Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts---Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Oxford

Just came from an extraordinary concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in which the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford performed a version of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, with two pieces from composer and baritone Roderick Williams' Oxford Blues Service inserted in the Sacred Concert running order.  This constituted the second half of the program; I'll perhaps write in another post about the first half, which featured many good things but a sound balance that was slightly problematic at times, with the band occasionally drowning out the excellent guest soloist, alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock.  (I can't allude to the first half, though, without mentioning the really superb singing of first-year Olivia Williams in "Lookin' Back" and "Feelin' Good".)  In the second half, the balance was suddenly almost perfect, the bass acoustic throughout, the swing consistent and unforced, and immediately with the meditative baritone saxophone solo, originally performed by Harry Carney, that introduces "In the Beginning God" we were immersed in Duke Ellington's world of sound and his personal take on religion and spirituality.  Besides the excellence of the band, choir, and soloists, the conducting and preparation of the musicians by Schola conductor James Burton was clearly crucial to the success of this performance.  Nigel Hitchcock's beautiful alto playing was another crucial ingredient, but the regular band members who played key solos, like the baritone sax in "In the Beginning", the clarinet in "Freedom", the plunger-muted trumpet in "The Shepherd" did themselves and the Duke proud as well.  The Roderick Williams pieces "Gray Skies Passing Over" and "The Lord's Prayer"  fit in perfectly, being in a somewhat harmonically lush jazz-to-mid-twentieth-century pop vocal style very similar to parts of the Ellington vocal score, but more contrapuntal, with, I think, an echo of English, and even perhaps Renaissance, church music.

Besides getting real swing from the ensemble, Burton kept things relaxed but accurate, with a real dynamic range, the band in balance with the soloists (Ellington's writing presumably helps here too), expressive phrasing and control over the pace and development of each piece.  "Freedom" was another standout, done with intense feeling and great energy, drawing roars of approval from the audience.  But all the movements were executed superbly, and there were many such moments.  The tap-dancing of Annette Walker, in "David Danced Before The Lord" was another highlight.

This was an utterly professional-sounding performance that felt infused with the passion of people who are together reaching a level they may or may not have reached before, in the zone, giving the audience a musical experience not to be forgotten.  The Sacred Concerts may be a work best experienced live---it was certainly immensely effective, enjoyable, powerful, and moving in this performance.  Bass player and alto Lila Chrisp who is in both groups apparently had the idea that they should join forces in this piece.  I'm very grateful to everyone involved for making this happen and really filling the Sheldonian with the spirit---especially the spirit of Duke Ellington and his band.


Iverson/Motian/Grenadier It's Easy To Remember, II: a deeper appreciation

Since first posting on the topic, I've now played (in my halting way) the solo piano ad lib introduction to the live Ethan Iverson/ Paul Motian/ Larry Grenadier performance of It's Easy to Remember in Guillaume Hazebrouck's transcription, and listened to it several more times.  I'm even more taken by this masterful performance, especially the introduction.  The harmonies in the introduction are often quite dissonant but beautifully limpid, probably due to the very open voicings (wide intervals), and choice of intervals.  The dissonances reminiscent of 20th century classical music combined with untypical but compelling voiceleading remind me a bit of Bill Evans, but the choice of intervals and limpid sonority doesn't so much.  The (incomplete) blow-by-blow that follows is mostly for my own reference, so you might skip down to the next paragraph if harmonic analysis doesn't interest you.  It's far from crucial for appreciating the music, but I really want to know how these sounds are made.  The first part is mostly over an E flat pedal (the piece is in E flat), with couple of excursions to Ab. The first chord is fabulous, with successive intervals of a minor ninth, minor 7th, minor 6th (Eb, E, D, Bb).  Then the two inner voices move inward by a half step for another open, somewhat dissonant chord.  It's perhaps not so important to analyze these harmonically, but the first comes off pretty clearly as an Eb major voicing, with no 3rd which no doubt contributes to the spare, clear sound, and with a major 7th, and as for the E natural (b9 you could say), well it just sounds great, and moves up to a natural 9 on the next chord, while the 7th moves down to the minor 7th of Eb, suggesting perhaps a change in quality to dominant or minor, though not this is not so clear as there's still no 3rd present.  Later in the introduction, the same voicing will indeed function as a dominant leading to an Ab major triad at the end of the first system of the transcription.  But first we get a repeat of the first two chords at a faster pace, except with A natural in place of Bb in the top voice (which is basically paraphrasing the melody).  The tenor voice is going up chromatically, cadencing toward a G as part of the double-whole-note Eb major 7th, the first time we get a 3rd with an Eb chord.  The repose is disturbed with a little tweak up to a B natural in the treble, just to add a little more pretty dissonance to the picture. (Nothing wrong with a touch of the "girlfriend chord" once in a while.)  Then we again get those first two chords, Bb in the treble again, moving in quarters, initiating the same four-quarter-note chromatic ascension in the tenor to G, but the bass moving up to Ab on the last two quarters, over which the harmony sounds first like Ab7, then Ab m7, while the top Bb leads down into a bluesy figure.  The next system finishes out with more chromatic movement in the bass, more intricate melody in the top voice accompanied by good inner voice action especially in the tenor, and a final cadence on Eb major again, with the 3rd but in the same open voicing that marked the first appearance of the G before, except that now the D forms a minor 2nd cluster with that seemingly outrageous, but beautiful, E natural, kind of fusing the initial two dissonant Eb voicings but with the added 3rd for an earthier, more harmonically grounded sound, perfectly capping off the introductory chorus.

