‘Weathervane’ – a tune on ‘Yesterdays’ changes

‘Weathervane’ is a tune I composed based on the chord changes to the standard ‘Yesterdays’ by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach.  Some charts for the tune are below. It is inspired by the melodic language of Charlie Parker, Jimmy Giuffre and Horace Silver, including some of the fragments that appear in my exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Four Brothers and Koko’. It can be practiced along with this scale outline of the progression. Like a number of my tunes, including ‘Birdhouse’, ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Simple Paris Dancers’, it can played as a freestanding melody line or in a contrapuntal version.  The version shown here is a single-line version that can be played in the standard bebop unison style of most Charlie Parker tunes.  This single-line version also works as a countermelody to the Kern tune.  It is meant to be played at a medium-up tempo, which is how I’ve become accustomed to playing the tune in instrumental settings.  This kind of tempo can be heard on renditions such as the second half of Billie Holiday’s version and a version by Wes Montgomery with the great Harold Mabern on piano that is faster than Holiday’s but still has a wonderfully relaxed feel. I’ve since become aware that many instrumental versions, as well as the vocal versions by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, take the tune at its original ballad tempo.  (It is also interesting to see the tune in its original context in a clip from ‘Roberta’, the 1935 film based on the 1933 stage musical for which Kern and Harbach wrote ‘Yesterdays’.) 

I also play ‘Weathervane’ in a contrapuntal arrangement where I add a countermelody to my original eighth-note melody.  (This kind of contrapuntal jazz head can also be heard in Parker’s tunes ‘Ah Leu Cha’ and ‘Chasin’ the Bird’ and John Lewis’ ‘Concorde’, among others.)  A recording of the contrapuntal version of ‘Weathervane’ by my quartet Birdcode (in a medley with ‘Yesterdays’) can be heard at my SoundCloud page. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Suzi Stern’s solo on ‘So What’

Suzi Stern is a gifted and innovative jazz vocalist from the Austin, Texas area. While she has quite a range of recordings available, I discovered her work through the 2000 album ‘Inside Stories’, which I found while searching for vocal versions of rarely-sung instrumental tunes. While the album contains a number of jazz vocal standards, such as ‘Sweet Lorraine’ and ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’, it also includes a number instrumental tunes adapted to voice through Stern’s vivid and well-written original lyrics. Her version of ‘So What’ reimagines Miles Davis’ tune as a conversation, with Stern as the voice of an impassioned activist addressing a politically disengaged man who speaks only through the two-word title, which Stern occasionally attaches to the chordal ‘answer’ figure (as Eddie Jefferson does in his version.) During the head statement, Stern exhorts her companion to ‘take your sister by the hand to change this world’. Stern’s lyrics then use Miles Davis’ first two choruses of solo to develop an argument for engagement rather than detachment, particularly on environmental issues: ‘you can’t deny that if you don’t care, there’s no one else to save us…it’s up to you and me, the birds and bees are at stake here.’

After singing two choruses adapted from Miles Davis’ solo, Stern moves into a more improvisational third chorus where she also transitions from lyrics to scat syllables as seamlessly and deftly as Ella Fitzgerald in her version of C Jam Blues with Count Basie or Betty Carter in her version of ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ with Geri Allen, Dave Holland and Jack deJohnette. (She does this on a number of other tunes on Inside Stories as well, including ‘Blue in Green’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Bright’.) I’ve transcribed the third chorus which begins with this transition. Stern makes use of a wide and original variety of scat syllables, including a number using the letter ‘v’. Her sense of pitch is remarkable, particularly on the bridge with its more continuous eighth notes and wide intervals. I hope you enjoy studying this more modern interpretation of ‘So What’ as much as I have. I encourage you to also refer to the post on my original tune based on ‘So What’ called ‘Now What?’, which includes a link to a scale outline of the tune.



