Stetch. If I can see interest in this post in the form of blog comments, maybe I’ll post some of the transcriptions I’ve done of these great players. Recently I’ve discovered the benefits of transcribing first and asking questions later (as I did with Butler, Roberts, and Fox); but then again, it can also be exciting to chase the traces of a melodic imagination after its owner leaves town. True confession: while I was transcribing Butler’s workshop excerpts, I was dashing back and forth from my computer to the TV to catch updates on the gripping last game of the World Series.  It was doubly inspiring to take breaks from decoding Butler’s brilliant piano moves and see the team from the birthplace of the Count Basie Orchestra stride to victory over the team from the birthplace of bebop (who swung hard in their own right.)

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Summer Comping Trip: a play-by-play analysis of two great jazz soloist-accompanist combinations

When I studied jazz performance and composition at Hampshire College, one of my most important experiences in ensemble playing was a class I took at the University of Massachusetts  at Amherst (through the Five College system) with Professor Archie Shepp called ‘Black Music and Dance’.  While Prof. Shepp is best known for playing the tenor saxophone – the instrument he plays on the John Coltrane album ‘Ascension’ as well as most of his own recordings – he is also, like many great improvisers, a skilled pianist.  (One of the fascinating things about Shepp as a player is that, like Coltrane and Anthony Braxton, he has both a serious commitment to and a serious gift for both avant-garde and more ‘straight-ahead’ or ‘inside’ jazz.  To get a sense of his ‘inside’ playing, which is organically related to his more exploratory work, check out his version of Darn That Dream – from the album ‘Ballads for Trane’ with the great and underappreciated Albert Dailey on piano – or Yardbird Suite from his duo album ‘Looking at Bird’ with Oscar Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen.)  I first learned about this while I was comping rather carefully and passively on a tune during his ensemble class. After he sat down at the piano and demonstrated comping that was more rhythmically and melodically active, he moved aside to let me play again, and said: ‘keep it interesting!’ I later found a record called ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (now out of print) on which Archie leads a piano trio; his swinging re-imagining of the title tune prefigures Marcus Roberts’ re-composition of Joplin on his album ‘The Joy of Joplin’.

‘Maple Leaf Rag’ puts Archie Shepp in the category of great jazz players who are not primarily known as pianists but whose considerable piano skills are well documented; others in this category include Charles Mingus (check out his harmonically adventurous take on Eubie Blake’s ‘Memories of You’ ‘Mingus Plays Piano’) and Gerry Mulligan (check out his idiosyncratically contrapuntal approach to the blues on ‘Storyville Story’ on the live ‘Gerry Mulligan Quartet’ album.) (I am hoping to do a blog post at some point on what I call ‘Accidental Pianists’ – jazz players, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, whose piano skills were documented accidentally during sessions when their piano chops turned out to be crucial survival skills – and ‘Closet Pianists’, such as Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, whose piano skills were not documented, but are mentioned by historical sources. I believe that Bird and Ella’s piano skills are also evident in their approach to constructing single note melodic lines.)

My experiences trading off with Prof. Shepp on the piano bench also led me to further study a variety of comping approaches (including the approach of McCoy Tyner, who Archie often mentioned; among the harmonic techniques he introduced me to was the Coltrane quartet’s reharmonization of Body and Soul.) While my approach to voicing chords and comping has been influenced by many of the pianists I’ve studied and worked with, including Chuck Eller, Tom McClung, James Harvey and Barry Harris, one of my early ‘lightbulb moments’ about chord voicings was in studying jazz arranging with Jeff Holmes, who made me aware of how the range of a big band trombone section overlaps considerably with the range used for voicing rootless chords on the piano (approximately C3 to C5), and so many of the same techniques can be used to voice chords for both of these situations.

As a teacher, I often find myself echoing Archie’s comments to me when I ask students to work on making their comping more melodic and interactive. Other teachers who hear my intermediate students play often make the same comment, and hearing it repeated many times has reminded me of the need for more specific information on how to build one’s comping skills so that one is not just repeating a chord progression, but creating some kind of arc over multiple choruses of the progression. There are a number of books, such as the ‘Piano Comping’ volume of the Jazz Conception series, which include transcriptions of comping that was recorded by a pianist specifically for the book or for a playalong recording. Although there is helpful information to be gleaned from these books, I have not found many transcriptions or analysis that deal with how great jazz pianists comp responsively and creatively in ‘real life’ performing situations in the studio or on stage.

In hopes of shedding some light on the difficult balancing act of jazz comping, I have transcribed the work of two great jazz pianists who were also great accompanists (or ‘compers’.) Among other things, these comping parts by Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson demonstrate how a great jazz pianist uses a chord progression, whether they are reading it or playing it from memory, like a great interviewer uses a set of questions. As I was transcribing these comping parts and the solos they accompany, and adding commentary on the interplay between soloists and accompanists to these transcriptions, I found myself awestruck by the level of split-second interplay between these great players. I was also aware how my commentary could come off like the great Peter Schickele routine where he follows Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with play-by-play sports commentary.   In any case, I hope these transcriptions are helpful to players who seek to improve their responsiveness and creativity as compers or soloists.

As I transcribed these choruses from ‘Cool Struttin’ (from the Sonny Clark album of the same name) and a live recording of Peterson and Clark Terry playing ‘Blues for Smedley’, I was reminded of how pianists who are skilled at comping create contrasts within their own parts in a variety of ways, for example, changing from more busy comping to more sparse comping, or from comping that is more melodically static to comping which is more melodically active. In my analysis here, I call these ‘strategy changes’. In the examples shown here, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark change their strategy often, sometimes in response to activity in the soloist’s line, and other times to break with a comping pattern before it becomes undesirably repetitive. In both tunes the piano part doesn’t stay with a single comping approach for a whole chorus of the form, but rather tends to change every two to four bars.

Skilled compers are also able to alternate during a single solo between echoing the soloist’s ideas at some points and contrasting their ideas at other points. At a number of points in ‘Cool Struttin’ and ‘Blues For Smedley’, to my ear, both these kinds of responsive comping lead the soloist to change their strategy, either to further develop the idea being echoed in the comping (as in Art Farmer’s second chorus on ‘Cool Struttin’) or to pick up the contrasting idea being introduced in the comping (as at the beginning of Clark Terry’s third chorus on ‘Blues for Smedley’). This underlines how important it is for pianists to use strong ideas in comping, to either clearly echo the soloist’s idea or to create clear contrast with the soloist.

In the examples below, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson both use what I call ‘riff comping’, which uses repeating and usually simple melodic patterns either to fill spaces in the melody (which I call answering riffs) or as a counterpoint to the melodic line (which I call background riffs). Although both the examples given here are in small group contexts, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson’s uses of riff comping echoes the use of horn section riffs in classic big band blues arrangements such as ‘C Jam Blues’ and ‘Blues in Frankie’s Flat’. The examples here also include comping which is not connected to a repeating pattern but is rather a spontaneous response to activity in the solo line; I call these answer comping and background comping. Sonny Clark’s comping during the head statement of his tune ‘Cool Struttin’ includes answer comping and background comping, and then begins to use riff comping in the second chorus of Art Farmer’s solo. Oscar Peterson begins comping behind Clark Terry’s head statement on ‘Blues for Smedley’ using riffs that sound like the composed riffs in a big band arrangement, but quickly changes to an improvised background line in his right hand. Starting with the first chorus of Terry’s solo, he returns to more ensemble-style riff comping.

