From Watermelon Man to Cantaloupe Island and beyond: Herbie Hancock’s ingenious reinventions (featuring ‘Caves of the Island’, an original tune based on ‘Cantaloupe Island’)

Herbie Hancock and I after his February 2019 show at the Flynn Center

 In 1962, the first film in the James Bond series, ‘Dr. No’, was released.  As ‘Dr. No’ was a great success at the box office, Bond films continued to be released almost annually over the following decade, each one using a number of elements that had been introduced in ‘Dr. No’.  These included character of Bond himself (always introduced through an opening sequence featuring the opening Bond theme), and the archetypes of the ‘Bond girl’ and the ‘Bond villain’.  The third Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, added the trope of the Bond vocal theme song to the formula, a franchise which over the years has passed through a long list of pop song composers and performers, including Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong and most recently Billie Eilish.

1962 also saw the release of ‘Takin’ Off’, the first album by jazz pianist (and future film composer) Herbie Hancock.  As Hancock recalls in his autobiography, Possibilities, the album “climbed to number 84 on the Billboard 100.  At that time Billboard didn’t have different charts for different genres, like pop, jazz and R&B.  There was just one chart for all the records released, so for a jazz record to reach the top 100 was considered pretty good.  ‘Watermelon Man‘ was the single that propelled the record, and when I started hearing it on the radio, it was really cool.”  Hancock goes on to describe how the success of his version of ‘Watermelon Man’ was eclipsed when a version by Cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria reached number 11 on the Billboard 100.

Much as the success of ‘Dr. No’ led to a series of films that sought to capitalize on its success, I would argue that the success of ‘Watermelon Man’ led to a series of tunes, many by Hancock himself, that focused on not so much replicating the original as reinventing various aspects of it.  Far from being ‘cheap knockoffs’, Hancock’s follow-ups to ‘Watermelon Man’ show his evolving resourcefulness as a composer.  Blind Man, Blind Man, from Hancock’s 1963 album My Point of View, borrows the drum groove and the signature melodic rhythm from ‘Watermelon Man’, but in the context of a tune based on a single chord (rather than the four chords of the original.)  On his 1964 album ‘It’s All Right’, Wynton Kelly (who by that time Hancock had replaced in the Miles Davis Quintet) recorded a tune called Escapade which uses a very similar chord progression to that of ‘Watermelon Man’, but with a different melody and what might be called a surf-rock drum pattern rather than the ‘funky’ backbeat Billy Higgins concocted for the original. 

1964 also saw the release of Hancock’s concept album ‘Empyrean Isles’, which included ‘Cantaloupe Island‘, the title of which hints at its kinship with ‘Watermelon Man’.  This tune, like ‘Watermelon Man’, has a 16-bar form and a similar bassline and piano accompaniment figure.  The drum groove, while still ‘funky’ and based in straight eighth notes, is considerably different, and the chord progression is modal and uses predominantly minor 7th chords in contrast to Watermelon Man’s dominant sevenths.  As Hancock’s website tells it, “The track was somewhat popular in the mid-60s, but it was not until the Hip-Hop band Us3 sampled the track and incorporated it into their mega-hit “Cantaloop” that anyone really took the song seriously.” On his 1973 album ‘Headhunters’, Hancock featured a completely transformed ‘Watermelon Man’ ingeniously recasting the tune in the 1970s concept of funk, retaining only its progression (expanded to include one more chord, Ab7) and a vestige of its melody and otherwise completely transforming the tune with a new intro (featuring the ocarina), a new groove, and electrified instrumentation. 

With this series of tunes, one can hear Herbie Hancock going through a methodic and yet highly creative process of building new pieces on different elements of the original ‘Watermelon Man’ – first the groove with ‘Blind Man’, then the form with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, and finally the chord progression with the electric ‘Watermelon Man’.  While it makes sense that Hancock’s goals with these tunes were partly commercial in the sense of wanting to repeat or approach the chart success of ‘Watermelon Man’, each of these tunes was in my view also an artistic success, as Hancock, like Duke Ellington, as well as composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms who were masters of the theme and variations form, has the gift of creating music based on an earlier piece which is totally new and not derivative.

During the period when this music was released, Herbie Hancock also scored the music to two films with plot lines roughly similar to the Bond films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973).  One of the themes from Hancock’s soundtrack to ‘The Spook Who Sat By The Door’ would, with the addition of a clavinet played through a wah pedal, become the tune ‘Actual Proof‘ from the album Thrust, released the year following the film (1974).  The Blow-Up soundtrack is notable for including the outtake ‘Bring Down The Birds’, the intro of which was used prominently in the 1990 hit ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Deee-Lite.  Here, as on ‘Escapade’ and ‘Cantaloop’, we can hear another artist building an entire piece on the strength of a Hancock idea.  While these pieces all cleverly transplant Hancock’s ideas to other musical settings, they don’t display the ability that Hancock shows in ‘Blind Man, Blind Man’, ‘Canteloupe Island’ and the Headhunters ‘Watermelon Man’ to reinvent and transform musical ideas. 

