Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Child Is Born

I usually work on one new Christmas jazz number when the season rolls around.  This year I has planned on doing Grownup Christmas List.  I have Michael Buble's arrangement with all of the vocal modulations in it,   and I was reworking it around to be an instrumental number.   It was starting to sound  just OK.

Then recently on the Pianoworld forum where many of us amateurs  will post recordings in a monthly Piano Bar for fun,  one of my online friends posted a nice track of A Child Is Born.

A Child is Born was written in 1969 by the jazz trumpeter Thad Jones and Alec Wilder.   It was famously first performed by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.  It seems that everyone familiar with jazz has heard of this song but me!   It is a standard that is in the Real Book,  and there are countless recorded versions of it by any great master that you could mention.   I'm not sure that it is really a Christmas song,  but it has become one.   The title and the Christmas Waltz feel to it  make it truly seem like a Holiday jazz tune.

Well,  I quickly became obsessed,  enamored, and entranced by the song.    Grownup Christmas List was out the window  for this year,  and started working on this with a passion.  There were a couple of elements that I wanted to incorporate in A Child Is Born  :

-  I wanted to use my guitar  as a horn.  I really liked the simple elegance of Thad Jones coming in to play the melody on trumpet after the piano takes the first verse.  I cant play the trumpet,  but the guitar can be used in a similar fashion  if you just play the lines and avoid chords.

- The D7+ harmonies with the specific melody notes seemed to be calling out for the blues,  so I wanted to have C bluesy licks in there

-   I wanted to have the song begin similarly to the Thad Jones version where the piano starts solo,  then the bass comes in with drum embellishments,  and finally the drummer comes in tempo.

When I made a first test recording of the elements put together,  it occurred to me that the way I was playing it would sound much better on electric piano than acoustic.  I could just hear it with all of that extra sustain and then the bluesy licks that sound so unique on a fender rhodes.

This final version has electric piano, guitar played as a horn coming in twice,  and the drum embellishments that I was looking for.

Interesting Story:  My piano teacher was telling me the story of seeing the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra live at the Village Vanguard many years ago.   This was a very large band,  maybe eighteen pieces.  When it was time for them to start their set,  there were only about eight  players there!  Thad Jones started anyway, and players started to dribble in.  By the time the piece concluded,  they were all there for the big final note!  How cool is that....

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thad Jones And Mel Lewis

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Darn That Dream

I have been struggling with Darn That Dream for a very long time.   I've been wanting to do this song since  I heard Jim Hall and Bill Evans perform it on the Undercurrents album many years ago.  The idea of being able to play this both on guitar and piano was appealing to me.  That was always my target.  Back in 2012,  I even went so far as to do a "sound check" for piano/guitar.

I decided ultimately that unaccompanied interplay  between  piano and guitar,  when I was trying to play both,  was just going to be too hard to pull off.   So I scrapped the project.

Two years later I decided to take another run at this tune.  This time I was able to get a hold of a transcription of the Bill Evans piano part from the original Undercurrents recording.  After spending some time with the transcription,  I was more convinced than ever that I was not going to attempt to do a self-duo number - particularly since I have not been playing much guitar.   

So I had no idea what I was going to do with this mess.  There were a few beautiful passages from Bill Evans that I wanted to use,   but I had no overall song concept to fit them into.   What I decided to do was make this into a latin number.   More precisely, it is a latin jazz cha cha  with the Bill Evans voicings and phrasings spread liberally throughout.   My piano teacher Ed  gave me some other nice ideas that are incorporated as well-  like playing pieces of the melody in 10ths on different octaves of the keyboard,  or nice turnaround phrases.

Here are some of Evans phrases used (overused) throughout.

After deciding that I wanted to make this into a latin-style number,   I went online to see if I could find any nice latin-tinged recorded version to gain inspiration/insight from.   There were a few,  but not many compared to the overall number of covers available for this song.  One of the most beautiful treatments, and one that I would highly recommend is from guitarist Corey Christiansen and his quartet.  Tasty!

