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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prescription for aggravation: One chord a beat.

I like chord changes as much as the next guy.  In fact, I probably like them more than the next guy, hard-bopster that I am.  Give me a song such as the original Milestones or All Gods Children Got Rhythm and I am right at home and in my element.  

There is one thing, however, that I have never been comfortable with -- playing one chord change per beat.  Fortunately we musicians don't encounter this potentially thorny situation that often.  The song that immediately comes to mind is Randy Weston's Hi-Fly, whose 4th bar consists of E7+9 Eb7+9 D7+9 G7.  Up until then you have been in ii-V heaven, effortlessly churning out your hippest D minor licks.  All of a sudden - BAM - you have to think.  GOD DAMNIT. 

What to do?  Do you double up and run 16th notes?  You can do that at a medium tempo, but any faster, unless your name happens to be Sonny Rollins, things are going to get dicey.  So you try to run an eight-note line but you soon discover that negotiating those chromatic changes is about as fun as cleaning behind the refrigerator.   OK, so you think about framing the chord and cycling on down but how many times can you get away with this? 

The song that has sparked my one chord a beat rumination is Phineas Newborn Jr's Sneakin' Around.  It's a medium tempo groover with an incredible melody mostly centered around, you guessed it, D minor.  Trouble ensues in the 7th and 8th bar:

G7   F#7 F7|  E7 A7   D-   |

/  /    /   /      /   /     /  /

Now that's a thorny two bars.  You've got chromatic dominant 7th moving down one chord a beat starting in the middle of one bar and ending in the middle of the next.  Come on! 

I have to admit, though, Phineas plays the hell out of it, seemingly without breaking a sweat.  You hear it time and again with the musicians of that era.  There was a caliber that existed that was off the charts.  Not only could they play the hell out of the blues and I Got Rhythm, but they could negotiate the trickiest of harmony. 

Clifford Brown had some of the most difficult songs.  Brownie Speaks is altered rhythm changes played at break-neck speed.  A jagged, boppish melody and extremely difficult changes.  Don't you know he cuts through them like butter.  The Jazz Messenger's albums are full of songs that are hummable and melodic, but many of them are awkward to play over.  You would never know it by listening to Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Hank Mobley.

4:16 pm edt          Comments

Monday, March 15, 2010

Keith Jarrett: The most annoying great pianist ever.

I want to like Keith Jarrett.  I do.  He may be the best pianist of our time -- certainly he is top five -- but his histrionics are difficult to ignore.  To be more specific I do like his playing.  What's not to like?  It's the baggage I could do without.

Most notable is the animal groan that emanates from him at seemingly random times.  Ostensibly, I suppose,this is supposed to signal that something deep is going on.  I would give him a mulligan on this since other great pianists have famously made noise.  Errol Garner, and my favorite, Bud Powell come to mind.  Attend one of Keith's concert's, however, and you will see a vocal mic.  C'mon!  If I wanted to hear a cow in heat I would go to a farm, not Carnegie Hall.

Finally, I have a beef with Keith's record producer.  I was listening to one of Jarrett's live records and after the last song concluded I was forced to endure over one minute of vigorous applause.  Hey  Manfred Eicher, I enjoy the music just fine -- I don't need some European audience rhythmically applauding to clue me in to the greatness of your delicate genius artist.

1:13 pm edt          Comments

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Giant Steps

Giant Steps is a fascinating album; a breakthrough album for John Coltrane, whose frenetic sheets of sound took up residence in the impossibly difficult title track.  The Giant Steps chord changes, which some say are based on the bridge of Rogers and Hart’s Have You Met Miss Jones, would dominate the album, as well as the several dates that would follow it.  It is remarkable to hear Coltrane cut through those changes as if they were butter, particularly on Countdown, a duet with drummer Arthur Taylor for three-quarters of the track.  

Giant Steps is an uptempo song divided into two eight bar sections, the first of which features two disparate changes per measure.  The second eight bar section is a series of ii-V-i progressions resolving in three different keys.  The song is challenging to say the least -- a harmonic minefield -- and even those with the technique to execute at this tempo have a difficult time making a personal statement. 

Coltrane recorded Giant Steps just one month after his work on Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, an album noted for its scarcity of chords and moody ambience.  [Kind of Blue was recorded on March 2 and April 22, 1959 while Giant Steps was recorded May 4 and 5, 1959]  


I have always felt that the songs on Giant Steps served as etudes — vehicles for Coltrane’s obsession with these angular chords.  In the subsequent dates, particularly on Coltrane’s Sound (not released at the time) and My Favorite Things, Coltrane was able to discover the soul in these changes.  His playing became more lyrical, and if it can be believed, even more confident.  

These Atlantic dates, recorded in an 18 month period between April of 1959 and October of 1960, were Coltrane’s farewell to playing over standard 32 bar song chord progressions.  Few players before or since could equal his mastery of harmony, as well as his lyricism.  When he found the drummer and pianist that best fit his sound it was if his concept and playing came into alignment.  In the later Atlantic dates you can hear him straddling both hard bop and model music.  In the fall of 1961 at the Village Vanguard things would change for everyone.

1:36 am est          Comments

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What's in a photo?

This photo was taken at last Sunday's gig.  I'm posting it because it is one of the all time great photos of me.  Somehow my pattern baldness has been neutralized.  This is not due to any photo shopping chicanery, but perhaps owing to favorable lighting and/or certain rules of quantum mechanics of which I am unfamiliar.

   Note the furrowed brow, denoting intense concentration, the over-sized cranium enabling subject to retain chords to upwards of hundreds of standards while withstanding the ennui and occasional taunts from hostile audiences.   The use of a goblet shaped container to hold currency seems to be code for some kind of barter system.  Tunes for cash?  There is a photo perched atop the keyboard.  Could this be a kind of figurehead?  An unseen, yet controlling presence exerting an iron will upon a servile minion? 

Let's examine some clues available to us from the photo.  There's a tip jar, followed by the last three letters of the keyboard, [..and] and a glass of scotch.  Let's see, bucks and scotch...bucks and scotch... I'VE GOT IT!  We drink to forget the ineptitude of the Milwaukee Bucks!

1:45 pm est          Comments

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