My tune Caves Of The Island is based on the chord changes to ‘Cantaloupe Island’, but uses a half time drum groove, different bass line and a chromatic, bebop-type melody.  (A piano chart for it, including a scale outline, is below.) I was able to give Herbie Hancock a score to the tune when I met him backstage after a performance in Burlington.  I handed him the chart, mentioned that it was a sort of bop tune, and was delighted when he began sight singing it immediately (after having played a two hour concert with no intermission!).  Like many of my tunes based on existing progressions, this tune works both on its own and as a countermelody to ‘Cantaloupe Island’.  Like many countermelodies, the lines in ‘Caves of the Island’ often harmonize with those ‘Cantaloupe Island’ by moving the opposite direction from them (also known as ‘contrary motion’.)  The liner notes to Empyrean Isles, by Canadian novelist Nora Kelly, describe the album as a depiction of a fantastical remote world that includes a mysterious mountain called ‘The Egg’, the ‘mythical Oliliquoi Valley’ which casts a hypnotic power on visitors, who during their hypnosis learn a dance called the ‘One Finger Snap’.  (All these elements are represented by different songs on the album.  ‘Oliliquoi Valley’ has a possible kinship with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, as it opens on a similar – although more chromatic – F minor tonality, and its opening bassline and chord pattern is a kind of two-bar variation on that of ‘Cantaloupe’.)   I imagine ‘Caves of the Island’ as depicting part of the ‘upside down’ of Cantaloupe Island (in the sense in which that phrase is used in the Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’ to refer to a parallel world.)   

I encourage anyone reading this post to respond in the comment section with any examples they can think of where ‘remakes’ have been attempted in literature, film or music, or to post a link to a piece of their own that seeks to ‘rewrite’ an existing tune or reinvent an element of it. 

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‘Winter Sun’ – a tune on the changes to ‘Summertime’

Like George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ and W.C. Handy’s ‘Saint Louis Blues’, the song ‘Summertime’, composed in 1934 by Gershwin with lyrics by DuBose Heyward (originally for the opera Porgy and Bess), has been a standard throughout nearly all eras of jazz.  Listening to versions of this tune by great jazz players in chronological order from earliest to latest can provide a mini-history of jazz, from Sidney Bechet’s version recorded in 1939 not long after the tune’s publication, to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s version from 1958 with an arrangement using some of Gershwin’s original orchestration, to Miles Davis’ version from the same year with an arrangement by Gil Evans that epitomizes the modal jazz style (which would gain wider exposure the following year on ‘Kind of Blue’).  Herbie Hancock’s version featuring Joni Mitchell’s vocals and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing, from his album ‘Gershwin’s World’, demonstrates a late-twentieth-century modern jazz approach to the tune, rife with altered dominant chords.  ‘Summertime’ has also been interpreted by many artists in the wider popular music world, notably Janis Joplin whose version with Big Brother and The Holding Company casts the tune in 6/8 swing feel with baroque-style counterpoint between two guitars.  A version by Prince from a soundcheck shows his lesser-known skills with jazz piano comping and soloing.  (Prince’s posthumous autobiography, ‘The Beautiful Ones’, devotes a considerable amount of space to describing his father as a working jazz pianist.)  In Shulie-A-Bop, Sarah Vaughan uses the ‘Summertime’ chord progression as the basis for her original wordless scat vocal line which avoids referencing Gershwin’s melody.  A further development of the ‘Summertime’ chord progression can be heard in Wes Montgomery’s Four on Six, which retrofits Gershwin’s basic harmonic structure with a number of additional ii-V progressions and adds a new melody .

The chart below for my tune ‘Winter Sun’, which is also based on the chord progression of ‘Summertime’, may be played two ways.  While it can be played as a ‘two-hand comp’ (with the single note roots shown in the bass clef with ‘down stems’ played in the left hand, and the three- and four-note voicings shown higher in the bass clef in the right hand), I recommend first learning the treble-clef melody in the right hand and the three- to four-note voicings on the upper part of the bass clef in the left hand.  (In this melody and chords version, the left hand would obviously not play the roots shown lower in the bass clef along with the chords.)  I would recommend starting by learning the left hand voicings at a very slow tempo and then practicing them along with Chet Baker’s quartet version of Summertime at .75 or .5 speed on YouTube.  Baker’s version, more than most of the versions mentioned above, shows the common practice of how the tune is played in most jazz situations. To help you learn the melody, here’s a link to an informal solo piano recording of the tune from a very fun gig I played recently for the opening of The Piano Gallery, a new retail piano outlet run by piano tuners and dealers Justin and Emily Rose.  As I was playing the tune from memory on this recording, some of the voicings are different than those shown on the score; I also made a slower recording of just the melody which demonstrates the written voicings.  Like a number of my contrafact tunes, ‘Winter Sun’ also works as a countermelody to ‘Summertime’.  It also includes a reference to the melody of ‘Autumn Leaves’ (with one inverted interval) and a reference to Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic ‘Blue Skies’ solo – see if you can find them!

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An excerpt from Shirley Horn’s solo on ‘What Would A Woman Do?’ (The State of the Blues, part 5)

The great jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn was best known for her unmistakable vocal sound, her ability to re-invent songs, often at unusually slow tempos, and her ability to accompany herself on piano. She also showed herself to be an equally distinctive jazz piano soloist on the few piano instrumentals she recorded.  Horn’s recording of ‘What Would A Woman Do’, from Curtis Lewis’ ‘Garden of the Blues’ suite on her album of the same name, is a six-chorus piano solo at a moderately slow tempo that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) begin with or refer back to a composed melody.  (Horn seems to be the only artist to have recorded the tune.) I’ve chosen to transcribe the second and third choruses of this solo because they are a model of a number of concepts that make the playing of Horn and her jazz piano contemporaries, such as Wynton Kelly, so swinging.  In the first six bars of the solo we can hear a conversation between the ‘calls’ in Horn’s left hand chords and the ‘responses’ of her right-hand phrases.  Although her left hand takes on a more supportive role at other points in these two choruses when the right hand line becomes more continuous (such as m.7-8 and 10-11 and 16-17), her use of left hand voicings constantly creates a slower-moving inner line which is just as melodic in its own way as the more active line in the right hand.  Whenever the left hand moves during breaks between right hand phrases, as at m. 21-22, the distinctive voice leading in Horn’s left hand creates meaningful melodic movement.   The connection between Horn’s left hand comping and her melodic phrases in the right hand during this solo has the same breathtaking balance of melodic strength and contrapuntal independence that can be heard in her piano/vocal performances. 

