Tag: jazz

A Composing Checklist

A Composing Checklist

In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:

That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.

Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.

For example, I could:

  •  sample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
  • sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
  • improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
  • mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
  • dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)

The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).

By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!

There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.

Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:

I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!

My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.

Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:

  • Have a relaxed and open mind
  • Start with some technical practice on your instrument
  • All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
  • Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
  • Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
  • Look out for cool timbre
  • Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
  • Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
  • Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
  • Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready

It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!

I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.

Where I’m At

Where I’m At

Today I’ll report on two projects: last month’s attempt to learn a tune a day, and this month’s attempt to write a tune a day!

My secret to achieving these is flexible scope: each day I can choose to do something easy (e.g. cop the bassline for the solo in Cissy Strut) or complex (e.g. write an AAB samba tune with hits).

Someone else might prefer to do a standardised amount of work each day, but I generally achieve things by getting immersed in an activity and can’t predict how much I’ll do in that state. That’s kind of unstructured, but to compensate I have the feeling of a daily routine contributing to a larger project.

My favourite bass parts I learnt were the basslines to Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” and Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Some days I did a melody instead of a bassline.

Here are the songs I worked on:

  • In Walked Bud
  • Need Your Love So Bad
  • The Thrill Is Gone
  • Cissy Strut
  • Caravan
  • Summertime
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Nardis
  • I Feel Good
  • Wave
  • One Love
  • What Is This Thing Called Love
  • Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
  • Chameleon
  • Mist
  • I Just Want To Make Love To You
  • ‘Round Midnight
  • Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
  • In A Sentimental Mood
  • Have You Met Miss Jones
  • Like Sonny
  • Careless Whisper
  • Tonz ‘O’ Gunz (I learnt off the rap)
  • Cotton Tail
  • This I Dig Of You

I’m now 2 weeks into the next project, writing a sketch of a tune each day. As I’d hoped, I’m getting some data on what works and what doesn’t for me.

My ideal composing mindstate seems to be: getting emotionally fired up by the good qualities of what I’m making while staying clear-eyed about the bad. Excitement about the ideas gives patience to dig around inside them without getting sick of them or distracted. Awareness of problems pushes me to shape them into something better. Basically, the humility to follow your naive/wondering side plus the humility to note your failings. If that makes any sense… anyway, it’s a balancing act!

Digging inside ideas can turn into aimlessly toying with them. To avoid that I can either wait till I’m in a very creative mood, or try find some appealing structure within the music itself around which I can coalesce more material. Or, rely on genre conventions.

Suiting the tools to the task helps me a lot: sequencer, notation software, manuscript, piano, guitar, bass…?

I’m trying to stay in control of the material, i.e. not write stuff I can’t hold in my head or manipulate. This can be a frustrating limitation but I hope it’ll push me to improve my musical imagination.

My old arranging teacher in Amsterdam, Johan Plomp, always said to write 3 versions of every bit of material in your piece. Then again, the idea of this project was to write quickly so I don’t always take that time. This leaves me liable to what another composition teacher, Ronan Guilfoyle, used to say: “Needs more development”. The question of just how finished my pieces should be is one I’ll return to in a few paragraphs.

I’m only now getting back into jazz writing after over a year. In that time I became much more appreciative of good conventional harmony and melody, so I’m writing (somewhat) less gnarly stuff than before.

I also explored a bunch of concepts on this blog, all to do with physicality and interaction.

These mood-enhancing properties, like groove and timbral control, are not things you can notate. I have to find ways to provoke players into manifesting them. Some say good art needs vulnerability… I should be vulnerable to seeming ridiculous, unschooled, eccentric, or naive, in the service of achieving the ephemeral moods I’m after. (Previously, the desire to seem hip made me write overly complex music that didn’t groove.)

It’s hard. Although at the start of the month I listed out dozens of spicy ideas to use (e.g. “different instruments taking similar path at different rates” or “downbeat illusions a la “He’s The Greatest Dancer”“), I haven’t yet had the nerve. My first two weeks’ work resulted in mostly conventional jazz tunes.

Here’s where I want to return to the question of “how finished is finished”. While recognising that all of this month’s pieces will eventually need further development/arrangement, I suspect I need to start writing less finished music.

I once heard Vijay Iyer talk about a phrase from Paul Gilroy: “radically unfinished forms”. It took a few years for me to understand it. Gilroy and Iyer are talking about music where the pre-composed aspect is inadequate for performance… unless it is completed by improvisation in the moment.