Besides the open voicings and relatively spare use of 3rds (so that they are all the more effective when they are used), movement by half-steps is a major feature of the voice-leading in this introduction, but it doesn't come across with any feeling of slick hepness or angst-ridden compulsion, perhaps because it's not being used heavily as b9 or #11 over dominant chords, or in related diminished or augmented substitutions for dominants.  Maybe there is a relative absence of tritones in the voicings, though I didn't check carefully.  Anyway, the half-step motion is prominent enough to be considered a major musical ingredient, but doesn't really interfere with what sounds to me like a relatively diatonic, if sometimes beautifuly dissonant, feel.  I guess the chromatic motion is not, for the most part, setting up dissonances that cry out for an obvious resolution, nor effecting such resolution.  It reminds me a bit of Stravinksy in that the dissonance is often created by the interaction of natural melodic motions in the voices, and (along with the melodic motion) the actual intervals in the chord seem almost more important than any compulsive "functional" movement in the harmony even though there is some of the latter on occasion.

The other remarkable thing about Iverson's playing on this piece is the strong influence of Monk, assimilated well into Iverson's own style, in the trio portion of the piece.  Monkian upward arpeggios appear as early as measure 16 (the 3rd measure of the first trio chorus), often combined with scalar material that still sounds quite Monkish (as in measure 16), or leading into more original melodic figures (as in measures 25-26).  A classic downward-dropping Monk left-hand figure is used in measure 30, a very bluesy Monkian chorus-ending figure at 44-46, upward arpeggios in 47-48 lead again to more personal Iversonian material in 49-50, and the list could go on.  Often Iverson seems to be extending or filling in Monkish lines with his own material more reminiscent of more standard bop-influenced lines, but never quite the standard bop clichés.  There's lot's of great action in the inner voices too, sometimes Monkian, sometimes not particularly so.  I think Monk's vocabulary and approach, even while it contributed crucially to the lingua franca of bebop and beyond, has probably been underexploited by pianists who are perhaps rightly afraid that it's hard to make something personal this way, something that doesn't sound like copying Monk's licks, but Iverson makes it work to great effect.  (I guess you could argue that a few other pianists have been strongly influenced by Monk's approach while keeping the harmonic and melodic content of their playing further from Monk than Iverson does here.)

In fact, the display of constructive influence by Monk, and the use of Monkian influences in a clear personal style, makes me wonder if the introduction might be more influenced by Monk than I realized.  I haven't listened to Monk's solo piano for a while, and it is probably time to listen to more.

Speaking of more, here's hoping we get to hear more from this set, or others in the same week at the Vanguard.  All About Jazz's review of what was probably the first set on that same Friday (March 11, 2011) is tantalizing, too.  This is some of the most interesting piano playing I've heard in many years---jazz of the highest order.

Ethan Iverson, Paul Motian, Larry Grenadier: It's Easy To Remember, live at the Vanguard

Excellent piece from 2011 by Ethan Iverson on the late Paul Motian.  Discusses a lot of music I need to check out, and unexpectedly includes a superb live version of Rodgers and Hart's It's Easy to Remember featuring some of the best jazz piano I've heard from Iverson, which means some of the best jazz piano I've heard in recent years. Plus there's a downloadable transcription of his playing, provided by Guillaume Hazebrouck. The harmonies in the piano introduction sound unusual to me, but totally natural.  I really love the intro.  There's a fair bit of Monkishness, especially later in the solo, but well integrated with Iverson's own conception.  Some nice interaction of multiple voices in the piano at times, not in a showy way, adds a lot.  I found this post linked  from Ethan's recent post on Motian's compositions, which Motian's niece and heir Cynthia McGuirl is considering publishing.