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A history of the chord progression from Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’, and an original tune based on it (‘Eye On The Sky’)

I began writing this post on November 23rd, 2109, one day after the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.  According to an interview with composer Bobby Hebb, it was that event, as well as the murder of his own brother the following day, that led him to compose his song Sunny as an antidote to the shadow these tragedies cast over his life.  ‘It was dark when I started working on the song, and the sun was rising,’ Hebb says.  ‘Everybody was feeling rather negative at that time, and I think that we all needed a lift.’  Although Hebb composed the tune in 1963,  and a version by the Japanese vocalist Mieko Hirota with pianist Billy Taylor was apparently recorded in 1965, Hebb himself did not record the song until 1966.  Besides Hebb’s version being a major hit record, and the song being recorded by many different artists, there are many jazz and pop tunes from the following decades that are built from elements of the ‘Sunny’ chord progression.

In Hebb’s original recording, the song begins with four-measure, five-chord loop (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F#m7-B7) which is expanded into a sixteen-bar form by playing the loop twice and then following a slightly different third phrase (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F7) with a different final phrase (F#m7-B7-Em).  A version in A minor by Frank Sinatra with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (from the 1967 album ‘Francis A. and Edward K.’) expands the second chord into a ii7-bII7 progression, Gm-Gb7 (i.e. a ii-V progression with a tritone substitution for the V), and changes key only once, in contrast to the three half-step key changes in Hebb’s original.   

One of the earlier songs to borrow the ‘Sunny’ progression is Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, recorded in 1970, in which the solos are based entirely on the first four-bar phrase of the ‘Sunny’ progression, transposed to C sharp minor but  incorporating the added major ii-V progression heard on the Sinatra version. 

On the album ‘Pat Martino/Live!’, recorded in 1972, the guitarist plays an extended version of ‘Sunny’ (over ten minutes) in the same key as Sinatra in which he eliminates the half-step key changes between verses heard on vocal versions.  Keeping the song in a single key allows Martino and keyboardist Ron Thomas more flexibility to apply bebop melodic concepts in their extended solos.  Martino has reprised this arrangement of the tune a number of times, notably in a live version from 2000 with fellow guitarist John Scofield and fellow Philadelphians organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Byron ‘Wookie’ Landham. 

My tune ‘Eye On The Sky’, which uses the changes to ‘Sunny’, (a downloadble pdf chart is below) is partly inspired by Martino’s bebop approach to the tune.  Here is a link to an informal solo piano recording I made of the tune.  For those interested in learning to improvise on the changes and/or building their own line on the tune, I have also created a ‘chord line‘ based on root position patterns from the tunes ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘I Can’t Get Started’.  The melody to ‘Eye On The Sky’ is what I call a ‘voicing-based line’.  I learned this concept from pianist Mike Longo’s book, The Technique of Creating Harmonic Melody for the Jazz Improviser, which shows how to build melodic lines from chord voicings that employ efficient voice leading (i.e. avoiding wide leaps and voice crossing when possible.) 

On the song If You Want Me To Stay from the 1973 album Fresh, Sly and The Family Stone move one step beyond Freddie Hubbard and base an entire tune on the first four bars of the ‘Sunny’ progression.  This song is somewhat remarkable for not having a chorus or refrain section and yet managing to avoid excessive repetitiveness through intricate variations on its opening four-bar melody phrase and the addition of horn lines more varied than the chord progression.  (The intro to the tune includes a reference to ‘Sunny’ in the guitar part.)  Stevie Wonder, who recorded ‘Sunny’ in 1968, seems to have built his 1973 song Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing by expanding the third phrase of the song’s progression.  Wonder extends the opening minor chord to two bars instead of one and adds a Latin accompaniment figure referred to alternately as montuno or guajeo.  In his tune Angela, recorded in 1978 (also the theme to the TV series ‘Taxi’), Bob James bases the solo changes on an eight-bar progression in which the second four-bar phrase is nearly identical to the opening phrase of ‘Sunny’. 

It seems somewhat possible that the progression for the 1980 Bill Withers/Ralph MacDonald/William Salter song Just The Two Of Us might have been devised by halving (i.e. speeding up) the harmonic rhythm of the first phrase of Sunny, so that it lasted only two bars instead of four, and then reversing the order of the two bars.  Even if this is not how the song was conceived, it is what I call a useful ‘creation myth’ – an origin story which can help one notice a resemblance between the two progressions, which can in turn help with memorizing the two songs.  Bassist Christian McBride recorded a version of this tune with his band Philadelphia Experiment, including a solo which is a great example of using bebop language in a funk context.  (Thanks to Lara Cwass for recommending this version to me.)

In her 2013 song Electric Lady, Janelle Monae moves one step beyond Sly and the Family Stone, basing an entire song on the first four measures of the ‘Sunny’ progression, but creating two distinct melodies, a lower-pitched line for the verse and a higher-pitched line for the chorus.  It is an impressive display of the composition skills of Monae and her collaborators that they manage to create a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse and yet remains distinctive through its melody and orchestration alone. 

