‘Making the changes’ on the blues

Right now I’m teaching the part of the improvisation class at UVM where we learn Barry Harris’ scale outline of the blues and then compose a chorus of solo on this progression.  To illustrate how useful this outline can be, I thought I’d post some examples of choruses from solos on the blues that mostly stay ‘inside’ Barry’s scales (or ‘make the changes’, to use a common jazz term).  In its simplest form this outline uses the 7th scales based off the roots of the I7, IV7 and V7 chords.  (The 7th scale is a less cumbersome term for the major scale with the flatted 7th, sometimes called mixolydian.)  It can be a challenge to create something with melodic integrity using only these three scales – just listen to Miles Davis growl after his first chorus on ‘Straight No Chaser’ (which, as it turns out, is a great example of making the changes).  As you’ll see in these examples, this kind of simple, making-the-changes chorus is an important part of a number of great solos where the soloist either begins with a simple chorus or uses a simple chorus as a palate-cleansing break after some more exploratory playing.

Thelonious Monk’s solo on ‘Bags’ Groove’ on Take 1 from the album ‘Bags Groove’ by Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants is a famous example of simplicity: the first chorus is based almost entirely on the 5th and the root of the F major scale.  Over the second, third and fourth choruses Monk’s solo expands to include more harmonic detail, as well as a lot of chromaticism.  In other words, he moves from playing simply to making the changes in a fairly complex or abstract way.  In the fifth chorus, however (beginning at 8:02), Monk pares down his chromaticism and plays a chorus that stays completely inside the changes (and Barry’s outline) except for two notes.  (The E natural in bar 7  could actually be defined as ‘inside’ if you define the F major scale and the F 7th scale as equally correct choices to play over a F seventh chord,  as Barry Harris and most bop players do.)

Monk solo on Bags’ Groove Take 1

Miles Davis’ first chorus on ‘Straight, No Chaser‘ (at :29 on the shortest of the versions from ‘Miles Davis and John Coltrane – The Complete Columbia Recordings’), is an example of of the simple, making-the-changes approach as an opening strategy.

Finally, another great example of ‘making the changes’ is Dexter Gordon’s second chorus on ‘Sticky Wicket’ (from the 1969 album ‘More Power’).  In this solo, laden with musical quotations, Dexter begins with a first chorus that emphasizes the flatted third (Db) over the I7 chord (Bb7).  He follows this up with a second chorus that starts with a quote from ‘Frankie and Johnny’ emphasizing the major third (D), and the rest of the chorus stays within Barry’s 7th scale outline.  (As if to say ‘OK, that’s enough inside playing’, Dexter begins his third chorus with a quote from Fucik’s ‘Entrance Of The Gladiators’, a tune that uses the entire chromatic scale over an octave range).

Dexter Gordon – Sticky Wicket first three choruses

Where Monk’s simple, making-the-changes chorus is an oasis near the middle of a long, experimental journey, Gordon’s simple, making-the-changes chorus is a brief break near the beginning of a long improvisational trip that eventually leads to double-timing among other things.  The Monk and Miles solos were created in situations that were studies in personal contrasts.  In the session that produced the Monk solo, Miles famously asked Monk to ‘lay out’ (i.e. not to comp) behind his trumpet solo (in his biography Miles claims that ‘Monk never did know how to play behind a horn player’.)  For Monk’s part, Robin D.G. Kelly’s biography reports that on ‘Bags Groove’ he ‘got up from the piano and stood next to Miles during his entire solo’ (a course of action he defended later, saying: ‘I don’t have to sit down to lay out’.)  In the context of this personal conflict, Monk created a solo that was a world of contrasts in itself, ranging from two-note simplicity to dissonant clusters to the orderly fifth chorus.  The collaboration between Miles and Coltrane was marked by Coltrane developing his ‘sheets of sound’ style of extremely active, often double-timed playing while Miles refined the judicious use of space that came to be one of his trademarks.  (In contrast to the solo I mention above, the version of ‘Straight No Chaser’ on the Milestones album begins with a typical Coltrane ‘sheets of sound’ solo in which he double-times from the beginning.)  In all three of these solos, the simple, making-the-changes chorus is an essential tool in creating contrast within the relatively short cycle of the twelve-bar, medium-tempo blues.

Another example of a chorus where staying inside the basic seventh scales is used to contrast the use of chromaticism and altered tones in other choruses is Sonny Rollins’ solo on Blue Seven, where the fifth and final chorus has fewer non-scale tones than any chorus in the solo.  The diatonicism of the fifth chorus effectively contrasts the first four choruses which, like the melody, highlight the augmented fourth (a.k.a. the flatted fifth).

If you’ve heard solos in your musical travels where simplicity of one kind or another – staying inside the changes, using a limited collection of pitches, effective use of space, etc. – is used to contrast with complexity, feel free to leave a comment.

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Everybody’s Boppin’

originally posted 3/23/11

When I’m asked what musical styles interest me, one of my standard answers is ‘the bebop tradition from J.S. Bach to Barry Harris and beyond’.  There is a little joke in this answer, because the word ‘bebop’ didn’t get coined until the twentieth century, but I’m mostly serious in the sense that I do think the improvisational language developed by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and others is the primary tool of modern melodic storytelling.  Notice I don’t say Bud, Bird and Dizzy invented the language – when you hear ‘Bud on Bach’, where Powell turns a C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggieto into a prelude to a original tune which is closely based on it, or Dizzy’s toccata-like intro to the tune ‘Bebop’, or when you hear Lennie Tristano or the Swingle Singers add a jazz rhythm section to a Bach piece, you realize how many Baroque phrases and gestures were stealthily woven into bedrock bebop repertoire like ‘Reets and I’ and ‘A Night In Tunisia’.     The connection to the Baroque style is only one example of how adept the bop masters were at borrowing from other melodic languages.  Hearing Bird quote Bizet’s Carmen on ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ or Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker on ‘Perdido’, you begin to get a sense of what an encyclopedic range of sources he drew on, and how he magically seemed to have the perfect musical phrase for every situation.

As you might be able to tell already, I find it truly exciting to make connections like this between disparate locations in music history.  It may be a side effect of my having bebop on the brain, from first studying and playing this style and then teaching others to use it.  In any case, the more I study, play and teach the bebop style, the more evidence I hear that it remains a living and vital language, as it continues to be successfully and provactively used in a wide array of contexts beyond the four-four swing that gave rise to it.  Recently, I have begun to notice yet more evidence of bop’s pervasive influence in music I have been rehearsing and performing on tour with the Mike Gordon band.