I encourage readers to listen to the recordings of the tunes while following my transcriptions and comments. I encourage you to use the comment section to add to or even disagree with my play-by-play commentary. For pianists seeking to increase the variety of their comping, I would suggest learning the transcribed comping parts and playing them along with the original recording. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal here is not to memorize the transcriptions, or even to emulate Peterson’s virtuosity or Clark’s harmonic sophistication, but rather to strive toward their level of variety and responsiveness. My hope is that those who read this blog post and study these transcriptions can borrow ideas from Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark and combine them with their own ideas to work toward a personal approach to creative and responsive comping.

I’d also encourage comments that answer the following question (required for my jazz piano students): Name a jazz recording involving piano and one other solo instrument and identify one or more specific moments in which chordal comping (on piano or guitar) influences the development of an improvised instrumental or vocal solo by another player (or where the development of the solo influences the comping).  If possible, add a link to a public page (YouTube, etc.) where the recording can be heard; use timings (i.e. ‘2:35’, ‘4:17’ etc.) to identify the moments of soloist-accompanist interplay, and give a brief description of what happens.  (Examples of chordal accompaniment to a solo instrument in other styles are acceptable as well, provided that both parts have some improvisational element to them.)

Oscar Peterson Trio with Clark Terry – Blues for Smedley, live in Finland 1965

blues for smedley - Full Scoreblues for smedley 2blues for smedley 3

Cool Struttin’ – Sonny Clark (Art Farmer, trumpet)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

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‘Ornithology’: the memory palace of two bebop masterminds

In a recent news story, publishers who represent songwriters Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty contacted publishers for singer/songwriter Sam Smith about  a four-bar similarity between the melody and chord progression of Lynne and Petty’s 1989 hit song ‘Won’t Back Down’ and Smith’s recent hit ‘Stay With Me’.  Part of the settlement for this case was that in addition to receiving a financial settlement, Lynne and Petty will also be credited as co-composers of Smith’s tune.  The stunned reaction of Smith and his collaborators, who said they were not familiar with Lynne and Petty’s tune and that the resemblance was ‘a complete coincidence’, is common among rock and pop songwriters who are informed about musical similarities between their work and previously copyrighted songs.   In the classic case where the publishers of ‘He’s So Fine’ accused George Harrison of plagarizing their tune in his hit ‘My Sweet Lord’, a judge used the term ‘subconscious plagarism’ to describe Harrison’s process.

In the case of many classic tunes from the bebop era, the question of who composed them is still a subject of open debate, but musical analysis shows that they contain deliberate and artful borrowings from multiple sources.  In many cases, such as ‘Donna Lee’, usually attributed to Charlie Parker but more recently claimed as the work of Miles Davis, the connections between tune and composer are enveloped in the mists of jazz history.  This lack of certainty about composer credits has led many scholars of music from the bebop era to examine the tunes themselves for clues about their origin.  In some research I did recently about the bebop anthem ‘Ornithology’, I found that the closer I looked, the more I heard the tune as being a musical collage that deliberately draws on multiple sources but is assembled artfully enough to sound like the work of a single hand.

In a recording from a live concert in 1952, when a radio announcer asks Charlie Parker who composed ‘Ornithology’, he answers ‘Benny Harris’.  This answer, straight from Parker’s own mouth, contradicts a number of widely circulated published charts of ‘Ornithology’ which list Parker as the sole composer.  After doing some historical research, I’ve concluded that it is most accurate to list Parker and Harris as co-composers (as a few published charts do), and that the sources of the tune likely extend beyond the two of them.  While it has been well established that ‘Ornithology’ is based on the chord progression of ‘How High The Moon‘ by Morgan Lewis, the origins of the individual phrases in the tune are less often discussed.    In the course of my research I looked at established theories on origins of phrases in ‘Ornithology’ and developed a few of my own.  I  also found that looking at relationships  between ‘Ornithology’  and other tunes composed by Parker (or attributed to him) can highlight some general concepts that are helpful in the process of memorizing bebop tunes (and incorporating their concepts into one’s own improvisational vocabulary.)

In his book Yardbird Suite, Lawrence Koch demonstrates that measures 1-2 of Ornithology were taken by Benny Harris from the opening of Parker’s solo on the 1942 recording of ‘The Jumpin’ Blues’ by the Jay McShann Orchestra.  Right off the bat, the first phrase of this seminal bebop tune shows the crucial  process of extracting licks from great solos and transposing them to other keys, as it transposes the lick from ‘The Jumpin’ Blues’ from its original E  flat to G major, the key of ‘How High the Moon’:Ornithology m. 1-2

Measures 3-4 of ‘Ornithology’ show Harris engaging with another process essential to the improviser: altering or developing a learned melodic idea to adapt to a different harmonic context (in this case, a different chord progression.)    In this case Harris adapts Parker’s idea in a way that fits the move to the parallel minor in m.3 of the progression to ‘How High The Moon’.  Ornithology m.3-4 jpg

(A more recent example of this can be heard in a recording of ‘Anthropology’ by Parker’s  friend Sheila Jordan.  In her solo, Jordan takes a phrase from Benny Harris’ tune ‘Reets and I’, a tune based on ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’, and develops it in a way that fits the progression of ‘Anthropology’.)

I have noticed that the last five notes of measures 5-6 are a motive which Parker uses with a one-note alteration in the opening of ‘Anthropology’:Ornithology m.5

Anthro m. 1

David Baker is among those who have pointed out that the motive used in measures 7-8 in ‘Ornithology’ is the same figure seen the last two measures of the bridge of ‘Anthropology’ (although, as with the ‘Jumpin’ Blues’ lick, Harris had to transpose the lick to make it work in ‘Ornithology’.)  (Measures 9-10, like measures 3-4, adapt the borrowed lick to a different set of chord changes than those with which it originally appeared.):

Anthro 23-24Ornithology m. 7-8  Of these two tunes, ‘Anthropology’ was recorded first, and given the many stories of Parker composing tunes shortly before they were recorded (or even the same day), it would suggest that Benny Harris took these from ‘Anthropology’ and used them in ‘Ornithology’.  Given the competing historical  accounts of when Parker tunes originated, there is no way to be sure of this theory, but in any case, noticing similarities between two tunes makes it easier to learn both of them.

