Friday, December 02, 2005

A Quick Jazz Anatomy Lesson

Renee Rosnes — Someday My Prince Will Come

This one goes out to my mom. She writes: “I’ve been trying to read your paper [that I wrote on how to apply principles of jazz improvisation in the classroom]. You use all these terms that I don’t understand: head, chorus, and so on. And I have to admit: Jazz always sounds pretty crazy and chaotic to me, like it doesn’t have any structure…”

Mom, you just brought up the single biggest misconception about jazz. In reality, it is a highly structured music. Here: let's take a quick look at a basic, four-minute tune as an example.

  • "Someday My Prince Will Come" is from the Disney movie, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937), and after Miles Davis recorded it in the 1950’s, it became a jazz standard. It’s played here by a piano trio: Renee Rosnes on piano, plus a stand-up bassist and a drummer.

  • The song itself is 32 bars long. The group plays the song through five times. Each play-through is known as a "chorus". (see yellow pad doodle above.)

  • In the first and last choruses, Renee plays the melody of the tune faithfully on the piano. These are the "head" choruses (as opposed to the other, "solo" choruses.)

  • During the solos, the underlying chords of the song remain the same. The new improvised melodies sit atop this familiar bed of chord changes.

  • The song is in 3/4 time (or waltz time), unusual for jazz, which is often in 4/4 time. Until Bill Evans came along (he's my all-time favorite jazz pianist), nobody thought it possible that jazz could “swing” in waltz time.

  • A word about Renee Rosnes. She was adopted, and raised in Vancouver. About ten years ago she met her birth mother (a Sikh) who then died three months later. She made an album about it. I had an unusual and amusing encounter with Renee at the Village Vanguard the last time I was in New York, but that's a story for another time, place and post. Salut, ma mère.


Blogger girish said...

Staying with jazz for a second.
A while back, I wrote about Toshiko Akiyoshi and her love of Bud Powell.
The soundtrack to the movie made about Bud, Round Midnight, is generously available at Flickhead's.

December 02, 2005 7:13 AM  
Blogger Ed Garrity said...

Hey Girish,

Can I get a copy of your paper - how to apply jazz principles to teaching? Sounds cool.


December 02, 2005 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Ed--
Gordon [my pal and colleague that I'm working with] and I are currently turning it inside out, and expanding it for a journal. But I'd be glad to send it your way when it's done.

December 02, 2005 7:59 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Your mom may be more inclined to the softer side of things. I'd suggest the albums "Something Else" by Cannonball Adderley (featuring a rare appearance by Miles as a sideman); Coltrane's exquisite "Ballads" and his album with Johnny Hartman.

December 02, 2005 8:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead, my mom does love the Hartman/Coltrane record. (She should have it memorized, since it plays so often around my household.) :-)
She also likes the Cannonball Jump For Joy/Strings record, with its backdrop of orchestral arrangements.

December 02, 2005 8:11 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I would guess that if you haven't been a musician of any kind yourself, it would be harder to recognize structure in certain forms of jazz. As it happened, my mother also covered Jazz during her time at the Denver Post (she was a music major at Radcliffe). One of our discussions was on how academic the jazz of Dave Brubeck was (he was on the radio at that moment), with the obviousness of his structures.

December 02, 2005 9:03 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Man, you squares kill me with all this wigged theory. Jazz is like this.

December 02, 2005 9:38 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Bookmarking this. ^_^ You could take what I know about the "behind the scenes" of music and write it on the inside of a matchbook, with space left over for a name and phone number. Really makes me wonder sometimes exactly what the hell I'm doing trying to write about music.

December 02, 2005 10:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead--Always dug that word. Wigged.
Tuwa--But you run a fine music-blog, sir. And that's what matters.

December 02, 2005 10:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, you bring up a good point.
Non-musician friends of mine have told me that their appreciation and enjoyment of jazz markedly increased after they learned some basics about structure and arrangements. I think it can often make for a closer and more acute listening experience.

December 02, 2005 10:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And speaking of Brubeck, I remember how stunned I was when I first discovered that "Take Five" was in the (uncommon) 5/4 time signature. It certainly didn't hamper Brubeck and Paul Desmond's ability to "swing" the tune. In fact, the signature doesn't even sound odd or weird or tricky in "Take Five"--it sounds perfectly "normal".

December 02, 2005 11:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And Peter needs to write a biography (or something) of his mom. She sounds like a Renaissance super-woman.

December 02, 2005 11:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Via Jim:
"...specialists estimate that 6 percent to 10 percent of the approximately 189 million Internet users in this country have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction..."