The midsection of ‘Got Away‘ (from Mike’s recent album Moss ) is highly contrapuntal, combining a right hand melody line with bop-style chromaticism in the piano, a fiercely independent bassline, and periodic horn stabs (which, combined with the use of melodic minor in the piano and constantly percolating percussion, make this section sound like chase music on a late-60’s/early-70’s TV show.  I almost said ‘unusally hip chase music’, but a lot of that scoring was  actually hip – both Oliver Nelson and Benny Golson, for example, worked on scoring for ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’.)  Among the instances of what I’d call bebop style in the composed right hand piano line are the way measure 9 uses the same melodic fragment as measure 7, but with a different rhythmic placement (for more examples of this technique, see Charlie Parker’s first chorus on Ko-Ko).  The re-use of the melodic fragment in m. 9 also places the chromatic run so that non-scale tones of the B seventh scale land on the upbeat.  (My chord symbols represent an attempt to summarize a contrapuntal texture which is sometimes more horizontally oriented than it is vertically oriented, and so can’t always be captured accurately in standard jazz chord language.)

Got away midsection

In the midsection of ‘The Void’, Mike weaves a snaky guitar line over a two-chord vamp in a series of time signatures that shift constantly (via a drum track that has had the benefit of expertly done ProTools surgery).  This line is given a bebop flavor by its half-step approaches to the the 3rd of the Ab scale (in bars 3 and 7) and the 6th (in bar 5).  Both half steps are also placed on the upbeat, in classic bebop style.  The appearance of a diminished triad arpeggio in bar 5 is, to me, another mark of bebop language.  In a tune that is otherwise based around the marriage of a diatonic melody and a bass line in an odd meter, these few chromatic moves in the solo add a crucial pungency to the tune’s evocation of ‘floating in the Void’.

Mike Gordon Void solo transcription

My hunch is that Mike’s use of chromaticism in these passages is at least partly influenced by Phish’s ventures into bebop territory.  ‘Moose the Mooche‘ and ‘Donna Lee‘, for example, both appear in live Phish recordings from the early 1990s (including a Keene, NH concert available on iTunes).  I think it’s likely that the appearance of these tunes in a body of music otherwise dominated by idiosyncratic original compositions had something to do with the involvement of Phish’s members in the Burlington jazz scene – both as students (Trey Anastasio studied with guitarist Paul Asbell, Page McConnell studied with pianist Lar Duggan, and Mike has taken bass lessons at various points with John Rivers, Clyde Stats and Ellen Powell), and players (from time to time in the early 1990s, Trey was a sit-in guest with the Sneakers Jazz Band, a group which anchored the Burlington jazz scene throughout the 1980‘s and early ‘90s, and from which the original Phish horn section of Joey Somerville, Christopher Peterman, and Dave Grippo was culled).  Among the Phish originals which exhibit bebop style is ‘Magilla’, a rhythm changes tune by Page McConnell with an unmistakeably bop-style head (including a number of non-scale tones on upbeats, and with the polyrhythmic phrasing so common in bebop – in fact, the melodic rhythm in the first two bars of ‘Magilla’ bears a distinct resemblance, whether intentional or not, to the melodic rhythm of the Charlie Parker tune ‘Au Privave’.)

One of the challenges of being a jazz-trained soloist in a rock group is that, after becoming accustomed to more elaborate chord progressions where frequent modulations provide a useful template for melodic creativity, or simpler progressions where an array of chord extensions provide tools for exploring a more static environment, you are suddenly faced with progressions made up not just of one or two chords, but one or two TRIADS.  The initial experience of this for a jazz player can be like being forced to switch from jogging around the neighborhood to using the stair-master in the basement.  Gone are the ever-changing vistas to either side of you, and instead your brain has to fight frustration that your physical exertion no longer results in a change of locale.  A number of tunes played by the Mike Gordon band include ‘jam’ sections where the only chord progression is a two bar series of the I chord alternating with the IV.  When I’m improvising on one of these progressions, at some subconscious level my bebop-trained brain is probably wondering ‘where is the bridge, or the modulations?’  But I’ve continued to hear both Mike and guitarist Scott Murawski using these simple progressions to create extended improvisations full of inventiveness and improvised structure.  I was in need of some inspiration for how to deal with this harmonically simpler world, so I decided it was time to see how one of my bebop heroes, Sonny Rollins, dealt with one of his more unusual gigs, that of featured saxophonist on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Tatoo You’.

In the solos he improvised on tunes like ‘Pent Up House’, ‘Tune Up’, and ‘Saint Thomas’, Sonny Rollins skillfully integrated the more diatonic melodic language of swing era soloists like Lester Young with the intensely chromatic approaches of players like Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker.  On ‘Pent Up House’ and ‘Tune Up’ in particular, tunes where the constantly shifting succession of key areas might keep a lesser improvisor preoccupied with simply ‘making the changes’, i.e. playing the ‘right’ notes, Rollins demonstrates the poise and assurance of a master storyteller with the way he continues to alternate throughout his solo between diatonic and chromatic approaches to the changes.

It is fascinating to hear how Rollins displays this same stylistic trademark, but in a different context, in his solo on the Rolling Stones’ tune ‘Waiting On A Friend’ (from the album Tattoo You).  Rollins’ second solo entrance, starting around 3:25 in the song, takes up the last quarter of the song’s playing time, making it more substantial than the typical solo break in a pop tune.  My transcription of this section is here.  (The next few paragraphs may make more sense if you are able to refer back to the the transcription.)

Following the lead of the pentatonic vocal phrase that opens the tune, Rollins begins with a completely diatonic approach and builds up slowly to a distinctly bebop-style use of half steps.  The diatonic opening of the solo includes some passages where Rollins puts the focus on upper chord tones (the 9th and 13th in m. 5-6 and the 7th), a move which gently lifts the tune out of its triadic world.  A deft segue into bebop language begins at m. 18, when he sneaks in a non-chord tone with typical bebop rhythmic placement (on the upbeat).

At the peak of the solo, in m. 19-30, he plays in a double-time feel which, to my ear, implies the calypso rhythm of one of his signature tunes, ‘St. Thomas’.  The move into double time is accompanied by further exploration of what Barry Harris calls ‘half steps’.   In m. 19, he plays a pattern which includes a classic bebop figure (the last four notes of what Barry Harris calls the ‘four lick’, and the first four notes of Duke Ellington’s ‘Concerto for Cootie’) and then sequences that pattern by moving it down a diatonic whole step – another classic bebop move.  He uses yet another common device of bop soloists when he continues to explore different rhythmic placements of the same lick in m. 21-23.  (One of my favorite examples of this is when Johnny Griffin uses the same phrase six or seven times in his solo on Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’ on the album ‘Underground’, and the inventiveness of the rhythmic placement makes the phrase sound fresh each time.)  Rollins’ sound at this point has a celebratory swagger, making it clear – if the melodic and rhythmic elements haven’t already – that this isn’t just a saxophone solo on a Rolling Stones tune, it’s a Sonny Rollins solo on a Rolling Stones tune.