I think it is possible that measures 11-12 show a knowledge of Parker’s career that goes beyond a familiarity with his licks to a detailed knowledge of his playing career.  These measures bear a strong resemblance to the main motive of ‘Robbins’ Nest’, a tune composed by Sir Charles Thompson, a pianist and bandleader with whom Parker worked a number of times.  (The link above is to a 1990s recording of the tune by the composer; there is also a great version by Milt Buckner which demonstrates his mastery of ‘locked-hands’ technique, a technique which by some accounts he originated, although it is commonly associated with George Shearing.)  Although Parker’s one recording session with Thompson did not include ‘Robbins’ Nest’, it is likely that he would have played it in the course of his work with Thompson, as it was one of the bandleader’s best known tunes.  In a reversal of  measures 1-4 and 7-10, where a lick is first stated in a way that exactly matches its appearance in another context and is then followed by a transformation, the ‘Robbins’ Nest’ theme is used first with a minor key alteration in m. 11-12 and is then returned to its original major-key context in measures 27-28.  (The minor-key alteration of the ‘Robbins’ Nest’ motive in m. 11 also matches the first four notes of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’, which as Greg Fishman demonstrates is the source of a frequently used and multipurpose lick.) If, as seems likely to me, these two phrases are references to the Thompson tune, ‘Ornithology‘ begins to look like a highly detailed (one might even say ‘nerdy’) tribute to Parker that references three stages of his career: his early work with the Kansas City pianist Jay McShann in m. 1-4, and his collaboration with by Dizzy Gillespie (who some scholars think had a hand in the composition of ‘Anthropology’) in m. 5-10, and  his work in Washington D.C. and later in New York with Charles Thompson in m. 11 and 27.  One could use this non-linear tour of Parker’s mid-life career as a structure for remembering the tune (in a process akin to the ‘memory palace’ technique demonstrated in the PBS series Sherlock.)

If Harris is the primary composer of the tune, as Parker’s answer from the 1952 radio broadcast indicates, it starts to look like a piece of what today in popular literature is called ‘fan fiction’ – creative works in which themes or characters created by a famous author are developed by a lesser-known but nonetheless skilled admirer of the famous author’s work.  While Harris was in many ways a contemporary of Parker’s, and so was well qualified to create an anthology of his licks, the fact that he was more known as a sectional player than as a soloist also suggests that, in addition to being an associate of Parker’s in groups such the Earl Hines and  Dizzy Gillespie big bands, he was enough of a ‘fan’ to pull those licks from a variety of different eras in Parker’s career.  The pun in Harris’ title of the tune (i.e. taking a word that means the study of birds and using it to reference to the study of ‘Bird’) refers not just to his own study of Parker, but to a musically astute subset of Parker’s fans who were devoted to preserving and studying his improvisations, such as Dean Benedetti, whose live recordings of Parker were released in the late 1980s.

There are two different versions of the melody in measures 13-16; in the first recorded version of the tune, a triplet lick is passed between the trumpet, alto, tenor and guitar during these measures.  In later versions of the tune, such as the one on ‘One Night In Birdland’, these measures are replaced with a phrase which is melodically similar to the bridge of ‘A Night In Tunisia’ and rhythmically similar to the bridge of ‘Moose The Mooche’.  The distinctiveness of the rhythmic motive, which also shows up in the bridge of ‘Anthropology’ and the fourth measure of ‘Scrapple From The Apple’, suggests that this might be an addition by Parker and  not part of Harris’ original assembly of Parker licks.  When this revision is added to the tune, it makes it much more sensible as a feature for a soloist, as the original version requires an antiphonal exchange between instruments.  (The revision also made practical sense for Parker, as live recordings of the tune demonstrate that he often played the tune on pick-up gigs with local rhythm sections, and would likely have not had the time to rehearse the original version with these groups.)

Looking at the relationships between ‘Ornithology’ and other Parker tunes is a reminder of some of the main characteristics of bebop melodic concepts (i.e. licks):
– They are often built in two measure phrases; even phrases that sound like longer melodic units are built from two measure components.
– Many phrases begin on upbeats, and phrases that begin single upbeats are often contrasted with phrases that begin with multiple upbeats.
It is helpful to know the source of a lick, or at least identify it with first tune in which one encountered it, and identify it when it recurs in other contexts.  Some examples:
– the ‘Jumpin Blues’ lick, which is re-used by Harris in ‘Ornithology’, is also re-used in Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton’s ‘Perdido Line’ and number of Ella Fitzgerald’s solos on ‘How High the Moon’.
– the ‘Cool Blues’ lick (from the riff blues of the same name), an altered fragment of which appears in m. 8 of Anthropology, is used in the Parker solos on Yardbird Suite and Dewey Square which appear in the Charlie Parker Omnibook.
– the ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ lick (from the opening of the Fats Waller tune by the same name) shows up in m. 8 of ‘Blues for Alice’ (rhythmically altered and with one note subtracted), in m. 15 of Donna Lee, and Parker disciple Cannonball Adderley’s solo on the Bobby Timmons tune ‘This Here’ (he uses the lick around 3:00, with two notes reversed.)
– while the second half of the ‘Robbins’ Nest lick’ is used in m. 11 and 27 of Ornithology, the opening of the lick can be heard in the bridge of Parker’s ‘Dewey Square’ solo.
– The lick from m. 5 of Anthropology was re-used by Parker in a rhythmically altered version in the last measure of Confirmation.  Measure 2 of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Doxy’ closely follows both the melodic and rhythmic pattern of the ‘Confirmation’ ending but ends on the 6th rather than the root.  The theory that this phrase was borrowed from ‘Confirmation’ is supported by the fact that Rollins was a student of Parker’s melodic language.  However, Rollins is also a master of motivic development, both in his improvising and his compositions, and this makes it just as likely that m.2 of ‘Doxy‘ is an inversion (i.e. upside-down version) of the first measure of the tune.

Parker’s ability to use a single lick in multiple contexts, and to succeed so often at making it part of a coherent whole with its own structural integrity, was one of the factors that led to his creating such a uniquely memorable body of improvised work.  In his Parker biography Chasin’ The Bird, Brian Priestly writes that some of Parker’s ‘improvisations on standards…were so popular that audiences could sing along with his recorded improvisation.’  But as with the work of Beethoven, the strength of the whole in Parker’s work derives in part from the strength of the motives he chose to use, and those motives have since been identified and catalogued by scholars including Lawrence Koch in his aforementioned book.

Some accounts of Parker’s life indicate that, although he did not musically notate his vocabulary of licks or catalogue them in a formal sense, he did sometimes associate certain licks with symbolic meanings.  Priestly quotes bassist and Parker collaborator Gene Ramey as saying of Parker: ‘Everything had a musical significance for him.  He’d hear dogs barking, for instance, and he would say it was a conversation – and if he was blowing his horn he would have something to play that would portray that thought to us.  When we were riding the car between jobs we might pass down a country lane and see the trees and some leaves, and he’d have some sound for that.  And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might have would give him an idea for something to play in his solo.  As soon as he would do that, we were all so close we’d all understand just what he meant.’

Some recent episodes of the radio show and podcast Birdnote describe how this symbolic use of musical phrases occurs in the world of actual birds as well.  The black-capped chickadee uses different variations on its main call to scold predators and announce food sources, and a markedly different call to seek a mate in the spring.  Wood-wrens use a series of quickly alternating call-and-response phrases which ornithologists believe ‘reinforces pair bonds in birds that frequently lose sight of each other’.   (One of the wrens’ phrases turns out to be an ornamented version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’.)

Naming melodic phrases based on their origin, or the context in which one initially discovered them, or a symbolic association can be a helpful ‘hook’ on which to ‘hang’ one’s memory of the melody.  If one can attach these hooks to the framework of the chord progression, it further stabilizes the tune in one’s memory.  With Sonny Rollins’ tune ‘Doxy’, for example, if I remember that the chord progression has a basic similarity to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (as described in an earlier blog post), and then remember the similarity of m. 2 to the Parker lick in m. 5 of ‘Anthropology’ and m. 31 of ‘Confirmation’, and the similarity of m. 7 to the same measure in the opening strain of Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, memorizing the rest of the tune becomes a matter of making connections to these landmarks (m. 1 is a nearly exact inversion of m. 2; m. 3 is an alteration of m. 7 that resolves to the root rather than the V chord, etc.)

‘Ornithology’ has the unusual status of being a piece of music assembled from a legendary player’s vocabulary by an admiring associate which subsequently became a theme song for the legendary player.  When I mentioned the idea of ‘Ornithology’ as a kind of musical ‘fan fiction’ to a group of students, and asked whether fan fiction has ever been used by the author who inspired it, one of them mentioned that the author J.K. Rowling has incorporated characters from Harry Potter fan fiction into her own Harry Potter books.  But on the musical side, the question remains – have other jazz players (or any musicians for that matter) been able to incorporate music written in their honor into their repertoire as successfully as Parker did?   I would welcome any responses to this question in the comment section, and any other thoughts about recycling of melodic motives by Parker or other improvisers.

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Charlie Parker and Alan Turing: Anthropology is ‘The Bombe’

In my Theory and Practice of Jazz Improvisation class at UVM, we study some building blocks of the bebop melodic language which Barry Harris has assembled and codified as the ‘5-4-3-2’ licks.  They are four short licks of between four and eight notes each which are models of how to balance ascending and descending motion as well as how to balance intervallic and stepwise motion on a small scale.

5,4,3,2 licks These licks are ubiquitous in the language of many jazz giants.  I first became aware of this from reading Fiona Bicket’s analysis of Barry Harris’ solo on ‘Stay Right With It’ (included in her book The Barry Harris Approach To Improvised Lines and Harmony: An Introduction), which shows how Harris makes ingenious use of the ‘4’ lick multiple times when soloing over this B flat blues progression.  Since then I have found a number of examples that demonstrate how 5-4-3-2 licks can be used at the beginning, middle or end of a melodic phrase (as Barry Harris says, they are useful for ‘getting out of trouble’.)  Charlie Parker begins the last eight bars of his ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo with the 5 lick, and includes the 4 toward the end of the same section.  Frank Morgan plays a beautiful phrase at the end of his solo on Tommy Flanagan’s Something Borrowed, Something Blue which uses a fragment of the 5 lick twice.   (This phrase, and the first and last two bar phrases in the last A of the ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo, lend themselves particularly well to being transposed through all twelve keys.)

The bridge of Charlie Parker’s solo on his big band version of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, where he combines the 5 lick and the 3 lick, shows one of the many ways the licks can be combined.   They can also be used in multiple harmonic contexts, as one can see from a Parker solo on a live version of ‘Ornithology’ (from a now apparently out of print album called ‘Broadcast Performances’), where he uses a combination of the 5 lick and the 4 lick in a way that also includes the flat 9 of a dominant 7th chord.  This combination of Parker’s involves the first half of a combination that Harris calls the ‘5-4-3-2 lick’, a longer lick that combines all four of the shorter licks.  I sometimes call this the ‘Monster Lick’, as it combines a number of pieces into a working whole, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale:

5-4-3-2 lick

As I have studied the 5-4-3-2 licks over the years I have become more aware that, even though the licks themselves are used by a number of improvisers, they are even more important as a general example of the way that improvisers in the jazz tradition use many kinds of highly potent and malleable melodic motives or ‘licks’ in multiple rhythmic and harmonic contexts.  While the 5-4-3-2 licks are examples of melodic vocabulary shared by many improvisers, Charlie Parker developed his own personal vocabulary of licks which he either generated himself or came to ‘own’ through his masterful use of them.  Identifying these licks as the building blocks of his composing and improvising can make it possible to ‘decode’ his personal melodic language in a way that makes it much easier to memorize and internalize his melodies, solos and melodic concepts.

Although I have played Charlie Parker tunes and studied his solos for many years, my interest in approaching his melodic language as a kind of code stems from a number of recent nonfiction and fictionalized accounts of the British cryptologists stationed at Bletchley Park during World War II.  These include a fascinating article on the difference between puzzles and mysteries by Malcolm Gladwell, the PBS series ‘The Bletchley Circle’, and the recent film ‘The Imitation Game’, which dramatizes the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician whose creative approach to cracking codes used in radio transmissions by the German Navy made a major contribution to the Allies’ victory over the Axis in World War II.  At the point when Turing joined the British intelligence community, the German Navy was encoding messages using the Enigma machine, a kind of early code-reading electric typewriter capable of reading messages with a high degree of encryption.  In a step beyond codes used in earlier eras, where each letter of the alphabet was simply replaced with a different letter, the Enigma machine allowed the German Navy to send messages in codes where a single alphabetic letter could represent multiple letters depending on its position in the message.  (A video by numberphile helped me to understand this.)  Jim Holt writes that Turing’s approach to this seemingly unbreakable encryption was to devise a machine ‘the size of several refrigerators, with dozens of rotating drums’ which was capable of searching for ‘logical consistency’ – such as frequently used phrases – in the German Navy messages.  Because of a ticking sound it made, Turing’s colleagues dubbed the machine ‘the Bombe’.  Holt hints that a change occured in Turing’s demeanor during the time he developed this machine; while he was ‘solitary’ and ‘ascetic’ in his earlier academic life at Princeton and Cambridge, during his time at Bletchley Park he ‘impressed his colleagues as a friendly, approachable genius, always willing to explain his ideas.’ ‘The Imitation Game’ also dramatizes Turing as a reluctant but well-liked group leader.  Both the ‘Bombe‘ and a later, more elaborate computer which Turing began designing in 1945 are now acknowledged as the forerunners of the modern personal computer.