Fingering a fragment of Silver

The great jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver died yesterday.  Ethan Iverson has posted, at his blog Do the Math, an excellent transcription of Silver's piano playing in a trio with Percy Heath and Art Blakey, on Silver's composition "Opus de Funk".  I've been working on playing it, and thought I would post the fingerings (see below or click here for pdf) I've worked out for the eight-measure introductory line Horace plays to start the performance, and repeats at the end, and (added on June 24) the first sixteen bars of the main strain. I'll continue to update this as I do more of the piece, but it may be awhile.

Where the fingerings stop in the middle of a continuous line, the implication is to continue with an ascending or descending sequence, or where that doesn't make sense, "do the obvious thing" (usually use whatever finger was most recently used for a given note). I have put some possible alternate fingerings in parentheses, usually above the staff.

As a pianist, I'm self-taught and none too fluent so far, and one main point of posting these fingerings is to get feedback, so if experienced pianists want to give some, that's welcome.  The other point is to provide a little bit of encouragement for people to dive into playing Ethan's transcription of this piece, and otherwise to explore Silver's music.

Some ideas on food and entertainment for those attending SQUINT 2014 in Santa Fe

I'm missing SQUINT 2014 (bummer...) to give a talk at a workshop on Quantum Contextuality, Nonlocality, and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics in Bad Honnef, Germany, followed by collaboration with Markus Mueller at Heidelberg, and a visit to Caslav Brukner's group and the IQOQI at Vienna.  Herewith some ideas for food and entertainment for SQUINTers in Santa Fe.

Cris Moore will of course provide good advice too.  For a high-endish foodie place, I like Ristra.  You can also eat in the bar there, more casual (woodtop tables instead of white tablecloths), a moderate amount of space (but won't fit an enormous group), some smaller plates.  Pretty reasonable prices (for the excellent quality).  Poblano relleno is one of the best vegetarian entrees I've had in a high-end restaurant---I think it is vegan.  Flash-fried calamari were also excellent... I've eaten here a lot with very few misses.  One of the maitres d' sings in a group I'm in, and we're working on tenor-baritone duets, so if Ed is there you can tell him Howard sent you but then you have to behave ;-).  The food should be good regardless.  If Jonathan is tending bar you can ask him for a flaming chartreuse after dinner... fun stuff and tasty too.  (I assume you're not driving.)  Wines by the glass are good, you should get good advice on pairing with food.

Next door to Ristra is Raaga... some of the best Indian food I've had in a restaurant, and reasonably priced for the quality.

I enjoyed a couple of lunches (fish tacos, grilled portobello sandwich, weird dessert creations...) at Restaurant Martin, was less thrilled by my one foray into dinner there.  Expensive for dinner, less so for lunch, a bit of a foodie vibe.

Fish and chips are excellent at Zia Café (best in town I think), so is the green chile pie--massive slice of a deep-dish quiche-like entity, sweet and hot at the same time.

I like the tapas at El Mesón, especially the fried eggplant, any fried seafood like oysters with salmorejo, roasted red peppers with goat cheese (more interesting than it sounds).  I've had better luck with their sherries (especially finos) better than their wines by the glass.  (I'd skip the Manchego with guava or whatever, as it's not that many slices and you can get cheese at a market.)  Tonight they will have a pretty solid jazz rhythm section, the Three Faces of Jazz, and there are often guests on various horn.  Straight-ahead standards and classic jazz, mostly bop to hard bop to cool jazz or whatever you want to call it.  "Funky Caribbean-infused jazz" with Ryan Finn on trombone on Sat. might be worth checking out too... I haven't heard him with this group but I've heard a few pretty solid solos from him with a big band.  Sounds fun.  The jazz is popular so you might want to make reservations (to eat in the bar/music space, there is also a restaurant area I've never eaten in) especially if you're more than a few people.

La Boca and Taverna La Boca are also fun for tapas, maybe less classically Spanish.  La Boca used to have half-price on a limited selection of tapas and $1 off on sherry from 3-5 PM.  Not sure if they still do.