Rollins finishes the solo by moving back into diatonic territory while still retaining the double time energy – and because he’s Sonny Rollins, even this section of the tune includes an ingenious, additive-then-subtractive development of a motive which should be familiar to anyone who has heard his solos on ‘St. Thomas’ or ‘Blue Seven’.  The final gorgeous touch is a descent, just before the fadeout concludes, to a long, low concert G – a register which appeared only fleetingly in the middle of the solo, and now provides a serene landing for this great melodic flight of the imagination.  For a guy like me – a jazz-trained soloist working in a rock band, trying to fit in with his sonic surroundings while still making relevant use of his native melodic language – Sonny Rollins’ solo on this tune is a stunning and inspiring achievement in itself, independent from the tune, which is a gem in the Rolling Stones’ catalog, thanks in no small part to their shrewd deployment of a great jazz soloist.

 

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

originally posted 3/8/11

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

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

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

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

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

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Practice Journal: Intros and Counterpoint – originally posted 3/6/11

Practice Journal: Intros and Counterpoint (3/6/11)

I write today from Humboldt, California, near the beginning of another tour with the Mike Gordon band. On this tour we are adding some music with particularly challenging keyboard parts to our repertoire, including Mikeʼs tunes ʻGot Awayʼ (from his newest release, Moss) and ʻMoundʼ (from the Phish album Rift ). The midsection of ʻGot Awayʼ requires my left hand to cover some horn parts, composed by Mike and expertly orchestrated by saxophonist Brian McCarthy (who also performed it on the record along with Dave Grippo on baritone sax, Ray Vega on trumpet and Andrew Moroz on trombone), while my right hand plays a solo which Mike composed and performed himself on the record (through a process, he tells me, involving many ProTools punch- ins and edits). The right hand solo is 16th-note-based line over a medium funk groove which for me recalls the lines Frank Zappa wrote for mallet percussionist Ed Mann on tunes like ʻMovinʻ to Montanaʻ (a piece which I performed some years ago in a concert of Ed Palermoʼs big-band arrangements of Zappa tunes). I experimented with using a split keyboard sound to play the horn parts on ʻGot Awayʼ in my left hand with a sampled horn sound, but on Mikeʼs recommendation Iʼve gone with incorporating the horn parts and the single line solo into a two handed piano part. Digital technology gets closer and closer to emulating sounds like drums and piano, but it still doesnʼt come close to the sound of a real horn section.

The ʻMoundʻ midsection is a tour-de-force in the kind of contrapuntal rock ensemble writing which bands like Yes and King Crimson pioneered and which became a cornerstone of Phishʼs style. I began learning this section by transferring the piano part in Mikeʼs handwritten full score into Sibelius, and I continue learning it by taking every chance I can to run it on my own and with the band (either the whole band, or whichever members I can convince to ʻtry it one more timeʼ!) I find the complexity of the interweaving parts in this section to be a great exercise in both concentrating on oneʼs own part (to count out rhythmic details – I often count out loud in this piece) and listening to othersʼ parts (both to check on whether we are together AND to know where to jump to when weʼre not). In addition to being a great exercise, the midsection is also melodic in its own polytonal way, not unlike some Hindemith Iʼve played (one fugue from the Ludus Tonalis, and the piano part to one of the violin sonatas). My practice process for ʻMoundʼ has included studying differences between Mikeʼs score and Page McConnellʼs performance on the recording (at a couple points where Mike wrote some right hand chords as upbeats, Page plays them as downbeats, and the change is a very helpful contrast to the relentlessly over-the-barline rhythms of the left hand), practicing my part with only one of the other parts, and playing along with the Phish recording, to fit the complexities into the overall groove of the tune. Recently, Mike mentioned that the bass is a lead part in much of the midsection. This woke me up to the fact that I have been exhibiting a typical human tendency to play difficult passages loudly, regardless of whether they are meant as foreground parts or not. Now that Iʼm becoming more familiar with the challenges of my own part, I face a new challenge: executing the finger acrobatics of my part as an accompaniment.

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Autumn Leaves in March

originally posted 3/18/10

My experiences of the last three weeks have brought to mind the wonderful Anthony Burgess novel ‘The Piano Players’, in which a pianist gives a marathon concert, something like two or three days, during which he sends assistants out to music stores for more scores with which he can maintain the marathon.  I began rehearsing with the Mike Gordon band on February 18th, as the UVM Theater production of Godspell, for which I served as musical director, was opening at the Royall Tyler Theater.   So I had about a week of rock band rehearsals overlapping with musical theater performances and my usual routine of jazz piano lessons and classes at UVM.  This was followed by a week and a half of my usual UVM schedule (with the inclusion of some more Godspell performances), which was followed immediately by the beginning of the Mike Gordon tour, for which the bus left on March 5th.  Other than the irreplaceable help of my wife Amber deLaurentis, and the tireless work of Mike’s ‘tech’ person Rachel Bischoff, I had no assistants, and I wasn’t ever seated at a piano for more than a five hour period, but other than that it felt like a marathon.  But it is a marathon I happily chose, and I am even happier now that there is an end in sight.

This week-long tour began in Troy, New York.  On the first leg of the bus ride, I needed a way of transitioning from the world of jazz and musical theater, where most pieces are over in 5 to 7 minutes, to the jam-band world, where songs frequently last much longer.  To help with the transition I listened to the Keith Jarrett Trio’s version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from their recording Live at the Blue Note on my ipod.  This is a fantastic version where Keith begins with about a four minute improvisation based completely on measures 17-24 of the original tune. He takes this simple phrase through a series of wonderfully surreal melodic and harmonic transformations that always sound a bit like Hindemith to me.  After this intro, the trio launches into a traditional performance of the tune, with a head statement followed by piano and bass solos on the form and concluding with a restatement of the head.  In more traditional versions of the tune, such as the one on ‘Portrait in Jazz’ by the Bill Evans Trio (another great version), the restatement of the head (or ‘head out’) is the end of the performance.  The Jarrett trio version, however, follows the head out statement with an extended coda based on a modal vamp, much like  the Miles Davis ‘Second Quintet’ did on their version of ‘All of You’ from ‘Miles Davis in Europe’.  This type of coda allows an improviser to leave the harmonic progression behind and explore the very different challenge of improvising over a static harmony.  In the case of the Jarrett ‘Autumn Leaves’ the trio moves away from the finality of the tonic chord which ends the tune (G minor) and settles into a groove on a dominant chord built on the fourth step of the tonic minor scale (C7).  In the context of a minor key this chord has enough stability to be the basis of an extended improvisation, but having been preceded by the Gm chord, also maintains a certain instability.  Keith’s playing in this section shifts focus from melodic invention to a more rhythmically based improvising.  We often add this kind of section to tunes that we play in the Mike band, but hearing a ‘jam’ section of a Keith Jarrett arrangement made me aware that these kinds of sections are often most successful when the static harmonic space they create contrasts with a more harmonically active tune.   In our versions of Mike’s tunes ‘Sugar Shack’ and ‘Fire From A Stick’, for example, we add extended solo vamps, for guitar and keyboard solos respectively, which contrast with the more complex progressions that accompany the vocal melodies in each tune.

