Archive for the Jazz Category

The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.



All The Girls Go Crazy

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on October 14, 2018 by telescoper

I came across this on Youtube a while ago and I quite often play it when I’m at work if I’m in need of an aural pick-me-up when I’m flagging a bit. The tune All The Girls Go Crazy is one of many manifestations of a 16-bar blues theme that was fairly ubiquitous in New Orleans Jazz. The recording is by a band led Ken Colyer who I think is on cornet rather than trumpet on this track, but the Youtube poster gives no other information about the personnel or the date. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the clarinettist sounds to me like Ian Wheeler and the drummer is without doubt Colin Bowden, one of the very best drummers in this style that the UK has ever produced. If I’m right then I think the date is somewhere around the mid-1950s, at the peak of the New Orleans revival in the UK. No doubt some other jazz fan out there will correct me if I’m wrong!

Ken Colyer (`the guvnor’) had very firm ideas about how New Orleans music should be performed, and you’ll notice that there’s much more ensemble work here than you find in the typical string-of-solos approach adopted by many `Trad’ bands of the period.

I’m going to look very silly if it’s not Colin Bowden on drums here, but for me he (or whoever else is the drummer) is the star of this performance, as it is he who is responsible for the steadily increasing sense of momentum, achieved without speeding up (which is the worst thing a rhythm section can do). Notice how he signals the end of each set of 8-bars with a little figure on the tom-toms and/or a cymbal crash, and it is by increasing the strength of these that he raises the excitement level. Notice also that he also has the last word with his cymbal, something jazz drummers are wont to do.

P.S. If you look here, you’ll see a certain Peter Coles playing alongside Ken Colyer in the 1970s. It’s not me, though. It’s my uncle Peter…

Moon Child – Pharaoh Sanders

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 11, 2018 by telescoper

Following the advice of novelist E.M. Forster to `only connect’, I thought I’d do just that by only connecting  two bits of news. The first is that legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders is playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin next month and the second is that astronomers have been discussing whether or not a moon can have a moon and, if it can, whether it should be called a moonmoon or a submoon or something else. Well, I think such an object should be called a Moon Child, after the album by Pharaoh Sanders from which this is the title track. With a link like that, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I get offered a job as a radio presenter!

Humphrey Lyttelton & Elkie Brooks – Trouble in Mind

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2018 by telescoper

Mention the name Elkie Brooks to people of my generation or older and most will think of her popular hits from the late 1970s, especially Pearl’s A Singer which made the UK Top Ten in 1977. Elkie Brooks has however had a long and very distinguished career as a Jazz and Blues singer, including regular performances over the years with trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band. This particular track was recorded in 2002, when Humph was already in his eighties, but I think it’s a lovely performance so I thought I’d share it here.

Trouble in Mind is a very familiar tune that has been recorded countless times by jazz musicians. In fact an earlier manifestation of Humph’s Band made a very nice instrumental version way back in 1950 which I have on an old Parlophone 78. The tune is usually credited to Richard M. Jones, but it has its roots in much older spirituals and folk songs. There are a couple of things worth mentioning about it despite it being so well known.. Although Trouble in Mind is a blues, it is a slightly unusual one because it’s an eight-bar blues rather than the more usual twelve-bar variety. The other thing is that there’s something about this tune that suits a rhythm accompaniment in sixth notes, as exemplified by drummer Adrian Macintosh on this track when the vocal starts.

There’s also some fine trombone on this (by Pete Strange) and a nice bit of banter from Humph at the beginning. Enjoy!

Sidney Bechet’s Blue Horizon

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on July 25, 2018 by telescoper

Having moved some of my CD & record collection to Ireland, I was listening to some music last night including this track that I blogged about many moons ago. Looking at that old post this morning, I noticed that the Youtube link was defunct so decided to update it. More importantly, I realized that I’d made a few mistakes which I thought I should correct, as well as some other edits.

This slow blues features an extended clarinet solo by the great Sidney Bechet. I’ve loved Blue Horizon ever since I was a kid, and think it has a good claim to be the finest instrumental blues ever recorded.  I also heard it more recently at the funeral of one of my Dad’s old jazz friends. Listening to in that context, it struck me that it’s not just one of the greatest blues performances, but must also be one of the greatest laments that has ever been produced in music of any kind. It’s absolutely pure sadness – there’s no bitterness, anger or resentment about it – and it develops through the stately choruses into a sense of great pride and even, ultimately, of triumph.

Many years I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This performance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull of the harmonic progression underlying the tune which in this case is basically the standard 12-bar blues, but with a few substitute chords thrown in.  The last set of four bars in the 12-bar blues ends with the familiar  V-IV-I cadential pattern (often known as the blues cadence) leading back to the root at the end of each chorus. Although Bechet plays quite a lot across the bar lines, the gravitational pull of that sequence of chords is very strong and it tells you very clearly that one chapter of the story has finished and another is about to start.

Bechet builds his solo over this relatively simple structure in  six choruses in a slow and stately fashion, but makes telling use of searing  blue notes of heart-rending emotional power as the intensity builds. If you don’t know what a blue note is then listen, from about 2.12 onwards, to a chorus that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I should also mention that the fine piano accompaniment on this all-time classic piece (recorded in December 1944) is provided by Art Hodes and the mournful response from the trombone is supplied by Vic Dickenson. Bechet’s raw power and very broad vibrato probably won’t suit scholars of the classical clarinet, but I think this is absolutely wonderful. If I ever had to compile a list of my all-time favourite records, this would definitely be on it.

Hullo Bolinas – Gary Burton

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 31, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know why this track just came into my head but while it’s there I thought I’d share it. It’s from a rightly renowned album by Chick Corea and Gary Burton recorded at a live concert in Zurich in 1979, but this number just features Gary Burton on the vibes. I bought this album on vinyl when it first came out and was completely gobsmacked by the miraculous nature of Gary Burton’s four-mallet vibraphone playing, especially on this track. In a subsequent interview on the radio I heard Burton dismiss his extraordinary technical accomplishment, explaining that the mallets are really just like fingers and it is no harder than playing the piano. I think his modesty is misplaced, as fingers bend but mallets don’t. Or do they?

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!