Il Piatto is relatively inexpensive Italian, pretty hearty, and they usually have some pretty good deals in fixed-price 3 course meals where you choose from the menu, or early bird specials and such.

Despite a kind of pretentious name Tanti Luci 221, at 221 Shelby, was really excellent the one time I tried it.  There's a bar menu served only in the bar area, where you can also order off the main menu.  They have a happy hour daily, where drinks are half price.  That makes them kinda reasonable.  The Manhattan I had was excellent, though maybe not all that traditional.

If you've got a car and want some down-home Salvadoran food, the Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño, in front of a motel on Cerillos, is excellent and cheap.

As far as entertainment, get a copy of the free Reporter (or look up their online calendar).  John Rangel and Chris Ishee are two of the best jazz pianists in town;  if either is playing, go.  Chris is also in Pollo Frito, a New Orleans funk outfit that's a lot of fun.  If they're playing at the original 2nd street brewery, it should be a fun time... decent pubby food and brews to eat while you listen.  Saxophonist Arlen Asher is one of the deans of the NM jazz scene, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Bobby Shew is also excellent, both quite straight-ahead.  Dave Anderson also recommended.  The one time I heard JQ Whitcomb on trumpet he was solid, but it's only been once.  I especially liked his compositions.  Faith Amour is a nice singer, last time I heard her was at Pranzo where the acoustics were pretty bad.  (Tiny's was better in that respect.)

For trad New Mexican (food that is) I especially like Tia Sophia's on Washington (I think), and The Shed for red chile enchiladas (and margaritas).

Gotta go.  It's Friday night, when all good grad students, faculty, and postdocs anywhere in the worlkd head for the nearest "Irish pub".



John Rangel and Michael Anthony play El Mesón tonight

If you like jazz at all and are looking for something to do tonight (Jan. 2, 2014) and in range of Santa Fe New Mexico, don't think twice, go hear John Rangel (piano) and Michael Anthony (guitar) play jazz at El Mesón, from 7-9 PM.  (Call 505 983 6756 for reservations... these guys have a following.)  You can get good to great tapas there, and maybe a nice glass of fino sherry, while listening.  The fried eggplant is not to be missed.

Lost and found Lester Young at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, transcribed by Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson's Do the Math (DTM) is the one mainly-music blog that I read every word of.  His work as composer and pianist with The Bad Plus, with Billy Hart in the Billy Hart Quartet, and elsewhere, should not be missed. At DTM, he's given us a  transcription (in concert key) of a fabulous Lester Young solo on Tea for Two, from the Savory Collection, a set of over 1000 recordings, privately made by Bill Savory on 78 rpm discs, of radio performances by great jazz musicians during the years 1935-1940.  The collection was acquired in 2010 by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The museum is looking into possibilities for publicly releasing the recordings...for now, note that you can listen to them if you visit the museum.

I've transposed to B flat (and slightly edited, based on the sound file linked below) Iverson's transcription, for the benefit of those tenor players who, like myself, don't yet routinely read stuff like this in concert key; you can get the transposed version here, and it's also displayed at the end of this post.

Iverson calls the solo "utterly brilliant"; and I concur.  For those not heavily into jazz, I'll just say that to me the aesthetic and cultural significance of this is comparable to finding the manuscript of a previously unknown Mozart piano concerto...of the caliber of K488 in A, K491 in Cm, or K503 in C.  

You can hear the second chorus of the two-chorus solo, and other excerpts from the collection, at the New York Times website.  The performance is from November 1938, and the group featured "members of the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands", along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. 

