Summer Comping Trip: a play-by-play analysis of two great jazz soloist-accompanist combinations

When I studied jazz performance and composition at Hampshire College, one of my most important experiences in ensemble playing was a class I took at the University of Massachusetts  at Amherst (through the Five College system) with Professor Archie Shepp called ‘Black Music and Dance’.  While Prof. Shepp is best known for playing the tenor saxophone – the instrument he plays on the John Coltrane album ‘Ascension’ as well as most of his own recordings – he is also, like many great improvisers, a skilled pianist.  (One of the fascinating things about Shepp as a player is that, like Coltrane and Anthony Braxton, he has both a serious commitment to and a serious gift for both avant-garde and more ‘straight-ahead’ or ‘inside’ jazz.  To get a sense of his ‘inside’ playing, which is organically related to his more exploratory work, check out his version of Darn That Dream – from the album ‘Ballads for Trane’ with the great and underappreciated Albert Dailey on piano – or Yardbird Suite from his duo album ‘Looking at Bird’ with Oscar Peterson’s longtime bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen.)  I first learned about this while I was comping rather carefully and passively on a tune during his ensemble class. After he sat down at the piano and demonstrated comping that was more rhythmically and melodically active, he moved aside to let me play again, and said: ‘keep it interesting!’ I later found a record called ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (now out of print) on which Archie leads a piano trio; his swinging re-imagining of the title tune prefigures Marcus Roberts’ re-composition of Joplin on his album ‘The Joy of Joplin’.

‘Maple Leaf Rag’ puts Archie Shepp in the category of great jazz players who are not primarily known as pianists but whose considerable piano skills are well documented; others in this category include Charles Mingus (check out his harmonically adventurous take on Eubie Blake’s ‘Memories of You’ ‘Mingus Plays Piano’) and Gerry Mulligan (check out his idiosyncratically contrapuntal approach to the blues on ‘Storyville Story’ on the live ‘Gerry Mulligan Quartet’ album.) (I am hoping to do a blog post at some point on what I call ‘Accidental Pianists’ – jazz players, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, whose piano skills were documented accidentally during sessions when their piano chops turned out to be crucial survival skills – and ‘Closet Pianists’, such as Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, whose piano skills were not documented, but are mentioned by historical sources. I believe that Bird and Ella’s piano skills are also evident in their approach to constructing single note melodic lines.)

My experiences trading off with Prof. Shepp on the piano bench also led me to further study a variety of comping approaches (including the approach of McCoy Tyner, who Archie often mentioned; among the harmonic techniques he introduced me to was the Coltrane quartet’s reharmonization of Body and Soul.) While my approach to voicing chords and comping has been influenced by many of the pianists I’ve studied and worked with, including Chuck Eller, Tom McClung, James Harvey and Barry Harris, one of my early ‘lightbulb moments’ about chord voicings was in studying jazz arranging with Jeff Holmes, who made me aware of how the range of a big band trombone section overlaps considerably with the range used for voicing rootless chords on the piano (approximately C3 to C5), and so many of the same techniques can be used to voice chords for both of these situations.

As a teacher, I often find myself echoing Archie’s comments to me when I ask students to work on making their comping more melodic and interactive. Other teachers who hear my intermediate students play often make the same comment, and hearing it repeated many times has reminded me of the need for more specific information on how to build one’s comping skills so that one is not just repeating a chord progression, but creating some kind of arc over multiple choruses of the progression. There are a number of books, such as the ‘Piano Comping’ volume of the Jazz Conception series, which include transcriptions of comping that was recorded by a pianist specifically for the book or for a playalong recording. Although there is helpful information to be gleaned from these books, I have not found many transcriptions or analysis that deal with how great jazz pianists comp responsively and creatively in ‘real life’ performing situations in the studio or on stage.

In hopes of shedding some light on the difficult balancing act of jazz comping, I have transcribed the work of two great jazz pianists who were also great accompanists (or ‘compers’.) Among other things, these comping parts by Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson demonstrate how a great jazz pianist uses a chord progression, whether they are reading it or playing it from memory, like a great interviewer uses a set of questions. As I was transcribing these comping parts and the solos they accompany, and adding commentary on the interplay between soloists and accompanists to these transcriptions, I found myself awestruck by the level of split-second interplay between these great players. I was also aware how my commentary could come off like the great Peter Schickele routine where he follows Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with play-by-play sports commentary.   In any case, I hope these transcriptions are helpful to players who seek to improve their responsiveness and creativity as compers or soloists.

As I transcribed these choruses from ‘Cool Struttin’ (from the Sonny Clark album of the same name) and a live recording of Peterson and Clark Terry playing ‘Blues for Smedley’, I was reminded of how pianists who are skilled at comping create contrasts within their own parts in a variety of ways, for example, changing from more busy comping to more sparse comping, or from comping that is more melodically static to comping which is more melodically active. In my analysis here, I call these ‘strategy changes’. In the examples shown here, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark change their strategy often, sometimes in response to activity in the soloist’s line, and other times to break with a comping pattern before it becomes undesirably repetitive. In both tunes the piano part doesn’t stay with a single comping approach for a whole chorus of the form, but rather tends to change every two to four bars.

Skilled compers are also able to alternate during a single solo between echoing the soloist’s ideas at some points and contrasting their ideas at other points. At a number of points in ‘Cool Struttin’ and ‘Blues For Smedley’, to my ear, both these kinds of responsive comping lead the soloist to change their strategy, either to further develop the idea being echoed in the comping (as in Art Farmer’s second chorus on ‘Cool Struttin’) or to pick up the contrasting idea being introduced in the comping (as at the beginning of Clark Terry’s third chorus on ‘Blues for Smedley’). This underlines how important it is for pianists to use strong ideas in comping, to either clearly echo the soloist’s idea or to create clear contrast with the soloist.

In the examples below, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson both use what I call ‘riff comping’, which uses repeating and usually simple melodic patterns either to fill spaces in the melody (which I call answering riffs) or as a counterpoint to the melodic line (which I call background riffs). Although both the examples given here are in small group contexts, both Sonny Clark and Oscar Peterson’s uses of riff comping echoes the use of horn section riffs in classic big band blues arrangements such as ‘C Jam Blues’ and ‘Blues in Frankie’s Flat’. The examples here also include comping which is not connected to a repeating pattern but is rather a spontaneous response to activity in the solo line; I call these answer comping and background comping. Sonny Clark’s comping during the head statement of his tune ‘Cool Struttin’ includes answer comping and background comping, and then begins to use riff comping in the second chorus of Art Farmer’s solo. Oscar Peterson begins comping behind Clark Terry’s head statement on ‘Blues for Smedley’ using riffs that sound like the composed riffs in a big band arrangement, but quickly changes to an improvised background line in his right hand. Starting with the first chorus of Terry’s solo, he returns to more ensemble-style riff comping.

