Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris: anagrams, mirrors and the one bar ii-V

In the 2010 thriller movie ‘Shutter Island’, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Edward Daniels, a U.S. Marshal who is plagued by nightmares about an arsonist named Andrew Laeddis,  Later in the movie, it is revealed that the names ‘Edward Daniels‘ and  ‘Andrew Leaddis‘ are anagrams of each other, created by a mysterious mastermind.  In other words, the two proper name/surname pairs share the same group of letters, and one was created by rearranging the letters of the other.  (To find out which name came first, watch the movie, or in a pinch, read the Wikipedia entry.) Anagrams were a common interest among at least three great jazz piano masterminds: Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Bill Evans.

According to Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography  ‘Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original’, the title of the tune ‘Eronel’, usually attributed to Monk, is a reverse spelling of ‘Lenore’, the one-time girlfriend of one of the tune’s principal authors, the pianist Sadik Hakim.  (By Kelley’s account, Hakim wrote the melody with Idrees Sulieman and Monk later added some characteristic touches.)  Kelley also mentions Monk had a black onyx ring inscribed with the word ‘MONK’, which he liked to point out could be read as ‘KNOW’ when viewed upside down.  Horace Silver titled one of his compositions, ‘Ecaroh’, with a reverse spelling of his name, and also used the same word to name his publishing company.  Bill Evans named two modal tunes with anagrams of friends’ names: ‘Re: Person I Knew’ (Orrin Keepnews) and ‘N.Y.C.’s No Lark’ (an elegy for Sonny Clark).  Sonny Rollins encoded the word ‘Nigeria’ by spelling it backwards in the title of his composition Airegin, and Barry Harris created an African-sounding word by spelling Art Tatum’s name backwards in the title of ‘Mutattra’ (from Listen To Barry Harris.)  Wordplay also continues to be a common form of humor among rank-and-file working jazz musicians (sometimes called ‘club date musicians’); it is not uncommon for ‘In A Sentimental Mood‘ to be referred to as ‘In A Semi-Mental Mood’.

It is only natural that these player/composers would title their songs with coded words, given that the musical language in which they composed and improvised, called ‘Bebop’ after the Dizzy Gillespie tune of the same name, was originally conceived as a kind of musical code, a private language which could only be spoken by those in the know.  In bebop, often the tunes themselves were musical puzzles, concentration exercises designed to separate the hip from the square.  In his biography Wail: the Life of Bud Powell, Peter Pullman notes that at Minton’s Playhouse, one of the venues where bebop was developed, the tune ‘Epistrophy’ (another Monk collaboration, this time with Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian) ‘was one of the pieces used to keep the uninitiated off the bandstand’. (In this tune, Monk works a mind-bending variation on the 32 song form. Where most tunes with this form open with two identical, similar or contrasting eight-bar phrases, the first 16 measures of Epistrophy contain four-bar phrases arranged palindromically – A,B,B,A – which forces the improviser to ascend and descend a symmetrical harmonic ‘hill’ at the beginning of each chorus before they can reach the more traditional bridge and last A.) There is a parallel between the way that bop players (or those influenced by bop) were sometimes inclined to build song titles out of alternate spellings of words and the way that they  often gave their melodic lines a cryptic aspect by using multiple ‘spellings’ or arpeggiations of chords.  In a number of Monk tunes, a short melodic figure is immediately followed by an altered repetition of it.  ‘Well You Needn’t’ opens with an ascending arpeggio of F major immediately followed by a descending one, and ‘Four In One’ opens with an ascending major blues scale followed by a descending one that comes within two notes of being an exact retrograde:   A fun variant on these kinds of opposite-motion melodic lines are mirror exercises on piano, which have been discussed both by Harold Danko in a Keyboard Magazine column and Chick Corea in a recent online video ‘lesson’.  Chick’s video reminded me of how I discovered at one point that both Monk’s ‘Straight No Chaser’ and Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House’ can be harmonized with mirror (i.e. inverted) counterpoint.  (Other examples of ‘found counterpoint’ – countermelodies derived from an altered version of the original tune – include the Modern Jazz Quartet’s canonic version of ‘Bags’ Groove’, and Fred Hersch’s  canonic arrangement of ‘Bemsha Swing’; one or both of these led me to discover that the Dizzy Gillespie tune ‘Bebop’ also works as a canon.) In contrast to the immediate reversals and respellings in the Monk tunes cited above, Jimmy Giuffre’s ‘Four Brothers’ and John Lewis’ ‘Afternoon in Paris’ both feature different spellings of the same chord within their first eight measures.  This abundance of arpeggiation is necessary because chords lasting only two beats occur frequently in these tunes, and in bebop, arpeggiation is a common strategy for melodically navigating two-beat chord changes. Most of the two beat changes in ‘Four Brothers’ and ‘Afternoon In Paris’ belong to one-bar major ii-V progressions.  A major ii-V progression is defined by two important characteristics: a minor 7th chord is followed by a dominant 7th chord, and there is the interval of an ascending fourth between the roots of the two chords.  In the Barry Harris system, the two chords in the one bar major ii-V progression (i.e. one where each chord lasts two beats) can be outlined with a single ascending seventh scale (using the ‘seven up’ pattern) or a single descending seventh scale (using the ‘seven down’ pattern). Barry Harris’ scalar approach to the ii-V can be contrasted with the more intervallic, arpeggiated approach to the one-bar ii-V progression in the melody to ‘Four Brothers’, which navigates the one-bar major ii-V with a melodic pattern that might be called the opposite-motion arpeggio.  The A section begins with what could be called a ‘convex’ ii-V pattern (an ascending arpeggio of a ii chord voicing countered with a descending arpeggio of the V); and the bridge includes a ‘concave’ shape. The one bar minor ii-V progression shares some of the same characteristics as the major ii-V, with two alterations: the minor 7th chord is now a minor 7 flat five (a.k.a. half diminished) chord, and the dominant chord has at least one alteration, a lowered ninth (i.e. ‘flat nine’), sometimes accompanied by or replaced by other alterations including sharp five.  Barry Harris‘ approach to the one bar minor ii-V progression is to apply the seventh scale from a major third below the root of the half-diminished ii chord, either with the ‘seven up’ pattern, or the ‘seven down’ pattern.  With the ‘seven down’ pattern, the last note in the scale is raised a half step to form what I refer to in another blog post as the ‘seven down to the third’ scale. (This seemingly abstract approach to the minor ii-V is consistent with the many accounts of Monk’s description of the half diminished chord: according to Kelley, he always called the first chord in the introduction to ‘Round Midnight’ ‘C minor sixth with A in the bass’ rather than ‘A minor seven flat five’.  In this context, Harris is taking the same approach to the ‘minor sixth’ here as he takes to the minor 7th chord in the major ii-V.)

I have devised an exercise using one-bar ii-V licks, beginning with a lick based on the motive from the A section of ‘Round Midnight’, followed by the lick from the third to last bar of ‘Donna Lee’ (an example of a ‘convex’ one-bar ii-V pattern), followed by a pattern Barry Harris calls the ‘turnaround lick’ (which is very close to a pattern that appears in the Benny Harris tune ‘Reets and I’, played by Bud Powell on ‘The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 2.’, as well as the ‘concave’ pattern seen in the ‘Four Brothers’ bridge) and  a pattern adapted from ‘Afternoon in Paris’. Each lick is transposed down by whole steps through six keys.   The title of the exercise, ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris’, is a way to remember the order of the licks in the exercises, titled by their sources.

There are (at least) four ways to practice the exercise: with doubled voicings (both hands play the voicings implied by the patterns), with the RH playing the pattern while the LH plays the parallel voicing; with the RH playing the voicing on the upper staff with LH playing the voicings from the lower staff.  (Although the exercise is designed for piano, trumpet and flute players can start by playing the patterns in the keys shown; saxophones, low brass, bass and vocals can start with the transposed version, although vocalists should transpose the patterns in m. 4-8 on Staff 2 back down the octave.)  In the fourth way (‘contrapuntal’), the exercise also works as a canon: on the piano, the LH starts alone on Staff 1, then the RH plays Staff 1 an octave up while the LH goes on to staff two, and so on.  The contrapuntal version can also be played by any combination of instruments in pairs: once one player or group has finished bar 8 of the top staff, a second player or group can begin the exercise when the first player or group begins the second staff.  

As always, I am open to comments of any kind, but I’d particularly like to hear any examples of anagram-like techniques being used by composers or improvisers, other anagram titles, mirror images in music, or any thoughts on my theory about the connection between bebop and wordplay.

Midnight Donna s Turnaroun piano v2

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What is this scale called: Charlie Parker, Barry Harris and the minor ii-V progression

Charlie Parker recorded a number of solos on the chord progression to ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.   On two of these performances, a 1952 studio version of ‘What Is This Thing’ with a big band and a live 1953 version of ‘Hot House’ (a Tadd Dameron tune which uses the same changes), Parker takes two different solos, but he can be heard working with some of the same material in both.  I would suggest that these two performances are different stages of a work that was constantly in progress, although not necessarily progressing in a linear way toward a single ideal of perfection.  Billy Taylor’s various versions of his tune I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, discussed in another post, are another example of this kind of process.   (The tradition of revising one’s own solo is perhaps a modern extension of the older jazz tradition of revising a solo by another player which I explored in my post ‘Oh, Play That Thing!’.  So far as I know, although Parker studied the solos of Lester Young, he never performed any of them.) The more I listen to these solos, the more I think Parker was on a journey of ceaseless exploration rather than a quest for some kind of musical mountaintop, and so the most interesting question is not ‘which solo was better?’, but ‘how did Parker’s musical journey evolve over the course of these two solos?’.  When I compare the two versions I am fascinated by how Parker used a number of the same concepts and patterns in both of them, and yet never sounded repetitive.   (This reminds me that while playing a Bird transcription accurately can sound good, it is not in his spirit of constant creativity.)

