Look who’s Bartok-in’: folk song reinvention from Bela Bartok to Chick Corea and beyond

I recently watched a PBS documentary called ‘The American Epic Sessions’,  which features the producer and guitarist Jack White resurrecting a Western Electric recording lathe from the early twentieth century for modern-day use.  ‘The American Epic Sessions’ is the concluding episode of the PBS series ‘American Epic’; earlier episodes focus on early twentieth century U.S. musicians who used this technology when it was new, such as the Reverend Gary Davis, while final episode focuses on current pop, blues and jazz performers who re-record the earlier artists’ songs under White’s supervision.  Rev. Gary Davis’ ‘Candy Man’, for example, is performed in ‘American Epic Sessions’ by a contemporary singer-guitarist with a vintage name, Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton.

While ‘American Epic Sessions’ includes artists such as Paxton who faithfully recreate an earlier artist’s work, it also includes performers who compellingly update the earlier songs with a more modern sound.  When Elton John visits the studio, the old recording equipment is used to record a new song which he composes on the spot from a sheet of new Bernie Taupin lyrics, and which showcases the high level of technique and what might be called ‘blues literacy’ in his piano playing.  Although the use of antique recording equipment makes ‘The American Epic Sessions’ look almost like a project of ‘reenacting’ the earlier songs (in the sense of Civil War reenactments), the shrewd decisions White makes in combining songs and performers (such as Alabama Shakes covering Memphis Minnie) often results in a re-invention which gives the song new life, rather than just a higher-fidelity recording.  Even the more historically faithful performances, such as Paxton’s, are for me a musical demonstration of the Uncertainty Principle, which was developed by the physicist Werner Heisenberg around the same time as many of the earlier recordings featured in ‘American Epic’ were made.

In the process of studying small particles such as the electron, Heisenberg posited that ‘It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.’  In other words, Heisenberg posited that in his area of study, the act of observation itself changes the event is being observed.  Even though Paxton’s singing and guitar playing are modeled on that of Davis, and he is playing a similar guitar and singing into a similar microphone to the one Davis used, there is a modern swagger and vitality to his performance that helps the song reach a twenty-first century listener.

The Western Electric recording lathe used on ‘American Epic Sessions’ is also a star of the documentary; the camera shows how the machine’s slow lowering of a concrete block governs the three and a half minute limit of its recording capacity.  A Wired magazine article mentions that this time limit had a direct effect on the development of folk and popular music, as it led musicians who recorded on the early machines to devise shorter songs.

A piece of recording technology which predates even the Western Electric lathe, the Edison Recording Phonograph, played a central role in the music of pianist and composer Bela Bartok.  In the very early twentieth century, Bartok used the Phonograph to record folk music from a number of Eastern European countries (including Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) on wax cylinders.

In Bartok’s field recordings, melodic lines are in the extreme foreground and the accompaniment is sometimes close to inaudible.  It seems likely that this is one of the factors which led Bartok to create piano music from the recordings in which the right hand plays a folk melody (often transcribed from his recordings) and the left hand plays a significantly altered (or in some cases, completely different) accompaniment.  Some of this music can be found in Bartok’s multi-volume collection entitled ‘For Children’, which has been beautifully recorded by my colleague Sylvia Parker. (Her CD ‘Peasant Jewels’ can be sampled on YouTube and purchased from Amazon.) One could say that in these pieces Bartok, like Jack White, had an artistic mission to  modernize the folk music he studied.  On the other hand, he was also responding to a practical need, using his considerable musical imagination to supply an accompaniment that was either missing or obscured in the recordings he made.  Bartok may well have also created the ‘For Children’ out of a need for attractive and appropriate pieces he could use to teach basic piano skills to his own children.  This is a long tradition among keyboard-playing composers; Bach’s ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach’, Schumann’s ‘Album for the Young’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Les Cinq Doigts’ were created for the same purpose.

For me, some of the more affecting of Bartok’s pieces in ‘For Children’ are those in which he first sets up an ostinato (repeated figure) in the left hand.  After adding the folk tune in the right hand, he then works subtle variations in the left hand figure, creating a hypnotic effect.  Two of these pieces in Parker’s collection which are accessible to beginning pianists are ‘Rondo (There is an old witch)’ (titled ‘The Old Witch’s Sons’ in other collections) and ‘I lost my handkerchief’.

In other pieces from ‘For Children’ such as Song of the Rogue, the two-note chord voicings Bartok uses in the left hand (which usually combine the root of a chord with the third, fifth or seventh) have similarities to the two-note voicings used by jazz players such as Thelonious Monk (which I discuss in an earlier post, ‘The Neighborhood Hang and the History Hang’.)  While in some editions of ‘For Children’ the pieces are identified only with numbers, the titles given to the pieces in collections such as Parker’s provide enticing glimpses of stories, perhaps from original folk song lyrics, which may be hidden in the music.

In a 2013 piece for Harper’s Magazine titled ‘Bartok’s Monster’, Jay Kirk gives a vivid description of the process through which Bartok first collected the distinctively rough-sounding folk music of Eastern Europe and then transformed it into something of his own.  ‘Like Rumpelstiltskin,’ Kirk writes, ‘[Bartok] hurried back to Budapest to spin the bales of itchy straw into chaotic threads of Lydian gold.’  In addition to giving elements of Bartok’s story a phantasmagorical edge, Kirk gives a vivid account of his own trip to Hungary, where he visits a Bartok museum as well as some of the same villages in which Bartok made his recordings.  Kirk weaves all this into a compelling personal narrative, describing what he sees and what he hallucinates with equal lucidity.  I highly recommend ‘Bartok’s Monster’ as an absorbing read and a fascinating look into Bartok’s use of early recording technology.  Kirk has also been working on expanding the article into a forthcoming book, ‘Avoid the Day’, which I eagerly await.

