Mr. P.C.

I  transcribed this oft-played track because I was curious what notes bassist Paul Chambers plays over the long stretches of minor chords. I also wondered what he played under the rhythm section hits in the statements of the melody. I was in for a few surprises on this one! Let the analysis begin…

(You can read my transcription here.)

“Mr. P.C.” is a super common jam session tune, and in jams I’ve always heard bass players double the C Bb C hook from the melody. In this original recording, we definitely hear the piano emphasise these hits, with C- G- C- triads as correctly indicated in the New Real Book 2 chart (bars 3, 7, 11).

Real Book 2 Cropped
The commonly-used NRB2 chart

But Chambers doesn’t play the rhythm or chords – instead he walks, ending up with an Eb or an A underneath the melody’s Bb. (In fact, he walks steady quarter notes for the entire 7 minutes of the tune – no syncopations until the ending phrase. There’s a relentlessness that I admire in that musical decision.)

The presentation of the head melody at the start of Mr. P.C., played by Coltrane and Chambers (piano and drums not transcribed). Note Chambers ignoring the hits in bars 3, 7, 15 and 19.

One thing that stuck out was the harmony Chambers implies with his lines. In bar 2 of every 12-bar chorus, he outlines a fast IV- V7 or II-7b5 V7 (same thing with different root note) progression. Tommy Flanagan generally plays at least the V7 of that progression also.

So, whatever about what people play in jam sessions today, the basic chord progression implied by bass and piano in the original recording is like:

This still isn’t what the piano actually plays – Tommy Flanagan keeps up a stream of comping stabs with voice movement at the twice-a-bar rate, in the syncopated rhythmic shapes which Ethan Iverson has called “clave sentences” (referring I suppose to their dynamic balance and their ability to close off/demarcate phrases), which is the standard bop/post-bop piano sound of course.

So, the chords in the chart represent how musicians would describe the tune to each other in words, even though that description only a skeleton for the idiomatically correct performance (which involves those denser, improvised chord movements). The skeletal chord progression is what Vijay Iyer would call, quoting Paul Gilroy, a “radically unfinished form”, requiring improvisation to become complete in the moment of performance.

Anyway, I’m all out of piano knowledge, so back to Chambers’ bass-playing. Continuing a trend towards strictness and simplicity, his V7 chords are typically outlined with an unaltered triad or with this distinctive shape and its variation:

V7 Lines.png
Chambers doesn’t use altered tones on his V7 chords (even though Flanagan freely uses a #5 alteration). Chambers also doesn’t use the tritone substitution of the V7 – there are almost no Dbs in his whole performance (and those that occur are an idiomatic descent from IV-, not dominant cadences). Finally, he almost never doubles up his quarter notes, i.e. playing a tone twice in a row.

Paul Chambers is renowned to this day for his sense of swing. The jazz critic Martin Williams once wrote that “a handy explanation of ‘swing’ might be ‘any two successive notes played by Paul Chambers’. One aspect of this, which was pointed out to us in my undergrad days by bassist and educator Ronan Guilfoyle, is that Chambers often plays ahead of the beat. In Mr. P.C. this extends to actually pushing the tempo after John Coltrane’s solo finishes at 3:20. I think this was to compensate for two things: the tempo had sagged a little, and also the exit of the sax caused a drop in intensity.

This transcription (which you can read in full here) reminded me that formal exactness isn’t generally what makes improvised music great – what works in the moment and in the social reality of the band is just as important. For example Chambers’ F note in bar 85 (at the top of the form) is an odd choice, unless we note that Coltrane was wailing on an F note at that moment (1:18) and Chambers was reacting to it.

Another thing that the Williams quote indirectly points towards: “any two successive notes” in Chambers’ lines are never just “any two” notes, but follow a flawless sense of harmonic function, melody, and directionality/momentum.

The melody of the line is smooth and melodic and catchy. There’s controlled chromaticism with clear targets. (The area between the C above the staff and the F above that, in this and other performances I’ve checked out, receives quite a bit of wandering chromaticism on the G string, but I think this is a conscious tension-creating effect that perhaps exploits a potential for melodic connection with the soloist when in the bass’ medium-high register.) The technique of having the same note on beat 1 and beat 4 is often used to provide propulsion (because it makes explicit the tendency for stepwise movement of successive “beat 1s”) and gentle syncopation (it functions as a perceptual accent of beats 1 and 4). Maintaining a direction of movement is privileged, without compromising on the need for chord tones on the strong beats 1 and 3. Inversions are used to maintain smoothness. (Although deeper use of inversions is found in Chambers’ major-key performances that go through more chords and circle-of-fifths movement).

