originally posted 3/23/11
When I’m asked what musical styles interest me, one of my standard answers is ‘the bebop tradition from J.S. Bach to Barry Harris and beyond’. There is a little joke in this answer, because the word ‘bebop’ didn’t get coined until the twentieth century, but I’m mostly serious in the sense that I do think the improvisational language developed by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and others is the primary tool of modern melodic storytelling. Notice I don’t say Bud, Bird and Dizzy invented the language – when you hear ‘Bud on Bach’, where Powell turns a C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggieto into a prelude to a original tune which is closely based on it, or Dizzy’s toccata-like intro to the tune ‘Bebop’, or when you hear Lennie Tristano or the Swingle Singers add a jazz rhythm section to a Bach piece, you realize how many Baroque phrases and gestures were stealthily woven into bedrock bebop repertoire like ‘Reets and I’ and ‘A Night In Tunisia’. The connection to the Baroque style is only one example of how adept the bop masters were at borrowing from other melodic languages. Hearing Bird quote Bizet’s Carmen on ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ or Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker on ‘Perdido’, you begin to get a sense of what an encyclopedic range of sources he drew on, and how he magically seemed to have the perfect musical phrase for every situation.
As you might be able to tell already, I find it truly exciting to make connections like this between disparate locations in music history. It may be a side effect of my having bebop on the brain, from first studying and playing this style and then teaching others to use it. In any case, the more I study, play and teach the bebop style, the more evidence I hear that it remains a living and vital language, as it continues to be successfully and provactively used in a wide array of contexts beyond the four-four swing that gave rise to it. Recently, I have begun to notice yet more evidence of bop’s pervasive influence in music I have been rehearsing and performing on tour with the Mike Gordon band.
The midsection of ‘Got Away‘ (from Mike’s recent album Moss ) is highly contrapuntal, combining a right hand melody line with bop-style chromaticism in the piano, a fiercely independent bassline, and periodic horn stabs (which, combined with the use of melodic minor in the piano and constantly percolating percussion, make this section sound like chase music on a late-60’s/early-70’s TV show. I almost said ‘unusally hip chase music’, but a lot of that scoring was actually hip – both Oliver Nelson and Benny Golson, for example, worked on scoring for ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’.) Among the instances of what I’d call bebop style in the composed right hand piano line are the way measure 9 uses the same melodic fragment as measure 7, but with a different rhythmic placement (for more examples of this technique, see Charlie Parker’s first chorus on Ko-Ko). The re-use of the melodic fragment in m. 9 also places the chromatic run so that non-scale tones of the B seventh scale land on the upbeat. (My chord symbols represent an attempt to summarize a contrapuntal texture which is sometimes more horizontally oriented than it is vertically oriented, and so can’t always be captured accurately in standard jazz chord language.)
In the midsection of ‘The Void’, Mike weaves a snaky guitar line over a two-chord vamp in a series of time signatures that shift constantly (via a drum track that has had the benefit of expertly done ProTools surgery). This line is given a bebop flavor by its half-step approaches to the the 3rd of the Ab scale (in bars 3 and 7) and the 6th (in bar 5). Both half steps are also placed on the upbeat, in classic bebop style. The appearance of a diminished triad arpeggio in bar 5 is, to me, another mark of bebop language. In a tune that is otherwise based around the marriage of a diatonic melody and a bass line in an odd meter, these few chromatic moves in the solo add a crucial pungency to the tune’s evocation of ‘floating in the Void’.
My hunch is that Mike’s use of chromaticism in these passages is at least partly influenced by Phish’s ventures into bebop territory. ‘Moose the Mooche‘ and ‘Donna Lee‘, for example, both appear in live Phish recordings from the early 1990s (including a Keene, NH concert available on iTunes). I think it’s likely that the appearance of these tunes in a body of music otherwise dominated by idiosyncratic original compositions had something to do with the involvement of Phish’s members in the Burlington jazz scene – both as students (Trey Anastasio studied with guitarist Paul Asbell, Page McConnell studied with pianist Lar Duggan, and Mike has taken bass lessons at various points with John Rivers, Clyde Stats and Ellen Powell), and players (from time to time in the early 1990s, Trey was a sit-in guest with the Sneakers Jazz Band, a group which anchored the Burlington jazz scene throughout the 1980‘s and early ‘90s, and from which the original Phish horn section of Joey Somerville, Christopher Peterman, and Dave Grippo was culled). Among the Phish originals which exhibit bebop style is ‘Magilla’, a rhythm changes tune by Page McConnell with an unmistakeably bop-style head (including a number of non-scale tones on upbeats, and with the polyrhythmic phrasing so common in bebop – in fact, the melodic rhythm in the first two bars of ‘Magilla’ bears a distinct resemblance, whether intentional or not, to the melodic rhythm of the Charlie Parker tune ‘Au Privave’.)
