Emulate, assimilate, innovate, part 2a: Ella Fitzgerald and ‘The Irish Washerwoman’

The Irish Washerwoman‘ is a lively jig melody which is either Irish or English in origin. It is often played to accompany country dances such as the one seen on the video to which I linked at the beginning of this post. Scholars who claim that this tune is English in origin point to its similarity to ‘The Dargason’, a tune that Gustav Holst used as the basis of the fourth movement from his Second Suite for Band (where he juxtaposes it contrapuntally with ‘Greensleeves’.)

The Irish Washerwoman was part of the vast vocabulary of melodic phrases that Ella Fitzgerald used to construct her solos. As it happens, Fitzgerald used this quote in three solos, each a year apart, in 1960, ’61 and ’62. Like the solos of many great improvisers, Fitzgerald’s solos were in some cases completely improvised and in other cases made up of a combination of ‘set pieces’ that were premediated to some extent and other sections that were improvised. A case in point is her legendary solo on How High The Moon from the 1960 album Ella In Berlin, in which she begins with the three scat choruses from her 1947 recording of the song and adds an additional four minutes of improvisation. Somewhere in this new material is an Irish Washerwoman quote that emerges gradually. Fitzgerald first quotes only four notes of the tune, and then sixteen bars later quotes a two-measure fragment of the tune which she immediately transposes to another key, resulting in a four-bar phrase derived from the tune. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing in the video where this longer Irish Washerwoman phrase occured.

Fitzgerald’s version of Perdido from the album Twelve Nights In Hollywood,, recorded in 1961, includes a quote of the Irish Washerwoman somewhere near the middle of her solo. Leave a comment in the comment section if you can find the timing in the video where this Irish Washerwoman quote is heard.

A third Irish Washerwoman quote is heard in Fitzgerald’s solo on her version of All of Me from the album Ella Swings Gently With Nelson. Leave a comment if you can find the timing of this quote.

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How to write a two-bar blues (featuring an original blues, ‘After Lunch’)

In ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, first recorded in July 1941 by Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra (a subset of the Duke Ellington Orchestra under a different name), Mercer Ellington uses one element clearly modeled on his father Duke Ellington’s earlier music for his band and another element which my research suggests may have been borrowed from his father’s improvisational language on the piano. ‘Things’ was written in early 1941 under great time constraints created by radio stations suddenly banning music published through ASCAP. This prevented Ellington from playing his back catalog of compositions on the radio and led him to ask Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to write the band a new ‘book’ of tunes in a very short space of time. This makes it understandable why Mercer would have used borrowed elements in composing ‘Things’. (For more on this situation and Strayhorn’s response to it, click on the tiny superscript ‘1’ at the end of this sentence.1)

In ‘Things’, aside from a short interlude, Mercer Ellington uses the blues progression, a harmonic structure that Ellington had used in many of his previous compositions, such as Creole Love Call and Diminuendo in Blue.  He also uses a melodic figure which is similar to a phrase from the Scottish bagpipe tune ‘The Campbells Are Coming ‘ that Duke Ellington quoted in at least three piano solos on recordings with his band over an eleven-year period.  These include two recordings of ‘C Jam Blues’, one in November or December of 1941 for a RCA ‘soundie’ film and a studio recording in January 1942.  In the ‘soundie’ version, Ellington uses the ‘Campbells’ quote once in his one-chorus solo, and in the studio recording he finds room in the same short space to use it twice; but all three quotations have different placements within the measure and within the blues form. While all Ellington’s uses of ‘Campbells’ are in the later part of his short intro solos on ‘C Jam’, he uses a ‘Campbells’ quote to begin a solo which is an intro to the version of ‘Take The A Train’ from the album 1952 album ‘Ellington Uptown’. It is clear that over the ten-year period between the ‘C Jam’ recordings and the ’52 ‘A Train’, Ellington was going through a process of finding different rhythmic approaches to assimilating this lick into his solos. Click on the tiny superscript ‘2’ at the end of this sentence for more info on Ellington and ‘Campbells’.2  (In my post on Red Garland, I detail what sound to me like Garland’s quotations of ‘Campbells’.)

Although all these recorded ‘Campbells’ quotes come after the first recording of ‘Things’, the fact that this phrase stayed in Duke Ellington’s improvisational vocabulary for over a decade strongly suggests that Mercer Ellington might have heard his father use it before 1941, and that he might have taken the first five notes, changed the rhythm and added one note to form the main motive of ‘Things’.  If this is not the case, Ellington’s ‘Campbells’ quotes could be an example of the son influencing the father, as the discography at Ellingtonia.com shows the Ellington band performed ‘Things’ many times between the ‘C Jam’ and ‘A Train’ recordings.   Ellington’s quotes of ‘Campbells’, in other words, could be the bandleader consciously or unconsciously saying in melodic language, ‘the more I play my son’s tune, the more it reminds me of this old Scottish melody.’ In my view, however, it is more likely that Mercer took his father’s pre-1941 (but unrecorded) uses of the ‘Campbells’ lick to the next level by innovating on it in ‘Things’.