Bill Evans and Jim Hall Undercurrents

Corey Christiansen Quartet

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Stormy Minor Monday

Ever get the feeling that you just want to sit down at the piano and play the blues?  I've been feeling that way recently,  coupled with a lack of energy to tackle another tough jazz composition,  coupled with knowledge that I am way overdue for doing some blues work,  coupled with my sense of shame for not being able to just sit down and play a 12-bar blues decently.

Well,  I can't just sit down and play anything decently,  but you really should be able to have a go at a 12-bar blues.  The time was right.

So I'm sitting down at the piano fiddlin' with  a Cm blues,  and it is beginning to sound to me like Stormy Monday.   Stormy Monday is my all-time favorite blues tune, and probably the only one that I know the words to.    I have the fabulous Eva Cassidy version,  and I've listened to it many, many times.  I went online to see what chords  most people are using for this song,  and I come to find out that it is a major blues,  not minor.

There are quite a number of excellent versions,  but as far as I can tell  they are all major, and all vocal treatments.   The chords,  keys,  time signatures,  melody,  melody spacing  etc.  are all played around with by the various artists.  The Allman Brothers chord voicings are copied by a lot of musicians.

I decided that I was going to do this as an instrumental (no choice there since I cant sing!),  and as a Cm blues.  I call it Stormy Minor Monday. In order to do this I had to change the chords to minor blues style chords.  It also meant that I couldn't play a melody for four verses - that would be snooze-ville for sure.  I had to change to more of a jazz tune structure  where I would state my version of a melody in the first 12 bars,  then do three choruses of  improv until restating the "head" again in the last verse.  

In the middle verses I throw in some guitar background soloing that I think meshes well with what I'm doing.    During the third verse I switch into major blues harmonies for a couple of measures.  I'm actually using the Allman Brother progression  dm7-em7-ebm7-am7-fm7   instead of  Ddim-Edim-Ebdim going into dm7b5-g7b9b13  like the rest of the song.   This momentarily seems to lighten the mood,  then it comes right back down.   It sounds like it works to my ear.  What about you?

Special credit to my constant companion Cliff for vocals throughout :-)  

Stormy Monday

They call it stormy Monday but Tuesdays just as bad 
They call it stormy Monday but Tuesdays just as bad 
Wednesday is worse and Thursdays also sad 

The eagle flies on Friday; Saturday I go out to play 
The eagle flies on Friday; Saturday I go out to play 
Sunday I go to church, hmm, 
Thats when I get down on my knees and pray 

I said Lord have mercy, 
Oh Lord, Lord, Lord have mercy on me 
Yeah Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord have mercy on me 
Don't you know I'm just trying to find my baby 
Won't somebody please send him on home to me 
Oh yeah

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me, 
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me, 
Don't you know I'm just trying to find my baby 
Won't somebody please send him on home to me

Eva Cassidy - Stormy Monday

Allman Brothers - Stormy Monday

Friday, August 29, 2014

Autumn Leaves Waltz

Two years ago I made my first attempt at playing Autumn Leaves.  In the 2012 Autumn Leaves blog post  I emphatically stated that this song was not an up-tempo swing number for me,  although that is usually how it is played by jazz pianists.   The song and the lyrics have special meaning for me, having to do with my parents that I lost as a teenager.  I played it then as a ballad,  and made a little tribute video to go along with it.

My recent efforts to make some progress on learning to play faster tunes have rekindled a hankering for playing Autumn leaves again.  This time I don't want to play it as a ballad,  but I don't want to play it as a straight ahead 4/4 swing tune either.  I would like to do something completely different.

Of all the fine versions of Autumn Leaves that I listen to,  there is one that I come back to over and over again. There is a very unusual  treatment of the song by Steve Kuhn  that just grabs my attention immediately.  First of all,  it is a waltz in 6/8 time  rather than a 4/4 swing,  which gives it this wonderful flowing sense of movement.  Then,  of course he re-harmonizes it,  but most strikingly he also re-melodicizes it.  (Is that a word?)

The head of the piece has a different melody,  yet you can still tell that it is Autumn Leaves!  Just Beautiful.

