A history of the ‘Autumn Leaves’ progression (with ‘Paul’s Question’, a tune on the changes of ‘Autumn Leaves’)

Two of the most iconic jazz versions of Autumn Leaves combine the tune’s melody and chord progression with a rhythmic figure idiomatic to jazz known as the ‘Charleston’ rhythm.  This rhythm is named for the James P. Johnson composition of the same title which was in turn named for a 1920s dance craze.  In the Johnson piece, a repeated rhythm is heard in the melody and the accompaniment in nearly every bar of the song; this can be heard in Johnson’s playing as two separated notes, the first on the downbeat of beat one, the second on the ‘and’ of two.  The Charleston rhythm was adapted by composers and arrangers including James P. Johnson admirer[1] George Gershwin, who used the Charleston pattern in ‘I Got Rhythm‘ on beat two of first bar of the melody and on beat one of the second, and James P. Johnson student[2] Duke Ellington, who used the Charleston pattern in C Jam Blues on the third measure of the melody.  In these tunes the pattern was adapted to be two connected notes, a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. 

This is the form in which the pattern appears when Hank Jones uses it in his piano comping on Autumn Leaves in the version from Cannonball Adderley’s album ‘Somethin’ Else’ that features Miles Davis.  Jones’s part does not repeat the pattern exactly as in my arrangement, but is based around the pattern.  In Jones’ piano part the rhythm is heard in yet another location, beat three of the first bar of the melody.  The same rhythmic figure is used by Bill Evans in the the Bill Evans Trio version of Autumn Leaves from the classic album Portrait in Jazz.   While Jones’ comping behind Miles Davis’ statement of the melody is a model of dynamically reserved accompaniment, Evans’ statement of the melody is a model of melody/accompaniment balance between the right and left hands.

The chord progression used in ‘Autumn Leaves’ is also known as the ‘diatonic cycle’ for the way it begins on the ii chord in a major key and, with a bassline that follows a pattern of ascending fourths or descending fifths, cycles through chords built on all seven notes of the major scale, landing on the relative minor.  This progression was around long before the tune ‘Autumn Leaves’ was composed in 1945; it can be heard near the beginning of the Allegro from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.  Since ‘Autumn Leaves’ was composed, the diatonic cycle progression has appeared in a number of tunes, at least some of which are likely borrowing it from Autumn Leaves; these include:

Tito Puente’s Maria Cervantes; during the solo section of this tune, the Autumn Leaves A section changes are looped with their usual harmonic rhythm cut in half (so that each change lasts two beats instead of four) over a 2-3 son clave

Clare Fischer’s Morning uses Autumn Leaves A section changes with a compressed harmonic rhythm over a cha-cha groove in the second four bar phrase of its A section

– The song best known as the ‘Theme from MASH’, the 1970s TV show (the title of its lesser known lyrics is ‘Suicide Is Painless’), famously interpreted by Bill Evans, uses the Autumn Leaves A section changes over a bossa nova groove.  (Evans cycles the entire form of the tune through three keys, using a pattern of descending major thirds.)

Carlos Santana’s Europa uses the Autumn Leaves A section chords over a rhythm section that combines rock ballad feel with bolero

– A good reference for the original French lyrics to Autumn Leaves (Les Feullies Mortes) is the version by Charles Aznavour, which is also a good recording to use for practicing the changes to the tune in E minor (as shown in the tune below) with the left hand alone. Aznavour also wrote an original tune, Yesterday When I Was Young, that uses the A section changes of Autumn Leaves.

– versions of Autumn Leaves by jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett include improvised sections that are based on a minor chord vamp rather than the form, anticipating the loop-based arrangements of contemporary players like Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper.  A recent version of Autumn Leaves by vocalist Leslie Odom Jr. bookends the tune with a vamp-based intro and outro. 

My tune ‘Paul’s Question’ is named after a student who approached me after rehearsal and asked how to take a solo on Autumn Leaves.  A chart and keyboard video of it is below. It combines a Charleston-based stride accompaniment in the left hand using mostly rootless voicings with a bop-based melody in the right hand.  I hope this post might either inspire you to create your own piece based on an excerpt from the Autumn Leaves progression or a tune based on the entire progression of Autumn Leaves. 

I encourage you to choose one recording out of the Bach, Tito Puente and Clare Fischer pieces and leave a comment citing the timing (i.e. minutes and seconds) of the place where the Autumn Leaves/diatonic cycle progression is used in that piece.


[1] See this short Johnson biography by Margaret Moos Pick for more on the Gershwin-Johnson relationship.

[2] Terry Teachout’s biography ‘Duke’ mentions that after hearing Ellington play his famously challenging Carolina Shout, Johnson ‘was sufficiently impressed to go club-hopping with his
young admirer. It was a night that Ellington never forgot: “What I absorbed on that
occasion might, I think, have constituted a whole semester in a conservatory.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate part 1 – stepwise patterns time-traveling through music history: Mozart, Haydn and Ella Fitzgerald

In a New York Times article titled ‘What Haydn Taught Mozart’, the music historian H.C. Robbins Landon quotes a number of letters by both composers that indicate the high regard these two icons of the Classical style had for each other.  In a letter to a friend, Haydn said of the younger composer: “…scarcely any man can brook comparison with the great Mozart.” Landon quotes an early Mozart biography that says the composer “often called [Haydn] his teacher.”  Landon then goes on to cite a number of examples from Mozart’s music that show Haydn’s influence, including the D minor piano concerto which ” utilized…not only the latest Haydn symphony but also that composer’s seminal String Quartet Op. 9 No. 4.”  Landon writes that Mozart and Haydn first met ‘in Vienna in the early 1780’s’, when Mozart was in his mid-twenties and Haydn in his late forties.   

In the recent movie Emma, the title character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, rushes to a fortepiano (a predecessor of the piano originating in the 18th century) just before the visit of George Knightley, an adversarial friend and eventual love interest.  Emma briefly practices a Mozart Minuet and Trio as a way of feigning indifference to Knightley’s visit.  As piano music is a subplot of the film (based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name), it is significant that the piece Emma practices is K.1, in other words, the first piece in Mozart’s catalog and allegedly the first piece he composed in 1761 at the age of five.  As the plot goes on, we meet Jane Fairfax, a peer and sometime rival of Emma’s.  At a scene during a music recital, just after Emma sings a plaintive but rudimentary rendition of the Irish song ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, Fairfax plays a fast and technically brilliant piece composed by the mature Mozart around the time he met Haydn, the Allegro Assai from the Sonata in F KV 332.  Fairfax’s Mozart outshines both Emma’s vocal piece and the Mozart piece Emma practiced at home, leaving her feeling musically outdone.  This only adds to the ways she feels socially outdone by Fairfax.  As Fairfax blazes through the Mozart, Emma says to Knightley in an annoyed whisper, ”Ever since I can remember, I have been told I can find no better companion than Jane Fairfax, she who is so accomplished and so superior.” 

While in Emma the Minuet and Trio K. 1 symbolizes one-half of a less-than-well-matched rivalry, in the history of Mozart and Haydn it also seems to be a mysterious and perhaps inexplicable foreshadowing of their friendship.  The first phrase of the Minuet and Trio ends with a cadential phrase that descends the D major scale, completing a modulation to D major.  (The link in the last sentence is cued to the phrase I am referring to, however, after listening to it from this start point, please also go back and listen from the beginning to place it in context.)  This phrase is very similar to a phrase at the end of the first section in Haydn’s Sonatina in G Major H. XVI no. 8Can you find the timing in the video where the Haydn phrase that echoes the Mozart phrase appears? Although these pieces are in two different time signatures, this right-hand melodic phrase appears in in the same key in both pieces and with the same figure in the left hand accompanying.  This would seem to be another example of Haydn’s influence, except that the Mozart piece is dated five years before the Haydn piece, which is listed as being composed in 1766, five years after the Mozart piece and over a decade before Haydn and Mozart met.  One possible explanation is that Haydn may have heard Mozart play on one of the concert tours Mozart’s father arranged starting the year after Mozart composed K.1.  Another explanation is that both composers were quoting the same source, much as jazz improvisers borrow from various sources to tell their spontaneous melodic stories. 

