Root systems, part 3: Give it up for the root (position pattern)s! – Melodic patterns based on root position voicings

The name of this post is a variation on the phrase, ‘Give it up for The Roots!’, that Jimmy Fallon often uses to introduce his house band on his late night show. (I made an appearance on the show in 2010 during my time playing keyboards in the Mike Gordon Band.) I was reminded of what an eclectic group The Roots are when, just after the revolutionary saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman’s death last year, they played a number of his tunes on the show. (It turns out they had performed with him as well.)

Once you have learned to play voicings of the major ii-V-I progression in all keys (as shown in Root systems, Part 1), and learned to outline ii V Is in all keys with scales (as shown in Root systems, Part 2), a possible next step is to learn a tune that includes a melodic pattern based on the root position voicing of the ii V I progression, and then learn that melodic pattern in all twelve keys.

For players who are newer to jazz, I would suggest learning Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ or Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’, both of which can be found in The Real Book Sixth Edition from Hal Leonard.   (There is an interesting video by Brazilian bassist Marcos Roberto de Santos that matches a transcribed score of the original version of ‘Peri’s Scope’ with MIDI tracks of the piano and drum parts and a live performance of the bass part.  As the piano part is notated in grand staff, it is helpful in understanding Evans’ style.  The history of recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’ is, to me, a fascinating jazz mystery: in the two best-known recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’, by Monk and Miles Davis, the chord progressions used match neither the other recording nor the most common published charts of the tune.)  Two other tunes that use root position melodic patterns are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ and Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’; scores of these pieces are somewhat harder to find. Finally, John Coltrane’s ’26-2’ uses a root position ii-V-I pattern in its bridge.  This tune, which involves his ‘Giant Steps’ changes interpolated into the form of Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’,  is among the most challenging of Coltrane’s compositions.

To be ready to transpose a root-position-based pattern through all twelve keys, it is helpful to practice the root position voicing hands together through all twelve keys. The four-note voicing shown here includes a rootless voicing of V7, and is sequenced through two descending whole-step patterns (an alternative to the descending half-step pattern through which I sequenced ii-V-Is in the last post.) Once you have mastered these hands-together voicings, you’ll be ready to convert the voicing in the right hand into one of the patterns shown below (in other words, ‘give it up’ for the root position pattern.)Preview of “root position ii-V-I doubled”

With jazz improvisation, as with any language, it is always a potential hazard to focus too much on learning individual phrases without learning the grammar and vocabulary (or, in music, scales and arpeggios) that allow you to use phrases in context. While practicing hands-together chords as shown above is helpful before learning a root-position-based lick in all twelve keys, mastering the scale outlines of the major ii-V-I in the previous post is an absolutely crucial step.

One of my improvisation teachers, Yusef Lateef, said: ‘when you find something you like’ – meaning a melodic pattern – ‘learn it in all twelve keys.’   (‘Find something you like’ is an extremely important directive that, I think, can be challenging to follow in an age where music delivery systems which anticipate what a listener ‘might also like’ are increasingly common.)  I have sometimes extended this process by searching for examples in my ‘listening diet’ of how patterns I like are used and varied by different players. (In addition to live performances and my iTunes library, my listening diet also includes the internet station Calm Radio Jazz Piano, which plays both classic and rare recordings by great jazz pianists.) Finding a lick in multiple contexts can demonstrate how, in the jazz tradition, a lick is not an immutable object but a living thing that changes from one player to another or even from one bar to another (see the Charlie Rouse example below.)

At the end of this post are five different ii-V-I patterns which, to my mind, are based on root position voicings.  These five patterns boil down to three basic melodic shapes: the first two pairs of patterns are variations on the same basic lick, and the last pattern (from Billy Taylor’s tune ‘Radioactivity’) is a variation on a lick from a Charlie Parker solo.


