Month: April 2016

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.

Independence and Improvising

Independence and Improvising

Today I’m returning to some ideas from this piece. I look at how the ability to play two or more different parts at the same time, known as independence, might help with jazz soloing. My overall theme is the gestural side of improvisation – the movements we make on our instruments.

This is kind of opposed to the common harmonic/melodic idea of soloing which could be paraphrased as “consciously select notes to create new melodies that you can imagine singing.” The gestural approach is instead about letting your hands choose the notes for you.

This is fraught with the danger of playing stuff you didn’t mean to, as most students know too well. Why even investigate it?

Musical motion is, first and foremost, audible human motion.

Many sophisticated musical concepts develop as an extension of physical activities, such as walking, strumming, hitting, cutting, scratching […].

Those are some awesome quotes from Vijay Iyer’s “Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation”. They suggest that how musicians move around their instrument is a lot of what we enjoy in the African-American traditions of improvising.

For example, check out Jimmie Vaughan’s on a slow blues by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. (Vaughan and his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan immersed themselves in Dallas’ black music scene from their early teens. I think it shows in their music.)

I love the faint off-mic vocalisations that answer the solo at 0:03, 0:17 and 0:43 – someone was digging it!

Vaughan’s note choices are unremarkable. He expresses himself via time feel and a sophisticated repertoire of hand movements: bends, hesitations, vibrato, etc. His touch is phenomenal, for instance, the unexpectedly soft and gentle notes deftly placed in the middle of phrases at 0:07 and 0:11. (A tenderness befitting a track called “Full-Time Lover”. Check out the live versions on Youtube.)

Let’s move onto some jazz. Charlie Parker used much more sophisticated harmony than a blues guitarist. But I believe he similarly formed his improvisations by chaining together gestures – not guitar bends and pull-offs, but small cells, arpeggios and mordents. As we’ll see in his solo on “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”.

Solo Extract.png
Example of cell in bar 3, filling out the phrase and voice-leading smoothly

The harmony implied by this cell is the negative dominant resolution IV- to VI-, occurring 2 beats later (i.e. displaced) from where it would typically happen in a “Parker Blues” progression. But more important than the harmonic side, is the melodic strength and the effortlessly smooth insertion into a long fluid line.

My way of practising towards this gestural playing is to count the beats in the bar aloud as I play.

As I mentioned in my other post, this feels like untangling the melody from the lingual part of the mind. Anything not fully internalised will disturb the count, revealing how well you’ve learnt something.

This video shows a work in progress; the tempo is a good deal slower than Parker’s and I haven’t got Parker’s microtiming. This is a serious omission because his laid-back feel is a massive part of his artistry. But I’m still working towards being able to lay back while counting. The tendency is for the count to drag along with the notes.

This reminds me of a general question. When laying back consistently, should your foot tap the original pulse ahead of the laid-back playing? My current philosophy, considering drummers’ and pianists’ ability to have different microtiming in different limbs, is that it should. What do you think?

I want to have a quick look at some of the ways Parker uses those cells I mentioned. I think I’ll write a post about it after I study it properly.

In his head melody, solo, and in the head melody of “Blues For Alice”, Parker uses a 1 2 4 5 cell in bar 5 or 6 of the blues form – in each case, it resolves to a strong b3 tone.


Examples 2.png
1st two examples from “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, 3rd from “Blues For Alice” (transposed to C)

This resolution shows that the cell has a powerful inherent directionality – it wants to go somewhere. The idea of knitting together a solo from rhythmic elaborations of these elementally simple and strong melodies, is beautiful to me. Other examples are: 1 2 3 4; #1 2 3 4; 2 3 4 5; and major seventh and minor seventh arpeggios.

Parker’s use of cells means there is subtle re-use of material from the head in his solo. In his second and last chorus, he starts a chromatic descent with 4 3, the signature notes of the melody’s first phrase. Bar 8 in the solos and head uses the cell 2 3 4 5. And the distinctive blues scale finish to the head melody is reflected in two strong affirmations of the tonic in the last two bars of both solo choruses.

Let’s move on to something I didn’t tackle in my last article on independence: improvising!

There are a few cool things that emerge from applying the counting exercise to improv. For one, it forces phrases not only to interact with the beat at all times, but particularly to finish with a strongly defined rhythm.

Secondly, the only way to avoid tripping up the count is to chain together familiar shapes. If I start thinking of particular notes or rhythmic details, I lose it. But thinking strictly in shapes (that have a set melody and rhythm) allows the imagination to make choices instantly about what sound to go for, opening up possibilities for forward planning and complex composite phrases. I suspect that high-level jazz players might have something like this in their heads when they play, and be able to sustain it without interruptions.

In this little solo, I try to use this internalised shape (taken from Parker’s 2nd solo chorus), which, if I didn’t have it in muscle memory, would certainly trip me up:

Solo Lick

Gesture-based playing can sound quite annoying, i.e. when someone busts the same lick for the third time that didn’t sound appropriate the first time. This is the danger I talked about at the start of the post. But I now believe the gestural approach is not the problem (because many of the greatest jazz players obviously made use of it). It’s the lack of awareness: not knowing what licks you use repeatedly or not checking that it’s actually an attractive melody.

Thanks for reading!

Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta’s take on independence


Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

I got into the 1956 album Duke Ellington At Newport while studying for my master’s last year. It’s a standout piece of work from one of the greats of 20th century music, but what seduced me about it were a few particular things – all kind of related to each other.