(Although Miles Davis’ studio albums have been part of my listening diet for a long time, it was thanks to James Harvey that I started checking out the live Miles albums My Funny Valentine and Miles Davis in Europe.  (I had the pleasure of playing piano in James’ early-twentieth-century ensemble Garuda, in which James, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and composer who happens to come from Vermont, was the drummer and wrote most of the charts.)  In addition to listening to those recordings and checking out Bill Dobbins’ transcriptions of Herbie Hancock’s solos on them, it was reading an article by Luca Bragliani that woke me up to the way in which the Second Quintet’s approach to standards formed a bridge to the more open, vamp-based music of ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’.)

After a sold-out show in Troy with a wonderfully responsive audience, the Mike band moved on to New Haven, Connecticut, where we played at a club called ‘Toad’s Place’ which is right in the middle of the Yale campus.  Having twice done a Cole Porter revue (‘Cole!’) which follows the outline of his biography, including his years as a Yale student, I was thinking a lot about him when we were in this campus.  This may have had something to do with my decision later in the week to transcribe the Jarrett solo on Porter’s tune ‘All of You’.  From New Haven we moved on to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and then to Baltimore, MD.  In other musical side stories, I visited the Eubie Blake Center in Baltimore (http://www.eubieblake.org/index.php). It was closed the day I visited, but after visiting a few of Baltimore’s many war monuments I was glad to be able to visit a monument to a composer and pianist.  Among Eubie Blake’s many great tunes is ‘Memories of You’, which I often play on solo gigs and which has been a staple of my Group Jazz Piano class for a while.

At one point on the fall ‘09 tour we learned an Allman Brothers tune called ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’.  As with a number of our cover tunes, we learned it as a tune we could play with the opening act, which at that point was the singer/songwriter/guitarist Reid Genauer, currently with the band Assembly of Dust but formerly of the band Strangefolk, another jam band with roots at UVM.  We only played this tune once on the tour, but it stuck in my head, and I began to think of recasting a tune of my own, ‘Be Good And You’ll Be Lonely’, in the style of the Allman Brothers tune.  The lyrics of the tune, although they’re written in the voice of an early twentieth-century outlaw, could be described as an extended reflection on the quote often attributed to Stravinsky: ‘immature artists borrow, mature artists steal’.

I didn’t think much more about the idea until the first day of rehearsals, which Mike decided to run as a creative day rather than a day of performance-centered rehearsing.  In addition to doing a number of the listening exercises which Phish often uses in their rehearsals, Mike had us sit down on the floor and do a guided meditation exercise.  During this he had us take a minute to become aware of our breathing, and then asked us to imagine beginning a performance in a great venue with a supportive crowd.  We were asked to imagine playing music that we felt fulfilled the potential of the band and really connected to the audience.  After this came a big challenge: Mike asked us to lead the band and create something like the music we had heard in our minds.  One of the jams resulting from this exercise, led by Craig Myers, was later titled ‘Birth of the Universe’ and was posted on Mike’s website.

I was particularly struck by the jam that was led by Scott Murawski, which was based on a 7/4 groove in a ballad feel.  As we played this, and later listened back to a recording of it, it occurred to me that it might be a worthwhile experiment to try fit the lyrics of ‘Be Good And You’ll Be Lonely’ to this new time signature.  We experimented with this fusion of Scott’s groove and my lyrics a bit more during the week of rehearsing.  Although it was actually one of the last tunes we rehearsed, we were not finished learning it when we left rehearsal.  As is often the case in the environment Mike fosters, I was more aware of the potential of the unfinished work, rather than being discouraged that it wasn’t finished.  Mike suggested that we try adding  a section to the song where a line from the song other than the title would get repeated and turned into a round.  (This kind of section has showed up in a number of Phish tunes, including ‘Bouncing Round the Room’ and ‘Backwards Down the Number Line’.)   We experimented a bit with this in rehearsal, but I continued the experimenting on a demo that I recorded of the song on my own after the rehearsal week.

On the demo, I added the round, based on the last lyric of the song (‘it sure pays good to be a little bad sometimes’).  I also added an intro with an instrumental melodic ‘hook’ and a line that leads from the solo/jam section back into the bridge, in both cases using the bebop concept of placing non-chord tones on upbeats.  (The concept of non-chord tones on upbeats, which I associate with bebop and Barry Harris, can also be heard in the melodic ‘hook’ of Mike’s song ‘Sugar Shack’, from the current Phish album Joy.)  The line leading back into the bridge was based on a lick I learned from an organ part on Mike’s tune ‘Voices’, and which I’ve come to think of as the ‘Page McConnell lick’ (after the Phish keyboardist who played it on Mike’s album ‘The Green Sparrow’).  The McConnell lick is a good example of a line that does a good job of making a repeated section different on its later appearances, and of a line that effectively overlaps and connects two sections (in the case of Mike’s tune, the McConnell lick connects the verse and the chorus).  The idea of using a line like this to transition from a solo section back into a bridge comes from a lick Scott Murawski and I play in unison at the end of his solo on Mike’s tune ‘Pretend’, and which I’ll call the ‘Murawski lick’.  (My habit of naming licks after players, by the way, is not at all meant to suggest that their style can be boiled down into a few notes.  When I play with or listen to someone for long enough, I always end up studying their melodic vocabulary, consciously or unconsciously, and sometimes this process results in one of their licks making its way into my own improvising vocabulary.   Although this may seem like heavy intellectual activity, it is really no different than the process by which catch phrases ‘ ‘where’s the beef’ in the 80′s, ‘don’t go there’ in the 90′s, etc. ‘ make their way into the speech of everyday people.)