Finally, Ariana Grande’s 2018 song Thank U, Next also has a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse, but in this song it is variation in melody and bassline which distinguishes the chorus from the verse.  The chord progression from the chorus stretches the chord progression of ‘Just The Two Of Us’ from two bars to four, and the verse uses a clever variation on the bass notes from the older song’s progression.  While none of the composers of ‘Thank U, Next’ have said they were consciously borrowing from ‘Just The Two Of Us’, there is an ironic appropriateness in a break-up song (albeit an upbeat one) having a similarity to an older song that is an anthem of a couple’s commitment to each other.  (Thanks to Sam Mark for recommending this song and pointing out its relationship to ‘Just The Two of Us’.)

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‘Outer Peace’ – a blues in G

‘Outer Peace’ is a melody line on the twelve bar jazz blues progression in G. I wrote it originally as a countermelody in an arrangement of Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s blues ‘Centerpiece’. Edison’s original version in A flat major is the slowest version I have heard of the tune. This is a good practice tempo or even goal tempo for ‘Outer Peace’. Edison also plays the tune as a ‘riff blues’ – a four-bar melodic phrase repeated three times over the twelve bar chord progression. A useful tool for practicing the chords and/or the melody to ‘Outer Peace’ is the version of ‘Centerpiece’ in G by saxophonist Scott Hamilton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. It may help to set the YouTube speed control (accessible by clicking on the gear icon at the lower right hand of the YouTube video screen) to .75 or .50. The recording opens with a chorus of piano solo by Tamir Hendelman, which gives you time to get ready to play along with the melody, and Scott Hamilton begins playing the melody on tenor saxophone at :25. You can also use this recording to learn the melody of ‘Centerpiece’, although I’d suggest playing the first phrase of the melody the same way Hamilton plays the second phrase at :32, to match the three identical phrases of Edison’s version. (Hamilton plays the first note of the melody as a concert D, but to match Edison’s version, change this to an E; he also makes the next to last note of the phrase, on the third beat of the third bar, an F natural; to match Edison’s version, change this note to an E as well.) Another good model for the tempo of for ‘Outer Peace’ is the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of ‘Centerpiece’. Finally, here’s a link to a solo piano version of Outer Peace that I recorded, demonstrating an approach to pedaling and one way of using the scale outline to improvise a solo. I hope you enjoy learning this tune!

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‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’ – another tune on the solo changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’

I composed the tune below, ‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’, while teaching a class called ‘Ella-vated Improvisation’, where we studied a number of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat solos from the album ‘Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Songbook’. On this album, in addition to singing Ellington’s tunes with lyrics, Ella functions like a horn player in the band, singing along with soli sections and improvising, both in extended solos of her own and in trading fours and twos with other soloists. Ella’s solos on ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘In A Mellow Tone’ from this album were the inspiration for the melodic line in this tune. (Thanks to Amber deLaurentis for her transcription of the ‘Satin Doll’ solo and Carly Flatau for her transcription of the ‘Mellow Tone’ solo.) The tune uses the solo changes from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent Up House’, and so could be described as an imaginary Ella melody line on Rollins’ tune. I have found Ella’s improvised solos very useful for vocalists and instrumentalists alike. Besides being very ‘playable’ instrumentally, learning to speak or sing an Ella solo with her highly evolved language of scat syllables can often show students more about how to phrase a melodic line with swing feel than traditional ways of notating articulation. (For a more advanced melodic line on these changes, check out ‘Birdhouse’.) ‘House of Tonic’ is also a reference to Charles Ives’ song ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge‘, the lyrics of which describe a river that, much like Ella’s singing, is in constant motion and yet exudes inner peace. An astute member of my class pointed out that the river in the title is actually pronounced ‘hoosatonic’. In any case, Charles Johnson’s lyrics for me provide a visual analogy for the way Ella’s voice is both captivating and medicinal: ‘what eye but wanders with thee at thy will, contented river?’ I encourage you to check out the transcribed Ella solo excerpts in my post Rhythm Changes and Trading Fours and see if these melodic shapes remind you of the river that Johnson describes.

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The Art of Duo

The following is a list of recordings by great improvisers who chose to collaborate in duo settings, often with one chord instrument (bass, guitar or piano) combined with a melody instrument (trumpet, voice, saxophone). Other duos combine two chord instruments – bass and guitar, or bass and piano. All of them are demonstrations of how great players can play an accompanying role with their instruments to the extent that traditional rhythmic accompaniment – drums or percussion – is not necessary. Duo playing is not just a specialty of virtuosic players, however; it is an essential skill for all jazz players, as it is a very typical situation in which working players find themselves, sometimes due to financial and space constraints of music venues, but also through artistic choice by performers who want to challenge themselves in a ‘less is more’ setting. I encourage you to listen to these recordings, and also to add comments mentioning great duo recordings in any style that you think should be added to this list.

Vocal / guitar duo

Ella Fitzgerald (voice) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Take Love Easy

Piano / guitar duo

Bill Evans / Jim Hall – Undercurrent

Fred Hersch (piano) / Bill Frisell (guitar) – Songs We Know

Piano/vibes duo

Gary Burton / Chick Corea – Crystal Silence

Bass / trumpet duo

Clark Terry (trumpet) / Red Mitchell (bass) – To Duke And Basie

Tenor saxophone / guitar duo

Zoot Sims (tenor saxophone) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Blues For Two

Blues for Two

Dindi

Pennies From Heaven

Take Off

Vocal / bass duo

Sheila Jordan / Cameron Brown – I’ve Grown Accustomed to The Bass

Piano / bass duo

Duke Ellington / Ray Brown – This One’s for Blanton

Charlie Haden (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – Night and The City

Dave Holland (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – The Art of Conversation

