Autumn Leaves in March

originally posted 3/18/10

My experiences of the last three weeks have brought to mind the wonderful Anthony Burgess novel ‘The Piano Players’, in which a pianist gives a marathon concert, something like two or three days, during which he sends assistants out to music stores for more scores with which he can maintain the marathon.  I began rehearsing with the Mike Gordon band on February 18th, as the UVM Theater production of Godspell, for which I served as musical director, was opening at the Royall Tyler Theater.   So I had about a week of rock band rehearsals overlapping with musical theater performances and my usual routine of jazz piano lessons and classes at UVM.  This was followed by a week and a half of my usual UVM schedule (with the inclusion of some more Godspell performances), which was followed immediately by the beginning of the Mike Gordon tour, for which the bus left on March 5th.  Other than the irreplaceable help of my wife Amber deLaurentis, and the tireless work of Mike’s ‘tech’ person Rachel Bischoff, I had no assistants, and I wasn’t ever seated at a piano for more than a five hour period, but other than that it felt like a marathon.  But it is a marathon I happily chose, and I am even happier now that there is an end in sight.

This week-long tour began in Troy, New York.  On the first leg of the bus ride, I needed a way of transitioning from the world of jazz and musical theater, where most pieces are over in 5 to 7 minutes, to the jam-band world, where songs frequently last much longer.  To help with the transition I listened to the Keith Jarrett Trio’s version of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from their recording Live at the Blue Note on my ipod.  This is a fantastic version where Keith begins with about a four minute improvisation based completely on measures 17-24 of the original tune. He takes this simple phrase through a series of wonderfully surreal melodic and harmonic transformations that always sound a bit like Hindemith to me.  After this intro, the trio launches into a traditional performance of the tune, with a head statement followed by piano and bass solos on the form and concluding with a restatement of the head.  In more traditional versions of the tune, such as the one on ‘Portrait in Jazz’ by the Bill Evans Trio (another great version), the restatement of the head (or ‘head out’) is the end of the performance.  The Jarrett trio version, however, follows the head out statement with an extended coda based on a modal vamp, much like  the Miles Davis ‘Second Quintet’ did on their version of ‘All of You’ from ‘Miles Davis in Europe’.  This type of coda allows an improviser to leave the harmonic progression behind and explore the very different challenge of improvising over a static harmony.  In the case of the Jarrett ‘Autumn Leaves’ the trio moves away from the finality of the tonic chord which ends the tune (G minor) and settles into a groove on a dominant chord built on the fourth step of the tonic minor scale (C7).  In the context of a minor key this chord has enough stability to be the basis of an extended improvisation, but having been preceded by the Gm chord, also maintains a certain instability.  Keith’s playing in this section shifts focus from melodic invention to a more rhythmically based improvising.  We often add this kind of section to tunes that we play in the Mike band, but hearing a ‘jam’ section of a Keith Jarrett arrangement made me aware that these kinds of sections are often most successful when the static harmonic space they create contrasts with a more harmonically active tune.   In our versions of Mike’s tunes ‘Sugar Shack’ and ‘Fire From A Stick’, for example, we add extended solo vamps, for guitar and keyboard solos respectively, which contrast with the more complex progressions that accompany the vocal melodies in each tune.

(Although Miles Davis’ studio albums have been part of my listening diet for a long time, it was thanks to James Harvey that I started checking out the live Miles albums My Funny Valentine and Miles Davis in Europe.  (I had the pleasure of playing piano in James’ early-twentieth-century ensemble Garuda, in which James, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and composer who happens to come from Vermont, was the drummer and wrote most of the charts.)  In addition to listening to those recordings and checking out Bill Dobbins’ transcriptions of Herbie Hancock’s solos on them, it was reading an article by Luca Bragliani that woke me up to the way in which the Second Quintet’s approach to standards formed a bridge to the more open, vamp-based music of ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’.)

After a sold-out show in Troy with a wonderfully responsive audience, the Mike band moved on to New Haven, Connecticut, where we played at a club called ‘Toad’s Place’ which is right in the middle of the Yale campus.  Having twice done a Cole Porter revue (‘Cole!’) which follows the outline of his biography, including his years as a Yale student, I was thinking a lot about him when we were in this campus.  This may have had something to do with my decision later in the week to transcribe the Jarrett solo on Porter’s tune ‘All of You’.  From New Haven we moved on to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and then to Baltimore, MD.  In other musical side stories, I visited the Eubie Blake Center in Baltimore ( It was closed the day I visited, but after visiting a few of Baltimore’s many war monuments I was glad to be able to visit a monument to a composer and pianist.  Among Eubie Blake’s many great tunes is ‘Memories of You’, which I often play on solo gigs and which has been a staple of my Group Jazz Piano class for a while.