When I was initially getting ready to play with Mike, I spent some time studying the playing of players such as Professor Longhair,
Chuck Leavell,  Bill Payne of Little Feat, and Mark Mercier of Max Creek; however, having primarily a jazz player for so long, I naturally gravitate back toward jazz in the search for new inspiration in my playing.  This tour I have been practicing the Monk tune ‘Epistrophy’, which for me right now is more of an etude than a vehicle for improvising.  While it has the traditional 32 bar length, the phrase structure can be thought of as A(m 1-4), B (m 5-8), B (m. 9-12), A (m. 13-16), followed by an eight bar bridge and a repetition of the B and A sections.  Having played so many AABA tunes where the A sections are almost identical, I begin to think of it as an AABA form where the second A reverses the two phrases of the first A.  In any case, just playing the 32 bar head is a useful concentration exercise, as is improvising over the form.

The first five notes in the bridge of ‘Epistrophy’ employ a scale which is very useful for a number of purposes but which (like the diminished/octatonic/symmetric scale) has more than one name.  Before I get into its various titles, here is the scale as used in the Monk bridge: C#,D#,F#,G#,A.  This can be thought of as the so-called ‘blues scale’ minus one note, but it is also identified in Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book as both the ‘in-sen scale’ (as it is named in Japanese music) and the ‘minor 6th scale’.  This scale also turns up in a Keith Jarrett solo on the Cole Porter tune ‘All of You’ (from a 1985 live trio recording) which I have been transcribing as part of my practice on the tour.

Keith Jarrett Trio – All of You

This solo (which follows a head statement and one-chorus bass solo by Gary Peacock) brings to mind the Schoenberg quote that ‘there is still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C major’, as it makes a beautiful opening statement out of nothing more than an E flat harmonic minor scale.  Jarrett stretches the scale over the first eight measures of the form.  This is followed by eight measures of descending, but less scalar motion.  In m. 17-24 are a model of effective, indeed gorgeous, use of repetition; Jarrett decorates a repeated Bb by approaching it with both ascending and descending phrases and ‘surrounding’ it with its upper and lower neighbors.   (If I knew all my neighbors in Essex Junction as well as Jarrett knows the neighbors of this B flat, I’d feel a lot safer.)

To my ear, Jarrett’s main scale throughout the first chorus is E flat major, with non-scale tones – C flat in particular – being used as passing tones (through their placement on eighth-note upbeats – the ‘ands’ – or quarter note upbeats, i.e. beats two and four.)  In the second chorus Jarrett begins to place the C flat more often on beats one and three, which makes it more prominent and gives it the sound of a scale tone rather than a passing tone.  Sure enough, by the second half of the second chorus, Jarrett is using the in-sen/minor 6th scale.  He uses it only briefly, but repeated listenings to the recording of this passage helped me decipher at least one of his many famous mid-solo vocal noises: after his first descent of the new scale, he can be heard exclaiming ‘oh!’ (with the inflection sounding like ‘aha!’), and immediately after he unleashes a shrewd re-use of the lick, compressing the same lick into half the time, AND making the C flat land on the first beat, sustaining for the moment its status as a scale tone.

This solo is among a number of solos that were crucial to my development as an improviser.  When I first sought out knowledge about how to improvise, through lessons with local keyboardist Chuck Eller, playing in my high school jazz band, and playing in a fledgling small combo, I learned a lot of different chords and scales, and a few licks.  I approached improvising then just as awkwardly and earnestly as I approach cooking now: when it was my turn, I threw in everything I thought was needed and hoped for the best.  As is often the case with beginning improvisers, this resulted in solos that had many notes but no understanding of ‘less is more’.  (As recently as six or seven years ago I can recall one of my frequent collaborators, bassist Ellen Powell – coincidentally someone with whom Mike studied at one point – saying, ‘Tom, if I could only pay you by the note…”) Solos like Jarrett’s on ‘All of You’, which I first learned  about sixteen years ago, were an important reminder that, with musical improvisation as much as with cooking, once you’ve ‘done your shopping’ (or learned your scales, chords, etc.), the creation of a beautiful product has so much to do with restraint.  (Or as my wife said about a recent cooking experiment, ‘sometimes even the simplest combinations can have the most complexity’.)  Some other models of improvisational restraint that have been important to me are Sonny Rollins’ solo on ‘St. Thomas’ from Saxophone Colossus (the beginning of which is based on a two note motive), Thelonious Monk’s solo on ‘Bags Groove’ from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (another solo built from a two note motive) and Charlie Rouse’s solo on the Monk tune Ugly Beauty from the late sixties album Underground  (in which he takes the concept of recycling a lick further than Jarrett in his All of You solo, returning to the same six-note motive multiple times, each time making it wonderfully different).  Another great use of space is in Eddie Harris’ solo on ‘You Got It In Your Soulness’ from the album Swiss Movement.

All these models remain crucially important to me as I play in this band.  With the instrumentation we have (a percussionist as well as a drummer, and a guitarist and bassist who frequently use electronic processing to expand the tone possibilities of their instruments), it is natural for the texture to get quite ‘busy’, and a lot of rehearsal time is spent trying to pinpoint the places where we need to ‘sparse out’, as Mike says.  Just as the band as a whole has to make a very conscious effort when we want our sound to be sparse, it is a challenge for me as a soloist to avoid responding to the percolating and multi-layered sound of the band with a blast of melodic busy-ness.  Frequently when it’s time for me to improvise a solo, I try to summon the spirit of concision and clarity that I find in solos like those I’ve listed above in hopes I can ‘say what I need to say, say it well, and shut up’ (as my eighth grade English teacher used to put it.)  Every once in a while – if I’m lucky, once or twice in each show -  I feel I’m getting a bit closer to this goal.  One of the places I felt like I managed to sing through the keyboard, rather than letting my fingers do the walking, was in the solo I took on ‘Andelman’s Yard’ at Toad’s Place in New Haven.

 

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What’s Right, What’s Left – originally posted 9/30/09

The Mike Gordon band has been making its way through the Midwest recently, including shows in Madison, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan, and (the city I’m writing from today) Pittsburgh, PA.  We have been alternating between larger venues such as the Barrymore Theater in Madison, and smaller ones, such as the Blind Pig in Madison.  The list of tunes we play has grown to include more of Mike’s tunes as well as songs by Talking Heads, Prince, Gillian Welch and Los Lobos.  I have to admit that practice time has been getting away from me the past two days, as I’ve been writing this most recent blog, but reading the email responses that people have started to send have been inspiring me to head back to the keyboard.

As I mentioned in the last blog, some of the transcribing and playing I’ve been doing while on this tour has gravitated toward a subject that has interested me for a while, the question of ‘how do I get my two hands to interact and cooperate when I’m improvising?’  I have been getting some new ideas on how to answer this question from watching the band that is opening for us on this leg of the tour, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.  The leader of the band, Brian Haas, is a pianist with an interesting background – he pursued classical studies to the point of preparing for the Van Cliburn competition, but now plays Rhodes piano in a group that travels the boundaries between jazz and improvisational rock.  His classical background can be heard in one of the band’s original tunes called ‘Drethoven’ (the title is an amalgamation of Dr. Dre and Beethoven) in which his melodic improvising and comping makes interesting use of low-range left hand chording similar to that which Beethoven so often used in his sonatas.

The following paragraphs outline some of my thoughts about coordinating the hands when improvising.  While this discussion does get a bit lengthy, I hope you will check it out, as it discusses a number of tunes I frequently work on with students, and does eventually relate back to the attached transcriptions.  If you haven’t yet emailed me a response in the form of a journal entry, mp3 or notation file, I hope it might inspire or provoke a response!

The history of jazz improvisation can sometimes appear to be simply a succession of individual players who created unique personal styles through the solos they improvised.  Players such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and John Coltrane can certainly be described as master storytellers, but when we first hear their stories it can often seem as through the players who accompany them are merely providing the energy that moves their story along.  As we listen more closely to the playing of these masters, however, we realize that in addition to being gifted storytellers they are equally gifted conversationalists, and that what initially seems like a story told by a single voice is in fact a story told through dialogue between many voices.   One need only listen to the interplay between Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, or Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, or John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, to realize that forging of a truly original storytelling voice is so often dependent on the presence of the an interlocutor whose questions or responses help determine the direction and pacing of the story.   In the case of the classic duos cited above, the music they created together is undoubtedly a dialogue between equals, but when one of the pair assumes the role of accompanist and the other the role of soloist, the timing (although not the content) of the give-and-take that results can sometimes remind us of the great comedy teams (Chico and Harpo Marx, Laurel and Hardy, etc.) whose genius was in exaggerating the contrast between introvert and extrovert, leader and follower, aggressive and passive.

All great jazz pianists have had to solve the problem of creating a relationship between a stronger hand and a weaker hand.  While this might seem like a purely technical problem, it is the kind of challenge where a creative mind can see the possibility of a solution which works both technically and artistically.  I would argue that many of the great jazz pianists, in addition to creating a unique melodic voice like any other improvisor, also establish a relationship between their left and right hands which is in its own way as distinctive as any great creative relationship between two individuals.   One example of a distinctive right-left hand relationship is in the playing of Horace Silver.  In the head statements of his tunes ‘Sister Sadie’ and ‘Song for My Father’, Silver uses repeated left-hand rhythmic figures to frame melodic phrases, creating a call-and-response effect, where accompaniment figures sound like answers to the melodic questions posed by the melody (as in ‘Sister Sadie’), or sotto voce comments between melodic statements (as in ‘Song for My Father’).  In the piano solos that follow these head statements, this effective arrangement technique doubles as a useful structure for opening an improvised solo.  As he begins to improvise in both tunes, Silver continues the left hand patterns from the melody and weaves new melodic phrases between them, creating a solo that gradually departs from the melody through the use of right hand variation.  A similar effect occurs in many of the solos of Wynton Kelly (such as those on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ on Kind of Blue and ‘Green Dolphin Street’ on Kelly Blue), where the improvising begins with a polite dialogue between right hand melodic phrases and left hand accompaniment figures, with both sides being careful not to interrupt the other.  Like any unscripted dialogue between two well-acquainted parties, these solos evolve into a looser exchange where questions overlap answers and vice versa.

I often use the solos mentioned above as models for piano students who are new to improvising, because they are great examples of what one might call ‘audible inner dialogue’.   ‘Freddie Freeloader’ is the only track where Wynton Kelly appears on the 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.  The piano player on the rest of the album is Bill Evans, as one of Miles’ goals on the album was to explore the modal style of improvising that Evans had begun to explore with his solo ‘Peace Piece’ on Everybody Digs Bill Evans.  Miles presumably brought in Wynton Kelly for the tune with the most traditional blues form on the record because he preferred Kelly’s blues playing to Evans’s – and there are some grounds for thinking that Evans would have readily agreed with this decision, judging by how infrequently Evans chose to use tunes with traditional blues forms on his own records.  (There is an Evans version of Freddie Freeloader available, but only as a bonus track on the CD reissue of You Must Believe in Spring).  On an album that sought to demonstrate that breaking free from traditional progressions could liberate an improvisor’s creativity, Kelly, rather like a convivial contrarian, demonstrated with his sole appearance that it was still possible to find flexibility within a traditional form.  In the famous opening bars, he improvises a series of two measure phrases over the first twelve measures of the form, almost all of which have a left hand choral ‘call’ followed by a right hand melodic ‘response’.  The second half of the first chorus begins with a four measure right hand phrase capped off with a left hand ‘response’ in the fourth measure.  So he succinctly reminds us that the twelve bar blues form can be approached melodically as six two bar phrases (as in ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, or the head of ‘Freddie’) or three four-bar phrases (as in ‘Blues by Five’ or any number of other tunes).  (I don’t have a version of the Wynton Kelly solo posted yet, but an arrangement I made of the tune with melody in the left hand and Kelly’s fills from the head in is here.)

Freddie Freeloader audio

I find this solo, and others such as the Silver solo mentioned above, contains a valuable lesson for students who are new to improvising on the piano; just as Kelly uses his left hand chord ‘calls’ to make his phrasing more clear to the listener, a beginning improvisor can use left hand chord ‘calls’ to, as jazz pianist Mike Holaber says, ‘let the left hand feed the right hand’.  In this style, the left hand’s role is something like that of the ‘play-by-play’ commentator in a sports broadcast – stating important events and changes concisely for the listener – while the right hand functions more like the ‘color commentator’, creating a narrative by using the time that elapses between each event to elaborate on the present moment and (if time allows) relating it to the past or anticipating new developments.  The Silver and Kelly solos also demonstrate, however, that while the call and response style is a useful way to open a solo, a soloist needs to use other techniques, such as supporting a right hand melodic line with a simultaneous left hand rhythm, and knowing when to get the comping out of the melody line’s way, in order to have a solo develop effectively.

The inner dialogue in Silver’s and Kelly’s solos reminds me of how often great writers, Bertolt Brecht and Walt Whitman among them, opened poems and essays by asking themselves a question and then answering it, opting to write in two voices rather than one.   Hearing the openings of the Silver and Kelly solos is also a great reminder that real goal of improvising is to create ideas with musical integrity, rather than to put your latest technical work on display.  A student of mine summed up this idea well, talking about one of her tunes in an email response to an earlier blog: “I found that I didn’t really need to run scales for two weeks before trying to improvise, that I was able to make a solo out of just what I already knew about the song, and the solo came out sounding halfway decent.”  Being a jazz improvisor at any level means having to work constantly to further your technique, but it also means putting your ears in charge when you improvise, and letting your hands be guided by the same sensibility that guides your voice when you improvise vocally.

The ‘call and response’ approach to beginning an improvised solo can be contrasted with the approach of Red Garland in his solos on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ (from Round About Midnight ) and ‘Blues by Five’ (from Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet ).  In these solos the right hand delves more quickly into longer melodic phrases, and is accompanied by a more understated left hand which plays a more continuous rhythmic pattern, often on the ‘ands’ of two and four.   In Garland solos such as the one on ‘Blackbird’, this closer rhythmic alignment between the left and right hands evolves from opening choruses with a more relaxed single note line to more energetic final choruses in which the right hand improvises shouting melodic phrases in octaves while the left hand doubles the rhythms of these phrases with repeated chords.  (Of course, Kelly and Silver’s improvising was never strictly or even primarily hands-separate, as Garland’s was not strictly hands-together, but the different ways these players chose to begin their solos provide us with useful examples of some different approaches.)

There are two important boundaries to this discussion which are worth clarifying.  First, I am primarily discussing piano solos that are played in ensemble situations (rather than solo piano performances).  In these situations a pianist is usually accompanied by the steady timekeeping of the rhythm section, which is liberating to the extent that the pianist does not have to be the only timekeeper, but also challenging in that there is a certain amount of harmonic space occupied by the bass (and sometimes other chord instruments) which the pianist typically avoids while improvising.  I am also discussing solos where the left hand is ‘the chord hand’ and the right hand ‘the melody hand’, however, this is by far not the only two handed approach to improvising used by jazz pianists.  To mention just a few other approaches, George Shearing and Bill Evans both popularized the use of ‘locked hands’ technique (the development of which has been credited to the lesser known Milt Buckner) where an improvised melodic line in octaves is filled in with occasional or constant inner harmony; Ahmad Jamal among others plays left hand lines which rhythmically double the right hand but add harmony; and Lennie Tristano among others pioneered using the left hand to create a melodic line which is contrapuntal  to the right hand line (i.e. rhythmically and melodically independent).  This approach has been developed by a number of more recent players including Billy Taylor and Fred Hersch.

In searching for more modern examples of jazz pianists using the call and response approach, I’ve transcribed solos by Roland Hanna (‘Fingers’) and Hank Jones (‘Sarala’).  The Roland Hanna solo intrigued me because it is a solo that uses call and response style over the rhythm changes progression.  Many of the recorded and live piano solos I’ve heard over this progression take the form of a single note line uninterrupted by left hand chording, and my guess is that the frequency with which chords change in this progression (many chords last only two beats) often leads pianists to focus on elaborating the progression melodically, rather than risk too much chordal intrusion by including the left hand.  Hanna manages to use left hand chording to rhythmically drive a right hand line which alternates between shorter and longer phrases.  He also uses single notes in the left hand as an effective way to signal the end of the form.

Hank Jones’ solo is a fascinating example of cross-cultural collaboration.  In this tune he is accompanied not by the usual jazz rhythm section but by a group (Cheick Tidiane-Seck and the Mandinkas) that combines Western instruments such as electric guitar with those indigineous to Africa such as the djembe.  He is also not improvising over a typical jazz progression, but rather the open G minor harmony created by this combination of instruments playing in a traditional Malian style.   For a player whose roots include the harmonically dense traditions of bebop and stride piano, this is a serious departure.  (I sought out this recording after joining the Mike Gordon band, to investigate how one of my jazz heroes managed to relate to unfamiliar musical surroundings.)  I admire how Hank manages to reflect the relaxed groove that has been established in the opening section of the tune, and make his solo relate to the harmonic environment he’s in, and yet still make his solo evolve rhythmically (through exploring triplet- and 16th-note based motives) and melodically (through very gradually introducing bop-style chromaticism).  We gave what I think was a particularly effective performance of ‘Sarala’ at our show in Madison, Wisconsin.  Great musical experiences always have an mysterious element to them, so I’d hesitate to try and give a complete explanation of why this performance worked; however, my suspicion is that my studying Hank Jones’ solo further, the band’s decision to change the form of the tune somewhat to smooth out some of its natural asymmetry (while still leaving some of the asymmetry!), and the inclusion of a section on an Indian hand drum called the kanjira by drummer Todd Isler all had something to do with it.

I also found some examples of playing styles that alternate between the hands in the listening I did to get myself ready for playing with Mike Gordon.  In the Allman Brothers’ ‘Jessica’, a rock instrumental that contains many elements such as extended improvising and open harmony that would later figure prominently in jam-rock, there is a piano solo (by keyboardist Chuck Leavell) which begins with four bar phrases divided between right hand melody and left hand chordal response.  I also took my preparation for the Mike Gordon tour as an opportunity to revisit a piano solo that has always fascinated me, the introduction to Professor Longhair’s ‘Hey Now Baby’.  This piece creates an idiosyncratic fusion of Latin and blues styles through combining a syncopated New Orleans-style bassline with a melody that alternates between melodic phrases which match the feel of the bassline and others which in a double time feel.  At certain points the bassline is also in double time which results in some rapid-fire exchanges between the hands.  I had the opportunity to perform this tune at our Chicago show while trading keyboards and phrases with Ivan Neville, a younger member of the New Orleans family that produced the Neville Brothers band.  It was a blast!

Another recent musical discovery for me has been the guitarist Guthrie Trapp who sat in with the band in Nashville and played much of the time in what I’d call a country bebop style, particularly on a version of my tune ‘Crumblin’ Bones’ which we played that night.  I mentioned to him that heard a jazz influence in his playing, and he modestly claimed not to have much knowledge of jazz.  For me this is a great example of how the way that jazz players mix diatonic and chromatic motion in their melodic lines has much in common with the use of chromatic scale in other styles.  It makes me think of the time I saw Chick Corea perform a Mozart concerto which he called the ‘bebop concerto’.

 

 

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Bluesology (originally posted 9/21/09)

Bluesology (or, ‘the Seventh [Scale] and Sons’) originally posted 9/21/09

Lately the Mike Gordon band has played shows in Atlanta, Jacksonville Beach (Florida), and Birmingham (Alabama), as well as Memphis and Nashville (Tennessee).  We are traveling within what might be called the heartland of the blues; on Sunday I visited Sun Studio in Memphis, where B.B. King and Johnny Cash, among others, made their first recordings.  Being around so much blues history is a good time to talk about the ‘seventh’ scale (aka the Mixolydian scale) and its most closely related harmonic unit, the dominant seventh chord.  In the Mike band we play many tunes with progressions dominated (pun intended) by dominant chords, including  the Phish tune ‘Meat’, and cover tunes such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Swamp Music’, and Mike’s original tunes ‘Weekly Time’, ‘Sound’ and ‘Soulfood Man’ .  The subject of ‘Soulfood Man’ is the singer, guitarist, and bandleader Colonel Bruce Hampton. Bruce sat in with us at our Atlanta show and sang a tune called ‘Yield Not To Temptation’, a blues classic introduced by the great blues singer Bobby Bland, which has become a cornerstone of Bruce’s repertoire.  The Atlanta show was among our best in terms of the band’s ability to communicate musically; in addition to fusing rhythmically on the more rock-oriented tunes, there were some great moments of playing more responsively and conversationally, particularly on tunes such as Mike’s tune ‘Radar Blip’.  This is one of the tunes where I often use bebop melodic concepts to solo over a funk rock groove.  To give you an idea what I’m talking about, an audience recording of the Atlanta show can be heard at: http://www.sendspace.com/file/8cgl1q

The show downloads as a series of separate songs, so you could listen to just ‘Radar Blip’.  Keep in mind that this not a professional recording but was made by an audience member.

As our road crew is rather small for a tour of this scope (the five band members are accompanied by the tour manager, two sound technicians, a lighting designer and a person who runs the ‘merch’ table where CDs, tshirts, etc. are sold), when we arrive at a new venue, I almost always assist the road crew in setting up my keyboard rig.  My rig consists of a Yamaha Motif SE8 keyboard which provides most of my sounds, a Hammond X2 keyboard, and a separate amp for each keyboard.  One of the advantages of being involved with load-in is that the sooner I can get my equipment set up, the sooner I can practice. Two things I have been doing recently when I practice are what I call the “major-diminished-minor” exercise (included on the intermediate/advanced page).  Practicing this exercise with both hands in unison is a good way to listen to the balance between the dynamic level of your left and right hands.  Recently, to focus on my left hand, I have been running a mirror image version of the exercise in my right hand simultaneously with the left hand.

In rock, blues and jazz groups, keyboard players almost always coexist with guitarists or bassists who, when they are comping (i.e. accompanying), spend much of their time in the range just around or below middle C.  For this reason it’s often typical for the playing of pianists in these styles to be quite heavy on the right hand.  My study of classical music and jazz has taught me about the many ways that labor can be divided more evenly between the hands, and so one of my goals in playing with this band is to continually strive for a more ambidextrous approach to the keyboard in the rock band setting.  To this end I practice Bach keyboard music just about every day on the tour, either the two part inventions (which I play with one hand on each keyboard, to practice my two-manual technique) and/or the Partita in B flat major.  Other ways I have been venturing into more ambidextrous playing have included trying out a Dave Grusin tune called ‘Memphis Stomp’ (brought to my attention by current student Russ McHenry), and transcribing piano solos by jazz and rock players that use a call and response approach to coordinating the hands (more about these in a future blog).  My studies of jazz playing have oriented me towards thinking that playing with both hands means comping or creating a countermelody in the left hand, but practicing pieces like the Allemande of the Bach Partita reminds me that a single line melody can be divided between the hands.

 

Beginning/Intermediate exercise

I have included an exercise for taking seventh (Mixolydian) scales through the circle of fifths which uses ‘guide tone’ voicings in the left hand (3rds and 7ths) and a scale pattern which moves up and down each scale, stopping just before the starting note of each scale.  One nice feature of this exercise – particularly for those trying to master all twelve major scales – is that this exercise runs the circle of fifths starting in the key of Db so that the various key groups – keys where scales are fingered in identical or similar ways – are grouped together.  The order begins with the black key group (keys of Db, F# and B) where the second and third fingers of both hands are always on the group of two black keys, and the second, third and fourth fingers are always on the group of three.  Then the sharp keys which are all fingered identically (E,A,D,G,C), the key of F which has only one fingering exception to C, and finally the keys where the fingering of the black keys does not always follow the rules of the black key group (Bb,Eb, and Ab).  People preparing for piano proficiency should practice the scale exercise with the RH alone and using the major scale instead of the 7th scale.  You could also double the the right hand pattern with the left hand (fingerings for both hands are shown).  This creates the fingering where both hands start on the thumb in B,E,A,D,G and C. Seventh scales thru the circle of 5ths

 

Advanced exercise

One musical theme I have noticed running through some of Mike’s original tunes is the alternation between parallel major and minor keys.  In the tune ‘Traveled Too Far’ (from Mike’s CD ‘The Green Sparrow’), the vocal verse as well as the guitar solo section is based on a four bar progression which moves between F major and F minor.   I solo over a section of the tune ‘Andelman’s Yard’ that begins in A major and works its way to A minor.  Mike uses a melodic major-minor shift in the tune ‘Suskind Hotel’, which begins with a unison lick moving from the major third to the minor third.  Mike says this motion interested him because it is so often avoided by blues and rock players.  (Examples of melodies starting on the minor third and moving to the major are much more plentiful – among them the second strain of the ‘Saint Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy, another famous Memphis resident).    One reason these major-minor concepts may have caught my attention is they remind me of the ancient and endless conversation among jazz players and educators about how to play the blues.  Some texts and teachers refer to a ‘blues scale’ (the root, flatted third, fourth, sharp fourth, fifth and flatted seventh of any major scale) which is really a kind of minor pentatonic scale that, contrary to its inclusive name, only represents one of many pitch collections that get used by great blues players.  This is sometimes paired with a ‘major blues scale’ (the root, the second, the minor AND major third, fifth and sixth of any major scale).  In improvisation class at UVM I teach an approach, derived from Barry Harris’ teaching method, which begins with scales based off the three main chords and gradually adds half-steps according to certain rules.  One of the many reasons I like this approach is that I think some of the most flavorful blues lines are those that use half-steps, particularly the motion from minor to major third.  I found an example of such a lick in a live recording of a tune called ‘Columbus Stockade’ by Scott Murawski’s band Max Creek.  The lick occurs in a piano intro by Max Creek’s keyboard player, Mark Mercier.  In the ‘Columbus Stockade exercise’ I take Mark’s phrase, which deftly moves from major to minor and back to major, and transpose it through the circle of fifths.   I have also included licks from Milt Jackson’s intro to ‘Bags’ Groove’ and the intro to ‘Swamp Music’ that use melodic motion from minor to major third.  (Notice that the ‘Swamp Music’ lick follows the bebop approach of placing the dissonant minor third on the upbeat.)  Pick one you like and learn it in all twelve keys! Columbus Stockade lick (and more)

 

Sincerely,

 

TC

 

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