I am trying here to take a few pages out of Steve Kuhn's book.    My arrangement is done in 6/8 at 180 BPM.  I have re-harmonized  a number of the chords throughout the tune,  but the biggest change is that the melody is changed too.  I took some of the melody ideas from Steve's version and added some of my own.

The new harmony and melody combined with the movement of the 6/8 time seem to give the feel of creating and releasing a lot of musical tension throughout the song.  This was certainly a fun endeavor!

For those that insist on the standard formula of stating the original melody, then improvising, then coming back to the composer's melody - you may be disappointed in my version of Autumn Leaves Waltz.

Steve Kuhn

Steve is a Brooklyn, NY boy- so you have to love him just for that!  He also has a discography as long as your arm.  I really don't have many recordings by him,  but I think I'm going to have to change that.

Geek Alert

There are many geeky things to discuss here.  I do use a lot of tritone substitutes in this arrangement,  including using a Db7alt for the second measure of Gm  that is a frequent pattern in the original.  I'm pretty sure that this is what Steve is doing also.

The one part of the song that I'm least happy with is the alto sax solo.   I tried using trumpet, tenor and vibes too,  but none of them sounded as good as I wanted.   I think band-in-a-box may have difficulty generating solos with a 6/8 feel to them.  That is just conjecture though.

My teacher Ed suggested an intro and little quoted second ending that I've added to the track that really give a flavor of the 6/8 groove.   

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Blue Bossa

This is going to be a fairly short blog post.  Since I had so much difficulty playing linear solos at 188 on my last effort, Minority by Gigi Gryce, my teacher assigned me some tunes that are good for linear solo practice at different tempos. 

One of those songs is Blue Bossa. "Blue Bossa" was composed by Kenny Dorham. It was introduced on Joe Henderson's 1963 album Page One. It is a blend of hard bop and bossa nova.  According to Wikipedia,  the tune was possibly influenced by Dorham's visit to the Rio de Janeiro Jazz Festival in 1961.

In the Real Book,  Blue Bossa is denoted as being played at 160 bpm by Joe Henderson.  The song seemed like a good practice vehicle,  since it is pretty fast,  yet slower than the 188 bpm that I was attempting with Minority.  It is also a hard bop blend,  and Minority is a hard bop classic,  so the tunes are similar in that regard.

I'm describing this as just a practice session,  but I do really love this song.  This is one of the most identifiable instrumental songs in all of jazz.   It is also one of the first songs that I was ever introduced to when I picked up a guitar.   I haven't tried to play it in many years,  so I was glad for this opportunity.

Joe Henderson

Geek Alert

I did not go out and pull a lot of piano jazz versions of Blue Bossa to listen to.  I'm sure there are many excellent ones.  Undoubtedly,  I would have spent too much time coming up with a sophisticated arrangement if I did listen to great pianists playing this!   This is a very stripped down arrangement.  It has just a quick little bossa cliche intro,  and then a standard repeating ending.   I kept the arrangement as mostly the original Cm6 flavor,  although I do change some to m7. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I have three favorite tunes from the Roy Brown Quartet Continuation CD.  The first one is Lonely Woman by Horace Silver.  I did an arrangement of that for my last blog post.  Another beautiful tune that he has on the CD is named "One For D".  This  is a slow solo piano number  that must be a tribute to somebody.  It is one of those songs that I forget about until it comes up on a playlist,  and then I can't resist listening to it a few times.

The third song that the quartet just kills is Minority by Gigi Gryce. Minority is a 16-bar jazz standard in a minor key by Alto sax player Gigi Gryce, first recorded with Clifford Brown in Paris on October 8, 1953.  Since it is only 16 bars and typically played very fast, the melody is generally played twice to make the "head" into 32 bars before any soloing occurs.   The Roy Brown Quartet  plays this incredibly fast  and unbelievably tight.  I think I clocked the tempo at something like 240 bpm.   If this song cut doesn't get your blood moving, then you just don't like jazz!