About the performance the Times writers say "Top honors go to Young’s long, free-flowing solo, which is capped by a second chorus that Mr. Schoenberg calls “a wild, spontaneous moment of abandon.” "  (Mr. Schoenberg is Lauren Schoenberg, director of the Museum.)  To me, at least, it seems that the "wild, spontaneous moment of abandon" gives a primary emotional impression of relaxed, unselfconscious joy, a feeling perhaps somewhat rare in later jazz, though characteristic, if perhaps to a less intense degree, of much of Young's greatest work, especially of this period (the late 30s).  Intense striving or yearning, intense sensuality especially of a kind remniscent of eroticism, while they are valuable aspects of many great jazz performances, are mostly absent here;  this is not wild abandon in the sense of holy rollin', freejazz freakout or R&B barwalking, but rather in the sense of a spontaneous breaking out into a dance of joy.  This in part reflects Lester's style of the time, which emphasized grace and poise, relaxation and a degree of restraint even in episodes of blues honking.  (It's not an accident that I chose Mozart in the classical comparison above.)  But I think it also reflects the emotional tenor of Tea for Two itself, which despite being a popular hit at the height of the so-called Jazz Age seems almost nineteenth century in its description of a parlor romance over tea and its joyfully anticipated consummation in marriage and children. Louis Armstrong might be the closest parallel for this kind of uncomplicated joy in early jazz, although Armstrong's joy was often tinged with a bit more explicit triumphalism, his blues with just a tad more raunchiness. But there are definite reminders of Armstrong, or perhaps other trumpet influences (Lester, like Armstrong, loved the playing of Bix Beiderbecke), especially in the ripping measure 41-42 reference to the main Tea for Two theme, the measure 35-36 eighth notes jumping up and down a fourth, before peeling off into a classic Lesterian extended line dropping via turns into descending arpeggios that bounce right back up again, and in the measure 49-51 quarter notes, which come off as an inspiration of the moment (this must be part of what Schoenberg meant by "wild abandon"), and which are a striking contrast to the running-eighth note lines abundant in Young's playing.

Speaking of dancing, the rhythm section, in which guitar rather than piano is the primary audible chorded instrument, lays down a rather implacable but solidly swinging chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of a 4/4 beat, and Lester dances fleetly in and around it, sometimes, especially when referencing the melody of Tea for Two or emphasizing the somewhat heavy-handed half-measure harmonic rhythm of the main strain, almost implying a feeling of 2/4 but always remaining lightfooted. Besides working on playing this solo, I've been analyzing its harmonic implications a bit, but won't discuss that until I've investigated the harmony being played behind Lester beyond merely comparing it with some charts found around the web.

Here's my B flat transposition of Iverson's transcription, done with Iverson's permission but not with his supervision or imprimatur.  I have also edited the second chorus a bit based on what I hear in the sound file from Savory linked at the New York Times site above. Iverson noted that his transcription contains "a couple of tiny wrong notes"; I found almost none in going over the second chorus. The main differences I've noted with Iverson's version are the shake in measure 38, and the fact that I've written out the gliss or rip in measure 41...although the exact notes I've written there should be taken with a grain of salt. (I thought that the parallel with the similar upward jump on the first beat of measure 42, but with a slightly different rhythmic feel compared to the triplet of measure 42 was worth making explicit.) The few places I've put in slurs are more to indicate that those passages are executed almost like a rip or glissando, not that nothing else is slurred.


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Two nights ago, I heard the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, at the Lensic Performance Center in Santa Fe. Excellent concert. Trying to reconstruct the setlist will be tricky. It started with John Lewis' 1940s composition Two Bass Hit. Nice reminder that bop developed almost as much, if not more, in big bands of the era as in uptown NY jam sessions like those at Minton's. A punchy arrangement, with a good solo by Marsalis. His tone is great, and perhaps best heard live, very large, very flexible, burnished but capable of being bright, but not usually brittle. Very loose, flexible phrasing too, occasionally seeming almost a little too loose. A big, big sound, the Armstrong influence on his trumpet sound very evident, somewhat rare since bebop days, and good to hear. This was followed by another Lewis song, from later in his career, I think, and with more of the classical chamber-jazz influence that Lewis pioneered; also excellent. A highlight of the program, which I think was next in the concert, was a movement, "Insatiable Hunger", from a suite based on Dante's Inferno, by one of the orchestra's saxophonists, Sherman Irby. I realize this sounds potentially pretentious and ill-conceived, but nope, this was not the case. Although the opening theme played by a sax made me a little uncomfortable because it it sounded like it was a quote of another famous jazz tune (which, however, I didn't manage to put my finger on), but then veered away from it, overall the piece really worked. Very bluesy, with lots of lines and phrases some of which are almost blues clichés worked together antiphonally and contrapuntally, really getting up a head of steam. Not sure if this was intricate through-composed work (probably) or wild collective improvisation by a seasoned team working together (my guess is there was only a bit of improvising going on, if any), but it worked well. I'd just been reading Amiri Baraka's "Digging", and thought to myself at this point that I could see why, besides any possible sociopolitical reasons, he digs this group.