My use of ‘innovate’ and ‘assimilate’ in the last two paragraphs is inspired by Clark Terry’s famous concept of how improvisers develop their language, ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’. I give my own definitions of these three stages in the second paragraph of my post Ellavolution. I also have a series of posts called ‘Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate’ on how improvisers and composers have engaged in this process using melodic ideas that feature specific intervals. This series can be accessed through the links in the right sidebar of the blog.

Both ‘Things’ and Rudy Stephenson’s ‘Blues On Purpose’, first recorded by the Wynton Kelly trio, share what I would call ‘dialogic phrasing’, melodic phrases that begin after the downbeat of a bar and often function as an ‘answer’ to the ‘question’ posed by the arrival of a new chord.  In ‘Blues on Purpose’, the first two beats of each two-bar phrase are occupied by a chordal comping phrase using ‘Charleston’ rhythm (i.e. a dotted quarter followed by an eighth note in swing rhythm), and the melodic phrases begin on the ‘and’ of 3 in the first bar.  The melodic phrases in ‘Things’ begins earlier, on the ‘and’ of 1, but this still leaves room for a short comping phrase, which Ellington does with single notes on the version from the 1953 trio album Piano Reflections

One can hear pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams in a similar process over a similar period of time experimenting with the phrase that eventually forms the basis of her blues ‘Koolbonga‘ from the 1964 album Black Christ of the Andes.  On her 1953 album Mary Lou Wiliams Plays In London the lick appears at the very beginning of the piano part in her blues ‘Kool Bongo‘, but continues in the bass part as the piano breaks off into chordal comping.  In her tune Carioca, recorded later the 1950s with a trio and in a very similar arrangement by the Dizzy Gillespie big band with Williams on piano in 1957, she uses the lick as a midsection.  On Black Christ in 1964, Williams returns to ‘Kool Bongo’ in the similarly titiled ‘Koolbonga’ and doubles the bassline in the piano part throughout the head statement, effectively making the bassline the melody of the tune.  Like ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’, ‘Koolbonga’ is based on a two-measure motive. 

While the head of ‘Koolbonga’ is based on minor pentatonic scales built on the roots of the I, IV and V chords in the progression, the improvising that follows the head is on a blues progression that uses dominant seventh chords. Below you will find an assignment to write a blues that ‘makes the changes’ (i.e. melodically outlines the harmony) of a dominant-seventh-based blues progression, so I ask that in following that process, you use the phrasing of ‘Koolbonga’ as a model, but not its note choice. One thing that ‘Koolbonga’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ have in common is a melody played by either the bass alone or by the bass and another instrument in unison, and that is certainly an option for the assignment.

Compose a ‘two bar blues’, in other words, a melody following the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as shown below and built from two-measure phrases like the tunes mentioned in this post. Use as your models the dominant-seventh-chord based melodic lines of ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ and the way in which ‘Koolbonga’ outlines all three of the basic I, IV and V chords in the twelve-bar ‘jazz blues’ progression below. Although the melody of ‘Things’ focuses on the major triad and the melody of ‘Blues On Purpose’ focuses on the major pentatonic scales of the I and IV chords, feel free to take one of these approaches and/or use the mixolydian/seventh scale based off of the roots of the I, IV and V. Although the melodic lines of ‘Things’ and ‘Blues On Purpose’ do not outline the V chord, your line should outline the V chord, as the melody/bassline of ‘Koolbonga’ does, however, it should do this using the major triad, major pentatonic scale, or mixolydian scale based off the root of the V chord, not the minor pentatonic as Koolbonga does. This is not an assignment in free composition but rather a both a guided compositional project and a theory exercise using the blues progression below as a vehicle. You are welcome to do a second draft of your blues where you move outside these guidelines. I think that you will find that following the limitations of this project may result in a first draft that inspires revision.

Here are the required elements of the assignment:

1) Borrow, adapt or compose a two bar motive or ‘riff’ that outlines a dominant seventh chord. One option is to borrow or adapt one of the dominant seventh chord phrases from the Glossary of Melodic Patterns based on Root Position Chords shown in the post on my tune Broken Heart for Sale.  Your phrase should fit ‘inside’ two bars, either using ‘Koolbonga’, which goes from beat 1 of the first bar to beat 4 of the second bar, or the ‘dialogic’ phrasing of ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ which begins on the ‘and’ of 1 in the first bar, and ‘Blues On Purpose’, which begins on the ‘and’ of 3 in the first bar, and.  It should also fulfill these basic elements of melody which can be heard all the example tunes given in this post:

– Instead of being limited to only stepwise or only skip/leap motion, It should have a balance of step and skip/leap motion.

– Rather than being limited to only ascending or only descending motion, it should have a balance of ascending and descending motion.

– Instead of being limited to only one note duration – i.e., only quarter notes or only eighth notes, etc.it should have a balance of longer and shorter note values.  Keep in mind that some sense of eighth-note momentum is an important component of a jazz melodic line, either through using groups of two or more eighth notes or having single eighth notes, for example,  on upbeats preceded by an eighth rest or in a dotted quarter-eighth note combination (single eighth notes on the downbeat followed by rests do not create a sense of eighth note momentum.)

2) transpose your riff so that it outlines I, IV and V chords of a blues progression in G (G7, C7 and D7).  Transpose the riff without altering its phrase length, melodic rhythm or pattern of intervals. 