One of the challenges of being a jazz-trained soloist in a rock group is that, after becoming accustomed to more elaborate chord progressions where frequent modulations provide a useful template for melodic creativity, or simpler progressions where an array of chord extensions provide tools for exploring a more static environment, you are suddenly faced with progressions made up not just of one or two chords, but one or two TRIADS. The initial experience of this for a jazz player can be like being forced to switch from jogging around the neighborhood to using the stair-master in the basement. Gone are the ever-changing vistas to either side of you, and instead your brain has to fight frustration that your physical exertion no longer results in a change of locale. A number of tunes played by the Mike Gordon band include ‘jam’ sections where the only chord progression is a two bar series of the I chord alternating with the IV. When I’m improvising on one of these progressions, at some subconscious level my bebop-trained brain is probably wondering ‘where is the bridge, or the modulations?’ But I’ve continued to hear both Mike and guitarist Scott Murawski using these simple progressions to create extended improvisations full of inventiveness and improvised structure. I was in need of some inspiration for how to deal with this harmonically simpler world, so I decided it was time to see how one of my bebop heroes, Sonny Rollins, dealt with one of his more unusual gigs, that of featured saxophonist on the Rolling Stones ‘Tatoo You’.
In the solos he improvised on tunes like ‘Pent Up House’, ‘Tune Up’, and ‘Saint Thomas’, Sonny Rollins skillfully integrated the more diatonic melodic language of swing era soloists like Lester Young with the intensely chromatic approaches of players like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker. On ‘Pent Up House’ and ‘Tune Up’ in particular, tunes where the constantly shifting succession of key areas might keep a lesser improvisor preoccupied with simply ‘making the changes’, i.e. playing the ‘right’ notes, Rollins demonstrates the poise and assurance of a master storyteller with the way he continues to alternate throughout his solo between diatonic and chromatic approaches to the changes.
It is fascinating to hear how Rollins displays this same stylistic trademark, but in a different context, in his solo just before the fadeout on ‘Waiting On A Friend’ (from the album Tattoo You). (My transcription of it is here.) Following the lead of the pentatonic vocal phrase that opens the tune, Rollins begins with a completely diatonic approach and builds up slowly to a distinctly bebop-style use of half steps. The diatonic opening of the solo includes some passages where Rollins puts the focus on upper chord tones (the 9th and 13th in m. 5-6 and the 7th), a move which gently lifts the tune out of its triadic world. A deft segue into bebop language begins at m. 18, when he sneaks in a non-chord tone with typical bebop rhythmic placement (on the upbeat).
At the peak of the solo, in m. 19-30, he plays in a double-time feel which, to my ear, implies the calypso rhythm of one of his signature tunes, ‘St. Thomas’. The move into double time is accompanied by further exploration of what Barry Harris calls ‘half steps’. In m. 19, he plays a pattern which includes a classic bebop figure (the last four notes of what Barry Harris calls the ‘four lick’, and the first four notes of Duke Ellington’s ‘Concerto for Cootie’) and then sequences that pattern by moving it down a diatonic whole step – another classic bebop move. He uses yet another common device of bop soloists when he continues to explore different rhythmic placements of the same lick in m. 21-23. (One of my favorite examples of this is when Johnny Griffin uses the same phrase six or seven times in his solo on Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’ on the album ‘Underground’, and the inventiveness of the rhythmic placement makes the phrase sound fresh each time.) Rollins’ sound at this point has a celebratory swagger, making it clear – if the melodic and rhythmic elements haven’t already – that this isn’t just a saxophone solo on a Rolling Stones tune, it’s a Sonny Rollins solo on a Rolling Stones tune.
Rollins finishes the solo by moving back into diatonic territory while still retaining the double time energy – and because he’s Sonny Rollins, even this section of the tune includes an ingenious, additive-then-subtractive development of a motive which should be familiar to anyone who has heard his solos on ‘St. Thomas’ or ‘Blue Seven’. The final gorgeous touch is a descent, just before the fadeout concludes, to a long, low concert G – a register which appeared only fleetingly in the middle of the solo, and now provides a serene landing for this great melodic flight of the imagination. For a guy like me – a jazz-trained soloist working in a rock band, trying to fit in with his sonic surroundings while still making relevant use of his native melodic language – Sonny Rollins’ solo on this tune is a stunning and inspiring achievement in itself, independent from the tune, which is a gem in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, thanks in no small part to their shrewd deployment of a great jazz soloist.