It was time for me to work on a fast song,  so Minority was the choice.  The first problem was that 240 bpm is way outside of my league.  I immediately set out to listen to many recorded versions in an effort to see if I could find any that were played at a realistic speed,   so I could get an idea of how they arranged it for a slower speed.   To my dismay,  virtually every recording on any instrument was at least 200 bpm. Sigh.  Even the ones that sounded more relaxed actually turned out to be more than 200 bpm when I clocked them with a metronome.   Even the solo piano versions!

The Roy Brown arrangement was actually not that helpful for me since besides the speed,  it is actually more of a vehicle for the vibes player than the piano player.   I did find three recordings that were helpful though.

The first was the famous Bill Evans recording from his Everybody Digs Bill Evans album.  In his arrangement,  he creates a lot of movement by having increasing interplay with the drummer.   After his solo,  he first trades 8's  and then escalates to trade 4's with the drummer,  keeping the listener on the edge of his/her seat.  That was an arrangement element that I could steal without too much difficulty,  so that one went in the mix.

Next,  I found one recording by bass player Pat Senatore that was actually under 200 bpm.  This was done at 188,  which is at the outside range of do-ability for me,  so I figure that my arrangement at 188 is legit :-)
Ironically,  his version feels faster than some of the ones that are done at faster tempo,  because his absurdly talented piano player,  Josh Nelson,  has such motion in his ideas  that it seems like it it flying.

Finally,  I've been listening to Paula Shocran's  solo treatment.   This is a tour-de-force of chops and inventiveness.   She starts out playing legato  (which I incorporated into mine),  and then builds and builds to the point where she too is playing 32nd notes at a tempo above 200 bpm.  Sick.  

Even though I'm playing at the slowest tempo of any recording that I found,  I still had a -great- deal of trouble playing solos at that speed.   This is where it is really obvious that unless you woodshed playing scales and licks in all keys at  fast tempos,  you will never do justice to a song like this.  I've always said that I'm not going to subject anyone to  that torture,  but it is depressing acknowledging the profound limitation that this represents.

Roy Brown Quartet

Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1958) 

Paula Shocron

Pat Senatore

Geek Alert

I've made liberal use of  tritone substitutions  throughout the many ii/V's  that are in this song.  I'm trying to substitute not just in the chords themselves,  but in the solos also.

If you are wondering what that  little quote is during the drum interchange,  it is Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Lonely Woman

I was on a business trip in San Francisco once in 2009 and had the opportunity to go hear some jazz one night.  This was when Jazz at Pearl's  was still open, and you were sure to here some good local musicians in an intimate setting.  It also happened to be walking distance from where I was staying,  so that was nice too.

I had a treat that night five years ago (it seems much longer somehow).   There was a local quartet playing, headed up by a pianist named Roy Brown.  Roy and the group had just come out with their Continuation CD,  so I got to hear them play everything on the album live.   After the show,  they were selling CDs of course.   When I get to see little-known musicians like this  I'll usually buy the CD to show support if nothing else.  In this case, though, I listen to these songs all the time!

One of my favorites on the disk is the tune Lonely Woman by Horace Silver.  Roy gives it the slow, sad ballad treatment.   The song, in Ebm at 49bpm is just calling for this kind of treatment.   The Horace Silver version is much more uptempo.

My version of Lonely Woman tries to use an arrangement similar to Roy's.

Roy Brown 

Roy Brown Quartet - Continuation CD

Jazz at Pearls,  which unfortunately is closed now.  Small jazz clubs  have a really difficult time surviving these days. 

Horace Silver

Geek Alert

This is "recital season",  meaning that I have to work out a solo piano version of something.  I'm usually not working on solo numbers, so this is always a challenge.  I think Lonely Woman, though, works pretty well both as a solo number or a trio.   I play it a little faster as a solo,  so I'm hoping this works out.

You may notice the drum/cymbal accents on beat 4 of the breaks in the melody.  Roy Brown's excellent drummer did something like this.  I had to get some separate drum loops and time them into those spots to make that work.  That was a pain,  but I think it made it sound much more like a real trio.  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Another Star

"Another Star" is a song written and performed by Stevie Wonder from his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. Released as a single in 1977, it reached number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100, number 18 on the Black Singles chart, and number 2 on the Dance/Disco chart.   Still and all,  it is not one of Stevie's better known songs.   Jazz players  love this song because it seems to have the feel and structure of a standard that can be massaged into modern jazz forms.