This applies to most jazz, whether the pre-composed element is a cheesy show tune or a riff-based blues. (Even during the head of a jazz tune, improvisation is required in the rhythm section.) The written part is blatantly not enough. It incites improvisation by its (deeply intentional, hence “radical”) incompleteness. A solo break is the ultimate example of this aesthetic.

I believe these are the “ways to provoke players” that I should use.

However, what I only recently understood is that not only do radically unfinished forms call forth originality from the players, they call forth THE TRADITION. E.g. If you don’t have a clue how to play a blues, then the radically unfinished 2-note melody and breaks of “C-Jam Blues” will not stimulate anything special from you. If you do have an idea, that’s only because you have built a relationship with the tradition of jazz and blues.

So I want to write small pieces that, perhaps subconsciously, put players in dialogue with the tradition and each other. Provocative, allusive, appealing, pungent ingredients within a larger ritual. If I can manage it.

This requires that I’m honest about which parts of the tradition I like most, and how well I understand them. Because as I already said, I need to love what I’m writing and I also need control of it. The humility to write obvious or unfashionable stuff (as long as it sounds good to me) and humility to accept when something is not yet in my grasp.

(And I also want the music to express something personal from me.)

I’ll break off there. Alas I don’t yet have any music to post because, like I said, all these pieces will need further work. And then I have to record them. How my music should acknowledge the need for recording and distribution is something I’ve been thinking about recently… I’ll write about it soon under the theme of listening cultures. I also have a post brewing about this classic hard bop tune which I might as well link here because it exemplifies tradition plus joyful group interaction completing a radically unfinished form.

Thanks for reading!

Funky Structures

Funky Structures

The two bands I’m working with right now are both making albums this year. So I’ve been listening out for ways to structure albums. I found a lot to like in Charlie Hunter’s 2010 release, entitled Gentlemen, I Regret To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.

Because this album is modern I feel pretty bad linking to it on Youtube. If you dig it, buy it. My copy arrived last week and I instantly realised I wanted to blog about it.

The hook for today’s article is a term I made up, “funky structures”. By that I mean, ways of organising groove music on the medium or large scale (bigger than phrase or riff). Jazz/blues/hip hop/funk/techno etc. are built on cycles. Ideas of development, drama and narrative arc that suit European art music are not always the best explanations for those African-American-derived styles.

Layering is a technique familiar from techno and funk, where new elements are added predictably to a cycle. A canonical example would be Herbie Hancock’s 1973 version of Watermelon Man. The rather paradoxical thing about layering is that every new part adds to the groove, yet the groove is fully present in the initial, smallest texture. I’ll get back to that later.

How does Charle Hunter use it? Here is the order of added elements on the album’s first track:

(Charlie Hunter plays the basslines on this album on the bottom two strings of a custom 7-string guitar, but for convenience I’ll talk about the bass parts as a separate instrument.)

  • 0:00 Bass, 1-note stutter in staccato 8ths, and kick drum and high-hats.
  • 0:10 Drum fill introduces melody, snare and 8ths on hats
  • 0:31 Horns playing stabs
  • 0:41 Horns playing whole-note pads
  • 1:32 Ride cymbal
  • 1:54 Hocket-type texture as build into guitar solo

Or “Drop A Dime”:

  • 0:00 Bass and slow rock beat (a la Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks[LINK])
  • 0:17 Guitar melody
  • 0:55 Add answering horns melody
  • 1:19 Interlocking guitar-and-horns payoff section
  • 1:41 Long-note hits w/ drum fills, then solo

But, what exactly distinguishes this layering from increases of density in non-groove-based music? Well, first let’s investigate some other funky structures. If layering is gradually filling up space, what about emptying space?

Hunter places large gaps at the end of phrases in most of the tunes.

  • Track 1 0:18 has a one-bar space after three bars of melody – at 0:59 the same space is now filled by horns and guitar
  • Track 2 0:43 has a two-bar space for a long bass fill. The entire melody uses long notes which, particularly on a plucked (weak sustain) instrument like guitar, function a lot like space.
  • Track 3 0:18 has long note over two bars of groove after every two-bar phrase.
  • Track 4 again has half-and-half phrase-and-rest structure for the first part of its melody. Hunter fills one of the gaps with laconic chord stabs.
  • Track 6 has the same structure.