I think Bartok’s piano pieces that combine folk tunes with ostinato accompaniment were likely a source of inspiration for jazz pianist Chick Corea in composing his tune ‘Children’s Song’, which has become something of a jazz standard and eventually led Corea to compose a whole set of similar pieces.  The version Corea recorded on his legendary duo recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton, ‘Crystal Silence’ includes only the composed melody, while version he recorded with his band Return to Forever includes improvisation.

Like Bartok in a number of the ‘For Children’ pieces, Corea creates a hypnotic effect through pairing a repetitive left hand figure with a folk-like melody in the right.  One of the more recent adaptations of ‘Children’s Song’ was made by the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer, who recorded it in an arrangement by pianist Fred Hersch.

I hope this blog post inspires you to listen to and practice either some of Bartok’s music from ‘For Children’ (the edition available from Dover Publications is a useful starting place) and/or Chick Corea’s ‘Children’s Song No. 1’, which is available (along with some other pieces from his ‘Children’s Songs’ collection) from musicnotes.com.  I also, as always, welcome any comments of any kind, particularly on any of the thoughts or links above, as well as any other links that this post might inspire you to share.  Is there other music based on ostinato patterns or folk tunes (or both) that you like to play or listen to, or which you’d like to learn?  Have you ever learned an existing melody and given it a new accompaniment, or do you have a favorite piece or song where that happens?

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That Thing You Said: a line on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love”

‘That Thing You Said’ is a bebop-style melody line that I composed on the chord changes to Cole Porter’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.  (Thanks to jazz singer Linda Oats for coming with the tune’s title after hearing it on a gig where I solicited name suggestions.)  It is inspired by the melodic language of the great pianist and educator Barry Harris, particularly his solos on ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby‘ and ‘Woody N’ You’ from the album Barry Harris At The Jazz Workshop.  It is also based a scale outline of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ which I made following Barry Harris concepts.  For more on Barry’s concept of the minor ii-V-i progression, see my post ‘What Is This Scale Called?’.  A solo piano recording that I made of the tune can be heard here.  My solo version has a samba feel inspired by Fred Hersch’s piece Duet, which he originally recorded solo but which he has more recently reworked as a duet with guitarist Julian Lage.  However, ‘That Thing You Said’ can also work in swing feel.  In the tradition of ‘Ornithology’, ‘Donna Lee’ and ‘Groovin’ High’, all of which work as countermelodies to the tunes from which their progressions are borrowed, I composed ‘That Thing You Said’ as a countermelody to ‘What Is This Thing’.  (Also in the tradition of the aforementioned tunes, however, I do not use it this way in my recording.)  I hope you enjoy listening to and/or practicing this tune, and I welcome comments of any kind in the comment section. 

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‘Silverbird’ – a tune on the changes to ‘There Is No Greater Love’

‘Silverbird’ is a melody line I composed on the chord progression of the jazz standard ‘There Is No Greater Love’.  This line is meant to demonstrate key aspects of the bebop melodic style, including its balance of arpeggiation and step motion, its eighth-note-based, upbeat-oriented rhythms and its use of chromaticism.    The title alludes to my sources of inspiration for the tune, which are the melodic languages of pianist Horace Silver and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (whose most common nickname was ‘Bird’.)  (As it turns out, there is a bird species native to Eastern Africa called Silverbird as well.)  The tune is intended to help aspiring players incorporate bebop concepts into their improvising.     A solo piano recording that I made of the tune can be heard here.  Charts for my tune in all standard transpositions are below.  (For the second note in m. 17, I recommend going with the concert D in the chart rather than the concert G on the recording.)  Before learning a complex line such as ‘Silverbird’ based on a standard progression, I always ask students to learn the tune’s original melody and chord changes.  One source for the melody and changes of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ is the Jamey Aebersold collection Jam Session, where it is referred to on the cover as simply ‘No Greater Love’.  (Students who are preparing this tune for the Vermont All-State Jazz Ensemble auditions are required to bring an original copy of this Aebersold book to the audition.)  I also usually ask students to learn a basic scale outline of the chord progression; here’s a link to my latest scale outline of ‘There Is No Greater Love’. My recording of the outline demonstrates a conversational approach on the piano to integrating left hand chords and right hand scales, but single-line instruments can also learn the right-hand line alone.  There are also differences between how each of the three ‘A’ sections of the AABA form are outlined, as distinguishing between these sections is one of the challenges of improvising over this type of form.  The bass and drum accompaniment continues for a number of choruses after the scale outline, which can be used to practice improvising.

It is well known that many bebop tunes re-use chord progressions of popular songs and replace their melodies with more rhythmically active lines.  My study of the influential bop tunes written by the trumpeter and composer Benny Harris,  as well as Douglass Parker’s article on ‘Donna Lee and the Ironies of Bebop’ (from the collection ‘The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music’), have made me aware that bop tunes were often melodic crazy quilts in which aspiring improvisers took phrases they had learned from players and practiced using these fragments to create a coherent melodic story of their own.  This is what led me to base my melodic line on aspects of Silver’s and Parker’s melodic style.

As Pete Rugolo’s version of Ornithology and Karrin Allyson’s version of Donna Lee demonstrate, some bop tunes can also work as countermelodies to the tunes from which their chord progressions are borrowed.  Although we have no way of knowing whether Benny Harris designed ‘Ornithology’ as a countermelody to ‘How High The Moon’ or whether Miles Davis intended ‘Donna Lee’ as a countermelody to ‘Back Home In Indiana’, these contrapuntal combinations work well enough to suggest that the counterpoint was at least partly intended by the composers, even if they never used it themselves in performance and left it for future generations to discover.  Studying the contrapuntal aspects of these tunes led me to design ‘Silverbird’ as a countermelody to ‘There Is No Greater Love’ (although I don’t demonstrate that aspect in my recording of the tune.)