I encourage readers to listen to the recordings of the tunes while following my transcriptions and comments. I encourage you to use the comment section to add to or even disagree with my play-by-play commentary. For pianists seeking to increase the variety of their comping, I would suggest learning the transcribed comping parts and playing them along with the original recording. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal here is not to memorize the transcriptions, or even to emulate Peterson’s virtuosity or Clark’s harmonic sophistication, but rather to strive toward their level of variety and responsiveness. My hope is that those who read this blog post and study these transcriptions can borrow ideas from Oscar Peterson and Sonny Clark and combine them with their own ideas to work toward a personal approach to creative and responsive comping.

I’d also encourage comments that answer the following question (required for my jazz piano students): Name a jazz recording involving piano and one other solo instrument and identify one or more specific moments in which chordal comping (on piano or guitar) influences the development of an improvised instrumental or vocal solo by another player (or where the development of the solo influences the comping).  If possible, add a link to a public page (YouTube, etc.) where the recording can be heard; use timings (i.e. ‘2:35’, ‘4:17’ etc.) to identify the moments of soloist-accompanist interplay, and give a brief description of what happens.  (Examples of chordal accompaniment to a solo instrument in other styles are acceptable as well, provided that both parts have some improvisational element to them.)

Oscar Peterson Trio with Clark Terry – Blues for Smedley, live in Finland 1965

blues for smedley - Full Scoreblues for smedley 2blues for smedley 3

Cool Struttin’ – Sonny Clark (Art Farmer, trumpet)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

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‘Ornithology’: the memory palace of two bebop masterminds

In a recent news story, publishers who represent songwriters Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty contacted publishers for singer/songwriter Sam Smith about  a four-bar similarity between the melody and chord progression of Lynne and Petty’s 1989 hit song ‘Won’t Back Down’ and Smith’s recent hit ‘Stay With Me’.  Part of the settlement for this case was that in addition to receiving a financial settlement, Lynne and Petty will also be credited as co-composers of Smith’s tune.  The stunned reaction of Smith and his collaborators, who said they were not familiar with Lynne and Petty’s tune and that the resemblance was ‘a complete coincidence’, is common among rock and pop songwriters who are informed about musical similarities between their work and previously copyrighted songs.   In the classic case where the publishers of ‘He’s So Fine’ accused George Harrison of plagarizing their tune in his hit ‘My Sweet Lord’, a judge used the term ‘subconscious plagarism’ to describe Harrison’s process.

In the case of many classic tunes from the bebop era, the question of who composed them is still a subject of open debate, but musical analysis shows that they contain deliberate and artful borrowings from multiple sources.  In many cases, such as ‘Donna Lee’, usually attributed to Charlie Parker but more recently claimed as the work of Miles Davis, the connections between tune and composer are enveloped in the mists of jazz history.  This lack of certainty about composer credits has led many scholars of music from the bebop era to examine the tunes themselves for clues about their origin.  In some research I did recently about the bebop anthem ‘Ornithology’, I found that the closer I looked, the more I heard the tune as being a musical collage that deliberately draws on multiple sources but is assembled artfully enough to sound like the work of a single hand.

In a recording from a live concert in 1952, when a radio announcer asks Charlie Parker who composed ‘Ornithology’, he answers ‘Benny Harris’.  This answer, straight from Parker’s own mouth, contradicts a number of widely circulated published charts of ‘Ornithology’ which list Parker as the sole composer.  After doing some historical research, I’ve concluded that it is most accurate to list Parker and Harris as co-composers (as a few published charts do), and that the sources of the tune likely extend beyond the two of them.  While it has been well established that ‘Ornithology’ is based on the chord progression of ‘How High The Moon‘ by Morgan Lewis, the origins of the individual phrases in the tune are less often discussed.    In the course of my research I looked at established theories on origins of phrases in ‘Ornithology’ and developed a few of my own.  I  also found that looking at relationships  between ‘Ornithology’  and other tunes composed by Parker (or attributed to him) can highlight some general concepts that are helpful in the process of memorizing bebop tunes (and incorporating their concepts into one’s own improvisational vocabulary.)

In his book Yardbird Suite, Lawrence Koch demonstrates that measures 1-2 of Ornithology were taken by Benny Harris from the opening of Parker’s solo on the 1942 recording of ‘The Jumpin’ Blues’ by the Jay McShann Orchestra.  Right off the bat, the first phrase of this seminal bebop tune shows the crucial  process of extracting licks from great solos and transposing them to other keys, as it transposes the lick from ‘The Jumpin’ Blues’ from its original E  flat to G major, the key of ‘How High the Moon’:Ornithology m. 1-2

Measures 3-4 of ‘Ornithology’ show Harris engaging with another process essential to the improviser: altering or developing a learned melodic idea to adapt to a different harmonic context (in this case, a different chord progression.)    In this case Harris adapts Parker’s idea in a way that fits the move to the parallel minor in m.3 of the progression to ‘How High The Moon’.  Ornithology m.3-4 jpg

(A more recent example of this can be heard in a recording of ‘Anthropology’ by Parker’s  friend Sheila Jordan.  In her solo, Jordan takes a phrase from Benny Harris’ tune ‘Reets and I’, a tune based on ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’, and develops it in a way that fits the progression of ‘Anthropology’.)

I have noticed that the last five notes of measures 5-6 are a motive which Parker uses with a one-note alteration in the opening of ‘Anthropology’:Ornithology m.5

Anthro m. 1

David Baker is among those who have pointed out that the motive used in measures 7-8 in ‘Ornithology’ is the same figure seen the last two measures of the bridge of ‘Anthropology’ (although, as with the ‘Jumpin’ Blues’ lick, Harris had to transpose the lick to make it work in ‘Ornithology’.)  (Measures 9-10, like measures 3-4, adapt the borrowed lick to a different set of chord changes than those with which it originally appeared.):

Anthro 23-24Ornithology m. 7-8  Of these two tunes, ‘Anthropology’ was recorded first, and given the many stories of Parker composing tunes shortly before they were recorded (or even the same day), it would suggest that Benny Harris took these from ‘Anthropology’ and used them in ‘Ornithology’.  Given the competing historical  accounts of when Parker tunes originated, there is no way to be sure of this theory, but in any case, noticing similarities between two tunes makes it easier to learn both of them.