Michel Petrucciani / Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Live

Kenny Drew / NHOP – Duo Live In Concert

Hank Jones / Red Mitchell – duo

Cedar Walton / David Williams – duo

Kenny Barron / Buster Williams – Two As One

Fred Hersch / Matt Kendrick – Other Aspects

Guitar / bass duo

Jim Hall / Ron Carter – Alone Together

Trumpet / piano duo

Weather Bird – Louis Armstrong / Earl Hines

Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie

Oscar Peterson (organ) and Roy Eldridge

Saxophone / bass duo

Archie Shepp and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Looking at Bird

Saxophone / piano duo

Kenny Barron / Stan Getz – People Time

Frank Morgan – You Must Believe In Spring

(alto sax/piano duets with Roland Hanna, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron)

Many great examples of various duet formats:

Conversations with Christian (bassist Christian McBride with many duo collaborators)

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A message from the future of jazz: Camille Thurman and her solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ (The State of the Blues, part four)

(The title of this post is borrowed from a video narrated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a figure whose achievements in the political world have more than a few parallels to Camille Thurman’s achievements in the jazz world.)

Camille Thurman is a groundbreaking jazz musician in more ways than one.  Along with a small number of younger players such as Bria Skonberg and Esperanza Spalding, she is reviving the tradition of the instrumentalist who is an equally adept and serious vocalist.  Although this tradition goes at least as far back in jazz history as Louis Armstrong, it has always been somewhat rare and seems to have all but died out around the bebop era, when (at least according to most historical accounts) the chief innovations in the music were occurring in the instrumental world, leading the separation between instrumental and vocal jazz music to became even more pronounced than during the swing era.  In an NPR interview, Thurman mentions she was shocked to discover that Sarah Vaughan’s considerable skills as a pianist remained a secret during most of her vocal career:  “I remember when I first found out Sarah Vaughan was a pianist and it blew my mind away…I was like, ‘How can you just put one part of a person or an artist’s gift out there when there’s a whole person?”  (Although Vaughan was originally hired as a second pianist in the Earl Hines big band, her piano skills stayed largely out of sight during most of her vocal career.  It was only in her later years that she revealed her piano skills in live concerts such as this one and the Marian McPartland show which can be heard by clicking on Vaughan’s name above.)

As one can see by listening to Thurman’s solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ from her album ‘Inside The Moment’ (my transcription of the first two choruses is posted below with her permission), she is a masterful improviser who demonstrates both a deep knowledge of jazz melodic language and the ability to make it her own.  Her ability to begin phrases on the upbeat, as well as her ability to ‘make the changes’ in her solo locate her melodic language firmly within the bebop idiom. Her ability to lend an instrumental quality to her scatting and the range of syllables she chooses both give the solo a distinctly modern flair. 

In the NPR interview I mentioned above, Thurman explains that while she has been singing informally since she was a child, she began to get more serious about singing when she found it a helpful way to learn saxophone parts (during a time in her life when she received a scholarship that required her to play the saxophone.)  Each of her three albums gives a slightly different answer to the question of whether she identifies more as a vocalist or an instrumentalist; while ‘Origins’ and ‘Inside The Moment’ contain mostly instrumental pieces with the occasional vocal feature, last year’s ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’ highlights her singing on most tunes, although on many tracks Thurman alternates with seeming effortlessness between playing and singing.  This remarkable feat, combined with the album’s ballad-heavy tune choices, makes it reminiscent of the classic ‘John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’ album, but with the two masterful soloists rolled into one performer.   (Perhaps the most succinct demonstration of Thurman’s ability to alternate between the two skills is an astonishing ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ from 2013.)  I hope that Thurman might be a model for a new kind of jazz student, one who rejects the false choice between playing an instrument or singing and instead realizes that if one can develop both these skills, they can powerfully support and strengthen one another (regardless of whether or not one’s goal is to be a multi-instrumentalist.) I also hope that the increasing and increasingly visible ranks of professional female jazz instrumentalists, younger players such as Thurman, Spalding, Skonberg, Helen Sung, Linda May Han Oh and Tia Fuller as well as veterans such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Joanne Brackeen, and Jane Ira Bloom will lead aspiring female instrumentalists to stay in the game despite so many jazz scenes being male-dominated. It is important that role models for female instrumentalists remain visible in the versions of the jazz world projected by the media and by educators because, as Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘It’s Hard To Be What You Can’t See.’ (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives her own version of this statement in the video mentioned above.)

Over the past year, Thurman has made a particularly momentous and groundbreaking move; she has been appearing regularly as a tenor saxophonist and vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a group in which female instrumentalists have been historically and inexplicably absent from the roster of permanent players.  As her website biography relates, she has become ‘the first woman in 30 years to work an entire season with the world-renowned orchestra (2018-2019).’  This careful wording manages to avoid mentioning that the group has never had a female player among its regular lineup.  The group’s website mentions that it includes ‘15 of the finest soloists, ensemble players, and arrangers in jazz music today’, and many, myself included, would go further to say that it has been the leading jazz big band in the country since its inception.  In its sense of prominence and mission, including its educational work in the Essentially Ellington competition, as well as a diplomatic functions representing the U.S. in performances around the world, the JALCO is a kind of jazz parallel to the U.S. Congress.  As recently as last year, however, trumpeter Ellen Seeling, chair of the advocacy group JazzWomen & Girls, was quoted as saying of the band that ‘“They travel the world and have for years, sending the message that there are no women good enough to be in this organization.”  In light of the JALCO’s well-earned and deserved prominence, as well as the challenge it has had with including female musicians, Thurman’s breakthrough makes her a kind of jazz parallel to both Jeanette Rankin, the senate’s first female member, and Shirley Chisholm, its first African-American female member. (Strangely, despite having played more than a season at this point with the band, Thurman is still not listed on the JALCO website among either their regular members or on their list of substitute players.)