At one point on the fall ‘09 tour we learned an Allman Brothers tune called ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’.  As with a number of our cover tunes, we learned it as a tune we could play with the opening act, which at that point was the singer/songwriter/guitarist Reid Genauer, currently with the band Assembly of Dust but formerly of the band Strangefolk, another jam band with roots at UVM.  We only played this tune once on the tour, but it stuck in my head, and I began to think of recasting a tune of my own, ‘Be Good And You’ll Be Lonely’, in the style of the Allman Brothers tune.  The lyrics of the tune, although they’re written in the voice of an early twentieth-century outlaw, could be described as an extended reflection on the quote often attributed to Stravinsky: ‘immature artists borrow, mature artists steal’.

I didn’t think much more about the idea until the first day of rehearsals, which Mike decided to run as a creative day rather than a day of performance-centered rehearsing.  In addition to doing a number of the listening exercises which Phish often uses in their rehearsals, Mike had us sit down on the floor and do a guided meditation exercise.  During this he had us take a minute to become aware of our breathing, and then asked us to imagine beginning a performance in a great venue with a supportive crowd.  We were asked to imagine playing music that we felt fulfilled the potential of the band and really connected to the audience.  After this came a big challenge: Mike asked us to lead the band and create something like the music we had heard in our minds.  One of the jams resulting from this exercise, led by Craig Myers, was later titled ‘Birth of the Universe’ and was posted on Mike’s website.

I was particularly struck by the jam that was led by Scott Murawski, which was based on a 7/4 groove in a ballad feel.  As we played this, and later listened back to a recording of it, it occurred to me that it might be a worthwhile experiment to try fit the lyrics of ‘Be Good And You’ll Be Lonely’ to this new time signature.  We experimented with this fusion of Scott’s groove and my lyrics a bit more during the week of rehearsing.  Although it was actually one of the last tunes we rehearsed, we were not finished learning it when we left rehearsal.  As is often the case in the environment Mike fosters, I was more aware of the potential of the unfinished work, rather than being discouraged that it wasn’t finished.  Mike suggested that we try adding  a section to the song where a line from the song other than the title would get repeated and turned into a round.  (This kind of section has showed up in a number of Phish tunes, including ‘Bouncing Round the Room’ and ‘Backwards Down the Number Line’.)   We experimented a bit with this in rehearsal, but I continued the experimenting on a demo that I recorded of the song on my own after the rehearsal week.

On the demo, I added the round, based on the last lyric of the song (‘it sure pays good to be a little bad sometimes’).  I also added an intro with an instrumental melodic ‘hook’ and a line that leads from the solo/jam section back into the bridge, in both cases using the bebop concept of placing non-chord tones on upbeats.  (The concept of non-chord tones on upbeats, which I associate with bebop and Barry Harris, can also be heard in the melodic ‘hook’ of Mike’s song ‘Sugar Shack’, from the current Phish album Joy.)  The line leading back into the bridge was based on a lick I learned from an organ part on Mike’s tune ‘Voices’, and which I’ve come to think of as the ‘Page McConnell lick’ (after the Phish keyboardist who played it on Mike’s album ‘The Green Sparrow’).  The McConnell lick is a good example of a line that does a good job of making a repeated section different on its later appearances, and of a line that effectively overlaps and connects two sections (in the case of Mike’s tune, the McConnell lick connects the verse and the chorus).  The idea of using a line like this to transition from a solo section back into a bridge comes from a lick Scott Murawski and I play in unison at the end of his solo on Mike’s tune ‘Pretend’, and which I’ll call the ‘Murawski lick’.  (My habit of naming licks after players, by the way, is not at all meant to suggest that their style can be boiled down into a few notes.  When I play with or listen to someone for long enough, I always end up studying their melodic vocabulary, consciously or unconsciously, and sometimes this process results in one of their licks making its way into my own improvising vocabulary.   Although this may seem like heavy intellectual activity, it is really no different than the process by which catch phrases ‘ ‘where’s the beef’ in the 80’s, ‘don’t go there’ in the 90’s, etc. ‘ make their way into the speech of everyday people.)

When I was initially getting ready to play with Mike, I spent some time studying the playing of players such as Professor Longhair,
Chuck Leavell,  Bill Payne of Little Feat, and Mark Mercier of Max Creek; however, having primarily a jazz player for so long, I naturally gravitate back toward jazz in the search for new inspiration in my playing.  This tour I have been practicing the Monk tune ‘Epistrophy’, which for me right now is more of an etude than a vehicle for improvising.  While it has the traditional 32 bar length, the phrase structure can be thought of as A(m 1-4), B (m 5-8), B (m. 9-12), A (m. 13-16), followed by an eight bar bridge and a repetition of the B and A sections.  Having played so many AABA tunes where the A sections are almost identical, I begin to think of it as an AABA form where the second A reverses the two phrases of the first A.  In any case, just playing the 32 bar head is a useful concentration exercise, as is improvising over the form.