  • The pattern from ‘Round Midnight’ is one of the main motives that Monk’s tune is based on; it occurs in two different transpositions during the first A section.   (In the version of the ‘Round Midnight’ pattern shown below, I have changed the first four notes from sixteenths to eighths, as the other patterns on the page are based in eighth notes.)  John Coltrane performed ‘Round Midnight’ between 1955 and ’57 in the Miles Davis Quintet and with Thelonious Monk, so it makes sense that one of the tune’s foundational five-note patterns shows up both at the beginning of his solo on Giant Steps (recorded in 1959) and that the bridge of ’26-2’ (from Coltrane’s Sound, recorded in 1960) contains an expansion of the pattern.
  • The pattern from m. 16-18 of the head to Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’ is played a number of different ways by Evans; the right hand melodic phrase shown below can be heard on the head out of the original version from Portrait In Jazz, and the left hand chording shown is based on the live 1972 version. Note that the pickup to the phrase, which in the context of the tune anticipates the min7 change, is accompanied by an anticipated chord in the left hand. It is important to be able to accompany melodic anticipation in a bop line with this kind of harmonic anticipation, as playing all the chords on downbeats will contradict the line’s rhythmic energy. The opening phrase from Ellington and Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ uses a six-note motive similar to the ‘Peri’s Scope’ phrase, but with a different rhythmic placement and a three-note chromatic run preceding it. The rhythm shown below for the left hand comping is Ellington’s original left hand rhythm, emphasizing the ‘and’ of one in both measures. A similar phrase is also used multiple times by Charlie Rouse in his tenor sax solo on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’.  Like Thelonious Monk’s solo on Bags’ Groove (from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) and Sonny Rollins’ solo on St. Thomas, Rouse’s solo is a model of ingeniously varied use of a single motive.
  • Finally, the phrase from Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’ is a variation and an extension of the lick Charlie Parker plays in double time at the end of his second chorus on ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (around 1:10 on the linked video).root position maj ii-V-I patterns


If you’d rather start from a more ‘cellular’ level, you could start by choosing one of these phrases, learning the tune from which it originates, and then practicing the lick from it in all twelve keys, using the series of ii-V-Is descending by half steps or another pattern (such as ii-V-Is descending by whole steps as shown above.)


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Root systems, part 2 / outlining the ii-V and ii-V-I progressions with 7-up scales

Once you have become familiar with playing ii-V-I progressions in all keys in at least one voicing using your list of six tunes from the first post in this series, a possible next step is to practice the 7th scale (also known as the mixolydian scale or the major scale with a flatted 7th) using the ‘7 up’ pattern over ii-V progression as shown in the exercise below. The 7 up pattern stops short of an octave and implies the sound of a seventh chord more effectively than a scale that concludes on the root.  (Like the tunes in the first ‘Root Systems’ post, all these scales should be learned with left-hand rootless voicings as well.  Rootless voicings will be addressed specifically in a future series of posts.)ii V half step with scales

I learned the concept of running the 7th scale from the V chord over both the ii and the V from the teaching of Barry Harris. While many jazz educators relate the ii chord to the dorian scale and the dominant V chord exclusively to the 7th scale (sometimes also called mixolydian), it is ultimately more helpful to the improviser to emphasize the relationship between the two chords by using the 7th scale built off the root of the V chord over both the ii and the V, rather than isolating each chord with a separate scale. Many players in the bebop and hard bop periods used ii-Vs descending by half steps in tunes such as Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice’, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Half Nelson’, as well reharmonizations such as the Mingus arrangement of ‘I Can’t Get Started’, and the substitutions on measures 3 and 4 of ‘Autumn Leaves’ used by Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly in their version of the tune. A number of modal ‘jam’ tunes, such as Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va, and Billy Cobham’s Red Baron, are built on using this pair of chords in a single key.)

When we add the I chord to each ii-V progression, it relates the ii and the V to the key from which they originate, and creates a three-chord progression that is one of the most common in jazz standard tunes. The major 7th chord can be outlined with the major scale starting on its root. When these three chords are outlined with these two scales we can see that each 7th scale uses the same group of notes as the major scale that follows it.ii-v-I root pos w 7th and major scales

You can use these chord-scale combinations to create outlines of tunes that are based around major ii-V and ii-V-I progressions, such as Billy Strayhorn’s Satin Doll, Miles Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s Tune Up, Sonny Rollins’ Pent Up House, Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird and John Coltrane’s Lazy Bird.  (All these tunes, with the exception of Pent-Up House, can be found in The Real Book 6th Edition published by Hal Leonard.) Note that all these tunes also use longer ii-V progressions, for example, with the ii and V chords lasting a measure each.  These longer progressions can be outlined by running each scale in two directions (either ‘7 up and down’ or ‘7 down and up’), as shown in this example with the ii-V-I progression in C:7 up and down maj ii V I

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Pairings, part three – Hand-some conversation: Two-handed melodic conversations by J.S. Bach and Oscar Peterson

This is the third post in the ‘pairings’ series. The two previous posts, on left hand walking bass with right hand melodic lines and left hand walking bass with right hand comping, each examine a particular technical challenge by comparing one or two pieces from the classical repertoire and one or two transcriptions of improvising or comping by great jazz players which involve that challenge. In this post I am pairing a well-known teaching piece by J.S. Bach with a lesser known teaching piece by Oscar Peterson, one of the few well-known mid-20th century jazz pianists to have written a collection of pieces aimed at the needs of developing pianists.  (Peterson’s book, ‘Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes and pieces’ is available as a book from Hal Leonard; a scan of an earlier edition, ‘Jazz for the Young Pianist’, is posted here.)  The Bach piece and the Peterson piece both challenge the player to develop equal facility in both hands with executing melodic passages.