A Gerry Mulligan chart, originally for the Woody Herman orchestra, was played with verve and underlined the fact that Mulligan was probably as important as an arranger as he was as a saxophonist---his work was as important a component as anyone's of the seminal Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions, for example.  Excellent solo from Paul Nedzela on baritone sax (Mulligan's instrument).

Ted Nash's arrangement of Clifford Brown's Ceora was a bit heavy on flutes and a maybe a bit fussily arranged for my taste, but still very enjoyable, as was the other Nash arrangement on the program, Chick Corea's 3/4 tune Windows,

Generally a high standard of soloing. Wish I could be certain of who played which solo, and remember more clearly to credit some excellent players. More detail, perhaps, after I look back at the program.

A fast, punchy arrangement of a tune I think they attributed to Charlie Parker (but was it Donna Lee? I thought that was actually written by Miles Davis...) was top-notch. A good solo on alto from Sherman Irby.

A piece by a youngish trombonist with the band, titled "God's Trombones". I'm embarassed I don't remember this well enough to really give a critical appraisal; I remember enjoying it.

The concert finished with "Braggin' in Brass", the sole Ellington piece of the night, with Marsalis' in his prefatory monologue drawing attention to the fact that this is a showpiece for a difficult trombone part. In fact, the opening muted trumpets were pretty impressive too, but the three trombones' unison on the superfast, syncopated trombone chorus was unbelievable---they sounded like one instrument.  (Hard to be certain without an audio record, but it seems like the unison was tighter than in the 2010 video from a Havana concert that is linked above.) This was the evening's other piece featuring a Marsalis solo, and it was a good one, pretty long and getting into long, fast boppish lines although--- very minor cavil, but one I think I've noticed in some other Marsalis performances --- the next to-last-phrase seemed to be winding up for a concluding exclamation point, but the last phrase didn't quite provide it, ending a tad abruptly.

Sound was good for the Lensic, where I've occasionally endured serious problems (a fabulous concert by pianist Kenny Werner a few years back was marred by extremly distorted and loud amplification of the piano). The LCJO brings their own sound-man with them (he could be heard encouraging the band and reacting to solos on occasion, a nice touch that helped to get the crowd into it too), and this is a very good thing. The mix, if perhaps a tad bright, was very clear. My only complaint is that it was overall too loud, hurting my ears on occasion and perhaps paradoxically, probably diminishing the impact a bit --- the incredible dynamic range of a live big band being an essential part of the experience. But that's a minor point---kudos to the LCJO for recognizing the importance of sound enough to bring their own sound man and equipment to provide clarity and the right balance.

I would have liked to hear just a little more classic swing. Say, one number by Basie or one of the other southwestern territory bands that had that powerful bluesy riffing thing.

Definitely go hear these guys if they come your way. The traveling version of the band is fifteen pieces---but that's a heck of a big sound when everyone is as together as this crew is. A taste of the real thing the way it used to be, plus evidence of people continuing to do vital work for big band, like the movement from Mr. Irby's suite.

Stream the Chris Potter quartet Live at the Village Vanguard

Haven't finished listening but Chris' Potter's jazz suite Sirens is starting out strong, with a modal vampy thing going, Trane and bop influences and some blues cries in Potter's soloing, but not too derivative.  Now at around 4'40, holy molé it's starting to smoke!

You can stream it at NPR.


If you're in NY, last set tonight in 20 min (I'd guess sold out), last night is tomorrow Feb. 10.

Now at 9 min, Iverson is doing a beautiful chordal thing, now putting a line over it in the treble, kind of McCoy influenced but with a bit more impressionist color and a mellower vibe.  This is the stuff, folks.

Thanks, NPR, for making it it little less painful for a jazz fan not to live in NYC.

Learning "rootless" voicings for jazz piano from Earl MacDonald

[Understanding this post probably requires a basic knowledge of seventh and related chords and extensions and alterations as used in "straight-ahead" (swing, bebop) jazz and mid-twentieth century American popular song harmony.  The highlighted (and recommended) links will tell you what they are, and something of how they function in jazz harmony, though not the full story.]

A basic component of most jazz pianists' toolbox is the so-called "Bill Evans" or "rootless" or sometimes "left-hand" voicings.  Each of the three terms is inaccurate.  These were to some extent used before Evans came on the scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, but he perhaps used them more extensively than others.  (Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Ahmad Jamal are among those also cited as inclined to use them.)  Along with McCoy Tyner, Evans also was a pioneer in using quartal voicings, which would probably be equally good candidates for associating with his name, but are not our topic here.   A few of the "rootless voicings" contain the root of the chord, though most do not.  And although they are commonly used in the left hand while the right plays melody, they may also appear in the right hand.  "Four-note voicings" might be another term one sees used, though I'm not sure if that's as specific.