3) sequence it through this basic three chord blues progression:

G7 / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

C7 / / / | / / / / | G7 / / /| / / / /|

D7 / / / | / / / / | G7 / / /| / / / /|

This will result in a tune which departs from the structure of Things Ain’t and Blues on Purpose where they have differing melodic material in m. 9-12, but follows the structure of Koolbonga.

4) Notate your tune as a single-staff lead sheet with one staff of melody in treble or bass clef, chord symbols above, and four measures in each line (as this is easier to read).

5) learn to play your line on your instrument

Here are some optional  elements of the assignment:

1) to include the ‘innovate’ stage of the ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ process, add alterations to any of the phrases after the first phrase.  Alterations to the pattern can include (but are not limited to):

– adding additional notes, as long as the line stays within the two-measure parameter (as in m. 3-4 of Things Ain’t WTUTB)

– making minor alterations to the shape (i.e. direction) of the line without changing the length of the phrase, as in m. 9-10 of Koolbonga

2) give your line ‘dialogic’ phrasing, as in Things Ain’t and Blues On Purpose (i.e. beginning the phrase somewhere after beat 1, where the bassline tends to state the root and chord instruments place the chord.  If you play a chord instrument, you can incorporate a statement of the chord on or near beat 1 of m. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 (as in Blues On Purpose).  If you are performing the tune on piano, you could notate the rhythms and voicings of the chords. 

3) change the chord in m. 9 to Am7 so that m. 9-12 form a ii-V-I as is typical in ‘jazz blues’.  A two bar phrase that outlines the V chord will generally sound good over a two-bar ii-V progression. 

My tune After Lunch resulted from following this process and is loosely based on a lick from Paul Asbell’s tune Blue Lunch from Burmese Panther, an album of his fine jazz compositions. (While ‘Blue Lunch’ doesn’t include keyboards, I play organ and piano on other tracks of the album including the title tune, ‘Ambidextrous’, ‘Chillantro’ and ‘Tore Up’.)

This blog post including footnotes copyright 2024 by Tom Cleary

  1. On January 1st, 1941, hundreds of radio stations around the country announced that they would no longer broadcast music published through ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).  This move was in protest of ASCAP having made a 100 percent increase in the royalty payments they charged to radio stations for the right to broadcast the songs they controlled.  For Duke Ellington, who performed regularly with his orchestra on the radio and for whom radio had been ‘instrumental…in gaining him fame and fortune’, this meant that as of January 1st, all the music he had written for the band since he joined ASCAP in 1935 could not be performed on the radio.  Learning of the ban on January 1st created a major crisis for Ellington and his band, as they were scheduled to play a live broadcast from the Casa Manana in Culver City, California on January 3rd.  According to Walter van de Leur in Something To Live For: the music of Billy Strayhorn, ‘in order to gain entry [to ASCAP] a writer had to have published at least five successful songs…Ellington turned to his son Mercer and Strayhorn, both of whom fell short of the ASCAP registration requirements and thus could provide music that steered clear of the ban.’ 

    Strayhorn biographer David Hadju writes that over the course of two days spent in a Chicago hotel (where they stayed behind after the band left for California) and on a train to Los Angeles, Mercer Ellington and Strayhorn composed a total of twelve charts that formed a new ‘book’ for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  While some of the music Strayhorn wrote at this time, such as ‘Chelsea Bridge’, ‘A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing’ and ‘Rain Check’, made major departures from Duke Ellington’s compositional style, at least one tune of Strayhorn’s and one of Mercer Ellington’s showed signs that the composers were building on previous successful Ellington compositions.  The melody of Strayhorn’s ‘Take The ‘A’ Train’ shows the influence of bop melodic concepts, which were not part of the Ellington band’s vocabulary at the time, but the first eight measures of Strayhorn’s chord progression uses the same essential harmonic structure that opens ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Solitude’, two iconic Ellington tunes from the period before Strayhorn joined the Ellington organization as a staff composer. (Given the breadth of Strayhorn’s musical knowledge, it seems possible that he was aware the progression of ‘A Train’ had both a likeness to the A sections of the two earlier Ellington tunes and an even greater similarity to the progression of the 1930 Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields song ‘Exactly Like You’.)
  2. The Campbells Are Coming’ has a Scottish version, which seems to have originated sometime in the 1700s, and an American fife-and-drum version which was apparently played during the Civil War by Union troops as they marched toward the battle of Gettysburg.  As all Ellington’s quotations of this tune occur during the intro sections of ‘C Jam Blues’ and ‘A Train’, his use of it to rally his ‘troops’ for the ‘battle’ of the improvised solos shows his awareness of the tune’s origin.  It seems possible that Ellington was also aware that the tune was adopted by Union troops in the Civil War, as in his own way he was a lifelong proponent of civil rights.  The lyrics to ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ by Ted Persons, written during World War II and sung by Ella Fitzgerald on her album of the same name from the 1970s, have a civil rights theme of sorts, alluding to both the mental ravages of the Jim Crow era (‘got so weary of bein’ nothin’), and the experience of finding less discrimination and more solidarity in the military than in society at large: ‘look at that Army, fightin’ to be free / it doesn’t bar me / shows me how to go with my head up / eyes ain’t lookin low, don’t feel fed up / that’s how come I see a victory / believe me, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be. ↩︎
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The Magic Number: great three-chorus solos on the ‘jazz blues’ progression, with an original tune, ‘Notes From All Over’

pictures clockwise from upper left: Wardell Gray, Annie Ross, Bobby Tucker, Hansel and Gretel, Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver

After you read this post, including the section using Freytag’s Pyramid to analyze ‘Twisted’, I encourage you to add a comment in the comment section analyzing the Horace Silver, Wynton Kelly or Bobby Tucker solos, or another improvised solo of your choice, in terms of how the solo either follows the rising action/climax/falling action structure, or reorders those stages somehow, adds other stages, or follows a different narrative structure through its melodic line and musical choices.

When I listen to an improvised solo, particularly a solo that follows a statement of a melody and uses the same chord changes as that melody, or improvise such a solo myself, I sometimes find it helpful to begin by asking, ‘why do they (or I) need to improvise?’  In other words, what is the strategy in this performance for spontaneously creating something different from the melody?  In the case of a tune like ‘Blues By Five’, discussed in an earlier blog post, the simplicity of the melody gives a soloist one goal right away: to improvise something somewhat more elaborate and less repetitive than the head.  After I’ve heard someone improvise once through the progression (or listened to myself doing the same), an important next question is ‘why take a second chorus?’  What would I as a player (or a soloist I’m listening to) like to have happen in a second chorus of solo that didn’t happen in the first chorus?  One can also ask as a listener or a player how a third chorus will contrast with the second, and so on.

A good exercise to practice which can help develop one’s own answers to these questions is to learn a three-chorus blues solo by a great jazz player.  Among the many values of this exercise are that one can incorporate phrases from the solo into one’s own vocabulary, and one can use the storytelling structure of that solo to inform an improvised solo.  (See below for more on how storytelling structure can be found and created in both verbal stories and improvised jazz solos.)  Playing a transcribed and/or improvised three-chorus solo on the twelve bar blues form is also an important exercise for aspiring improvisers as it allows them to create a performance where the amount of either previously or currently improvised material in the solo is either equal to or greater than the amount of composed material in the head (depending on how many times the head is repeated.)  It is an unwritten but important guideline that jazz performers need to be able to give this kind of performance.

The following examples show a number of ways to create a continually evolving melodic ‘story’  in a three chorus solo on the ‘jazz blues’ progression.  As the solos I discuss below demonstrate, among the ways soloists can create contrast within a three chorus solo are by gradually increasing  their use of the higher range of their instrument, by introducing new thematic material in each chorus (in two of the four solos discussed below, this is done through the use of melodic quotation), and by using contrasting playing techniques, such as single note melodic lines and double notes of various intervals. 

‘Twisted’ is a composition by tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who recorded his original version in 1949 with a distinctive three-chorus solo. In Gray’s original version, his solo was followed by a two chorus piano solo by Al Haig (which quotes Bud Powell’s Buzzy solo, discussed in an earlier post), a one chorus bass solo and another chorus of tenor before a return to the head.  ‘Twisted’ began its journey toward becoming a vocal jazz standard when vocalist Annie Ross recorded a version with her own lyrics.  In this version, Ross sings the head and the solo in Gray’s original key of Bb, followed by only one chorus of organ comping, which makes Gray’s solo as sung by Ross the sole focus of the performance.  Ross also recorded a version with the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, in which the key was changed to C and which her partners in the trio, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, added distracting interjections.

Following Ross’ success with the song, it was also covered by following generations of singers with widely varying interpretations.  Two versions were recorded in 1973: Bette Midler (with her then-music director Barry Manilow on piano) made it an overheated theater piece, and Joni Mitchell (with Cheech and Chong doing the interjections) made it a feminist statement, dialing up the coolness in Ross’s female patient responding to a fatalistic male psychologist.   Although Mitchell is more faithful than Midler to Gray’s melody line, a version by jazz singer Jane Monheit in 2000, with a stellar band led by Kenny Barron on piano, is more swinging and more faithful to Gray’s original melody line than either Midler or Mitchell.  The three versions together make ‘Twisted’ perhaps the best-known three chorus solo on the ‘jazz blues’ progression.  My own personal encounter with the tune occurred in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when I was introduced to it by Archie Shepp as a student in his improvisation class.  As filmmaker Abraham Ravett relates, Wardell Gray’s style on the saxophone had a significant influence on Shepp’s playing. I also played ‘Twisted’ on some of the first gigs I had accompanying jazz singers.