Pianist and composer Fred Hersch mentions in his recent memoir Good Things Happen Slowly that listening to multiple versions of a song by various master jazz players can help one develop a sense of the song’s possibilities as an improvisational vehicle.  When I worked on ‘There Is No Greater Love’ recently with a combo at Vermont Jazz Camp, we listened to versions of the tune by Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis.  These three versions suggest the universe of possibilities which jazz players can find within a seemingly simple tune.  Baker sings the tune at a ballad tempo, adding slight diatonic ornaments and more radical rhythmic adjustments to the original melody.  On his version of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ from the album ‘Four and More’, Miles Davis takes the tune at a much faster tempo and regards the original melody with his trademark sense of detachment, departing more radically from the melody line than Baker does (starting at the fifth measure) and in other places leaving significant chunks of the melody unplayed (such as the third and fourth bars of the bridge.)  Miles’ interpretation of the melody questions the traditional hierarchy that places a soloist in the foreground and accompanists in the background, and shifts the focus toward the unique group interaction that was occurring in Miles’ ‘Second Quintet’, which featured the adventurous young rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums.  Sarah Vaughan’s version from ‘Live In Japan Vol. 2’ uses the tune as a virtuosic display of her skills at improvising and interacting with her trio, dispensing with lyrics and soloing first with bass and voice only, then drums and voice only, then with piano and voice only before bringing in the whole group.

I hope that listening to these great versions, learning the original melody and changes to ‘There Is No Greater Love’ and practicing ‘Silverbird’ will give you some ideas of your own about how you’d like to interpret the melody of this great standard and improvise on its chord progression.  I encourage you to share any thoughts in the comment section, particularly about practicing ‘There Is No Greater Love’ and/or ‘Silverbird’, or about other versions of ‘There Is No Greater Love’ that you find particularly original, unusual or inspirational.


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The neighborhood hang and the history hang (including ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’, a tune on the changes of ‘In Walked Bud’)

Above: Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Orent around the piano at Mary Lou Williams’ apartment / Below: the same group in a different order around the phonograph (i.e. turntable)


The title of my tune ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ refers to a group of now-legendary jazz pianists, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope, who hung out together in the early 1940s, before any of them had reached their greatest prominence. Much like an earlier generation of New York pianists (including James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith), the interests that Monk, Powell and Hope shared led them to become a kind of informal club.  In his biography of Monk, Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Monk’s sister Marion as saying that once the three musicians “started hanging out together, they were at Monk’s mother’s house ‘all the time’ ”.  In his biography of Powell, Peter Pullman quotes saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who recalls “nights when the three pianists, ‘like brothers’, roamed the streets, going from house to house in search of pianos that they could play.”  Griffin also comments on how the relationship of the three, who sometimes played four and even six hands at one piano, was competitive in a musical sense, but not a personal one.

The recorded output of all three musicians makes it clear how much they influenced each other. Comparing the versions that Monk, Powell, and Hope recorded of the standard ‘Sweet and Lovely’ reveals how Monk, as the eldest of the group, generated many foundational ideas (such his trademark chromatically descending reharmonization of the tune’s first four measures and his Art Tatum-style right hand runs) which were then adapted by his younger proteges Powell (who uses the runs but stays closer to the tune’s original progression) and Hope (who works his own variation on Monk’s reharmonization.)  A comparison of these three players soloing on the blues progression in B flat – Monk’s solo on Straight No Chaser, Bud Powell’s solo on Bud’s Blues (or ‘B flat blues’ from the album Bud Powell in Paris) and Elmo Hope’s solo on St. Elmo’s Fire – also shows a similarity in their approach to left hand comping.  All three solos prominently feature what are sometimes called ‘shell’ (i.e. root and 7th voicings), in contrast to the preference of later players such as Wynton Kelly for two, three and four note rootless voicings located closer to middle C.

Just as comparing different versions of a standard can reveal similarities between players of the same period, it can be useful to compare different versions of a single tune by great jazz players from different eras of jazz to gain insights about the differences between periods and the evolution of the music. In his recent memoir Good Things Happen Slowly, pianist Fred Hersch describes  one of his early methods of educating himself about jazz. After a less than successful experience in college sitting in with a local jazz group on the tune ‘Autumn Leaves’, Hersch was introduced by a fellow musician to the concept of learning about time through listening to great jazz recordings. Hersch writes that he visited a record store that same week and ‘rifled through the jazz bins, working my way from A to Z, and bought every album that had a version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ on it: records by Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Chet Baker – thirteen in all. I brought the pile home and played each version of the tune, skipping all the other tracks…it was a revelation. Some were subtle, some were virtuosic, some brisk, some meditative. They all had a mastery of time. I realized each version was unique, and all of them were great.’

If we call Monk, Powell and Hope’s get-togethers ‘a neighborhood hang’, one might say by contrast that Hersch, after doing the jazz hang in his neighborhood, did some ‘hanging with history’.   In my view, the ‘neighborhood hang’ (i.e. hanging with other jazz players of the same or similar instrument, interest, age and/or ability) and the ‘history hang’ are both essential for the aspiring jazz musician.  One place that both kinds of hanging went on in the mid- to late forties was at the residence of pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, whose apartment (pictured above) was a gathering place for many of  the bright lights of the bebop period.  By many accounts,  Williams provided important musical knowledge to her visitors, either intentionally or surreptitiously, as in the case of Monk’s borrowing the A section of his tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ from Williams’ tune ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’; Kelley also documents Williams’ influence on Monk’s tunes ‘Criss Cross’ and ‘Hackensack’.