In some of the classic books on jazz piano playing (like Mark Levine's highly recommended "The Jazz Piano Book"), these may be introduced a bit too early, and some teachers may overemphasize them early on (especially to students who are already fairly aware of the basics of jazz harmony).  Working pianists, who usually play in a rhythm section in which the bass takes care of stating the roots, like to use these voicings in order to stay out of the way of the bass line, and because they allow for more "color" tones, as found for example in standard extensions of 7th chords to include 9ths, 11ths, 13ths.  (Some of these may be called "alterations", a term whose appropriate application I'm not completely clear about and am not going to get into here; it usually refers to a #11, b5 (enharmonically the same as a #11), b6=b13, b9 or #9, but precisely which notes are "altered" and which are just extensions depends on (what is considered to be) the harmonic context.)  For learning jazz theory in a way that gets it into your ear (and fingers, if playing piano and not just hearing jazz harmony is your ultimate goal), I think it's best to practice four-note voicings with roots first.  These can work for elementary solo piano playing, and for getting the sound of a tune including the roots fixed in your mind (play the "rooty" voicings in the LH, and the melody or an improvisation (yours, or a transcribed one) in the RH).  Of course you can use these same possibilities with the Evans voicings, and you will find that many of them are the same as "rooty" four-note voicings for chords a third higher, so practicing the rooty ones first also helps with the Evans ones.  I'll post on rooty voicings at some point, but here I'll discuss learning the more advanced Evans voicings, something I am in the middle of doing.

I'm using pianist Earl MacDonald's excellent post on how to learn these voicings.  I recommend printing out both his post, and his pdf file with music notation and taking them to the piano.  I won't go into detail, but just say a few things that might be a useful supplement.  Two voicings, labeled "A" and "B", are given for each chord type.  Frequently, though not always, the B voicing just involves taking the bottom two notes of the A voicing and making them the top two notes.  For example, the first two chord types he considers (minor 9th, and  [dominant] 13th) work that way.  I tend to think of these kinds of four-note voicings as a pair of intervals (that between the bottom two notes, and that between the top two), separated by the interval between notes 2 and 3 (top of the bottom interval, and bottom of the top interval).  Then I just think of the move to the other voicing as moving the bottom interval up an octave (or the top one down an octave, depending which way I'm moving it).  It can help to keep in mind how the middle interval will change when you do that:  e.g., for the minor 9th voicings, from a minor third for the A voicing (I don't think explicitly about this in this case, because the A voicing here is just a root position major seventh starting on the third of the chord we are voicing, e.g. Cm9 is voiced as EbMaj7)  to a half step, or vice versa.  The cool thing about these voicings is that when you want to move from, say, a B voicing  to a voicing for the same type chord with the root down a fifth (very common root movement, with or without a change in chord type), you just keep the top two notes the same and move the bottom ones down a half step or a whole step.  So again, thinking about the chord as a pair of intervals helps.  Of course ultimately you want to get this into your fingers, and not "think" too explicitly.  For example, to move the minor 9th B voicing to a minor 9th a fifth down, you go to the A voicing of the new chord, by keeping the top two notes the same as in the previous chord, and dropping each of the bottom two by a whole step.  When you start incorporating the voicings into chord progressions, the chord type will often change, but since root movement down by fifths is common and important, you can frequently negotiate these progressions effectively by going from an A voicing for the first chord to a B voicing for the second, or vice versa, keeping track of which notes change and which stay the same.  Often  you will just move the bottom interval, or just move the top interval, which is nice.  And if you've practiced root-included 7th-chord progressions, you might find some of the movements are similar, or the same, just used over a different root.  I haven't done much along these lines yet, but obviously ii V7 I  or the minor homologue, iiø V7 i, are the first ones to work on.