I am a longtime fan of the JALCO and its musical director, Wynton Marsalis.  I have seen the full band twice in concert, seen Marsalis’ small group live, listened to them many more times on recordings, and have used the excellent scores from the Essentially Ellington competition with many student bands I’ve led.  In an earlier blog post, I transcribed a characteristically ingenious solo Marsalis took on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ during his commencement speech at UVM in 2013.  I’ve also experienced Marsalis’ legendary resistance to recognizing the talent of female instrumentalists firsthand.  When a female student of mine asked him in a question and answer session at UVM around 2005 whether the quality of female jazz players in general was improving, his answer began with silent head-shaking, which was followed with a short verbal answer that boiled down to ‘No.’ 

In a Village Voice article published earlier in the decade, Marsalis’ response was somewhat more hopeful.  The article, written in 2000 by Lara Paragrenelli, first acknowledges that ‘The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra… has never had a female member’ and then goes on to quote Marsalis (I have included Paragrenelli’s interstitial comments as well): “ “I hire orchestra members on the basis of merit,” says artistic director Wynton Marsalis, implying women do not yet make the grade. “The more women we have playing jazz, the higher the level of playing gets, the more they audition, and the more women are going to be all over. It will be just like classical music.” Marsalis also cites slow turnover in the band of 15, limiting the availability of positions.”  Paragrenelli goes on to quote historian Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, who tells her that “The argument that women will eventually be good enough is very old.”

I have been thrilled and enlightened for many years by the sound of the JALCO’s performances, but in recent years I’ve increasingly noticed how it is full of age and culture diversity, symbolizes hope and excellence to many, and yet doesn’t include qualified women among its regular members, as one would expect from such a representative body.  To have noticed this imbalance, and then to see the footage on Marsalis’ website of a performance including Thurman from earlier this year, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra of Romania, carries for me a taste of the thrill North Americans must have felt seeing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969.  The contrast between the Romanian group, which includes female players in every section, including multiple women among the woodwinds, and the JALCO with its single female member, dramatizes how the most recognized U.S. jazz group is just beginning to catch up to representative organizations in many fields in its gender diversity.  Marsalis and the JALCO deserve long and loud accolades for finally recognizing in a prominent way the deep well of female instrumental jazz talent that has been in existence for many years. Here’s hoping that it is a sign of many more such changes yet to come. 

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A menagerie of intervals

Birding is a term that describes what birdwatchers do when they observe and catalog the species of birds they hear and see around them.  In birding competitions, such as the New Jersey Audubon World Series of Birding, teams of birdwatchers compete to see which one can identify the greatest number of bird species by sight or sound.  While identifying bird songs ‘by ear’ is a common approach, apps such as Song Sleuth have been developed to provide technological assistance to those looking to identify birds by sound.  An article on identifying birds by ear includes the suggestion: ‘If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall?’ 

The development of this skill for birders is very similar to the way in which musicians learn to identify intervals, or in other words, use scale steps to measure the distance between two notes,  in what is called ‘ear training’.   Musicians can learn to identify intervals through studying a list of  pop and folk tunes, or a list of jazz tunes, in which iconic phrases from songs are associated with the intervals they demonstrate.  In this post I am proposing a new approach to the study of intervals, using bird songs found in nature and in tunes by jazz and pop song composers which quote those bird songs. While many jazz standards refer to birds in the title (such as ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ or ‘Skylark’) or somewhere in their lyrics (as in ‘Stella by Starlight’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont’), there are a smaller number of tunes in which the composers incorporate the songs of actual birds into the melody.  A number of these tunes quote the birdsongs with some accuracy, because they imitate birds whose songs can be mapped onto the major scale.  This makes these tunes a useful introduction to the study of melodic intervals and ear training for musicians, as well as possibly a musical introduction to some bird songs for aspiring birders.  I have found tunes that directly quote bird songs to match the first four intervals in the major scale (the major 2nd, major 3rd and the perfect 4th and 5th); for the major sixth and seventh intervals, I have found tunes associated with birds, although not with particular birdsongs. 

Descending Major second (mi – re):  ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (House Finch) and Le Rossignol En Amour by Francois Couperin (Nightingale)

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote about this tune in a letter to his colleague Sigmund Romberg: ‘Jerry [Jerome Kern] got the melodic theme from a bird.  He swears it!  He heard a finch outside his window singing the first line and he built a refrain on it. Incidentally,’ Hammerstein added, ‘Ev’ry Little Star proved to be a stubborn tune and for a whole summer resisted my efforts to set words to it.  There were times during those hot August days when I wished the finch had kept his big mouth shut!’  There is a five-note motive in the second measure of this tune (accompanied by the words ‘Every Little Star’ in vocal versions such as those by Bing Crosby and Jacob Collier) in which four repeated notes are followed by a descending major second.  This motive does bear a resemblance to the excerpt of a House Finch song on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, which begins with two similar five-note motives.  This tune has been interpreted by jazz performers including Cannonball Adderley (on a recording with Wynton Kelly on piano) and Marian McPartland (in a duet with guitarist Jackie King.)  McPartland and King’s version include a number of delightful passages of collective improvisation, while Adderley includes additional ii-V progression that makes the harmonies more challenging for an improviser to navigate.

A piece from classical keyboard repertoire which makes frequent use of major seconds to emulate birdsong is ‘Le Rossignol En Amour’ (The Nightingale In Love) by Francois Couperin.  In light of current reports of environmental decline due to climate change, it is comforting to note that Nightingale songs from our era (such as the one that can be heard around the one minute mark in this recording) still bear a resemblance to the musical impression of the Nightingale in Couperin’s piece from four centuries ago.

