Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Alter Ego

When I walked into my piano lesson a couple of weeks ago with the goal of working on All Blues,  my teacher Ed asked me if I had ever heard of this tune named Alter Ego.  I said that I hadn't heard of it,  but I was interested in why he asked.  He started explaining that he was considering working on an arrangement of it for his trio,  the Ed Mascari Trio.   This is a fairly new tune by jazz standards,  so it is not included in the Real Book of standards  to the best of my knowledge.  It hasn't been covered by a tremendous number of musicians either.   So maybe I can be forgiven for never having heard of it.

But as he was showing me the lead sheet,  it was dawning on me what an interesting and beautiful sounding song this is!   I saw right away that Ed had the chord voicings identified as being composed as upper structure triads.   Many of the chords in the song are m11.  To get this sound,  there are two triads used - a minor triad based on the root of the chord  played in the left hand,  and then a major triad played in the right hand a scale tone below.   So if the chord is Am11,  then an Am triad is played in the left hand, and a G triad is played in the right.    This gets you both the 11th and the 9th, and it is a very rich sound.  These kind of upper structure two-handed chords are used throughout.  

I just loved the idea of it.  Then Ed played both Kenny Barron and James Williams (the composer) playing arrangements of the tune,  and I was hooked.   I was particularly taken in by what Kenny Barron's trio did with this song on their incredible Live At Bradley's CD.   The trio made a latin number out of it,  but it was not your standard latin jazz treatment of a song.  Something was quite different about it.   

Barron's "Live at Bradley's" was released in 2002 with Ray Drummond on Bass and Ben Riley on Drums.   It may have actually been recorded in 1996  at that famous club for jazz pianists,  but I'm not really sure.

As one reviewer stated:

"The mood of contemplation continues with "Alter Ego," a piece by pianist James Williams that recalls some of the compositions of Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage period. It lends itself to Barron's impressionism and a building rhythmic intensity engendered by the quiet insistence of Riley's four-beat sticks on cymbals and rims."

I think this was the key.  In addition to the style of the piece being reminiscent of that Herbie Hancock period,  and Barron's incredible playing,  it was the four beat sidestick rhythm  that made this different from a regular latin number.

When I came up with my arrangement for Alter Ego,   I wanted to try to emulate that groove, and believe me it wasn't easy.   What makes the groove happen is a polyglot of styles,  where the drum style is really a Praise and Worship rock kind of beat,  and the bass is playing a samba rhythm.    When you put it together with the lush voicings and accents,  it starts to sound hip.  After a while was able to get my "band" to do this for me :-)

I had an idea for the intro too.  Kenny  did a  solo legato intro that I like (how could you not),  so I wanted to throw one of those in there.  But I also  thought of something else.  There are a number of lush elemental and passing chords that are played throughout.  I thought it would sound nice if I arranged these chromatically with some flourishes as an intro  leading into the first Am11.  I like the way it came out!

There is a short vamp in the beginning of the up-tempo part of the song.  I would have loved to play that for a long time like his trio does on the live recording,  but the song was already too long,  so had to keep it short....  

The composer, James Williams was born March 8, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee. He began his formal piano studies at age 13, and earned a B.S. in Music Education at Memphis State University.  At 22, Williams moved to Boston to accept a teaching position at the Berklee College of Music. A year later, he joined drummer Alan Dawson’s group, which provided support in the Boston area for touring artists including Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Pat Martino, Jean Carn, Red Norvo, and Arnett Cobb. In 1977, Williams recorded his first album as a leader, played his first concert featuring his original compositions, and first met Art Blakey. That encounter ultimately led to James’s resigning from the Berklee faculty for a four-year, 10-album tenure with the Jazz Messengers. In 1984, Williams moved to New York, residing in Brooklyn and becoming deeply involved in the city’s musical activities, omnipresent in jazz clubs not only as a performer but also as a devoted listener. 

He was only 53 years old when he died.  Such a loss for jazz fans...  Since he was in Boston and Brooklyn  I would have thought that I would have heard of him before this.

James Williams released Alter Ego in 1984

Kenny Baron

James Williams

Sunday, March 1, 2015

All Blues

What can you say about All Blues?  This is one of the most recognized jazz numbers of all time.   It has probably influenced many a  musician to pick up his instrument for the first time.   It is also a somewhat controversial tune.   It is included on Mile's seminal Kind of Blue Album with  several modal jazz numbers such as Freddie Freeloader and So What.   This album was the centerpiece of Miles' modal phase of musical exploration.  So the question became,  was All Blues to be played as  a modal number in the manner of the others or is it to be treated more as a blues?  I've seen some pretty heated online discussions about this one.   I'm not going to pretend that I know the answer,  or if there really is one that matters.

I'll just tell you about my approach to playing All Blues for this blog post.  I wanted to use the very open spacing of the chords in the song to try out a concept known as "backdoor ii-V's". This is where you can play an alternate harmony that is down a major 3rd or up a minor 3rd from where the actual chords are.   I believe there are some other variations of this too.   All Blues is written such that most of the chords are just V dominant 7th chords.   I started by changing that so that they we are using the ii-V,  rather than just the V chords.    Then,  when I was soloing,   I would move my harmony either up a m3 or down a maj3  with both my left hand chords  and the linear solo.   The bass player was still playing over the regular ii-V's.

This yielded a kind of interesting sound,  and when I switched back to playing the regular harmony  it sounded like there were extra little resolutions happening.   It is something that I think I'll defintely keep experimenting with!

If you notice a couple of cheating quotes in the playing,  they are intentional  :-)  The beginning of my solo is a quote from one of the sax solos in the original All Blues.   Also the ending is my poor-man's theft from the ending done by a wonderful solo treatment of this song by a pianist named Larry McDonough.  McDonough himself is obviously doing a quote,  and I am doing a quote of his quote. How much lack of imagination can you ask for!

Miles Davis  Kind of Blue

Larry McDonough