In 1930, Moises Simon’s song The Peanut Vendor became a best-seller in the sheet music world as well as a hit record by Don Azpiazu and His Havana Casino Orchestra.  It was recorded by a number of jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong in 1931 (who provided his own combination of English lyrics and scat syllables in place of the Spanish lyrics) , Stan Kenton in 1947 and Duke Ellington in 1958.  1960 saw the release of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic album ‘Mack The Knife: Ella in Berlin’.  The album was named after the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill song that became best known on the album after Fitzgerald forgot Brecht’s lyrics and improvised her own.  Following ‘Mack the Knife’, and closing the album, is Fitzgerald’s epic rendition of ‘How High The Moon’, in which she begins with the scat choruses from her 1947 recording of the song and adds an additional four minutes of improvisation, this time including a quote from The Peanut Vendor.  Can you find the timing in the video for Ella’s Peanut Vendor quote? 

copyright 2021 Tom Cleary

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate, Part 2: Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly

Trumpeter, composer and educator Clark Terry, who I got to play with briefly in the early 2000s when he visited UVM, often used the phrase ‘imitate, assimilate, innovate’ to describe the process by which improvisers develop their melodic language.  In this series of blog posts, I will be presenting some theories about how great improvisers from jazz history imitated and assimilated specific ideas of earlier players and often found ways to add their own innovations.  In his book Elements of the Jazz Language, Jerry Coker titles two licks that show up in many mid-twentieth-century solos by jazz players the Cry Me A River‘ lick (after the Arthur Hamilton song) and the Gone But Not Forgotten‘ lick (after the Bob Haggart/Jack Lawrence song).  (The link to ‘Cry Me’ in the last sentence is to the version by Ella Fitzgerald, for whom the tune was written; while it has not been recorded by many pianists, Brad Mehldau has a version with the melody clearly stated and spare counterpoint in the left hand.) He goes on to catalog many instances in which these phrases are used by various players on various tunes.  In this post I will suggest a timeline for how a melodic idea may have made its way from Bud Powell’s playing to Wynton Kelly’s playing.  By doing this I am hoping to show both that, for developing improvisers, there is more to building melodic vocabulary than just learning and transposing melodic phrases in their original form.  Through some process, conscious or subconscious, those ideas have to combine with the rest of one’s vocabulary until, like the scraps in a compost heap, they start to change form. 

On May 8, 1947, Bud Powell made his only studio recording with Charlie Parker, at a time when the  saxophonist’s fame as a soloist and bandleader had recently begun to rise.  He had recorded with pianists including Dodo Marmarosa, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner and Sadik Hakim, and had even used Dizzy Gillespie on piano at one point, but he had not yet done a recording session with Powell, who was becoming known as an erratic genius.  As Peter Pullman notes in his biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, although Parker and Powell had worked together on and off since mid-1945, Powell did not show up for Parker’s first recording as a leader that same year, despite being the pianist in his working band, and had to be replaced by Hakim and Gillespie.  Earlier that year, the pianist had missed his first opportunity to play with Parker in Cootie Williams’ band because Parker joined the band while Powell was on leave from it while being institutionalized in a series of psychiatric hospitals.  After the 1947 recording sessions, Parker and Powell would go on to play more live performances together where their odd-couple dynamic was on full display.  As I mention in an earlier blog post, these performances, preserved on the albums One Night In Birdland and Jazz At Massey Hall, contain brilliant playing by both musicians, but also examples of how Powell’s idiosyncrasies as an accompanist threw Parker off his usual unshakeable balance.  On both these recordings, Powell sometimes can be heard musically irritating Parker and in one case nearly derailing him with a confusing intro.  The ways Parker resists Powell’s musical disruptions is masterful, and the counterpoint between them is sometimes hilarious.

Pullman notes that at the May 1947 session, Powell is ‘not given much solo space on any of the takes’ – on what became the most famous recording from the session, Donna Lee, Powell is given only 16 bars to improvise – but that he ‘steals a chance to shine on “Buzzy” ‘, one of the two Parker tunes on twelve-bar blues forms from the session.  On his solo from the master take of the tune that was released as a single the same year, Powell deftly quotes a phrase from m. 3-4 of ‘Donna Lee’, the tune recorded at the beginning of the session, perhaps showing a desire to connect musically with his bandmates. He closes his first chorus of solo with a figure in m. 11 that descends from F4 to F3, embellishing a Bb major 6th arpeggio on the way.  Powell would use a slightly more chromatic version of this same figure to close his iconic solo on Un Poco Loco four years later in May of 1951.

In July of 1951, in the same recording studio where Powell recorded Un Poco Loco, a young Wynton Kelly did the first of two sessions that would become his first album as a leader, Piano Interpretations.  In a 1963 interview where he gave a quick rundown of his recordings as a leader, Kelly referred to this album as ‘one I made in 1950 [sic] when I was 19 that doesn’t even count’, but it actually shows the beginnings of what would make Kelly a unique, pivotal and sought-after accompanist and soloist in mid-twentieth-century jazz.  Kelly also pays tribute to Bud Powell in the interview, saying: “I respect Bud as one of the main figures in starting modern jazz piano.”  In his version of Cherokee, Kelly begins his solo with a phrase very similar to the closing move from Powell’s ‘Buzzy’ solo.  (The release date of ‘Buzzy’ makes it possible Kelly might have heard it, while ‘Un Poco Loco’ was not released before the time of Kelly’s session.) On his second use of the lick at 1:09, Kelly incorporates the first six notes of Powell’s phrase (F-E-Eb-D-Bb-G) and adds his own tail (G-Gb-F-Eb). Kelly continues to return to the idea throughout the solo, never reproducing it exactly but working with shorter variants of it, playing it higher registers than Powell did, but in the same key. 

While Kelly is working with many Bud Powell-inspired phrases in the right hand, his left hand alternates between compound-tenth voicings typical of Powell’s playing and the higher rootless voicings that would become a trademark of his sound in his work with Miles Davis.  In comparison to the nearly non-stop right-hand monologue that Powell carried on in his solo on Serenade to A Square, which uses the Cherokee chord progression and which Kelly may have also heard, Kelly’s solo is distinctive and ground-breaking for its use of what George Colligan calls ‘hand to hand conversation’ to create space within his solo.  Through taking a more conversational approach initiated by his left hand, Kelly introduces the crucial element of space, allowing the listener to hear Powell’s language in a new way – as one half of a conversation rather than a monologue.

It is a sign of how indispensable Kelly became as a sideman, as well as perhaps a clue about his personality, that he did not record another album as a leader (other than a session co-led with Lee Morgan) until the album Piano seven years later.  In the interim, he recorded with a ‘who’s who’ of jazz soloists, most prominently Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Benny Golson, Dinah Washington and Dizzy Gillespie. On Piano, Kelly returned to his personalized version of the Bud Powell lick to open his solo on the tune ‘Action’.  This time, he adds to his chromatic tail with a mordant (D-Db-D) leading down to the root.

The recording of Buzzy was likely an awkward situation for Bud Powell; whatever the reason Powell had missed Parker’s first session, it was the first time Parker got to test out his erratic bandmate in the isolated environment of the recording studio.    In a similar way, the recording of Miles Davis’ now classic Kind of Blue may have been awkward for Wynton Kelly.  Davis had hired Kelly in 1958, prior to the recording of Kind of Blue, and continued to use Kelly in live concerts through the early 1960s.   As Ashley Kahn writes, when Kind of Blue was recorded,  ‘despite having hired Wynton Kelly to take over the piano spot[in his band]…Davis called [Bill] Evans and set up studio time at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio.’  In Miles: The Autobiography, Davis writes that ‘ Wynton joined us just before I was going into the studio to make Kind of Blue, but I had already planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans, who had agreed to play on it with us.’  

A more magnanimous bandleader might have have been motivated to bring Kelly in on one tune of the album at least partly to appease hurt feelings.  Davis, however, was famously single-minded and unsentimental in his musical decisions. According to Cannonball Adderley, he fired pianist Red Garland, with whom he recorded five of his most influential albums, and hired Kelly when he happened to be in the audience at a gig for which pianist Garland was late. So it is more likely that his reasons for having Kelly on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ were purely musical.  The form and style of the tune – straight-ahead jazz blues – is one that Evans avoided throughout his solo career, and  one at which Kelly excelled and which he chose often on his solo records.  Davis was quoted as saying, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’ 

In his Freddie Freeloader solo, Kelly finds yet another variation on the lick that had started out as an echo of Bud Powell’s phrase.  In this permutation, he gives the phrase a different ‘head’, replacing the opening triplet with a three-note ascent (Bb-Db-D).  He also alters the ‘tail’ he had added to Powell’s lick through the use of a phrase common in Charlie Parker’s solos, identified as the ‘four lick’ by Barry Harris (F-Eb-C-Db-D natural.)  This alteration of both ends of the phrase is one reason I would say the Freddie Freeloader solo marks the ‘innovation’ stage in Kelly’s use of Powell’s lick; another way that Kelly innovates is in the way that he begins the lick on a ‘weak’ beat (beat two).  In all his other uses of the lick, Kelly makes the main accent of the phrase fall on a strong beat.  Moving the lick to beat two, as well as compressing it into sixteenth notes, allows Kelly to fit the lick into a ‘hand to hand conversation’ phrase where the strong beat is occupied by the left hand ‘chord question’. 

In my view, it is not a coincidence that the last solo in this chronological sequence is also the one in which Kelly employs the ‘hand to hand conversation’ strategy most clearly.  In a future blog post, I will discuss how Kelly went on to develop the conversational strategy in his improvising as a problem-solving technique for tunes where composers including John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter presented him with the challenge of improvising on unfamiliar chord progressions. 

(I used the Bud Powell Discography and Wynton Kelly Discography at jazzdisco.org as references for this post.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Musical Neighbors: Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Bertha Hope and the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective

Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell
Bertha and Elmo Hope

Although jazz musicians are usually understood either as solo artists or members of bands, there is another important kind of relationship between them that sometimes escapes the attention of listeners and historians. Throughout the history of jazz, many players have belonged to musical collectives, groups that may include musicians who may perform together, but who gather primarily to exchange ideas about music and build a common repertoire and musical aesthetic, usually outside the functioning spaces and hours of the musical marketplace.   Recent decades of jazz history have included a number of formalized collectives, including the Jazz Composers Guild, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, M-Base and more recently the West Coast Get Down, but earlier jazz history includes a number of less formalized collectives.  It is a sign of gender equity in jazz being an ongoing challenge that all these collectives are either exclusively male or consist largely of male players; more recent groups like Jazz Women and Girls Advocates and Women In Jazz Organization have begun to offer some much-needed balance. 