Like ‘Autumn Leaves’, the Irving Berlin tune ‘Blue Skies’ has been reinvented by players and arrangers in many eras of jazz. Mary Lou Williams’ arrangement of the tune for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, recorded between 1946 and 47 as ‘Trumpet No End’ , was one of the pieces that built her reputation as an arranger; Ella Fitzgerald also created one of her better known scat solos on the tune for the 1959 album Get Happy. Thelonious Monk created his tune ‘In Walked Bud’, dedicated to his protégé, by using the chord progression from the A section of ‘Blue Skies’ and adding a different bridge. Monk made well known two studio recordings of his tune; the 1947 original features an interesting chorus split between trumpeter George Taitt and alto saxophonist Shahib Shihab which includes quotes by both players from the Dizzy Gillespie tune ‘Bebop’.  (The recording dates of ‘Trumpet No End’ and the original ‘In Walked Bud’ being so close in time suggests that Monk’s choice of the ‘Blue Skies’ progression might have been influenced by his hanging with Williams.)  Monk’s version of ‘In Walked Bud’ from the 1968 album Underground features remarkable solos by both Monk and vocalist Jon Hendricks. While Blue Skies has continued to be reininterpreted by historically conscious players such as Bill Charlap, ‘In Walked Bud’ has in turn became a jazz standard in its own right.  In recent years it has been reinvented by players including Fred Hersch, Helen Sung (the version linked here is a duo with Ron Carter, but her combo version from the album ‘Going Express’ is also highly recommended) and Kenny Barron.

My tune ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ is based on my scale outline for In Walked Bud.  It also uses shell voicings, as in the blues solos by Monk, Powell and Hope.  Piano players should also learn the scale outline and the original head of ‘In Walked Bud’ in the right hand by memory and combine them with the left hand voicings in the piano arrangement.  My tune also can work as a countermelody to ‘In Walked Bud’; it works particularly well to combine ‘Monk, Bud and Elmo’ played by the right hand and/or a treble clef instrument and ‘In Walked Bud’ played by the left hand and/or a bass clef instrument.  (The A section of ‘In Walked Bud’, like the bop standards ‘Ornithology’, ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Donna Lee’, is one of those melodic lines that either coincidentally or intentionally works as a countermelody to the tune from which its chord changes originate.)


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A Wrinkle in Time: Joe Davidian’s solo on ‘Straight, No Chaser’ (State of The Blues, part 3)

Joe Davidian is a highly talented jazz pianist and native Vermonter who is currently living and playing in New York City. I’m proud to say that I watched Joe grow up as a player in the Vermont jazz scene, and I have followed his work with interest.  Below is my transcription of Joe’s solo on Straight No Chaser’, Thelonious Monk’s B flat blues, from a version of the tune on Approved’, an album Joe recorded in 2013 with a trio led by the drummer Chester Thompson, perhaps best known for his work with the band Genesis.

One of my goals in this series of posts called ‘State of the Blues’  is to demonstrate that innovative improvising is still being done with standard left hand rootless chord voicings and with a sense of conversation between left hand chords and right hand melody. In the first two choruses, Joe combines sparse, conversational use of left hand voicings with an increasingly active right hand line, which for me recalls Wynton Kelly’s conversational style. In the third chorus, the left hand takes on a more active and supportive role.   Joe’s solo both outlines the chord progression with great precision and makes wonderfully inventive use of Monk’s melodic motives while still managing to be fresh and surprising.  Notice how Joe takes the one-bar idea he introduces in m. 8, moves it down a whole step in m. 9, and then creates what might be called ‘a wrinkle in time’ by playing a more stepwise version of it on the ‘and’ of beat one in m. 10 and on beat 2 in m. 11.  Here the concept of multiple rhythmic repositionings of a single motive, which is a key element of the head to ‘Straight No Chaser’, is ingeniously used by Joe in his solo.  It is worth noticing that Joe first applies Monk’s concept in the first chorus using an idea of his own, and then moves on in the second chorus to developing an idea related to the opening motive of the tune.

                                                                                                                                                                       Monk’s tunes are based on such strong, short and seemingly simple motives that they are great points of departure for motivic improvisation, i.e., improvising based on short melodic gestures.   In a column archived at keyboardmag.com (the online remnant of the late, lamented  Keyboard Magazine), pianist Fred Hersch wrote about soloing on Monk’s I Mean You’ with a motivic approach, including a notated example with his own development of Monk’s opening motive. In the time between Hersch’s column and Joe Davidian’s solo, pianist Jon Batiste also recorded an interesting version of Straight No Chaser’ which expands on the melody’s motives, both more abstractly in the fascinating intro (the bassline of which is almost a twelve-tone row) and the solo which, like Joe Davidian’s, elegantly models the concept of a relaxed conversation between left hand chords and right hand melodic lines.

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Root Systems, Part 1: Join the ii-V-I Club

The exercise above combines one-octave major scales using a ‘seven up and down’ pattern with a progression that could be called the two-bar ii-V-I or ‘short’ ii-V-I.   Briefly, a major ii-V-I progression is a series of three seventh chords built off the second, fifth and first steps of a given major scale.  Building seventh chords on these roots results in a succession of three qualities: a minor seventh chord, followed by a dominant seventh chord, followed by a major seventh chord.  The exercise below shows a way of voicing these three chords in close harmony by using a rootless inversion of the middle chord of the progression (the V7).   The ii-V-I progression can establish the tonic key of a tune or the arrival of a new key, or the end of a phrase or the entire tune.  A ‘ii’ chord, as jazz players define it, does not necessarily have to be built of the second step of a tune’s major scale; in fact, any place in a chord progression where there is a minor 7th chord followed a dominant 7th chord with the roots moving up a perfect fourth is commonly referred to by jazz players as a ‘ii-V’.