One of the licks that Parker uses in both these solos is what I call the ‘seven down to the third’ scale.  This name comes from the scale approach that Barry Harris teaches to the minor ii-V progression.  As shown below, the minor ii-V progression has the same ascending-fourth/descending fifth root motion as the major ii-V progressions discussed in the last post, but the ii chord is a minor 7 flat five (rather than simply a minor seventh) and the V chord, in simplest version of the progression, is a dominant seven flat nine chord (rather than simply a dominant).  Barry’s approach to the minor ii-V, like many of his other teaching concepts, is based on the ‘seventh scale’ (a.k.a. the mixolydian scale).  Rather than assigning two different scales to the two chords of the minor ii-V, as many improvisation methods do, Barry uses a ‘seven up and down’ pattern with a seventh scale starting a major third below the root of the ii chord (or a minor third above the root of the V chord).

This scale choice has multiple benefits: for one, it is a pitch collection which is consonant with the m7b5 chord but avoids accenting its root.  Also, when the ‘seven down’ half of the scale is ended on the note a half step above the scale’s root, it outlines  a fully diminished chord that functions as a rootless voicing of the V chord.

In my class we call this scale ‘E flat 7 up and down to the 3rd of C’.  Building off of this admittedly lengthy name, I call the second half of this scale the ‘7 down to the 3rd’ scale.  (In my class, we practice minor ii-V-i patterns in which this descending scale is preceded by patterns that use what we call the ‘locrian pentascale’, which can be thought of as the third to the seventh degrees of the seventh scale from a major third below the root, or scale steps seven through four of the major scale beginning a half step above the root.  These patterns can be heard on the first phrase of each A section in this scale outline of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.

Parker uses the ‘seven down to the 3rd’ scale in both his ‘What Is This’ and ‘Hot House’ solos to outline the C7b9 chord in measure 10, but where the 1952 solo stretches the scale over the course of two measures, the 1953 solo flies through it at the end of a fast series of 16th notes.  Where the ’52 solo is more shorter and more playable, the ’53 solo is more virtuosic.  The later solo goes on longer, but is more frenetic, as though Parker feels that he’s running out of time.  In the transcription below, I’ve placed Parker’s two solos in two adjacent staves to highlight the way he reuses no less than five melodic ideas (the one mentioned above and those mentioned below the transcription) and yet ends up with two completely different solos.  (A side note: The more I look at Parker’s composed and improvised melodic lines from this contrapuntal view, the more I notice him consciously or subconsciously creating a countermelody to an earlier line on the same changes, either one of his own compositions or a popular song.  Look, for instance, at how the later solo counters the melodic motion of the earlier one in mm. 3, 7-8 and 14-15.)

In the ’53 solo, Parker begins the first A with the same four-note motive that he used in the last A in the earlier solo (m. 25), which gives the impression that he is picking up where he left in ’52, almost as though no time had elapsed.  The second phrase of the ’53 solo (m.3) also uses a phrase from the ’52 solo, this time moving a lick originally used in the second A (at beat 4 of m. 11) into the first A section.  Both solos use the same five-note motive on both the Ab7 and G7 chords at the end of the bridge, but enclose them in different phrases and place them at different points in the bar.  Measure 26 is the only time both solos use the same lick at the same time, a quote from the Bizet opera ‘Carmen’.

I first heard of Barry Harris from Yusef Lateef, whose improvisation class I took at Hampshire College in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  On the first day of class, Yusef identified himself as one of Barry’s students by saying something like: ‘I’m just going to show you what Barry Harris showed me’.  Since then, I’ve sought out Barry’s playing and teaching more and more over the years and found him a perennial source of musical wisdom.

As with the work of other bop masters, I’ve found that I can return to Barry’s recordings over and over and learn something new each time.  I spent a while in the early 2000s transcribing the great tunes and arrangements from Barry’s album Luminescence, and over the last five years or so I have been I checking out At the Jazz Workshop.  Released a year after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue brought the extended, floating harmonies pioneered by Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans to a mass audience,  At The Jazz Workshop pays no heed to the modal style but rather reflects Harris’ devotion to the more frequently modulating, obstacle-course harmonies of the bebop period.   The album demonstrates how Harris was continuing to successfully evolve the melodic language of bebop, and the bebop concept of group interaction, at a time when many players had started to explore other sources of melodic invention and other concepts of ensemble playing. It is also a great example of how mid-20th century jazz repertoire created variety through a combination of popular tunes from the first half of the century (Don’t Blame Me, Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby), bop standards (Moose The Mooche, Woody N’You), and the blues (Barry’s original Morning Coffee).

At the Jazz Workshop is not built on arrangements as detailed as those of the Ahmad Jamal trio of the same era, nor does it go in the direction of the greater freedom for rhythm section players pioneered in the John Coltrane and Bill Evans group of that era; it is built instead on the model of the Bud Powell trios.  In this format, the focus is on piano improvisation, with bass solos and trading between piano and drums used regularly to vary the return to the head statement.  This format requires a rhythm section which, like any great pair of comedians or policemen, can keep a relentless pace without rushing and can respond immediately to sudden developments.  Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, already veterans by the time of this album, achieve the same kind of tenacious unity as Max Roach and George Duvivier on the Bud Powell sides.

At The Jazz Workshop contains great examples of a number of important improvisational concepts, among them Barry’s approach to the minor ii-V progression.  Barry can be heard using the ‘seven down to the third’ scale in a couple of places on  At The Jazz Workshop.  In the last A section on the third chorus of his Woody N’You solo, he navigates all three of the minor ii-V progressions with this scale.  As the whole chorus is a great model of left hand-right hand conversation on a tune with an active harmonic rhythm, I have included my transcription of the whole chorus here.


In his solo on take 2 of ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ from At The Jazz Workshop, Harris repeatedly uses a phrase ending in the ‘seven down to the third of’ scale to navigate the recurring Gm7b5-C7b9 change.  Like Parker in the two solos above, Harris makes this motive sound different each time he recycles it by giving it a different rhythmic placement each time.  Here is the phrase as it would apply to a two bar minor ii-V.  (Harris uses this lick by double timing it, i.e., playing it in 16th notes over a single bar near the end of the phrase that starts at 1:20 on the recording.)

I encourage readers to leave a comment of any kind, but I particularly encourage comments mentioning (and perhaps including a link to) a favorite improvised solo on a tune involving minor ii-V or ii-V-i progressions, or examples of a lick being creatively re-used by a improviser, either within one solo or across multiple solos.

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Six Degrees of Bud Powell, Part ii-V-I

Six degrees of BP lix edit

Note: as in previous posts, I have included YouTube links for some of the recordings mentioned; however, as always, readers are encouraged to purchase the recordings themselves, as YouTube considerably limits a listener’s ability to fast forward and rewind, which are essential functions for studying these recordings in the depth that they require.  In addition, the recordings for which I have not provided links are equally important and should be sought out as well.

Continuing with the last post’s theme of Bud Powell’s influence, here are four licks that outline the major ii-V-I progression, each with a connection to Bud.  The first ii-V-I lick listed above is from the Denzil Best tune  ‘Move’ .  The best known version of this bop standard is on Miles Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ album.  In his excellent and exhaustive biography ‘Wail: The Life of Bud Powell’, Peter Pullman relates how, although Powell never recorded ‘Move’ with Miles Davis, he played it live (and took a rapturously received solo on it) with an iteration of Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ band, and played it  with his trio.  A measure of the usefulness and durability of this lick is that a particular five-note fragment of it shows up, with different rhythmic placements, in Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton’s tune ‘Perdido Line’ (based on Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s ‘Perdido’), Miles Davis’ solo on ‘Oleo’ (from ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants’), Clifford Brown’s solo on ‘Pent Up House’, and much earlier in the vocal scat portion of Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Hotter Than That’.

The lick that I have excerpted from Clifford Brown’s ‘Pent-Up House’ solo begins with  what Barry Harris calls ‘the G seventh scale with the half step between the root and the seventh’ (sometimes also called the ‘bebop seventh scale’).  It also demonstrates one of the basic concepts through which Harris teaches the bebop style – anticipating the V chord in a ii-V progression by using the scale based off the root of the V over the ii chord.  The original recording of ‘Pent Up House’ featured Powell’s brother Richie on piano (in addition to Sonny Rollins, who Pullman describes as both a collaborator and student of Powell’s).  Pullman’s biography suggests that Richie had little contact with Bud during his formative years as a musician, due in part to the time Bud spent in psychiatric institutions, and that in fact Bud Powell’s other student and collaborator Jackie McLean arranged for much of Richie’s musical education.  As a result, over the course of his short life Richie developed into a player with a marked similarity of style to Bud, although his compositions also show a marked contrast with those of Bud.  I hope to discuss these in a future post.)

I encourage pianists to practice each of these licks in the right hand in combination with a left hand voicing, either the shell voicing ( p. 23 in Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil DeGreg, sometimes called the ‘Bud Powell voicing’) or what Phil DeGreg calls the ‘A form voicing’ (in which the minor and major seventh chords are voiced ‘off the seventh’) (DeGreg p. 79).