The basic construction principle for most of the voicings can be understood starting from the example of the minor 9th chord.  The chord tones used are 3, 5, 7, and 9 (3 and 7 of course refer a minor third and minor seventh relative to the root, since this is a 9th chord; the 9th here is major).  The A voicing is [3 5 7 9], B voicing is [7 9 3 5] (left to right going low to high in pitch).  When a voicing has a natural 11th (enharmonically, 4th) it appears instead of the 3rd.  (This happens with one chord type, the half-diminished chord with natural 11th.)   When it has a 13th (= 6th) it usually appears instead of the 5th, in the above constructions.  There is an exception to the 5 goes to 6 rule for the A form of the standard major (no 11th) voicing:  the A form is a 6 9 voiced [3 5 6 9] (so one can think of the 6 as having been substituted for the 7th).  A #11th, on the other hand (one chord type: the Maj7#11), is substituted for the 5 (the boppers used to think of the sharp 11 as a flatted fifth; thinking that way there is no substitution going on here; then again I don't think the boppers often added a sharp 11th to major chords).  The Maj7#11 is also an exception to the rootless rule: it is voiced  A: [1 3 11 7] and B: [11 7 1 3].  The other exception to the rootless rule is the B form of the standard (eleventh-less) major chord: it is a Maj7 with root, voiced [7 1 3 5], i.e. the major 7th and then the root-position triad, starting a half-step above the 7th.  This pair of major voicings is the only one that doesn't obey the rule of putting the bottom interval on top while keeping the top interval as the bottom of the new voicing, to go from A to B voicing.  Rather, the bottom goes on top, but the formerly top interval shrinks (if you must think this way) from 6 9 (a fourth) to 7 1 (a half-step) as it becomes the new bottom interval.

One could probably understand a bit more about the choice of particular types of voicings from the voice-leading properties they give rise to in common progressions (primarily major and minor ii V I or i type progressions).  Curious is the omission of a voicing for the dominant 7th #11.  This was a very important chord starting with bebop.  If this reflects Evans' practice and not just MacDonald's predilections, I wonder if it's because Evans usually used a different type of voicing (quartal?) for this chord type?

If MacDonald's exercises seem time-consuming and difficult, let me just say that you can progress fairly quickly, and it's worth it.  Here's a point from MacDonald that I really appreciate his emphasizing; it's crucial to remember, not just about this but about many, many exercises involved in learning to play jazz (and other musics, for that matter, e.g. scale practice):

Learning voicings is similar to learning to ride a bike.  At first it is difficult, frustrating, and at times, painful.  But once it is learned correctly, you never look back, and you can do it instinctually ever after.

A few comments on MacDonald's suggested learning routine. For all of the exercises, I've done them sometimes without sounding the root, but frequently with the root sounded in the bass. I think this is important to get the proper harmonic function of the voicing in your ear. Less crucially, I've done some of them with the right hand as well. Exercise number 8, taking the voicings down the circle of fifths with metronome (he refers to it as the circle of fourths; up a fourth is down a fifth, modulo octaves) is particularly crucial; I think this is where you'll really get the voicings memorized. Besides sometimes doing it with sounded roots, when I don't sound the root, I've been saying its letter name out loud. This also helps in better memorizing the circle of fifths, which anyone playing any music with essentially Western tempered harmony will want to do. Another point is that before working on each chord type, it is good to sound out the full chords, in root position, stack-of-(usually)-thirds configuration, and then compare this sound to the rootless voicing sounded with the root in the bass. You'll really start getting an idea of how extensions and alterations sound by doing this (especially if you sound out the lower seventh chord before adding extensions). You don't have to do this for every root (I haven't been), but it might be worthwhile too.

I have not yet made flash cards and done the "random roots"  exercise.  I've tried going up by fifths, as preliminary step toward getting away from the reliance on "muscle memory" and explicit thinking about the "lower the bottom two notes" trick for moving the root down a fifth while going from an A to B voicing, and I recommend it, as it's a cool sound as well.  I'm ignoring his suggestion about completely mastering one chord type before going on to the next, in that I've worked quite a bit on the 13th chord without complete mastery of the minor 9th, but I think that's OK as long as you don't mix things up to much and really push on each type focusing primarily on one at a time.

Finally, the observation he asks you to try to ignore, that five of the chord types share the same voicing (just with a different root), is quite neat and important, an example of the general phenomenon that putting a different bass note under a given set of pitches in the middle or upper register can make an enormous change in the way they sound. Not only could it be used for reharmonization of a given melody, but I imagine it could be used (and probably is used) in composition, not just jazz but classical composition (many of these 7th, 9th, 13th, 11th, and 6th chords appear in classical music, especially Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Copland) to effect modulations, by changing the root under a given voicing and then treating it as if it has the new harmonic function, resolving it in some standard way. It would be neat to find---or create---examples of this.