A few of the many jazz tunes that are based on the two-bar ii-V-I progression and the one-bar ii-V progression include Charlie Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ (recorded fairly recently by the fantastic Jon Batiste and Stay Human), Bud Powell’s ‘Strictly Confidential’ (eight bars of which is used by Diana Krall in her version of another two-bar ii-V-I tune, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ from Live In Paris), Clifford Brown’s ‘Joy Spring’ and Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’.  (The last two tunes can be found in The Real Book Volume One, Sixth Edition, published by Hal Leonard.)

In Vermont, there is an organization called The 251 Club whose members aspire to visit all 251 towns in the state.  Some of the members who have actually visited all 251 towns are listed on the club’s website.  The Club’s website has a wonderful mission statement, some of which I think also applies to the jazz player’s lifelong pursuit of building a repertoire of  tunes: ‘Travel at your own pace, in a season or in a lifetime, by…whatever conveyance suits your style…The expectation is that you will be inventive and adventurous in following the road less traveled to Vermont’s little known corners, as well as its more popular destinations.’  Jazz players who have tunes to learn for imminent gigs, concerts and exams do not always get to travel at their own pace.  I find, however, that outside the short-term schedule of each individual performance I give, there is a slower process through which I’ve found the tunes that stay in my memory and under my fingers.  I have chosen some of these tunes, but others have chosen me or have been chosen for me.  I play the music of Bud Powell, for example, because I have always been drawn to it, but I now also know a number of Wayne Shorter tunes by heart because of how many times Ray Vega called them on gigs I played with him.  My personal repertoire has been expanded in similar ways by working with many other collaborators.  While the ability to learn a tune list on a prescribed timeline is an important skill for all musicians, the lifelong process of finding and curating a personal  tune list has its own pace, which you might also call ‘your own pace’.  I also like the 251 Club’s emphasis on being ‘inventive and adventurous’, and visiting both ‘popular destination and little-known corners’, all important reminders for the jazz tune hunter (or perhaps ‘tunehound’.)

While the membership fees are reasonably priced, an implied requirement for being a member of the club is that one has access to a mode of transportation.  Maybe there should be an informal musical organization called ‘The ii-V-I Club’, made up of aspiring and practicing jazz players who seek to learn the ii-V-I progression in all keys or expand their knowledge of it, and to learn tunes that use this important musical building block.  If there were such a group, the voicings and scales above are one ‘vehicle’ that can take you through many tunes that are based on the ii-V-I progression – maybe not two hundred and fifty one tunes, but quite a few.  Besides the list of tunes earlier in this post, more ii-V-I tunes can be found in  the next post in this series, Take Three At A Time, which shows how to assemble a list of six tunes from The Real Book Volume One that take you through ii-V-Is in all keys.  My posts Give It Up for The Root (position pattern)s!  and Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris also show a number of one-bar ii-V and two-bar ii-V-I melodic patterns from bop tunes that are based on that progression.  I wish you a happy, lifelong adventure through the byways of the jazz repertoire, full of lots listening and reading, and encourage you to prepare for the journey by learning the ii-V-I progression in all keys.

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Music of Hope in Action (a meditation for Martin Luther King Day)

This is the text of a talk I gave on January 21st at All Souls Interfaith Gathering’s Music and Spirit service.  The service also included performances of the music discussed in the talk. 

In an issue published in late November 2016, the New Yorker magazine featured a series of essays by a range of writers and thinkers on the recent presidential elections and the feeling of hopelessness that they brought to many Americans. The contribution by the writer Junot Diaz was an essay titled ‘Under President Trump, Radical Hope Is Our Best Weapon.’ In the essay, Diaz wrote that hope is ‘not so much something you have, but something you practice.’ Diaz acknowledged that one his sources for this idea is work of the philosopher Jonathan Lear and his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. In the book, Lear refers to the experiences of the Native American Crow nation after they were confined to a reservation, and writes that they had to ‘imagine for themselves a very different future than the one that was their current reality.’ Lear defines radical hope as being ‘directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ This kind of hope, Lear says, is fueled by ‘imaginative excellence’.

Lear spends much of Radical Hope reflecting on the life and sayings of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Native American Crow nation, who lived from 1848 to 1932. Lear’s reflections draw on an account of the chief by a Montana ‘trapper, hunter and cowboy’ named Frank Linderman, who spent time with the chief in the late 19th century. In Linderman’s account, Plenty Coups gives the following description of the time when the Crow were confined to a reservation: “ ‘when the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,’ he added sorrowfully, ‘you know that part of my life as well as I do.‘ “

Lear notes that at first, this quote seems to imply that the reservation was a place where the Crow people lost all sense of selfhood and even all sense of time moving forward. He also notes that the Crow were no strangers to the threat of cultural devastation, as they were confined by the U.S. government to an increasingly small geographic area after having lived under the constant threat of being conquered by their traditional enemies, the Sioux nation. Lear notes with particular interest that the chief describes early reservation years as the period when ‘nothing happened’, and yet, during this time, ‘there was a kind of enthusiasm in [the chief’s] activity that belies this interpretation.’ During the time that the Crow were first confined to the reservation, Plenty Coups ‘avidly took up farming life’, defended the rights of the Crow during several trips to Washington, donated his own home to a state park as a monument and ‘encouraged young Crow to be open to the white man’s education and even their religion.’