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mary Lou at the Savoy

‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is a tribute to the great jazz pianist, composer and educator Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981), whose career spanned most of the twentieth century and who influenced and contributed to every major era of jazz, including swing, bebop, modal, funk and avant garde.  The progression is borrowed from ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, the title of which commemorates the Savoy Ballroom, where many swing era bands performed.  The composers of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ include Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, each of whom led major bands of the swing era.   (After his untimely death, the leadership of Webb’s band was taken up by its singer, Ella Fitzgerald.)  Another somewhat lesser known but still successful group of the era was Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, which included Mary Lou Williams in a role she described as ‘composer, arranger and first-class chauffeur’.  She also often sat in with the band on piano.  As she described in an interview with Melody Maker, the Kirk band’s first performance in New York City was at the Roseland Ballroom, and from there ‘they moved to the celebrated Savoy Ballroom, where they faced Chick Webb’s orchestra. The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing.’  Williams says the Kirk band ‘faced’ the Webb orchestra, emphasizing how the two bands were in competition as they alternated sets.

The melodic line for the A section of ‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is inspired by Williams’ piano solo on one of the pieces she composed for the Kirk band, ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’.  This piece is also often acknowledged as the source for her friend Thelonious Monk’s iconic tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (the phrase borrowed by Monk can be heard at 1:13).  The inspiration for the bridge melody comes from a later Williams piece, ‘Rosa Mae’ from her 1974 album ‘Zoning’.  This tune demonstrates her gift and passion for astutely absorbing the musical style of any era in which she found herself and transforming it into a personal expression. In ‘Rosa Mae’, she finds a fresh harmonic alteration of the blues progression (something she did as frequently and brilliantly as Duke Ellington) and combines it with a rock/funk groove that would be at home on albums like Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ or Herbie Hancock’s ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’.  Another example of William’s remarkable stylistic breadth can be heard on her album ‘Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes’, which combines exploratory jazz piano duo and trio music with music for choir and jazz ensemble that is at once both spiritual and universal, and accessible while still being utterly original and modern.

‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ should be practiced along with my Scale outline for Stompin’ at the Savoy.  It is also important to listen to some of the many great versions of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, including the original recording by the Chick Webb Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version from ‘Ella and Louis Again’, featuring the lyrics by Andy Razaf, Ahmad Jamal’s deconstruction of the tune, and Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’, which uses the tune’s changes but not its melody.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Birdhouse’ – a tune on the changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’

My tune ‘Birdhouse’ (click on the title to hear a recording by my quartet Birdcode) is based on the chord changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’ and is inspired by melodic language from a particular group of tunes and players associated with Charlie Parker.  (In addition to the original recording of Rollins’ tune, which can be heard at the link in the previous sentence, interesting versions of ‘Pent-Up House’ have also been recorded by vocalist Sheila Jordan, pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Chet Baker.)  It might have been more accurate to call my tune ‘Bud’s House’, as this group of tunes and players, who I discuss in another post, was associated even more closely with Bud Powell.  ‘Birdhouse’, however, has other useful resonances beyond the immortal nicknames of jazz history.  As the operator of two backyard birdfeeders, I enjoy watching the arrivals and departures of my avian visitors, and I consider them fellow musicians.  The podcast Birdnote has pointed out that robins, for instance, think like jazz players when they sing, creating longer songs from a large vocabulary of short phrases.  ‘Birdhouse’ draws on this tradition of composition which the human musical community and the natural world have in common.

The charts below represent the initial 16 bar theme that is heard at the beginning of the recording by my quartet Birdcode (hear it clicking on the title above) played in unison by my left hand, bassist John Rivers and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.  On the recording, this is followed by a section in the style of Bach’s two-part inventions or Charlie Parker heads like ‘Chasin’ the Bird’, where the first theme is repeated by my left hand and joined by a second theme, played by my right hand and also sung by Amber.  In my imaginary music video for the tune, this section might be accompanied by footage of wonderful moments like this one where two birds arrive at different levels on the same feeder.  The head out might be described as the same two birds returning to the feeder but switching levels: the second theme is played first by the left hand and vocal and is then joined by the first theme.