There are a number of noteworthy correspondences between Turing’s life and the life of Charlie Parker.  Both men had a genius for working with patterns; as a Japanese website has shown, Parker ‘encoded’ his melodic lines with not only his own melodic phrases but those from sources including classical music, folk music and opera; and Turing’s greatest success came from developing a machine that used electrical current to identify patterns in encoded messages. There are also parallels in the way their work evolved chronologically: in 1945, the year that Turing began developing his plan for a more elaborate computer, Parker had his first recording session as a leader, which included his classic tune ‘Anthropology’.  (When one considers that Turing’s 1945 computer design, following his work leading the group at Bletchley Park, ultimately led to his being appointed deputy head of the computing laboratory at Manchester University, one can see that Turing and Parker were rising to leadership positions in their respective fields at around the same time.)  The original title of ‘Anthropology’, ‘Thrivin‘ On A Riff’, is a clue to the way in which it is a repository of multiple patterns that figure prominently in Parker’s personal melodic code.

A number of commentators on Parker’s music, including Lawrence Koch and David Baker, have pointed out how the last phrase in the bridge of ‘Anthropology‘ is identical to measures 7-8 in ‘Ornithology’ (and nearly identical to measures 9-10.)  None of the analysts and biographers of Parker I have consulted so far, however, have pointed out that the A section of ‘Anthropology’ contains four smaller motives, comparable in size to the 5-4-3-2 licks, with clear connections to other places in Parker’s work: in order, they are the first five notes of the tune (which Parker reuses with a different rhythmic placement as the first five notes of ‘Dexterity’); the last five notes of the first measure, which are re-used with a different concluding note in measure 6 of ‘Ornithology’; measure 7, which takes the melodic pattern from the second half of measure 8 of Billie’s Bounce, extends it rhythmically by half a beat (i.e. an eighth note pulse) and simplifies it melodically by removing one note; and measure 8, which is a slightly altered version of the second half of the ‘Cool Blues’ motive which formed the basis of one of Parker’s B flat blues heads (and which he stated with a signature-like clarity in his solos on ‘Yardbird Suite’ and ‘Dewey Square’.)

Of these four tunes, three were recorded after ‘Anthropology’, while one (‘Billie’s Bounce’) was recorded the same day.  Parker analysts and biographers do not generally agree that the order in which he recorded his tunes was also the order in which he composed them, so it may be futile to try and establish whether the composition of these four tunes came after their themes were encapsulated in ‘Anthropology’, but in any case, the musical relationship is clear.  Whether ‘Anthropology’ was composed before or after the tunes it references, it is a summation of some of his most potent ideas, much like Turing’s ‘Bombe’ and the post-war machine for which it was the prototype.

On a more abstract level, the rhythmic pattern which is heard between beat 2 of measure 7 and beat 1 of measure 8 in Anthropology is also an important element both of Parker’s melodic code and the elements of melodic language that he and Dizzy Gillespie shared.  It can be heard multiple times in ‘Moose the Mooche’ (including between beat 4 of measure 5 and beat 3 of measure 6 in each A section, and three times in the bridge), and it forms the opening lick of Gillespie’s hit ‘Oop Bop Sh Bam’, which Parker performed on at least one occasion with Gillespie and his big band.  Anthro breakdown

In the version of ‘Moose the Mooche’ by Joe Lovano and his quintet Us 5, the rhythm section dispenses with traditional bassline-and-chords comping and plays a single-line accompaniment based on this motive.  Their accompaniment to the A section is based on a rhythmic motive heard in measures 1 and 3 of each A section and the last two bars of the second and last A sections.  This motive is extended to three repetitions in m. 1-3 and 11-12 of Billie’s Bounce, and is truncated to a single statement in measure 2 of ‘Anthropology’.

As I hope to continue demonstrating in future posts, the more one becomes aware of Parker’s use of patterns, the more one comes to see that while his work does include a fairly large number of tunes, there is a somewhat smaller vocabulary of key melodic and rhythmic phrases that recur throughout the tunes.  I believe that one could demonstrate the same kind of thematic unity in the work of Thelonious Monk, whose interest in variation through repetition can be found in many tunes, or Billy Strayhorn, whose best work shows his interest in altered harmony and dominant-cycle chord progressions.  I would question whether the an equally identifiable melodic style could be found in the best-known tunes of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, two undeniably masterful composers, performers and bandleaders who, according to recent scholarship, were also skilled at appropriating themes or whole songs from another musicians (quite often those less experienced at the particulars of copyright law) and asserting themselves as the composers.  Terry Teachout’s recent biography Duke mentions that the main themes of ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, and ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ were all the creations of lead players in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and a long list of composers have credibly claimed they authored tunes on which Davis’ name appears as the composer: ‘Four’ and ‘Tune Up’ (Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson), ‘Solar’ (Chuck Wayne), ‘Dig’ (Jackie McLean), and ‘Blue In Green’ (Bill Evans).  I welcome and encourage comments on this blog post either supporting or challenging these claims.  Using charts in The Real Book and original recordings as a resource, see if you can find common themes or approaches among the tunes of Monk, Strayhorn or other jazz composers – or find thematic unity in the tunes above attributed to Miles Davis or Duke Ellington.

The correspondences between the lives of Charlie Parker and Alan Turing also unfortunately include the fact that both died tragically early, leaving the advances they had made in their respective fields to be continued  by others, sometimes without attribution.  Countless improvisers, both contemporaries of Parker and those from later generations, have assimilated his melodic language; the extent of his influence is indicated by Charles Mingus’ tune title: ‘If Bird Had Been A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Lot of Dead Copycats.’  Holt notes that the well-known mathematician John von Neumann, who had contact with Turing at Princeton, was ‘credited with innovations in computer architecture that Turing himself had pioneered.’

Before my interest in Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts, what first got me re-interested in analyzing Parker’s use of patterns was studying the improvised solos of Ella Fitzgerald.  In Fitzgerald’s soloing, the bebop practice of combining two to four bar patterns, which can be hard to detect when players like Parker or Bud Powell are using largely ‘private’ patterns (as in Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugue-It’ solo), is made easy to understand by Fitzgerald’s tendency to make ingenious use of patterns from what might be called a ‘public’ melodic language, as in her ‘How High The Moon’ solo.  In some cases, as Catherine Cartwright has shown with Ella’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ solo, Fitzgerald constructed entire solos completely from familiar patterns.  In a follow-up blog post, I will discuss how Charlie Parker, and/or Benny Harris, who either composed or co-composed the tune, used Bird’s melodic code in ‘Ornithology’, as well as  one of Ella’s ‘How High’ solos.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to Alex Stewart, for introducing me to Barry Harris (in the early days of the Flynn Summer Jazz Camp) and encouraging me to base the improvisation class on his concepts.

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Will The Circle Be Unbroken: reflections and an exercise on the circle of descending fifths and the dominant cycle

When the first keyboard instruments with a twelve-note chromatic scale were introduced around the beginning of the 14th century, they entered a world where years had twelve months and days were measured with a twelve-hour clock.  In addition to the number twelve being an important unit of measurement in this era, it also figured prominently in two major wisdom traditions: the Christian tradition, founded on the Gospels and their stories of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and the Zodiac signs, which divide the year up into twelve periods, each named after a different animal or mythical figure and each aligned with a constellation of stars or a planetary movement.  The recurrence of the number twelve in so many foundations of Western culture (including the twelve-bar blues) suggests that while it may occur naturally in some kinds of measurements, scientific, artistic and religious thinkers have also deliberately or subconsciously chosen it in some cases for its association with beauty, symmetry, and truth.