For the chief to have led such an active life during a period when his people were under the threat of cultural devastation is a phenomenon Lear describes as ‘radical hope’. Plenty Coups’ activity during his people’s time of confinement re-imagined his own culture’s definition of courage. Lear’s research indicated that the Crow’s definition of courage had previously centered on various battle rituals they used to defend their land, such as the the ‘coup stick’ which a Crow warrior used to define his territory before engaging with a warrior from another tribe. In Lear’s analysis, Plenty Coups widened his culture’s definition of courage to include acts in the arenas of politics, modern agriculture and cross-cultural dialogue. This new definition abandoned the struggle to return to an idealized past, and instead chose to work toward a future that could not yet be fully comprehended. It is significant that many of the acts with which Lear says the chief redefined courage showed an acute concern for the well-being of future generations.

Lear explains that Plenty Coups’ radical hope originated in a dream he had at the age of nine. As a young boy, the future chief dreamed that he was accompanied by a buffalo who changed into a man, and with whom he watched ‘bulls and cows and calves without number’ scatter across the plains.’ His companion in the dream then pointed out ‘the lodge of the Chickadee’ and advised him on how to be a ‘Chickadee-person’. (Lear also adds that the Chickadee has great significance for the Crow people, as many of them claim to have heard messages from the bird.) The chief’s dream companion explained that a ‘Chickadee person’ ‘never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed.’ Lear writes that while some dreams can be a denial of reality, the chief’s boyhood dream was the kind which responds to reality by expressing communal anxiety and communal wishes. ‘The radical hope that Plenty Coups‘ dream generated.’ Lear writes, ‘was itself a manifestation of imaginative excellence. It enabled the tribe to face its future courageously – at a time when the traditional understanding of courage was becoming unlivable.‘

Lear’s reflections on Plenty Coups‘ life and thinking bring to mind a number of pieces of music from the jazz tradition which, for me, embody the concept of radical hope. As I write this close to Martin Luther King Day, I think first of all of two pieces, ‘Alabama’ by John Coltrane and ‘I Have A Dream’ by Herbie Hancock. In these two pieces, the composers reacted to catastrophic events by finding the music in King’s words, and in the process also moved beyond their typical range of musical influences. I also find the concept of radical hope embodied in the song ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’, a composition by jazz pianist Billy Taylor which became an anthem in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was by some accounts a favorite song of Dr. King’s.

On Sept. 15th, 1963, four young girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. At a funeral for three of the four girls, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a eulogy which is now acknowledged to be a turning point in the civil rights movement.  Both the text and the audio of King’s eulogy are available online.  After a shamefully long interval, one suspect in the bombing was finally convicted in 1977. Two more suspects were brought to justice in 2001 and 2002 by attorney Doug Jones, who recently became Alabama’s newest Senator. At the time of the bombings, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane was of course cognizant of the events as a native of a Southern state and a socially conscious individual. Where I believe Coltrane showed what Lear would call ‘imaginative excellence’ was in the way he responded to this tragic event by widening the compass of his musical thinking.

In 1963, Coltrane was still riding the wave of popularity that had begun with his 1961 recording of ‘My Favorite Things’. From the beginning of his career as a bandleader, Coltrane drew his musical repertoire from sources typical for jazz players: compositions by the major figures in the jazz and popular song worlds (such as the Richard Rodgers tune which he so powerfully reshaped.) To these tunes Coltrane gradually began to add compositions of his own, some of which were re-workings of tunes he had played in his career as a sideman, like ‘Impressions‘ (based on Miles Davis’ ‘So What’) and ‘Countdown’ (based on Eddie Vinson’s ‘Tune Up’.) Coltrane had also begun to explore world music on recordings such as Africa/Brass. For me, all these examples suggest that up until the early 1960s, the most evident sources of inspiration for Coltrane’s work had come from inside the world of music and musicians.

In the liner notes to one of his best known works, the 1964 album ‘A Love Supreme’, Coltrane described a major life change he had undergone some years earlier. ‘During the year 1957,’ he wrote, ‘I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.’

Just as Lear theorizes that it was the great Crow chief’s vision as a young boy which made it possible for him to respond to his tribe’s catastrophic displacement with courageous acts of radical hope, it seems possible that Coltrane’s spiritual awakening laid the groundwork for his piece ‘Alabama’, in which he was able to respond ingeniously to the Birmingham catastrophe by drawing on a source of inspiration quite different from those he had pursued up to that time. The recent documentary ‘Chasing Trane’ claims Coltrane told pianist McCoy Tyner that the melodic line of ‘Alabama’ is a musical interpretation of Dr. King’s eulogy. Scholars of Coltrane’s music are divided on whether the connection between Coltrane’s notes and King’s words is abstract or literal. One radio documentary, ‘Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone’, goes as far as to superimpose excerpts from King’s speech over Coltrane’s saxophone playing.

The documentary (viewed together with the lyrics displayed in the YouTube video accompanying it) suggests that there is a close parallel in the opening of Coltrane’s melodic line to a sentence found near the beginning of King’s eulogy: ‘These children, unoffending, innocent and beautiful, were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The documentary also suggests that Coltrane makes a more abstract musical translation of the following excerpts from King’s text: “And so, my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil…The death of these children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood…” King closes by saying: “as I stand over the remains of these beautiful, darling girls I paraphrase the words of Shakespeare ‘good night, sweet princesses, good night, those who symbolize a new day…may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.” The documentary suggests another literal connection between this last phrase of King’s and a repeated motive in Coltrane’s piece. I also hear an echo of ‘good night, sweet princesses, good night’ in Coltrane’s closing section.

In his memoir ‘Possibilities’, pianist and composer Herbie Hancock writes: ‘Like most black Americans, I was shattered by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 and Bobby Kennedy two months later…Yet although I’d been emotionally involved in the civil rights movement, until now I’d never made any overt moves to get involved in it.’ He then goes on to explain that ‘most of the songs’ on his album The Prisoner, recorded a year after King’s death, ‘were about Martin Luther King Jr.’