These intentional gaps in the melodies remind me of Thelonious Monk’s penchant for spaces in his themes in which the drummer can respond. On this Charlie Hunter album however, drummer Eric Kalb often maintains an unchanging beat through the spaces rather than improvising comments. Horns, guitar or bass sometimes comment instead. In all these cases, the point is to expose, and celebrate, the rhythm section.

There’s a tendency in blues for phrases to taper away, starting off high and active and ending up with smaller and smaller movements around the floor note, e.g. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. Hunter’s melody in “Tout Ce Qui Brille Ne Pas Or”, with its wheeling descent to a rest, uses this feeling. Whether tapering, ending on a long note, or ending on a rest, the idea is to return to the ground layer – the underlying groove/harmony.

A related gesture is the breakdown. Here, instead of leaving space in the weak parts (2nd halves) of phrases, sounds are stripped out on a strong bar (start of a section). Just to be clear on terminology, we could note that this is different to a jazz “break” which is typically before the top of a form (i.e. “A Night In Tunisia”). The breakdown/stripping out of sounds is more characteristic of electronic dance music and funk.

This structure is used in tracks 1, 4, 5, 6 at the start of solos. And tracks 3 & 8 work as breakdowns within the whole album due to their trio instrumentation.

Exposure is the key to these gestures. There is a feeling of contrast, and emotional vulnerability on the part of the remaining musicians. “Tout Ce Qui Brille” at 2:32 demonstrates how this can work really well. The second note of the guitar melody rings out with a bit of buzzing, creating a unique timbral moment that is very beautiful in context – the more so for probably being accidental.

This sense of exposure mustn’t distract players from the groove. I believe this requires a mental independence – part of you must keep track of the underlying ground, whether or not anyone else is playing it.

In a breakdown, those abilities are proved by spotlighting some part previously absorbed in the group texture. Despite the changed perspective (which might radically change how the part sounds/feels subjectively, simply by focusing attention on it) musicians must smoothly maintain their simultaneous awareness of the underlying pulse versus the musical surface.

The reason, by the way, that I’m going so deeply into this topic is because I used to have difficulty navigating breaks because I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I’ve been thinking this over in order to improve my own playing.

The last specific gesture I want to mention is what could be called limited improvisation or use of routines. Quite often on this album, there is improvisation so restricted that it could be pre-written. The trumpet riff at 2:01 in “High Pockets And A Fanny Pack” probably is written because it’s repeated verbatim, but it sounds improvised when you first hear it. (I love the descent to a different harmonic level there as well.)

On “Antoine” from 1:53-2:20 there is improvisation strictly around a harmonised riff. And of course the challenge inherent in Hunter’s combined bass & guitar approach means that much of his solo vocab must have been figured out beforehand: for instance the complex key-changing double-stops line at a peak moment in the form, 4:13 in “Tout Ce Qui Brille”. This reinforces thoughts I’ve been having on the importance of familiar gestures and internalised vocab in so-called “improvisation”.

So, what’s the meaning of these structures? I shortlisted some aesthetics that I believe Charlie Hunter uses.

Process: this album celebrates process: “how it’s said” over “what is said”, just like in that hip hop track I analysed last year. Eric Kalb’s drumming is a clear illustration. There’s huge craft and a deep moment-to-moment concentration on laid-back grooving in Kalb’s playing – but little remarkable content. It’s all about “doing it”, not expressing new ideas. The high points of the drumming are either cliched fills or attractive timbres (like the opening of “Antoine”). Along with this, the album is entirely in 4/4 and almost all tracks start with a straightforward vamp intro.

Restraint: one of the key themes of the album is holding back. This can be traced back to the instrumentation (7-string guitar, drums, trumpet, trombone, trombone). All of the instruments are technically demanding and impose physical limits. This naturally leads to slow melodies, space, sparse textures and simple comping patterns.

That restraint creates tension – used to propel songs from intro to melody in tracks 4 and 5, or to create epic payoffs whether improvised or written. A great example is from 2:50 in “Drop A Dime”. Massive horns and massive drums and fierce bluesy guitar playing (whose “hold a note over changing bass” hook epitomises Hunter’s self-developed style) – but only after a build-up of more than half the album’s length.