One great example of this is by drummer Yoron Israel and his pianist Laszlo Gardony on their Visions CD.
I had the pleasure to see them perform in Natick, MA.  USA  this year.  It was an intimate setting,  and they played several of the songs from their Visions CD,  which was a tribute to the works of Stevie Wonder.

The song that was just so memorable for me was Stevie's "Another Star".  The overall arrangement,  and what Laszlo did with the piano comp and solo just blew me away.   It immediately went on the learn-it list!

What they essentially did was to change the song to a modern swing walking bass number where they have a tenor sax lead  doing the head in the form of AABC.  Then the sax does improv on just BC and returns to AA one octave up.  The piano comes in for improv on the next BCBC,  then the sax comes for the head (AABC) and comps out on AA then AA up an octave, etc.  It is a pretty cool arrangement.

In my take on Another Star I use the same arrangement,  but substitute myself on jazz guitar for the tenor sax.   I ...really... wish that I knew how to record a drum set,  because this is my favorite song for letting loose on a drum kit.  The drummer that I use here from Band-in-a-Box is incredible,  but I would have so much fun recording this on drums.

(Special thanks to Cliff for added background vocals :-))    

Laszlo Gardony

Yoron Israel's Visions CD

The One and Only Stevie Wonder

Geek Alert
This is my next adventure in playing outside the changes.  The last time, on But Beautiful I gave it a whirl at ballad tempo.  This time,  you'll here me trying to go outside at 130 bpm.  You'll hear me trying just two note patterns going up a minor third  on the Eb chord.  You'll also hear me play alternate scales and chords that are "out" on the V chord of the ii-V going into Eb.

Sometimes rather than going completely "out",  I changed the harmony  to a substitution and played over the substitution  which is interesting also.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out some of the tasty comping tricks that Laszlo was doing.  He made the song have such a sense of motion with what he was doing.  I may have gotten one or two, but I wish that I had a transcription, that's for sure.

I doubled the guitar on the melody in certain spots with piano octaves.  I like the way that sounds.  How about you?   

Saturday, February 22, 2014

But Beautiful

When you are learning to play an instrument,  you will often run into enormous mountains in the way of your development that seem insurmountable.  My take on most of these mountains has been just to avoid them. Heck,  I'm just playing for my own enjoyment,  so why torture myself  developing techniques that I'll never use?  But sometimes  one of those mountains is in the path of something that you really do want to accomplish,  and then you have to do -something- about it.

One of those mountains for me is to learn to play "outside" of the changes.   What does this mean?  Really good jazz players  will often superimpose a different mode or scale over the chord changes of the song for a time.   If you do it in a tasteful and imaginative way,  it can make your playing sound very special.  The problem is that it opens up a myriad of other possible things that can be played at any given time - as if all of the possible choices weren't difficult enough already!

So my task on  But Beautiful  was not only to re-harmonize the changes,  but then to tastefully(?) find places to play outside of those changes and then come back in again.   As always,  I had a lot of help from my teacher Ed.  I was also able to use an online class from Dave Frank,  who  I am familiar with from his posts in Pianoworld.  If you are interested in this subject, this is a really informative class that I would highly recommend.

Gregory Porter

My inspiration to do this song comes from the the incredible Gregory Porter and his amazing accompanist Chip Crawford.   They perform But Beautiful on Porter's Water  album.   It is just magical.    I had the pleasure to see them perform in Boston at Sculler's jazz club.  I had a chance to talk to Chip at the bar for a while and urged him to record a solo album.   He is really that good!    Anyway,  you really must listen to this recording or you will be missing something special.

Chip Crawford

"But Beautiful" is a popular song with music written by Jimmy Van Heusen, the lyrics by Johnny Burke. The song was published in 1947.

