Schumann: Papillons, Blumenstück, Novellette; Novaes, Arrau, Sokolov

Since my last post involved some Schumann piano pieces, I thought I should link to some performances of them:

Papillons, Op. 2, Guiomar Novaes, piano:

Blumenstück, Opus 19 in Db major, Claudio Arrau, piano:

Novellette, Op. 18 No. 8 in F# minor.  Grigory Sokolov, piano:

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.

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.

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.

Ethan Iverson plays Hall Overton's Polarities #1

Via Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math, a panel discussion at The Jazz Loft Project, of jazz and classical composer, arranger and pianist Hall Overton. Iverson kicks it off with a superb performance of Overton's classical piece "Polarities #1" (begins around 2'00 in the video).  A performance that should not be missed. Some more of my thoughts follow the video.

The Jazz Loft Project presents "Hall Overton: Out of the Shadows" from Center for Documentary Studies on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful piece of music and a superb performance of it. To my ear there are hints of jazz, especially at the beginning. The first two measures definitely sound like they could be the opening of a jazz ballad with relatively "advanced" harmonies, and the descending figure in the bass in the third measure sounds very Monkish.  [Update: this figure reminded me of a specific phrase in a Monk composition, which I suspected was "Nutty".  Sure enough, it's the first part of the falloff that Monk sometimes adds to the end of one of the first phrases in "Nutty".  Not only that, but the opening of Polarities seems related to the phrase to which Monk adds this falling line.  Though very different harmonically, there's some similarity in melodic profile and rhythm.]  A few other spots have that "advanced jazz ballad" feel.  While Overton was on the faculty at Juillard and apparently also taught at Yale and the New School, most of us jazz fans know Overton primarily as the arranger for the Town Hall big band concert featuring Monk, so a Monk reference is hardly a farfetched supposition.  The piece is roughly atonal or at least in very unstable tonality, but not twelve-tone, and very expressively balances atonal features with what seem to me passages with stronger harmonic implications.  The musical language often seems to me poised between Debussy and Schoenberg.  The sequence of chords around 3'19 to 3'33 in the video remind me of Debussy in his more declamatory frame of mind, while some of the passages preceding and following it remind me of his lyrical side.  I was quite surprised to be strongly reminded, around 3'39-4'00,  especially in the chord alternation at 3'44, 3'50 and 3'56 and melodic line connecting these bits, of Cecil Taylor's fantastic 1973 solo piano performance "Indent".  To my mind, Indent is some of the most important and enjoyable music to come out of the twentieth century, and if you don't know Taylor or have listened to other pieces and not "gotten" him, I'd say Indent or the early-60's band-as-jazz-orchestra side "Into the Hot" (the other side of the Impulse LP is Gil Evans' "Out of the Cool"), are the places to start.  Accessible but building in intensity and complexity.  I recall reading that Taylor intensely studied twentieth-century classical scores early in his career, so I guess it's not impossible that there was some direct influence of Overton's classical work on Taylor's composition or vice versa, especially since Overton was active in jazz circles in New York at just this time (mid to late 50s), but accidental convergence is just as likely.  (Though Indent is from 1973, the "vice versa" possibility is because Taylor might have developed some of these ideas very early even though they may not have been appearing in his performances at the time, which in the late 50s were still often based on jazz standards.)  Iverson recently linked the transcipt of a 1964 panel discussion between Overton, Taylor, and others that grows somewhat contentious, making this perceived momentary connection between their musics even more startling to me.

Iverson also points out that this piece appears, played by Robert Help, on a collection from the 1960s, "New Music for the Piano", available from New World Records, and he suspects this is the only appearance of Overton's classical music on CD.  Based on this performance of Polarities, that is a real shame and I hope it is rectified soon.  Also based on this performance, Iverson would be a fantastic pianist to do it.  He's not just playing the notes here, he has gotten inside the music and it's gotten inside him: each phrase is expressed as if he composed the music himself.  He gets a fantastic, bright and ringing but not harsh tone out of this piano, and can give it nuances to bring out or contrast different lines. The clarity and control are astonishing too.  Really beautiful music-making from both Overton and Iverson.  I hope we can hear more of this combination sometime.