I believe an association between twelve and the pursuit of harmonic symmetry can be heard in C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto, composed at a time in the 18th century when a debate was still raging between different approaches to tuning keyboard instruments.  The approaches to tuning that were prevalent at the time (such as ‘mean-tone temperament’) rendered some intervals and key signatures more consonant and others more dissonant, while a newer approach called ‘equal temperament’ allowed composers greater freedom to modulate through multiple keys within a single piece.  In Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground For the Great Minds of Western Civilization, Stuart Isacoff writes that C.P.E. Bach ‘wanted equal temperament but was confused about how to get it.’  The conclusion of Solfeggietto uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in the space of four measures, through a progression of five dominant seventh chords sequenced through the circle of descending fifths followed by a diminished seventh chord.  This passage, which may have tested the limits of a tuning where not all major keys were equally consonant, suggests that Bach’s interest in equal temperament may have been related to an interest in using wide-ranging modulations in his compositions.  C.P.E. Bach’s progressions and melodic shapes, and their relationship to the pop song structures on which bop players based their improvisations and compositions, caught the ear of Bud Powell, who made ‘Solfeggietto‘ the introduction to his remarkable hybrid piece Bud on Bach. The dominant cycle can also be heard in the Mazurka in G Minor Op. 67, No. 2 by Chopin.  Among the bop players who used Chopin’s melodic ideas in their improvising was Charlie Parker, whose use of the Military Polonaise and the Minute Waltz is documented on a fascinating webpage devoted to Bird’s use of quotes.

In many jazz standards from the swing and bop eras, dominant seventh chords moving through the circle of fifths are used in extended harmonic rhythms.  The bridges of ‘Stompin’ At the Savoy’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ move through a four-chord sequence along the circle of fifths, spending two measures on each chord, and the first half of the progression in ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ moves through a three-chord sequence in the dominant cycle, spending four measures on each chord before resolving to the I chord.  (In addition to being often-played jazz standards, the chord progressions of these tunes have been used as the basis for many jazz compositions: Charlie Parker based his  ‘Relaxin’ With Lee’ on ‘Stompin’, and was one of many jazz players to base multiple tunes, including his ‘Anthropology (a.k.a. Thrivin’ On A Riff)’ on the chord progression from ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Monk’s ‘Bright Mississippi’, J.J. Johnson’s ‘Teapot’ and Jackie McLean’s ‘Dig’ are based on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’.)

In contrast to the relatively expansive use that Tin Pan Alley and swing-era composers made of the dominant cycle, composers in the bop era and afterwards used dominant cycles with a more accelerated harmonic rhythm (two beats per change) to reharmonize standard progressions; Thelonious Monk’s ‘Humph’ is a dominant cycle reharmonization of ‘I Got Rhythm’; and the heads of Barry Harris’ ‘Save Some For Later’ and Benny Golson’s ‘Blues March’ use the dominant cycle to reharmonize different phrases of the twelve bar blues progression.  Monk’s tune ‘Skippy‘ is based on his dominant cycle reharmonization of ‘Tea for Two’ (although the ‘Tea for Two’ reharm was not recorded until a number of years after ‘Skippy’).

Jazz composers also have used the dominant cycle as a building block of new progressions, rather than just as a means of reharmonizing existing ones.  Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn deftly interpolated the dominant cycle into a number of ballads, using the tritone substitution on ‘Prelude to A Kiss‘ and using altered dominants on ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’, and Duke Jordan based the bridge of his tune ‘Jordu’ on the dominant cycle.  (Two lesser known tunes, John Lewis‘ ‘Three Windows‘ and Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Like A Mighty Rose’, also make interesting use of the dominant cycle in their bridges.)  Dominant 7th chords moving through the circle of descending fifths also are used in Blossom Dearie’s intro to her version of ‘I Hear Music’ (which moves all the way around the circle).  McCoy Tyner’s ending to ‘The Days of Wine and Roses‘ and Hank Jones‘ ending to ‘When There is Love‘ (from his album of the same name with Abbey Lincoln) move halfway around the circle.  (Cycles of this type have also found their way into a number of keyboard-driven rock tunes.  In The Doors’ tune ‘Light My Fire‘, Ray Manzarek’s intro includes a sequence of major chords moving around the circle of fifths and far afield of the  tonic key of the chorus (D) .  In some live versions of his tune ‘Such A Night’, Dr. John includes a dominant cycle in his solo piano break.)

My exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Four Brothers and Koko’ is the second in a series of exercises including licks from ‘Donna Lee’ (the first, ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris’ is in an earlier post.)  Besides ‘Donna Lee’, other sources I used for this exercise include Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind, Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers, and Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko’ (one of his solos on the changes to ‘Cherokee’.)  My intent is to show how the voicings for dominant chords most commonly used by jazz pianists – i.e. those built ‘off the third’ or ‘off the seventh’ – are equally useful as both melodic fragments and as harmonic structures. The exercise uses a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar; although this is not the harmonic rhythm seen in the uses of the dominant cycle mentioned above, it is the harmonic rhythm in the first two bars of ‘jazz blues‘ progressions such as ‘Billie’s Bounce‘ and ‘Tenor Madness’.

Practicing this exercise will make more sense if you first practice a one bar pattern of seventh scales ascending or descending in eighth notes (i.e. seven up or seven down only) around the circle of ascending fifths/descending fourths in the RH with three note rootless voicings for dominant chords in the LH as shown in Degreg p. 87: 7th scales through circle, one bar pattern - Full Score

I would then suggest practicing the rootless voicings doubled in both hands (i.e. LH plays treble clef voicings from p. 87 while RH doubles an octave above.)  Once you can play doubled voicings at a moderate, steady tempo, you should be ready to move on to the ‘parallel patterns‘ exercise, where the RH plays patterns derived from the voicings that the LH is playing simultaneously.  Below the parallel patterns exercises I have shown the ways that the two patterns can be combined contrapuntally.

Donna Jody Ko-Ko and Fou 2 - Full Score

As always, I welcome all kinds of comments on this blog entry, but I would be particularly interested in hearing about other culturally significant uses of the number twelve, or in other examples of pieces that include dominant-cycle modulation.  I encourage musicians reading this to try composing a twelve-bar blues melody following the Barry Harris scale outline discussed in an earlier post and incorporating some of the dominant seventh chord patterns from this post.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to friend and piano tuner Justin Rose for the suggestion of Temperament, to Will Burhans for introducing me to ‘Like A Mighty Rose’, to Bruce Sklar for assigning me ‘Donna Lee’ many years ago in a lesson, and to Tom McClung for introducing me to ‘Skippy‘ and its relationship to ‘Tea for Two’.