The charts below skip all the contrapuntal activity and focus on the first theme, which could be performed on its own as a head in and head out with improvised solos in between.  I’ve included a written scale outline which can be used as the basis for soloing.  Keep in mind that the challenge of a written scale outline is that each scale needs to be plundered for ideas, like a collection of Scrabble letters, not played literally as the notation seems to imply.  The written scale outline that follows the tune models a way in which improvisers can hear a chord change (or a region of a chord progression) as a harmonic ‘question’ which they can listen for and then respond to (starting around beat two of a chord change) with a melodic ‘answer’.  (The solos of the pianist Wynton Kelly, such as those on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ and his own versions of ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and ‘Do Nothin ‘Til You Hear From Me’ are full of examples of this kind of improvisational dialogue, with his left hand as the inquisitor and his right hand as the respondent.)  Another scale outline I created for the tune, which uses scales starting on the downbeat, can be heard here (following a statement of the Sonny Rollins tune.) 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Swingin’ with some empathy: thoughts on jazz accompanying

My students often ask me: ‘how can I get better at comping?’ or ‘how can I get better at playing with singers?’  In developing my response to these important questions over the years, I’ve found that it’s fascinating to look at the iconic pianists of jazz history, the undeniably great soloists and ensemble players in instrumental settings, and investigate which of these players demonstrate the strongest skills at the very different demands of being the primary collaborator and accompanist for a soloist, particularly a vocalist, in a duo or ensemble setting.  It is also important to look at the lesser known players who excelled at accompanying.   The players I’ll be looking at in this post include Oscar Peterson, who was best known as a soloist but had major collaborations with singers, Ellis Larkins, Carl Drinkard and Jimmy Jones, who were lesser known but were very fine accompanists, Wynton Kelly and Duke Jordan, who recorded both as soloists and accompanists, and Bud Powell. Powell’s collaborations with singers are little known, but the few recordings of that were made of them, as well as some of his live recordings on dates led or co-led by Charlie Parker, illustrate how the aesthetic, melodic and pianistic approach that made him so revolutionary as a soloist and bandleader was not one that he was able or willing to adapt to the needs of certain soloists he accompanied, and vocal soloists in particular.

Despite being an undeniably important figure in the evolution of instrumental jazz, Powell’s accompanying in some settings starkly and even humorously demonstrates a lack of empathy with the soloist. I will be discussing excerpts from the accompanying work of Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jordan, Jones and Kelly which I think have much to teach aspiring accompanists about the craft, as well as a few excerpts from Powell’s accompanying which simultaneously illustrate his genius as a soloist and some accompanying pitfalls to avoid.  (I do not intend any of the criticism of Bud Powell’s accompanying in this post to detract from the fact that he is a hugely important soloist, composer and ensemble player in instrumental contexts, and that his music is crucial to all jazz listeners and players.   I urge anyone who doubts my reverence for Powell’s playing to consult my posts Six Degrees of Bud Powell and Six Degrees of Bud Powell, Part ii-V-I.)

Pianists who are great soloists and improvisers in instrumental settings are able to carry the melodic narrative of a piece in a way that clearly articulates the starting parameters of the piece (tempo, dynamics, style, etc.) and closely follows the various ‘changes’ of a piece (including chord changes, key changes and lyrics).   Pianists who are great ensemble players in instrumental settings are able to create accompaniments that show an acute awareness of those parameters and changes.   While good accompanists must have all these skills, they also have responsibilities which require an additional level of skill with interpersonal communication and musical understanding.  They must establish and maintain a working relationship with a particular soloist, develop a detailed awareness of the soloist’s aesthetic and artistic goals, and assist the soloist in achieving these goals through both long-range planning in rehearsal and through verbal and non-verbal communication in the moment of performance.  While a skilled ensemble player can stay aligned musically with a soloist and perhaps react musically to the soloist’s choices, a skilled accompanist can anticipate the soloist’s needs.  Accompanists acquire this ability both through making explicit plans (such as an arrangement) with the soloist, as well as accumulating enough experience in rehearsal and performance with the soloist to be able to anticipate their needs and intentions.

While becoming a proficient soloist and ensemble player in instrumental setting involves a great amount of personal practice time, great instrumental soloists and ensemble players often develop a musical connection with other players with little or no ensemble rehearsal time.  I remember hearing Dave Brubeck announce during a performance in Burlington with the bassist Michael Moore that it was their very first time playing together.  I have heard many great instrumentalists make this kind of announcement during a performance, as a celebration of the spontaneity of jazz.   It often takes a greater amount of rehearsal time for a jazz vocalist and accompanist to develop an effective working relationship, often because accompanying vocalists is considerably different and arguably more challenging for the accompanist than accompanying jazz instrumentalists.  For example, vocalists often sing tunes from outside the instrumental jazz repertoire.  When they do sing tunes from that repertoire, they frequently require different keys than instrumentalists, and often add sections (such as the introductory ‘verse’) that aren’t part of a typical instrumental ‘head arrangement’ of the tune.

In addition to familiarity with the significantly different vocal repertoire, there are a number of other skills that a pianist needs in order to accompany vocalists.  In the following paragraphs, I will discuss skills that relate to sections of a typical jazz small group arrangement.

Intro skills

An accompanist must be able to play an intro in a way that leads a soloist to their first note and leaves space for the melody’s opening phrase.  A classic example of this is Oscar Peterson’s intro to Moonlight in Vermont on the album Louis and Ella.  Peterson vamps the opening four chords of the tune twice, while improvising with the pentatonic scale that the melody uses.  He ends with a phrase that approaches Fitzgerald’s opening note via its chromatic neighbor tones (i.e. a half step above and below) and its diatonic neighbor (a whole step above).  It is an opening gesture that is at once sophisticated and simple, and leaves a clear opening for the soloist’s entrance.

An example of what can happen when an intro does not clearly tell the soloist when to enter can be heard on Bud Powell’s intro to ‘Ornithology’ on the live recording One Night at Birdland.  As documented by Ethan Iverson in his article High Bebop, Powell plays four bars that begin in the distant key of A flat major.  While Powell’s intro does return to the tune’s key of G major and hints at the opening motive, his left hand chording obscures the downbeat enough that Parker enters on what Iverson identifies as Powell’s ‘and’ of two, and treats it as the ‘and’ of four.  Parker’s entrance, which demonstrates that Powell has managed (perhaps intentionally) to confuse an otherwise unshakeable fellow musical giant, is followed by Art Blakey’s cymbal crash on what Parker has established as beat three of bar two, and Fats Navarro’s entrance on the pickup to bar three.  Powell creates so much instability with his intro that Parker is forced to intervene before more confusion ensues.  A ripple effect of Powell’s intro is that Blakey and Navarro to enter in a later and much less coordinated way than they normally would.  The genius of all these players keeps it from sounding like a ‘train wreck’ opening and allows the performance to continue smoothly afterwards; but it is still a moment that could easily lead to an aborted tune with players any less gifted than these.

An accompanist needs to be able to handle a rubato section which may involve simply following the soloist, or may involve the accompaniment and soloist taking turns leading and following.  These often occur in the opening of a tune at the ‘verse’ (a narrative opening section in a jazz standard.)  An example of this is Jimmy Jones’ accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald on the intro to ‘Let’s Do It’ from the album ‘The Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington Concerts at Cote D’Azur’.  Ella speeds up and slows down throughout intro in order to maintain the conversational approach appropriate for Cole Porter’s lyric, and Jones follows her throughout, sometimes running to catch up but always ending each phrase with her.  I have found that the best way to develop this level of rhythmic empathy is to know the tune, both melody and lyrics, well enough to mentally ‘sing along’ with the soloist while accompanying.  Jones’ skill at following Fitzgerald here suggests to me that he is doing this.  It is a testament to the unique challenge of vocal accompaniment that the only songs in the concert where Duke Ellington steps aside to let another pianist play with his band is when it comes to the vocal solos in the concert.

Skills for accompanying the ‘head’ (melody)

 An accompanist needs to be able to improvise fills in the breaks of a melody in a way that supports the soloist but does not overshadow them.  On Billie Holiday’s live version of I Cover The Waterfront from 1954, pianist Carl Drinkard leaves space for each vocal phrase in the first A section of melody (‘I cover the waterfront/I’m watching the sea’), accompanying each phrase in the lyrics with chords and then responding with an overlapping improvised phrase.  While Drinkard’s fills do start to move more simultaneously with the melody as he accompanies the second A section (‘I cover the waterfront / In search of my love’), he leaves space, appropriately enough, for the word ‘patiently’ in the phrase ‘Here am I / patiently waiting’ which opens the bridge.  His accompaniment for the tune is orchestral in that each fill occupies a specific range of the piano, evoking an arrangement where instruments with different ranges take turns in the sonic foreground.  Drinkard’s improvised fills during Holiday’s vocal contrast the melody both by moving in a different rhythmic subdivision than the melody uses (often 16th notes), and sometimes by providing a simultaneous counterpoint to it.

An alternative approach to adding melody fills is demonstrated by the sublime Ellis Larkins in his accompaniment to ‘What Is There To Say?’ sung by Ella Fitzgerald.  Larkins fills only in the breaks of the melody, and his fills are often ingenious developments of the melody phrases that they follow.

A collaboration which is less successful to my ear is a version of I Cover The Waterfront heard in a short film where Bud Powell accompanies the otherwise unknown singer Trudy Peters.  Where Drinkard sensitively surrounds Holiday’s vocal phrases with melodic activity, Powell often allows his virtuosity to upstage Peters’ vocal performance.  Although Peters holds her own in the sonic balance with Powell, her tone, vocal phrasing and physicality suggest that she is a Billie Holiday admirer who is still in an imitative stage.  For much of the performance, Powell does not so much accompany as he simply takes an almost fully formed solo during Peters’ vocal, and it should be said that the solo on its own is comparable to his best ballad playing on tunes like I Should Care.  The effect of this pianist-ignores-vocalist situation is sometimes hilarious, as when Powell plays a fill that spans nearly the length of the entire keyboard as Peters sings ‘Here am I, patiently waiting’ in the bridge.  Although he is playing phrases of characteristic brilliance that would be perfectly at home in a trio performance, it sounds to me like Powell is marking time until this vocal solo is over, but not patiently.

Skills for accompanying an improvised solo

 Another awkward moment in Powell’s comping occurs in the first chorus of Charlie Parker’s solo around 1:07 on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album Jazz At Massey Hall.  Powell plays continuous quarter notes behind the first sixteen bars of Parker’s solo, but rather than the quieter and melodically minimal quarter notes of Freddie Green’s guitar or Erroll Garner’s left hand, Powell’s quarters are full of the kind of harmonic invention heard on trio tunes such as Sure Thing.  This does not fit with Parker’s busy and virtuosic line, or perhaps the density of his double-timing is a reaction to Powell’s harmonically ‘out’ and rhythmically relentless chords. Bird’s frustration builds audibly in the solo until the bridge when, just as Powell starts to relent and play longer chords, Parker plays a phrase which is likely a quote from a children’s song with a skipping 12/8 rhythm, but which he fills with irony.  I think it’s likely that Parker’s expresses the frustration of trying to battle Powell’s accompanying. As in ‘I Cover The Waterfront’, it sounds like Powell may not conceive of his playing and that of the soloist in the same context, or may hear his own playing as a lead part and the soloist’s line as an accompaniment.