Subverting sweet chords: Charlie Hunter has an interesting way of using sweet harmony within a mostly ruggedly-grooving context. He writes gorgeous, sophisticatedly harmonised sections for the horns, that are emotional peaks in the album. However, these moments are then wryly undercut by breakdowns to sparse grooving and improv. 0:38-0:45 in “Ode To My Honda Odyssey” is a neat example. The same effect happens a large scale from 1:17-1:44. The contrast can be a little shocking, but the overall effect is to have the best of both worlds (sweetness and funkiness), while also allowing each to comment on the other. Plus, the album’s sparseness of texture – no standard “comping instrument” like piano – is a statement in itself.

To return to layering…. It seems to me to work off the same principles as the breakdowns and spaces. That is, celebrating the unity of the continuous, all-encompassing groove that is felt equally in every instrumental combination, large and small. In African-American music (and probably a lot of other musics around the world), little distinction is made between musicians and the audience, whose vocal exclamations, finger snaps, claps, etc. – and dancing – are a valuable element in a performance. I think the joy of layering up and breaking down relates to the social feeling of a group of people entrained in the groove. Each addition or subtraction can provoke new perspectives on all the other material in a play of multiple simultaneous interpretations that are both individual and collective.

I’d better wrap up. I didn’t get around to talking about the note choices and harmony on this album which add so much to its melancholy mood – in particular, the masterful use of major-minor colour shifts. Also I would’ve liked to talk about the transparency which I think this album shares with, e.g., Thelonious Monk’s work. Well, another time.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog, as I’ve been doing it for over half a year. It has succeeded wildly in helping me figure out concepts. But I’m wondering what should my next step be, i.e., what to do with this knowledge. I’d love to write for an improvising band again, but it will take some discipline to realise these ideas.

Anyway, I’ll try do a nice technical post next week after the last few conceptual ones. See you then.

Buy the album!

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

I gigged some Thelonious Monk tunes last week and remembered how much I love his music. And I’m not alone… one of my bass teachers was playing an all-Monk set in Italy recently – and in the school I was in last year they run a yearly Monk-themed competition.

Today I’ve less transcription than in my last Monk article, but hopefully some nice ideas. I want to explore how Monk balances bright energy emanating from the powerful tonic triad with much darker tones, within a bluesy context.

This immediately reminds me of the binary: “rootedness-displacement” which I heard Vijay Iyer quote from Paul Gilroy. The concept is that a tension between these two properties powers much African-American culture. Some musical examples would be:

  • Time feel – a metronomic pulse is emphasised (rootedness) yet skilled players play ahead of or behind the beat (displacement)
  • Phrasing – a driving beat is made as powerful as possible, yet accents are typically off the beat. In music with underlying rhythms such as clave, many parts play against the rhythm.
  • Blues melody – there is a powerful gravity towards the tonic triad and the root, yet all the expressivity is in deviations – bends and melisma – from the tonic notes.
  • Standard jazz form – 12-bar and 32-bar cycles are an unchanging ground, which yet is constantly challenged via anticipation/delay/substitution of chord changes.

As far as I can make out (here in my white suburb in Ireland…) what’s distinctively African-American is the simultaneous multiple meanings. (The ground-surface dichotomy is from African drumming, I’ve read.) The different possibilities are present, or threaten to be present, at the same time: I7 and IV7 harmonic sounds in blues; ahead and behind the beat in a swing feel; “where beat 1 is” in a polyrhythmic techno piece. Something similar may apply in Signifyin’.

Enough of my usual vague ponderings on black culture! It’s analysis time.

I’ve played this tune since I was a teenager. You can hear why a youngster would like it – it’s extremely catchy and cool-sounding.

Well A
The A section of “Well You Needn’t”

There’s a lot going on here, including a lovely low-register chromatic comping voice (more about that in a bit) and a strong 2-bar syncopation driving the phrase structure. Note the groups of 3 in the concluding phrase.

The bridge shows Monk’s mastery of 32-bar AABA form. It repeats the groups-of-3 idea up a semitone – a seamless connection. The phrase structure (one bar riff followed by one bar rest) and harmonic idea (sequencing up a semitone) are familiar from the A section – although the harmonic rhythm is slower.

Well Bridge
Bridge from “Well You Needn’t”

The B section’s second half is brilliant. The harmonic rhythm suddenly is twice as fast as the A rather than twice as slow (symmetry), and the F to Gb up-a-semitone idea is allowed to continue its movement. This makes an exhilarating sequence of 7 chromatically connected flourishes, which (together with the first two chords of the bridge) sketch out the exact movement of the A section’s low-register counter melody… and then continue past it to land on a Cb, a tritone away from the home key.