I think it is possible that measures 11-12 show a knowledge of Parker’s career that goes beyond a familiarity with his licks to a detailed knowledge of his playing career.  These measures bear a strong resemblance to the main motive of ‘Robbins’ Nest’, a tune composed by Sir Charles Thompson, a pianist and bandleader with whom Parker worked a number of times.  (The link above is to a 1990s recording of the tune by the composer; there is also a great version by Milt Buckner which demonstrates his mastery of ‘locked-hands’ technique, a technique which by some accounts he originated, although it is commonly associated with George Shearing.)  Although Parker’s one recording session with Thompson did not include ‘Robbins’ Nest’, it is likely that he would have played it in the course of his work with Thompson, as it was one of the bandleader’s best known tunes.  In a reversal of  measures 1-4 and 7-10, where a lick is first stated in a way that exactly matches its appearance in another context and is then followed by a transformation, the ‘Robbins’ Nest’ theme is used first with a minor key alteration in m. 11-12 and is then returned to its original major-key context in measures 27-28.  (The minor-key alteration of the ‘Robbins’ Nest’ motive in m. 11 also matches the first four notes of the jazz standard ‘Cry Me A River’, which as Greg Fishman demonstrates is the source of a frequently used and multipurpose lick.) If, as seems likely to me, these two phrases are references to the Thompson tune, ‘Ornithology‘ begins to look like a highly detailed (one might even say ‘nerdy’) tribute to Parker that references three stages of his career: his early work with the Kansas City pianist Jay McShann in m. 1-4, and his collaboration with by Dizzy Gillespie (who some scholars think had a hand in the composition of ‘Anthropology’) in m. 5-10, and  his work in Washington D.C. and later in New York with Charles Thompson in m. 11 and 27.  One could use this non-linear tour of Parker’s mid-life career as a structure for remembering the tune (in a process akin to the ‘memory palace’ technique demonstrated in the PBS series Sherlock.)

If Harris is the primary composer of the tune, as Parker’s answer from the 1952 radio broadcast indicates, it starts to look like a piece of what today in popular literature is called ‘fan fiction’ – creative works in which themes or characters created by a famous author are developed by a lesser-known but nonetheless skilled admirer of the famous author’s work.  While Harris was in many ways a contemporary of Parker’s, and so was well qualified to create an anthology of his licks, the fact that he was more known as a sectional player than as a soloist also suggests that, in addition to being an associate of Parker’s in groups such the Earl Hines and  Dizzy Gillespie big bands, he was enough of a ‘fan’ to pull those licks from a variety of different eras in Parker’s career.  The pun in Harris’ title of the tune (i.e. taking a word that means the study of birds and using it to reference to the study of ‘Bird’) refers not just to his own study of Parker, but to a musically astute subset of Parker’s fans who were devoted to preserving and studying his improvisations, such as Dean Benedetti, whose live recordings of Parker were released in the late 1980s.

There are two different versions of the melody in measures 13-16; in the first recorded version of the tune, a triplet lick is passed between the trumpet, alto, tenor and guitar during these measures.  In later versions of the tune, such as the one on ‘One Night In Birdland’, these measures are replaced with a phrase which is melodically similar to the bridge of ‘A Night In Tunisia’ and rhythmically similar to the bridge of ‘Moose The Mooche’.  The distinctiveness of the rhythmic motive, which also shows up in the bridge of ‘Anthropology’ and the fourth measure of ‘Scrapple From The Apple’, suggests that this might be an addition by Parker and  not part of Harris’ original assembly of Parker licks.  When this revision is added to the tune, it makes it much more sensible as a feature for a soloist, as the original version requires an antiphonal exchange between instruments.  (The revision also made practical sense for Parker, as live recordings of the tune demonstrate that he often played the tune on pick-up gigs with local rhythm sections, and would likely have not had the time to rehearse the original version with these groups.)

Looking at the relationships between ‘Ornithology’ and other Parker tunes is a reminder of some of the main characteristics of bebop melodic concepts (i.e. licks):
– They are often built in two measure phrases; even phrases that sound like longer melodic units are built from two measure components.
– Many phrases begin on upbeats, and phrases that begin single upbeats are often contrasted with phrases that begin with multiple upbeats.
It is helpful to know the source of a lick, or at least identify it with first tune in which one encountered it, and identify it when it recurs in other contexts.  Some examples:
– the ‘Jumpin Blues’ lick, which is re-used by Harris in ‘Ornithology’, is also re-used in Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton’s ‘Perdido Line’ and number of Ella Fitzgerald’s solos on ‘How High the Moon’.
– the ‘Cool Blues’ lick (from the riff blues of the same name), an altered fragment of which appears in m. 8 of Anthropology, is used in the Parker solos on Yardbird Suite and Dewey Square which appear in the Charlie Parker Omnibook.
– the ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ lick (from the opening of the Fats Waller tune by the same name) shows up in m. 8 of ‘Blues for Alice’ (rhythmically altered and with one note subtracted), in m. 15 of Donna Lee, and Parker disciple Cannonball Adderley’s solo on the Bobby Timmons tune ‘This Here’ (he uses the lick around 3:00, with two notes reversed.)
– while the second half of the ‘Robbins’ Nest lick’ is used in m. 11 and 27 of Ornithology, the opening of the lick can be heard in the bridge of Parker’s ‘Dewey Square’ solo.
– The lick from m. 5 of Anthropology was re-used by Parker in a rhythmically altered version in the last measure of Confirmation.  Measure 2 of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Doxy’ closely follows both the melodic and rhythmic pattern of the ‘Confirmation’ ending but ends on the 6th rather than the root.  The theory that this phrase was borrowed from ‘Confirmation’ is supported by the fact that Rollins was a student of Parker’s melodic language.  However, Rollins is also a master of motivic development, both in his improvising and his compositions, and this makes it just as likely that m.2 of ‘Doxy‘ is an inversion (i.e. upside-down version) of the first measure of the tune.

Parker’s ability to use a single lick in multiple contexts, and to succeed so often at making it part of a coherent whole with its own structural integrity, was one of the factors that led to his creating such a uniquely memorable body of improvised work.  In his Parker biography Chasin’ The Bird, Brian Priestly writes that some of Parker’s ‘improvisations on standards…were so popular that audiences could sing along with his recorded improvisation.’  But as with the work of Beethoven, the strength of the whole in Parker’s work derives in part from the strength of the motives he chose to use, and those motives have since been identified and catalogued by scholars including Lawrence Koch in his aforementioned book.

Some accounts of Parker’s life indicate that, although he did not musically notate his vocabulary of licks or catalogue them in a formal sense, he did sometimes associate certain licks with symbolic meanings.  Priestly quotes bassist and Parker collaborator Gene Ramey as saying of Parker: ‘Everything had a musical significance for him.  He’d hear dogs barking, for instance, and he would say it was a conversation – and if he was blowing his horn he would have something to play that would portray that thought to us.  When we were riding the car between jobs we might pass down a country lane and see the trees and some leaves, and he’d have some sound for that.  And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might have would give him an idea for something to play in his solo.  As soon as he would do that, we were all so close we’d all understand just what he meant.’

Some recent episodes of the radio show and podcast Birdnote describe how this symbolic use of musical phrases occurs in the world of actual birds as well.  The black-capped chickadee uses different variations on its main call to scold predators and announce food sources, and a markedly different call to seek a mate in the spring.  Wood-wrens use a series of quickly alternating call-and-response phrases which ornithologists believe ‘reinforces pair bonds in birds that frequently lose sight of each other’.   (One of the wrens’ phrases turns out to be an ornamented version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’.)