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Viral Rhythm

The word ‘virus’ is most often associated with negative and harmful microbes, from actual diseases like pneumonia and H1N1 to the fictional virus that kills off most of the Earth’s population in the recent Planet of the Apes movies.  The study of ‘good viruses’, however, is also a growing trend in health research, and has moved from identifying individual microbes with positive effects to building a concept of the ‘microbiome’ within each human being, a combination of bacteria in our gut that keeps us healthy.  Those who study how ‘good bacteria‘ help to preserve the body might find a metaphor to support their theories by looking at how the vitality of musical traditions and musical communities is often preserved by ‘viral‘ melodic and rhythmic ideas that find their way into multiple songs produced in the same time period.  What follow are a few examples of how a particular ‘viral rhythm’, a mutated version of a fundamental rhythm from south of the equator, has had a presence in three different eras of American music.

The tune ‘Hello My Baby’ is probably better known today than any other song published in 1899.  Whether it is being belted out by a frog in a Warner Brothers cartoon or Phish, it is immediately recognizable from the repeated syncopation that opens the refrain.

hello ma baby

The song originally began not with this catchy syncopation but with a long intro verse that can be seen in the original sheet music.  A few telltale lyrics in the intro verse (‘some other coon will win her and my game is lost’) show that ‘Hello My Baby’ was originally meant to be an entry in the ‘coon song‘ genre, in which songwriters of the late 19th and early 20th century combined syncopated music with lyrics featuring stereotyped African-American characters.  Judging from most versions of the tune currently in circulation, the intro verse and the dialect version of the title (‘Hello! Ma Baby’) – what one might call the harmful part of the virus – have long since been abandoned.  I would argue that while the intention to remove prejudicial overtones is certainly one of the motivations for these alterations, there is also a solid musical reason: the intro verse has almost none of the syncopation that makes the refrain so memorable.

That same memorable syncopation also shows up in the lesser-known piano rag ‘Smoky Mokes‘ by Abe Holzman, published the same year.  In an early example of how the ‘good bacteria’ in the ‘Hello My Baby’ virus was communicated, Holzman in the opening strain of ‘Smoky Mokes’ appears to cleverly graft the entire melodic rhythm from the refrain of ‘Hello My Baby‘ into his tune while substituting a different sequence of notes:smoky mokes

Both tunes can be seen in Denes Agay’s great collection The Joy Of Ragtime, which also features many of the best-known pieces by Scott Joplin (‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘The Sycamore’, and of course ‘The Entertainer’, a musical virus if there ever was one: since Marvin Hamlisch’s version on ‘The Sting‘ soundtrack, it has been covered by performers ranging from Milton Berle and the Muppets to Marcus Roberts, who turns in a seriously funky and innovative version on his album ‘The Joy of Joplin’, which is highly recommended for purchase.  A fine cover of Roberts’ arrangement by Matt Tabor can be heard on YouTube.)   Agay’s collection also includes ‘Pleasant Moments’, one of Joplin’s rare waltzes.  To a listener who has ‘Hello My Baby’ deep in their musical subconscious,  measures 9 and 10 in ‘Pleasant Moments’ can look and sound like a truncated, three-beat version of the rhythmic figure from that tune and ‘Smoky Mokes’ (and which I will call the ‘truncated habanera’):pleasant moments

 Some inspection of the South American tango tradition as represented in piano music, however, shows that both Joplin and ‘Hello My Baby‘ were borrowing this rhythm from a much older source.

The rhythm introduced in the first measure of the refrain in ‘Hello My Baby’, used relentlessly and obsessively throughout the song, and employed more subtly in a truncated version by Joplin, is in fact the habanera rhythm, a typical accompaniment figure in Argentinian tango music with roots in Cuban folk music going back to the 18th century.  As the habanera is more of an accompaniment rhythm than a melodic rhythm in tango, it can be seen in its basic form in the left hand of Ernesto Nazareth’s lovely slow ‘Tango Brasiliero’ called ‘Nove de Julho’ (an excerpt follows, but here are links to a complete recording and score):

nove de julho
  Nazareth uses a common elaboration of the pattern in his faster-paced tango ‘Garoto’ (recording, score):.Garoto


Nazareth, a Brazilian composer, wrote in a number of dance styles typical in his era; the ‘Tango Brasiliero‘ marking in ‘Nove de Julho‘ seems to refer to the slower, gentler pace of this piece, which contrasts with the faster pace of ‘Garoto’, a piece that features an elaboration of the habanera pattern typical in Argentinian tango.  After listening to and/or reading through ‘Garoto’, it is interesting to examine another Joplin waltz dated 1905, ‘Bethena’ (heard on the score to the film ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’), in which the truncated habanera hinted at in ‘Pleasant Moments’ can be heard even more clearly and repeatedly:bethena

The mark of Joplin’s greatness as a composer can be seen in his juxtaposition of repeated rhythmic and melodic figures with a constantly evolving harmonic progression; where the repetition in ‘Hello My Baby‘ seems obsessive even within the confines of its sixteen-measure form, Joplin uses repetition of the same idea in ‘Bethena‘ to build undulating waves of tension and release that evolve consistently over a form more than twice as long.  (Sheet music for Bethena can be purchased here; Marcus Roberts’ recording of this tune on ‘The Joy of Joplin’ is also highly recommended.)

According to Scott Joplin biographer E.A. Berlin, Joplin claimed that composer Irving Berlin plagiarized the opening strain of his first hit song, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, from one of Joplin’s pieces, ‘A Real Slow Drag’ from his opera ‘Treemonisha’:a real slow drag excerpt

Joplin made the claim after Berlin, who worked for a publisher at the time, reviewed Joplin’s score in 1910, decided against publishing it, but proceeded to publish his own song with its tell-tale phrase the next year:

To me, the similarity of Berlin’s phrase to Joplin’s phrase shows that Berlin, far from being a simple plagiarist, was highly skilled at assimilating other composers’ ideas, and was operating with the same level of sophistication as Joplin when he incorporated the habanera pattern into his waltzes.  Once again, however, as with ‘Hello My Baby’, the harmful part of the ‘virus’ – in this case the disputed intro verse – was wisely removed by great communicators such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in their versions of ‘Alexander’.  Fitzgerald and Armstrong may not have been aware of Joplin’s dispute with the intro, but they and their arrangers certainly recognized that the intro verse is less musically strong than the refrain with which the composer followed it.  (From a compositional standpoint it is interesting to note that although both Howard and Berlin’s creative impetus seems to have come from the instinct to imitate – Howard imitates the ‘coon song’ genre, Berlin imitates Joplin’s score – it was not the most culturally or musically imitative section that produced the strongest music.  The most memorable sections of both tunes came after a section mimicking a current trend, and the versions of these songs that have endured are those shorn of their original mimickry.  Joplin’s genius in ‘Bethena’ and ‘Pleasant Moments’, on the other hand, was to incorporate a germ of an idea from an external source and make it part of an utterly original, memorable and musically enduring whole.)