Kapustin Variations Opus 41 played by Yeol Eum Son, and Impromptu Op. 66 No. 2 by himself

During the last (2010-2011) Los Alamos Concert Association season, Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, a silver medalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn piano competition and 2nd prize winner in the 2011 Tchaikowsky competition, was a last-minute substitute for another competition-winning pianist. I recall enjoying her playing of a substantial chunk of Liszt, and being especially pleased to finally discover a jazz-influenced classical piece that made effective and idiomatic use of the language of bebop, but there was no program and I was having difficulty tracking it down.  I just figured out, with the help of Ethan Iverson's interview of pianist Marc-André Hamelin, in which the jazz-influenced composer Nikolai Kapustin (fansite here) is discussed, what it was: Kapustin's Variations Opus 41. Here's Yeol Eum Son herself playing it on Youtube:

Turns out there's a lot more of his stuff on youtube; here's Kapustin playing his Opus 66, no. 2 impromptu, which I think I like even better:

Thrift store LP finds: Albinoni oboe from de Vries, Mozart from Radu Lupu

I've been down a rabbit hole of differential geometry and representation theory, as well as doing some work on a review article with a collaborator lately, so apologies for the posting hiatus.

A quick note on weekend listening: I picked up an EMI/Angel LP (SZ-37802) of Albinoni oboe concertos Nos. 2, 5, 8, and 11 for a buck at a thrift shop. Han de Vries, soloist, with Alma Musica Amsterdam, produced in 1981. Bob van Asperen, harpsichord, is billed just after de Vries, so perhaps this is a harpsichordist-led ensemble.  Very pleasing listening---I got a good copy with very little surface noise and distortion. The sound is reminiscent of 1970s and early 80s Phillips LPs (like the Marriner/ Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Musical Offering)---a slight, but not excessive thinness, but more liquidity and sweetness, good detail and separation of instruments---a reasonable soundstage if not a huge sense of room acoustics.  The music is excellent, not the world's deepest and most intense stuff, but melodic, at times dancing, and very assured writing.  Nothing really breaking out of baroque conventions (although I'm not hugely up on baroque musical history, and Albinoni, along with Vivaldi, Telemann, and Handel, may well have been establishing said conventions here), but very poised and graceful writing, with a lot of low-key melodic interest to lift it well above generic baroque.  Superb playing from oboeist and orchestra both, to my ear.

One of my favorite pianists, Radu Lupu, playing Mozart concertos Nos. 21 in C and 12 with the English Chamber Orchestra and Uri Segal (London LP CS 6894, from 1974) is also sounding great, a slightly noisier copy but no problems with the music.  Another excellent recording job---really good piano tone, a slightly more midrangy balance than the above, to judge by the strings, well-captured bass.   But in general, in the same ballpark of slightly-on-the-lush-side, detailed but sweet sound that some of the major classical labels seem to have locked onto in the late 70s and early 80s, especially with chamber to moderate-sized orchestral ensembles.  Easy to hear what's going in each part of the orchestra, and to separate the soloist from the orchestra.  Is it a natural soundstage, or is the piano closely miked?  Who knows... who cares.  I love Radu Lupu's playing on this.  Relaxed, lyrical, but not exaggeratedly so.  Fantastic touch as always, and sensitivity to nuances in the music.  His work in the brilliant arpeggiated passages is, perhaps surprisingly, as nuanced and singing as the more cantabile passages, and fantastically accurate and rhythmically perfectly placed, while remaining unstrained and natural.  The orchestra is superb and superbly conducted---able to provide drama when needed without excessive Sturm und Drang.  And that's just the first movement of No. 21 so far... now here comes Lupu on the melody of the sublime second movement, Andante... not surprisingly, magic.  Not as heart-on-the-sleeve as some renditions of this classic slow movement can be... but none the less moving for that.  Just beautiful.  (This is some of the deepest and most intense stuff around.)  I've long loved Lupu's Schubert... marveled at his Debussy at a concert in Santa Fe a few years back... and now I'm a big fan of his Mozart.  One of the truly great pianists.