An important element in Gray’s solo on ‘Twisted’ are sizeable quotes from composed tunes and improvised solos by Charlie Parker that appeared in the years closely preceding Gray’s recording, as well as a quote from a pop song which Parker himself had quoted. The quotes make sense given that Gray played with Parker in the period preceding ‘Twisted’; he appears on the 1947 Los Angeles studio session that produced Parker’s classic tune ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’. The skillful way Gray’s Parker quotes are integrated into a melodic whole in ‘Twisted’ show that during the time he played with Parker, he was studying Parker’s melodic vocabulary in considerable detail. Please click on the tiny superscript ‘1’ at the end of this sentence to see a footnote with more detail on the many places in ‘Twisted’ where Gray quotes Parker.1

Gray’s solo is anything but a random collection of Parker quotations.  One of the ways he builds the solo is to use one of the highest notes in the solo’s tessitura, Bb5, with increasing frequency as the solo goes on.  Gray uses this note once in the first chorus, four times in the second chorus, and six times in the third chorus.  Gray also saves the solo’s highest note, C5, for the third chorus, which also contains the highest concentration of chromatic bop language.  The first two choruses, although they quote Parker, are diatonic enough that they might pass as a Lester Young solo if they were played in his characteristic tone.  The evolution of Gray’s melodic story, with its movement toward greater use of chromaticism and high notes, makes it possible for Ross’s lyrics to tell a verbal story that parallels the peaks and valleys of Gray’s musical story.  (See below where I analyze these two stories by using a literary analysis tool and making an analogy to a different story with the same structure.) 

Horace Silver’s three chorus solo on his 1955 blues Doodlin’ stays in a more limited range than Gray’s ‘Twisted’ solo, but Silver keeps his musical story moving by  introducing new motives throughout the solo.  Each chorus begins with a different two-bar riff, which always is varied in the third and fourth bars of the form rather than being repeated exactly.  The fifth and sixth measures of Silver’s second chorus contain what sounds to me like a quote of Bud Powell’s ‘Wail’.  The riff which gets developed the furthest is in the third chorus, where he plays essentially same the riff four times with variations on second, third and fourth times.  In another blog post, I describe Silver’s quoting of another Bud Powell tune in his solo on  ‘Silver’s Serenade’.  Lambert, Hendricks and Ross also recorded a vocal version of ‘Doodlin’ which added lyrics to the composed melody and Silver’s solo.  Once again, an evolving melodic story, this time built on evolving motives that stay in a more restricted range than that of ‘Twisted’, inspire an evolving lyrical story, this time about a restaurant patron who is also a compulsive cartoonist. 

Wynton Kelly’s solo on Johnny Griffin’s 1956 recording of his blues Nice And Easy includes more use of left hand comping than Silver’s solo.  Appropriately enough for an album titled ‘Introducing Johnny Griffin’, Griffin introduces himself with a dense, busy solo in which he builds great energy but gives himself little time to breathe.  By contrast, Kelly, who had recorded his first album as a leader five years prior and had also appeared on many recordings as sideman, gives his solo a relaxed opening in which right hand phrases are framed by left hand chords.  Where Griffin is ‘double timing’ or playing 16th notes by the fifth and sixth measures of his opening quotes, Kelly waits until the eighth bar of his first chorus to drop in one brief double-timed phrase. 

One way Kelly creates contrast between his choruses is to vary the amount of double timing he uses in each chorus; he uses a half-measure (two beats) of double timing in the first chorus, three measures of double timing in the second chorus, and two measures of double timing in the last chorus.  Another kind of contrast between the choruses is Kelly’s choices of playing techniques; while he improvises a single-note melodic line in his right hand for most of the first chorus, he opens the second chorus with double notes in the right hand where he elaborates a moving line with the lower voice beneath repeated notes in the top voice. 

I first became aware of Bobby Tucker through his exquisite duet with Billie Holiday on ‘I Thought About You’.  Tucker seems to have been one of those players like Ellis Larkins whose excellence as an accompanist led them to be overlooked by jazz listeners and historians in favor of pianists like Oscar Peterson who, despite being excellent accompanists, were known best for their work as a soloist and bandleader.  ‘Sweetie‘, from Tucker’s only trio album, Too Tough, recorded in 1959, is the only instrumental recordings discussed here which, like Ross’ original ‘Twisted’ and the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross ‘Doodlin’, features a single three-chorus solo as the centerpiece of the performance.  While Tucker’s solo may not be as technically accomplished as Gray’s or Kelly’s, it does follow the arc of Gray’s solo in visiting the higher end of the solo’s tessitura more and more frequently as the solo goes on.  It also contrasts a more blues-based approach in the first and third choruses with a more ‘making the changes’ bebop approach in the second chorus. 

The chord progression of ‘Sweetie’ is a variation on the progression commonly known as ‘Bird Blues’ because it appeared in a number of Parker’s compositions, the best known being Blues for Alice.  In place of the changes Parker uses in bar 7 of Blues for Alice (Am-D7), which becomes the second bar in a three-measure chain of descending half-step ii-V progressions, in bar 7 of ‘Sweetie’ Tucker uses an Ab major sixth chord, which creates a fourth complete major ii-V-I progression within the form (along with the ii-V-I progressions in D minor, Bb major and F major.) 

The structure of a performance where a three-chorus solo is framed by a head in and out, such as Sweetie or the Ross’s versions of Twisted, can be compared to Freytag’s Pyramid, a tool developed in the early 20th century by novelist and critic Gustav Freytag for analyzing story structure.  Particularly in plots of Shakespeare plays such as Romeo and Juliet and short stories like Hansel and Gretel, Freytag finds a five-part structure.  I hear both Gray’s melodic line and Ross’s lyrics in ‘Twisted’ following the pyramid structure

– exposition – an opening section of a story in which the essential situation is introduced that will lead to the action of the story.   In Hansel and Gretel, this is the section where we meet two young children who live with a father who loves them and an abusive stepmother who wants to find a way to leave them stranded in the forest so they won’t be able to return.  In ‘Twisted’, this is the ‘head in’, where Gray’s opening melody is introduced along with the chord progression that will form the basis of the solo, and Ross’s lyrics introduce her conflicts with her analyst. 

