Monday, March 23, 2009

Georgia and Other Improvisations

"Georgia on My Mind" is one of a myriad of jazz-oriented popular songs composed by Hoagy Carmichael, and takes its place alongside "Stardust" and "Heart and Soul." The song comes to us in Ray Charles' definitive version.

The authors of this pair of songs were Ellington associates. The first, "Perdido" was composed by Juan Tizol, and is the piece that put Herb Ellis on the map. Structurally, it is very much a swing tune, with little happening on the harmonic level in section A and then rapid modulatory cycling in section B. The second piece is one of Billy Strayhorn's best known, "Take the A Train." The impetus for the creation of the song was the instructions given to him when he got to New York on how to find his way. The A train runs south-north from the village through Manhattan, through both black and Spanish Harlem, and on into the Bronx.

"Chicken Feathers" is a composition by Steve Kuhn, the pianist in John Coltrane's first band, and was released in 1972. Harmonically, it allows greater "lateral" freedom in section A in that the second and third chords are related to each other and rough equivalents. The second chord of the second line permits the introduction of the major form of the IV chord. The bridge, like its swing predecessors, begins with strong cycling through secondary dominants. Overall the harmonies are more abstract, as one would expect from a composer active in bop and the styles to follow.

"Moten's Swing" is a testament to and tune by Kansas City, MO, based bandleader Benny Moten. Moten was instrumental in the shift from orchestrated rag in the style of James Europe to the more Swing-oriented music of Fletcher Henderson and later Benny Goodman. Although the two-step informs background of the head, a pioneering element that anticipates Swing music comes through clearly in the head melody--the riff.\

Composed in the 1950s, "Lullaby of Birdland" is one of British jazz pianist George Shearing's better known songs. Shearing's music combines elements from the Swing and Bop styles with influences from classical music and popular song. Shearing's actual playing technique, which involved thick pianist chord textures reminiscent of classical piano music, also often contained doublings of the melody at the lower octave, paralleling the practice of guitarists of playing in octaves.

"How High the Moon" was originally composed by Morgan Lewis for use on Broadway, but Les Paul and Mary Ford made it one of their biggest hits and one of the first to use the multi-track recording he invented. For improvisers, it is a valuable because it cycles successively downward in symmetrical models. This is a great tune for learning the neck and in shifting from the major materials and to the next key via the Dorian mode.

"Autumn Leaves" is, of course, one Johnny Mercer's most often used tunes for improvisation, though "Moon River," a collaboration with Henry Mancini, is his best known song. Despite Overplay, "Autumn Leaves" it is still a great song to spend time with! It shares with "Lullaby of Birdland" a tonal ambiguity in that it vacillates back and forth between minor and relative major (or vice versa in the case of "Lullaby").

George Gershwin wrote "But Not for Me" in 1930, with lyrics by brother Ira, for the Broadway show Girl Crazy .
It was sung first by Ginger Rogers. "Meditacion" is a bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Though it is not as well known as other pieces, notably "Girl From Ipanema," it contains the same time of progressive harmonies.

"I Hear a Rhapsody" became a jazz standard with renditions by Tal Farlow, George Shearing, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and, most notably, John Coltrane, but it actually was a cross-over from the popular music charts. It was composed, words and music, by George Fragos, Jack Baker, and Dick Gasparre in 1941, and it became a number one single in its first recording by Tommy Dorsey. Versions by Charlie Barnet and Dinah Shore were also released the same year. Frank Sinatra covered it in 1952, the same year Fritz Lang used it in his film noir, Clash by Night, a love triangle starring Barbara Stanwyck. The song in the film featured Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins on alto and tenor saxes, respectively.

"Girl from Ipanema" was the bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim that simply overtook and them overwhelmed the American public in the early 1960s. The saxophone solo on the original was played by Stan Getz, though the lead is basically a repeat of the melody.

"Deep Purple" was originally composed as a piano solo by Peter DeRose in 1933, and was picked up and arranged for big band by Paul Whiteman. The sales of sheet music were so overwhelming that Mitchell Parish add ed lyrics in 1938. It has been covered since, with hits versions as late as 1963, when it was Nono Tempo and April Stevens won a Grammy for it. A perennial favorite that needs no introduction is Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing."

"Softly as a Morning Sunrise"
featured lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and lyrics by Sigmund Romberg. If was composed for the musical New Moon (1928), which flopped immediately after its debut. "Softly" and the title song "New Moon," slated for the original production but never included, were reworked and became hit songs.

"Kessel Bop" isn't the real name of this tune. I heard it on an old Barney Kessel recording and just absorbed by ear without learning it's name or composer. It has an internal line descending chromatic line A-G#-G-F#-F-E in the first section that causes a key change in each measure.

Miles Davis' "Four" starts on pretty standard progression (I-V/IV-IV-iv) that conceals an internal chromatic descending line. Then, true to bop influences, modulates briefly in the middle up one half-step. It is not the kind of change you can fake through, and not paying attention can be a train wreck!

I just don't seem to be able to stop pickin', and that includes standards like "All of Me."

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