Developing strength, agility and independence in one’s weaker hand is a challenge for pianists in all styles and at all levels. A 2009 article in Access Atlanta reports that an eye-opening number of great classical pianists and blues guitarists were left-handed.  A number of sources also cite jazz piano greats Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams as left-handed.  In the case of the pianists, this suggests that their success is an example of imagination and discipline triumphing over challenging circumstances, as the jazz and classical repertoires make such great demands of the right hand.

Most pianists, by contrast, face the challenge of building strength, agility and independence in a left hand that is naturally weaker than their right. This is the challenge addressed by Bach’s ‘Little Prelude’ in C Major (BWV 939) and a jazz piece which has a number of features in common with it, Oscar Peterson’s Etude No. 6.     (Given Peterson’s own affinity for Bach, as demonstrated in his piece The Bach Suite, particularly the section at 2:52 in the linked video, the resemblance may be more than coincidental.) Unlike the Hanon exercises, which seek to build strength in the weaker hand by having it play in unison with the dominant hand, and the Bach two part inventions, in which both hands often play the same figures but rarely do so in unison, these two pieces take a more incremental approach. Both pieces open with the right hand playing an opening phrase (a three-measure phrase in Bach and a two-measure phrase in Peterson) which is then answered by the left hand with minimal right-hand accompaniment (in Bach) or alone (in Peterson.)

In the Bach piece, this sets up a ‘conversation’ in which the right hand ‘speaks’ slightly more than the left, which has just two more measure-long melodic replies (m. 7 and 12) after its initial answer in m. 4-5; in m. 9-11 and 13-16, it takes up its more typical accompanying function. Although Bach does not give the hands equal melodic time, both hands are challenged in this piece to quickly alternate between two dynamic levels: a quieter level for accompanying passages, which requires the hands to stay closer to the keys (for right-handed players, this is the ‘default’ role for the left hand, but takes more work to develop in the right hand) and a stronger level for playing melody (which requires the player to have ‘higher’ fingers while still maintaining legato articulation where necessary.) There are a number of recordings of this piece online; although the one on the ‘Great Repertoire’ channel is rather stiffly played, it does include a valuable opportunity to follow the score while listening; the video by Dr. Alan Huckleberry of the University of Iowa features a more musical interpretation, as well as good examples of upper body posture, bench placement and rounded hand position.

In the Peterson piece, the right and left hands are given equal melodic time. Like many of the pieces in Peterson’s ‘Etudes and Pieces’ collection, Etude No. 6 follows a twelve-bar blues progression (in this case, in the key of E flat), and the right and left hands follow a pattern which jazz players call ‘trading twos’, breaking the progression into six phrases which are divided evenly between the hands. Although there are fewer accompanying passages in the Peterson piece than in Bach, the left hand is given some walking bass in m. 9-10. Although there are a number of odd, non-swinging recordings of Peterson’s etudes posted online, the performance in the link given above, by Italian pianist Giovanni Battista Gaetano, has a good sense of swing feel.  For an example of the ensemble context where the concept of trading originated, check out the classic tune ‘Blues Walk’. In their exchange at 5:28 in this tune, Clifford Brown and Harold Land demonstrate a number of the ways two improvisers can divide the twelve-bar blues progression between them, including ‘ones’, ‘twos’ and ‘fours’.

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Root systems, part 1 / Take three at a time: an approach to learning major scales and ii-V-I progressions in all keys along with tunes from The Real Book (Volume I, sixth edition)

This post is in response to questions often asked by my students.  ‘What tunes should I practice during my summer break from lessons?’, they ask. Or: ‘How can I get better at learning tunes from a fake book chart (i.e., just melody line with chord symbols above)?’ One way to begin working toward these goals is to expand your knowledge of major scale key signatures and fingerings, and major ii-V-I progressions, to the point where you are familiar with these skills in all twelve keys.