The history of literature includes a number of well-known collectives, such as The Inklings, which included the British writers J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson, whose discussions on their shared interests in world mythology and Christian spirituality influenced their individual literary creations.  When one can discover the existence of a collective during any period in the development of an art form, it often reveals details of how artists influenced each other that are downplayed or even completely hidden when the story of an individual artist is told.  

One important musical collective whose association has, until recently, often been left out of jazz history is a group that was by one account called ‘The Three Musketeers’ – pianists Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope and Bud Powell.  Monk and Powell became acquainted around 1942;  Powell became a protégé of Monk’s, emulating his sound on the piano and learning his tunes.  Not long after this, Monk and Powell began hanging out with Hope, who was between Monk and Powell in age. Powell biographer Peter Pullman writes that “Hope was well connected locally…He was clever, aggressive when he needed to be, and a good talker.  That gave him a lot of confidence on the street.”  Of the Three Musketeers’ gatherings, Pullman writes: “When they started getting together, the three found each other’s company, around a piano, to be the greatest fun: each so eager to show what he could do with the idea that one of the other two had just played…Monk was content to listen most of the time, so Powell and Hope alternated at the keyboard-or played four hands…[Powell] never bumped Hope off the bench-unless it was done playfully, with the respect of a colleague, an equal…The piano chair constantly rotated…As soon as Hope finished playing, Powell jumped up to play Hope’s idea but put his stamp on it.”

In studying the compositions and improvised solos of the pianists in the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective and comparing their recorded output, I have found a number of kinds of musical evidence that they influenced each other.  Further research has led me to think of the collective as extending beyond the three players to include Mary Lou Williams and Bertha Hope, two players who had substantial influence on and interaction with Monk, Hope and Powell.  Like many other female instrumentalists, their work and their stories are either left out of many versions of jazz history, or not discussed in the same detail as their male contemporaries, despite the fact that they are pivotal figures.  Pullman writes that, within the salon atmosphere that Williams fostered at her apartment, ‘Monk, Powell and, as well, Elmo Hope subjected themselves here to Williams’ instruction. She charged herself with getting them to strike the piano with more authority.’  As I’ll mention shortly, Williams’ influence on them extended beyond the confines of piano technique.   Bertha Hope, a fine pianist and composer in her own right, is a crucial fifth member of the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective.  She is a still active player and composer whose music displays the influence of the collective in a unique way.

The most obvious evidence of mutual influence within the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective can be seen in a common repertoire of songs that Monk, Hope and Powell all recorded.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Monk, Powell and Hope all recorded their own arrangements of ‘Sweet and Lovely’, with Powell and Hope’s arrangements appearing to be personal revisions of the arrangement by Monk, who was the first to record the tune.  There were at least two other tunes that all three members of the ‘Three Musketeers’ collective included in their studio recordings and/ or live performances: ‘All The Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and ‘A Night In Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie.

Bud Powell’s studio recording of All The Things You Are includes some characteristically ambitious and virtuosic double-timing, as well as an allusion to stride in the left hand and to George Shearing-style ‘locked hands’ melody interpretation in the head out.  Powell’s romantic flourishes during the head in and out are in keeping with the Dizzy Gillespie introduction he uses, which is a reference to the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.  Thelonious Monk recorded ‘All The Things You Are’ a number of times. His personal approach to and mastery of the tune is most evident in a live version from 1948, which includes a repeated descending scale fragment similar to the one found in the bridge to the Monk tune ‘Trinkle Tinkle’.  Monk recorded another version of ‘All The Things’ later the same year with vocalist Kenny Hagood and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Although Hagood’s soulful long tones find an odd and yet satisfying coexistence with Jackson and Monk alternating between comping and filling frenetically, one can also see why Monk’s approach to accompanying vocalists – surrounding the melody with short chordal bursts and cascading fills – did not make him particularly sought after as a vocal accompanist. Elmo Hope’s trio version of the tune from his album ‘Meditations’ includes both the ii-V to the tritone substitution found in Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ (more on this tune below) and a Monk-like whole-tone scale approach to the last chord of the bridge.  It makes sense that Hope, being the third of ‘The Three Musketeers’ to join, was the best positioned to absorb the influence of both Monk and Powell.

Powell’s trio version of ‘A Night In Tunisia’ reflects his long-term and contentious artistic relationship with Charlie Parker, as Powell does the same arrangement of the tune that is heard on Parker’s recording with Miles Davis, which allows Powell to include his own answer to Parker’s ‘famous alto break’.  Hope recorded a version of the tune on the album Sounds from Rikers Island which considerably faster than both Powell’s and Parker’s versions.  A live video of the tune from the Giants of Jazz tour in the 1970s shows Monk comping minimalistically behind Dizzy Gillespie.  Monk played briefly with Gillespie close to the time he wrote and began performing the tune, and so it is likely that Monk was one of the first pianists to play the tune, although he did not record it with Gillespie.  A live version of A Night In Tunisia by Mary Lou Williams contains what sounds like a reference to Bud Powell’s solo around 1:50.

Some members of the Three Musketeers collective also recorded tunes by other members of collective.   Powell’s first version of Monk’s ‘Off Minor’, which was recorded ten months before Monk’s own first version in 1947, includes a number of characteristic Bud Powell moves, including an un-Monk-like pedal point intro and the switching of a melody phrase into the left hand during the bridge (recalling Powell’s own ‘Tempus Fugit’.)  Monk’s version from October 1947 includes a more spare approach to the tune’s unusual harmony; many of the chords go unplayed in the left hand until the second A section.  The most pronounced difference between the two versions is in the solos: there is copious space throughout Monk’s solo, which builds by drawing Art Blakey’s drums into a conversation, rather than building energy within a more continuous eighth note line as Powell does. Powell’s album ‘A Tribute To Thelonious’ includes a second version of ‘Off Minor’ and three other Monk tunes.  This album commemorated a longstanding mentor-student relationship between Monk and Powell; Mary Lou Williams said of Powell: ‘He idolizes Monk and can interpret Monk’s compositions better than anyone I know.’ 

Members of the Three Musketeers collective didn’t compose for each other as often as, for instance, Duke Ellington wrote for members of his orchestra.  (According to Ellington biographer Terry Teachout, Ellington based tunes including ‘Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me’ and ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ on melodic motives he had borrowed from the intended soloist.)   However, Peter Pullman quotes drummer Kenny Clarke as recalling that ‘All [Monk’s] music was written for Bud Powell, all this piano music, he…deliberately wrote it for Bud, because he figured Bud was the only one who could play it…He couldn’t play it.”  Both Pullman and Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley confirm that Monk’s Criss Cross’ was originally written for a projected collaboration between himself, Bud Powell and Mary Lou Williams that was partially composed and rehearsed in 1944 but never performed.  The recording linked in the last sentence is from another session including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, with whom Monk and saxophonist Sahib Shihab play the melody in unison. One can easily imagine Williams’ written description of the rehearsals as depicting a run-through of ‘Criss Cross’: ‘I used to laugh at Bud & Monk.  Monk reaching over Bud’s shoulder to play his chords & Bud turning around giving Monk a mean look.  This went on some time until I got sick of it…’  (Kelley p. 93) 

One of Mary Lou Williams’ contributions to the collaborative suite was ‘Bobo’, a tune with a number of deliberate references to bebop including unusual chains of ii-V progressions and what sounds like a quote from Dizzy Gillespie’s intro to the tune ‘Bebop’ (which was not recorded until January of 1945 but may have been performed earlier.)  She was also planning to arrange the ‘Scorpio‘ movement of her Zodiac Suite for the three pianists to play.  The prominent use of the flatted fifth in the bassline of this piece predates’ Monk’s recorded use of that sound in his first sessions as a leader two years later; it is also rhythmically identical to the bassline that opens Elmo Hope’s Stars Over Marrakesh.  Williams dedicated the ‘Libra’ movement of the Zodiac Suite to Monk, Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum; the chromaticism in the melody of its midsection seems to reference to the melodic adventurousness that the younger players inherited from Tatum (among other sources.)  The ‘Aries’ movement of the Zodiac Suite opens with the same four-bar series of eight dominant chords moving through the circle of fifths that Monk later used in ‘Humph’, the first tune on his first session as a leader. 

Members of the Three Musketeers collective also composed tunes that were in some sense based on chord progressions of songs in the common repertoire of the group. Both Powell’s ‘Tempus Fugit’ and Hope’s ‘Stars Over Marrakesh’ have been described as having structures that closely resemble A Night In Tunisia.  Both tunes are in the same key as ‘Tunisia’ and use its AABA form; the A sections of Powell’s tune more closely resemble Gillespie’s, while the bridge of Hope’s tune is more clearly derived from ‘Tunisia’ (with its A section reduces the Gillespie’s tune progression to a single chord with a similar bass line.) A Monk tune that, to my ear, shows traces of possibly having been derived from ‘Tunisia’, although in a more abstract way, is ‘Well You Needn’t’.  Monk’s tune reverses Gillespie’s descending half step progression to an ascending half step.  ‘Well You Needn’t’ begins with a phrase the same length as the first phrase of ‘Tunisia’ (nine notes), with nearly the same rhythm and melodic shape as Gillespie’s first phrase.   Where Gillespie’s second phrase removes one note from the first phrase, Monk’s second phrase redirects the last two of the original 9 notes.  In both the Gillespie and Monk tunes, the third phrase is identical to the first, and the concluding phrase is an overall downward move.  Kelley’s biography mentions ‘Well You Needn’t’ as having been in existence as early as 1943, but at least one account of ‘A Night In Tunisia’ dates the tune to 1942,  although its first recording was a vocal version by Sarah Vaughan in 1944.  Again, as with ‘Bebop’, Gillespie’s tune may have begun to be influential before it was recorded. 