Pretty importantly, the use of that V7 chord in bar 2 of each chorus keeps things very grounded. Out of 32 choruses where bar 3 is played by the bass (leaving out 4 choruses where he stops for drum trades), Chambers plays a C root 25 times (otherwise an Eb) on beat 1 of the bar. So, the question I started out with, what does Chambers play on long stretches of minor chords, will have to wait till I finish my transcription of “So What”, the tune Chambers wrote specifically to feature long minor chords. “Mr. P.C.”, as originally played, instead uses basic cadences spelled out quite strictly, to maintain momentum bar-by-bar.

I once wrote in my practice diary about “this weird feeling that Paul Chambers is playing blues on his bass all the time, with intonation, chromatic circling, and repeated ideas.” Of course, this song is itself a blues number, but that feeling for me exudes from all of Chambers’ performances. I would describe it as a dank, slippery, urgent quality. It’s a kind of hidden blues aesthetic – the note choices are not stereotypically bluesy, but Chambers’ style feeds off aspects of blues – raw chromatic approach, chromatic fill-in patterns, and not always prioritising intonation (for example in this performance, many of the C tonic notes are flat – probably just the A string is out of tune, but if anything it fits with the feel of the performance, I think).

One thing, however, about Chambers’ playing definitely fits with an old-school or blues approach, and that is his very comfortable relationship with repetition.

A Comfortable Relationship with Repetition

The main discovery for me in this transcription was how much Chambers repeats lines. To illustrate it, I augmented my transcription with a cheery colour-coded guide to his most-used two-bar (and one single-bar) patterns. Here goes:

Mr. P.C. 1 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 2 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 3 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 4 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 5 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 6 Labelled Walkup
These are only his most common repeated figures – there are others I haven’t mapped out. We could speculate as to reasons for this high degree of repetition:

  • the tempo is too fast be constantly thinking of new lines that still function well
  • it’s a minor key which, for acoustic reasons, is harmonically weaker and therefore restricts the use of inversion and reharmonisation
  • it might have just been Chambers’ aesthetic to “play good stuff”, a phrase I heard on the bandstand from my friend and colleague, the drummer Dominic Mullan. As I understood it, to “play good stuff” is to limit one’s desire to be expressive or showy, in favour of things that you know will be effective, thus creating headspace for groove and spiritual energy.

A couple more thoughts on repetition… it seems clear that Chambers often repeats material in two consecutive choruses, i.e. reusing what was recently under his fingers. Choruses 2 and 3, or 9 and 10 demonstrate this. Also, I think when he moves away from repetition, it’s to do with interacting with the soloist. For example, the end of Coltrane’s solo (which I think is quite clearly emotionally/dynamically telegraphed) inspires Chambers to push himself – this being after all a tune that Coltrane named in dedication to Paul Chambers – so we get the beautiful little melody of bars 204-207 (3:10), with no reused material.

Mellow Melody

Another impression I’ve picked up from studying Chambers, though it would take deeper study to really demonstrate it, is that he is strongly attuned to the soloist most of the time, and this often affects his line, for example that F tone he plays with Coltrane that I mentioned earlier. (One cool, and indeed telepathic example is the spontaneous harmonised blues lick (along with the trumpet) at 2:43 in the album version of “So What”).

Nearly time to wrap up here… some quick methodological notes on the highlighted visualisation of Chambers’ repetitions… I chose 2 bars as a minimum unit because at this fairly fast tempo I think it’s the unit that Chambers is working in conceptually. Sometimes I’ve used the highlighting for repetitions that are not exact but instead diverge somewhere… I’ve made a shorter highlight (say 7 rather than 8 beats) to acknowledge this. In all cases where I used the highlighting, I believe that an overall prototype has been reused even if one note is different.

I had a last issue to discuss, but this article is already long and has also been sitting on my hard drive for too many months. But you might like to comment regarding this question: should we as players copy P.C.’s style today? (Thanks to my pal and great bass player Damian Evans for this thought.)