‘Learn it in all twelve keys!’ is common refrain in jazz education which often makes it sound like a student should learn a tune or a melodic pattern or a voicing in all twelve keys at one sitting. While this can be valuable, it is also important to relate such concepts to the context of a tune.  With this thought in mind, I have found a number of tunes in The Real Book (Volume 1, sixth edition, published by Hal Leonard) that use the major ii-V-I progression in at least three keys and so are good exercises in constructing voicings for the progression in those keys. I have come up with a tune list that allows one to learn major ii-V-I progressions in all twelve keys through learning a series of six tunes. You can assemble your own list of six tunes through making various combinations of tunes that I have outlined below. The only tune one has to learn to complete this series is the Miles Davis and Eddie Vinson’s Tune Up; other than that, one can assemble the list according to one’s preferences. There are tune options that follow more of a modern jazz/bop direction (which may be more of interest to players interested in instrumental performance) and others that follow more of a ‘standard tune’ direction (which may be more of interest to those interested in singing and vocal accompanying.)

Learn one tune each from Group 1 and Group 2 (starting with either group). These groups include the keys that pianists usually learn first, as they have more straightforward fingering (i.e., RH starts on the thumb, etc.) Once you have learned these two tunes and the six keys through which they move, you can learn one pair of tunes in Group 3 (by choosing one from each of the pairs listed) and one pair in Group 4 (by choosing one of the three pairs listed.) The tunes in these later groups begin in the more basic keys introduced by the first two groups and modulate into keys with more challenging fingerings and ‘keyboard topography’. When you finish the group of six tunes, you will have learned the major ii-V-I progression in all twelve keys.

Group 1 – keys of G, F, Eb (keys shown in exercise) – choose one of three tunes:            Ornithology, How High the Moon, or Laura (not in Real Book Volume One)


Group 2 – keys of D, C, Bb – one tune – learn Tune Up


Group 3 – keys of Ab, Gb, E – choose one from each pair:-

learn I’ll Remember April
 or All The Things You Are

AND Broadway (key of Eb) or Recordame (also uses Bb)


Group 4 – Db, B, A–

learn One Note Samba (includes ii-V-I in Db and B) and I Love You (includes ii-V-I in A)

OR Solar (includes ii-V-I in Db) and
Cherokee (includes ii-V-I in B and A; if root position voicing is used, requires special solution for last four bars of bridge)

OR One Note Samba and Cherokee

Along with learning a tune or pair of tunes in each group, learn the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ exercise below in the three keys of the key group in which you are working.  This exercise takes hands-together scales and chords and two handed combinations of chords and scales through a series of three keys descending by whole steps.  (For Groups 2, 3 and 4 you will need to transpose the exercise below; for group 3, transpose a half step up; for Groups 2 and 4, transpose down to the keys indicated.)ii-V-I in three keys (Doubles and Combinations)

Although root position voicings are useful for building basic knowledge of jazz harmony and making simple arrangements, and are used at times by a number of great players in jazz piano history, they can also (like the ‘blues scale’) become a trap if used exclusively. In addition to learning root position voicings for the ii-V-I progression in each key, it is also important to learn various rootless voicings for it in each key, particularly the most common which are sometimes referred to as ‘off the 7th’ and ‘off the 3rd’. There are a number of books that deal with rootless voicings; I most often use Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg as I find it has the most straightforward layout, but they can also be found in books by Dan Haerle and Michele Weir. Each exercise on the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ sheet (major scale followed by ii-V-I in the same key, ii-V-I in LH with ‘thirteen up and down’ major scale in RH, ii-V-I in RH with quarter note walking bass pattern in LH) can and should be repeated with 3 or 4 note A form or B form rootless voicings (Degreg chapters 4 and 3) replacing root position voicings.

In order to create variety in an arrangement where the form is repeated multiple times, learn the tune three ways:

1) with LH root position voicings (along with the melody in the RH),

2) with rootless voicings in the RH (using either ‘off the 7th’ or ‘off the 3rd’ voicings, or a combination of both) and roots in the LH

3)with rootless voicings in the LH, in the same range where the RH played them, combined with a single note line in the RH (either the melody, or a scale outline, or a bop tune or solo transcription based on the changes of the tune.) For this approach, it is often necessary to move the melodic line up an octave in the RH.

In the case of most of these tunes, it is possible to use one type of rootless voicing throughout the tune (just ‘off the 7th’ or just ‘off the 3rd’), although alternating between different types can often create closer harmony. One exception to this is ‘All The Things’, where staying with only one type of rootless voicing creates too many interruptions in voice leading.

When learning any jazz tune, it is crucial to have access not just to a chart but to a recorded version by a jazz player or singer that demonstrates how to interpret the melody with both rhythmic creativity (i.e. using a swing or Latin rhythmic approach) and melodic creativity (i.e. adding melodic ornaments and fills), as well as how to incorporate improvisation (through improvised sections of various lengths, from fills between melody phrases to half or full chorus solos.) With the tunes on this list in particular, it is helpful to practice one or two handed chordal comping with recorded version in the ‘book key’ at a moderate tempo.  Here are some suggestions of recordings of this type to use:


How High The Moon – Chet Baker from ‘Chet’ album

I Love You – Mick Hucknall (from soundtrack to the Cole Porter bio-pic ‘De-Lovely’) – not a jazz version, but it uses the same changes as the Real Book, and has a good practice tempo.

