‘So This Guy Walks Into A Bar’ – great intros I have known

originally posted 3/8/11

I recently read an interview with jazz piano great Billy Taylor, reposted as a memorial (Taylor died on December 29th of last year).  In it, Taylor mentions how, as a young pianist, he used the chord voicing from Duke Ellington’s piano intro to ‘In A Mellow Tone’ as his ‘basis for harmonizing behind horn players’ and ‘built a whole style on that approach’ which eventually got him a gig with Ben Webster.  This reminded me of how piano intros in the jazz tradition often encapsulate important concepts, and how often they’ve helped me learn and re-learn chord voicings.  I originally learned the ‘Mellow Tone’ intro on a gig with tenor saxophonist Alex Stewart, who gave me a written score for it.  It’s been more than ten years since that gig, but thanks to Alex’s score, I’ve played the intro from memory many times when the tune has come up on gigs.  The Taylor interview, along with a revisiting of the original recording, made me aware that while my memory has retained the chord structure of the intro, I’ve been doing a different voicing than Duke.  The intro in its original form can be turned into a useful exercise for practicing 3-7-9 voicings of dominant chords in all keys, descending chromatically from A flat.

Here, in no particular order, are piano intros which contain valuable lessons , and which I’ve returned t0 over and over:

  • The Richie Powell intro to Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring:  this is a kind of etude in the major 6th voicing, which Powell moves through seven different transpositions before running a series of major 6ths alternating with dominant chords (Eb6-D7-Db6-C7b9) which, coincidentally, form the basis of another great intro:
  • Wynton Kelly’s intro to ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ on Kelly Blue.  This intro uses the same root motion as the progression mentioned above, but voices the chords following the Eb as dominant chords.  It also extends the progression by two more half steps, so that it becomes (Eb6 / D7+9 / Db7+9 / C7+9 / Bm7 (did Wynton intend a dominant here?) / Bb7).  Wynton’s intro to Green Dolphin, like the Joy Spring intro, is a musical statement clearly separate from the tune.  This sets his version of the tune apart from the arrangement of it that he played with Miles Davis on In Person At The Blackhawk, where the intro is simply the first four changes of the tune, with the length of the first two changes cut in half.  Wynton’s intro to ‘Green Dolphin’ on Kelly Blue also bears a distinct resemblance to the descending half step progression that begins the tunes Peg and Deacon Blues on the album Aja by Steely Dan.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker proved their chops at stealthy appropriation of ideas from Horace Silver and Miles Davis on ‘Riki Don’t Lose That Number’ and ‘Bodhisattva’ respectively.  I heard through one of my adult students who is versed in entertainment law that Steely Dan was successfully sued by yet another jazz luminary…I can only imagine that the lawsuit must have involved a tune where the appropriation was more detectable than it is on the aforementioned tunes, where I think Fagen and Becker do a pretty good job of making someone else’s spare part look like an original component of their vehicle.
  • Red Garland’s intro to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ on the version from the Miles Davis album of the same name.  This is a mini-etude in minor seventh chords voiced in what Phil DeGreg’s Jazz Keyboard Harmony calls ‘five voice shell extension’.  Again, an example of using material from the tune to create a separate musical statement.  Although in some cases, intros like the one from ‘In A Mellow Tone’ were copied by players of a younger generation, in other cases intros were sometimes spaces in which a younger pianist in a high-profile group (like Herbie Hancock with Miles Davis) could distinguish himself from previous occupants of the piano chair in the band – listen to the difference between Herbie’s intro to ‘Green Dolphin Street’ on Live at the Plugged Nickel  and the Kelly intro to the same tune on In Person at the Blackhawk, or compare Kelly’s intro to Bye Bye Blackbird on In Person at the Blackhawk to Garland’s original intro.
  • Dodo Marmarosa’s intro to the Charlie Parker tune ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’.  This tune became a staple of Tommy Flanagan’s trio repertoire, and he always included the Marmarosa intro, an example of how distinctive piano intros often become a part of a tune.  This intro is an etude in major 7th voicings which include an added 6th.  It runs this voicing through a pattern which mostly descends by whole steps and concludes with what I call the ‘son of the four lick’ (i.e. a truncated version of the ‘4’ lick from the series of standard bebop gestures which Barry Harris teaches [he names each one after the scale step which precedes its first descending interval]).
  • Two other intros which, like the ‘Relaxin’’ and ‘Mellow Tone’ intros, document the transmitting of information in the jazz world in the days before jazz education began to standardize the process, are Horace Silver’s intro to ‘Nica’s Dream’ and Monk’s intro to Round MidnightIn his autobiography, Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty, Silver acknowledges that the intro to ‘Nica’s Dream’ – an etude in major/minor seventh chords – is based on chords Miles Davis showed him (presumably during the relatively brief period documented on Walkin‘ and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants when Davis was Silver’s employer).  In the his recent biography of Monk, Robin D.G. Kelley recounts the story told by Dizzy Gillespie of how the A section of ‘Woody N’You‘ was based on a progression Monk showed him – and which Monk also used in the intro to his own composition ‘Round Midnight’.  The intro to ‘Round Midnight‘ is one of many tunes where Monk seems to have set himself the challenge of starting with a progression that is sequential enough to sound like an etude and made it the basis of a memorable melody.  ‘Ask Me Now’ and ‘Well You Needn’t’ come to mind as other examples of this kind of compositional feat.