The first five notes in the bridge of ‘Epistrophy’ employ a scale which is very useful for a number of purposes but which (like the diminished/octatonic/symmetric scale) has more than one name.  Before I get into its various titles, here is the scale as used in the Monk bridge: C#,D#,F#,G#,A.  This can be thought of as the so-called ‘blues scale’ minus one note, but it is also identified in Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book as both the ‘in-sen scale’ (as it is named in Japanese music) and the ‘minor 6th scale’.  This scale also turns up in a Keith Jarrett solo on the Cole Porter tune ‘All of You’ (from a 1985 live trio recording) which I have been transcribing as part of my practice on the tour.

Keith Jarrett Trio – All of You

This solo (which follows a head statement and one-chorus bass solo by Gary Peacock) brings to mind the Schoenberg quote that ‘there is still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C major’, as it makes a beautiful opening statement out of nothing more than an E flat harmonic minor scale.  Jarrett stretches the scale over the first eight measures of the form.  This is followed by eight measures of descending, but less scalar motion.  In m. 17-24 are a model of effective, indeed gorgeous, use of repetition; Jarrett decorates a repeated Bb by approaching it with both ascending and descending phrases and ‘surrounding’ it with its upper and lower neighbors.   (If I knew all my neighbors in Essex Junction as well as Jarrett knows the neighbors of this B flat, I’d feel a lot safer.)

To my ear, Jarrett’s main scale throughout the first chorus is E flat major, with non-scale tones – C flat in particular – being used as passing tones (through their placement on eighth-note upbeats – the ‘ands’ – or quarter note upbeats, i.e. beats two and four.)  In the second chorus Jarrett begins to place the C flat more often on beats one and three, which makes it more prominent and gives it the sound of a scale tone rather than a passing tone.  Sure enough, by the second half of the second chorus, Jarrett is using the in-sen/minor 6th scale.  He uses it only briefly, but repeated listenings to the recording of this passage helped me decipher at least one of his many famous mid-solo vocal noises: after his first descent of the new scale, he can be heard exclaiming ‘oh!’ (with the inflection sounding like ‘aha!’), and immediately after he unleashes a shrewd re-use of the lick, compressing the same lick into half the time, AND making the C flat land on the first beat, sustaining for the moment its status as a scale tone.

This solo is among a number of solos that were crucial to my development as an improviser.  When I first sought out knowledge about how to improvise, through lessons with local keyboardist Chuck Eller, playing in my high school jazz band, and playing in a fledgling small combo, I learned a lot of different chords and scales, and a few licks.  I approached improvising then just as awkwardly and earnestly as I approach cooking now: when it was my turn, I threw in everything I thought was needed and hoped for the best.  As is often the case with beginning improvisers, this resulted in solos that had many notes but no understanding of ‘less is more’.  (As recently as six or seven years ago I can recall one of my frequent collaborators, bassist Ellen Powell – coincidentally someone with whom Mike studied at one point – saying, ‘Tom, if I could only pay you by the note…”) Solos like Jarrett’s on ‘All of You’, which I first learned  about sixteen years ago, were an important reminder that, with musical improvisation as much as with cooking, once you’ve ‘done your shopping’ (or learned your scales, chords, etc.), the creation of a beautiful product has so much to do with restraint.  (Or as my wife said about a recent cooking experiment, ‘sometimes even the simplest combinations can have the most complexity’.)  Some other models of improvisational restraint that have been important to me are Sonny Rollins’ solo on ‘St. Thomas’ from Saxophone Colossus (the beginning of which is based on a two note motive), Thelonious Monk’s solo on ‘Bags Groove’ from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (another solo built from a two note motive) and Charlie Rouse’s solo on the Monk tune Ugly Beauty from the late sixties album Underground  (in which he takes the concept of recycling a lick further than Jarrett in his All of You solo, returning to the same six-note motive multiple times, each time making it wonderfully different).  Another great use of space is in Eddie Harris’ solo on ‘You Got It In Your Soulness’ from the album Swiss Movement.

All these models remain crucially important to me as I play in this band.  With the instrumentation we have (a percussionist as well as a drummer, and a guitarist and bassist who frequently use electronic processing to expand the tone possibilities of their instruments), it is natural for the texture to get quite ‘busy’, and a lot of rehearsal time is spent trying to pinpoint the places where we need to ‘sparse out’, as Mike says.  Just as the band as a whole has to make a very conscious effort when we want our sound to be sparse, it is a challenge for me as a soloist to avoid responding to the percolating and multi-layered sound of the band with a blast of melodic busy-ness.  Frequently when it’s time for me to improvise a solo, I try to summon the spirit of concision and clarity that I find in solos like those I’ve listed above in hopes I can ‘say what I need to say, say it well, and shut up’ (as my eighth grade English teacher used to put it.)  Every once in a while – if I’m lucky, once or twice in each show –  I feel I’m getting a bit closer to this goal.  One of the places I felt like I managed to sing through the keyboard, rather than letting my fingers do the walking, was in the solo I took on ‘Andelman’s Yard’ at Toad’s Place in New Haven.


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