For me, Hancock’s composition ‘I Have A Dream’, the first track on The Prisoner, is a musical parallel to Junot Diaz’ idea of hope being ‘not something you have, but something you practice.‘ Rather than set King’s iconic phrase ‘I have a dream today!’ with just one set of notes and harmonies, Hancock uses it as the basis of what music theorists call a development section, where the initial six-note motive is not repeated exactly but transformed musically in a number of different ways. The resulting musical journey suggests to me that a truly hopeful person does not simply repeat an idea (like the baby bird in the children’s book ‘Are You My Mother?’), but carries that idea into many different contexts where it undergoes fundamental change and yet maintains its essential structure. It is also significant that Hancock eulogizes King not with a harmonious anthem, but with a piece that alternates sections of placid yet unsettled harmony with more dissonant sections, a vivid portrayal of the tumultuous period that followed King’s death.

In contrast to the ‘Alabama’ and ‘I Have A Dream’, both of which are text-driven instrumental pieces, Billy Taylor’s composition ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ was first recorded by Taylor in 1964 as a funky, uptempo instrumental piece, but had its greatest impact four years later when it was recorded by Nina Simone, who sang the lyrics by Taylor and Dick Dallas.  Simone often performed the tune live, including in a spellbinding version from the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival which showcases her underappreciated piano chops; I’m also a fan of this version by Taylor with his trio in the 1980s.  In an interview with journalist Marc Myers, Taylor mentioned that his daughter ‘came home from school one day singing a spiritual. But she didn’t really know what it was and didn’t have the proper feel behind it.’ Taylor told his daughter: ” ‘Kim, this is a part of your heritage. You can’t be singing a spiritual like that. You have to have more feeling.. I sat down at the piano and said, ‘The spiritual is so much a part of our tradition that I can sit here and make one up on the spot.”

Taylor told Myers that the title came from the melody, because he thought lyrically when composing, but he also describes the tune as ‘taking fifteen minutes to write and a year and a co-writer to finish.’ This was because, as Taylor says, ‘I struggled with the lyrics… My words weren’t saying what I wanted the song to say. Dick helped me finish the lyrics.’
Taylor and Dallas’ lyrics provide a concise and powerful description of a radical hope which is, as Jonathan Lear puts it, ‘directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’ They do not say simply ‘I Wish I Felt Free’. They do not convey the sense of certainty found in songs like ‘Down By The Riverside’ or ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ that the stated goals, the laying down of swords and shields, the joining of the heavenly band, will definitely come to pass in some yet-to-be-revealed way. One wonders if this was the kind of simplicity that Taylor heard in his daughter’s after-school spiritual and sought to remedy with his own tune. He told Myers: ‘Spirituals suggest things about who we are and what we’re about and what we long for.‘ I read this as Taylor stating the values he thought spirituals ought to convey. I would argue that in this quote Taylor is rejecting the idea that spirituals can do more than simply project ancient scriptural imagery into an idealized future: they can and should also speak about the identity and aspirations of living people and their struggles in the present moment, as his song certainly did in the 1960s and still does today.

Taylor’s tune has become a standard, interpreted recently by artists including the Tedeschi/Trucks Band and John Legend.  Dallas and Taylor’s choice of the word ‘would’ – ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel’ – implies, to my ear, an admission which is unusual in the world of hymn texts: that the goals being stated are far from being achieved. When the lyrics are combined with Taylor’s triumphant and swinging music, however, the overall message of the song goes beyond simply acknowledging unrealized potential. It does not merely evoke future possibilities in a symbolic way, it states that there is a future goodness that transcends our current ability to understand what it is, if only we can find the means, the bridges, the portals, the teachable moments that will make that possible goodness a reality.




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Sonatinas and other two-sided stories

The word ‘Sonatina’ is used to describe a variety of pieces for the piano.  Some of these pieces, such as the first movements of Muzio Clementi’s Sonatinas Op 36 numbers 1 and 2, the first movement of Haydn’s Sonatina in G Hoboken XVI: 8, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonatina in F, are microcosms of sonata form.  (Click on any of the four links in the last sentence to hear the pieces mentioned.)  They contain the contrasting first and second themes introduced in the opening exposition section, as well as the development and recapitulation sections that can also be found in longer sonata-form pieces like Mozart’s Sonata in C K 545.  These short sonata-form pieces can be compared to traditions in other art forms that depend on contrast between two characters with sharply articulated differences.  The scores I would recommend most highly for the Haydn and Clementi sonatinas mentioned above can be found at sheetmusicplus.com – here are links to Haydn and Clementi collections available there.  Various other scores can also be found at imslp.com.

The two-person comedy team is a long tradition in North American popular culture in which two performers play off the contrast between their voices, body types, and/or personalities.  Laurel and Hardy played the same pair of characters – the thin, quieter man and the large, louder man – in their many films.  As radio comedians Bob and Ray, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding used the contrast between Elliott’s smooth interviewer voice and Goulding’s more garrulous, animated voice to create scenes like The History of the United States.  For me, duos like these model the kind of sharp contrast that makes for good storytelling both in a comedy routine and a piano piece.  (These two examples also point up the historic lack of gender balance in the comedy world, which is beginning to be challenged by female comedy teams such as the star-studded one in the latest Ghostbusters film.)

