‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’ – another tune on the solo changes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent-Up House’

Last year I taught a new course at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts titled ‘Ella-vated Improvisation’, in which I used the improvised solos of jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald as models for the aspiring vocal and instrumental improvisers in the class. I arrived at this concept after nine years of teaching a more traditional, instrumentally-oriented improvisation class with a text that focused on mostly instrumental solos. I found that while the classic solos in the text provided a lot of information about how great players turned standard progressions into unique melodic lines, like most jazz transcriptions, they did not provide much information about the articulations, inflections and phrasing that are such a crucial part of each player’s style. The more I heard students play (for example) Charlie Parker’s solos without his phrasing (despite having heard the original recordings), the more I felt the need for a way to represent these crucial dimensions of the jazz melodic line. Even with traditional musical notation for articulation and phrasing, one can sometimes not quite capture the unique way that great jazz players make their lines ‘speak’. There were always some singers in the class, which is what led me initially to include Ella Fitzgerald’s solos. Soon I began to transcribe Ella’s scat syllables as well as her notes and began teaching some of her solos to vocalists and instrumentalists alike, having instrumentalists scat or even speak through the syllables before playing the solo instrumentally. In addition to finding Ella’s solos very ‘playable’ instrumentally, I find her syllables can help non-jazz musicians conceptualize jazz phrasing to the point that they can play and sing it more authentically.

In ‘Ella-vated Improvisation’, we studied a number of solos from ‘Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Songbook’, where in addition to singing Ellington’s tunes with lyrics, Ella functions like a horn player in the band, singing along with soli sections and improvising, both in full choruses on her own and in trading fours and twos with other soloists. Ella’s solos on ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘In A Mellow Tone’ from this album were the inspiration for the melodic line in this tune which I’ve titled ‘Ella’s House of Tonic Tones’. (Thanks to Amber deLaurentis for her transcription of the ‘Satin Doll’ solo and Carly Flatau for her transcription of ‘Mellow Tone’ solo.) The tune uses the solo changes from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent Up House’ and so could be described as an imaginary Ella melody line on Rollins’ tune. (For a more advanced melodic line on these changes, check out ‘Birdhouse’.) ‘House of Tonic’ is also a reference to Charles Ives’ song ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge‘, the lyrics of which describe a river that, much like Ella’s singing, is in constant motion and yet exudes inner peace. An astute member of my class pointed out that the river in the title is actually pronounced ‘hoosatonic’. In any case, Charles Johnson’s lyrics for me provide a visual analogy for the way Ella’s voice is both captivating and medicinal: ‘what eye but wanders with thee at thy will, contented river?’

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The Art of the Duo

The following is a list of recordings by great improvisers who chose to collaborate in duo settings, often with one chord instrument (bass, guitar or piano) combined with a melody instrument (trumpet, voice, saxophone). Other duos combine two chord instruments – bass and guitar, or bass and piano. All of them are demonstrations of how great players can play an accompanying role with their instruments to the extent that traditional rhythmic accompaniment – drums or percussion – is not necessary. Duo playing is not just a specialty of virtuosic players, however; it is an essential skill for all jazz players, as it is a very typical situation in which working players find themselves, sometimes due to financial and space constraints of music venues, but also through artistic choice by performers who want to challenge themselves in a ‘less is more’ setting. I encourage you to listen to these recordings, and also to add comments mentioning great duo recordings in any style that you think should be added to this list.

Vocal / guitar duo

Ella Fitzgerald (voice) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Take Love Easy

Piano / guitar duo

Bill Evans / Jim Hall – Undercurrent

Fred Hersch (piano) / Bill Frisell (guitar) – Songs We Know

Bass / trumpet duo

Clark Terry (trumpet) / Red Mitchell (bass) – To Duke And Basie

Tenor saxophone / guitar duo

Zoot Sims (tenor saxophone) / Joe Pass (guitar) – Blues For Two

Blues for Two

Dindi

Pennies From Heaven

Take Off

Vocal / bass duo

Sheila Jordan / Cameron Brown – I’ve Grown Accustomed to The Bass

Piano / bass duo

Duke Ellington / Ray Brown – This One’s for Blanton

Charlie Haden (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – Night and The City

Dave Holland (bass) / Kenny Barron (piano) – The Art of Conversation

Michel Petrucciani / Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Live

Kenny Drew / NHOP – Duo Live In Concert

Hank Jones / Red Mitchell – duo

Cedar Walton / David Williams – duo

Kenny Barron / Buster Williams – Two As One

Fred Hersch / Matt Kendrick – Other Aspects

Guitar / bass duo

Jim Hall / Ron Carter – Alone Together

Trumpet / piano duo

Weather Bird – Louis Armstrong / Earl Hines

Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie

Oscar Peterson (organ) and Roy Eldridge

Saxophone / bass duo

Archie Shepp and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – Looking at Bird

Saxophone / piano duo

Kenny Barron / Stan Getz – People Time

Frank Morgan – You Must Believe In Spring

(alto sax/piano duets with Roland Hanna, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron)

Many great examples of various duet formats:

Conversations with Christian (bassist Christian McBride with many duo collaborators)

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A message from the future of jazz: Camille Thurman and her solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ (The State of the Blues, part four)

(The title of this post is borrowed from a video narrated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a figure whose achievements in the political world have more than a few parallels to Camille Thurman’s achievements in the jazz world.)

Camille Thurman is a groundbreaking jazz musician in more ways than one.  Along with a small number of younger players such as Bria Skonberg and Esperanza Spalding, she is reviving the tradition of the instrumentalist who is an equally adept and serious vocalist.  Although this tradition goes at least as far back in jazz history as Louis Armstrong, it has always been somewhat rare and seems to have all but died out around the bebop era, when (at least according to most historical accounts) the chief innovations in the music were occurring in the instrumental world, leading the separation between instrumental and vocal jazz music to became even more pronounced than during the swing era.  In an NPR interview, Thurman mentions she was shocked to discover that Sarah Vaughan’s considerable skills as a pianist remained a secret during most of her vocal career:  “I remember when I first found out Sarah Vaughan was a pianist and it blew my mind away…I was like, ‘How can you just put one part of a person or an artist’s gift out there when there’s a whole person?”  (Although Vaughan was originally hired as a second pianist in the Earl Hines big band, her piano skills stayed largely out of sight during most of her vocal career.  It was only in her later years that she revealed her piano skills in live concerts such as this one and the Marian McPartland show which can be heard by clicking on Vaughan’s name above.)

As one can see by listening to Thurman’s solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ from her album ‘Inside The Moment’ (my transcription of the first two choruses is posted below with her permission), she is a masterful improviser who demonstrates both a deep knowledge of jazz melodic language and the ability to make it her own.  Her ability to begin phrases on the upbeat, as well as her ability to ‘make the changes’ in her solo locate her melodic language firmly within the bebop idiom. Her ability to lend an instrumental quality to her scatting and the range of syllables she chooses both give the solo a distinctly modern flair. 

In the NPR interview I mentioned above, Thurman explains that while she has been singing informally since she was a child, she began to get more serious about singing when she found it a helpful way to learn saxophone parts (during a time in her life when she received a scholarship that required her to play the saxophone.)  Each of her three albums gives a slightly different answer to the question of whether she identifies more as a vocalist or an instrumentalist; while ‘Origins’ and ‘Inside The Moment’ contain mostly instrumental pieces with the occasional vocal feature, last year’s ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’ highlights her singing on most tunes, although on many tracks Thurman alternates with seeming effortlessness between playing and singing.  This remarkable feat, combined with the album’s ballad-heavy tune choices, makes it reminiscent of the classic ‘John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’ album, but with the two masterful soloists rolled into one performer.   (Perhaps the most succinct demonstration of Thurman’s ability to alternate between the two skills is an astonishing ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ from 2013.)  I hope that Thurman might be a model for a new kind of jazz student, one who rejects the false choice between playing an instrument or singing and instead realizes that if one can develop both these skills, they can powerfully support and strengthen one another (regardless of whether or not one’s goal is to be a multi-instrumentalist.) I also hope that the increasing and increasingly visible ranks of professional female jazz instrumentalists, younger players such as Thurman, Spalding, Skonberg, Helen Sung, Linda May Han Oh and Tia Fuller as well as veterans such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Joanne Brackeen, and Jane Ira Bloom will lead aspiring female instrumentalists to stay in the game despite so many jazz scenes being male-dominated. It is important that role models for female instrumentalists remain visible in the versions of the jazz world projected by the media and by educators because, as Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘It’s Hard To Be What You Can’t See.’ (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gives her own version of this statement in the video mentioned above.)

Over the past year, Thurman has made a particularly momentous and groundbreaking move; she has been appearing regularly as a tenor saxophonist and vocalist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a group in which female instrumentalists have been historically and inexplicably absent from the roster of permanent players.  As her website biography relates, she has become ‘the first woman in 30 years to work an entire season with the world-renowned orchestra (2018-2019).’  This careful wording manages to avoid mentioning that the group has never had a female player among its regular lineup.  The group’s website mentions that it includes ‘15 of the finest soloists, ensemble players, and arrangers in jazz music today’, and many, myself included, would go further to say that it has been the leading jazz big band in the country since its inception.  In its sense of prominence and mission, including its educational work in the Essentially Ellington competition, as well as a diplomatic functions representing the U.S. in performances around the world, the JALCO is a kind of jazz parallel to the U.S. Congress.  As recently as last year, however, trumpeter Ellen Seeling, chair of the advocacy group JazzWomen & Girls, was quoted as saying of the band that ‘“They travel the world and have for years, sending the message that there are no women good enough to be in this organization.”  In light of the JALCO’s well-earned and deserved prominence, as well as the challenge it has had with including female musicians, Thurman’s breakthrough makes her a kind of jazz parallel to both Jeanette Rankin, the senate’s first female member, and Shirley Chisholm, its first African-American female member. (Strangely, despite having played more than a season at this point with the band, Thurman is still not listed on the JALCO website among either their regular members or on their list of substitute players.)

I am a longtime fan of the JALCO and its musical director, Wynton Marsalis.  I have seen the full band twice in concert, seen Marsalis’ small group live, listened to them many more times on recordings, and have used the excellent scores from the Essentially Ellington competition with many student bands I’ve led.  In an earlier blog post, I transcribed a characteristically ingenious solo Marsalis took on ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ during his commencement speech at UVM in 2013.  I’ve also experienced Marsalis’ legendary resistance to recognizing the talent of female instrumentalists firsthand.  When a female student of mine asked him in a question and answer session at UVM around 2005 whether the quality of female jazz players in general was improving, his answer began with silent head-shaking, which was followed with a short verbal answer that boiled down to ‘No.’ 

In a Village Voice article published earlier in the decade, Marsalis’ response was somewhat more hopeful.  The article, written in 2000 by Lara Paragrenelli, first acknowledges that ‘The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra… has never had a female member’ and then goes on to quote Marsalis (I have included Paragrenelli’s interstitial comments as well): “ “I hire orchestra members on the basis of merit,” says artistic director Wynton Marsalis, implying women do not yet make the grade. “The more women we have playing jazz, the higher the level of playing gets, the more they audition, and the more women are going to be all over. It will be just like classical music.” Marsalis also cites slow turnover in the band of 15, limiting the availability of positions.”  Paragrenelli goes on to quote historian Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: All-Girl Bands of the 1940s, who tells her that “The argument that women will eventually be good enough is very old.”

I have been thrilled and enlightened for many years by the sound of the JALCO’s performances, but in recent years I’ve increasingly noticed how it is full of age and culture diversity, symbolizes hope and excellence to many, and yet doesn’t include qualified women among its regular members, as one would expect from such a representative body.  To have noticed this imbalance, and then to see the footage on Marsalis’ website of a performance including Thurman from earlier this year, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra of Romania, carries for me a taste of the thrill North Americans must have felt seeing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969.  The contrast between the Romanian group, which includes female players in every section, including multiple women among the woodwinds, and the JALCO with its single female member, dramatizes how the most recognized U.S. jazz group is just beginning to catch up to representative organizations in many fields in its gender diversity.  Marsalis and the JALCO deserve long and loud accolades for finally recognizing in a prominent way the deep well of female instrumental jazz talent that has been in existence for many years. Here’s hoping that it is a sign of many more such changes yet to come. 

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A menagerie of intervals

Birding is a term that describes what birdwatchers do when they observe and catalog the species of birds they hear and see around them.  In birding competitions, such as the New Jersey Audubon World Series of Birding, teams of birdwatchers compete to see which one can identify the greatest number of bird species by sight or sound.  While identifying bird songs ‘by ear’ is a common approach, apps such as Song Sleuth have been developed to provide technological assistance to those looking to identify birds by sound.  An article on identifying birds by ear includes the suggestion: ‘If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall?’ 

The development of this skill for birders is very similar to the way in which musicians learn to identify intervals, or in other words, use scale steps to measure the distance between two notes,  in what is called ‘ear training’.   Musicians can learn to identify intervals through studying a list of  pop and folk tunes, or a list of jazz tunes, in which iconic phrases from songs are associated with the intervals they demonstrate.  In this post I am proposing a new approach to the study of intervals, using bird songs found in nature and in tunes by jazz and pop song composers which quote those bird songs. While many jazz standards refer to birds in the title (such as ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ or ‘Skylark’) or somewhere in their lyrics (as in ‘Stella by Starlight’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont’), there are a smaller number of tunes in which the composers incorporate the songs of actual birds into the melody.  A number of these tunes quote the birdsongs with some accuracy, because they imitate birds whose songs can be mapped onto the major scale.  This makes these tunes a useful introduction to the study of melodic intervals and ear training for musicians, as well as possibly a musical introduction to some bird songs for aspiring birders.  I have found tunes that directly quote bird songs to match the first four intervals in the major scale (the major 2nd, major 3rd and the perfect 4th and 5th); for the major sixth and seventh intervals, I have found tunes associated with birds, although not with particular birdsongs. 

Descending Major second (mi – re):  ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (House Finch) and Le Rossignol En Amour by Francois Couperin (Nightingale)

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote about this tune in a letter to his colleague Sigmund Romberg: ‘Jerry [Jerome Kern] got the melodic theme from a bird.  He swears it!  He heard a finch outside his window singing the first line and he built a refrain on it. Incidentally,’ Hammerstein added, ‘Ev’ry Little Star proved to be a stubborn tune and for a whole summer resisted my efforts to set words to it.  There were times during those hot August days when I wished the finch had kept his big mouth shut!’  There is a five-note motive in the second measure of this tune (accompanied by the words ‘Every Little Star’ in vocal versions such as those by Bing Crosby and Jacob Collier) in which four repeated notes are followed by a descending major second.  This motive does bear a resemblance to the excerpt of a House Finch song on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, which begins with two similar five-note motives.  This tune has been interpreted by jazz performers including Cannonball Adderley (on a recording with Wynton Kelly on piano) and Marian McPartland (in a duet with guitarist Jackie King.)  McPartland and King’s version include a number of delightful passages of collective improvisation, while Adderley includes additional ii-V progression that makes the harmonies more challenging for an improviser to navigate.

A piece from classical keyboard repertoire which makes frequent use of major seconds to emulate birdsong is ‘Le Rossignol En Amour’ (The Nightingale In Love) by Francois Couperin.  In light of current reports of environmental decline due to climate change, it is comforting to note that Nightingale songs from our era (such as the one that can be heard around the one minute mark in this recording) still bear a resemblance to the musical impression of the Nightingale in Couperin’s piece from four centuries ago.

Descending major third (la – fa and mi – do): ‘When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along’ by Harry Woods

The melody of this tune, memorably performed by Louis Armstrong, uses a descending major third on the repeated lyrics ‘wake up’, ‘get up’, ‘cheer up’.   While Armstrong puts his own melodic spin on these phrases, he sings the two-note motive as written at least once on each lyric (Bing Crosby sings the two-note motive as written, although his interpretation does not quite have the energy and invention of the version by his idol Armstrong.)  Armstrong’s version is also a tour de force of improvisation techniques, including quoting (the trombone lick at the end of the introduction quotes an earlier Armstrong trumpet solo on ‘Hotter Than That’), trading (in the section following Armstrong’s vocal melody) and collective improvisation (in the tutti chorus that follows the trades.)  

As the podcast Birdnote has explained, the American Robin has a much wider vocabulary than the two-note bird in the song.  The Robin improvises in much the same way as many jazz players, by drawing from a personal vocabulary of ‘10 to 20 different caroling phrases’ and alternating between them and a ‘treasury of 75 to 100 different whispered notes’ to create songs that can go on ‘for minutes without a pause.’ Although this level of variety can be heard in a recent Robin song from Ilinois, the midwestern bird does a number of times include the descending major third heard in ‘Red, Red Robin’, on the pitches F6 to Db6.  (I am using ‘6’ here to refer to the sixth octave of the piano.)  (A decent piano arrangement of this tune is available in the Faber and Faber ShowTime Jazz and Blues collection and is demonstrated in this keyboard video.)

Ascending and descending perfect fourth (re – so and so – do): ‘Bob White’ (Johnny Mercer) and ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Main Theme)’ by Ennio Morricone

Johnny Mercer’s and Bernie Hanighen’s tune ‘Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)’, which was recorded by vocalist Carmen McRae with saxophonist Ben Webster, uses the interval of an ascending fourth on the title phrase.   One can hear in this sound clip of a Bobwhite birdsong from the Macaulay library how some Bobwhite songs can be interpreted as a perfect fourth. 

I will make an exception to the bird theme here for Ennio Morricone’s Main Theme from his score to the film ‘The Good The Bad and the Ugly, as its musical impression of a coyote howl – a five-note motive alternating between ascending and descending fourths – is one of the most iconic uses of this interval.  As Morricone said in an interview with the Guardian, ‘I can’t take the credit for the coyote howl – that was the work of the coyote.’  In the recording of coyotes howling on this page, one can hear how some of the responding howls around :24 can be heard as a perfect fourth.    Morricone’s theme was given a great jazz interpretation by Quincy Jones who featured Herbie Hancock (contributing a characteristically side-slipping electric piano solo) and vocalist Patti Austin (who does some remarkable doubling of Hancock’s lines.)  Jones’ version adds Morricone’s theme to the many modern jazz melodies that feature perfect fourths prominently, including Wayne Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’, Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ and Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’.  (Sheet music for the original Morricone theme is available from musicnotes.com in more basic and more challenging versions.)

Perfect fifth (do -so)  – The Sunset and the Mockingbird, Serenade to A Cuckoo, The Peacocks

Morricone’s coyotes from his 1966 theme bear a striking resemblance to Duke Ellington’s evocation of a Mockingbird in his piece ‘The Sunset and the Mockingbird’, recorded seven years earlier in 1959.  Where Morricone’s coyotes sing a perfect fourth, Ellington’s Mockingbird, played by the piano, uses an ascending and descending perfect fifth.  Ellington describes the song’s creation in this passage from his biography, ‘Music is my Mistress’: “One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa, Florida, en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.” Ellington’s initial melody statement on piano exactly matches one of the Mockingbird’s calls, which can be heard by clicking on ‘Song #1’ at  Audobon.org’s Northern Mockingbird page.   A good (but advanced) piano arrangement of Ellington’s tune from Tommy Flanagan’s trio version can be found in The Tommy Flanagan Collection published by Hal Leonard.

The perfect fifth has also been other jazz composers to evoke other birds.  The second half of the melody in Rashaan Roland Kirk’s ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ includes a repeated descending perfect 5th (starting in in m. 9) which is a clear reference to cuckoo calls such as this one.  A film clip of Kirk using his flute to serenade and converse with animals at the zoo while his son sits on his shoulders is a moving example of his ability to create music out of unusual circumstances.  While the clip clearly includes some editing of sound and image, it also clearly represents actual interaction between Kirk and animals.  ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ may be known to rock fans through a cover version recorded by the band Jethro Tull which, while it sounds anemic in comparison to Kirk’s original version, demonstrates the extent to which flutist Ian Anderson’s playing is inspired by the tradition of jazz flute playing.  A lead sheet for Kirk’s tune (i.e. single staff melody with chord symbols above) can be purchased at jazzleadsheets.com (also a great resource for a number of his other tunes.)

The Peacocks’ by pianist Jimmy Rowles has become something of a jazz standard, having been recorded by Bill Evans and more recently vocalist Jazzmeia Horn.  The first two notes of the melody are an ascending 5th which is then quickly followed by a repeated descending 5th that mirrors Ellington’s Mockingbird (this can be heard in Horn’s vocal version on the lyric ‘out into a pattern never ending.’)   In the bridge of ‘The Peacocks’, Rowles makes the highly unusual choice of a repeated minor 7th leap (which can be heard on the last two syllables of the phrases where Horn sings ‘but somehow I’ and ‘I’m drowning now’.)   Although this interval appears rarely in jazz melodies and even more rarely in popular song melodies,  it was used by Alexander Courage to evoke space travel in the theme to the original Star Trek TV series, and by Leonard Bernstein to evoke an idealized future in ‘Somewhere’ from the musical West Side Story.  It seems possible that Rowles’ use of this interval is related to the wide intervals sung by peacocks in their calls, such as the one that can be heard around :28 in this video