Parker’s soloing on the Massey Hall ‘All The Things’ is similar in rhythmic concept to an earlier recording of his which uses the same progression, Bird of Paradise.  On this recording, the pianist Duke Jordan leaves Parker much more space than Powell does.  Jordan’s accompaniment indicates he understand that Parker’s double-timed phrases need sparse punctuation rather than a constantly active accompaniment.  Another more empathetic approach to comping on this tune can be heard in Wynton Kelly’s comping behind Johnny Griffin on ‘All The Things You Are’ from the album A Blowing Session.  Griffin has a level of frenetic activity in his solo similar to Parker’s, and Kelly comps around Griffin’s phrases in a way that is more active than Jordan, but more responsive than Powell.

Jazz accompanying, and particularly piano accompaniment of jazz vocalists, is less often identified as a discrete skill, as the literature on jazz piano (like the jazz education world in general) is more focused on skills related to playing instrumental repertoire.  It is becoming gradually more common, as represented by books like Mike Greensill’s, which are still fairly rare in the jazz book market.

The lack of recognition in jazz education for jazz vocal accompanying as a discrete skill is reminiscent of a situation in the scientific world that Alan Alda describes in a recent book titled ‘If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?’  Alda describes his efforts to convince science educators of his belief that scientists, particularly those who go into fields where fundraising is important, are often lacking in communication skills, and as a result have trouble explaining their work to non-specialist audiences.  He tells fascinating stories about teaching theater improvisation games to scientists and helping them develop skills which greatly improve the effectiveness of the presentations they give on their work. He describes a conversation with a college president who was unconvinced of the need for science students to learn communication skills and ‘seemed to feel that students would pick up the fine points of communicating just by listening to good communicators.’  Alda invokes a musical metaphor to express what he wishes he could tell the administrator:   ‘…just listening to good communicators doesn’t work.  It takes training to learn how to do it.  I’ve been listening to good pianists all my life and I still can’t play the piano.’

To adapt Alda’s conclusion, I believe the excerpts from Powell’s comping above demonstrate that it’s possible to have been a great jazz pianist all your life and still not have the skills to be an accompanist.  The excerpts from Peterson, Larkins, Drinkard, Jones, Jordan and Kelly above are examples of empathy.  This includes being aware ahead of time of the soloist’s part, both what they are doing in the moment and in coming moments, as in Peterson’s intro and Larkins’ fills to Fitzgerald’s eminently accurate yet still fresh interpretations.   It also includes being able to react in the moment to spontaneous changes they may make to the parameters of the piece, as in Drinkard’s fills to Holiday’s less predictable phrasing, Jones’ tracking of Fitzgerald’s unpredictable rubato, and Kelly’s comping for Griffin’s solo.

My experience as an accompanist and a teacher has led me to believe strongly that training in the skills that I’ve described above from a teacher who has experience as an accompanist can be beneficial to all jazz pianists, and is crucial for some.  I also strongly believe that while the skills described above can help highly skilled players create highly refined performances, they are also crucial to helping any jazz accompanist give a performance with basic coherence, i.e. one that moves from start to finish of an arrangement with no ‘train wrecks’.    I have learned immensely from teachers who listened as I accompanied a soloist in my student days and gave me important feedback, sometimes even while the music was in progress.  It is so important when collaborating to have the collaboration heard by a informed listener who can offer suggestions on how dynamic balance, rhythmic alignment and creative interplay can be improved, and who can listen as the suggestions are tried.  I am thinking of using a new phrase to congratulate accompanist-soloist duos who are ready to perform: sing, swing and empathize!

In future posts, I’ll hope to discuss skills for ending a tune, as well as one of the most highly evolved piano-vocal duo collaborations, that of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

Posted in The State of The Blues (solos on blues progressions) | Leave a comment