I could also make a shorter list of intros from tunes outside the jazz canon which nonetheless played a significant part in the evolution of my jazz chord vocabulary.  This list would probably include the intro to ‘Magic To Do’ (from the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin), Rick Wright’s intro to ‘Breathe’ from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (strangely enough, one source claims Wright said that this intro, a repeated ii-V progression, was influenced by Kind of Blue, an album with no trace of a traditional ii-V progression, let alone a ii-V-I), and Ray Manzarek’s intro to the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ (like the Monk tune ‘Skippy’ and the bridge of Duke Jordan’s ‘Jordu’, a circle-of-fifths tour de force).  The Pink Floyd intro is a good example of how, when rock musicians appropriate jazz progressions, they often translate them into a root-position context.  It would fall to hipper rock keyboard players like Donald Fagen in ‘Bodhisattva’ to take advantage of the innovations jazz players made in chord progressions and  voice leading.  I’d be hesitant to mention any of these intros in the context of a discussion of jazz piano, but the relevance of learning non-jazz vamps to developing jazz chops was brought home to me when I had a lesson with the jazz pianist Harold Danko, who in the midst of demonstrating a variety of dorian-mode concepts played a flawless rendition of the intro from Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, complete with the bassline in his left hand and chordal vamp in his right.  It made me think that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I learned tunes like Joe Zawinul’s ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ and Jimmy Smith’s ‘Back At the Chicken Shack’ in my high school jazz quartet before I started tackling Charlie Parker tunes. Learning ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy‘ in my high school lessons with Vermont keyboardist Chuck Eller introduced me to fundamental jazz concepts such as as the suspended seventh chord and using multiple voicings for the same chord.

Occasionally the Mike Gordon band repertoire includes intros with the same kind of methodical sequencing as the jazz piano intros I mention above.  Mike’s acoustic guitar intro to ‘Andelman’s Yard’ on the album The Green Sparrow uses a series of augmented arpeggios descending by half steps, which seems to musically set the scene described in the song where the protagonist dreams that he ‘dig[s] a hole and tunnel[s]underground’ in his neighbor’s backyard.  As we have continued to play my tune ‘God Bless These Crumblin’ Bones’, I have added an intro that uses a sequence of dominant chords moving through all twelve keys.  I first used this intro on our November 2010 tour, in a show at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, WA.  I have always been drawn to the sound of the dominant cycle, starting with hearing my dad play C.P.E. Bach’s ‘Solfeggieto‘ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown‘ (and then learning it out of his fake book).  I think my work teaching improvisation via Barry Harris‘ method, in which the dominant cycle plays a central role, has planted this progression even deeper in my musical subconscious, leading me recently to seek out tunes like Thelonious Monk’s ‘Skippy‘ (which Tom McClung once pointed out to me is a dominant-cycle reharm of ‘Tea for Two’), Hank Jones‘ wondrous reharmonization of ‘It’s Me Oh Lord, Standin‘ In The Need of Prayer’, and more recently Ron Carter’s tune ’12+12’.

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