Naming melodic phrases based on their origin, or the context in which one initially discovered them, or a symbolic association can be a helpful ‘hook’ on which to ‘hang’ one’s memory of the melody.  If one can attach these hooks to the framework of the chord progression, it further stabilizes the tune in one’s memory.  With Sonny Rollins’ tune ‘Doxy’, for example, if I remember that the chord progression has a basic similarity to ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (as described in an earlier blog post), and then remember the similarity of m. 2 to the Parker lick in m. 5 of ‘Anthropology’ and m. 31 of ‘Confirmation’, and the similarity of m. 7 to the same measure in the opening strain of Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, memorizing the rest of the tune becomes a matter of making connections to these landmarks (m. 1 is a nearly exact inversion of m. 2; m. 3 is an alteration of m. 7 that resolves to the root rather than the V chord, etc.)

‘Ornithology’ has the unusual status of being a piece of music assembled from a legendary player’s vocabulary by an admiring associate which subsequently became a theme song for the legendary player.  When I mentioned the idea of ‘Ornithology’ as a kind of musical ‘fan fiction’ to a group of students, and asked whether fan fiction has ever been used by the author who inspired it, one of them mentioned that the author J.K. Rowling has incorporated characters from Harry Potter fan fiction into her own Harry Potter books.  But on the musical side, the question remains – have other jazz players (or any musicians for that matter) been able to incorporate music written in their honor into their repertoire as successfully as Parker did?   I would welcome any responses to this question in the comment section, and any other thoughts about recycling of melodic motives by Parker or other improvisers.

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Charlie Parker and Alan Turing: Anthropology is ‘The Bombe’

In my Theory and Practice of Jazz Improvisation class at UVM, we study some building blocks of the bebop melodic language which Barry Harris has assembled and codified as the ‘5-4-3-2’ licks.  They are four short licks of between four and eight notes each which are models of how to balance ascending and descending motion as well as how to balance intervallic and stepwise motion on a small scale.

5,4,3,2 licks These licks are ubiquitous in the language of many jazz giants.  I first became aware of this from reading Fiona Bicket’s analysis of Barry Harris’ solo on ‘Stay Right With It’ (included in her book The Barry Harris Approach To Improvised Lines and Harmony: An Introduction), which shows how Harris makes ingenious use of the ‘4’ lick multiple times when soloing over this B flat blues progression.  Since then I have found a number of examples that demonstrate how 5-4-3-2 licks can be used at the beginning, middle or end of a melodic phrase (as Barry Harris says, they are useful for ‘getting out of trouble’.)  Charlie Parker begins the last eight bars of his ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo with the 5 lick, and includes the 4 toward the end of the same section.  Frank Morgan plays a beautiful phrase at the end of his solo on Tommy Flanagan’s Something Borrowed, Something Blue which uses a fragment of the 5 lick twice.   (This phrase, and the first and last two bar phrases in the last A of the ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo, lend themselves particularly well to being transposed through all twelve keys.)

The bridge of Charlie Parker’s solo on his big band version of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’, where he combines the 5 lick and the 3 lick, shows one of the many ways the licks can be combined.   They can also be used in multiple harmonic contexts, as one can see from a Parker solo on a live version of ‘Ornithology’ (from a now apparently out of print album called ‘Broadcast Performances’), where he uses a combination of the 5 lick and the 4 lick in a way that also includes the flat 9 of a dominant 7th chord.  This combination of Parker’s involves the first half of a combination that Harris calls the ‘5-4-3-2 lick’, a longer lick that combines all four of the shorter licks.  I sometimes call this the ‘Monster Lick’, as it combines a number of pieces into a working whole, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale:

5-4-3-2 lick

As I have studied the 5-4-3-2 licks over the years I have become more aware that, even though the licks themselves are used by a number of improvisers, they are even more important as a general example of the way that improvisers in the jazz tradition use many kinds of highly potent and malleable melodic motives or ‘licks’ in multiple rhythmic and harmonic contexts.  While the 5-4-3-2 licks are examples of melodic vocabulary shared by many improvisers, Charlie Parker developed his own personal vocabulary of licks which he either generated himself or came to ‘own’ through his masterful use of them.  Identifying these licks as the building blocks of his composing and improvising can make it possible to ‘decode’ his personal melodic language in a way that makes it much easier to memorize and internalize his melodies, solos and melodic concepts.

Although I have played Charlie Parker tunes and studied his solos for many years, my interest in approaching his melodic language as a kind of code stems from a number of recent nonfiction and fictionalized accounts of the British cryptologists stationed at Bletchley Park during World War II.  These include a fascinating article on the difference between puzzles and mysteries by Malcolm Gladwell, the PBS series ‘The Bletchley Circle’, and the recent film ‘The Imitation Game’, which dramatizes the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician whose creative approach to cracking codes used in radio transmissions by the German Navy made a major contribution to the Allies’ victory over the Axis in World War II.  At the point when Turing joined the British intelligence community, the German Navy was encoding messages using the Enigma machine, a kind of early code-reading electric typewriter capable of reading messages with a high degree of encryption.  In a step beyond codes used in earlier eras, where each letter of the alphabet was simply replaced with a different letter, the Enigma machine allowed the German Navy to send messages in codes where a single alphabetic letter could represent multiple letters depending on its position in the message.  (A video by numberphile helped me to understand this.)  Jim Holt writes that Turing’s approach to this seemingly unbreakable encryption was to devise a machine ‘the size of several refrigerators, with dozens of rotating drums’ which was capable of searching for ‘logical consistency’ – such as frequently used phrases – in the German Navy messages.  Because of a ticking sound it made, Turing’s colleagues dubbed the machine ‘the Bombe’.  Holt hints that a change occured in Turing’s demeanor during the time he developed this machine; while he was ‘solitary’ and ‘ascetic’ in his earlier academic life at Princeton and Cambridge, during his time at Bletchley Park he ‘impressed his colleagues as a friendly, approachable genius, always willing to explain his ideas.’ ‘The Imitation Game’ also dramatizes Turing as a reluctant but well-liked group leader.  Both the ‘Bombe‘ and a later, more elaborate computer which Turing began designing in 1945 are now acknowledged as the forerunners of the modern personal computer.

There are a number of noteworthy correspondences between Turing’s life and the life of Charlie Parker.  Both men had a genius for working with patterns; as a Japanese website has shown, Parker ‘encoded’ his melodic lines with not only his own melodic phrases but those from sources including classical music, folk music and opera; and Turing’s greatest success came from developing a machine that used electrical current to identify patterns in encoded messages. There are also parallels in the way their work evolved chronologically: in 1945, the year that Turing began developing his plan for a more elaborate computer, Parker had his first recording session as a leader, which included his classic tune ‘Anthropology’.  (When one considers that Turing’s 1945 computer design, following his work leading the group at Bletchley Park, ultimately led to his being appointed deputy head of the computing laboratory at Manchester University, one can see that Turing and Parker were rising to leadership positions in their respective fields at around the same time.)  The original title of ‘Anthropology’, ‘Thrivin‘ On A Riff’, is a clue to the way in which it is a repository of multiple patterns that figure prominently in Parker’s personal melodic code.