Laura – Charlie Parker with Strings

Tune Up – Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

All The Things You Are – Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’

(Rollins begins by improvising on the changes rather than stating the melody, so this can be used for practicing chords only)

Broadway – Art Pepper

Recordame – Bobby Hutcherson

One Note Samba – Coleman Hawkins (from Desafinado) – this version uses a different progression (just the Dm7, Db7, Cm7, B7 changes sped up to two beats each) on bar 13 and 14 of the form, but otherwise uses the same changes as the Real Book.

Cherokee – Modern Jazz Quartet

I’ll Remember April – Jim Hall and Ron Carter from Alone Together (Live), Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’, Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

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Pairings, part two: left hand walking bass with right hand chordal comping by Kenny Barron, John Coates Jr. and G.F. Handel (or, Spring Comping Trip)

The piano, more than any other instrument, has the capacity to evoke the sound of a group of players.  In the Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’ that I transcribed in the last post, it could be argued that his left hand bass line and right hand melody line have just as much independence as do Slam Stewart and Don Byas in their duo version of ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Great stride players like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson incorporated into their solo playing the chordal, bass and melodic parts that Nat King Cole later divided up among the members of his trio.  Another category I have been interested in recently is that of great jazz pianists who excel in a duo context.  For me, Kenny Barron’s work on the duo album ‘People Time’ with Stan Getz places him at the top of this list, although he has made many other great duo recordings, including his work with Frank Morgan and Regina Carter.

One of the most important skills for the duo player is the ability to walk quarter or half note bass in the left hand while comping chords in the right.  As an accompanist, I have always found that this is a crucial way of establishing a rhythmic connection with soloists, both those who are experienced musicians and those whose sense of rhythm needs some guidance.  Throughout most of ‘People Time’, Kenny Barron and Stan Getz display a seemingly telepathic connection that allows both of them to play with great rhythmic freedom while still maintaining a clear sense of moving together.   The excerpt I transcribed below, from Barron’s comping on ‘Like Someone In Love’, is a comparatively rare instance where his accompaniment of Getz moves into more deliberate timekeeping.  It is a great example of an active quarter-note bassline combined with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand.  Although this technique is only one of many that Barron uses, for most jazz duo situations, the ability to combine strong left hand walking bass with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand is a crucial survival skill for the pianist.  Barron also employs a number of refreshing chord substitutions on this great standard.  I have transcribed just the first sixteen bars of this chorus, as my idea is that this should serve as a model for your own duo comping, rather than a score from which to perform.Like Someone In Love Kenny Barron comping

John Coates Jr. is what I would call a ‘municipal monster pianist‘ (the term I coined to describe Dave McKenna in the last post.) For more than 50 years,  Coates’ home base was Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where he played at the Deer Head Inn.  (As one newspaper article attests, Coates‘ playing was an influence on the young Keith Jarrett, who grew up in that area; a more recent article reports that Coates has relocated to California.)  Much of Coates‘ recorded output is solo piano music in a style that might be called ‘improvisational folk-jazz gumbo’.   The excerpt below, which showcases Coates’ straight-ahead jazz playing, is from a great version of the standard ‘Moonglow’ on a duo album he made with the fantastic vocalist Nancy Reed at the Deer Head in 2007.  I was not aware of Reed’s singing before hearing this recording, but hearing her made me an instant fan; in addition to being a highly inventive and swinging vocalist, she is equally gifted bass player and I look forward to checking out her music more.  Coates‘ left hand walks in a manner similar to McKenna’s (although Coates’ bassline here uses an even lower range than the McKenna excerpt) while his right hand deftly alternates between chordal comping phrases and single-note fills.John Coates Moonglow

John Coates’ solo playing, documented on the collection ‘The Omnisound Years’, is the work for which he is best known and is well worth checking out.   With interpretations of tunes by Neil Diamond, The Beatles and Cole Porter, this compilation suggests the catholic (in the sense of ‘universal’) breadth of Coates’ repertoire during the 1960s and 70s when the recordings were made.  In his composition Prologue, Coates synthesizes these diverse influences, beginning with an intro that would be at home in an Elton John tune, progressing through some more jazzlike modulation and into a solo that makes shrewd and tasteful use of bebop language.  Like the classic live recordings of Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard and Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, on these recordings Coates is heard in a context of ambient sounds, including dinner conversation, clinking silverware and even a passing car at one point in ‘Prologue’.  The listener gets a strong sense that this music was created in and for a particular social setting, and a particular room.  Although the arc of the melody in ‘Prologue’ has a meditative quality, there is also an energy to Coates’ playing which I think derives from a natural inclination a solo player can develop in live situations to mirror the level of activity in the room where they are playing.  In this piece one can also hear a number of stylistic elements that found their way into Keith Jarrett’s solo piano work by the time of his albums ‘The Koln Concert’ and ‘Facing You’.