While the tunes based on Night In Tunisia were all fairly abstract reworkings of Gillespie’s material,  Monk, Hope and Powell also composed or chose for their repertoire tunes that added new melodies to chord progressions in the common repertoire of the group, with little or no alterations to the original harmonies.  All three recorded a tune based on the chord progression to ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’; these include Monk’s recording of Ike Quebec’s ‘Surburban Eyes’, Powell’s recording of Benny Harris’ ‘Reets and I, and Hope’s recording of his own ‘Later For You’.  All three of them also recorded tunes based on the harmonies to George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Lady Be Good’.  The first of these is ‘Hackensack’, a tune credited to Monk but which is largely based on eight bars of Mary Lou Williams’ arrangement of ‘Lady Be Good’, a borrowing for which Monk never credited Williams. One has to wonder whether the decision not to credit Williams is due to conscious or subconscious gender discrimination, as the names of other male Monk collaborators (including Sadik Hakim, Idrees Sulieman and Denzil Best) appear on the credits for a number of his tunes (including one of his best known, ‘Bemsha Swing’.)   Powell also recorded his own version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Dewey Square’, also based on ‘Lady Be Good’. (This was on the slbum ‘Bud Plays Bird’, recorded after Parker’s death but not released until 1997; like Powell’s renditions of ‘All The Things’ and ‘Tunisia’, it is more evidence of a musical dialogue with Parker carried on more in Parker’s absence than in his presence.) Finally, the chord progression to one of Hope’s best known tunes, ‘So Nice’, matches that of ‘Lady Be Good’ except for some harmonic departures in the bridge.  

Monk, Elmo Hope and Powell also all composed tunes based on rhythmic or harmonic variations on chord progressions in the common repertoire of the collective.  Monk’s ‘Humph’, Hope’s ‘De-Dah’ and Powell’s ‘Monopoly’ are all reharmonizations of the chord progression from Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.  In writing these tunes, the younger Musketeers were following in the footsteps of Mary Lou Williams, who had written hit tunes based on the rhythm changes progression in the previous decade, most prominently Walkin’ and Swingin’ from 1936.  One of the later sections of this tune is famously the source for the opening of Monk’s ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (another uncredited Williams borrowing by Monk); it also sounds likely that the bridge of ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’ may have inspired the bridge of Sy Oliver’s ‘Opus One’. 

Powell’s ‘Dance of the Infidels’ and Hope’s ‘Vaun-Ex’ both take unusual harmonic routes through the twelve bar blues.   “Freffie’ was Hope’s own twist on the ‘Bird Blues’, a harmonic alteration of the blues progression found in Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice’.   The main harmonic innovation of ‘Infidels’, a ii-v progression widened to include a ii-V to the tritone substitution chord, appears in places as remote as Wayne Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’  ‘Infidels’ was also adopted by Miles Davis as the progression for his ‘Sippin’ at Bells’. Monk was a traditionalist when it came to the blues progression; his blues tunes hew closely to the traditional folk blues or ‘jazz blues’ progression.  ‘Straight, No Chaser‘ uses this traditional harmony but the melody employs one of Monk’s favorite devices – also heard in ‘Four In One’ and ‘Criss Cross’: repeated rhythmic displacement of a short melodic ‘cell’ (i.e. repeating the cell but using a different rhythmic placement for each repetition.)  More recently, Bertha Hope has also used a series of dominant seventh chords to reharmonize the blues progression in her Bai Tai Blues. Another Bertha Hope composition that makes unique use of both the circle of fifths and a motive from Monk’s blues ‘Misterioso’ is her Gone To See T. This tune challenges the improviser by alternating between straight and swing eighth notes (as Misterioso does) and alternating frequently between familiar pairings of chords and unusual pairings. While many composers have tried to evoke Monk’s sound and approach, in Gone To See T, Bertha Hope manages to do so while speaking in her own musical voice.

Some of the most advanced signs of the influence these musicians had on one another is in compositions where they borrowed something smaller than an entire chord progression, which makes the borrowed material more challenging to detect.  Williams, Monk, Powell and Hopes were physical neighbors in New York City, and one might also say they were (and still are) musical neighbors in the repertoire and history of jazz.  Just as physical neighbors can progress from the large scale communal activities like visiting each other’s homes and gardens to small scale communal activities like borrowing tools or cooking ingredients, musical neighbors in a collective can progress from sharing large structures to sharing the smaller building blocks of music.  Monk’s ‘In Walked Bud’ and Bertha Hope’s ‘Gone To See T’, two tunes separated by many years, are both based on a melodic fragment from a composed piece or improvised solo by another member.   The melody for ‘In Walked Bud’ uses an enclosure move (down a whole step, up a half step, ‘enclosing’ the 3rd) that appeared frequently in Powell’s melodic language.  It can heard in one of Powell’s earliest recorded solos on ‘Jay Bird’ with J.J. Johnson, which was recorded in June 1946, well before the first recording of ‘In Walked Bud’ in November 1947; this makes it at least possible that Monk borrowed the enclosure move from Powell.  Powell also uses the enclosure move in many other solos including those he takes on his own version of Hackensack and his iconic tune Un Poco Loco.  (A larger fragment of the ‘Jay Bird’ solo, also using the enclosure move, is borrowed by Chick Corea in his tune ‘Bud Powell’.)’ Bertha Hope’s Gone To See T, continuing in the melodic borrowing tradition, begins with a sophisticated variation on Monk’s melody to ‘Misterioso’ which inverts some of Monk’s intervals.

Mary Lou Williams biographer Tammy Kernodle mentions that Williams’ piece ‘I Love Him’, from her album ‘A Keyboard History’, is based on Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’.  Because of Mary Lou Williams’ skill as a teacher at inspiring creativity among her contemporaries, and her skill as composer and improviser at assimilating influences into her own unique musical language, this piece is one of the most subtle and sophisticated expressions of the influence that the Three Musketeers collective had on one another. One clue that ‘I Love Him’ is likely a recomposition of ‘Round Midnight’ is that it was recorded  in 1955, two years after Williams made her first recording of Monk’s tune on ‘Mary Lou Williams Plays In London’. she went on to record a number of interpretations of the tune throughout her career.) Unlike Monk’s obvious borrowings from Williams, the signs of Williams’ borrowing from Monk in this tune are harder to detect, as Williams’ use of his material is skillfully abstract. 

To begin with, ‘I Love Him’ is in the same key as ‘Round Midnight’, and Williams begins the melody in its first eight bar section with the first three notes of ‘Round Midnight’, but only after an intro that features Williams’ brand of dissonance rather than Monk’s.   Williams’ bass line alternates skillfully between borrowing from Monk’s progression and diverging from it.  Williams’ melodic arc in this piece, which sounds freely improvised around a composed line, is full of moves which a modern listener would identify as influenced by Monk and other bop players.  When one considers that Williams’ career predated the bop players by a number of years and that she was a major influence on many of them, however, one realizes that it is equally possible that some of this melodic material could have originated with Williams. Along with Charles Mingus’ Weird Nightmare, Williams’ tune for me belongs on a short list of tunes that likely borrow material from ‘Round Midnight’, but hide the borrowing skillfully. (The link for ‘Weird Nightmare’ is to Miles Davis’ version of the tune, titled ‘Smooch’, which includes Mingus on piano.)

It is clear that being part of a musical collective had a strong and positive impact on the individual work of all five pianists I’ve come to think of as belonging to the ‘Three Musketeers’ group.  In today’s musical world, compartmentalized by social media, online distribution of music, and quarantined life under the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe it is even more important for musicians to form and maintain collectives.  Today’s quarantined and socially distanced musicians will need to take new and different steps to connect than Williams, Monk, Powell, and the Hopes, who were able to discover their common musical interests by congregating physically in private homes and nightclubs (something most musicians are now unable to do for a temporary but indefinite period.)  Here are some suggestions of how musicians in a largely online world might develop and maintain the kinds of connections that could lead to the establishment of a collective.  These range from steps that are commonly taken and encouraged on social media to others which social media makes it easy to overlook. 

– Share music which inspires you, particularly music (pieces and exercises) you are working on mastering as a player.

– Share recordings of yourself performing short excerpts of pieces you are learning to play or in the process of composing.  In addition to sharing work which you think of as ‘finished’, share unfinished compositional work, including suggestions about what you might be interested in having others add.

Listen to music posted and created by others, and respond by incorporating music and exercises others are practicing into your own practice routine.  Experiment with adding your own contributions to unfinished work by others. 

Think and post about your current musical goals and interests and how participating in a collective could further these.