First up, it swings ferociously. Secondly, it’s a feast of colourful approaches to jazz-blues harmony and melody, avoiding typical bop techniques such as extended II V progressions. Lastly, and this is what I’ll talk about today, Ellington made great use of riffs that answer and stack onto each other in a funky way.

I call it “interlocking” when two syncopated rhythms are played together, so that notes from one phrase surround notes from the other, or hit at the same time. This sound, of two rhythms weaving in and out of each other, reminds me of moving parts of a machine intermeshing.

(Not that Ellington’s music is in any way mechanical. Did you know he used to tell his drummers to play with “more sex”? Read more great quotes in Ethan Iverson’s excellent post.)

One practical application for any of these riffs, by the way, is small band comping. Few things heat up a jazz blues more than holding down a classic riff behind a solo.

For any readers with a non-jazz musical background…. I’m using “riff” with a slightly different meaning to a typical rock riff that shifts around with the chord changes. These jazz-blues riffs tend to stay fixed in the key of the piece even while the chords change beneath them, repeating 3 or 6 times in the 12-bar form with little or no change.

Okay, let’s investigate this “interlocking” thing.

Newport 0 52 Pno & Clarinet
Interlocking piano (bottom staff) and clarinet (top) riffs from “Festival Junction” off Duke Ellington At Newport

At 0:52 in the album’s first track, “Festival Junction”, a piano riff interlocks with a clarinet riff. Each has a strong identity. The 2-bar piano riff (which actually does follow the chords like a rock riff) is minimalist, three 8th notes descending two fifths, repeated three beats later. The clarinet riff lasts 4 bars, with a distinctive rhythmic shape and colourful chromatic notes, a high 9th tone, and blues b3rd ending. These interlocking riffs have a strong feeling of call and response. Both riffs have a first phrase and an answering phrase, and the piano line sounds like it’s answering each of the clarinet phrases. But that’s not the whole story. The instruments don’t just answer each other. Instead, there are varied linkages between the two parts: notes an 8th note apart, notes that are together, and notes in one part fitting between notes in the other part.

Pno Clarinet Techniques
Different ways the riffs lock together

There’s a particular funkiness in having accented notes in different parts close against each other. It pushes the musicians to accurately feel the same subdivision and microtiming. I first noticed this technique in the vocal parts in George Clinton’s “Give Up The Funk”. Check how the “we” of “Aw we” at 0:37 comes in a 16th before every other part including the main vocal.

The 2nd pair of interlocking riffs I’ll look at is 2:02. The saxes are playing a beefed up version of what was the clarinet riff. (Unfortunately, my knowledge of arranging isn’t enough to properly transcribe what’s happening – this is an incomplete sketch.) Against this, the brass plays a really funky answering line with bluesy Gbs on top.

Newport 2 02 Sax & Brass.png
Saxes on bottom staff, brass top

I really enjoy the gesture of taking the familiar (clarinet) line and kicking it up against a new riff, as if to see how it fares. For me, this is an emotion common to all groove music: unleashing a groove or element of a groove. A classic example is the hip hop snare drop. Techno also uses this feeling when a new element enters a minimal, repetitive groove. The meaning of all these gestures, for me, is something along the lines of “take that!”

What’s beautiful about how these riffs interlock, is all the ways the starts and endings of phrases relate to the opposing phrase. The sax line starts on the downbeat, one beat after the horns finish. The horn line starts an eighth note after the ending of the saxes’ first phrase, seeming to grow out of it. The saxes re-enter on a strong accent in the middle of the opposing phrase (on the and of 2), and then the horns *stop* on a strong accent in the saxes’ phrase (beat 4)! And then the horns fill out the last bar to connect us to the top of the whole shape.

Sax & Brass Techniques.png
Interrelated starts and endings of phrases

These rhythms, by the way, use the same syncopation techniques I wrote out about in this article. Check out the 2:3 clave and the groups of 3 discernible in our current example. My point is, these interlocking riffs are using normal, bread-and-butter syncopations.

Groups of 3 & Clave
Groups of 3 and a 2:3 son clave

Okay, so this album quickly goes from “beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe” to “way beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe”. But here’s a (very, very) rough sketch of a 3rd interlocking which also uses groups of 3. Very distinctively, in fact. Unlike the previous riffs, this is a transition and doesn’t loop. It happens at 38:40.

Newport 38 40 Groups of 3
Baritone sax on bottom staff, rest of horns above



The interlocking in bars 3-4 is on one hand, simpler than we’ve had before, because there are no overlaps, just a 3/8 cycle of two high notes and one bass note.

However, this effect is also more exotic and in-your-face than the other riffs – there’s no escaping those groups of 3 played by the entire band. It’s a strong gesture, and the note choices are gestural too: a descending line, an ascending line, and a static bassline. (Sorry about my lack of instrumentation knowledge!)

There is no end to what could be learnt from this album alone, but that’s all I can do today. Hopefully I can revisit Ellington’s music soon. If you want to read more about him, how about Darcy James Argue’s piece or Ethan Iverson’s?

Please share this post and feel free to write a comment! Let me know if I’ve mis-heard anything in the transcriptions, or if you’ve any thought on how to develop these ideas for writing or improvising. I also like feedback from the non-musicians in the house!

Blue Monk

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:


… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.


(That’s from this cool site…

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png