‘The melody round the melody’: the art of the short solo piano rendition

(Note: While I have added YouTube links for some of the examples in this post, a number of the most crucial examples are not available there; the reader is urged to purchase the original recordings through a legal source of their choice; all the solo piano music referred to is available on iTunes.) 

Louis Armstrong was once asked by one of his greatest admirers, Bix Biederbecke, how he managed to improvise long solos without repeating himself.  His reply is quoted in Pops, Terry Teachout’s engaging biography of Armstrong: ‘Well I tell you…the first chorus I play the melody.  The second chorus I play the melody round the melody, and the third chorus I routines.’  The question was asked at a time when Armstrong was becoming legendary for improvising solos of great length (including a reputed 125-chorus battle with Joe ‘King’ Oliver on ‘Tiger Rag’), and clearly reflects his young admirer’s amazement at these feats.  Although Biederbecke’s question is focused on long solos, Armstrong’s answer changes the subject and offers some highly distilled wisdom on how to balance melody interpretation and improvising within a short solo.  I think Armstrong’s response can be read as a reminder to aspiring improvisers that learning to play well-structured short solos is a crucial step toward developing a facility with longer solos.  (Armstrong’s discussion of a three-chorus sequence is significant given that, as Teachout mentions, he can be heard as late as 1957 playing a three-chorus solo on ‘Dippermouth Blues‘ [at 3:43 in the link] which is closely modeled on a solo of the same length played thirty-four years earlier by his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver [at 1:19 in the link.]  Although this solo is the not the kind of variation-on-a-theme solo that the quote refers to, it does illustrate the basic concept of building over three choruses.)   Armstrong’s answer also has an important message for those who are fascinated and yet mystified by the art of jazz improvisation: when great improvisers might seem to be on an inscrutable flight away from their chosen melodic theme, closer analysis can often show that they are honoring that original melody by ornamenting and varying it.

The first part of Armstrong’s explanation – ‘first I play the melody’ – can actually be a complete strategy for an effective performance.  This is is clearly and elegantly demonstrated by couple of piano performances which are simply short, creative presentations of the melody.  Ellis Marsalis’ version of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Romance’ (a piano interlude on Wynton Marsalis’ ‘Standard Time, Volume Three’) and Hank Jones’ rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’ (on a album of piano/bass duets with Charlie Haden which is named after the tune) are focused almost entirely the original melody of each tune.  Marsalis plays just the thirty-two bar song, and Jones adds a repeat going back to the bridge of the tune’s AABA form.  Like most jazz standards, both these tunes were originally intended for instruments on which performers have the ability to sustain notes at a considerable length (‘My Romance‘ is originally a vocal piece, and ‘Come Sunday‘ was at different times a feature in the Duke Ellington band for both Ray Nance’s violin and Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone.)  A pianist approaching either of these tunes as a solo vehicle has to deal with the challenge of how these long notes decay much more quickly on the piano, even when supported with finger weight or the damper pedal.  Marsalis‘ solution to this problem is to provide simple and elegant inner voice movement underneath many of the original melody’s long notes, starting with those at measures 1 and 8.  Jones maintains a sense of forward momentum by contrasting the melody’s quarter-note motion with improvised double-time phrases using triplets and swinging sixteenth notes.  His one-bar introduction foreshadows the way in which he gradually populates the long notes of the original tune with a double-time swing feel – a good example of playing ‘the melody around the melody’.

Ellis Marsalis’ performance of ‘Mood Indigo’ (from his solo piano album Duke In Blue ) and Hank Jones’ performance of ‘Oh! Look At Me Now’ (one of two solo piano tunes on Kids, Jones’ album of duets with saxophonist Joe Lovano) both move from playing ‘the melody around the melody’ into the ‘routines’ of an improvised solo, but still stay within the context of a short performance focused on the original melody.  Jones’ rendition goes just twice through the tune’s form, while Marsalis’ performance goes two and a half times around.  After playing a swinging intro followed by the thirty-two bar melody of ‘Oh! Look At Me Now’, Jones improvises through just the first two A sections of the song before returning to the melody on the bridge.  One of the ways Jones maintains a sense of forward motion is through clever re-use of his intro figure throughout the performance (a strategy that also enlivens his arrangements of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ - heard to great effect on the version from ‘Hanky Panky’ – and ‘Love For Sale’).  The song’s title, ‘Oh! Look At Me Now’, may have had a personal significance for Jones, who was at the time sustaining an astonishingly high level of creativity for a jazz master in his eighties.  (This seems poigniantly to be the last and most concise of a number of versions of the tune which Jones made over the course of his long recording career.)  His performance, which is one of only two solo pieces on his duo record with Lovano, is noteworthy for being energetic and inspired without excessive technical display.

Marsalis develops his improvised solo on ‘Mood Indigo’ much as Jones develops his melodic interpretation of ‘Come Sunday’, by contrasting the song’s rhythmic language of quarter notes and swing eighths with improvised double-time phrases using triplets and swinging sixteenth notes.  On the second half of the solo, Marsalis plays a phrase that  reminded me of Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.  Whether or not that particular tune was Marsalis’ reference point, the phrase points up the relationship between ‘Mood Indigo’ and the sixteen-bar ‘Gospel Blues’ form that I discuss in my last post.  It’s also worth noting that ‘Mood Indigo’ demonstrates Ellington’s gifts for musical recycling, as the basic chord progression from its first and last four-bar phrases reappears in a number of his other classics, including ‘Solitude’, ‘I Got It Bad’ and Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take The A Train’.

Another great example of a two-chorus rendition is Kenny Barron’s solo rendition of ‘Blue Moon’ (on the curiously-titled ‘#11. The Third Man’, a 1992 compilation of various film-related tunes).  Barron uses a wonderful reharmonization of the tune that seems to derive partly from Wayne Shorter’s arrangement for the Jazz Messengers on the album ‘Three Blind Mice’.  Barron’s head statement, done in an energetic rubato style reminiscent of Bud Powell’s takes on ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square‘ and ‘Over The Rainbow’, is followed by a masterful solo with left hand stride over the first two A sections and the bridge.   (Although the solo version is most highly recommended, a great duo version with bass can also be heard here.)  Barron’s solo on the solo piano version ‘Blue Moon’, like the one on Barron’s rendition of ‘But Beautiful‘ (from the Frank Morgan album You Must Believe In Spring), is a model of how to combine quarter note stride in the left hand with a right hand solo based in swinging sixteenth notes.

Barron’s improvised solo on ‘But Beautiful’ extends over the course of a chorus and a half before returning to the melody.  His strategy for maintaining a sense of forward motion here includes alternating between swinging sixteenth notes and some blazing passages in thirty-second notes (or what might be called double-double-time).  There is an interesting contrast to this approach in Hank Jones’ solo piano rendition of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (from the album ‘Handful Of Keys’), which is also a three-chorus performance, but with a rhythmic language limited to eighth notes and triplets (a strategy that proves effective when combined with Jones’s moderately brisk choice of tempo).  Despite having different tempos and rhythmic approaches, Jones and Barron both find their own ways to move from ‘the melody round the melody’ into ‘routines’, Barron through his use of double-doubletime and Jones through his imaginative quoting of harmonically similar tunes including Ahlert and Turk’s ‘Mean To Me’ and Gerry Mulligan’s ‘Jeru’. It is interesting to contrast Jones’ rendition with Fats Waller’s own solo performance of the tune, which contains what one would naturally expect from a virtuoso composer displaying his own work: a exposition of the melody in two keys surrounded by bravura flourishes which frame the melody but never diverge from it.  (Ellington and Monk’s solo renditions of their compositions take a similar approach, focusing exclusively and often extensively on the melody, and leaving it to other performers to explore the tune’s potential as an improvisational vehicle.)

When compared to the great solo jazz pianists from earlier eras of jazz such as Teddy Wilson, these six performances by Jones, Marsalis and Barron represent a modern trend toward a simpler interpretive approach.  Even in Wilson’s simpler playing (such as ‘Alice Blue Gown’, recorded for his ‘School Of Stride Piano’ collection), his melody statements are virtuosic renditions of the original theme, featuring brisk tempos, octaves, and displacements of the typical boom-chuck left hand stride pattern (sometimes called ‘secondary ragtime’ rhythms).  All of the performances I’ve discussed by Jones, Marsalis and Barron feature simpler statements of the original melody, even with tunes like ‘Oh! Look At Me Now’ that are pop song adaptations rather than jazz masterworks. Where Wilson’s left hand has the relentless quarter-note energy of the stride piano tradition, Jones, Marsalis and Barron alternate between quarter note stride, half note stride and other more skeletal approaches to left hand accompanying (such as 1-7 shells and compound tenths).  While the acrobatic brilliance of players like Wilson is exhilarating to hear, and imitating them is a worthy long-term project, it is good to be reminded by modern masters that it is possible to achieve beautiful results by taking a simpler technical approach.

(I encourage readers to use the comment section to mention other great solo jazz piano performances they feel are relevant to this discussion, particularly those with simpler and/or shorter performances of standard tunes.)

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