The Sonny Rollins lick shown above is taken from the fourth chorus of his solo on ‘Tune Up’ (from the album ‘Newk’s Time’).  The first seven notes of this phrase, like the ‘Move’ lick, also show up on recordings from disparate eras of jazz history; before Rollins used it, it was part of Duke Jordan’s piano intro to Charlie Parker’s original recording of ‘Scrapple From The Apple’; shortly after Rollins used it, it was the opening phrase of the melody to Ornette Coleman’s tune ‘The Blessing’ (on his early album ‘Something Else!!!!’).  (On piano, this lick may be practiced in the right hand along with what Phil DeGreg calls the ‘B’ voicing, of the major ii-V-I, shown on p. 81 of Jazz Keyboard Harmony.  This is the voicing where the minor and major chords are voiced ‘off the third’.)  Sonny Rollins made some of the first recordings in his massive career with Powell, notably on ‘Bouncin’ With Bud’ and ‘Wail’.  The ‘Tune Up’ solo is also an interesting document in terms of Rollins’ digestion of Charlie Parker’s influence: Rollins uses one of Parker’s signature motives in the second chorus of the solo, although it is surrounded with the kind of intervallic ideas that would become characteristic of Rollins.  (Wynton Kelly also uses the same Charlie Parker phrase later in his piano solo on the same recording.  One of the many uses Parker made of this phrase can be heard in his classic ‘Koko’ solo, near the end of the bridge in the first chorus.)

The last ii-V-I pattern is from the first chorus of Parker’s solo on ‘Billie’s Bounce’.  (On piano this can be played in the right hand with the shell voicing from p. 24 of DeGreg in the left hand).  Like the Clifford Brown lick, the Parker lick exhibits the bebop concept of ‘half steps’ (i.e., non-scale tones on upbeats of an eighth-note-based line); in this case Parker uses what Barry Harris calls the half step between the second and root of the D seventh scale.

(I encourage pianists to practice all the licks above in the RH with the suggested LH voicing, and then transpose each one through a pattern of ii-V-I progressions descending by whole steps.  In the case of the first two licks this would mean starting with the ii-V-I in the written key of C (Dm7-G7-Cmaj7) and then moving down to the key of B flat (Cm7-F7-Bbmaj7), and continuing until the key of D is reached (Em7-A7-Dmaj7).  The next step is to start up a half step from the written key (in the case of the first two licks, on the ii-V-I in D flat, Ebm7-Ab7-Dbmaj) and follow a descending whole step pattern from there, moving through six keys as before.)

Pullman’s biography of Bud Powell includes some fascinating details of the relationship between Powell and Parker, which included both friction and mutual respect.  In an interview quoted by Pullman, Billy Taylor says that Powell told him: ‘I want to make the piano sound just like Charlie Parker’.  On a personal level, however, Pullman reveals that Powell and Parker did not get along.  The uneven nature of their professional relationship is indicated by the history of their recordings: while Powell recorded a number of highly personalized versions of Parker’s tunes, these two giants of the bebop movement seem to have recorded only one set of tunes in the studio together (Donna Lee, Buzzy, Chasin’ The Bird, and Cheryl), on which Powell is not featured much as a soloist.  One can only wonder if this is part of the reason that some of Powell’s versions of Parker’s tunes (his readings of Ornithology and Moose The Mooche, for example) are less respectful ‘covers’ than recompositions of the melody where Powell personalizes Parker’s work, takes control of it through the force of his musical imagination, almost to the point where he could take ownership of it.

Great jazz soloists such as Rollins and Parker are often portrayed as rugged individualists whose creativity far outshone their less remarkable bandmates; as I mentioned in another post, this makes it easy to overlook the fact that many of these great soloists were equally great collaborators who excelled at ensemble improvising techniques such as trading fours.  I would argue that, especially in the bebop style, a number of great improvisers who seem focused almost exclusively on the single note line, particularly Parker, often have an interest in counterpoint (i.e. the creation of independent melodic lines that express the same harmonic movement) that can be detected beneath the surface of their composing and improvising.  Parker’s tunes ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Donna Lee’ are based on ‘How High The Moon’ and ‘Indiana’, and although the melodies of the original tunes are not included in Parker’s recordings, Parker’s tunes form a strong contrapuntal whole when combined with the original melodies.  This raises the question of whether writing a countermelody was one of Parker’s goals in the process of composing these tunes, even though it did not play a role in the way he performed them. (Pullman notes that one of the reasons bop players created new melodies for existing chord changes was to make the quick money of an advance against copyright royalties.  Given that necessity was the mother of invention here, it was left to later generations to discover what great counterpoint Parker had devised with these original tunes.)   Thomas Owens has shown how Parker’s  solo on ‘Shaw Nuff’ and J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor both ‘illustrate how monophonic lines are able to project harmonically sophisticated counterpoint with unexpected twists of syncopation.’  (His discussion of this is on p. 15-19 of the Google books excerpt to which I linked; the musical examples are missing, but the Bach score can be viewed at IMSLP and the ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo is in the Reeves textbook.  As the excerpt gives only a flavor of Owens’ analysis, I encourage anyone interested to seek out the book.)

Joe Lovano (on his album ‘Bird Songs’), Dexter Gordon and I have all created arrangements in which multiple bop tunes on the same changes combine to form a two-voice texture, and the counterpoint is so strong that it almost seems the tunes were intended to be played together.  These kinds of experiments follow the lead of Parker’s rare but notable experiments in counterpoint, ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’ and one of the tunes he recorded with Powell, ‘Chasin’ the Bird’.  These pieces both show Parker’s well-documented interest in more large-scale composition that might have flourished had he lived longer.  Although Powell lived longer than Parker, his recorded work also includes some tantalizing hints of an interest in large-scale composing, including his composition ‘Glass Enclosure’ and an arrangement of ‘Sure Thing’ in which he seems to have moved through the re-composition process and arrived at a completely original piece.   It was only after Parker and Powell’s time that the larger scale contrapuntal works of John Lewis, such as ‘Three Windows’, offered examples of what more extended composition informed by a bop sensibility sounds like.

In the spirit of these experiments in bop counterpoint, I have grouped the ii-V-I patterns above into pairs that may be practiced simultaneously by two instruments or by the two hands of a pianist.  (The staff brace lines indicate the pairs.)  This is only meant as a secondary application of the patterns; I strongly suggest practicing each pattern by itself along with chord changes, through all keys, before trying to combine the patterns.  Although there are examples of contrapuntal bop improvising (such as in this example from the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartet with Paul Desmond, where trading fours gives way to counterpoint), I hope the examples here make the point that improvising simultaneous contrapuntal lines is only one of many ways that improvisers can think contrapuntally.  Practicing these ii-V-I patterns could help you think of your soloing as part of an imagined contrapuntal texture, where the countermelody you are improvising forms a counterpoint to an unheard melody, or possibly even a counterpoint to your previous chorus.

I encourage readers to leave a comment mentioning a short lick from a bop tune, transcribed solo or recording (maybe even a ii-V or ii-V-I pattern) which you’ve found particularly memorable or which ‘lies’ well on your instrument.  First make sure to mention the name of the tune and the recording.  Then, if you can, describe the pattern using letter names, numbered scale degrees, solfege, or even a link to a notated score excerpt, so other readers can try learning the pattern.  Even if you have trouble describing the lick, leave us a link where we can hear it – maybe another reader can find a way to describe it!

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Six Degrees of Bud Powell

In a recent appearance on the NPR quiz show ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, the actor Kevin Bacon was asked how he felt about ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, a game which was invented by college students in the 1990s inspired by Bacon’s seeming omnipresence in movies of that era.  (I recently ate an excellent takeout burger from Bad Apple, a Chicago bar owned by Craig Fass, one of the inventors of the ‘Six Degrees’ game.)  Bacon told Peter Sagal, the host of ‘Wait, Wait’, that he was initially ‘horrified’ to learn of the game.  In its simplest form, the game allows one movie buff to challenge another to start with any combination of a film and an actor, move to another film which shares at least one actor with the first film, and continue the sequence until they find the shortest possible path to a film involving Bacon.  Bacon said of his initial reaction, ‘I really thought it was a joke at my expense. I mean, I thought they were saying, can you believe that this lightweight can be connected in six degrees to Laurence Olivier?… And so I kind of thought well, I’m going to kind of become a laughingstock. And then I went onto a television show, and I met these young guys, and they were real fans. It wasn’t something that they had devised to, you know, bring my career down… And so then I just kind of said, well, I guess I’ve got to embrace it.’

Although webpages like The Oracle of Bacon cloak the game in mock-seriousness, to anyone familiar with Hollywood films from the 1980’s to the present, it is a testament to how Bacon’s willingness to shift between lead and supporting roles has made him a truly influential artist.  As even Bacon’s Wikipedia page shows, his career and personal life has not been without ups and downs, including roles in forgettable comedy and horror films and some unfortunate involvement with Bernie Madoff, but the enduring popularity of the ‘Six Degrees’ game shows how the flexibility and adaptability of his acting, combined with plenty of genuine talent, have often helped him rise above adverse conditions.

Hearing Bacon’s interview on ‘Wait Wait’ made me realize that I am sometimes feel as though I am living out a similar game called ‘Six Degrees of Bud Powell’, in which I am frequently reminded of the influence of Bud Powell both on my own musical development and on the development of jazz in general.  Two of the most important items in my jazz record collection as a teenager were The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume Two and a compilation (which sadly seems to have gone out of print) called ‘The Best of Blue Note’, which included ‘Un Poco Loco’ from The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume One as well as a Miles Davis rendition of ‘Tempus Fugit’.  (Both were presents from my forward-looking brother.)  I went on to include ‘Un Poco Loco’ (both a transcription of the solo and a performance of the tune) in my final project at Hampshire College, and I included my arrangement of ‘Tempus Fugit’ (based on the Bud Powell version) as part of a classical recital focused on fugues that I gave during my student years at the University of Vermont.  I’ve also returned to both these tunes on gigs of my own, as well as in my work with student groups.  Both of these tunes, which are among the more advanced and challenging of Bud Powell’s compositions, are available in the Hal Leonard volume ‘The Bud Powell Collection’.  This book includes transcriptions of Powell’s solos on these tunes; both solos are whole worlds of melodic invention and variation unto themselves, and I hope to deal with them more in depth in another post.