Love is funny, or it's sad
Or it's quiet, or it's mad
It's a good thing, or it's bad
But Beautiful

Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall, you fall
And oh I'm thinking
I wouldn't mind at all

Love is tearful, or it's gay
It's a problem, or it's play
It's a heartache either way
But Beautiful

And I'm thinking, if you were mine
I would never let you go
And that would be
But Beautiful
I know

Love is tearful, or it's gay
It's a problem, or it's play
It's a heartache either way
But Beautiful

And I'm thinking, if you were mine
I would never let you go
And that would be
But Beautiful
That would be
But Beautiful
That would be
But Beautiful
I know

Geek Alert

There are apparently four  typical ways of playing outside the changes.   I try to make use of three of the these in But Beautiful.

Greatly paraphrasing and simplifying the idea behind these four methods,we get:  

1.  Cycled patterns -  these are 2 to 4 note sequences  either ascending or descending.   You play the pattern on the next scale up or down a minor or major 2nd or 3rd. It is a little more complicated than this.  I will refer you to Dave's class for the real detail.
2.  Modal Assignment -  improvise over an alternate mode  than the changes in the progression,  but always returning to the changes
3.  Ambiguous Scales - Use ambiguous whole tone and diminished scales  going inside-outside-inside of the changes
4.  Chord Extension and Diminution - increase or decrease the number of beats in the chord with the improvisation while the changes stay the same.

Hopefully you will hear spots in the tune where I am attempting each of the first three methods.  The fourth is just too advanced for me to even try at this point  :-(

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Morning Dance

If you are of a "certain age"  and grew up in the US,   then as a jazz fan you were very influenced by an innovative band named Spyro Gyra.  I actually don't know if they were/are popular outside of the US,  but I suspect that they are.   Spyro Gyra was formed in the mid-1970's in Buffalo, NY.  Against all odds and trends,  they were not only critically successful, but they also sold 10 million copies of 25 released albums! Not bad for  a jazz band.  

The band formed around the enormous talents of Jay Beckenstein and Jeremy Wall.   In my little hometown,  following Jeremy's success was a big deal, since he was from the same high school, and his Mom was our librarian  :-)  At one point I remember that as a young man he wrote a symphony for our symphonic band, which was a great honor.   I was in the percussion section then.   I don't remember if there were any good parts for drummers.

Now, strangely,  many decades later it turns out that he is a good friend of my wife's family,  and every once in a blue moon  we get the opportunity to hear him play in a very intimate setting.

Back to Spyro Gyra -             

One thing that they could surely do was catch you with a combined  melodic/rhythmic hook.  One of their most memorable songs for me is titled Morning Dance.   Written by Jay Beckenstein, the whole song is one big hook - and one that will never leave you once heard.   I had this song on my to-do list for a long time.  I tried in once and gave up after a short time.  I had been trying to play it at the originally recorded tempo,  which is something north of 200 bpm.  No way!

When I tried it this time,  beside reharmonizing some of the chords,  I slowed it down to 146, and changed the feel to more of a Samba/Bossa  than the original Samba/Funk.   I  love that Samba/Funk sound,  but it is just too unique to get right.   

I hope Morning Dance chases your winter blues away!!!  

Jeremy Wall

Jay Beckenstein

Geek Alert

Unfortunately, from a playing perspective,  this is one of my weaker efforts.  Particularly the solo and ending. I just ran out of time to be more fluid with better ideas on those parts.  Such is life.  Onward. 

The original song is in cut time.  Since I changed this to be 146bpm,  I'm no longer doing cut time,  so  notice that I have hand claps on 3,  not on 2 where they were in the original.

I'm using 4ths in one bar in the B section of the melody.  Hopefully this sounds OK.

You may notice that on the ending modulation,  in addition to bringing back the hand claps,  I brought in some tuba!  I love the way that Tuba Gooding Jr.  sounds on the Roots crew,  and I thought that this would be the perfect spot for those accents.

Tuba on the ending  - Roots crew

Tuba Gooding Jr.


If you want to see a patently absurd video of kids frolicking and dancing to my jazz cover of this tune,  check out this out on Youtube: