In each of the solos I link to below, the soloist makes a change in their improvising strategy in the second chorus in order to create a contrast with the approach in their first chorus. In the comment section, please choose one of these solos and explain how the soloist’s improvising strategy in the second chorus contrasts with their strategy in the first chorus. Here is a list of one sentence analyses that I have made of solos in this list. Please choose the analysis that matches the solo you have chosen, and briefly explain some more specifics about how and where these two approaches are heard in the solo – for example, in which measures of the second chorus does the double-timing occur? or: in which measures of the second chorus does the soloist leave space? Also, please note that while the links will take you to the time in the video when the solo occurs, it is also crucial to listen to the entire recording. For the solos that quote the melody, for instance, you need to hear the head in to know when the soloist is quoting the melody.
The soloist uses melodic material that is different from the head (melody) of the tune in the first chorus, and references the melody in the second chorus.
The soloist references the melody in the first chorus and uses melodic material that is different from the head (melody) of the tune in the second chorus.
The soloist plays more continuous phrases in the first chorus and leaves more space in the second chorus.
The soloist leaves more space in the first chorus and plays more continuous phrases in the second chorus. A reversal of the previous strategy in piano solos: the pianist takes a ‘hand to hand conversation approach’ in the first chorus, leaving space after right hand melodic ‘questions’ for left hand chord ‘answers’ (or vice versa; see my blog post Leading With The Left for three examples of this kind of solo). In the second chorus, the pianist plays longer phrases and so has less left hand punctuation between phrases, and/or has more ‘paralinear’ comping (LH chording that happens along with a right hand phrase.)
The soloist works within the primary melodic subdivisions of the tune in the first chorus (usually eighth notes and triplets) and explores ‘double-timing’ (faster note values, often sixteenth notes) in the second chorus.
The soloist focuses primarily on scalar motion in the first chorus, with some melodic thirds interspersed, and explores wider intervals in the second chorus
Kavita Shah is a vocalist raised in Manhattan who studied jazz voice at Manhattan School of Music and incorporates her ethnographic research on Brazilian, West African, and Indian musical traditions into her original repertoire. Her recording of Interplay, a twelve bar minor blues by Bill Evans in which a contrapuntal head is followed by solos on a standard set of minor blues changes, is on her duet album of the same name with bassist Francois Moutin. Although the entire performance of this tune on the recording is remarkable, I chose to transcribe her second chorus as it lands on the rhythmic and harmonic ‘grid’ of the C minor blues progression in a way that lends itself to notation.
Appropriately enough for the title of the tune, during this chorus Shah and Moutin display some remarkable split-second responsiveness to each other’s melodic choices. While Evans’s melody is in C Aeolian mode, without a single instance of B natural in the bass or melody, just after Moutin uses a B natural in m. 2, Shah makes it a goal of her melodic phrase in m. 3, setting up a C melodic minor tonality. Just after Shah implies double-time with a single note in m. 4, Moutin double-times the bassline in m. 5. Measure 9 contains two quick reactions: after Moutin plays an A in his bassline on beat 1, Shah incorporates it into her melodic line one sixteenth note later, and after Shah sings an A flat on the ‘a’ (as in ‘2 e and a’) of beat 2, Moutin incorporates it a sixteenth note later on beat 3.
While there could be many explanations for why Shah and Moutin’s improvised parts shadow each other so closely, the number of times they react to each other’s moves, and the way they seem to take turns reacting to each other, indicates that these responses are not coincidental but rather reflect a deliberate commitment to a collaborative approach. Shah reacting to Moutin’s B natural one measure after he introduces it and Moutin responding to Shah’s double-tiiming one measure later are clearly conscious responses, but their rapid-fire reactions in m. 9 suggest to me that their level of experience with improvisation has also made them able to respond to what they hear in musical situations on an unconscious level.
The quickness with which they both react musically in this measure makes me think of the theory of ‘thin-slicing’ in psychology, which Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes as ‘the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very thin slices of experience’. This ability is often heightened by a person’s level of familiarity and expertise with certain kinds of experience. Gladwell cites the example of a firefighter who makes a split-second and lifesaving decision to evacuate his crew from a floor that collapses only moments after they leave. The firefighter, astonished by the rapidity and accuracy of his own reaction, attributes it to ESP. Gladwell then quotes research psychologist Gary Klein, who interviews the firefighter and demonstrates that he was using his experience to react to sensory information on an unconscious level, where the brain can operate faster than the conscious mind’s ability to comprehend. I would suggest that Shah and Moutin are displaying a similar level of expertise, but unlike the firefighter, they are reacting on both conscious and subconscious levels within the same twelve-bar chorus, which makes for an astonishing and inspiring performance.
(note: some of the links to which WordPress has added a strikethrough to mark them as ‘broken’ seem to actually work. Feel free to email me at the address above or add a comment below with any thoughts on this.)
Red Garland’s first twelve-bar chorus on the recording of his tune ‘Blues By Five’ by the Miles Davis quintet is a great example of a number of concepts important to both jazz piano playing and jazz in general. Before reading my analysis of the solo, please listen to the solo both by clicking on the link above, which will take you to where Garland’s solo begins at 4:36, and by listening to it in the context of the entire performance by the quintet, which is a little less than ten minutes long. After listening to the original recording, for more detail on the first chorus, read and watch the two versions of my transcription below, one of the solo with Garland’s complete left hand comping, and another with what I would call Garland’s ‘paralinear’ left hand comping (i.e. the chording that he plays parallel to, i.e. simultaneous with, his right hand phrases) edited out to emphasize Garland’s ‘hand to hand conversation’. Each transcription is accompanied by short videos in which I demonstrate the solos on the piano. (Here are links to the videos of the first chorus in its original form and the first chorus with edited left hand on Google Drive, where they may be slowed down.) Please note that all the sixteenth note triplets can be simplified by making the first note of the triplet an eighth note, which then becomes a swing eighth note pair when combined with the eighth note that follows it. Also please note that an alternate fingering for the right hand in m. 9 (really measure 8 of the twelve bar form) is 1-2-1-4-3-2. (I am ambivalent about the 3-4-3-2-1 fingering I use in the video, as it contradicts the guideline of keeping the thumb away from black keys in scalar passages, however, it does works in this context.)
Version with edited left hand:
The first four bars of Garland’s right hand melodic line exemplify Clark Terry’s concept of ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’, a phrase he used to describe a creative process jazz improvisers move through constantly. Garland’s left hand voicings are a great example of what I call ‘crossless voice leading’, a concept I’ll explain below. Garland’s voicings are also an example of ‘melodic comping’, or maintaining a melodic line within a series of chord voicings. Although Garland maintains a chordal rhythm heard in many of his solos, with most chords on the ‘and’ of 2 and 4, the places he chooses to begin his right hand phrases make this solo an example of what is sometimes called ‘hand-to-hand conversation’ and which I also call ‘dialogic phrasing’. I also find Garland’s right hand phrases in this solo to be an example of what I call ‘voicing-based melody’, my own term for a concept elaborated by pianist and theorist Mike Longo. Finally, Garland’s last melodic phrase in the first chorus is another example of the ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’ process, this time involving another primordial phrase from the jazz vocabulary, the opening of Fats’ Waller’s ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, which I think Garland likely learned from quotations of the tune by other bop players.
– ‘Emulate’ stage: the Collins English Dictionary defines ’emulate’ as ‘ to try, often by imitating or copying, to equal or surpass’. I think that there are three possible source for his opening one-measure phrase: two from the preceding solos by Miles Davis and John Coltrane and one from a lick heard in a number of Duke Ellington solos. It sounds likely that Garland’s first two bars echo the opening of John Coltrane’s fifth chorus, where Coltrane begins with a one bar phrase (E-G-A-Bb, or scale steps 3-5-6-7) which he plays again in the second measure, transposing it up a perfect fourth (A-C-D-Eb). Garland innovates on Coltrane’s chorus by using a similar phrase three times, and by expanding the phrase the third time he uses it.
Coltrane’s phrase could be heard as an innovation on the phrase heard in m. 5-7 of Miles’s solo, where he begins with scale degrees 3-5-6-5 (G-Bb-C-Bb) of the Eb major or seventh/mixolydian scales. (The phrase can been seen in trumpet transposition, i.e. up a whole step, in this video.) Garland borrows Coltrane’s transposing concept, but changes one note of the lick, returning it to the shape used in Davis’s solo. This demonstrates remarkable listening skills to pick out and excerpt four notes the beginning of Davis’s solo, and then remarkable memorization skills to retain that phrase while accompanying long solos by Davis and Coltrane.
The phrase introduced by Davis begin on the downbeat, and Coltrane innovates on it by adding an upbeat. Garland adds the innovation of starting the phrase a half beat later and incorporating a triplet. In adding the triplet, I think he is likely emulating (whether consciously or subconsciously) the Scottish tune ‘The Campbells Are Coming‘, which had been quoted by Duke Ellington in his 1942 solo on C Jam Blues and his 1952 solo on Take The A Train and would be quoted by Garland in his 1960 solo piano version of Mary Lou Williams’ tune ‘Cloudy‘. (This recording by Garland is the only example I know of a major jazz pianist of his era recording a tune by a female jazz composer who was also, like most male jazz composers, a working instrumental performer.) As one can see from single staff and grand staff versions available on musicnotes.com, ‘Campbells’ has a number of different melodic variants, but two aspects shared between these two variants are the triplet rhythm and that the second triplet being a descending major triad arpeggio. In the solos I cited above, Ellington changes the triplet rhythm to some combination of swing eighth notes and quarter notes, while Garland uses the triplets from the original. In the first measure of his Blues By Five solo, Garland again uses the triplets from ‘Campbells’, but borrows the melodic shape from Davis’ fifth measure while adding the opening upbeat which all the versions of ‘Campbells’ have in common.
– ‘Assimilate’ – the Collins dictionary defines ‘assimilate’ as ‘to make like or alike; cause to resemble’, which is comparable to the musical concept of transposition, which Wikipedia defines as ‘ the process or operation of moving a collection of notes (pitches or pitch classes) up or down in pitch by a constant interval’; transposing a melodic phrase also usually involves maintaining the same melodic rhythm as the original phrase. In m. 2 of his Blues by Five solo, Garland moves the five-note phrases he has likely amalgamated from Davis, Coltrane and/or ‘Campbells’ up a perfect fourth, following the move of the chord progression from Bb7 to Eb7 and maintaining the same intervals and melodic rhythm.
– ‘Innovate’ – One of the definitions of ‘innovate’ in Collins is ‘make changes in anything established’. I would say the telltale sign that ‘Campbells’ is Garland’s main source is that when he develops or innovates the one-bar phrase from m. 1 and 2 into a three-bar phrase in m. 3-5, the first three notes he adds are the descending major triad heard in the second triplet in both the variants of ‘Campbells’ I cited above. The end of the phrase is a classic example of the bebop technique of incorporating non-scale tones (or what Barry Harris calls ‘half steps’) on upbeats, which Garland does no less than three times in the fourth measure, ‘enclosing’ or ‘surrounding’ the third of the Bb seventh scale (D) between the fourth and the flatted third on beats one and two, adding what Harris calls the ‘half step between the root and the seventh’ (A natural) on the ‘and’ of beat 3, and on the ‘and’ of four, a half beat before the Eb7 chord arrives in the chord progression, approaching the third of that chord (G) from a half step below (Gb).
It has always been curious to me that some transcriptions of classic piano solos, such as the Jazz Solos of Chick Corea book and most of Oscar Peterson Note-for-Note, omit the active and prominent left hand comping that is a crucial and distinctive element in these solos. The transcription of Garland’s solo included in this blog post combines a fine transcription by Canadian pianist and composer Tony Genge of Garland’s right hand and my own transcription of Garland’s left hand comping. (To his credit, Genge includes left hand transcriptions elsewhere in the same book.)
While more recent transcribing of piano solos, such as The Wynton Kelly Collection from Jamey Aebersold book available from jazzbooks.com, includes left hand transcription, I have seen very little discussion of the role the left hand plays in the creative process of an improvised piano solo. Transcribing the left-hand comping in an improvised jazz piano solo where the left and right hands are playing their traditional roles of harmonic support and melodic invention (or to borrow a phrase from Antonio Vivaldi, ‘The Contest Between Harmony and Invention’, which we might adapt here as ‘the conversation between harmony and invention’) allows the listener and player to shed light on three important and often overlooked techniques in the use of left hand voicings during a piano solo. My terms for these techniques are ‘crossless voice leading’, ‘voicing-based melody’ and ‘dialogic phrasing’.
– Crossless Voice Leading: By transcribing Garland’s voicings, one can see that he is using what Phil Degreg calls ‘rootless voicings’ (voicings built off the third or seventh of each chord, and omitting the root). These voicings allow him to do at least three important things:
– keep his chords above D3, which allows Garland to avoid his chords becoming too ‘muddy’ to be identified by ear (below D3, the sonic identity of chord degrees other than the root and 5th tend to be obscured by the harmonic series)
– keep his chords from overlapping with Paul Chamber’s walking bass part (D3 roughly defines the upper range of many walking bass parts, which tend to stay centered on the notes of the bass clef.)
– The rootless voicings also allow him to voice his chords in a way that avoids ‘voice overlap’, which, as explained in this short video by Prof. James Harvey of College of Southern Nevada, is crossing over the ‘invisible boundary’ between two horizontally adjacent voices of a single chord in a vertical move or ‘change’ from one chord to another.
In the video, voice overlap is described as an ‘error’ in writing harmony for two or more independent voices (i.e. voices intended to be performed by four separate instrumentalists or singers). This is the conventional music theory definition of voice overlap, as it is easier to perform two vocal or instrumental parts which don’t cross one another, as in the first measure of The Everly Brothers’ All I Have To Do Is Dream, and more difficult to perform a passage where one part has to jump over the other part’s previous note to get to its next note, as in the transition from the first measure to the second measure of that song.
While it is certainly physically possible on the piano to play two consecutive chords with voice overlap, and it is sometimes unavoidable in voicing a jazz progression, many of the great jazz pianists use crossless voice leading whenever possible, as it often sounds better and is easier to play. Although Garland is famous for his use of four-note rootless vocings, if one focuses on the three essential notes in each of Garland’s voicings (and omits the usually expendable second note from the bottom in his four note voicings, as I have in the transcriptions), one can see that Garland’s voicings remain ‘crossless’ throughout the first chorus. Again, like his use of the ‘Campbells’ motive, this is either conscious, subconscious or some combination of the two.
– Melodic comping: It is also worth noticing that Garland’s left hand voicings form a melodic line of their own, slower-moving than his right hand line but with just as much melodic integrity. Within the five basic changes of the ‘Blues By Five’ progression (Bb7, Eb7, G7, Cm7 and F7) he creates additional melodic motion by using the Bb7sus4 and Bb7+5 variations on the Bb7, the Edim7 chord in the sixth bar of the progression, and the F7+5 variation on the F7 chord.
– Dialogic phrasing or hand-to-hand conversation: A crucial aspect of Garland’s first chorus on Blues By Five is that in m. 1, 2, 3 and 8, all of which introduce a chord different from the one heard in the previous measure, Garland first plays a chord in the left hand and then follows it with a right hand phrase. While this could be described as ‘call and response’ (a format heard across many forms of African and African-American music) or ‘hand-to-hand conversation’ (The term pianist George Colligan uses to describe call-and-response phrasing in Horace Silver’s piano solos), I would suggest the term ‘dialogic phrasing’, which can describe both situations where an improviser is responding to their own statement of a chord (as in Garland’s solo) or leaving space (often at the beginning of a measure) for a chord statement by the rhythm section (as Davis does on the downbeat of the first, fifth, and ninth measures of his third chorus on Blues By Five). Interestingly, the piano solos I have transcribed from a frequently overlooked category of jazz instrumentalist, female jazz pianists, are all great examples of the similarly overlooked technique of dialogic phrasing.
– voicing-based melody – this is my own term for a process that Mike Longo explains in his book The Technique of Creating Harmonic Melody for the Jazz Improviser. Longo generates original melodic lines for standard jazz chord progressions such as the blues by first voicing the chords in close harmony (i.e. avoiding ‘overlapping’ moves like voicing two consecutive chords in root position) and then creating a melodic line that essentially moves within the shapes of the voicings. (Building on Longo’s approach, I have found that going one step further and using voicings that are both in close position and use crossless voice leading can be an even more straightforward foundation for a melodic line.) Throughout Garland’s first chorus, Garland’s melodic shapes are based around his chord shapes, particularly in the ii-V-I pattern he uses in the last four measures of the chorus.
As he navigates the ii-V progression in m. 9-10 of his solo, Garland has an even more layered ’emulate-assimilate-innovate’ moment than the ‘Campbells’/Davis/Coltrane quote he opens with. Garland’s knowledge of Charlie Parker’s music, particularly his recordings with Miles Davis, is evident from his recordings of two tunes Parker recorded with Davis, the well known blues ‘Billie’s Bounce’ and the much less known rhythm changes ‘Constellation’. In m. 9-10 of his first chorus on ‘Blues By Five’, Garland encloses within a longer phrase a quote from m. 5-6 of ‘Donna Lee’, the Miles Davis composition often mistakenly attributed to Charlie Parker because Davis recorded it on a session where Parker was the bandleader. This particular phrase from ‘Donna Lee’ is one of three phrases in the tune where Davis quotes Fats Waller’s ‘Honeysuckle Rose’. As Douglass Parker has shown in his article ‘Donna Lee and the Ironies of Bebop’, Davis also quotes substantially in ‘Donna Lee’ from Fats Navarro’s improvised solo on ‘Ice Freezes Red’, which itself quotes ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ twice (albeit in a slightly altered form with two notes reversed). So it is possible that this is a moment of Garland quoting Miles Davis quoting Fats Navarro quoting Fats Waller. I point this out not to suggest that aspiring improvisers should try to do such multi-layered quoting, but to make the point that once a player internalizes strong melodic material such as ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by learning it in a number of different keys, quoting that is both innovative and multi-layered can occur without conscious effort.
In teaching piano lessons, I integrate the study of technique and music theory with work on piano music, from the music of important jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Mary Lou Williams, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to composers from the ‘classical’ tradition including J.S. Bach, Muzio Clementi, W.A. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Satie. I start beginners with the Alfred All-In-One Course, which integrates theory, technique and repertoire. For students with some previous piano experience looking to get into jazz, I sometimes use my own compositions based on standard jazz chord progression, such as October Blues (based on Miles Davis’s ‘All Blues’) and Ella’s House of Tonic Tones (based on Sonny Rollins’s ‘Pent-up House‘), as a starting point for introducing classic jazz repertoire.
For high school students looking to audition for Vermont All-State Jazz Ensemble, I have a series of tunes based on the chord progressions of the tunes used for those auditions (see the menu of ‘Original tunes on changes of Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble audition tunes’ in the sidebar of my blog.) A number of my students have been chosen to play piano in this ensemble at the Vermont All-State Music Festival over the years.
For non-UVM students, I begin new students with an initial meeting, for which I charge the same rates as a lesson (see below). For students with previous experience, it is helpful if I can hear them play a short piece at the initial meeting which tells me something about their ability level, musical interests, and the kind of piece they enjoy playing. (UVM Students are required to audition for jazz piano lessons; contact me via email for more info on audition guidelines.) Students are also welcome to send audio or video clips of their playing ahead of time. I ask students who are familiar with major scales and sight reading to demonstrate those skills briefly. For students who are beginners or less inclined to perform, I use the initial meeting to introduce you to some possible starting points for lessons and set you up with a first assignment. With students at all levels, the initial meeting is a chance for both of us to consider whether my approach and background are a good match for your strengths, interests and goals in music. I have taught students at many different ages (usually starting around 6th grade but including the full range of middle school through college age, including many post-college adults as well) at many different skill levels, from experienced professionals to those who play for fun, and in a number of musical styles, most often in the jazz tradition, but including a fair amount of classical and pop music as well.
My rates are $50 for an hour lesson, $40 for a 45 minute lesson and $30 for a half hour.
Lesson Cancellation Policy for non-UVM students (UVM students: see the cancellation policy on the lesson syllabus, which is similar to the one below, but connected to my grading policies.)
In the case of cancellations where I am notified by phone, email or text 24 hours or more ahead of the scheduled lesson time, I am happy to reschedule the lesson and transfer the lesson fee to the rescheduled time. In the case of cancellations where I am notified less than 24 hours ahead of the lesson time, but no later than 2 hours ahead of the lesson time, I will charge half the lesson fee. In the case of lessons where a student does not show up for the scheduled lesson time and I am not notified ahead of time, I will charge the full lesson fee. While there are many kinds of unforeseen circumstances, in general the only exception I will make to this policy is in the case of a sudden medical emergency.
Tom Cleary studied jazz performance at Hampshire College, where his teachers included Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp, and music education and classical piano performance at the University of Vermont, where his teachers included Sylvia Parker and Elizabeth Metcalfe. As a pianist and keyboardist he has had extended collaborations with artists including Phish bassist Mike Gordon (with whom he did a number of tours between 2008 and 2014; click here to see a performance by this band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon), James Harvey, Ray Vega, Patricia Julien, and Jamie Masefield. His collaboration with his wife, vocalist and composer Amber deLaurentis, in the jazz quartet Birdcode can be heard on the album You Are Herewhich was released in 2019 and features a number of his original tunes. He has also played on jazz recordings including Siempre Salsa and Salsa Nortena by Rick Davies and Jazzismo, Cerulean by harmonicist John LaRouche, andBurmese Pantherby guitarist/composer Paul Asbell. His work as an arranger and co-writer can be heard on deLaurentis’ solo albums Innocent Roadand Hey Sadie. He has played on recent releases including Now And Thenby saxophonist and flutist Marty Fogel and the eponymous album bySaturn People’s Sound Collective, led by Brian Boyes. He has accompanied artists including Clark Terry, Lester Bowie, Fontella Bass, Ernie Watts, Chris Vidala, Pete Yellin, Max Weinberg, Judi Silvano, Joe Lovano, Joan Rivers and Steve Earle. As a composer, his work has been commissioned and recorded by groups including Social Band, Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Saint Michael’s College Fine Arts Department. The musical Mill Girls, a collaboration with director/playwright Peter Harrigan for which he composed and compiled the score, was first performed in 2017 at Saint Michael’s College and was recently revived in an online production now available on YouTube. He teaches in the jazz studies program of the UVM Music Department, the Flynn Arts jazz program and his home studio; please visit https://soundcloud.com/bird-code and blog.uvm.edu/tgcleary.
Throughout his career as a composer, Thelonious Monk composed a number of tunes that use the twelve-bar blues progression. Among these are tunes based on one-bar motives or ‘riffs’ which Monk transposes and alters in various ways, which might be called ‘one bar blues’. While a number of Monk’s better known blues tunes, such as ‘Straight No Chaser’, use more complex ways of developing a short motive, the blues tunes I discuss below are good models for building an effective melody based on the ‘jazz blues’ progression that ‘makes the changes’ (clearly implies the chord progression through a single-note melodic line) using simpler ways of developing a one-bar ‘riff’ or motive.
As far as I know, the riffs in the tunes I describe are original to Monk, so I would say they use the second and third steps in the ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’ process. This is a series of steps which master trumpeter and composer Clark Terry used to describe how improvisers develop their skills. In my series of blog posts using that title, I described how it can be seen in the work of various composers and improvisers, starting with a post on how Haydn and Mozart may have borrowed from each other, and how Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis borrowed from various pop tunes. At the end of this post, you’ll find an original tune of mine, ‘Barbara’s New Digs‘, where I’ve tried to use Monk’s approaches to the ‘assimilate’ and ‘innovate’ steps, as well as include the ’emulate’ step (by borrowing riffs from two different sources.)
Five Spot Blues, from the 1963 album Monk’s Dream, is based on a six-note riff which outlines a dominant seventh chord in third inversion (in his essential text Jazz Keyboard Harmony, Phil Degreg describes this as a dominant 7th ‘voiced off the seventh’). (The link in the previous sentence should take you to a recording of the tune; an chart can be downloaded from musicnotes.com and one can also be found in the highly recommended Thelonious Monk Fakebook.) Following the blues progression as shown in step 1 of the assignment below, Monk introduces the riff in the first measure, and then transposes (or ‘assimilates’) it to the Eb7 chord by transposing it up a perfect fourth. In measures 3-8 he continues outlining the blues progression using the Bb and Eb versions of the riff. In measure 9, Monk ‘innovates’ on the riff by changing just the last note of the original pattern to the root of the F chord. A different kind of innovation can be heard in m. 10, where Monk moves the riff to a different rhythmic location (beat 3 instead of beat 1). This is one of Monk’s favorite ways of altering a riff; ‘Straight, No Chaser’ is a masterclass in this technique. Five Spot Blues is a more stripped down version of the earlier Blues Five Spot from the album Misterioso, which includes a nonstandard bVII chord in m. 6 of the progression.
North of the Sunset from the album Solo Monk (1965) is also based on a six-note riff, but here Monk uses more sophisticated methods of motivic development than he does in Five Spot Blues. (Here is a link to a reasonably priced chart for North of the Sunset on musicnotes.com.) While there is only one place in ‘Five Spot’ where Monk changes a note of the original riff, Monk uses this technique multiple times in ‘North’, at m. 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. In ‘North’, Monk also uses the more sophisticated techniques of extending the initial one-bar motive to a two-bar motive (m. 3-4 and 7-8 – this also occurs at m. 5-6 of ‘Blue Monk’ ), and using the melodic rhythm of the motive with a different melodic shape (at m. 11-12, in a phrase that recalls the opening of ‘Straight, No Chaser’.) With a running time of just under two minutes, Monk’s recording of ‘North of the Sunset’ is also a short tour de force of jazz piano left hand accompaniment techniques, beginning with two note shell voicings during the head, progressing on to a stride left hand during the solo, and including a short stretch of walking bass.
Below are some guidelines on how to compose a twelve-bar melody based on the ‘jazz blues’ progression, using first the ‘assimilate’ process from ‘Five Spot Blues’ and then (if you choose) the ‘assimilate/innovate’ process from ‘North of the Sunset’.
1) Choose a key for your melody. I suggest using one of the more common keys for blues among jazz players and singers: G, C, F or B flat. Write out the chord progression of a basic I-IV-V blues in your chosen key on a piece of staff paper, following the progression as shown below (each roman numeral represents the dominant seventh chord beginning on the step of your key’s tonic major scale indicated by the numeral) :
I / / / | IV / / / | I / / / | / / / / |
IV / / / | / / / / | I / / / | / / / / |
V / / / | / / / / | I / / / | V / / / |
2) Compose or adapt a one-measure melodic phrase which outlines a dominant 7th chord, either through arpeggiation (i.e. moving through chord tones in any order, often involving intervallic or ‘skip’ motion) , as in ‘Five Spot Blues’, or through a combination of arpeggiation and stepwise melodic motion (i.e. moving along the mixolydian scale in scale steps), as in ‘North Of The Sunset’. By ‘adapt’, I mean that if you borrow a short melodic phrase from a source such as an improvised solo, alter something about it to make its source less identifiable. An example of this is Oscar Pettiford’s ‘Swingin’ ‘Til The Girls Come Home’. My theory about the tune is that Pettiford borrowed the first four notes of the second strain in the Toreador Song from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Pettiford adapted the phrase by using only the first four notes (using less than half of the tune’s signature ten-note opening phrase), syncopated the first note by starting it a half beat earlier, and changed the tune’s dotted-eighth-sixteenth rhythm to swing eighth notes. (Although ‘Swingin’ was first recorded in 1951, the ubiquity of The Toreador Song in the jazz melodic language can be heard in a couple of later solos by a number of Pettiford’s contemporaries: Kenny Dorham in his 1955 solo on Lady Bird from The Jazz Messengers At The Cafe Bohemia Vol. 1 and Yusef Lateef in his 1958 flute solo on Take the ‘A’ Train from The Sounds of Yusef.)
Keep in mind that in order to outline a dominant 7th chord, a phrase should end on a chord tone. In a jazz context, all notes of the seventh/mixolydian scale other than the 4th are considered chord tones. (When a phrase over a dominant 7th chord ends on the 4th, the unresolved sound of the 4th says ‘move me somewhere’. Resolving the 4th down to the 3rd or up to the 5th by step is one of the easiest ways to avoid the unfinished sound created by ending on the 4th in a phrase over a dominant 7th chord.)
Sources from which you could borrow a one-bar phrase outlining a dominant 7th include the Glossary of Melodic Patterns Based On Root Position Chords in my blog post on the tune ‘Broken Heart for Sale’, and the licks in my exercise Jody, Donna, Four Brothers and Koko, which imply rootless voicings of dominant seventh chords. If you borrow a melodic phrase, feel free to adapt it (or ‘innovate’ on it) before incorporating it into your tune by altering it rhythmically as in the Pettiford tune described above, or using any of the ‘innovate’ approaches described in step 4 below.
3) Using ‘Five Spot Blues’ as a model, compose a ‘transpose/assimilate’ draft of your blues by transposing your phrase to the to the mixolydian/seventh scales built on the roots of the I, IV and V chords in blues progression shown in Step 1. We will take the ‘transposition only’ approach that Monk uses in m. 1-8 of ‘Five Spot’ and extend it into the last four measures as well, to keep this part of the process more straightforward.
As in ‘Five Spot Blues’, In the measures where the chord from the previous measure is repeated (m. 4, 6, 8 and 10), leave a measure of rest in the melody. (Note that the slightly different ‘Blues Five Spot’, there are melody notes in m. 6, but we will take the simpler approach of ‘Five Spot Blues’ and let the Eb7 chord continue in that measure.) Also, leave a measure of rest in m. 12. This follows a common practice in blues melodies and improvised solos by great jazz players of leaving space in the last one or two measures of a chord progression.
The chord pattern in #1 above shows the V chord in m. 9-10, and we’ll follow Monk’s example by following that pattern in the melody. However, we will also follow Monk’s example by having chord players, or pianists’ left hands, play the ii chord in m. 9, so the chord progression in the last four bars will be as follows:
ii / / / | V / / / | I / / / | / / / /
The ii chord in m. 9 is one of the key element that makes a ‘jazz blues’ different from how the blues progression is played in other contexts, such as traditional blues by performers and composers such as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
4) Create a ‘assimilate/innovate’ draft of your blues melody by adding innovations to the melody some of the measures where you repeated or transposed the basic motive exactly in your ’emulate/assimilate’ drafts. Try using some of the innovations Monk makes during the ‘head in’ to ‘North of the Sunset’ on the basic motive heard in the first measure. These include
– ending the motive on a different chord tone (as in m. 2, 5, 6, 9 and 10 of the ‘head in’ to North of the Sunset)
– on chord changes that last two measures in the basic progression shown at the beginning of #3, extending the one-bar motive to a two-bar motive by adding a melodic ‘tail’ (as in m. 3-4 and 7-8 of the ‘head in’ to ‘North Of The Sunset’)
– using the melodic rhythm of the basic motive, but with a different notes, and extending the motive by adding a ‘tail’ (as in m. 11-12 of the ‘head in’ and ‘head out’ to ‘North’)
– moving the motive to a different beat of the measure, as in the last measure of ‘Five Spot Blues’
– transposing some of the notes in the phrase up or down an octave, either for variety or to keep the melody in a playable/singable range (as in Swingin’ Till The Girls Come Home).
In my tune ‘Barbara’s New Digs’, after a short bass intro, the first chorus of the head in uses the ‘transpose/assimilate’ process, and the second chorus adds the ‘innovate’ step. I also add the ’emulate’ step by borrowing the opening riff from Camille Thurman’s solo on ‘Sassy’s Blues’ (shown in my blog post on that solo) and extending that motive by adding my own rhythmically compressed version of a melodic phrase from ‘Malanga Amarilla’ by Israel Cachao Lopez (which can be found in my Glossary of Melodic Root Position Chord Patterns). Just above the chart for the tune, you’ll find a simple scale outline of the B flat ‘jazz blues’ progression the tune uses. Here is a link to a short recording I made of Barbara’s New Digs. I hope you enjoy it!
In two well-known melodies, one from the late 1950s and another from the mid-1960s, the ascending minor seventh interval is used to symbolize reaching for a not-yet-attained goal. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Somewhere’, first performed in 1957 as part of the musical ‘West Side Story’, begins with an ascending minor 7th that accompanies the lyric ‘there’s a place for us’. The lyric of the phrase that follows – ‘somewhere a place for us’ – reveals that the place has not yet been found. In light of this thought, the ascending minor seventh begins to symbolize a reaching for this goal. The three note motive that opens the song – an ascending minor 7th followed by a descending minor 2nd – appears a number of other parts of the score, including the The song ‘Cool’ and the Cool Fugue that follows it and A Boy Like That/I Have A Love. (The version of A Boy Like That I have linked to features Rita Moreno in 1961, and the version of Somewhere I have linked to is Moreno in 2021.) Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing in the videos of Cool/Cool Fugue and A Boy Like That/I Have A Love where the ‘Somewhere’ motive appears.
The vocal melody of Alexander Courage’s theme to the original Star Trek series also begins with an ascending minor 7th. The voiceover that precedes the theme in the show’s opening introduces the mission statement of the starship Enterprise: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Like the singer in ‘Somewhere’ (who in the original stage production was offstage and therefore anonymous), the crew of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek also seeks the unknown. Gene Roddenberry’s little known and infrequently sung lyrics to the theme refer to a lover who, like the ‘place for us’ in West Side Story, is out of reach for now: ‘beyond the rim of the starlight / my love is wandering in starflight’. The most musically faithful interpretation of the tune I have found is by Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D. In this performance, Black and Gass demonstrate that, as with all great musical humorists, their comedy is built on a foundation of solid musicianship.
On the version of My Favorite Things sung by Mary Martin on the original Broadway cast recording of The Sound Of Music, the tune’s switch from E minor to E major between its second and third verses (at :37) is introduced with a short waltz vamp introducing the new mode. On his iconic version of My Favorite Things, John Coltrane expands this vamp, making it into a longer modal interlude where he improvises on the newly introduced major mode. While the common practice in jazz at the time, including on Coltrane’s previous albums, was for improvising to take place over a tune’s chord progression (rather than its intro), Coltrane’s version of ‘My Favorite Things’ was groundbreaking in that most of the improvisation by both Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner in its thirteen-minute-plus duration occurred on these modal interludes that extended the vamps of the original version. In the parts of the arrangement where Tyner plays tune’s chord progression (considerably altered by bassist Steve Davis playing an E pedal tone rather than the chord roots), Coltrane states the melody with various kinds of rhythmic re-interpretation and ornamentation and saves his development of original melodic ideas for the vamp sections (See my discussion of McCoy Tyner’s solo below for more on the definition of ‘modal’.) At one point during the first major-key modal interlude (at 1:18), Coltrane begins developing the perfect fifth with which the melody begins, narrowing it to a perfect fourth before expanding it to wider intervals including an ascending minor 7th:
The melody of Coltrane’s composition ‘Naima‘ prominently features an descending minor 7th between its third and fourth notes ; this interval is later balanced by an ascending minor 7th in the bridge.
Sondheim’s song ‘Anyone Can Whistle‘ also features an early descending minor 7th which he matches with the third word of the title in the lyrics (emulating a common descending whistling pattern.) The descending minor 7th on ‘whistle’ that symbolizes simplicity (despite being tricky to sing), is followed by an ascending major 7th that accompanies the first two words of the phrase ‘it’s all so simple’. This interval (on the lyrics ‘it’s all’) contrast this carefree thought in the lyrics with a musical interval that is arguably more strenuous to sing than the one Sondheim chooses for ‘whistle’. This contrasts suggests that the character singing the song is skeptical of the sentiment he’s repeating to the listener. A few lines later in the lyrics, the singer reveals in words the perspective that he telegraphed earlier with melody notes: ‘it’s all so simple / relax, let go, let fly / so someone tell me why can’t I?‘ (italics mine).
At one point during his solo over the major-key vamp in My Favorite Things (approximately 4:47), McCoy Tyner repeats a C sharp in his right hand as his left alternates between root position E major seventh and F sharp minor seventh voicings. (I am calling these ‘voicings’ rather than chords because these note stacks are not functioning the way they would in the chord progression of a jazz standard or bebop tune. What makes this a modal vamp rather than a chord progression is that while the piano alternates between these two voicings, the bass alternates between the root and fifth of only the E major seventh and doesn’t play the root of the F#m7, and the melodic material of both Tyner’s solo and Coltrane’s solos on this vamp stays centered on the E major scale and, like the bass, doesn’t make any moves to specifically reference the F#m7 (whether through an arpeggio or another melodic phrase that outlines that chord.) Tyner is moving voicings along the E major scale rather than moving chords through a progression.) In his right hand solo, Tyner eventually expands the repeated C sharp into a descending perfect fifth (C#-F#), acknowledging but also innovating on Coltrane’s earlier development of the ascending 5th. He transposes this up a minor 3rd to E-A and then expands into wider intervals, including a ascending an descending major 7th. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing of the place in the transcription below where Tyner plays the ascending and descending major sevenths.
The melody of Thelonious Monk’s blues Misterioso is based entirely on ascending major and minor sixths. For most of the tune, Monk maintains perpetual motion by building ascending sixths off ascending and descending three-note major and minor scales. The last phrase is a series of ascending sixths built off the notes of an ascending five-note F major scale. This two-level ascension, ending on the unstable 7th of the dominant I chord, has the sound of a question. Monk used Misterioso not only as a ‘head’ or theme to bookend melodic improvisation on its chord progression, but also as a ‘lick’ or motive in his improvised solos, including his solos on the original recording of Straight No Chaser (another of his blues compositions that focuses resolutely on a single melodic concept) and a live 1963 version of Misterioso. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timings in either of these Monk recordings where Monk quotes the melody of Misterioso in his improvised solo.
An example of taking Misterioso to the innovate level can be found in Fred Hersch’s solo on the tune from his recent duo version with Enrico Rava.
Other jazz standards with melodies that prominently feature the ascending major and minor sixth include Billy Strayhorn’s Take The A Train, which opens with ascending and descending major sixths in m. 1-2 that are quickly balanced with consecutive descending and ascending minor sixths in m. 6-7, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’, which builds over its first six measures to an ascending major sixth. This can be clearly heard in the version by Sonny Rollins from the album Newk’s Time, in which he performs the tune as a duet with drummer Philly Joe Jones. The ascending sixths in both these tunes have a sense of optimism which is reflected in the lyrics. In Something To Live For, Walter Van de Leur quotes Strayhorn explaining that the tune’s lyrics – ‘You must take the A Train to get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem’ – celebrate a subway line that had recently been constructed around the time of the tune’s composition. Although many vocal versions of ‘A Train’ substantially alter the melody, including those by Ellington singers Joya Sherill and Betty Roche, the version by Ella Fitzgerald with the Ellington Orchestra stays closest to the melody as published and instrumentally played (as usual and as with her versions of many tunes, Fitzgerald is dependably faithful to the composer’s intentions.) In Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics to ‘Surrey’, a turn-of-the-century cowboy named Curly enthuses to a prospective date, Laurey, about a different mode of transportation: ‘Ducks and chicks and geese better hurry / when I take you out in the Surrey / When I take you out in the Surrey With The Fringe On Top’.
The disappointment felt by the speaker in the lyrics to the 1929 song ‘Mean To Me’ (‘Mean To Me / why must you be Mean To Me / gee, honey, it seems to me / you always leave me cryin’) is reflected in the repeated descending sixths of Fred E. Ahlert’s melody.
Ahlert’s descending sixths achieve the same effect as the signature descending tritone that punctuated the depressing punchlines of Rachel Dratch’s character Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live. Ella Fitzgerald had an interesting history with ‘Mean To Me’ that seems to have begun in 1958 when she quoted an altered version of it as part of her solo on ‘St. Louis Blues’ from Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert. The quotation appears in the ninth chorus of her solo, which begins with a quote from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’. In the ‘Mean To Me’ quotation Fitzgerald transposes the lower notes of Ahlert’s descending sixths up a diatonic third so that the descending sixths becomes descending fourths. Although it can be challenging to hear an echo of the original in Fitzgerald’s altered quote, Fitzgerald scholar Katchie Cartwright still identifies it as a Mean To Me quote in her article ” ‘Guess These People Wonder What I’m Singing’: Quotation and Reference In Ella’s Fitzgerald’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ “. To use Clark Terry’s term, Fitzgerald seems to have started her relationship with this tune in the ‘innovate’ stage.
One could say that Fitzgerald’s ‘assimilate’ stage with Mean To Me came during her iconic version of How High The Moon from the 1960 album Ella In Berlin. Fitzgerald’s 1960 solo reprises the three choruses of solo from her 1947 version, revises some of that material, and adds five more choruses as well as an extensive coda. One of the 1960 revisions is a phrase in the third chorus where she begins by quoting Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm as she did in the 1947 solo. In the earlier version this phrase stays well within the scope of four measures, but in the more athletic 1960 version, Fitzgerald continues this phrase past the fourth bar, ending with what is arguably a three-note quote of Mean To Me. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can identify the timing in the videos when either of these Mean To Me quotes appear (they are shortly after the timestamp to which the links lead).
One might say Fitzgerald reached the ’emulate’ stage with ‘Mean To Me’ when she made her first recorded version of the entire tune on Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson Riddle in 1961. On this version, she incorporates first the original form of the melody she briefly quotes in the 1960 How High The Moon, and shortly after, the alteration from her St. Louis Blues solo. While the musician’s axiom ‘fake it ’til you make it’ aptly describes Fitzgerald’s famous forgetting of the lyrics to Mack the Knife during her Berlin concert, which became one of her best-known and best-loved recordings, it would rarely if ever apply to her treatment of melodies, as she routinely learned melodies with great accuracy and based her variations on knowledge of the original, rather than improvising out of a need to fill in missing information. Her history with ‘Mean To Me’, on the other hand, might be summarized with a variation on that axiom: ‘quote it ’til you own it’.
Like Hanna, Emmet Cohen seems to have a limitless amount of jazz history at his fingertips. A recent concert he played on the UVM Lane Series featured tunes by Jerome Kern (‘Nobody Else But Me’), Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith (‘Finger Buster’), Arlen and Harburg (‘Over The Rainbow’), Vincent Youmans (‘Tea for Two’), Horace Silver (‘The Back Beat’), Ray Noble (‘Cherokee’), an original rag from his latest album (‘Spillin’ The Tea’), and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ (in honor of the master composer and saxophonist’s passing.) The concert concluded with an encore of Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll’ which Cohen and his trio mates, Philip Norris on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, put through a mind-bending series of rhythmic transformations. Although the tune list was weighted toward the earlier half of the twentieth century, Cohen’s playing showed a deep awareness of the vocabulary of pianists from the latter half of the century, including Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner.
Cohen’s solo on Lovano’s B-flat blues ‘Big Ben’ is simply swingin’. It has a masterful balance of motion and rest as well as a balance of rhythmically pushing forward and laying back. Here’s my transcription of his first two choruses, starting from the pickup phrase at :16 in the video, followed by some analysis:
His first chorus (m. 3-14), like the first chorus of Wynton Kelly’s first solo on Pfrancing, has three short, simple and cleanly articulated melodic phrases, each punctuated by chordal comping. (Harry Woodward’s transcription of the Pfrancing solo can be seen in my post Leading With The Left.) Cohen’s first phrase is a seven-note quote from Kaper, Juhrmann and Kahn’s ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’, in which the melodic rhythm of the phrase is shaped to match the deep swing pulse provided by Poole on drums and Russell Hall on bass. Although Cohen’s reshaping of the rhythm is spontaneous, I would suggest that it is three alterations he makes to the more downbeat-oriented way the tune is often played, for instance in the wonderful version by Sonny Stitt with Bud Powell on piano, that that kicks off the solo with a swing feel well fitted to the groove of Lovano’s tune: the way he delays the start of the phrase to the third beat – immediately signaling relaxation – and lands the third and fifth notes of the quote on the ‘and’ of four. Cohen’s second phrase is reminiscent of the 1940 hit ‘Playmate’, a tune quoted by Oscar Peterson in a live version of C Jam Blues that has become ubiquitous on YouTube, and of Ravel’s Bolero. While these resonances may be unintentional, Cohen’s phrase, like the two melodies to which it bears a resemblance, conveys an unhurried vibe through its diatonic and easily singable nature; it also contrasts the ‘All God’s Children’ quote in being largely stepwise. Cohen concludes the first chorus with a two-handed comping phrase leading into the G7 chord, followed by a simple stepwise ascending line the main melody of which stays within the B flat major scale.
Cohen’s second chorus moves toward longer melodic phrases. It begins with a descending scalar figure that contrasts the ascent at the end of the first chorus. This is followed by a five-note phrase that recalls Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ solo, bookended by left hand chords. Cohen concludes the second chorus with a phrase that ends in a quote from Horace Silver’s ‘Doodlin’, but impressively, the quote arises organically and spontaneously out of a phrase that begins with Cohen’s own deft use of bebop language to ‘make’ the G7 change. For me, this recalls Silver’s own quote of Honeysuckle Rose on his Silver’s Serenade solo, discussed in my earlier post Conversation Pieces, Part Two.
I mention these quotes and resonances not to imply that quotation in improvised solos is an essential skill, but to note how, in a completely natural and unforced way, Cohen uses quotation as a tool to create a concise, spacious first chorus with a three-phrase approach, which is an essential skill for all jazz improvisers, and a second chorus that builds toward longer phrases, another important technique. Cohen also models throughout these two choruses what George Colligan, in an article on Horace Silver’s piano solos, calls ‘hand-to-hand conversation’. In Cohen’s solo, the dialogue occurs mostly through the right hand leaving room for the left hand to respond to its lines, or the left hand finding the room to respond; one passage in which the right hand responds to the left is at m. 19-20 (the ‘Koko’ quote). This dialogic approach leads to some of the more concise and economical playing that I’ve heard by Cohen, who is known for thrilling virtuosity. Cohen’s left hand comping is every bit as historically erudite as his right hand improvising: he intersperses a preponderance of three and four note rootless voicings with one five voice shell extension (at m. 10), a smattering of two-note guide tone voicings in the second chrous and a number of single note and octave ‘answers’. Other highlights of the rest of Cohen’s solo (which I encourage anyone to transcribe and send to me as an addition to this post) include a third chorus beginning with a phrase that has become known as ‘The Lick’ due to a series of YouTube videos documenting its use by various players and a sixth chorus where Cohen uses a variation on the ‘Bird Blues’ progression that bassist Hall follows without missing a beat.
A video by jazz YouTuber Simon Fransman splices together a number of uses of the lick by Parker and his contemporaries including trumpeters Howard McGhee, who uses it on a solo from a live version of the Parker tune ‘Now’s The Time’, and Fats Navarro, who uses it on a live version of ‘Ornithology’ with Parker. Fransman also includes excerpts from solos by more recent players such as trombonist Conrad Herwig who incorporates the lick into a solo on ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Fransman’s survey also includes the 1990s rap songs ‘Jazz Thang’ by Gang Starr, which briefly samples the lick, and ‘Southern Comfort’ by Down South, which makes the lick a repeated feature of its groove. Other solos from around Parker’s time where the ‘Cool Blues’ phrase is used include the solo by saxophonist Sonny Rollins on a recording of the tune ‘Professor Bop’ by vocalist Babs Gonzales (which was the 19-year-old Rollins’ first recorded appearance) and Sammy Davis Junior’s scat solo on a duet with Ella Fitzgerald on the Gershwin tune ‘Swonderful from the Ed Sullivan Show. I encourage you to listen through one of the original recordings I have linked to in this paragraph (other than Cool Blues and Southern Comfort, where the lick is used repeatedly) and leave a comment in the comment section indicating the timing in the recording where the Cool Blues lick is used. A further question is: does the soloist use the lick more or less in its original form (i.e. as it appears in ‘Cool Blues’ and the Parker solos linked above), or if not, how many notes from the original lick does the soloist use before finding an innovation that fits the lick into its new context?
Probably the best known recording of the jazz standard Afro Blue, composed by Mongo Santamaria, is the recording by the John Coltrane quartet from Live At Birdland. In a recent recording by Wayne Wallace and Michael Spiro with La Orquestra Sinfonietta, the arrangement adds an intro to Santamaria’s tune that includes two different Toques (rhythms) and Cantos (songs) from the Cuban Santeria tradition addressed to the deity Obatala, with a piano interlude in between them. The second Canto (starting around 2:07, just after the piano interlude) includes a four-note motive that matches the opening of Afro Blue, and so seems likely to have been the inspiration for the jazz tune. The section opens with the four-note motive, but it is used once more in that section of the intro. I encourage you to listen to Coltrane’s statement of the melody to Afro Blue, which takes up about the first minute of his recording, and then see you can find the timing in the Spiro/Wallace recording where the second use of the four-note motive occurs. If you can find the timing, leave it in a comment in the comment section.
Coincidentally, the same four note phrase that Santamaria quoted in ‘Afro Blue’ also appears near the beginning of the melody in ‘My One And Only Love’, a ballad that Coltrane recorded with vocalist Johnny Hartman on an album released the year before Live at Birdland. While Coltrane and Hartman’s recording is the authoritative jazz version of the tune, partly because of the way Hartman conversationally interprets the melodic rhythm, the four note phrase that the tune has in common with Afro Blue and the Obatala chant can be heard somewhat more clearly in the recording by Paul McCartney with Diana Krall on piano, particularly in the second A section where the lyrics begin ‘the shadows fall’. I encourage you to listen once again to Coltrane’s melody statement on Afro Blue, and then see if you can find the timing and lyrics in either the Coltrane/Hartman or McCartney recordings of ‘My One And Only Love’ where the four-note Obatala/Afro Blue motive occurs in that melody.
John Scofield also briefly uses the four-note Afro Blue/Obatala motive in his solo on Herbie Hancock’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. I encourage you to listen through this interesting arrangement and leave a comment if you can find the timing in the video where Scofield uses this motive.
Having the Obatala/Afro Blue motive firmly in your ‘mind’s ear’ is a good preparation for listening to the epic and iconic solos on the Coltrane ‘Afro Blue’ by McCoy Tyner on piano and Coltrane on soprano saxophone. While Tyner’s solo follows the basic outline of the tune’s chord progression with much use of the harmonic ‘side-slipping’ (or ‘chromatic planing’) technique which Tyner pioneered, Coltrane’s solo is on ‘open F minor’, a prolonged F minor tonality enlivened by Coltrane’s melodic explorations, Tyner’s moving of chord voicings within that tonality and drummer Elvin Jones’s explosive and expansive rendering of a swing 6/8 groove.