In 2010 I played a concert with my trio called ‘Tempus Fugue-it: Celebrating Bud Powell’ which included, in addition to the tunes mentioned above, Powell’s classic tune ‘Celia’ (named after his daughter).   I also included two tunes by great jazz composers which pay tribute to Powell.  Chick Corea’s tune ‘Bud Powell’ has a number of connections with the phrasing and structure of ‘Celia’; the first eight measures of both tunes have similar phrase structure and a similar melodic arc, and both tunes have bridges that move to minor keys.   (The Corea tune also uses what sounds like a direct quote from Tadd Dameron’s ‘The Scene Is Clean’.) The concert also included Herbie Hancock’s tune ‘Still Time’ from the soundtrack to the film ‘Round Midnight’.  As Hancock explained on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the tune is based on the chord progression of Powell’s ballad ‘Time Waits’ and has a melody which contrapuntally complements the original melody.      (This same compositional technique – writing a countermelody which complements an existing tune but is not intended to be performed with it – seems also to have been used in at least two tunes attributed to Charlie Parker, ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Donna Lee’, both of which work well as countermelodies to the tunes they are based on, ‘How High The Moon’ and ‘Indiana’.) This, however, only explains the direct influence of Bud Powell on my life and work; more recently, his influence has also popped up in other more mysterious and surprising ways.

In 2011 I traveled to Florida to perform with Mike Gordon at the Allman Brothers’ Wanee Festival.  While I was there I got to hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band play the Billy Taylor civil rights anthem ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’.  This performance truly ‘took me to church’, and led me to investigate Dr. Taylor’s many recordings of the tune.  One of the most powerful versions, which I have worked on a transcription of with my students Jacob Ungerleider and Martin Chandler, is a version available only on YouTube.  While Nina Simone’s versions of the tune, particularly  a live Montreux version with an intro that showcases her stride playing, powerfully display the lyrics of ‘I Wish I Knew How’ and their poetic evocation of the hunger for justice and freedom, Taylor’s solos on his instrumental versions of the tune to make a powerful case for the relevance of bebop melodic concepts to the backbeat-based ‘soul jazz’ style in which the tune is cast.  In the context of the themes that the song’s title and lyrics address, this statement takes on political significance.  Taylor’s solos on his various versions, while they are all different, follow a similar evolution of ideas, which gives them something in common with Louis Armstrong’s Dippermouth Blues solo (discussed in the last post), a three-chorus sequence that Armstrong evolved throughout his career.  The general musical outline that the solos follow seem to me to illustrate a spiritual progression, moving through gospel and blues approaches (which, in the context of Taylor’s solo, means improvising within a more limited range of one or two scales, contrasting the constantly moving chord progression with a more static melodic approach) and ending up with the bebop concept of ‘making the changes’, in other words, improvising a melody based a the harmonic progression.  This might also be described in modern terms as ‘responding in real time to a series of continuously evolving changes’.

Through each of these solos we can hear Taylor moving from a blues approach to improvising, which in this context is a way of creating melody largely independent from and even resistant to harmonic change, to a bebop approach, where a more intense and energetic melodic line results from a being more aware of and responsive to the changes in the chord progression.  Dick Dallas’ lyrics to the tune move from describing the reality of oppression (‘I wish I could break all the chains binding me’) and the almost insurmountable challenge of communicating one’s perspective (‘I wish I could say all I’m longing to say…I wish you could know how it feels to be me…’) to a vision of a more just and honest world (‘I wish I could be like a bird in the sky…then I’d sing cause I know how it feels to be free’).  In a similar way, Taylor’s solos make a musical journey from the blues approach to improvisation, which seems to parallel the struggle described in the opening verses of the song, to the bebop approach, which Taylor seems to associate with the vision of freedom, as it always occupies the concluding section of the song where the more visionary verses are sung.  In the YouTube version, the double-time chorus where he employs bop language directly references the altered rhythm changes tune ‘Bud’s Bubble’ (aka Crazeology).   There is a potent resonance in Taylor’s reference to Powell at this high point in his musical sermon; as Pullman’s biography abundantly documents, Powell struggled against many forms of oppression throughout his life, not only the racial discrimination that was so blatant in the mid-twentieth century, but also the lack of cultural and institutional understanding at that time for people with mental illnesses.   (Pullman documents that Powell lost a significant amount of his creativity to the extensive and brutal electroshock therapy which he was subjected to, but also benefited from the assistance of more independently minded psychiatrists who intervened on his behalf.)  Another direct quote of a Powell tune occurs in Horace Silver’s solo on ‘Silver’s Serenade’, where Silver first disguises and then reveals the theme from Powell’s ‘Dance Of The Infidels’.  (My transcription of this solo appears in an earlier post.)

Another performance which ‘took me to church’ was Bobby McFerrin’s performance at the 2013 Discover Jazz Festival, during which he was playing music from his recent CD ‘spirityouall’ (a creative transformation of the word ‘spiritual’).  McFerrin’s performance, including spellbinding renditions of ‘Glory’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’, was one of the quietest I have ever heard by a five piece, partly electric ensemble.  The quiet dynamic allowed McFerrin to take full advantage of his considerable gifts at listening to and responding to sounds of all kinds.  (At one point, in response to a fleeting bit of microphone feedback, McFerrin improvised a completely believeable snatch of operatic soprano melody – which, coming from the son of an opera singer, is simultaneously a joke and not a joke).  While looking through McFerrin’s discography, I realized he had a connection to Bud Powell early in his career: his first album includes an acapella vocal cover of the Powell tune ‘Hallucinations’, where McFerrin approximates the sound of Powell’s two hands through overdubbing his voice.

Most recently, my wife and I watched the animated film ‘Chico and Rita’ on the recommendation of a student.  Its plot combines a fictional story of  romance between a man and a woman in Havana and New York during the 1940s and the actual relationship that developed during that time period between Latin dance music and the bebop movement in jazz in both those locations.  In addition to including the Latin jazz standards such as ‘Tin Tin Deo’, the film also prominently features a rendition of  ‘Celia’ by the Cuban pianist Rolando Luna.

Powell’s signature tune ‘Bouncin’ With Bud’ (which, in a murky historical turn typical for bebop, is sometimes also titled ‘Bebop In Pastel’ and attributed to Sonny Stitt) has also received many different interpretations ranging from a more recent version by pianist Zaccai Curtis to a multi-generational version featuring Powell on piano with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during the era when the horn lineup included Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone.  (‘Celia’ and ‘Hallucinations’ are both available in the Hal Leonard volume ‘Bud Powell Classics’ as well as the somewhat-harder-to-find ‘Mostly Bud, Original Voicings’ published by Gerard and Sarzin; the latter book also includes versions of ‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Bouncin’ with Bud’.)

In Michelle Mercer’s biography of Shorter, she tells the story of how Shorter received an almost mystical visitation in his hotel from Powell the night of the concert.  After knocking on Shorter’s door and walking silently into his room, Powell said, ‘Play me something’, and Shorter responded with a solo version of ‘Dance of The Infidels’.  “After he played,” Mercer writes, “Bud thanked him, stood up, and walked to the door.  He turned around and stared.  ‘Are you all right?‘ Wayne asked.  ‘Uh-huh, it’s all right’, Bud mumbled in response.”  Mercer quotes Powell’s daughter Celia (the namesake of the song), who interprets her father’s visit to Shorter as stemming from Powell’s need to assure himself that everything was ‘all right’ for the future of music, and that he could depend on Shorter to carry on and develop the jazz tradition.

Shorter’s actual visitation from Powell, brought on by the power of Shorter’s playing on Powell’s tunes, reminds me a little of the recurring visitations that Powell’s musical themes make on my musical consciousness.  Each time I recognize a Bud Powell theme in a performance, or even better, hear the unmistakeable sound of the master himself, it re-connects me to one of my strongest musical inspirations, and refreshes my energy for studying, practicing and performing music.  I can’t count the number of times that unmistakeable sound of Bud Powell on the radio has drawn and held my attention, in the house, the car, or most recently my chiropractor’s office (where Bud’s version of There Will Never Be Another You kept me from leaving after my appointment one day.)  (I have to credit the internet station Calm Radio Jazz Piano, which features Bud frequently, for providing me with some of these epiphanies.)  I think that, just as Kevin Bacon’s adaptability has been a key factor in making him influential in the film world, the adaptability that Bud Powell displayed throughout his career, from his early recordings with Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, to his seminal trio work, to his late-career recordings with Dexter Gordon, Mingus and the Jazz Messengers, is closely related to what has made his ideas indestructible and a vital part of the musical language.  Have you ever noticed a musical theme, from a particular piece or player or composer, that keeps recurring over any period of time, maybe even just a week or a day, or perhaps (as in my case) most of your lifetime?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

While I encourage comments of any kind, I encourage readers to choose one of the Bud Powell compositions I refer to in the entry (‘Celia’, ‘Hallucinations’, ‘Un Poco Loco’, Bouncin’ With Bud’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ – sometimes spelled ‘Tempus Fugue-It’) and write a response contrasting Powell’s original recording of the tune with a more recent interpretation of the tune.  There are recordings of ‘Celia’ by both Chick Corea and Bruce Hornsby among many others; ‘Hallucinations’ by both Chick and Bobby McFerrin, ‘Un Poco Loco’ by both Hornsby and Tito Puente, and ‘Bouncin’ with Bud’ by both Chick and Zaccai Curtis.  Searching the titles on iTunes will lead you to many other versions.  Consider some of the following questions in your contrasting of the two versions:

 – Does the newer version add any elements that were not present in the original, such as different instrumentation or new sections of the arrangement?