Here are some suggestions about the kinds of activities that can transform a musical group from a collection of players into a musical collective.  I have separated these in to three ‘levels’ of involvement, from simpler large-scale sharing to more advanced small-scale sharing.

Level 1 – Learn a tune in the common repertoire of the collective to the extent that you are prepared to be the lead player, playing the ‘head’ and to improvise on the chord changes of the tune. In addition to learning the accurate melody and chord changes for the tune, investigate what your personal artistic goals are with the tune, i.e. what you could bring to your melody interpretation and improvised solo that you have not seen explored in other versions of the tune.  In other words, what could make your version of the tune different than other versions? Although trying to make your version ‘better than’ other versions is one way to make it different, strive instead to focus on what about the content of the tune seems most important and relevant and valuable to you.

Write or find a tune based on the chord changes to a tune in the repertoire of the collective.  ‘Contrafact’ is a term sometimes used in more academic settings to described this type of tune; this article explains the concept further and lists some of the more well-known jazz contrafacts.

Level 2 – Learn a tune written by another member of the collective or write a tune designed to feature another member of the collective as a soloist, based on your knowledge of their instrument’s range and limitations as well as possibly their strengths and interests as a player.

 Level 3 – Write a new tune based on a fragment from a composed melody, improvised solo or chord progression by another player in the collective. 

As usual, all kinds of comments are welcome in response to this post. I’d be particularly interested in hearing other examples of collectives in jazz, or other musical genres, or other art forms, and thoughts on what the organizing principles or central ideas of these groups are.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The State of The Blues, Part Six: Gabrielle Stravelli’s solo on ‘Karma Medley’

Gabrielle Stravelli is a New York City based vocalist and songwriter who I had the honor of performing with in 2016.  She has recorded jazz interpretations of a wide range of songs, from the ‘standard’ jazz repertoire of Berlin/Porter/Rodgers/Ellington et. al. to composers less often found in the jazz canon such as Bob Marley and John Fogerty.   With her most recent release, ‘Pick Up My Pieces: Gabrielle Stravelli sings Willie Nelson’, she became perhaps the only artist to devote an album to exploring the jazz potential in the songs by this country icon, and the results, thanks to her gorgeous singing as well as great arranging by bassist Pat O’Leary and great playing by musicians including saxophonist Scott Robinson and pianist Art Hirahara, are beautifully surprising.  Gabrielle has a seemingly effortless ability to execute acrobatic melody lines; this can be heard in the song Little Zochee from her 2017 album ‘Dream Ago’, an O’Leary composition on which she sings both a complex melody and a complex vocalese section doubling a Thomas Chapin flute solo note for note.  On another tune from ‘Dream Ago’, Bicycle Blues’, she adapts the vocalese approach to a duo setting, doubling Art Hirahara’s piano solo with with vocalist Kenny Washington.  A live video of ‘I’m Just A Lucky So And So’ is a good example of her ability to ingeniously reshape the melodic line of a well-traveled standard tune. 

The Karma Medley from ‘Pick Up My Pieces’ is made up of three Nelson tunes; two of these (‘A Little Old Fashioned Karma’ and ‘Nobody Slides’) use the 16 bar ‘gospel blues’ progression which also is found in jazz tunes including Sonny Rollins’s ‘Doxy’, Horace Silver’s ‘The Preacher’ and Jerome Richardson’s ‘Groove Merchant’.  (I’ll be sharing my own entry in the ‘jazz gospel blues’ category in an upcoming post.)  In this performance, after singing the first two tunes, Stravelli demonstrates her mastery of the scat vocal solo.  This solo is a model of a swinging eighth-note based line; Gabrielle maintains a sense of forward motion by beginning phrases on the upbeat, and uses a wide variety of syllables to achieve a wide range of articulations.  The first sixteen bars of the solo land clearly on the large-scale goals of the chord progression (I, IV and V chords). In the second chorus Stravelli outlines the G7 chord, which in this context is more of a passing chord.  She does this with a phrase at m. 22-24 in which the last eight notes match m. 5-6 of Denzil Best’s ‘Move’, but with one note removed and two notes reversed. For me, this is a great example the kind of creativity with standard patterns that the musical Scrabble game of bebop requires. (Duke Ellington has been quoted as saying: ‘Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.’) Versions and fragments of this standard piece of improvisational language can be heard throughout jazz history from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Hotter Than That‘ vocal solo to Miles Davis’ solo on ‘Oleo‘ (from ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) solo to Clark Terry’s ‘Perdido Line‘.  (All the linked examples are cued to the use of this melodic idea.) I hope the samples of Gabrielle Stravelli’s music in this post will lead you to check out more of her videos, albums, and live performances which are always adventurous and rewarding listening. Her YouTube show The Early Set, where she interviews fellow musicians, is also well worth checking out.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In praise of hibernating, returning to old challenges and (sometimes) choosing a slower pace

Glenn Gould’s iconic 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ was followed by a concert and recording career that accelerated at a feverish pace for the next decade, leading to his abandoning of live performance in 1964.  It is fascinating to compare Gould’s rendition of the first Goldberg variation from the 1955 recording, made in the midst of a public performing career, with the version from his second recording of the piece over 25 years later, after decades of self-imposed studio hibernation. The slowing of Gould’s tempo is the most obvious and striking change, but the change in piano sound and interpretation is also notable.  These two recordings document not just a musician who has grown older, but one who has matured through choosing a path of intentional isolation as an artist.  (As the biographical movie ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ dramatizes, Gould stayed socially engaged through his years of artistic isolation, although often through socially distanced means like extended phone calls.)  Gould’s influence on jazz can be seen in reinventions of the Goldberg Variations that have been made by a number of jazz pianists, including John Lewis and Dan Tepfer, whose most recent performance of his ‘Goldberg Variations Variations’ was in a socially-distanced virtual concert setting during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

In March of this year, with about two weeks notice, I suddenly had to begin teaching online jazz piano lessons during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Where only weeks before I had been sitting in the same room with my students, watching their hands on the keyboard and commenting from a few feet away, I now watched from many miles away as they played their pianos and keyboards at home, listening to the way the FaceTime app made their instruments sound as though they were at the bottom of a swimming pool. As I contemplated how to continue encouraging students to practice in this challenging situation, I made a list of great jazz pianists who had gone through a three-stage process similar to Gould’s with the Goldberg Variations:

1) making a well-known recording of a particular piece at an early or middle stage of their career

2) Going into some kind of hibernation later in their career (in some cases connected with a hiatus from performing), during which they continued their artistic development through studio recording

3) Returning to the previously recorded piece during their hibernation-era recording and finding a significantly different interpretation of it.

What follows are some of my own reflections about the historical context of musical revisitations by Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Keith Jarrett, followed by analysis written by three of my UVM students, Matt Nemeth, Karina Aliyeva and Harrison Massing.  I also added ‘coda’ of my own on vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn and her exploration of slow tempos.  Below is a list you can use to navigate to the different sections of the post, in the event that your interest is more in the history of each tune (addressed in my sections) or analysis of the recordings (addressed in the sections by my students.)

Bill Evans’ return to Young and Foolish (TC)

When The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was recorded in 1975, both Bennett and Evans had been established as leading artists on their respective instruments for more than twenty years.  While the album did not represent a period of literal hibernation for Bennett and Evans – both continued to perform extensively with their own groups during the time the album was recorded – it was an intentional retreat from the ensemble settings in which they had most often been heard (Evans with his trio and Bennett with his band led by his pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon.)

A quote from Tony Bennett about the making of the album suggests that this unusual musical combination was also recorded at an unusual time of day: ‘The best records I ever made are the duos with Ralph Sharon and Bill Evans,’ Bennett said, ‘We just went in there at two-thirty in the morning and went to work.’  A quote from Evans suggests he chose the duo format as an intentional challenge: ‘It was my idea that we make it only piano, though it kind of scared me,’ Bill said. ‘it seemed to be the best way to get that intimate communication going.  A lot of the public wants that big sound – the studio orchestra, highly produced or over produced.  So I thought we’d go all the way in the other direction, and I think it’s timely because a lot of young people are looking for that personal quality.’ 

Evans could have been referring to the popularity at that time of younger artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young who often mirrored their first-person, confessional lyrics with arrangements where their voices were accompanied by only one or two other instruments, as in Mitchell’s album ‘Blue’ and Young’s album ‘After The Gold Rush’.    On The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and its successor, Together Again, Evans and Bennett chose to revisit a number of songs that both of them had interpreted before in larger group settings.  ‘Young and Foolish’ is a good example of how Evans’ arranging for the duo stands in fascinating contrast to his earlier trio recordings of the same material.  Matthew Nemeth breaks down the musical details of how Evans built his original trio arrangement of ‘Young and Foolish’ and how his approach to the tune evolved in the duo with Tony Bennett:

Analysis of two Bill Evans recordings of ‘Young and Foolish’ – by Matt Nemeth

Bill Evans made studio recordings of the tune “Young and Foolish” by Arnold Horwitt and Albert Hague on two separate occasions, each time with notable collaborators. His first recording of the tune from “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” was with Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and the second was a duet recording with vocalist Tony Bennett. On the trio recording, which opens in the key of C major, Evans begins with a rubato statement of the verse and establishes a strong downbeat and strict time at the top of the form. The bass and drums play flexible jazz ballad time at a very slow tempo. Even within the context of a slow, steady tempo, Bill Evans takes his time with the melody, adding some fills and countermelodies but still leaving large spaces.  In contrast to
many of the other performances on ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’, Evans stays
focused on the melody throughout ‘Young and Foolish’.  He plays through the melody twice, modulating up a half step for the second chorus. He doesn’t play the last two bars of the melody on the first time through the form, but rather he modulates up a half
step to Db major and begins the melody (at 3:16) in the new key on the same
beat where last note of the previous chorus lands.  For the first eight bars of the tune in the
new key, Evans halves the harmonic rhythm, and the returns to the original
harmonic rhythm in the B section. He would further develop this technique in
his version of ‘Blue on Green’ two years later on Portrait In Jazz. 