Descending major sixth (mi – so) – Western Meadowlark – ‘Mister Meadowlark’

The more complex song of the Western Meadowlark, which can be heard here in a recent post in the Macaulay library, is evoked in Dave Brubeck’s tune Strange Meadowlark.  If one compares the bird’s song from the first link with the composer’s opening phrase (introduced by saxophonist Paul Desmond after a piano intro), it sounds as though Brubeck may have just added two interstitial notes between the first two notes of the bird’s song.  (Transposable sheet music with lyrics for Brubeck’s tune can be purchased here.)  Another recorded Western Meadowlark song includes the leap of an ascending major sixth.  The same interval in the reverse direction (the descending major sixth) appears in the opening of Mister Meadowlark by Walter Donaldson and Johnny Mercer, which was recorded by Carmen McRae on the same album where her version of ‘Bob White’ appears (‘Birds of a Feather’.)

Major seventh (do – ti) – Conference of the Birds

Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds features two contrapuntal flute lines, played by Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, which weave around one another in 5/4 time.  Holland features a major seventh in the seventh measure of the melody, in the lower of the two lines.  While Holland’s tune does not to my knowledge involve a specific birdsong, it does, like the McPartland and Armstrong performances mentioned above, use collective improvisation to evoke the sound of multiple birds. 

While all these tunes evoking bird songs by jazz and popular song composers seem to have been more or less anomalous works within the careers of each composer, there are at least two composers outside the jazz world who made encyclopedic attempts to catalog and utilize birdsong in human music.  In 1904 the American naturalist, composer and artist F. Schuyler Mathews published his Field Guide to Wild Birds and Their Music, a glossary of bird songs rendered in musical notation.  It was featured in this NPR story and is available here as a free ebook.  Later in the twentieth century, the  French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, made extensive use of birdsong in pieces such as Reveil de Oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds) where he lists in the score the birds being emulated by the piano and other instruments. 

On a personal note, the album which my quartet Birdcode has recently released, You Are Here, includes a tune by pianist and composer Dan Skea named after the Indigo Bunting.  (As of this writing, the tune can be streamed on Soundcloud.)  For me, this lovely melody evokes not so much the bird’s song as the experience of watching its graceful flight.  I was lucky enough to know Dan when he lived in Vermont and to have heard his marvelous playing and writing, which can still be heard on his YouTube channel.  He was also a jazz scholar who expertly notated much of the music he performed and wrote both an important article and a longer unpublished work on the hugely influential jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.  Dan’s grasp of Van Gelder’s often overlooked innovations was unique enough that he was quoted in Van Gelder’s New York Times obituary two years ago.  It makes sense that Dan had a gift for identifying the importance of an innovator who excelled at supporting other artists, as he was a player who was equally lyrical and expressive as an accompanist and as a soloist (something that can only be said of a short list of pianists, Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones among them.) 

Dan died in May of this year after a long career which included work with artists ranging from Wayne Newton to Wes Montgomery’s bass playing brother Monk Montgomery (check out his solo on the tune Sippin’ and Tippin’ from Monk’s album ‘Reality’.)  He spent significant amounts of time in New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia, which I notice on the Indigo Bunting’s ‘Range Map’ are all areas frequented by this beautiful bird.  Dan will be missed by many music lovers, but his music, like the namesake of his beautiful tune, will always be in the air somewhere. 

Lately I’ve been inspired by the mystical pursuit which F. Schuyler Mathews, Roland Kirk, and Olivier Messiaen made, of transcribing birdsong for use by human musicians.  I have been recording birdsongs near my house and will transcribe and share them in a future blog post.  They may make their way into a composition or two.  Stay tuned! 

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‘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. 

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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.



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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.

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‘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.) 

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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 with Charlie Parker, illustrate that although he was a revolutionary soloist and composer, as an accompanist he occasionally made some of the classic mistakes of the strong soloist who steps suddenly into accompanying other soloists.

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.

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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?

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