– Does the head statement in the newer version closely follow Powell’s original melody, or is there some reinterpretation?  If so, how is the melody reinterpreted?

– Does the newer version use the same chord changes the original, or is there some reharmonization, either in the head statement or the solo?

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‘Oh, play that thing!’ – the use of transcribed solos in the jazz tradition

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Yankee pitcher and five time World Series champion Mariano Rivera was asked how he prepares to face a particularly difficult hitter:

Rose: Tell me about studying for a hitter.  How do you study a hitter?

Rivera: Oh, we have so much videos, so much reports…

Rose: and what do you get out of that video?

Rivera: For me, I just learn about the experience.  I watch the game, exactly the game that we’re playing.  If the guy’s hot, well, pay attention to the game…I’m seeing the game while I’m doing something to get ready.

Rivera’s use of the word ‘hot’ to describe a highly skilled hitter who he studies on video in preparation for a real-time confrontation reminds me of how jazz musicians use the same word to describe a highly creative improviser.  A ‘hot‘ player is someone bandleaders want to feature, who colleagues are eager to perform with, and who aspiring players  may want to study through recordings, as a way of assimilating their ideas.  Rivera’s description of using videos to prepare for a game sounds not unlike a practice ritual which is common for jazz players at many levels, the practice of learning recorded solos by master players, either by notating them or simply learning them by ear.  Perhaps the most famous account of one great jazz player learning from another is the story of Charlie Parker at an early point in his career studying the records of Lester Young.  Here is the story as told by the bassist Gene Ramey (quoted in Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker: His Life and Music): ‘In the summer of 1937, Bird underwent a radical change musically.  He got a job with a little band led by a singer…they played at country resorts in the mountains.  Charlie took with him all the Count Basie records with Lester Young solos on them and learned Lester cold, note for note…when he came back, only two or three months, later, the difference was unbelievable’.

Part of Parker’s mystique was that, rather than actually performing Lester Young’s solos, he incorporated older player’s concepts into an improvisational language all his own. However, as Charles Mingus relates in his essay ‘What Is A Jazz Composer?’, it was something of a tradition among the older players of the swing era for great recorded solos to be played note-for-note in live performances, sometimes by the players who had originated them.  Mingus communicates a level of respect for this tradition, even to the point of questioning younger players’ ability to ‘repeat anything at all’:

‘When I was a kid and Coleman Hawkins played a solo or Illinois Jacquet created [his tenor sax solo on] “Flyin’ Home,” they (and all the musicians) memorized their solos and played them back for the audience, because the audience had heard them on records. Today I question whether most musicians can even repeat their solos after they’ve played them once on record. In classical music, for example people go to hear Janos Starker play Kodaly. They don’t go to hear him improvise a Kodaly, they go to hear how he played it on record and how it was written. Jazz was at one time the same way. You played your ad lib solo, you created it, and if it was worthwhile, then you played it in front of the public again…Today, things are at the other extreme. Everything is supposed to be invented, the guys never repeat anything at all and probably couldn’t. They don’t even write down their own tunes, they just make them up as they sit on the bandstand. It’s all right, I don’t question it. I know and hear what they are doing. But the validity remains to be seen -what comes, what is left, after you hear the melody and after you hear the solo.’ (The ellipsis represents a transition I’ve made to an earlier section of the essay, which I read as a response to the section I quoted first.)

Mingus seems to be referring to a tradition of improvised solos from recordings being performed more or less exactly as they were recorded, ‘because the audience had heard them on record’ and wanted to hear them the same way again.  This might be called ‘the literal approach’ to performing recorded solos.  In his book Creative Jazz Improvisation, which has with good reason become a standard jazz education text, Scott Reeves writes that ‘transcribing and practicing improvised solos by master jazz musicians helps the student of improvisation assimilate the vocabulary and style of these artists in much the same way that children learn to speak by imitating their parents’.  One possible interpretation of Reeves’ parent-child metaphor, and Gene Ramey’s Charlie Parker story, is that improvisers in earlier stages of development learn recorded solos and abandon this practice in their mature years – although the profusion of mature improvisers such as Ethan Iverson and James Mahone who publish their transcriptions on the internet suggests otherwise.  Reeves also mentions three ways a solo can be learned (by learning it aurally, by writing it down, and by learning it from a published transcription) and adds: ‘After practicing a transcription, create your own improvisation on the tune, incorporating elements of the artist’s style.‘   This reflects a fairly common view through the jazz education world that learning improvised solos from recordings is an early stage in a player’s artistic development.  Reeves’ comment suggests a two-step process, where the literal approach to performing a recorded solo leads directly to a spontaneous and original improvised solo.

This eminently logical view is supported by a number of recorded examples where literal performances of transcribed solos have a mechanical quality and lack the spontaneity of the original version.  For me, some of the music of the 1970s group Supersax, and the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross album ‘Sing A Song of Basie’, where they perform Count Basie Orchestra arrangements complete with their original solos and no new improvisation, falls into this category.  However, there is also a tradition, less well documented in the literature of jazz education, of great improvisers in their prime years re-creating existing solos with an attitude of simultaneously challenging and revering the original.  In both Louis Armstrong’s 1938 re-creation of King Oliver’s 1923 ‘Dippermouth Blues‘ solo, and Ella Fitzgerald’s 1945 re-creation of Illinois Jacquet’s 1942 ‘Flying Home‘ solo, we can see one jazz master’s deep admiration for another’s achievement expressed through a deeply imaginative revision of the earlier solo.  The fact that Fitzgerald and Armstrong recorded these tunes fairly early in their century-spanning careers suggests that taking the revisionist approach to performing a recorded solo might be a developmental stage between literal imitation and more spontaneous originality.  

The soundtrack to the TV series Boardwalk Empire includes a performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra tune ‘Sugarfoot Stomp’.  The original 1925 Henderson version of ‘Sugarfoot’ featured a young Louis Armstrong and was an early re-working of ‘Dippermouth Blues’, which Armstrong had recorded with King Oliver in 1923.  In ‘Sugarfoot’, Armstrong re-created Oliver’s original trumpet solo from ‘Dippermouth’ with a number of revisions, including taking a high A that Oliver had played briefly near the end of the solo and making it a long, sustained note that demonstrated Armstrong’s prodigious range.  Armstrong continued to respectfully and ingeniously revise Oliver’s solo in a version of ‘Dippermouth’ with his big band in 1936.  Although Armstrong’s revisions in many ways demonstrated the strides that he had made in his playing beyond the technique of his former employer Oliver, Armstrong also chose not to try and imitate Oliver’s use of the mute, and so he was in a sense adapting the solo to a different instrument, the straight (unmuted) horn.  (The choice was not without deliberation: in Terry Teachout’s Pops, Armstrong’s first wife Lil is quoted saying that Armstrong ‘spend a whole week trying without success to imitate Oliver’s ‘wah-wah’ muted inflections on ‘Dipper Mouth Blues’.)  It was perhaps this ‘handicap’ that Armstrong gave himself which prompted some of his imaginative additions to the solo.  When laid horizontally next to Oliver’s solo, Armstrong’s 1936 ‘Dippermouth’ solo, besides changing the long ‘A’ from ‘Sugarfoot’ to a series of repeated high notes (a move that was becoming one of his trademarks), Armstrong also makes ingenious use of filling the pauses Oliver left with eighth note movement that was highly modern for its time and exhibits the chromaticism which would later be associated with the bebop movement.  (While most audio files of the King Oliver ‘Dippermouth’ sound like the tune is in the key of B, my guess is the key has been lowered by the age of the recording, so I have transposed his solo to C, the key of Armstrong’s ‘Dippermouth’ version of 1936.  The small notes at the beginning of the Oliver solo are meant to show the range over which he bends the initial note through embouchure and mute.)King O Louis A JPEG

In her version of ‘Flying Home’ from 1945, Ella Fitzgerald re-creates the iconic Illinois Jacquet solo from the original Lionel Hampton recording that Mingus refers to in his essay.  Fitzgerald’s ‘Flying Home’ solo indicates her close study of bebop melodic concepts, particularly through the way that she introduces more eighth note motion than the original, more chromaticism, and more use of upper chord tones such as the ninth and thirteenth.  Fitzgerald’s ‘Flying Home’ also exhibits her ability to deftly incorporate quotes into her improvising; she concludes the chorus here with ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, but a later section of the solo also uses ‘Yankee Doodle’.  (Fitzgerald’s version seems to be in the key of G, but I have transposed it to A flat, the key of the original version by the Lionel Hampton band.)

Illinois Jacquet Ella Fitz

Armstrong’s revisions to the ‘Dippermouth’ could arguably be called improvements and are in line with his many recorded quotes where he openly admits his technique was superior to Oliver’s.  However, Armstrong’s revisions of Oliver’s ‘Dippermouth’ solo show clear respect for the man Armstrong called ‘my hero and my idol’ by clearly preserving the outlines of Oliver’s phrases. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, alternates throughout the chorus shown here between playing four bars of Jacquet’s solo and introducing four bars of her own very different and bop-influenced ideas – an approach which suggests that her desire to challenge Jacquet was perhaps equal to her desire to honor him.

Sonny Stitt’s 1958 version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko’ solo from 1945 shows how the tradition of performing classic recorded solos continued into the later years of the bebop period (an epoch that some might argue has still not ended!)  Stitt’s approach to revising Parker’s solo is considerably more complex than Fitzgerald’s approach to revising Jacquet, as one can hear Stitt  constantly weaving his own phrases in between those of Parker, as well as personalizing the Parker phrases.

As the availability of transcribed solos proliferates, the number of questions about how they should be used increases as well.  Should transcribed solos be used only as an exercise for aspiring players?  Is the process of creatively adapting an existing solo by a jazz master a valuable process for improvisers at all ability levels, or is it a task at which only the most proficient players can succeed?  Is the proliferation of notated solos in books and on the internet endangering the process of learning solos by ear, as Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Stitt almost certainly did?  Is it still possible to take a creative revisionary approach to performing solos by jazz masters, as Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Stitt did?  I encourage anyone reading this entry to respond in the comment section with their thoughts on these or any other related questions.

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‘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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American Tunes

When the University of Vermont announced that Wynton Marsalis would give the commencement speech at its 2013 graduation proceedings, it added serious star power to the event, given his well-established career as a cultural spokesman.  Marsalis also had a personal reason to be there, as his son Simeon was part of the graduating class.  His speech was a moving reflection from a parental viewpoint on the transition to postgraduate adulthood, and the UVM audience responded to it with jubilant and respectful applause.  The jubilation was turned up a notch, however, when he put down his speech notes and picked up his trumpet.  The tune he chose to play at this moment, ‘When The Saints Go Marching In‘, had a strong association in my mind with the traditional New Orleans funeral parade, as I’d heard that tradition carried on locally by the Onion River Jazz Band at the funeral of a friend.  (2016 update: I had the pleasure of subbing for ORJB’s piano player, Andy Ellenberger, on New Year’s Eve last year.)  While this tune has been used in many contexts, I had never heard it played at a graduation ceremony, where the stuffy 19th century  strains of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ are usually the main soundtrack.  (The UVM Brass Ensemble gave a fine performance of this chestnut at the 2013 ceremony.)

In his speech, Marsalis expanded my understanding of ‘When The Saints’ by explaining how the tune could shed new light on the meaning of a college graduation.  “A favorite tradition in New Orleans,” he said,  “is the jazz parade. The dancers that follow the band are called second liners. Our most celebrated song, When the Saints Go Marching In, has a line, ‘Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in’. Well, we are in that number today.  We are YOUR second line–your support system. Our presence today IS our pride. And though there is much of life that you must face alone, you cannot make it out here in this world by yourself.”

Marsalis’ ability to transform the meaning of this tune through his speech and his playing (which I discuss below) reminded me of another masterful reinterpretation given to another well-worn sixteen-bar melody in a different genre: Paul Simon’s use of the hymn ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’ in his Watergate-era song ‘American Tune’.   The narrator in the text of the hymn, well known for its use in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, speaks of identifying his own struggle for salvation with the biblical story of Jesus’ suffering; in some Christian traditions it is sung just before the story of his resurrection is celebrated at Easter.  Simon uses the hymn’s melody as the basis of a song which had particular significance in the era following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.  Simon’s narrator speaks having been ‘forsaken’ and ‘misused’, but moves from this awareness of personal loss toward a sense of empathy with others in a similar situation, saying ‘I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / don’t have a friend that feels at ease’.

Marsalis made a shift in meaning similar to the one Simon made in ‘American Tune’ by taking ‘When The Saints’, a song with lyrics based on the book of Revelations and its images of the end of the world and which which has often been used to commemorate the end of an earthly life, and turning it into a statement of profound hope for a group of young people embarking on their careers.  In doing so, he demonstrated, like Simon (who performed ‘American Tune’ at a concert celebrating Jimmy Carter’s inauguration), a crucial service to the public sphere that a master musician can provide: the ability to take a song which seems to have been given every interpretation possible and find yet another level on which it can resonate.

Marsalis’ solo in his UVM version of ‘When The Saints’, accompanied by Ricky Gordon on percussion and framed by head statements with Ray Vega on a second trumpet part, could be described as a short history of jazz improvisation.  He begins (at m. 17) in the style of early jazz (staying close to the scale the song is built on – F major – and the triadic harmony of its opening measures), moves into a more blues-based approach (introducing a flatted seventh [E flat], outlining the F 7th chord, introducing what could be called the ‘F minor blues scale’, and including one of the quasi-vocal gestures that Marsalis is so adept at coaxing out of the trumpet) and closes with what I’d call a nod to the bebop language (by using what Barry Harris calls ‘the half step between the fifth and the sixth’).

Marsalis had a number of options available to him for performing the tune – he certainly is a master of the unaccompanied trumpet solo, and his father Ellis Marsalis, a magisterial eminence of jazz piano, was in attendance – but his decision to frame his melodic interpretation with the basic musical elements of rhythm (via Ricky Gordon’s funky bass drum and cymbal) and harmony (via Ray Vega’s counterline) located his version firmly in a call-and-response style.  (As we’ll see shortly, the call-and-response style can be contrasted with an approach where the main contrast is between a single solo voice in the foreground and an accompaniment in the background.)

Ray Vega’s answers to Marsalis’ melody phrases during the head in and out provide a real counterpoint to the melody; he finds a number of different ways to counter the ascending motion of the opening phrases with downward motion, and then switches to filling in the harmony in the later phrases of the tune.  When Marsalis repeats the melody after his solo, Vega’s responses become more frequent and spirited, which is perhaps what causes Marsalis to alter the melody at m. 41; before that point his repeat of the melody is quite similar to his opening statement.  To me, it is another mark of the master musician that Marsalis responds to Vega by finding a way to play one less note in this phrase than he did previously.  To my ear this demonstrates how, especially on a small scale, leaving space can be an answer as meaningful (and as respectful) as an audible response.

Wynton Marsalis - When Th

The power of Marsalis/Vega performance sent me on a voyage of rediscovering this tune that I have taught many times through the arrangement that appears in the Alfred Adult Basic Piano Method Volume One.  First, I went to YouTube and checked out a variety of versions of the tune.  Some were truly swinging, including the 1938 big band version by Louis Armstrong that began the popular fascination with the song, a 1963 version by one of Armstrong’s small groups that shows his remarkable ability to adapt to changing styles of jazz and multiple generations of players, a live version by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and a cool reharmonization by Dr. John.  Some were surreal, like the 1960s version led by Dinah Shore on her TV show, featuring Al Hirt, Andy Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, and Perez Prado and his orchestra.  All these versions use a call and response structure in some way or other.  In doing so, they provide a link to African-American gospel music, the crucible that, through its heat and ingenuity, transformed ‘When The Saints’ and many other folk songs into sources of glorified light in American popular culture.

Listening to these versions helped me understand what is so special about the Marsalis/Vega version: it makes it easy to hear the musical conversation, the calls and responses, through which improvisors collaboratively transform a melody: the lead part creating its variations on the original melody while being influenced by the echoes or counterlines which the second part plays in the breaks.  Both the ’63 Armstrong version and the Preservation Hall version follow a typical New Orleans front line approach in which the trombone and clarinet improvise simultaneously in response to the calls of the trumpet as it plays the melody.  The result is a joyously busy contrapuntal texture, but if one can isolate the interplay of Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young in the ’63 video, one can hear the conversational tradition that Marsalis and Vega draw from in their duet.  In this tradition, all voices are free to participate in the statement of a theme by adding their own variations and even to occasionally overlap the lead voice.  In the Marsalis/Vega duet, however, Ray Vega skillfully demonstrates an important guideline for the melodic conversation: in order to overlap meaningfully with one’s duet partner, one must first know how to stay out of their way.

The vocal sections of all the versions, with their simpler calls and responses, can seem almost dull by comparison; however, they also function as a tension-releasing break before individual solos (although the soprano descants added by Jewel Brown in the ’63 Armstrong version and Ella Fitzgerald in the Dinah Shore version certainly keep the energy from flagging.)  The more arranged call-and-response heard in the openings of the ’38 Armstrong version and the Dinah Shore version are lower in energy and place more responsibility on soloists to lift the energy of the performance.   As the Dinah Shore version shows, performers who are less conversant with improvising tend to limit themselves to minimal variations on the melody, and not even the presence of a great improviser like Ella Fitzgerald, or a great band like Perez Prado’s, can stop the tendency of this kind of performance to flatten out dynamically.  (Trumpeter Al Hirt is the only white performer in this situation who can offer anything other than slight variations on the melody.)

Other versions of ‘When The Saints’ are forgettable and yet indicate the wide ranging impact of the tune, like the version by the Beatles in an early incarnation when they were fronted by an Elvis Presley-influenced singer named Tony Sheridan.  Although this version neuters the song by removing swing feel and call-and-response structure, it demonstrates the Beatles’ gift for mimicry, as it seems they and Sheridan imagined what a version by Elvis would sound like at a time when none was available.  (YouTube suggests that Elvis didn’t record the tune until a 1965 version in the film Frankie and Johnny, a few years after the Beatles became a success in the U.S.A.  Although Elvis’ version has more swing feel than the Beatles’ version, it neuters the song in other ways, combining it in a medley with ‘Down By The Riverside’ sung by an all-white chorus and marching band.) The Beatles’ version also provides a link to a later and more evolved phase of their creativity: in their original tune ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, they borrow the chord progression from ‘When The Saints‘ but disguise the borrowed material through adding new harmonic twists and a bridge of unusual length for a pop song.

I also looked up ‘Streets Of The City’, a tune by New Orleans composer Paul Barbarin which uses the same chord changes as ‘When The Saints‘.  (While Barbarin’s tune is a jazz variation on the tune, the same changes are shared by tunes in other tradtions, including ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain’, Willie Dixon’s ‘My Babe’ and its gospel forebear, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s  ‘This Train’.)  A version of ‘Streets‘ by clarinetist George Lewis (available on iTunes) includes a great solo by pianist Alton Purnell which demonstrates how the call-and-response concept can be applied on the piano.  Purnell’s left hand spends most of the chorus doubling the bassline in the low register of the piano, but in the middle of the chorus Purnell includes some more block-chord style comping through which his left hand responds to his right much as Vega responds to Marsalis in m. 10-17 of ‘When The Saints’.   Alton Purnell s first chor

The first chorus of George Lewis’ clarinet solo, like Marsalis’ solo at UVM, is a model of how to combine diatonic playing (which in the case of this tune means limiting oneself to the F major scale) with judicious chromaticism that helps the improvised line ‘make the changes’.George Lewis solo on Stre


On a visit to the Montreal Jazz Festival about a month after Marsalis‘ speech, I heard Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell play an inventive version of the folk tune ‘Red River Valley’.  In addition to demonstrating the gift that both these players have for using any tune as an improvisational vehicle, it reminded me that this tune uses the same changes as ‘When The Saints’ with the addition of a IV chord in the third bar.  A little more rummaging through my musical memory made me realize that Bob Dylan uses the ‘Red River Valley’ changes, with the addition of a bridge, in ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’.  The lyrics of Dylan’s tune use the phrase ‘Careless Love’, which is also the title of a tune with a progression that, like ‘Red River Valley’, works a slight variation on the progression of ‘When The Saints’.  (I remember feeling homesick in Italy and hearing a version of ‘Careless Love’ by Dr. Michael White and his band that melted my melancholy away.)

The progression from ‘When The Saints‘ is also a musical ancestor of the progressions found in Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’, Jerome Richardson’s ‘Groove Merchant‘ and Sonny Rollins‘ ‘Doxy’.  (Dig the opening solo by a young Roland Hanna in the ‘Groove Merchant’ video!)  In the version of ‘Doxy‘ from ‘Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Giants’ (available on iTunes), Horace Silver’s piano solo demonstrates how pianists from the bebop era onward moved the role of the left hand away from the metronomic timekeeping heard in most of Purnell’s solo and made it an independent voice which could use chords as conversational responses to right hand melodic phrases.  Where call and response is a primarily a method of melodic evolution in the Armstrong and Marsalis versions, Silver’s solo is like a tennis game between harmony and improvised melody in which the left hand lends a sense of tension to the chord progression by bringing many changes in a half beat earlier (and in m. 6, a beat and a half earlier) than they appear in the bass line.Horace Silver solo on Dox

Saxophonist David Murray and drummer Steve McCall make great use of ‘Doxy’ in their accompaniment to the Amiri Baraka poem ‘The Last Revolutionary’ on the early eighties record ‘New Music, New Poetry’.  (Baraka’s poem, which skewers leftist icons like Abbie Hoffman and David Dellinger, offers a counterpoint to conventional narratives of 1960s political activism, and is a prime example of Baraka’s poetic gifts.)  The sarcasm with which Murray plays the tune in this version helped me connect it with a number of tunes that use very similar progressions and fall into a category that might be called the ‘gospel of the marketplace blues’.   This was a prolific trend in pop songwriting of the 1920s and 30s: tunes that used the premise of either advertising a product or offering cautionary advice to the buyer.  These include advertising tunes like Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot‘ and its distant cousin, Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice Restaurant’ and cautionary tunes like Sippie Wallace’s ‘Women Be Wise’ and Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s ‘Find Out What They Like And How They Like It’.

‘Find Out What They Like’, which Waller seems not to have recorded himself but rather intended as a vehicle for female singers, has had its shelf life extended by being included in the late 1970s Waller/Razaf revue ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’.  One of the earliest versions of it, by vocalist Lena Wilson (available on iTunes), shows its potential as a jazz standard through an exemplary solo by the unsung stride pianist Cliff Jackson.  Jackson’s solo reminded me of the many great uses that were made of this progression by players and composers in the stride piano style, from James P. Johnson’s ‘Feelin’ Blue’ to Art Tatum’s version of ‘Ja-Da’.  (To give credit where credit is due, I wouldn’t have discovered ‘Feelin’ Blue’ without Ethan Iverson’s exhaustive and fascinating blog entry on James P., and I was introduced to Tatum’s ‘Ja-Da’ by hearing Michael Arnowitt give a masterful performance of the transcription.)

Although the world-weary humor of Sippie Wallace and Fats Waller seems far removed from the reverence and sincerity of Paul Simon in ‘American Tune’ and Wynton Marsalis in his UVM rendition of ‘When The Saints’, all these tunes and performances demonstrate an important jazz truth: knowing and respecting a tune, and having some awareness of its origins, gives you the flexibility to interpret it in a way that tells a new story.  To put it in different terms, if you know where the train you’re riding began and where it’s headed, you can relax and tell your story along the way.

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Conversation Pieces, Part Two: Carla Bley and Horace Silver

Many great improvisers, in addition to creating extended solos in which they are the main melodic voice, are also masters of the musical dialogue known as trading.  (This is discussed in detail in an earlier post.)  As I mentioned in the last post, another kind of dialogue occurs within many great piano solos, in which the pianist’s left and right hands carry on a conversation with each other.

‘Ida Lupino’ by Carla Bley and ‘Silver’s Serenade’ by Horace Silver are two more tunes which lend themselves to piano solos with a conversational improvising approach.  As with the previous examples by Charles Lloyd and Joe Henderson, the chord progressions of both these tunes consist mostly of chords lasting two measures.  I have transcribed sections of Horace Silver’s piano solo on ‘Silver’s Serenade’ (from the album of the same name) and Paul Bley’s solo on ‘Ida Lupino’ (from the trio record ‘Ramblin’) which demonstrate two different conversational approaches to piano improvising.  (Recordings of both tunes are available on iTunes, and a chart of ‘Silver’s Serenade is in The Real Book Volume Two, Sixth Edition.  My exercise on ‘Ida Lupino’ includes a chart of the melody.)

Paul Bley’s version of ‘Ida Lupino’ on the ‘Ramblin’ album is the third of many recordings he has made of this tune.  The solo on this version begins with a conversational approach and then moves on to more overlapping of the left and right hands.  In the opening eight-bar section, Bley’s opening strategy is to have the right hand play simple melodic phrases over the held chords in the left-hand vamp and then rest when the vamp is active again.  Bley’s approach in this section is largely limited to the G major scale, avoiding the differences between the chords in the vamp.  The rest of the solo seems to be harmonically free – Bley’s left hand leaves the G pedal point and bassist Steve Swallow follows the improvised changes with remarkable intuition.  My exercise on the vamp, which is in the middle of an arrangement of the tune (click here for page one and two) begins with a simplification of Bley’s one-scale approach, but moves on to scales that emphasize the harmonic motion within the pedal point.

Horace Silver’s solo on ‘Silver’s Serenade’ begins with left hand chords that are lined up with the beginnings of right hand phrases and works through a number of choruses toward a cleaner separation of chords and melodic phrases.  In the sixth chorus, lightly questioning left hand chords are crisply answered with bop-style melodic phrases in the right hand.  This chorus also includes two musical quotes that are seamlessly woven into the melodic line: the motive from Fats Waller’s ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ seems to be  foreshadowed in m. 3-4, is fully revealed in m. 5-6 and then is concealed within the phrase at m. 9-10, as if being drawn back into the bubbling musical subconscious that it came from.  At m. 13 a phrase from Bud Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ is also deftly placed at the end of the ii-V-I phrase that begins at m. 11.  I don’t think there’s a way to practice this kind of inspired, split-second borrowing; instead, I think it shows how deeply Horace Silver had internalized these two great tunes.  My exercise combines Silver’s left hand voicings with the basic right hand scales for each change or group of changes.

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Conversation pieces from Joe Henderson and Charles Lloyd

‘Y Todavia La Quiero’ by Joe Henderson and ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’ by Charles Lloyd are two tunes that provide a good introduction to jazz and improvisation on the piano.  Their chord progressions are made mostly or entirely of chord changes that last two bars each, a harmonic situation that is particularly conducive to right-hand/left-hand ‘conversation’ in a piano solo (either with chordal ‘questions’ and melodic ‘answers’, as in Wynton Kelly’s ‘Freddie Freeloader’ solo, or vice versa.)

A chart for the Henderson tune can be found in Tim Richards’ book Improvising Jazz Piano Volume One, and a chart for ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’ can be found in the sixth edition Real Book.  For the transcriptions and exercises I’ve done on these tunes, I consulted the version of ‘Y Todavia’ on the Joe Henderson album ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’ and two versions of the Lloyd tune, one from his album ‘Discovery’ and another from a live version available on YouTube, featuring Lloyd’s fantastic current quartet with pianist Jason Moran, drummer Eric Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers.  (Both Henderson’s recording and the one from Lloyd’s ‘Discovery’ are available on iTunes.) I saw Lloyd’s current quartet around the time the video was made, in a concert where they gave just about every tune the same kind of abstract yet totally swinging approach that they give ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’ in this video.

My exercise on ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’ is inspired by Charles Lloyd’s first chorus of solo from the live concert version, in which it sounds to me like his phrases are answering the first chord in each four bar phrase, and Jason Moran’s fourth chorus of solo, in which it sounds to me like the right hand poses questions with its short melodic phrases and the left hand answers with clustery ‘sus’ chords.  My transcription of both of these choruses is here.

My exercise on ‘Y Todavia La Quiero‘ is based on Chick Corea’s solo during the intro to tune, where the bass line played by the left hand is answered with short right-hand melodic phrases based on the F sharp melodic minor scale.  After transcribing Chick’s intro, I transcribed some excerpts from Joe Henderson’s solo, focusing on some of the more straight-ahead phrases, some using a one-scale-fits-all approach and some using a bebop-style ‘making the changes’ approach.  Both of these are contrasted with other phrases where Henderson delves into overblowing and other techniques typical of ‘free’ playing.  I would argue that it’s the contrast between the free and more structured phrases of the solo that make it a captivating piece of musical storytelling.  (If you have the bass line memorized, the first two phrases can actually be played in the right hand along with the bass line in the left hand; the third phrase needs to be moved up an octave in order to fit with the bass line.)

Joe Henderson solo on Y TThe way Henderson builds a long and varied solo over this simple eight-bar vamp by alternating modal, bebop and free playing reminds me of Sonny Rollins‘ wonderful bebop-tinged solo on the Rolling Stones tune ‘Waiting On A Friend’, discussed in an earlier blog entry.

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One half step of separation: Miles Davis and Ray Vega (a.k.a. the half step between the root and the seventh in the seventh scale)

To follow up on my recent post about great diatonic solos on the the blues progression, this current post is about solos that alternate between using the G 7th scale diatonically and occasionally adding the half step between the root and 7th of the scale.  The two solos I look at in this post are evidence that the melodic language of bebop is a mainstay within the constantly evolving tradition of jazz: although they were played almost forty years apart, both solos make fresh use of similar melodic material.

G 7th scale

The first solo is by my friend and colleague Ray Vega, a trumpet player who, among many other accomplishments, has had long associations with many of the giants of the Latin jazz world including Tito Puente and Ray Barretto.  For this blog post I’ve transcribed Ray’s second chorus on ‘Sister Sadie’ from the album ‘Silver In The Bronx’ by The Bronx Horns.  Before I discuss the solo, I think it might be helpful to explain ‘Sister Sadie’ by comparing it to a similar tune, Miles Davis’ ‘So What’.

The form of ‘Sister Sadie’ can be challenging to a soloist in the same way as the form of ‘So What’, as both tunes are in a 32-measure AABA form and use only one chord in the A sections (Dm7 in the case of ‘So What’, G dominant seventh in the case of ‘Sister Sadie’.)  The bridges of both tunes have a similar harmonic openness: the bridge of ‘So What’ is based entirely on an E flat minor seventh chord, and the bridge of ‘Sister Sadie’ mainly introduces a C dominant seventh chord.  By the time they composed these tunes, Miles Davis and Horace Silver were familiar with and had recorded many tunes with 32-bar AABA forms (including a number of tunes with the Rhythm Changes progression), and so one reason ‘So What’ and ‘Sister Sadie’ must have come about is that Davis and Silver needed an improvisational vehicle that was not yet available to them: a tune with the familiar thirty two bar length but which contained longer stretches of a single chord.

What makes these more modal tunes challenging for the improviser is similar to what makes navigating in flat rural areas challenging for the city or suburban driver: the lack of road signs and landmarks – or, in musical terms, the lack of more frequent harmonic changes.  ‘So What’ and ‘Sister Sadie’ are sometimes used to introduce beginning improvisers to the dorian and mixolydian scales, but I find students are able to make more sense of these tunes if they encounter them after gaining familiarity with some of the 32 bar AABA tunes that predate them, such as ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘Perdido’.  (I have also found tunes with shorter forms, such as ‘Silver’s Serenade’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’, quite effective for introducing modal improvising.)

When I think of how many times I’ve heard improvisers get lost on the form of a tune like ‘So What’ or ‘Sister Sadie’, it reminds of the time when I was on a long drive from my home in Vermont to a summer job in southern New Jersey.  I ended up driving into Delaware because all the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike looked the same to me.   Okay, well, listening to some great music probably had something to do my geographic confusion, too (around that same time I made a conscious choice to stop listening to Ya Yo Me Cure by Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band in the car, largely because of Hilton Ruiz’ amazing piano playing on ‘Caravan’ and its effect on my driving.)  In any case, as I’ve done the same drive to south Jersey many times over the years – first to a summer camp where I worked, and now to my in-laws’ house – I’ve learned to avoid getting lost by taking breaks to check my directions, and paying attention to as many different kinds of changes on the road as I can find – exit signs and mile markers, as well as watching the clock.  As Ray Vega’s solo on ‘Sister Sadie’ demonstrates, paying attention to landmarks and taking well-placed breaks are also crucial elements of an effective solo over a 32 bar modal form.

In the gigs I’ve played with him, I’ve always been impressed with how Ray Vega can take all kinds of chances when he improvises, reap all the benefits that calculated risk-taking can bring, and never lose the form of a tune even once. Transcribing his solo on ‘Sister Sadie’ has reminded me of some of the reasons why he’s able to be so adventurous and fearless at the same time: he is a master of phrasing and can play very economically when he chooses to, carefully adding to and subtracting from the pitch collection he uses.  His second chorus on ‘Sister Sadie‘ creates variety by alternating between phrases using only notes of the G seventh scale and phrases that add the half step between the root and the seventh of the scale.  He also alternates effectively between eight-measure and four-measure phrases, leaving space in between them. (By contrast, many of the times I’ve heard soloists get lost on the form of a tune like this, their playing has either been non-stop or phrased with seeming randomness; in both cases, they don’t leave the kinds of pauses that would allow them to hear important ‘landmarks’ in the accompaniment.  I learn more all the time about how to take these kinds of re-orienting breaks in my own solos; the spaces that Ray leaves in his solo are a great model of this sort of break.)  The half steps that are the focus of this post come in measures 6, 14 and 16, where Vega makes a classic bebop use of the half step: as a passing tone placed on the upbeat (i.e. the second of a pair of eighth notes or the third note of a triplet) in scalar eighth note passages.

Ray Vega s solo on Sister

The same half step, with the same rhythmic placement, is used in a different context by Miles Davis on a live recording of ‘So What’ from the lesser known live recording Stockholm 1960.  (As you’ll see below, I would argue that in contrast to the prevailing mode of D dorian, Miles here is actually thinking the same scale that Ray Vega is using – the seventh scale or mixolydian scale, in this case starting on the fourth step of the tune’s basic dorian scale.)  While both this solo and the solo on the original version of the tune (from the album Kind of Blue) stay primarily in the D dorian mode, there is more use of bebop-style chromaticism in the Stockholm solo (a choice perhaps influenced by the faster tempo, the fact that the tune had become a regular feature of Miles’ live performances, and the longer format of the solo – six choruses compared to the two on Kind of Blue.)  In measure 15, Miles adds an F# to a descending scalar run of mostly eighth notes from A5 to C4 (like Ray Vega, Miles waits until the second phrase of an A section to add chromaticism).  In Barry Harris terms, the run starting from the A in m. 14 could be described as ‘the G seventh scale from the second down two octaves to the fourth, with the half step in the second octave’.)  Miles also places a half step on an upbeat on the second phrase of the bridge (m. 21).  To me, the comparatively long A flat this phrase begins with is a strong suggestion that Miles is thinking of approaching a dorian-scale region with a seventh scale built off of its fourth degree.  Whatever his strategy actually was, Miles’ solo here achieves a more floating quality than the Kind of Blue solo by ending fewer of its phrases on the root, a note that can have an almost gravitational pull for melodic improvisers. (I have included the audio of Miles’ second chorus below, as it is a rare recording, but I highly encourage you to seek out the recording of ‘Sister Sadie’ from Silver In The Bronx, which is available on iTunes.)

So What Miles solo - Stock

miles stockholm so what chorus two

Like the second chorus of Ray Vega’s ‘Sister Sadie’ solo, the second chorus of this ‘So What’ solo is also based on a contrast between diatonic and chromatic phrases.  It is also interesting to note that a number of the diatonic phrases in both solos use intervallic motion to contrast with the stepwise motion of the chromatic phrases (see Miles‘ opening phrase with its descending Am7 arpeggio – this always sounds to me like an ironic quote from the tune ‘Good Night, Ladies‘ – as well as the use of ascending thirds in m. 9-12 of the ‘So What‘ solo and m. 9-13 of the ‘Sister Sadie‘ solo.)

Ray Vega’s solo, by contrast, uses the root a fair amount but maintains a sense of forward motion through repeating it with many different rhythmic motifs.  As he plays a phrase leading out of the bridge and into the last A section, Ray ends the phrase on the note F sharp over a G seventh chord.  This move in Ray’s solo sounds completely natural and right, illustrating a point that my first improvisation teacher, Yusef Lateef, made many times.  I took his class at least twice, and I remember at the beginning of both semesters, he began by making the point that both seventh scales AND major scales can be used to improvise over dominant seventh chords.  This principle can be seen many times in Charlie Parker’s solos over various blues progressions, including solos as iconic as ‘Billie’s Bounce’.  Many of these solos show that one way to make the seventh of the major scale work when using it over a dominant chord is by placing it at the beginning or middle of a phrase, rather than making it the goal.  Ray’s effective use of the major seventh at the end of phrase illustrates another way to make that scale degree work.  Perhaps it is Ray’s repeated use of the F# on the upbeat at the beginning of the solo that makes his use of it on the downbeat of m. 26 so pungent and swinging.  On the other hand, Ray does resolve the major seventh with the first note of his next phrase  before going on to focus on the flat thirteenth (a.k.a. the sharped fifth, or in Barry Harris terms ‘the half step between the fifth and the sixth), a half step which I am hoping to focus on in a future post.

One point I’m trying to make in my choice of soloists in this blog is that while great soloists of the past are of course crucial to study in learning an improvisational language, it is just as important to study current players and those in the music scene near you.  This is the reason that my first blog post included an exercise based on a lick by the keyboardist Mark Mercier of the long-standing New England band Max Creek.  I hope to include more great current players of the local and international scenes in future posts.

I’d appreciate comments on any aspect of this post. I’d especially like to hear other examples of solos that begin with a simple approach and begin their development by adding just one new element – for example, something rhythmic (adding triplets, 16ths, etc.), dynamic (loud to soft, etc.), or contrasts in articulation, range or use of space.  Of course, you’re welcome to comment on my driving (as people with open windows sometimes do when the weather’s nice), but for the good of all concerned, see if you can relate it back to music…

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