Descending major third (la – fa and mi – do): ‘When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along’ by Harry Woods

The melody of this tune, memorably performed by Louis Armstrong, uses a descending major third on the repeated lyrics ‘wake up’, ‘get up’, ‘cheer up’.   While Armstrong puts his own melodic spin on these phrases, he sings the two-note motive as written at least once on each lyric (Bing Crosby sings the two-note motive as written, although his interpretation does not quite have the energy and invention of the version by his idol Armstrong.)  Armstrong’s version is also a tour de force of improvisation techniques, including quoting (the trombone lick at the end of the introduction quotes an earlier Armstrong trumpet solo on ‘Hotter Than That’), trading (in the section following Armstrong’s vocal melody) and collective improvisation (in the tutti chorus that follows the trades.)  

As the podcast Birdnote has explained, the American Robin has a much wider vocabulary than the two-note bird in the song.  The Robin improvises in much the same way as many jazz players, by drawing from a personal vocabulary of ‘10 to 20 different caroling phrases’ and alternating between them and a ‘treasury of 75 to 100 different whispered notes’ to create songs that can go on ‘for minutes without a pause.’ Although this level of variety can be heard in a recent Robin song from Ilinois, the midwestern bird does a number of times include the descending major third heard in ‘Red, Red Robin’, on the pitches F6 to Db6.  (I am using ‘6’ here to refer to the sixth octave of the piano.)  (A decent piano arrangement of this tune is available in the Faber and Faber ShowTime Jazz and Blues collection and is demonstrated in this keyboard video.)

Ascending and descending perfect fourth (re – so and so – do): ‘Bob White’ (Johnny Mercer) and ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Main Theme)’ by Ennio Morricone

Johnny Mercer’s and Bernie Hanighen’s tune ‘Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)’, which was recorded by vocalist Carmen McRae with saxophonist Ben Webster, uses the interval of an ascending fourth on the title phrase.   One can hear in this sound clip of a Bobwhite birdsong from the Macaulay library how some Bobwhite songs can be interpreted as a perfect fourth. 

I will make an exception to the bird theme here for Ennio Morricone’s Main Theme from his score to the film ‘The Good The Bad and the Ugly, as its musical impression of a coyote howl – a five-note motive alternating between ascending and descending fourths – is one of the most iconic uses of this interval.  As Morricone said in an interview with the Guardian, ‘I can’t take the credit for the coyote howl – that was the work of the coyote.’  In the recording of coyotes howling on this page, one can hear how some of the responding howls around :24 can be heard as a perfect fourth.    Morricone’s theme was given a great jazz interpretation by Quincy Jones who featured Herbie Hancock (contributing a characteristically side-slipping electric piano solo) and vocalist Patti Austin (who does some remarkable doubling of Hancock’s lines.)  Jones’ version adds Morricone’s theme to the many modern jazz melodies that feature perfect fourths prominently, including Wayne Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’, Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ and Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’.  (Sheet music for the original Morricone theme is available from musicnotes.com in more basic and more challenging versions.)

Perfect fifth (do -so)  – The Sunset and the Mockingbird, Serenade to A Cuckoo, The Peacocks

Morricone’s coyotes from his 1966 theme bear a striking resemblance to Duke Ellington’s evocation of a Mockingbird in his piece ‘The Sunset and the Mockingbird’, recorded seven years earlier in 1959.  Where Morricone’s coyotes sing a perfect fourth, Ellington’s Mockingbird, played by the piano, uses an ascending and descending perfect fifth.  Ellington describes the song’s creation in this passage from his biography, ‘Music is my Mistress’: “One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa, Florida, en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.” Ellington’s initial melody statement on piano exactly matches one of the Mockingbird’s calls, which can be heard by clicking on ‘Song #1’ at  Audobon.org’s Northern Mockingbird page.   A good (but advanced) piano arrangement of Ellington’s tune from Tommy Flanagan’s trio version can be found in The Tommy Flanagan Collection published by Hal Leonard.

The perfect fifth has also been other jazz composers to evoke other birds.  The second half of the melody in Rashaan Roland Kirk’s ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ includes a repeated descending perfect 5th (starting in in m. 9) which is a clear reference to cuckoo calls such as this one.  A film clip of Kirk using his flute to serenade and converse with animals at the zoo while his son sits on his shoulders is a moving example of his ability to create music out of unusual circumstances.  While the clip clearly includes some editing of sound and image, it also clearly represents actual interaction between Kirk and animals.  ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ may be known to rock fans through a cover version recorded by the band Jethro Tull which, while it sounds anemic in comparison to Kirk’s original version, demonstrates the extent to which flutist Ian Anderson’s playing is inspired by the tradition of jazz flute playing.  A lead sheet for Kirk’s tune (i.e. single staff melody with chord symbols above) can be purchased at jazzleadsheets.com (also a great resource for a number of his other tunes.)