A number of commentators on Parker’s music, including Lawrence Koch and David Baker, have pointed out how the last phrase in the bridge of ‘Anthropology‘ is identical to measures 7-8 in ‘Ornithology’ (and nearly identical to measures 9-10.)  None of the analysts and biographers of Parker I have consulted so far, however, have pointed out that the A section of ‘Anthropology’ contains four smaller motives, comparable in size to the 5-4-3-2 licks, with clear connections to other places in Parker’s work: in order, they are the first five notes of the tune (which Parker reuses with a different rhythmic placement as the first five notes of ‘Dexterity’); the last five notes of the first measure, which are re-used with a different concluding note in measure 6 of ‘Ornithology’; measure 7, which takes the melodic pattern from the second half of measure 8 of Billie’s Bounce, extends it rhythmically by half a beat (i.e. an eighth note pulse) and simplifies it melodically by removing one note; and measure 8, which is a slightly altered version of the second half of the ‘Cool Blues’ motive which formed the basis of one of Parker’s B flat blues heads (and which he stated with a signature-like clarity in his solos on ‘Yardbird Suite’ and ‘Dewey Square’.)

Of these four tunes, three were recorded after ‘Anthropology’, while one (‘Billie’s Bounce’) was recorded the same day.  Parker analysts and biographers do not generally agree that the order in which he recorded his tunes was also the order in which he composed them, so it may be futile to try and establish whether the composition of these four tunes came after their themes were encapsulated in ‘Anthropology’, but in any case, the musical relationship is clear.  Whether ‘Anthropology’ was composed before or after the tunes it references, it is a summation of some of his most potent ideas, much like Turing’s ‘Bombe’ and the post-war machine for which it was the prototype.

On a more abstract level, the rhythmic pattern which is heard between beat 2 of measure 7 and beat 1 of measure 8 in Anthropology is also an important element both of Parker’s melodic code and the elements of melodic language that he and Dizzy Gillespie shared.  It can be heard multiple times in ‘Moose the Mooche’ (including between beat 4 of measure 5 and beat 3 of measure 6 in each A section, and three times in the bridge), and it forms the opening lick of Gillespie’s hit ‘Oop Bop Sh Bam’, which Parker performed on at least one occasion with Gillespie and his big band.  Anthro breakdown

In the version of ‘Moose the Mooche’ by Joe Lovano and his quintet Us 5, the rhythm section dispenses with traditional bassline-and-chords comping and plays a single-line accompaniment based on this motive.  Their accompaniment to the A section is based on a rhythmic motive heard in measures 1 and 3 of each A section and the last two bars of the second and last A sections.  This motive is extended to three repetitions in m. 1-3 and 11-12 of Billie’s Bounce, and is truncated to a single statement in measure 2 of ‘Anthropology’.

As I hope to continue demonstrating in future posts, the more one becomes aware of Parker’s use of patterns, the more one comes to see that while his work does include a fairly large number of tunes, there is a somewhat smaller vocabulary of key melodic and rhythmic phrases that recur throughout the tunes.  I believe that one could demonstrate the same kind of thematic unity in the work of Thelonious Monk, whose interest in variation through repetition can be found in many tunes, or Billy Strayhorn, whose best work shows his interest in altered harmony and dominant-cycle chord progressions.  I would question whether the an equally identifiable melodic style could be found in the best-known tunes of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, two undeniably masterful composers, performers and bandleaders who, according to recent scholarship, were also skilled at appropriating themes or whole songs from another musicians (quite often those less experienced at the particulars of copyright law) and asserting themselves as the composers.  Terry Teachout’s recent biography Duke mentions that the main themes of ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, and ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ were all the creations of lead players in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and a long list of composers have credibly claimed they authored tunes on which Davis’ name appears as the composer: ‘Four’ and ‘Tune Up’ (Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson), ‘Solar’ (Chuck Wayne), ‘Dig’ (Jackie McLean), and ‘Blue In Green’ (Bill Evans).  I welcome and encourage comments on this blog post either supporting or challenging these claims.  Using charts in The Real Book and original recordings as a resource, see if you can find common themes or approaches among the tunes of Monk, Strayhorn or other jazz composers – or find thematic unity in the tunes above attributed to Miles Davis or Duke Ellington.

The correspondences between the lives of Charlie Parker and Alan Turing also unfortunately include the fact that both died tragically early, leaving the advances they had made in their respective fields to be continued  by others, sometimes without attribution.  Countless improvisers, both contemporaries of Parker and those from later generations, have assimilated his melodic language; the extent of his influence is indicated by Charles Mingus’ tune title: ‘If Bird Had Been A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Lot of Dead Copycats.’  Holt notes that the well-known mathematician John von Neumann, who had contact with Turing at Princeton, was ‘credited with innovations in computer architecture that Turing himself had pioneered.’

Before my interest in Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts, what first got me re-interested in analyzing Parker’s use of patterns was studying the improvised solos of Ella Fitzgerald.  In Fitzgerald’s soloing, the bebop practice of combining two to four bar patterns, which can be hard to detect when players like Parker or Bud Powell are using largely ‘private’ patterns (as in Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugue-It’ solo), is made easy to understand by Fitzgerald’s tendency to make ingenious use of patterns from what might be called a ‘public’ melodic language, as in her ‘How High The Moon’ solo.  In some cases, as Catherine Cartwright has shown with Ella’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ solo, Fitzgerald constructed entire solos completely from familiar patterns.  In a follow-up blog post, I will discuss how Charlie Parker, and/or Benny Harris, who either composed or co-composed the tune, used Bird’s melodic code in ‘Ornithology’, as well as  one of Ella’s ‘How High’ solos.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to Alex Stewart, for introducing me to Barry Harris (in the early days of the Flynn Summer Jazz Camp) and encouraging me to base the improvisation class on his concepts.

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Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Part 2: reflections and an exercise on the circle of descending fifths and the dominant cycle

When the first keyboard instruments with a twelve-note chromatic scale were introduced around the beginning of the 14th century, they entered a world where years had twelve months and days were measured with a twelve-hour clock.  In addition to the number twelve being an important unit of measurement in this era, it also figured prominently in two major wisdom traditions: the Christian tradition, founded on the Gospels and their stories of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and the Zodiac signs, which divide the year up into twelve periods, each named after a different animal or mythical figure and each aligned with a constellation of stars or a planetary movement.  The recurrence of the number twelve in so many foundations of Western culture (including the twelve-bar blues) suggests that while it may occur naturally in some kinds of measurements, scientific, artistic and religious thinkers have also deliberately or subconsciously chosen it in some cases for its association with beauty, symmetry, and truth.