While the contrast between the first and second themes in a sonata-form piece can be compared to the contrast between the members of a comedy duo, a parallel to the way a sonata-form piece evolves can be found in the tradition of the short story and its antecedent, the fable.  Aesop’s fable The Hare and The Tortoise begins with short statements from both the antagonistic Hare and the serenely confident Tortoise, and continues through the ‘rising action’ of the story where they race each other.  The hare gets ahead in the race and becomes so confident of victory that he decides to take a nap, while the tortoise persists at his slower pace, eventually passes up the sleeping hare, and wins the race.  When the two meet up again at the end of the race, the roles of the two characters are reversed: the taunter and the target of his sarcasm become the vanquished and the victor.  A somewhat longer story involving two characters can be found in O. Henry’s short story ‘The Gift of the Magi’.  In this story, a fretting wife and a busy husband attempt to surprise each other with Christmas gifts, but the result of each one’s efforts ends up foiling the other’s plans.  The structures of both of these stories contain parallels to the development and recapitulation sections of a sonata-form piece.

In the Clementi Sonatina Op. 36 number 1, the overall descending, intervallic motion of the first theme is contrasted by the ascending, scalar motion of the second theme.  The first movement of Clementi’s Sonatina Op. 36 no. 2, as well as the first movement of Haydn’s Sonatina in G display these same types of contrast between their first and second themes.  In the Beethoven Sonatina in F Major, a descending scalar first theme is contrasted by a second theme based on a intervallic pattern of descending thirds connected by ascending scale motion.  If you are learning one of these pieces, I would suggest both consulting a high-quality recording of the piece, such as the recording of the Beethoven Sonatina by the mid-twentieth century British pianist Solomon, or any of the videos to which I linked in the first paragraph, to study the way these performers create musical contrast between the two themes of the piece.  It might also be helpful to study the comedy sketches and short stories mentioned above for ideas about character contrast in other art forms.  For those who have an interest in other kinds of storytelling, it could be helpful to come up with a story of your own to parallel the musical story in the piece, such as Anthony Burgess did with the Mozart G minor symphony in his book On Mozart: A Paean to Wolfgang.  One of my students who was studying the Clementi sonatina op. 36 no. 1 and also had an interest in theater named the two themes in the piece ‘Jumpy’ and ‘Runner’, as though they were characters in a play.  Learning and performing a sonata-form piece, even a shorter one such as those cited here, is an opportunity to find the story within the music and bring it to life in your own way.

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‘Making the changes’ on short forms, part 1: Liza Jane

‘Liza Jane’ is a North American folk tune that is a standard in the repertoire of New Orleans jazz.  It has been performed by musicians from pianist Ramsey Lewis to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.  It is an example of the strong African influence in New Orleans music, as the B section of the tune (usually sung with the words ‘Oh Eliza, little Liza Jane’) is very similar to the African tune ‘Funga Alafia’ (also known as ‘Fanga Alafia’), which is typically described as originating from West Africa.  The two tunes are even sung together in a recent choral arrangement.

In most versions I’ve heard, including a recent one by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, ‘Liza Jane’ is essentially a one-chord tune.  In that version, tenor saxophonist Daniel Farrow takes a solo based entirely on the major scale (in my transcription here it is transposed from the recording’s key of E flat to F major, to match the other examples in this post):

The version by the Ramsey Lewis Trio skips the traditional A section of the tune and creates a 32 bar AABA form where the A is the traditional B section from ‘Liza Jane’ and the bridge is a progression moving from D minor back to F.  In the first chorus of Lewis’ solo, the piano and bass both stay with the F7 chord throughout the A section; in the second chorus (which begins around 1:30), his left hand begins to vaguely imply a different chord in the fifth measure, and Eldee Young on bass reacts to the implication in m. 7-8.  What is most interesting to me here is the way Lewis’ choice of notes cannot be interpreted as coming from a single scale. 

My own arrangement of the tune is below.  In the scale outline I’ve added to the tune suggests improvising with a ‘left hand call, right hand response’ approach and using two scales that Lewis uses in his solo, the F ‘major blues’ scale (the major pentatonic scale plus the flatted third) and the F seventh scale.  

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‘Making the changes’ on short forms, part 2: Polly Wolly Doodle (a musical cousin of Iko Iko)

I was going to make this a post about the New Orleans standard tune ‘Iko Iko’, but then realized it is a copyrighted tune, so I decided to go with ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’, which uses the same chord progression and is in the public domain.  As it turns out, ‘Polly Wolly’ was recorded by two prominent jazz vibraphonists, Red Norvo and Terry Gibbs; the Gibbs version features a great solo by a pianist named Alice McLeod, who would later marry John Coltrane and become Alice Coltrane.  In any case, this progression allows you to focus on dealing with just two chords, F (or F7) and C or (C7), otherwise known as the ‘tonic’ and ‘dominant’ chords in the key of F.

The arrangement of Polly Wolly Doodle below is based on a version I recorded with Chris Dorman, a Vermont singer-songwriter who is also a gifted performer of children’s music.  The rhythmic pattern in the left hand is what musicians in the Latin traditions (Latin Jazz, son, salsa, etc.) call ‘3-2 clave’, although in those musics the pattern is played on a pair of wooden sticks while the chord instruments play a different pattern known as guajeo or montuno.  When this pattern is used as part of a chordal accompaniment pattern in a rock context, it is often called the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ after the singer and guitarist Bo Diddley who used it in a number of classic guitar parts.  The scale outline shows three different ways to approach the progression and suggests a way to use part of the ‘Bo Diddley beat’ in the left hand as a ‘question’ and answer it with melodic phrases in the right hand.  This idea is taken from my transcription of Henry Butler’s solo on ‘Some Iko’, a tune based on the New Orleans standard ‘Iko Iko’ he recorded with trumpeter Steven Bernstein.  A link to ‘Some Iko’ and my transcription of the beginning of Butler’s solo can be seen in my post on Butler’s visit to UVM.

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