– rising action – a section where tension and/or complexity begins to build.  In Hansel and Gretel, this is the part of the story where the two children follow the father and stepmother into the forest, but secretly leave a trail of breadcrumbs in hopes it will help them return.  Although the breadcrumbs are eaten by birds, they find a gingerbread house in the woods which initially looks enticing but turns out to be inhabited by an evil witch.  In ‘Twisted’, this is Gray’s first chorus of solo where he quotes Parker’s literally rising solo opening, and where Ross begins to look back on her childhood and offer her own analysis of it. 

– climax – a section where the rising action leads to a culminating event of some kind.  In Hansel and Gretel, this is the scene where Gretel pushes the witch into the oven that the witch had planned to use to cook Hansel.  In the story, this grisly action allows Hansel and Gretel to escape the house, taking the witch’s collections of ‘pearls and precious stones’ with them.  In a jazz performance, this is where the soloist reaches the peak of the rising action in the solo, which can be a process of rising in pitch, but can also be a peak of another kind; a peak of melodic density, through the use of shorter note values, or a change of playing technique, for example from single note playing to chordal playing on a chord instrument (as in Red Garland’s solo on Traneing In), or a change from solitary, monologue-style playing to a more conversational approach, either between a pianist’s two hands (as in Wynton Kelly’s solo on Four On Six), or between two ranges of a player’s instrument or between two different instruments (as in the second half of Clark Terry’s solo on Blues for Smedley – I discuss the first half in my post Summer Comping Trip), or between two players (as in Sonny Rollins’ solo on Tenor Madness.)  The climax of the story in Ross’s lyrics is in the second chorus when she drinks ‘a fifth of vodka one night’, which leads her to develop an original idea and contradict her psychologist.  The climax of Gray’s solo occurs later, at the beginning of the third chorus, when he unleashes the solo’s longest string of recurring high notes (he plays Bb4 six times in the course of three bars.)

– falling action – a section where, following the turning point of the climax, the fate of threatened characters is reversed, and/or questions may be answered, and healing may begin.  In Hansel and Gretel, this is the children’s journey home, where they cross a body of water that initially seems impassable with the assistance of a duck.  In Gray’s solo, this is the end of his third chorus, where he descends through the series of four Parker quotes described above to the Bb3 where the solo began, and this is the place where Ross’s lyrics describe the theory inspired by her childhood precociousness: that double decker buses are unsafe ‘because they had no driver on the top’. 

– denouement / resolution – a section where the story comes of a place of fulfillment, ties up loose ends, and we may find out something about the ultimate fate of some characters.  In Hansel and Gretel, this is where the children return home, find their father still alive having survived the evil stepmother’s death, and live happily ever after.  In ‘Twisted’, this is the return to the head (or ‘head out’), where Gray returns to the composed melody with which he began, and Ross’ lyrics relate how she turns his analysis back on him (‘my analyst told me that I was right out of my head / but I said dear Doctor, I think that it’s you instead’) and concludes that what he sees as her neurosis, she sees as a superpower (‘instead of one head, I got two / and you know two heads are better than one’). 

Ross’s lyrics have more than one kind of feminist resonance.  They tell the story of a woman debating a male psychologist during psychoanalysis, a field that was still male-dominated in 1970, nearly two decades after Ross first recorded her lyrics to ‘Twisted’. In Ross’s lyrics, a woman’s experience in analysis becomes a journey of self-discovery when she takes control of her own narrative. It’s also notable that while Ross disagrees with her analyst’s diagnosis of her, he does act as a catalyst, because Ross does not dispense with the analyst during the song but rather makes her declaration of self-discovery during her conversation with him (‘but I said dear Doctor / I think that it’s you instead / ’cause I have got a thing that’s unique and new’…)

In the realm of jazz, Ross’ lyrics have also made it possible for many singers who might not have the opportunity otherwise to perform an extended improvisation. Because improvising is a pursuit that singers, and particularly female singers, have largely been excluded or discouraged from through most of jazz history, for many singers ‘Twisted’ may be the first (or even only) improvised solo that they perform.  Ella Fitzgerald’s many adventures in extended improvisation, beginning with ‘Lady Be Good’ and ‘How High The Moon’ and continuing for the rest of her long career, are notable exceptions to this unwritten restriction, and have inspired many other great female improvisers.  One example is Sarah Vaughan’s version of ‘How High’ from the album At Mister Kelly’s which directly references Fitzgerald. While a singer who is performing ‘Twisted’ is not improvising themselves, they are performing a transcription of a great improvised solo, a time-honored exercise in developing improvisational skill going back at least as far as Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Dippermouth Blues’.  (In an earlier post, I discussed how Armstrong’s solo on ‘Dippermouth’ incorporated a solo by his employer and idol Joe ‘King’ Oliver.) While ‘Twisted’ has most often been sung by female vocalists, it can also be performed convincingly by singers of other genders, as a terrific version by tenor Thomas Owens demonstrates.

The chord progression of my tune ‘Notes From All Over‘ (please click on the title to see a keyboard video of the piece) is based on Tucker’s variation on the ‘Bird Blues’ progression.  The title, which alludes to a recurring piece of marginalia in the New Yorker magazine, refers to the melody being borrowed from multiple sources, including the tune ‘I Can’t Get Started’, Elmo Hope’s ‘Later For You’, ‘I Thought About You’, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’, Miles Davis’s ‘Donna Lee’, Bud Powell’s ‘Strictly Confidential’, Clifford Brown’s solo on ‘Pent Up House’, and Horace Silver’s ‘The Jody Grind’.  A number of these phrases appear in the Glossary of Melodic Patterns based on Root Position Chords (GoMPabRoPSevCho) introduced in the post with my tune Broken Heart For Sale.  In these borrowings I’m using a technique which is used intermittently in Gray’s ‘Twisted’ solo, and almost constantly in Ella Fitzgerald’s solo on ‘Saint Louis Blues’ from ‘Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert’, which I would call ‘allusive melody’.   I follow this head with a three-chorus solo in which I attempt to demonstrate some of the concepts I’ve discussed in this post. 

  1. Gray opens his solo by quoting the opening phrase from Parker’s solos on ‘Now’s The Time’ and ‘Billie’s Bounce‘, both recorded at the same session in 1945.  This is the phrase that Ross sings on the lyrics ‘they say as a child I appeared a little bit wild’.
    He opens his second chorus with a quote from the 1944 Bing Crosby song ‘Swinging On A Star‘ (from the film ‘Going My Way’).  This is the phrase Ross sings with the lyrics ‘they say little children are supposed to sleep tight’.  (Ross’s choice to make children the subject of her lyric here suggests she’s aware the source of Gray’s quote, as ‘Swinging On A Star’ is a song sung by Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley with his parish children’s choir in the film.)   An excerpt from a live Parker solo on a Japanese website devoted to his quotes (albeit after Gray’s time with Parker) shows that this tune was also in Parker’s improvisational vocabulary.
    In the ninth and tenth bars of this chorus (which Ross sings with the lyrics ‘do you think I was crazy?/ I may have been only three..’), Gray uses an altered quote from m. 15-16 of Miles Davis’s ‘Donna Lee’ (often credited to Parker), first recorded in May 1947.  The connection to ‘Donna Lee’ makes this passage in ‘Twisted’ part of a chain of influence with four closely related links.  The measures of ‘Donna Lee’ that Gray quotes show Davis making a slightly altered quote from a passage in Fats Navarro’s January 1947 solo on ‘Ice Freezes Red’.  (Davis quotes from a number of other places in this solo as well, enough that Navarro’s solo could be called the template for Davis’ line.)  In this passage, Navarro is in turn quoting the main motive from Fats Waller’s 1929 song ‘Honeysuckle Rose’.  (As I hope to show in a future post, this was a melodic shape frequently reinvented by bop players.)  Gray’s quote of ‘Donna Lee’ inserts space into Davis’s original lick.  Navarro and Gray both use a reversal of the third and fourth notes of the ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ motive that appears in the second bar of Parker’s ‘Cool Blues’ (recorded shortly before ‘Donna Lee’ in February 1947).  (The Parker discography at jazzdisco.com shows Parker performed ‘Cool Blues’ with Navarro in 1950 and Gray in 1951.  Although both these dates are after the recording of ‘Ice Freezes Red’ and ‘Twisted’, it is possible that Navarro and Gray played it with Parker before these dates.  The seventh bar of the head to ‘Twisted’ (where Ross sings ‘I knew all along’) could be also described as a pared-down quote of the first half of the ‘Cool Blues’ riff.  

    After opening the third chorus with the longest series of high concert B flats in the solo (five in the course of two measures) and following that up with the solo’s highest note in the eighth bar of the chorus, Gray closes the third chorus with what could be described as four Parker quotes or allusions in the course of four measures.  Measure 9 (where Ross’ lyrics are ‘soldiers let them laugh at me’, misprinted as ‘soldiers used to laugh at me’ in some charts) can be heard as a paraphrase of the eight-note lick from bar 9 of Parker’s ‘Billie’s Bounce’ solo.  Measure 10 begins with the variant of the four-note ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ motive found in measure two of ‘Cool Blues’.  Measure 11 begins with the first four notes and the accompanying melodic rhythm from measure one of  ‘Cool Blues’.  The phrase that begins on the ‘and’ of 1 in m. 12 (‘there was no driver on the top’) is notated in the Sher fake book chart as a note-for-note quote of the first seven notes from Parker’s ‘Scrapple From The Apple’, and it is sung this way by Monheit, who makes it sound very natural.  In Gray’s original solo, the opening note is more ghosted, i.e. played sotto voce in the interest of swing feel, and the fourth to last note is a concert Db rather than a C. The interval Ross sings on ‘there was’ in this phrase is closer a whole step rather than a half step; still, in both cases, the reference back to Parker’s motive is clear to my ear.

    Gray was one of a number of jazz composers who anthologized Parker’s phrases in their melodic lines.  He was preceded by Benny Harris, whose tune ‘Ornithology’ (often attributed solely to Parker, but which I argue in another post is more likely Harris’s composition) was recorded by Parker in 1946.  He was followed by composers including Charles Mingus (‘Reincarnation of a Lovebird’), Freddie Hubbard (‘Birdlike’) and Steve Davis (‘Bird Lives’).  In the way the strength of his melodic ideas inspires improvisers and composers to quote and innovate on them, Parker is something like a Shakespeare of jazz.  Although there is an ongoing debate about exactly how many words and phrases Shakespeare contributed to the English language, a recent mention in The Writer’s Almanac credits him with inventing more than 3.000 words, and there are many partial lists like this one by Google Arts & Culture of phrases he is credited with originating.  There are many similar lists of Parker’s phrases, including the website charlieparkerlicks.com that will transpose the lick for you through a sequence of your choice.  A more exhaustive list is in the recent book and app Pathways to Parker, which catalogs more than 2,000 patterns (although some of the ‘patterns’ are only one or two notes). . ↩︎

this post copyright 2024 Thomas G. Cleary

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What Do You Do With Two? – Great two-chorus solos on the jazz blues progression

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

Bud Powell’s piano solo on ‘Buzzy’ with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis (B flat blues, 1947) – here is a link to the blog post that contains my transcription.

Al Haig’s piano solo on ‘Twisted’ with Wardell Gray (1949) (see my transcription of the Bud Powell ‘Buzzy’ solo and see if you can figure out what Haig borrows from Powell’s solo.)

Clifford Brown’s trumpet solo on ‘Sandu’ (1955)

Harold Land’s tenor saxophone solo on ‘Sandu’

Max Roach’s drum solo on ‘Sandu’

Betty Carter’s vocal solo on ‘Babe’s Blues’ (1958)

Thelonious Monk’s piano solo on ‘North Of The Sunset’ (1960)

Kavita Shah’s vocal solo on Interplay (the link is to my blog post on this solo) (2018)

Kenny Barron’s piano solo on ‘City Of Sounds’ with Joe Farnsworth (2021)

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‘Thin-slicing’ the blues: Kavita Shah’s solo on ‘Interplay’ (State Of The Blues, #13)

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. 

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How Red Garland’s first chorus of solo on ‘Blues By Five’ models a number of often overlooked jazz piano techniques (State of The Blues, #12)

(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. 

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Teaching philosophy, lesson rates and policies

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 Basic Adult All-In-One Course Level One, which integrates theory, technique and repertoire. With students who have some previous piano experience and are looking to get into jazz, I most often use The Real Book Volume One (6th Edition) and Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil Degreg. I also sometimes use my own compositions based on standard jazz chord progressions, 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. (Click on the titles of these tunes to see blog posts on them that include recordings and downloadable sheet music.) For students who complete Alfred Level One or those who are starting lessons with some previous experience and are interested in non-jazz repertoire, I use books including the Alfred Basic Adult All-In-One Course Book Two and the Faber and Faber Piano Adventures series. I am also open to collaborating with students on choosing repertoire for lessons. I find that one of the best motivations to practice is finding a piece that has both caught one’s ear and is a good match for one’s technique and ability level.

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 former students who are currently working pianists and piano teachers include Jacob Ungerleider, Tyler Mast, Aya Yuasa, Sammy Angstman, Wes Ruelle, and Randal Pierce. I am also proud to have former students like Jack Hanson, who studied jazz piano with me at UVM while completing an Environmental Science major and is now the executive director of Run On Climate and a currently working jazz pianist, and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who was a vocalist in one of my jazz ensembles at UVM and is now a Vermont State Senator.

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. 

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about Tom Cleary

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 Here which 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, and Burmese Panther by guitarist/composer Paul Asbell.  His work as an arranger and co-writer can be heard on deLaurentis’ solo albums Innocent Road and Hey Sadie.   He has played on recent releases including Now And Then by saxophonist and flutist Marty Fogel and the eponymous album by Saturn 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.

Read about my teaching philosophy, rates and policies for piano lessons.

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How to write a ‘one bar blues’ (featuring an original blues, ‘Barbara’s New Digs’)

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.)  Please click on the title in the last sentence to hear an audio recording of the tune.

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. While it is possible to learn the tune by ear and I encourage you to try that first, a 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!

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Sevenths reaching for the heavens (or other faraway places) (Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate part 6)

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 Cool Fugue that follows the song ‘Cool’ and the song I Have A Love which is paired with ‘A Boy Like That’. (The version of A Boy Like That/I Have A Love 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, or the lyrics in those songs, 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). 

Another major 7th sung by a character who is reaching for something is in the song ‘Pure Imagination’, sung by Gene Wilder as the title character in the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.  Although he seems at first to be a carefree Pied Piper, Wonka is also a hardworking and calculating salesman.  Leave a comment in the comment section if you can identify the place where the melody of ‘Pure Imagination’ has an ascending major 7th either by giving the timing in the video and/or mentioning the lyric(s) where the interval occurs.

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.

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