I believe an association between twelve and the pursuit of harmonic symmetry can be heard in C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto, composed at a time in the 18th century when a debate was still raging between different approaches to tuning keyboard instruments.  The approaches to tuning that were prevalent at the time (such as ‘mean-tone temperament’) rendered some intervals and key signatures more consonant and others more dissonant, while a newer approach called ‘equal temperament’ allowed composers greater freedom to modulate through multiple keys within a single piece.  In Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground For the Great Minds of Western Civilization, Stuart Isacoff writes that C.P.E. Bach ‘wanted equal temperament but was confused about how to get it.’  The conclusion of Solfeggietto uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale in the space of four measures, through a progression of five dominant seventh chords sequenced through the circle of descending fifths followed by a diminished seventh chord.  This passage, which may have tested the limits of a tuning where not all major keys were equally consonant, suggests that Bach’s interest in equal temperament may have been related to an interest in using wide-ranging modulations in his compositions.  C.P.E. Bach’s progressions and melodic shapes, and their relationship to the pop song structures on which bop players based their improvisations and compositions, caught the ear of Bud Powell, who made ‘Solfeggietto‘ the introduction to his remarkable hybrid piece Bud on Bach. The dominant cycle can also be heard in the Mazurka in G Minor Op. 67, No. 2 by Chopin.  Among the bop players who used Chopin’s melodic ideas in their improvising was Charlie Parker, whose use of the Military Polonaise and the Minute Waltz is documented on a fascinating webpage devoted to Bird’s use of quotes.

In many jazz standards from the swing and bop eras, dominant seventh chords moving through the circle of fifths are used in extended harmonic rhythms.  The bridges of ‘Stompin’ At the Savoy’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ move through a four-chord sequence along the circle of fifths, spending two measures on each chord, and the first half of the progression in ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ moves through a three-chord sequence in the dominant cycle, spending four measures on each chord before resolving to the I chord.  (In addition to being often-played jazz standards, the chord progressions of these tunes have been used as the basis for many jazz compositions: Charlie Parker based his  ‘Relaxin’ With Lee’ on ‘Stompin’, and was one of many jazz players to base multiple tunes, including his ‘Anthropology (a.k.a. Thrivin’ On A Riff)’ on the chord progression from ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Monk’s ‘Bright Mississippi’, J.J. Johnson’s ‘Teapot’ and Jackie McLean’s ‘Dig’ are based on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’.)

In contrast to the relatively expansive use that Tin Pan Alley and swing-era composers made of the dominant cycle, composers in the bop era and afterwards used dominant cycles with a more accelerated harmonic rhythm (two beats per change) to reharmonize standard progressions; Thelonious Monk’s ‘Humph’ is a dominant cycle reharmonization of ‘I Got Rhythm’; and the heads of Barry Harris’ ‘Save Some For Later’ and Benny Golson’s ‘Blues March’ use the dominant cycle to reharmonize different phrases of the twelve bar blues progression.  Monk’s tune ‘Skippy‘ is based on his dominant cycle reharmonization of ‘Tea for Two’ (although the ‘Tea for Two’ reharm was not recorded until a number of years after ‘Skippy’).

Jazz composers also have used the dominant cycle as a building block of new progressions, rather than just as a means of reharmonizing existing ones.  Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn deftly interpolated the dominant cycle into a number of ballads, using the tritone substitution on ‘Prelude to A Kiss‘ and using altered dominants on ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’, and Duke Jordan based the bridge of his tune ‘Jordu’ on the dominant cycle.  (Two lesser known tunes, John Lewis‘ ‘Three Windows‘ and Vince Guaraldi’s ‘Like A Mighty Rose’, also make interesting use of the dominant cycle in their bridges.)  Dominant 7th chords moving through the circle of descending fifths also are used in Blossom Dearie’s intro to her version of ‘I Hear Music’ (which moves all the way around the circle).  McCoy Tyner’s ending to ‘The Days of Wine and Roses‘ and Hank Jones‘ ending to ‘When There is Love‘ (from his album of the same name with Abbey Lincoln) move halfway around the circle.  (Cycles of this type have also found their way into a number of keyboard-driven rock tunes.  In The Doors’ tune ‘Light My Fire‘, Ray Manzarek’s intro includes a sequence of major chords moving around the circle of fifths and far afield of the  tonic key of the chorus (D) .  In some live versions of his tune ‘Such A Night’, Dr. John includes a dominant cycle in his solo piano break.)

My exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Four Brothers and Koko’ is the second in a series of exercises including licks from ‘Donna Lee’ (the first, ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris’ is in an earlier post.)  Besides ‘Donna Lee’, other sources I used for this exercise include Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind, Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers, and Charlie Parker’s ‘Koko’ (one of his solos on the changes to ‘Cherokee’.)  My intent is to show how the voicings for dominant chords most commonly used by jazz pianists – i.e. those built ‘off the third’ or ‘off the seventh’ – are equally useful as both melodic fragments and as harmonic structures. The exercise uses a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar; although this is not the harmonic rhythm seen in the uses of the dominant cycle mentioned above, it is the harmonic rhythm in the first two bars of ‘jazz blues‘ progressions such as ‘Billie’s Bounce‘ and ‘Tenor Madness’.

Practicing this exercise will make more sense if you first practice a one bar pattern of seventh scales ascending or descending in eighth notes (i.e. seven up or seven down only) around the circle of ascending fifths/descending fourths in the RH with three note rootless voicings for dominant chords in the LH as shown in Degreg p. 87: 7th scales through circle, one bar pattern - Full Score

I would then suggest practicing the rootless voicings doubled in both hands (i.e. LH plays treble clef voicings from p. 87 while RH doubles an octave above.)  Once you can play doubled voicings at a moderate, steady tempo, you should be ready to move on to the ‘parallel patterns‘ exercise, where the RH plays patterns derived from the voicings that the LH is playing simultaneously.  Below the parallel patterns exercises I have shown the ways that the two patterns can be combined contrapuntally.

Donna Jody Ko-Ko and Fou 2 - Full Score

As always, I welcome all kinds of comments on this blog entry, but I would be particularly interested in hearing about other culturally significant uses of the number twelve, or in other examples of pieces that include dominant-cycle modulation.  I encourage musicians reading this to try composing a twelve-bar blues melody following the Barry Harris scale outline discussed in an earlier post and incorporating some of the dominant seventh chord patterns from this post.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to friend and piano tuner Justin Rose for the suggestion of Temperament, to Will Burhans for introducing me to ‘Like A Mighty Rose’, to Bruce Sklar for assigning me ‘Donna Lee’ many years ago in a lesson, and to Tom McClung for introducing me to ‘Skippy‘ and its relationship to ‘Tea for Two’.