All these connective devices create a powerful flow – and perhaps the most important single device is the well-crafted pattern of syncopated accents tying everything together. For instance, the “and of 2” note that ends the bridge melody is the only such accent in the whole piece, forming a peak before the return to A. As I wrote before, Monk is really good at balancing the forces in the final bar before returning to familiar material – the top of a 12-bar blues, or the last A of today’s 32-bar examples.

Charlie Rouse, long-time associate of Monk, also used darkness at peak moments: check the b9 at 2:30 in “Well You Needn’t” on the last bar of the bridge. (I’d love to know the history of this bluesy phrygian sound… Paul Gonsalvez features it in his famous Newport solo.)

The way Monk uses chromaticism in the “Well You Needn’t” bridge is revealing. It is a voice movement away and then towards the 5th (C) of the key. The accelerating harmonic rhythm gives a sensation of exhilarating unleashed energy. At the end there is the gesture of the descending line overshooting its C start point to reach B, a note outside the key. We’ll see this exact concept elsewhere: the momentum of a movement carrying it outside the key at the end of a section. Rouse’ b9 is an example too.

Just to connect this to some past themes and buzzwords… Monk is virtuosically “navigating the form”, he’s using the “hidden energy” trope of black cool, and his music works in metaphors of movement (accelerating, momentum), so that it has “directionality”.

Let’s have a quick look at “Monk’s Dream”, title track of the 1962 album. Now, alas, I’m far from qualified to deal with the beautiful chords that comp the melody. As Vijay Iyer puts it:

“These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant.”

I’d struggle to get even a doubtful transcription of the chords in “Monk’s Dream”, so I’ll just talk melody.

Dream A
The A Section of “Monk’s Dream”, pathetically lacking in the chords I can’t transcribe

There’s an obvious resemblance to “Well You Needn’t”: the opening tonic arpeggio and the first phrase repeated every two bars with variations.

(I love how Monk’s voicing absorbs the major 7th on beat 1 of the tune into a gorgeous timbral object, so much so that it fits seamlessly in a bluesy tonality.)

The first bars run up and down a distinctive cell that I think of as III minor pentatonic over I (E minor pentatonic over C bass). After reading Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe, I’m on the look out for the tendency to emphasise the 3rd and 6th so much that the melody outlines a VI minor or III minor modality against the I major key. “Just Friends” is a great example – the melody is mostly in the relative minor mode (including melodic minor 7 and 6).

The end of the A section involves a chromatic run taking us outside of the key – sound familiar? Like “Well You Needn’t”, the chromaticism seems to fit in between notes of the tonic triad frame. It finishes with a salient b2.

The B section is audacious. It uses the crude directionality of a melody climbing from root to octave – all over a I chord! And, apart from a #4 (part of the idiomatic blues run 3 4 #4 5), only C mixolydian notes are used. So, the only drive comes from the ascending contour and the syncopation.

Dream Bridge
Bridge melody of “Monk’s Dream”

Nothing more is required because of Monk’s adeptness with timbre and call-and-response. Drummer Frankie Dunlop neatly fills the gaps, while gorgeous chords followed by a lovely change from sustain-pedal tremolo to choked staccato tell a story in textures. Notice John Ore’s bassline reverting from 4 notes to 2 notes to the bar in the bridge’s final measure – somehow compensating a bit for the lack of cadential emphasis returning to the A section.

Well it’s nearly time to sign off (and leave some tunes to analyse another time). What did I learn?

Vijay Iyer’s article helped me sum it all up. Monk’s music feels really good pretty much all the time. He deals in groove, flow and sound. His compositions let those things happen. There’s an urgent creativity there, but it never impedes those qualities.

In my last couple of articles I’ve reflected on applying new concepts to my own music. I’ll do that again now.

First lesson: moments of the simplest, strongest possible melody – if the rhythms are hip – can and should be the opposite of corny. More subtly, they can work in an “extended blues” aesthetic that coherently incorporates major-minor ambiguity (i.e. modal interchange), symmetry, and the crunchiest dissonances. And finally, this style of melody should be used as an aid in constructing powerful large-scale shapes (again, with slick rhythm).

More generally, I had a glimpse of an idea, building on my initial investigations into independence, laying back, and gestural playing: what if every musical decision I made was by feel, by awareness of body sensations/embodied knowledge?

That’s a wide-ranging thought, and it reminds me of Vijay Iyer saying that the heritage of great jazz contains “codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings”.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week.

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!