Coates’ solo piano music has a site-specific nature which can also be found in the solo keyboard music of G.F. Handel.  Handel’s keyboard music, in contrast to his concert works, was created for intimate, informal situations such as small social gatherings and concert intermissions (where the level of background noise was likely comparable to that heard behind Coates’ Prologue.)  Handel’s Aria with Variations from his Suite no. 1 in B Flat Major  contains, in its second variation, a valuable etude in combining left hand walking bass and right hand chordal comping.  (A score for the piece can be found here – go to the third score listed under ‘Sheet Music’.)  In addition, this piece also prominently features a number of other techniques which are important skills for jazz pianists, including left hand walking bass with right hand melody (in the first variation) and left hand-right hand conversation (in the third.)

Postscript: I have always enjoyed duo work; some recent recordings I’ve done in that format include a version of eden ahbez’ ‘Nature Boy’ on vocalist Allison Mann’s album For My Mother and Father, and a version of ‘All of You’ that can be heard on the ReverbNation page for Birdcode, a new band that I’ve been working in with bassist John Rivers, drummer Caleb Bronz, and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.

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Pairings, part one: left-hand walking bass and right hand lines in Dave McKenna, Bach and Handel

The concept of food pairings is one that I’ve learned a great deal about from my wife, Amber deLaurentis, a great pianist, vocalist and songwriter who happens to be an amazing artist in the kitchen as well. In food pairing, one chooses a garnish for the way it brings out the flavor in a salad or a cut of meat; or one chooses a beverage for the way it brings out the flavor in the food it accompanies.

When I studied classical piano repertoire with Elizabeth Metcalfe and Sylvia Parker in the mid to late 1990s, following my studies of jazz with teachers including Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, Tom McClung and Bruce Sklar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I noticed that a number of keyboard techniques I had learned as a jazz player also showed up in classical piano repertoire. The techniques that jazz players call left-hand walking bass, left-hand stride accompaniment and left-hand chordal comping, for example, can all be found in various pieces from standard classical solo piano literature. As a piano teacher, I’ve started to notice that applying a given technique (for instance, walking bass) to a jazz tune can be easier if it is studied side by side with a classical piece that calls for the same technique; the ‘pairing‘ can bring out the ‘flavor‘ in both pieces. To use more technical (and less appetizing) language, the classical pieces can function as etudes that help a jazz player develop facility with a particular technique.  Making these kinds of connections with classical repertoire can can also introduce jazz pianists to the value and relevance of studying classical solo piano literature in general, as a way to build technique, develop their sound. and as an end in itself.  This is the first in a series of posts on pairings of classical and jazz pieces that can be useful (and hopefully enjoyable) in the practice room (and maybe also in adventurously programmed performances.)

In first couple pairings I’ll be connecting classical pieces with transcriptions from two great players, Dave McKenna and John Coates, Jr., who might be called ‘municipal monster pianists.’ Both McKenna and Coates are well-known among fellow musicians and in certain pockets of the listening public despite the fact that they largely avoided the typical touring routine of the professional jazz musician and chose instead to make a long-term commitment to playing solo piano at one venue close to their place of residence.  (McKenna played six nights a week throughout the most of the 1980s at the Plaza Bar in the Copley Square Hotel in Boston.)  Given their preference for solo piano playing, as well as the fact that they were also great accompanists, it is no coincidence that McKenna and Coates both mastered the technique of walking bass lines with the left hand. The transcription below is an excerpt from a Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’  which can be heard and seen on YouTube.  (The tune begins at :29 on the video; one of the reasons I chose to transcribe this ‘C Jam Blues’ is that it’s a notch or two slower than McKenna’s commercially released versions of the tune.) McKenna combines an eighth-note-based solo full of bop-style melodic invention with a quarter-note bass line where he manages to be inventive while also keeping his left hand largely below C3.  I suggest first learning to play the head of ‘C Jam Blues’ in the right hand while playing the first twelve bars of walking bass in the left, and then learning McKenna’s solo line in the right hand.   (I have found the right hand pattern in m. 16-17 particularly fun to transpose  through the circle of descending fifths while playing dominant 7th chords through the circle of fifths in the left hand.)Dave McKenna solo on C Jam Blues - Full Score


Walking bass was also a common technique in the Baroque era; the bass lines in J.S. Bach’s orchestral music, for example, are often nearly as strong and independent as the melodic lines further up in the contrapuntal texture. A microcosm of this bass independence can be heard in the Gavotte from his English Suite in G Minor.  Although the left hand bass line alternates between quarter-note walking and brief flurries of eighth notes, there are enough eighth notes in the right hand line that I find it the piece comparable to a jazz situation with walking bass and an improvised eighth-note line.

Finally, I discovered the Allemande from Handel’s Keyboard Suite in B Flat Major through a recording by Keith Jarrett, who first became known as a jazz pianist but is equally known today through his classical recordings. This piece combines the same kind of quarter-note walking bass and with an eighth-note-based melody that is slightly less ornate than that of the Bach Gavotte.

I encourage pianists looking to develop their facility with walking bass to try practicing either the Bach or the Handel side by side with my McKenna transcription.  In an upcoming post I will look at how great jazz pianists combine left hand walking and right hand chordal comping in duo situations.

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The State of The Blues, Part One: Helen Sung’s solo on C Jam Blues

This is the first in a series of posts featuring transcriptions I’ve done of contemporary jazz pianists soloing on the blues progression.  Sometimes in the work of contemporary players such as Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson (who studied with Hersch), it can seem as though the Horace Silver-Wynton Kelly tradition of conversation between left hand chords and right hand melodic phrases in a solo is becoming a thing of the past, even when playing over more standard progressions.  This thought led me to search through the tundra of modern jazz piano playing for examples of contemporary players using the conversational style.  It turns out plenty of players still use this approach, and many have found a way to use it for expressing more modern ideas.

In the first two choruses of her solo on C Jam Blues (from the version on her album reConceptions), Helen Sung adeptly uses a mixture of three-note rootless voicings (for example m. 1-6), two-note guide tone voicing (m. 10), smaller cluster voicings (m. 7 and 19) and, starting in the second chorus, McCoy Tyner-style perfect-fifth ‘bombs’ in her left hand.  This comping supports and converses with a right-hand line that seamlessly weaves together crisp Wynton-Kelly style phrases (as in m. 2-9) and brief but pungent excursions like m. 10 and m. 13-14 that slip away from the harmony and imply harmonic extensions and alterations.  Sung’s playing swings hard throughout, from the morse-code simplicity of the head to the exploratory and virtuosic conclusion of the solo beyond the choruses shown here.  Sung’s work as a recording artist and composer is well worth checking out, including her albums ‘Going Express’ and ‘Helenistique’ (which includes a great version of ‘Cottontail’.)  (Note: This transcription was posted with Helen Sung’s permission.)Helen Sung solo on C Jam B

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‘You Need To Lift It’: A Visit From Henry Butler

Four of my piano students recently played in a workshop with the great Henry Butler, one of the prime exponents of the New Orleans piano style. (Many thanks Steve MacQueen and Madeline Bell from the Flynn as well as Dr. Alex Stewart at UVM for their help in organizing the workshop.) From earlier albums like ‘Fivin’ Around’ to the more recent ‘PiaNOLA’ and the just-released ‘Viper’s Drag’, Butler’s playing has carried forward the innovations of New Orleans pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair and James Booker and featured Butler’s own unique fusions of harmony (from gospel, blues, jazz, etc.) and modernistic melodic motion.

In advance of Butler’s visit, I transcribed some of Henry Butler’s piano solo on the tune ‘Some Iko’ and studied it with some of my students. It can be heard in a YouTube video featuring Butler with Steven Bernstein and the Hot Nine, the band with which he performed recently at the Flynn. The solo is a great example of how to apply bebop concepts to a simple two-chord progression, as well as of a conversational and melodic approach to comping with the left hand during a right hand melodic solo. I told Butler that I particularly liked the two-handed melodic intro that he plays before getting into the form of the tune, and he mentioned that Frank Zappa keyboardist and jazz/funk keyboard icon George Duke was one of the first people to show him this kind of two-handed technique. This reminded me that I’ve been wanting to transcribe Duke’s solo from the Zappa tune ‘Blessed Relief’. (Maybe I’ll also post a transcription I did of Art Neville’s intro chorus from the Meters tune ‘Cabbage Alley’.) In any case, here’s the beginning of Butler’s solo:Some Iko 2

In the first eight bars of this solo excerpt, Butler focuses on using the flatted third of the F7 and C7 changes, which gives the melodic line a more traditional blues flavor.  However, both the way that his line closely follows the chord changes, and the way his left hand interacts conversationally with the right (comping in spaces his right hand leaves, rather than playing chords underneath a more continuous line) are more characteristic of jazz players like Wynton Kelly.  Starting with the pickup to measure 9, Butler uses the bebop approach of placing non-scale tones or ‘half steps’ on upbeats (for instance, using the half steps between the root and 7th and the 6th and 5th of the F 7th scale in m. 10).   His blues-based opening strategy in the first eight bars grabs your attention, but the jazz chromaticism in the latter half of the solo holds it .

In the workshop at UVM a few weeks ago, Butler hit a wonderful balance of criticism and encouragement with my students. While some of the statements I’ve quoted are critical, which is to be expected in a master class, my written quotes don’t fully convey the congeniality with which he delivered these thoughts. I am really grateful for how generously he shared his prodigious knowledge and insight during an hour and a half sandwiched between his arrival in town and a house concert. (Before the workshop, we were also treated to Butler’s harmonically adventurous takes on ‘In Your Own Sweet Way‘ and ‘Love For Sale‘ while he tested out the piano.)

The workshop began with one of my UVM students playing a rendition of ‘Mood Indigo’ that opened with two choruses of stride (a head statement followed by a chorus of solo.) After listening to some of the stride solo, Mr. Butler stopped the student and said: “You’re playing this sort of in a stride style, and I hear in your right hand that you’re intimating that it’s supposed to be a triplet feel or swing feel, right? But in other parts of your playing, I wonder if you’re trying to be in the swing style or in more of an even rhythmic style.” He then demonstrated some ways of adding a swing feel to a stride left hand. (An example of this is in the discussion of ‘Blue Monk’ below.)

In discussing the student’s solo, Butler commented: “You have to compel people to listen, and the only way you’re going to be able to do that is by instituting more contrasting elements. [Your solo sounds] pretty much the same in both choruses. Your first four bars, maybe your first eight bars, could be just the way you started. And then, after that, you need to lift it. One way to lift it is by changing your phrasing to maybe a mix of sixteenth notes with maybe some of what you’re doing [i.e. eighth notes] or triplets.” He followed this with a couple choruses of his own that demonstrated rhythmic variety and swung hard. I’m going to see if I can get Mr. Butler’s permission to post audio excerpts, but in the meantime, here’s a transcription of the beginning:H Butler Mood Indigo 2

Later in the workshop another student played ‘Blue Monk’, also leading off with two choruses of stride. Through first talking and then playing a few choruses of his own on the tune, Butler made the point that stride piano is not just the ‘boom-chuck’ combination of a bass line in one range and chords in another, but that it can and should also include elements of swing feel. “If I was going to play it sort of like you were playing,” Butler began, “I would maybe do this.” He then played a stride head statement of ‘Blue Monk’ full of swing and great voice leading in the left hand. He further clarified his approach to stride on this tune by playing a chorus of left hand alone on the twelve-bar jazz blues in B flat, starting with these four bars:H Butler LH blues part 1

He then paused, perhaps remembering how one of my students had mentioned that he couldn’t reach tenths, a common interval in stride left hand parts. Butler added: “If your hands aren’t big enough to do that, you can do…” and went on to play the following excerpt.  He began by taking a different approach to the walking tenths in the last bar of the excerpt above and changing them to what I’d call jump tenths :H Butler LH blues part 2

Throughout this excerpt, Butler either jumps up a major tenth from the root of a chord to its  third(as in the first bar), or up a seventh from the root of a dominant chord to a guide tone (i.e. 7th and 3rd) voicing of it.  In these excerpts he also follows the standard jazz piano practice (described in Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg) of keeping the 3rd and 7th of every chord above C3 (i.e., the C below middle C.)

Henry Butler’s visit was an energizing experience both for myself and my students, some of whom have also gotten to play in workshops with other guest artists; over the years I have had the privilege of coordinating workshops with Arturo O’Farrill, Marcus Roberts, Donal Fox, Mike Holaber, Jason Moran and John Stetch. If I can see interest in this post in the form of blog comments, maybe I’ll post some of the transcriptions I’ve done of these great players. Recently I’ve discovered the benefits of transcribing first and asking questions later (as I did with Butler, Roberts, and Fox); but then again, it can also be exciting to chase the traces of a melodic imagination after its owner leaves town. True confession: while I was transcribing Butler’s workshop excerpts, I was dashing back and forth from my computer to the TV to catch updates on the gripping last game of the World Series.  It was doubly inspiring to take breaks from decoding Butler’s brilliant piano moves and see the team from the birthplace of the Count Basie Orchestra stride to victory over the team from the birthplace of bebop (who swung hard in their own right.)

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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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