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Viral Rhythm

The word ‘virus’ is most often associated with negative and harmful microbes, from actual diseases like pneumonia and H1N1 to the fictional virus that kills off most of the Earth’s population in the recent Planet of the Apes movies.  The study of ‘good viruses’, however, is also a growing trend in health research, and has moved from identifying individual microbes with positive effects to building a concept of the ‘microbiome’ within each human being, a combination of bacteria in our gut that keeps us healthy.  Those who study how ‘good bacteria‘ help to preserve the body might find a metaphor to support their theories by looking at how the vitality of musical traditions and musical communities is often preserved by ‘viral‘ melodic and rhythmic ideas that find their way into multiple songs produced in the same time period.  What follow are a few examples of how a particular ‘viral rhythm’, a mutated version of a fundamental rhythm from south of the equator, has had a presence in three different eras of American music.

The tune ‘Hello My Baby’ is probably better known today than any other song published in 1899.  Whether it is being belted out by a frog in a Warner Brothers cartoon or Phish, it is immediately recognizable from the repeated syncopation that opens the refrain.

hello ma baby

The song originally began not with this catchy syncopation but with a long intro verse that can be seen in the original sheet music.  A few telltale lyrics in the intro verse (‘some other coon will win her and my game is lost’) show that ‘Hello My Baby’ was originally meant to be an entry in the ‘coon song‘ genre, in which songwriters of the late 19th and early 20th century combined syncopated music with lyrics featuring stereotyped African-American characters.  Judging from most versions of the tune currently in circulation, the intro verse and the dialect version of the title (‘Hello! Ma Baby’) – what one might call the harmful part of the virus – have long since been abandoned.  I would argue that while the intention to remove prejudicial overtones is certainly one of the motivations for these alterations, there is also a solid musical reason: the intro verse has almost none of the syncopation that makes the refrain so memorable.

That same memorable syncopation also shows up in the lesser-known piano rag ‘Smoky Mokes‘ by Abe Holzman, published the same year.  In an early example of how the ‘good bacteria’ in the ‘Hello My Baby’ virus was communicated, Holzman in the opening strain of ‘Smoky Mokes’ appears to cleverly graft the entire melodic rhythm from the refrain of ‘Hello My Baby‘ into his tune while substituting a different sequence of notes:smoky mokes

Both tunes can be seen in Denes Agay’s great collection The Joy Of Ragtime, which also features many of the best-known pieces by Scott Joplin (‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘The Sycamore’, and of course ‘The Entertainer’, a musical virus if there ever was one: since Marvin Hamlisch’s version on ‘The Sting‘ soundtrack, it has been covered by performers ranging from Milton Berle and the Muppets to Marcus Roberts, who turns in a seriously funky and innovative version on his album ‘The Joy of Joplin’, which is highly recommended for purchase.  A fine cover of Roberts’ arrangement by Matt Tabor can be heard on YouTube.)   Agay’s collection also includes ‘Pleasant Moments’, one of Joplin’s rare waltzes.  To a listener who has ‘Hello My Baby’ deep in their musical subconscious,  measures 9 and 10 in ‘Pleasant Moments’ can look and sound like a truncated, three-beat version of the rhythmic figure from that tune and ‘Smoky Mokes’ (and which I will call the ‘truncated habanera’):pleasant moments

 Some inspection of the South American tango tradition as represented in piano music, however, shows that both Joplin and ‘Hello My Baby‘ were borrowing this rhythm from a much older source.

The rhythm introduced in the first measure of the refrain in ‘Hello My Baby’, used relentlessly and obsessively throughout the song, and employed more subtly in a truncated version by Joplin, is in fact the habanera rhythm, a typical accompaniment figure in Argentinian tango music with roots in Cuban folk music going back to the 18th century.  As the habanera is more of an accompaniment rhythm than a melodic rhythm in tango, it can be seen in its basic form in the left hand of Ernesto Nazareth’s lovely slow ‘Tango Brasiliero’ called ‘Nove de Julho’ (an excerpt follows, but here are links to a complete recording and score):

nove de julho
  Nazareth uses a common elaboration of the pattern in his faster-paced tango ‘Garoto’ (recording, score):.Garoto


Nazareth, a Brazilian composer, wrote in a number of dance styles typical in his era; the ‘Tango Brasiliero‘ marking in ‘Nove de Julho‘ seems to refer to the slower, gentler pace of this piece, which contrasts with the faster pace of ‘Garoto’, a piece that features an elaboration of the habanera pattern typical in Argentinian tango.  After listening to and/or reading through ‘Garoto’, it is interesting to examine another Joplin waltz dated 1905, ‘Bethena’ (heard on the score to the film ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’), in which the truncated habanera hinted at in ‘Pleasant Moments’ can be heard even more clearly and repeatedly:bethena

The mark of Joplin’s greatness as a composer can be seen in his juxtaposition of repeated rhythmic and melodic figures with a constantly evolving harmonic progression; where the repetition in ‘Hello My Baby‘ seems obsessive even within the confines of its sixteen-measure form, Joplin uses repetition of the same idea in ‘Bethena‘ to build undulating waves of tension and release that evolve consistently over a form more than twice as long.  (Sheet music for Bethena can be purchased here; Marcus Roberts’ recording of this tune on ‘The Joy of Joplin’ is also highly recommended.)

According to Scott Joplin biographer E.A. Berlin, Joplin claimed that composer Irving Berlin plagiarized the opening strain of his first hit song, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, from one of Joplin’s pieces, ‘A Real Slow Drag’ from his opera ‘Treemonisha’:a real slow drag excerpt

Joplin made the claim after Berlin, who worked for a publisher at the time, reviewed Joplin’s score in 1910, decided against publishing it, but proceeded to publish his own song with its tell-tale phrase the next year:

To me, the similarity of Berlin’s phrase to Joplin’s phrase shows that Berlin, far from being a simple plagiarist, was highly skilled at assimilating other composers’ ideas, and was operating with the same level of sophistication as Joplin when he incorporated the habanera pattern into his waltzes.  Once again, however, as with ‘Hello My Baby’, the harmful part of the ‘virus’ – in this case the disputed intro verse – was wisely removed by great communicators such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in their versions of ‘Alexander’.  Fitzgerald and Armstrong may not have been aware of Joplin’s dispute with the intro, but they and their arrangers certainly recognized that the intro verse is less musically strong than the refrain with which the composer followed it.  (From a compositional standpoint it is interesting to note that although both Howard and Berlin’s creative impetus seems to have come from the instinct to imitate – Howard imitates the ‘coon song’ genre, Berlin imitates Joplin’s score – it was not the most culturally or musically imitative section that produced the strongest music.  The most memorable sections of both tunes came after a section mimicking a current trend, and the versions of these songs that have endured are those shorn of their original mimickry.  Joplin’s genius in ‘Bethena’ and ‘Pleasant Moments’, on the other hand, was to incorporate a germ of an idea from an external source and make it part of an utterly original, memorable and musically enduring whole.)