Evans’ duo recording of the tune with Tony Bennett starts right off at the top of
the form (although other releases of the record include a take where they play through the verse preceding the form.) In contrast to Evans’ earlier version with its complex manipulations of the form, this version is a less altered and consequently more relaxed version of the tune.  During Tony Bennett’s vocal, the piano plays strict time in quarter notes in a fashion very similar to the LH pattern in “Peace Piece” (and in the same key). Bill Evans remains in the background until the first B section, where he plays fills between phrases of the melody and breaks his strict quarter note feel.  In his piano solo following Bennett’s introduction of the melody, Evans sticks to the form and the changes, but he
frequently changes his time feel and method of expression of the changes. He
starts with a melodic right hand line and comping with rootless voicings in the
left hand as if there were a bass player.  It’s interesting to note how the absence of
the chord roots doesn’t lead the performance to sound incomplete, as Evans is so
skilled with maintaining a sense of inner voice leading in his chords.   Later
in the solo he pulls back from the bebop style improvisation and arpeggiates
chords. Although he isn’t playing a single note of the melody, his soloing remains melodically grounded. Tony Bennett comes back in to sing the last B section of the melody. While Tony holds the last note, Bill Evans briefly goes back to the stride quarter note feel fromthe beginning, once again closing with an allusion to his ‘Peace Peace’ vamp  (this time between Cmaj7 and Abm6).                                                                                                                                                  

Billy Strayhorn’s unhurried return to ‘Take The A Train’ (TC)

Billy Strayhorn’s recording of his solo album ‘The Peaceful Side’ was a rare venture outside the world of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the ensemble to which his composing and arranging was largely devoted.  Unlike his other projects outside the orchestra which used subsets of the group (such as a two-piano recording with Duke Ellington and a small group record with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), The Peaceful Side includes no Ellington Orchestra players.  Thus this album was a retreat from Strayhorn’s musical world in the U.S. to a different location, Paris, and a different group of players (including the Paris String Quartet and the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes). 

In addition to being a different scene for Strayhorn geographically and musically, Paris was an important haven in his personal life as well. On the website popmatters.com, Matthew Asprey writes that ‘In Paris, Ellington was a major celebrity. The city was more of a refuge for Billy Strayhorn, a quiet gay man who gave Ellington credit for much of his work. Strayhorn’s former lover Aaron Bridgers was the house pianist at the
gay-friendly Mars Club on Rue Robert Estienne near the Champs-Elysées. Bridgers
appeared as a pianist in the film Paris Blues (miming to Ellington or Strayhorn’s track)… When in town, Strayhorn sat in at the piano. He’d often remain in Paris during the band’s annual European tour.’ 

In a filmed version of ‘A Train’ from a 1965 concert in Copenhagen, Strayhorn, at Ellington’s beckoning, walks onstage with humorous reluctance and takes a solo that sounds artistically constrained but yet still technically brilliant.  Strayhorn’s own version of ‘Take The A Train’ on ‘The Peaceful Side’, by contrast, shows a very different musical personality, and a greater level of control, inspiration and individuality that he was able to inhabit in Paris, away from his role in the Ellington organization. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Take The A Train’ – by Karina Aliyeva

‘Take The A Train’ was written by Billy Strayhorn in the early 1940s for the band of his longtime collaborator Duke Ellington. The title refers to the directions Ellington gave Strayhorn on to get to his home in New York, Strayhorn wanted this piece to be reminiscent of the style of the era- at a tempo and length conducive to swing dancing, and prominently featuring trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.  The first recording of ‘Take The A Train’ by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in 1941 pushed this piece into history and forever cemented it as a must-learn for jazz players. With a driving tempo and
great big band energy, this tune became a radio hit and was featured, along with the
Ellington Orchestra, in the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly.  

Not until 1963, on his album “The Peaceful Side”, did Strayhorn record his own arrangement of the song, revealing a very different approach. On this album, Strayhorn was focusing on his unique piano style, unencumbered by the need for fame,
money, or praise. Strayhorn is known to have first aspired to be a pianist and composer
in the classical music world, but due to the racism present during his lifetime
this would have been nearly impossible.   ‘You know, he didn’t play in the swing band,’
Strayhorn’s high school band director Carl McVicker says of his high school
years in David Hadju’s biography Lush Life. ‘He wasn’t interested.  He was a serious pianist and concentrated strictly on the concert repertoire.’ After moving decisively into to the jazz world through his collaboration with Ellington, Strayhorn continued to incorporate elements of classical music into his style and playing. His recording of Take the A Train is reminiscent almost of Chopin. This is no surprise, considering that shortly before the recording of ‘The Peaceful Side’ Strayhorn had been delving into his lifelong affinity for classical music, contributing arrangements to the Ellington Orchestra recording of The Nutcracker Suite.  On his 1963 version of ‘A Train’, Strayhorn plays long stretches of reflective, quiet, and meticulously technical solo piano, joined on the bridge by a shimmering string quartet and double bass.  It is much slower and definitely less dance-oriented than the big band version. This quiet, more insightful version, while it stays close to the melody throughout, includes many improvised fills, tangents, and retinutos – perfect
for listening to when in a reflective mood. 

Keith Jarrett’s return to ‘Blame It On My Youth’ (TC)

While he was in the fourth decade of a career as one of the most successful jazz pianists in the world, Keith Jarrett became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome in the fall of 1996 while touring Europe. As an article in SFGate described it, “He was suddenly overcome by such a profound sense of fatigue that he told his wife he felt as if aliens had invaded his body.”  In a Time magazine article, Terry Teachout wrote that Jarrett ‘staggered off the stage after a concert in Italy, completely exhausted and wondering whether he would ever be able to play again.’ 

One of the effects of Jarrett’s condition was an aversion to music. “My body was telling me that I couldn’t even listen to music if I wanted to maintain at least some level of health,” Jarrett told SFGate. After a year of convalescing, Jarrett’s return to the piano came in the form of short visits to his practice studio.  These visits also included short recording sessions, initially intended for a very small audience, but which eventually became Jarrett’s comeback album, 1998’s ‘The Melody At Night With You.’

“I started taping it in December of 1997, as a Christmas present for my
wife,” Jarrett recalled in an interview with Terry Teachout for Time
magazine in 1999. “I’d just had my Hamburg Steinway overhauled and wanted
to try it out, and I have my studio right next to the house, so if I woke up
and had a half-decent day, I would turn on the tape recorder and play for a few
minutes. I was too fatigued to do more. Then something started to click with
the mike placement, the new action of the instrument–I could play so soft–and
the internal dynamics of the melodies of the songs. It was one of those little
miracles that you have to be ready for, though part of it was that I just
didn’t have the energy to be clever. Also, I’d just stopped drinking
coffee.” He laughs. “So the album ended up being about how you play
melody without cleverness. It’s almost as though I was detoxing from standard
chordal patterns. I didn’t want any jazz harmonies that came from the brain
instead of the heart.”

Harrison Massing analyzes the version of Oscar Levant’s ‘Blame It On My
Youth’ that Jarrett plays on ‘The Melody At Night With You’, an earlier version
of the tune Jarrett recorded with his trio, and an iconic rendition of the tune
by Chet Baker from the late 1980s. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Blame It On My Youth’ – by Harrison Massing

Chet Baker’s 1987 recording of ‘Blame It On My Youth’  is in the key of Bb major at a tempo of around 40 beats per minute. He sings the melody very softly in a low register. His phrasing is extremely relaxed, loose, and often falls behind the beat, drawing
out every phrase — especially “blame it on my youth” so as to bring a meditative poignancy to the lyrics and the tune as a whole. The context of the recording — being a year before his death — makes his interpretation of the melody seem much more haunting, because it sounds like he recorded the tune knowing he didn’t have much time left.

Keith Jarrett’s 1991 version is in the key of F major and comes
in at around 60 beats per minute. Jarrett’s interpretation of the melody
— played on piano — stays within a range about 2-3 octaves above Baker’s.
His phrasing is faster, making each phrase distinct; whereas Baker’s phrasing
is harder to divide into clear segments, Jarrett plays each phrase (such as
“blame it on my youth”) rather quickly and leaves a significant space before
moving on to the next. His interpretation is also more complex; he incorporates
more flourishes and accents, while Baker’s notes were bare and unembellished
(except for tasteful vibrato).

Jarrett’s 1998 recording is also in F, but slower, at around 50 beats per minute, although the rubato in this version makes the tempo hard to pinpoint. His interpretation of the melody in this one reminds me much more of Chet Baker’s version than Jarrett’s 1991
version does; like Baker, his phrasing is much more drawn out and much simpler,
although still in a higher range.  Jarrett’s second version of the tune also resembles Baker’s in its focus on the melody and its intentional lack of ornaments and fills. This version feels meditative, and has some of the poignancy of Chet Baker’s recording, although without the lyrics and context of Baker’s version, it doesn’t have quite the same level of incredible
gravity.

Coda: The Quantum Mechanics of the Ballad: Shirley Horn on ‘How Insensitive’ (TC)

Like Gould, Strayhorn and Jarrett, the iconic jazz vocalist and underrated jazz pianist Shirley Horn often managed to find new meaning in familiar pieces through returning to them and choosing slower tempos.  Horn’s  1981 version of the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune ‘How Insensitive’  is radically slower than the version by Joao Gilberto, who likely introduced the tune. In a 1999 version of the tune, Horn not only took an even slower tempo than her own 1981 version, she began with a rubato intro as well.  One of Horn’s career goals seemed to be the exploring of increasingly slow tempos, which she used to draw new levels of meaning from songs. While the slower tempo of Horn’s 1999 version can be challenging to listen to at first if one is used to Jobim’s tempo, it does allow her to isolate particular notes and lyrics, revealing them to be worlds within themselves, much like a physicist exploring an atom with an increasing levels of magnification and discovering previously unseen particles. 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From Watermelon Man to Cantaloupe Island and beyond: Herbie Hancock’s ingenious reinventions (featuring ‘Caves of the Island’, an original tune based on ‘Cantaloupe Island’)

Herbie Hancock and I after his February 2019 show at the Flynn Center

 In 1962, the first film in the James Bond series, ‘Dr. No’, was released.  As ‘Dr. No’ was a great success at the box office, Bond films continued to be released almost annually over the following decade, each one using a number of elements that had been introduced in ‘Dr. No’.  These included character of Bond himself (always introduced through an opening sequence featuring the opening Bond theme), and the archetypes of the ‘Bond girl’ and the ‘Bond villain’.  The third Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, added the trope of the Bond vocal theme song to the formula, a franchise which over the years has passed through a long list of pop song composers and performers, including Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong and most recently Billie Eilish.

1962 also saw the release of ‘Takin’ Off’, the first album by jazz pianist (and future film composer) Herbie Hancock.  As Hancock recalls in his autobiography, Possibilities, the album “climbed to number 84 on the Billboard 100.  At that time Billboard didn’t have different charts for different genres, like pop, jazz and R&B.  There was just one chart for all the records released, so for a jazz record to reach the top 100 was considered pretty good.  ‘Watermelon Man‘ was the single that propelled the record, and when I started hearing it on the radio, it was really cool.”  Hancock goes on to describe how the success of his version of ‘Watermelon Man’ was eclipsed when a version by Cuban bandleader Mongo Santamaria reached number 11 on the Billboard 100.

Much as the success of ‘Dr. No’ led to a series of films that sought to capitalize on its success, I would argue that the success of ‘Watermelon Man’ led to a series of tunes, many by Hancock himself, that focused on not so much replicating the original as reinventing various aspects of it.  Far from being ‘cheap knockoffs’, Hancock’s follow-ups to ‘Watermelon Man’ show his evolving resourcefulness as a composer.  Blind Man, Blind Man, from Hancock’s 1963 album My Point of View, borrows the drum groove and the signature melodic rhythm from ‘Watermelon Man’, but in the context of a tune based on a single chord (rather than the four chords of the original.)  On his 1964 album ‘It’s All Right’, Wynton Kelly (who by that time Hancock had replaced in the Miles Davis Quintet) recorded a tune called Escapade which uses a very similar chord progression to that of ‘Watermelon Man’, but with a different melody and what might be called a surf-rock drum pattern rather than the ‘funky’ backbeat Billy Higgins concocted for the original. 

1964 also saw the release of Hancock’s concept album ‘Empyrean Isles’, which included ‘Cantaloupe Island‘, the title of which hints at its kinship with ‘Watermelon Man’.  This tune, like ‘Watermelon Man’, has a 16-bar form and a similar bassline and piano accompaniment figure.  The drum groove, while still ‘funky’ and based in straight eighth notes, is considerably different, and the chord progression is modal and uses predominantly minor 7th chords in contrast to Watermelon Man’s dominant sevenths.  As Hancock’s website tells it, “The track was somewhat popular in the mid-60s, but it was not until the Hip-Hop band Us3 sampled the track and incorporated it into their mega-hit “Cantaloop” that anyone really took the song seriously.” On his 1973 album ‘Headhunters’, Hancock featured a completely transformed ‘Watermelon Man’ ingeniously recasting the tune in the 1970s concept of funk, retaining only its progression (expanded to include one more chord, Ab7) and a vestige of its melody and otherwise completely transforming the tune with a new intro (featuring the ocarina), a new groove, and electrified instrumentation. 

With this series of tunes, one can hear Herbie Hancock going through a methodic and yet highly creative process of building new pieces on different elements of the original ‘Watermelon Man’ – first the groove with ‘Blind Man’, then the form with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, and finally the chord progression with the electric ‘Watermelon Man’.  While it makes sense that Hancock’s goals with these tunes were partly commercial in the sense of wanting to repeat or approach the chart success of ‘Watermelon Man’, each of these tunes was in my view also an artistic success, as Hancock, like Duke Ellington, as well as composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms who were masters of the theme and variations form, has the gift of creating music based on an earlier piece which is totally new and not derivative.

During the period when this music was released, Herbie Hancock also scored the music to two films with plot lines roughly similar to the Bond films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973).  One of the themes from Hancock’s soundtrack to ‘The Spook Who Sat By The Door’ would, with the addition of a clavinet played through a wah pedal, become the tune ‘Actual Proof‘ from the album Thrust, released the year following the film (1974).  The Blow-Up soundtrack is notable for including the outtake ‘Bring Down The Birds’, the intro of which was used prominently in the 1990 hit ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Deee-Lite.  Here, as on ‘Escapade’ and ‘Cantaloop’, we can hear another artist building an entire piece on the strength of a Hancock idea.  While these pieces all cleverly transplant Hancock’s ideas to other musical settings, they don’t display the ability that Hancock shows in ‘Blind Man, Blind Man’, ‘Canteloupe Island’ and the Headhunters ‘Watermelon Man’ to reinvent and transform musical ideas. 

My tune Caves Of The Island is based on the chord changes to ‘Cantaloupe Island’, but uses a half time drum groove, different bass line and a chromatic, bebop-type melody.  (A piano chart for it, including a scale outline, is below.) I was able to give Herbie Hancock a score to the tune when I met him backstage after a performance in Burlington.  I handed him the chart, mentioned that it was a sort of bop tune, and was delighted when he began sight singing it immediately (after having played a two hour concert with no intermission!).  Like many of my tunes based on existing progressions, this tune works both on its own and as a countermelody to ‘Cantaloupe Island’.  Like many countermelodies, the lines in ‘Caves of the Island’ often harmonize with those ‘Cantaloupe Island’ by moving the opposite direction from them (also known as ‘contrary motion’.)  The liner notes to Empyrean Isles, by Canadian novelist Nora Kelly, describe the album as a depiction of a fantastical remote world that includes a mysterious mountain called ‘The Egg’, the ‘mythical Oliliquoi Valley’ which casts a hypnotic power on visitors, who during their hypnosis learn a dance called the ‘One Finger Snap’.  (All these elements are represented by different songs on the album.  ‘Oliliquoi Valley’ has a possible kinship with ‘Cantaloupe Island’, as it opens on a similar – although more chromatic – F minor tonality, and its opening bassline and chord pattern is a kind of two-bar variation on that of ‘Cantaloupe’.)   I imagine ‘Caves of the Island’ as depicting part of the ‘upside down’ of Cantaloupe Island (in the sense in which that phrase is used in the Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’ to refer to a parallel world.)   

I encourage anyone reading this post to respond in the comment section with any examples they can think of where ‘remakes’ have been attempted in literature, film or music, or to post a link to a piece of their own that seeks to ‘rewrite’ an existing tune or reinvent an element of it. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

‘Winter Sun’ – a tune on the changes to ‘Summertime’

Like George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ and W.C. Handy’s ‘Saint Louis Blues’, the song ‘Summertime’, composed in 1934 by Gershwin with lyrics by DuBose Heyward (originally for the opera Porgy and Bess), has been a standard throughout nearly all eras of jazz.  Listening to versions of this tune by great jazz players in chronological order from earliest to latest can provide a mini-history of jazz, from Sidney Bechet’s version recorded in 1939 not long after the tune’s publication, to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s version from 1958 with an arrangement using some of Gershwin’s original orchestration, to Miles Davis’ version from the same year with an arrangement by Gil Evans that epitomizes the modal jazz style (which would gain wider exposure the following year on ‘Kind of Blue’).  Herbie Hancock’s version featuring Joni Mitchell’s vocals and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing, from his album ‘Gershwin’s World’, demonstrates a late-twentieth-century modern jazz approach to the tune, rife with altered dominant chords.  ‘Summertime’ has also been interpreted by many artists in the wider popular music world, notably Janis Joplin whose version with Big Brother and The Holding Company casts the tune in 6/8 swing feel with baroque-style counterpoint between two guitars.  A version by Prince from a soundcheck shows his lesser-known skills with jazz piano comping and soloing.  (Prince’s posthumous autobiography, ‘The Beautiful Ones’, devotes a considerable amount of space to describing his father as a working jazz pianist.)  In Shulie-A-Bop, Sarah Vaughan uses the ‘Summertime’ chord progression as the basis for her original wordless scat vocal line which avoids referencing Gershwin’s melody.  A further development of the ‘Summertime’ chord progression can be heard in Wes Montgomery’s Four on Six, which retrofits Gershwin’s basic harmonic structure with a number of additional ii-V progressions and adds a new melody .