I believe Berlin’s skill at assimilation can also be heard in ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a tune copyrighted in 1928 that uses the truncated habanera rhythm twice in its first four measures:puttin on the ritz excerpt

As the ‘Alexander’s’ story establishes that Berlin was a student of Joplin’s innovations, it seems at least possible that, even though the habanera was everywhere at the time, Berlin’s knowledge of this rhythm may have come from Joplin’s waltz.  More evidence that the truncated habanera rhythm was ‘going viral’ in the world of popular song around this time is in Duke Ellington’s 1932 tune ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ , which uses the rhythm four times in a row in the second phrase of (as well as many more times in the coda of the tune’s first recorded version):

Cole Porter used the truncated habanera three times in a row in the first phrase of the tune ‘Anything Goes’ (from the 1934 musical of the same name), (as well as five times in its bridge):anything goes excerpt

(Although I have arranged these examples and the ones that follow in chronological order, my point is not to prove conclusively that any one song directly influenced the other, but rather to illustrate how each tune takes the truncated habanera and uses it in a different way.  A number of these tunes are standard literature in the jazz tradition, and their uses of the truncated habanera are among the more sophisticated and technically challenging elements of the melodies for performers.  If one can grasp the commonality between these tunes, it can be an aid to mastering one of their complexities.)

It sounds to me like the truncated habanera also went viral in the bebop era of jazz, as it shows up in an ornamented form the melody of one of Charlie Parker’s best-known compositions, ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (first recorded in 1945).  Parker, like Berlin in ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, begins the truncated habanera on the fourth beat of his tune’s first measure, but unlike Berlin he repeats the pattern three times, although he replaces the pattern’s first note with a rest on the second and third repetitions.  

The same subtractive use of the pattern was also made by Sonny Rollins in his tune ‘Oleo’ (first recorded in 1954 for the Miles Davis album ‘Bags’ Groove’).  In the way the tune is most often notated and played, Rollins’ use of the truncated habanera is most noticeable in m. 1, 3, 4 and 6: Oleo excerpt

On Bill Evans’ version of Oleo (from ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’, recorded in 1958) Philly Joe Jones’ three-against-four hi-hat pattern in the second A makes the tune’s first two measures sound like two repetitions in a row of the truncated habanera, filling in the missing first note of the pattern for its first two repetitions, and making the listener hear two three-beat phrases:.Oleo excerpt w hi hat


Thelonious Monk, in his tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (first recorded in 1957), begins with what has often been identified as a four-measure quote from the Mary Lou Williams composition ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’ (see 1:22 of the linked recording by the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble for the phrase in question.)  Monk follows this phrase with a melodic phrase that uses the full four-beat habanera pattern (with an added pickup) in measure 5.  This is the pattern we heard in the melody ‘Hello My Baby’ and the left hand of ‘Garoto’.  In typical Monk fashion, this second semi-quoted element is then transformed by being stated on a different beat of the measure in bar 6.Rhythm A Ning excerpt
(Monk investigates this process further in ‘Straight, No Chaser’, where a rhythmic figure introduced initially on the pickup to beat 1 in measure 1 is then begun on beats 2, 3 and 4 of various measures over course of the first eight measure phrase.)

I have discovered the connections I’m discussing here over years of playing jazz gigs, teaching piano lessons and improvisation classes, and directing pit orchestras, but my awareness of them was reawakened during a great performance I saw earlier this year by Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Flynn Center.  One of the concert’s standout pieces was O’Farrill’s composition ‘On The Corner of Malecon and Bourbon’ from their recent album ‘The Offense of The Drum’.  In the YouTube video of this piece, after solos by O’Farrill on piano, Bobby Porcelli on alto sax (who references Cannonball Adderly’s ‘So What’ solo), Jim Seeley on trumpet (who references ‘West End Blues’ and ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbeque’ among other tunes),  Jason Marshall on baritone sax (who picks up and develops the ‘Struttin’ lick) and Gregg August on bass, the band settles into a section in which the accompaniment and melody are both strongly reminiscent of the opening strain of Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. In both the YouTube video and the Burlington performance, O’Farrill mentioned in his spoken intro that the piece is about the common roots of jazz and Latin music, but in Burlington he also added a highly instructive piece of stagecraft.  In a tone of voice that conveyed believable honesty, O’Farrill claimed that he wasn’t too sure about the ending – a statement which, if he really meant it, would be shocking for someone of O’Farrill’s stature and virtuosity.   Although this seemed at first to be a sincere confession, it was actually a shrewd piece of acting that set the audience up for a bit that O’Farrill engages in during an unaccompanied piano solo in the middle of the piece.  The band drops out for what seems like a piano cadenza, and O’Farrill first plays in a ragtime piano style with a left hand stride pattern and syncopated melody, but he then slows down as though his mind is stuck on some detail of the music.  After an awkward pause, he turns the chart on his music rack upside down and plays an inverted version of the syncopated melody.  Here again he slows down and repeats a bar as though analyzing the syncopation, after which he turns the music right side up again and transforms the syncopated melody into one of its close musical relatives: the rhythmic pattern called montuno or guajeo which the piano plays son clave accompaniment style derived from Cuban folk music and common through mambo, salsa and Latin jazz contexts.  O’Farrill’s band responds by accompanying the montuno pattern with its typical rhythmic counterpoints in the percussion and bass parts, and the piece concludes in a smoking 2-3 son clave feel.

O’Farrill’s piece brilliantly illustrates that, although videos that ‘go viral‘ on the internet are a fairly recent phenomenon (such as the Pharell Williams tune ‘Happy’, where the original version was quickly followed with remakes by groups from the Miss USA contestants to a grade school class), in the intertwined evolution of tango, ragtime, jazz and popular song, rhythms ‘went viral’ for many decades before the internet with only the ears, eyes and memories of composers to communicate them.  Having recently fought off pnuemonia myself, I certainly wouldn’t wish a medical virus on anyone.  However, as the word ‘viral’ has taken on a positive meaning in the world of the internet, perhaps someday as studies of medicine and music continue to intertwine, ‘viral’ can take on a positive meaning in the study of music, as a way of explaining the sometimes peculiar and always fascinating ways that musical ideas are leaked and communicated between cultures and eras.

Ian Crane, one of my piano students who is also a student at UVM College of Medicine, wrote an email  response to an earlier version of this blog which confirms my sense that the ‘good virus’ metaphor works to illustrate how indirect influence in music can be just as powerful as direct influence.  Ian explains it better than I could, so I’ll give him the last word: “I think one way in which viruses work  similar to musical ideas is the ‘lysogenic life cycle’. Certain viruses actually travel in between cells and incorporate their genetic code (which is all a virus really is: a traveling piece of DNA or RNA) into the genetic code of a cell. There they lie dormant and are replicated with that cell’s DNA, from that point on effectively changing the genetic code of that cell and all of its progeny…I think music is really similar to this aspect of the viral life cycle in the sense that it can permanently change our musical code, or our set of musical ideas, becoming a part of us.”

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