I believe Berlin’s skill at assimilation can also be heard in ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a tune copyrighted in 1928 that uses the truncated habanera rhythm twice in its first four measures:puttin on the ritz excerpt

As the ‘Alexander’s’ story establishes that Berlin was a student of Joplin’s innovations, it seems at least possible that, even though the habanera was everywhere at the time, Berlin’s knowledge of this rhythm may have come from Joplin’s waltz.  More evidence that the truncated habanera rhythm was ‘going viral’ in the world of popular song around this time is in Duke Ellington’s 1932 tune ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ , which uses the rhythm four times in a row in the second phrase of (as well as many more times in the coda of the tune’s first recorded version):

Cole Porter used the truncated habanera three times in a row in the first phrase of the tune ‘Anything Goes’ (from the 1934 musical of the same name), (as well as five times in its bridge):anything goes excerpt

(Although I have arranged these examples and the ones that follow in chronological order, my point is not to prove conclusively that any one song directly influenced the other, but rather to illustrate how each tune takes the truncated habanera and uses it in a different way.  A number of these tunes are standard literature in the jazz tradition, and their uses of the truncated habanera are among the more sophisticated and technically challenging elements of the melodies for performers.  If one can grasp the commonality between these tunes, it can be an aid to mastering one of their complexities.)

It sounds to me like the truncated habanera also went viral in the bebop era of jazz, as it shows up in an ornamented form the melody of one of Charlie Parker’s best-known compositions, ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (first recorded in 1945).  Parker, like Berlin in ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, begins the truncated habanera on the fourth beat of his tune’s first measure, but unlike Berlin he repeats the pattern three times, although he replaces the pattern’s first note with a rest on the second and third repetitions.  

The same subtractive use of the pattern was also made by Sonny Rollins in his tune ‘Oleo’ (first recorded in 1954 for the Miles Davis album ‘Bags’ Groove’).  In the way the tune is most often notated and played, Rollins’ use of the truncated habanera is most noticeable in m. 1, 3, 4 and 6: Oleo excerpt

On Bill Evans’ version of Oleo (from ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’, recorded in 1958) Philly Joe Jones’ three-against-four hi-hat pattern in the second A makes the tune’s first two measures sound like two repetitions in a row of the truncated habanera, filling in the missing first note of the pattern for its first two repetitions, and making the listener hear two three-beat phrases:.Oleo excerpt w hi hat


Thelonious Monk, in his tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (first recorded in 1957), begins with what has often been identified as a four-measure quote from the Mary Lou Williams composition ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’ (see 1:22 of the linked recording by the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble for the phrase in question.)  Monk follows this phrase with a melodic phrase that uses the full four-beat habanera pattern (with an added pickup) in measure 5.  This is the pattern we heard in the melody ‘Hello My Baby’ and the left hand of ‘Garoto’.  In typical Monk fashion, this second semi-quoted element is then transformed by being stated on a different beat of the measure in bar 6.Rhythm A Ning excerpt
(Monk investigates this process further in ‘Straight, No Chaser’, where a rhythmic figure introduced initially on the pickup to beat 1 in measure 1 is then begun on beats 2, 3 and 4 of various measures over course of the first eight measure phrase.)

I have discovered the connections I’m discussing here over years of playing jazz gigs, teaching piano lessons and improvisation classes, and directing pit orchestras, but my awareness of them was reawakened during a great performance I saw earlier this year by Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at the Flynn Center.  One of the concert’s standout pieces was O’Farrill’s composition ‘On The Corner of Malecon and Bourbon’ from their recent album ‘The Offense of The Drum’.  In the YouTube video of this piece, after solos by O’Farrill on piano, Bobby Porcelli on alto sax (who references Cannonball Adderly’s ‘So What’ solo), Jim Seeley on trumpet (who references ‘West End Blues’ and ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbeque’ among other tunes),  Jason Marshall on baritone sax (who picks up and develops the ‘Struttin’ lick) and Gregg August on bass, the band settles into a section in which the accompaniment and melody are both strongly reminiscent of the opening strain of Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. In both the YouTube video and the Burlington performance, O’Farrill mentioned in his spoken intro that the piece is about the common roots of jazz and Latin music, but in Burlington he also added a highly instructive piece of stagecraft.  In a tone of voice that conveyed believable honesty, O’Farrill claimed that he wasn’t too sure about the ending – a statement which, if he really meant it, would be shocking for someone of O’Farrill’s stature and virtuosity.   Although this seemed at first to be a sincere confession, it was actually a shrewd piece of acting that set the audience up for a bit that O’Farrill engages in during an unaccompanied piano solo in the middle of the piece.  The band drops out for what seems like a piano cadenza, and O’Farrill first plays in a ragtime piano style with a left hand stride pattern and syncopated melody, but he then slows down as though his mind is stuck on some detail of the music.  After an awkward pause, he turns the chart on his music rack upside down and plays an inverted version of the syncopated melody.  Here again he slows down and repeats a bar as though analyzing the syncopation, after which he turns the music right side up again and transforms the syncopated melody into one of its close musical relatives: the rhythmic pattern called montuno or guajeo which the piano plays son clave accompaniment style derived from Cuban folk music and common through mambo, salsa and Latin jazz contexts.  O’Farrill’s band responds by accompanying the montuno pattern with its typical rhythmic counterpoints in the percussion and bass parts, and the piece concludes in a smoking 2-3 son clave feel.

O’Farrill’s piece brilliantly illustrates that, although videos that ‘go viral‘ on the internet are a fairly recent phenomenon (such as the Pharell Williams tune ‘Happy’, where the original version was quickly followed with remakes by groups from the Miss USA contestants to a grade school class), in the intertwined evolution of tango, ragtime, jazz and popular song, rhythms ‘went viral’ for many decades before the internet with only the ears, eyes and memories of composers to communicate them.  Having recently fought off pnuemonia myself, I certainly wouldn’t wish a medical virus on anyone.  However, as the word ‘viral’ has taken on a positive meaning in the world of the internet, perhaps someday as studies of medicine and music continue to intertwine, ‘viral’ can take on a positive meaning in the study of music, as a way of explaining the sometimes peculiar and always fascinating ways that musical ideas are leaked and communicated between cultures and eras.

Ian Crane, one of my piano students who is also a student at UVM College of Medicine, wrote an email  response to an earlier version of this blog which confirms my sense that the ‘good virus’ metaphor works to illustrate how indirect influence in music can be just as powerful as direct influence.  Ian explains it better than I could, so I’ll give him the last word: “I think one way in which viruses work  similar to musical ideas is the ‘lysogenic life cycle’. Certain viruses actually travel in between cells and incorporate their genetic code (which is all a virus really is: a traveling piece of DNA or RNA) into the genetic code of a cell. There they lie dormant and are replicated with that cell’s DNA, from that point on effectively changing the genetic code of that cell and all of its progeny…I think music is really similar to this aspect of the viral life cycle in the sense that it can permanently change our musical code, or our set of musical ideas, becoming a part of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Six degrees of BP lix edit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six Degrees of Bud Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illinois Jacquet Ella Fitz

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

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

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

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