The Peacocks’ by pianist Jimmy Rowles has become something of a jazz standard, having been recorded by Bill Evans and more recently vocalist Jazzmeia Horn.  The first two notes of the melody are an ascending 5th which is then quickly followed by a repeated descending 5th that mirrors Ellington’s Mockingbird (this can be heard in Horn’s vocal version on the lyric ‘out into a pattern never ending.’)   In the bridge of ‘The Peacocks’, Rowles makes the highly unusual choice of a repeated minor 7th leap (which can be heard on the last two syllables of the phrases where Horn sings ‘but somehow I’ and ‘I’m drowning now’.)   Although this interval appears rarely in jazz melodies and even more rarely in popular song melodies,  it was used by Alexander Courage to evoke space travel in the theme to the original Star Trek TV series, and by Leonard Bernstein to evoke an idealized future in ‘Somewhere’ from the musical West Side Story.  It seems possible that Rowles’ use of this interval is related to the wide intervals sung by peacocks in their calls, such as the one that can be heard around :28 in this video

Descending major sixth (mi – so) – Western Meadowlark – ‘Mister Meadowlark’

The more complex song of the Western Meadowlark, which can be heard here in a recent post in the Macaulay library, is evoked in Dave Brubeck’s tune Strange Meadowlark.  If one compares the bird’s song from the first link with the composer’s opening phrase (introduced by saxophonist Paul Desmond after a piano intro), it sounds as though Brubeck may have just added two interstitial notes between the first two notes of the bird’s song.  (Transposable sheet music with lyrics for Brubeck’s tune can be purchased here.)  Another recorded Western Meadowlark song includes the leap of an ascending major sixth.  The same interval in the reverse direction (the descending major sixth) appears in the opening of Mister Meadowlark by Walter Donaldson and Johnny Mercer, which was recorded by Carmen McRae on the same album where her version of ‘Bob White’ appears (‘Birds of a Feather’.)

Major seventh (do – ti) – Conference of the Birds

Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds features two contrapuntal flute lines, played by Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, which weave around one another in 5/4 time.  Holland features a major seventh in the seventh measure of the melody, in the lower of the two lines.  While Holland’s tune does not to my knowledge involve a specific birdsong, it does, like the McPartland and Armstrong performances mentioned above, use collective improvisation to evoke the sound of multiple birds. 

While all these tunes evoking bird songs by jazz and popular song composers seem to have been more or less anomalous works within the careers of each composer, there are at least two composers outside the jazz world who made encyclopedic attempts to catalog and utilize birdsong in human music.  In 1904 the American naturalist, composer and artist F. Schuyler Mathews published his Field Guide to Wild Birds and Their Music, a glossary of bird songs rendered in musical notation.  It was featured in this NPR story and is available here as a free ebook.  Later in the twentieth century, the  French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, made extensive use of birdsong in pieces such as Reveil de Oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds) where he lists in the score the birds being emulated by the piano and other instruments. 

On a personal note, the album which my quartet Birdcode has recently released, You Are Here, includes a tune by pianist and composer Dan Skea named after the Indigo Bunting.  (As of this writing, the tune can be streamed on Soundcloud.)  For me, this lovely melody evokes not so much the bird’s song as the experience of watching its graceful flight.  I was lucky enough to know Dan when he lived in Vermont and to have heard his marvelous playing and writing, which can still be heard on his YouTube channel.  He was also a jazz scholar who expertly notated much of the music he performed and wrote both an important article and a longer unpublished work on the hugely influential jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.  Dan’s grasp of Van Gelder’s often overlooked innovations was unique enough that he was quoted in Van Gelder’s New York Times obituary two years ago.  It makes sense that Dan had a gift for identifying the importance of an innovator who excelled at supporting other artists, as he was a player who was equally lyrical and expressive as an accompanist and as a soloist (something that can only be said of a short list of pianists, Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones among them.) 

Dan died in May of this year after a long career which included work with artists ranging from Wayne Newton to Wes Montgomery’s bass playing brother Monk Montgomery (check out his solo on the tune Sippin’ and Tippin’ from Monk’s album ‘Reality’.)  He spent significant amounts of time in New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia, which I notice on the Indigo Bunting’s ‘Range Map’ are all areas frequented by this beautiful bird.  Dan will be missed by many music lovers, but his music, like the namesake of his beautiful tune, will always be in the air somewhere. 

Lately I’ve been inspired by the mystical pursuit which F. Schuyler Mathews, Roland Kirk, and Olivier Messiaen made, of transcribing birdsong for use by human musicians.  I have been recording birdsongs near my house and will transcribe and share them in a future blog post.  They may make their way into a composition or two.  Stay tuned! 

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‘Weathervane’ – a tune on ‘Yesterdays’ changes

‘Weathervane’ is a tune I composed based on the chord changes to the standard ‘Yesterdays’ by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach.  Some charts for the tune are below. It is inspired by the melodic language of Charlie Parker, Jimmy Giuffre and Horace Silver, including some of the fragments that appear in my exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Four Brothers and Koko’. It can be practiced along with this scale outline of the progression. Like a number of my tunes, including ‘Birdhouse’, ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Simple Paris Dancers’, it can played as a freestanding melody line or in a contrapuntal version.  The version shown here is a single-line version that can be played in the standard bebop unison style of most Charlie Parker tunes.  This single-line version also works as a countermelody to the Kern tune.  It is meant to be played at a medium-up tempo, which is how I’ve become accustomed to playing the tune in instrumental settings.  This kind of tempo can be heard on renditions such as the second half of Billie Holiday’s version and a version by Wes Montgomery with the great Harold Mabern on piano that is faster than Holiday’s but still has a wonderfully relaxed feel. I’ve since become aware that many instrumental versions, as well as the vocal versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, take the tune at its original ballad tempo.  (It is also interesting to see the tune in its original context in a clip from ‘Roberta’, the 1935 film based on the 1933 stage musical for which Kern and Harbach wrote ‘Yesterdays’.) 

I also play ‘Weathervane’ in a contrapuntal arrangement where I add a countermelody to my original eighth-note melody.  (This kind of contrapuntal jazz head can also be heard in Parker’s tunes ‘Ah Leu Cha’ and ‘Chasin’ the Bird’ and John Lewis’ ‘Concorde’, among others.)  A recording of the contrapuntal version of ‘Weathervane’ by my quartet Birdcode (in a medley with ‘Yesterdays’) can be heard at my SoundCloud page. 

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