Archive for the Music Category

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!


Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon found me once again at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, waiting for a concert to start.

This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus. And very enjoyable it was too.

The first number was a bit of a taster for the forthcoming WNO season, which includes Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rossini’s Lá Cenerentola. The latter being the story of Cinderella, it made sense to include Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite from the ballet he wrote in the 1940s.

After that we had the evergreen Grieg’s Piano Concerto, by Grieg, played by the excellent Peter Donohoe, exactly how I like it: with all the right notes in the right order, and the Orchestra not too heavy on the banjoes.

Following the wine break we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work which has to be one of his most uplifting pieces. Beethoven was very good at ‘uplifting’ so that means it is very special indeed.

A lovely concert, warmly received by the audience and a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Memories of Humph

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , on April 25, 2018 by telescoper

Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on 25th April 2008

Today is a rather sad anniversary: it’s ten years to the day since the death of Humphrey Lyttelton. I posted a tribute to him here and have posted quite a few other items about Humph and his band (under this tag), including one that included this picture of my Dad (who died in 2007 and who was a lifelong fan of Humph) playing the drums with him in a pub in Newcastle:

I was reminded about Humph by the ongoing saga of this the UK Government’s scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation, who came to Britain from the West Indies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their arrival coincided with the rise of Humph’s career as a musician and bandleader; he started recording a long series of 78s for the Parlophone labour in late 1949. In the mid-50s Humph formed what he called his Paseo Jazz Band with a group of London-based Caribbean musicians and they made some lovely records, complete with infectious calypso rhythms. In his first volume of autobiography, I Play As I Please Humph wrote very frankly about the racism faced by these black musicians, even from Jazz fans. It is indeed hard to see how anyone can be a jazz fan and have such attitudes, but some people seem to manage it. Humph was one of those who welcomed this generation of immigrants with open arms, and in his book he argued strongly against racial prejudice. If he’d been alive today he would have had no time for the xenophobic attitudes espoused by the current Government that have created such a hostile environment in the UK for anyone deemed to be foreign.

Anyway, some time ago I came across this film from 1950 showing Humph’s band in full swing (playing King Oliver’s Snake Rag, a tune guaranteed to fill the dance floor) at a downstairs club on Oxford Street in London. Jazz was very much for dancing to in those days, and the opportunity to let the hair down and burn some leather on the floor must have been a welcome distraction from post-war austerity. As the voice-over says, the drinks on sale in the club were non-alcoholic, but I’m told a van used to turn up and sell beer surreptitiously outside…

Rest in peace, Humph. We still miss you.

Melancholy – Johnny Dodds

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2018 by telescoper

Well, it’s fine and sunny today and if the weather doesn’t put a spring in your step, hopefully this will. It’s a lovely old tune and something of a jazz standard called Melancholy, but this is very probably the least melancholy version of it you’ll ever hear. On top of that it’s quite an interesting piece of jazz history, as it features legendary clarinet player Johnny Dodds (who played in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and later in the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with Louis Armstrong in the 1920s) as did pianist Lil Hardin, but the rest of the band is from a younger generation, especially Charlie Shavers on trumpet and Teddy Bunn (a much underrated guitarist). The rhythm section has a define taste of the Swing Era rather than New Orleans, but the main thing about this is how well the different styles blend together. Enjoy!

Tom Lehrer at 90!

Posted in mathematics, Music with tags , on April 9, 2018 by telescoper

I was reminded this weekend that today (9th April 2018) is the 90th birthday of American musician, singer-songwriter, satirist, and mathematician Tom Lehrer. Although he has retired from theatres of both musical and lecture variety, his songs (and especially the one I’ve selected) remains topical to this day. I’m about to retreat into a bunker to finish marking a batch of coursework so please enjoy the following short tribute and wish Tom Lehrer a very happy 90th birthday!

Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2018 by telescoper

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!

Dark Slender Boy – Liam O’Flynn

Posted in Music with tags , on April 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’m by no means an expert on the Uilleann pipes, but the sad death of Liam O’Flynn (after a long struggle with cancer) a few weeks ago gave me occasion to hear some recordings of his, and I was captivated by the amazing sounds coming from this instrument.

The Uilleann pipes look a bit like a much larger version of the Northumbrian smallpipes I am familiar with from the region of my birth, in that the bag is inflated using an elbow pump, but they have a much wider range – two octaves – and can play sharps and flats. A master such as Liam O’Flynn could also generate a range of other effects, by bending notes in much the same way as a jazz or blues musician would, and also achieving subtle changes of tone and volume. Here’s a lovely example of his art, a solo performance of a tune called Dark Slender Boy on which he conjures up a world of musical possibilities.