The chart below for my tune ‘Winter Sun’, which is also based on the chord progression of ‘Summertime’, may be played two ways.  While it can be played as a ‘two-hand comp’ (with the single note roots shown in the bass clef with ‘down stems’ played in the left hand, and the three- and four-note voicings shown higher in the bass clef in the right hand), I recommend first learning the treble-clef melody in the right hand and the three- to four-note voicings on the upper part of the bass clef in the left hand.  (In this melody and chords version, the left hand would obviously not play the roots shown lower in the bass clef along with the chords.)  I would recommend starting by learning the left hand voicings at a very slow tempo and then practicing them along with Chet Baker’s quartet version of Summertime at .75 or .5 speed on YouTube.  Baker’s version, more than most of the versions mentioned above, shows the common practice of how the tune is played in most jazz situations. To help you learn the melody, here’s a link to an informal solo piano recording of the tune from a very fun gig I played recently for the opening of The Piano Gallery, a new retail piano outlet run by piano tuners and dealers Justin and Emily Rose.  As I was playing the tune from memory on this recording, some of the voicings are different than those shown on the score; I also made a slower recording of just the melody which demonstrates the written voicings.  Like a number of my contrafact tunes, ‘Winter Sun’ also works as a countermelody to ‘Summertime’.  It also includes a reference to the melody of ‘Autumn Leaves’ (with one inverted interval) and a reference to Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic ‘Blue Skies’ solo – see if you can find them!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

An excerpt from Shirley Horn’s solo on ‘What Would A Woman Do?’ (The State of the Blues, part 5)

The great jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn was best known for her unmistakable vocal sound, her ability to re-invent songs, often at unusually slow tempos, and her ability to accompany herself on piano. She also showed herself to be an equally distinctive jazz piano soloist on the few piano instrumentals she recorded.  Horn’s recording of ‘What Would A Woman Do’, from Curtis Lewis’ ‘Garden of the Blues’ suite on her album of the same name, is a six-chorus piano solo at a moderately slow tempo that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) begin with or refer back to a composed melody.  (Horn seems to be the only artist to have recorded the tune.) I’ve chosen to transcribe the second and third choruses of this solo because they are a model of a number of concepts that make the playing of Horn and her jazz piano contemporaries, such as Wynton Kelly, so swinging.  In the first six bars of the solo we can hear a conversation between the ‘calls’ in Horn’s left hand chords and the ‘responses’ of her right-hand phrases.  Although her left hand takes on a more supportive role at other points in these two choruses when the right hand line becomes more continuous (such as m.7-8 and 10-11 and 16-17), her use of left hand voicings constantly creates a slower-moving inner line which is just as melodic in its own way as the more active line in the right hand.  Whenever the left hand moves during breaks between right hand phrases, as at m. 21-22, the distinctive voice leading in Horn’s left hand creates meaningful melodic movement.   The connection between Horn’s left hand comping and her melodic phrases in the right hand during this solo has the same breathtaking balance of melodic strength and contrapuntal independence that can be heard in her piano/vocal performances. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A history of the chord progression from Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’, and an original tune based on it (‘Eye On The Sky’)

I began writing this post on November 23rd, 2o19, one day after the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.  According to an interview with composer Bobby Hebb, it was that event, as well as the murder of his own brother the following day, that led him to compose his song Sunny as an antidote to the shadow these tragedies cast over his life.  ‘It was dark when I started working on the song, and the sun was rising,’ Hebb says.  ‘Everybody was feeling rather negative at that time, and I think that we all needed a lift.’  Although Hebb composed the tune in 1963,  and a version by the Japanese vocalist Mieko Hirota with pianist Billy Taylor was apparently recorded in 1965, Hebb himself did not record the song until 1966.  Besides Hebb’s version being a major hit record, and the song being recorded by many different artists, there are many jazz and pop tunes from the following decades that appear to be built from elements of the ‘Sunny’ chord progression.

In Hebb’s original recording, the song begins with four-measure, five-chord loop (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F#m7-B7) which is expanded into a sixteen-bar form by playing the loop twice and then following a slightly different third phrase (Em7-G7-Cmaj7-F7) with a different final phrase (F#m7-B7-Em).  A version in A minor by Frank Sinatra with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (from the 1967 album ‘Francis A. and Edward K.’) expands the second chord into a ii7-bII7 progression, Gm-Gb7 (i.e. a ii-V progression with a tritone substitution for the V), and changes key only once, in contrast to the three half-step key changes in Hebb’s original.   

One of the earlier songs to borrow the ‘Sunny’ progression is Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, recorded in 1970, in which the solos are based entirely on the first four-bar phrase of the ‘Sunny’ progression, transposed to C sharp minor but  incorporating the added major ii-V progression heard on the Sinatra version. 

On the album ‘Pat Martino/Live!’, recorded in 1972, the guitarist plays an extended version of ‘Sunny’ (over ten minutes) in the same key as Sinatra in which he eliminates the half-step key changes between verses heard on vocal versions.  Keeping the song in a single key allows Martino and keyboardist Ron Thomas more flexibility to apply bebop melodic concepts in their extended solos.  Martino has reprised this arrangement of the tune a number of times, notably in a live version from 2000 with fellow guitarist John Scofield and fellow Philadelphians organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Byron ‘Wookie’ Landham. 

My tune ‘Eye On The Sky’, which uses the changes to ‘Sunny’, (a downloadble pdf chart is below) is partly inspired by Martino’s bebop approach to the tune.  Here is a link to an informal solo piano recording I made of the tune.  For those interested in learning to improvise on the changes and/or building their own line on the tune, I have also created a ‘chord line‘ based on root position patterns from the tunes ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘I Can’t Get Started’.  The melody to ‘Eye On The Sky’ is what I call a ‘voicing-based line’.  I learned this concept from pianist Mike Longo’s book, The Technique of Creating Harmonic Melody for the Jazz Improviser, which shows how to build melodic lines from chord voicings that employ efficient voice leading (i.e. avoiding wide leaps and voice crossing when possible.) 

On the song If You Want Me To Stay from the 1973 album Fresh, Sly and The Family Stone move one step beyond Freddie Hubbard and base an entire tune on the first four bars of the ‘Sunny’ progression.  This song is somewhat remarkable for not having a chorus or refrain section and yet managing to avoid excessive repetitiveness through intricate variations on its opening four-bar melody phrase and the addition of horn lines more varied than the chord progression.  (The intro to the tune includes a reference to ‘Sunny’ in the guitar part.)  Stevie Wonder, who recorded ‘Sunny’ in 1968, seems to have built his 1973 song Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing by expanding the third phrase of the song’s progression.  Wonder extends the opening minor chord to two bars instead of one and adds a Latin accompaniment figure referred to alternately as montuno or guajeo.  In his tune Angela, recorded in 1978 (also the theme to the TV series ‘Taxi’), Bob James bases the solo changes on an eight-bar progression in which the second four-bar phrase is nearly identical to the opening phrase of ‘Sunny’. 

It seems somewhat possible that the progression for the 1980 Bill Withers/Ralph MacDonald/William Salter song Just The Two Of Us might have been devised by halving (i.e. speeding up) the harmonic rhythm of the first phrase of Sunny, so that it lasted only two bars instead of four, and then reversing the order of the two bars.  Even if this is not how the song was conceived, it is what I call a useful ‘creation myth’ – an origin story which can help one notice a resemblance between the two progressions, which can in turn help with memorizing the two songs.  Bassist Christian McBride recorded a version of this tune with his band Philadelphia Experiment, including a solo which is a great example of using bebop language in a funk context.  (Thanks to Lara Cwass for recommending this version to me.)

In her 2013 song Electric Lady, Janelle Monae moves one step beyond Sly and the Family Stone, basing an entire song on the first four measures of the ‘Sunny’ progression, but creating two distinct melodies, a lower-pitched line for the verse and a higher-pitched line for the chorus.  It is an impressive display of the composition skills of Monae and her collaborators that they manage to create a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse and yet remains distinctive through its melody and orchestration alone. 

Finally, Ariana Grande’s 2018 song Thank U, Next also has a chorus which uses the same chord structure as the verse, but in this song it is variation in melody and bassline which distinguishes the chorus from the verse.  The chord progression from the chorus stretches the chord progression of ‘Just The Two Of Us’ from two bars to four, and the verse uses a clever variation on the bass notes from the older song’s progression.  While none of the composers of ‘Thank U, Next’ have said they were consciously borrowing from ‘Just The Two Of Us’, there is an ironic appropriateness in a break-up song (albeit an upbeat one) having a similarity to an older song that is an anthem of a couple’s commitment to each other.  (Thanks to Sam Mark for recommending this song and pointing out its relationship to ‘Just The Two of Us’.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments