‘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.  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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Rhythm Changes and Trading Fours

 

This past Sunday, on the NBC show ‘Meet The Press’, I watched a skilled TV journalist, David Gregory, interviewing a seasoned politician, Senator John McCain.  Whatever one thinks of the style or viewpoint of these men, I think it is safe to say that they are among the most accomplished and skilled practitioners of their respective professions.  A one-on-one interview involving both of them is as good an opportunity as any to see the most typical techniques in political dialogue today.  So I had to breathe a sigh of regret when I saw them engage in an unfortunate practice which is increasingly common in modern politics: the moment when a previously courteous dialogue breaks down and two intelligent but frustrated people begin talking over one another.  As an improvising musician, I had to wonder: have these guys ever learned to trade fours?

Jazz improvisation is often explained as a largely individual pursuit, the nomadic voyage of the ingenious and fearless soloist (Parker, Coltrane) across a forbidding and often self-designed landscape of musical challenges (Confirmation, Giant Steps, Rhythm Changes) accompanied only by a small band of hardy accompanists who don’t attract or merit much attention beyond their association with the leader.  This version of history  bypasses the fact that these towering figures, so well known for their mastery of what might be called the ‘accompanied monologue’ (i.e., melody statements, full-chorus and multiple-chorus solos), were equally gifted at the form of musical conversation known as ‘trading fours’, where two or more musicians exchange phrases over the form of a song.  If transcribing the full chorus solos of great improvisers can help us learn their melodic language and their approaches to developing ideas and building energy, perhaps studying the situations in which these players traded fours (and twos and eights) can tell us something about how deeply they listened to their musical cohorts and how quickly they could assimilate the  ideas of others into their own playing.  Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and Sonny Stitt, to name three giants, all improvised awe-inspiring extended solos, but the gift for musical oratory that they showed in them is only part of their greatness as players.  All three of them also had the ability to turn right around after their musical monologues and trade fours with the same inspiration and sense of swing that they put into their solos.   Often it’s plain to hear that the ‘trading fours’ sections, coming as they did after the individual solos, took the whole performance to a new level of intensity.  It is crucial to remember this today, when it easier than ever for budding improvisers, like the participants on ‘American Idol’, to develop soloist skills without becoming aware of how communicating with your accompanists and fellow musicians is crucial to the success of any soloist’s performance.  All three of the soloists I mentioned above knew this, and recognized it to the extent that their recorded performances spend substantial time on trading fours.

One musical form that Young, Fitzgerald and Stitt all used to display their chops at trading fours was ‘Rhythm Changes’, the jazz term for compositions based on the harmonic progression and form of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.  ‘I Got Rhythm’ is based on a phrase structure that can be seen in earlier folk and spiritual tunes such as ‘Turkey In The Straw’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.  These tunes have a structure of three successive two-measure phrases, all ending on a note other than the tonic (usually the fifth of the scale), followed by a final consequent phrase that begins and ends on the tonic.Turkey-In-The-Straw-m-1-8

The innovation of ‘I Got Rhythm’ lies in the way that it starts with the type of two measure phrase used in these songs, but follows two of these short phrases with a continuous four-measure phrase in m. 5-8.

i-got-rhy-first-8-bars

The relationship of ‘Turkey In The Straw’ to ‘I Got Rhythm’ can be seen, among other places, in Bud Powell’s solo on the rhythm changes tune ‘Squatty’, where he quotes eight bars of the fiddle tune in his solo.  (‘Squatty’ can be heard at 36:27 of this YouTube link – the quote is at the end of the second solo chorus.)

The melody of ‘Lester Leaps In’, one of the first of many jazz tunes based on ‘I Got Rhythm’, updates this phrase structure by only using phrases that are clearly 4 measures in length.  However, when Young and his bebop successors begin to improvise on the ‘Rhythm Changes’ progression, their familiarity with the original melody of ‘I Got Rhythm’ (which was in the jazz repertoire along with the tunes based on it and appears on recordings by both Parker and Fitzgerald) comes through the in the way that they generally begin their solos with a two measure phrase in m. 1-2 of the form and then build toward a four measure phrase in m. 5-8.   Examples of this kind of solo include Lester Young’s solo on ‘Lester Leaps In’, Charlie Parker’s solo on ‘Shaw Nuff’ (both included in Scott Reeves’ textbook), and Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Cottontail’ solo.  Ella’s full chorus solo on ‘Cottontail’ is a remarkable example of an improviser responding to multiple sources of inspiration from her immediate surroundings.  She begins by using a phrase from the end of Barney Kessel’s solo , and a few bars later, thoughtfully reflects on the large-scale structure of the performance by using an idea from violinist Stuff Smith’s solo during her navigation of the bridge.  (In the examples below I am drawing from Rebecca Wood’s transcription of the solo, which I have also edited.  My own attempt to transcribe Ella’s scat syllables is below the staff.)

Cottontail excerpts

 The focus on creating four measure phrases intensifies in the trading-fours sections that follow the individual solos on the recordings of ‘Cottontail’ and  ‘Lester Leaps In’.  Young trades with Count Basie on piano in ‘Lester’, and Fitzgerald trades with Ben Webster on ‘Cottontail’.  Both of these trades take after the tradition of the ‘tenor battle’, classic examples of which can be heard in the Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis recording of ‘Lester Leaps In’ and the recording of Sonny Stitt’s Rhythm Changes tune The Eternal Triangle from the album ‘Sonny Side Up’.  What holds my interest in listening to these classic battles is the question of how each soloist will continue to equal or surpass the repeated challenges of the other.  (There’s no question of whether the challenge will be met, because the players involved are among the giants of the music.)  In addition to being stunning displays of musical virtuosity, these trading sections are also in some sense endurance contests for the players: the trading goes on for a number of choruses comparable to (or exceeding) the length of the individual solos. However, in the Lester Young/Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald/Ben Webster trading sections, the situation of two contrasting instruments rather than two identical ones, and the limitation of the trading to one chorus, creates a situation that is less overtly competitive and thus more conversational, but no less energetic.

In future posts I hope to share transcriptions of the trading sections in ‘Cottontail’, ‘Lester Leaps In’ and ‘The Eternal Triangle’.  I wish I could require John McCain and David Gregory to listen to ‘The Eternal Triangle’ in particular, where Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins manage to sustain an extended and energetic ‘battle’ – with good reason, it’s one of the most famous recorded tenor contests in jazz history – but they never stop listening to each other and  moving the conversation forward.  For now, I hope these thoughts might give you some ideas for composing (or improvising) your own rhythm changes solo.  Also, if you can think of any examples of great trading sections – trading fours but also two, eights, etc. – in recordings that you know of, jazz or otherwise, I encourage you to leave a comment mentioning them, and perhaps also including a hyperlink.  As jazz players sometimes say to each other in mid-song: ‘let’s trade!’

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‘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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