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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Sonatinas and other two-sided stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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‘Making the changes’ on short forms, Part 3: When The Saints Go Marching In

This arrangement is inspired by Louis Armstrong’s 1938 version of the tune.  It can be practiced along with that recording by listening to the spoken introduction (in which Armstrong introduces himself as ‘Reverend Satchmo’), counting through the trombone statement of the tune and the four-bar interlude that follows it, and then playing along with Armstrong’s vocal.  In the arrangement the first vocal chorus is followed by a saxophone solo by Charlie Holmes.  In the piano arrangement below, after the melody statement, I’ve suggested some ideas for improvising your own solo by suggesting a group of notes to work with for each of the three chords in the progression as well as some ideas about converting the call-and-response phrasing in Armstrong’s vocal rendition to a left hand-right hand conversation on the piano.  This approach can also be used on other instruments by leaving space to  listen for the new chord change rather than playing through it.  After one or more choruses of solo, return to the head to complete your performance.  For more on the fascinating cultural history of this song (as well as a transcription of a solo Wynton Marsalis took on it at UVM), see my post American Tunes.  I also used a somewhat altered version of the progression from ‘When The Saints’ in a tune of mine called Twists and Bends, with the expert help of Caleb Bronz on drums, Colin McCaffrey on guitar and bass, and Amber deLaurentis on backing vocals.


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Terry Town Line – a melodic line based on ‘I Could Write A Book’

‘Terry Town Line’ is a bop line I composed based on the changes to ‘I Could Write A Book’ by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.  The tune is dedicated in part to my mother, Roddy O’Neil Cleary, who for a number of years taught at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York (which is a stop on the Hudson Line of the Metro North railroad); ‘I Could Write A Book’ is one of her favorite songs.  The spelling of ‘Terry’ in the title is a nod to master trumpet and flugelhorn player, composer and educator Clark Terry, with whom I had the honor of playing when he visited the UVM Jazz Studies Program in the early two-thousands.  I have to credit Dr. Alex Stewart for bringing Clark Terry to UVM, which led to my opportunity to play with him.  Terry played with both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras, as well as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and many other jazz luminaries, and led many of his own groups, including a wonderful quintet with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer (one of their tunes is mentioned in my post on improvising in the dorian mode.)  I also discuss Terry’s playing briefly in my post on Stefon Harris and at more length in a post on piano comping in small combos.  If you learn only one thing from this post, I hope it inspires you to check out the music of Clark Terry, a vast and wonderful treasure trove spanning much of jazz history.

I also wrote ‘Terry Town Line’ because ‘I Could Write A Book‘ is in a four-year cycle of audition pieces for the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble, and so I periodically teach students who audition how to interpret this melody and improvise on its changes.   When I begin working with students on standard tunes, I always ask that they learn the original melody (the duo version of ‘I Could Write A Book’ by Fred Hersch and Dawn Upshaw is a gorgeous interpretation of the original melody at a ballad tempo) as well as a melodic outline of the progression using scales and patterns.  My current outline for ‘I Could Write A Book’ can be heard here; the recording also includes extra choruses of bass and drum accompaniment so you can practice playing the outline or improvising on your own.  (Students auditioning for Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble need to purchase a copy of  Jamey Aebersold book ‘All Time Standards’ and use the chart for ‘I Could Write A Book’ found there; photocopies are not accepted in the audition.)

A crucial next step in learning any jazz tune is to listen to interpretations of the tune by master improvisers; to my knowledge, the Miles Davis version of ‘I Could Write A Book’ from ‘Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet’  is the main reason the tune has become considered a jazz standard.  (The Quintet’s arrangement of the tune is an early example of how Miles began to stretch standard song forms: each solo on the form ends with an ‘extended turnback’ that adds twelve bars to the form.  The Gm7-C7 | Fm7-Bb7 progression in m. 29-30 of the tune is first played as written and then stretched to twice its length and played three more times, followed by a two bar break for the next soloist.  While this harmonic cycling is a harbinger of the vamp-based soloing that would later reach epic proportions on the albums Miles Davis In Europe and In A Silent Way, it is not a standard part of the way jazz players play the tune, and so it is not included in ‘Terry Town Line’.  I do recommend Luca Bragliani’s analysis of the Miles Second Quintet’s use of vamps on ‘Miles Davis in Europe’ as an introduction to how Miles’ use of vamps developed.)

‘Terry Town Line’ is partly based on melodic fragments which I’ve borrowed from Clark Terry’s composition ‘Perdido Line’ and adapted to the progression of ‘I Could Write A Book’.   (The link in the last sentence is to an Ellington version of ‘Perdido’ which begins with ‘Perdido Line’; Terry lists it as a distinct composition in his autobiography.)  I was inspired to use the process of basing a melody on both existing melodic fragments and an existing progression, after discovering that (as I describe in another post) Benny Harris appears to have composed ‘Ornithology’ by borrowing phrases from Charlie Parker’s melodic vocabulary and using them as the basis for a melody on the changes of ‘How High The Moon’.  I find that with master player/composers such as Parker and Terry (as well as skilled musical adapters like Harris), there is a natural overlap between improvisational and compositional vocabulary; for instance, the lick I use in m. 15-16 of ‘Terry Town Line’ shows up not only in ‘Perdido Line’ (near the end of the bridge) but also in Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Hotter Than That‘ and Miles Davis‘ solo on ‘Oleo‘ (from the version on ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants’.)

It is clear that Benny Harris intentionally used the chord progression of ‘How High High The Moon’ and licks from Charlie Parker’s melodic world to compose ‘Ornithology’.  The two tunes also create nearly perfect counterpoint when played together, although it is less clear whether Harris intended ‘Ornithology’ to be used this way.  On most recordings of ‘Ornithology’, the two tunes are not played simultaneously, although this has been done a recording by Pete Rugolo and a choral arrangement I did of the tune.  I emulated ‘Ornithology’ in designing ‘Terry Town Line‘ as a countermelody to ‘I Could Write A Book’, but in my solo piano recording of ‘Terry Town Line’ , I followed the common performance practice of ‘Ornithology’ in not playing the tunes simultaneously.  Pianist Billy Taylor’s comments quoted in a 2011 paper from Current Research in Jazz suggests that contrefacts (tunes based on existing chord changes) were sometimes used as countermelodies in live playing situations.  (Karrin Allyson’s recording of ‘Donna Lee/Indiana‘ shows that ‘Donna Lee‘ also works as a countermelody to ‘(Back Home Again In) Indiana’, the tune from which the ‘Donna Lee’ changes originate.)

I hope you enjoy listening to and (hopefully) learning to play or sing ‘Terry Town Line’ and (perhaps) using it as a countermelody for ‘I Could Write A Book’ or a source of ideas for improvising an eighth-note-based bop line on the tune’s changes.  My solo piano recording of ‘Terry Town Line’ uses a stride approach in the left hand, but this is only one of many possible chording approaches.  I would suggest that pianists begin by learning the melody up the octave (as I play it on the head in) with block chords in the left hand (rather than stride.)  A few notes on the charts for the tune, which are below in the four standard transpositions: the chords in parentheses are passing chords that I typically use only on the head, and the small notes at the end of the coda show a background line which a second player could play if there are two melody instruments.

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Talking and taking the words away: a visit from Stefon Harris (The State of the Blues, Part 2)

In a recent master class with my students at UVM, Stefon Harris talked about the connection between language and melody in an improvised solo.  While discussing the performance of a student group, he said: ‘The details of rhythm are connected to the way that you speak.  You’ve heard people say that music, it’s a language and we’re communicating with each other when we’re on stage…well, it literally comes from language.  So when I’m playing, for example, I’m always talking…sometimes people think that I’m singing, but actually I’m talking and I’m taking the words away.’  He then demonstrated this by first speaking in scat syllables, then mixing them with English words: ‘ba-da du da-da, du-du da-da, du da-da…you understand, da-dl-ah?  Oh! Now you see my phrasing…’  He then used the vibraphone to add pitches to his spoken scat syllables.   During this quick demonstration Harris made his instrument mimic his own voice laughing and asking the question ‘whaaaat?’ with a rise in pitch.  (Making instruments laugh is a long tradition in jazz; Mr. Harris’ laughing vibraphone reminded me of Clark Terry’s trumpet laughs in solos such as ‘Incoherent Blues’, which have been echoed more recently by his former student, Wynton Marsalis.)

Harris then asked the student group on stage to play a blues with him, during which he played a solo in which his phrasing on the vibes was guided by his simultaneous vocalizations (or perhaps the other way around, or perhaps both.)  After a few choruses, he stopped and said: ‘I’m not playing the rhythm, I’m not thinking the triplet, I’m just talking, I’m telling a story.  So when you do hear a melody, it should be connected to that type of fluid communication.’

A rising inflection evoking the pitch pattern of an inquisitive speaker also makes an appearance in a solo by Harris that I have been studying with my improvisation class at UVM.  It’s the third and final chorus of his solo on Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s D flat blues ‘Centerpiece’ from the Rodney Whitaker album ‘Ballads and Blues: The Brooklyn Sessions.’  (With Stefon’s permission, I have included my transcription of this solo below.)  In this chorus, Harris brilliantly uses a number of basic elements from what I call ‘the improviser’s toolbox’: varied uses of a repeated motive (the same two beat idea is used in m. 2 and 5, but on two different beats and in two different registers), referencing the original melody of the tune (in m. 4), and ‘making the changes’ i.e. using new notes ‘made available’ by a particular chord change, as he does in m. 9 and 13, where he uses notes that are not part of the pentatonic-based pitch collections he employs in m. 1-8.  One of the most challenging tools to use in the improviser’s toolbox, space, is demonstrated by the full measure of rest in m. 6.  (One of my students is working on transcribing the rest of this solo, so I’ll be adding the earlier choruses soon.)  In light of his comments from the master class, it is also clear that Stefon is not employing each of these techniques in some isolated, abstract way, but that they come from the deep connection his phrasing has to speech and movement.

Before the discussion of the connection between spoken language and melody, Stefon began his comments on the performance of my student’s trio by discussing the connection between full-body movement (i.e. dance) and rhythmic awareness in musical performance.  He said: ‘When you played the intro the first time I noticed that you weren’t really moving your feet.  And the thing is rhythm, it’s primarily connected to coordination.  It has nothing to do with triplets and sixteenth notes or anything like that, it’s like, can you rub your belly and make your hand go that way, right (pats head)?  So it starts with this idea of can you move your body…(taps foot on 2 and 4 and vocalizes syncopated rhythms)…you see what I’m singing is so connected to the way I’m moving my body (here he drew out the word ‘body’)…you understand, it’s a whole body experience, it starts with how you move first…so before you play this intro I want us to become a unit by tapping our feet together…and actually tapping is too polite.’  Here he had the trio stomp their feet together in time to the tempo of the song.  After this exercise the students did indeed play the song with more rhythmic connection.

Stefon’s comments reminded me that I (like many piano teachers) suggest that my students not tap their feet while playing the piano, as it adds one more task to the already complex multitasking of playing the piano with both hands.  This advice was handed down to me from a number of my teachers, and I think it can be helpful in the context of trying to simplify various aspects of a piece while practicing, in the same way one works to find the simplest fingering for a passage or practices one hand separately.  However, Stefon’s comments and his demonstration at the master class reminded me that swing feel, or indeed any dance rhythm, in music is always an expression of a wider cultural phenomenon that includes the physical act of dance.  He reminded me that certain kinds of moving before playing and certain kinds of moving while playing can improve a musical performance.  Stefon’s way of having the students move together before playing together resulted in a more rhythmically connected performance.

Stefon was also encouraging and yet persistent in requiring the students to not only listen to one another, but leave space in their playing to react to one another’s improvised ideas.  This was a great reminder that while music, like any form of communication, requires everyone to contribute ideas, it is also requires everyone to leave space: not just space to take a breath before your own next idea, but space to hear the ideas of others, so you can say (or play) something that shows you have been listening and supports a collective conversation (rather than an isolated monologue.)  Stefon’s work in getting students to listen and react to one another reminded me that listening is not simply waiting quietly for someone else to leave a space you can fill with your own ideas, but actually taking in and considering the ideas of others enough to be able to reproduce, rephrase or react to them yourself.

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Harmonic Moss, Part 5: The ‘B’ form voicing of the minor ii-V-i progression

The voicing which Phil Degreg calls the ‘B form’ of the minor ii V i progression starts with a clear demonstration of why Thelonious Monk referred to the minor 7 flat five chord as a ‘minor sixth chord with the sixth in the bass’.  The voicing of the minor seven flat five chord shown here is also, with a different bass note, a root position voicing of a minor 6th chord.  The example of a melodic pattern that outlines the voicing is adapted from Charlie Parker’s solo on the big band version of What Is This Thing Called Love (the first six notes are my addition).  Another pattern which outlines this voicing is m. 13 to m. 16 in Tadd Dameron’s ‘Hot House.’   The minor ii-V-i pattern shown in #5 can also be combined contrapuntally with the ‘Donna Lee’ pattern in the previous post.

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