December 02, 2005 3:09 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

A nice post, Girish. I love your point about "Take Five." To the ears, it does sound "normal," perhaps one of the reasons why it's such a popular song, and yet, as you say, it's such an odd time signature. I've always admired Brubeck and Desmond for that because, for me at least, 5/4 is very difficult -- it's hard not to want to fall back into 4/4, to go from "unnatural" to "natural." Time signatures are one of the best ways to create a different feel in music without being obvious or obtrusive; it's something you feel but don't readily notice when listening. I recall hearing a Sinead O'Connor song and thinking how there was something about it that made it different ... lo and behold, it's in 6/4.

(By the way, the music/lecturing connection is interesting. I had a prof in grad school who would lecture off the top of his head and begin with a theme, develop the theme, and then return to it. He wasn't a musician, but the structures of his lectures were certainly musical.)

December 02, 2005 3:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael--You bring up a very interesting point about altering the "feel" of a tune simply by changing its time signature.
e.g. The way jazz pianist Brad Mehldau ingeniously recasts tunes into unexpected time signatures. And he picks great, unlikely material to cover as well: Radiohead, Nick Drake, the Beatles (killer version of "Blackbird"), etc.

Re: the jazz improvisation metaphor for teaching, when I first started my academic career, I was much more traditionally lecture-oriented (like my role models in undergrad and grad school).
But over the years, I've steadily moved away from that into a looser, more interactive and improvisatory model.
Sorta like the way a jazz bandleader might try to engage his/her ensemble and the particular strengths of the individual players. Rather than playing all the solos himself. :-)
e.g. The way Ellington and Strayhorn conceived radically different-styled parts for Johnny Hodges' alto versus Cootie Williams' trumpet.

December 02, 2005 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Excellent little primer!

Now, Girish, can you deconstruct (in similar fashion) a sixty-minute Cecil Taylor solo? Don't get me wrong...I like him, but I don't get him. Take Coltrane for example -- even at his wildest (I'm thinking of those late Impulse! albums) I always felt like I understood where he was going -- like on those epic live versions of My Favorite Things I still felt I could find the melody/pattern/rhythm underneath it all. But Taylor -- he's just out there.

December 02, 2005 4:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain--may I confess?
Can't get with Cecil.
I've tried.
But I just can't.
In fact, a lot of (most) free playing is just too out-there for me.
I know I sound like an aesthetic reactionary when I say this, but maybe I'm at heart a (yikes) traditional tonal-center-craving kinda guy.

December 02, 2005 4:56 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Camille Paglia, as ever, is a riot:
"I for one do not dance to dance music; disco for me is a lofty metaphysical mode that induces contemplation....Disco at its best is a neurological event, a shamanistic vehicle of space-time travel."

Ben has a cool little homage to Camille.

December 03, 2005 10:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Damn, that Harry Potter kid has impeccable taste in music.
[via Rock Snob].

December 03, 2005 11:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

via Largehearted Boy:

Juliana Hatfield: "I can't compete in today's marketplace anyway," the 38-year-old said. "Mainstream culture is gross. People with the most amazing talent are taking their clothes off to sell their music. I find it disgusting and I'm not a prude. Aretha Franklin never put on a bikini to sell records. Would she have to if she was starting out now?"

December 03, 2005 11:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Best news of the week:
Busby Berkeley box set.

December 03, 2005 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I hadn't thought about the jazz/teaching connection in that way -- as an interactive method between professor and students, as if they all make up one ensemble. That's interesting. I assume that it requires that all the students are willing to play -- do you ever find that some of them aren't willing?

December 03, 2005 2:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Do you ever find that some of them aren't willing?"

Michael--Sure, that happens often.
Especially in the beginning few weeks of the semester.
But it helps that part of their course grade depends on class participation, and they know it.
Also, I try to, if I can, draw upon their individual strengths and experiences with specific questions. (I collect information from each of my students about their background, work experience, even hobbies and interests, on the first day of class).
However, every class, and indeed every student, is different.
It can make for a risky, unpredictable and (if one is lucky) rewarding experience for both students and prof.
Not unlike the risks and rewards improvised musical performance. :-)

December 03, 2005 2:31 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

Three months ago, I attempted to analyze the jazz form (in my own uneducated fashion), particularly in how one can draw firm lines (if at all possible) between pop and jazz. Read it here.

December 03, 2005 3:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

That was very enjoyable, Mr. Pop View.
Thanks for posting that!

December 03, 2005 4:29 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

"However, every class, and indeed every student, is different."

Definitely. Classes almost seem to have characters of their own sometimes, as if there's sort of a collective will. I too think it's risky, but -- you're right -- when it works, it's very rewarding.

December 04, 2005 2:43 AM  
Anonymous Mike DiGiacomo said...

A terrific post! I'm going to send this link to some of my friends who think jazz sounds "random" and "confusing." Thanks for posting the mp3- Renee does such a nice job on this song. I love Miles Davis' version of this song (especially Wynton Kelly's playing and the intro).

December 04, 2005 11:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey Mike, It's nice to see you around here!
[Mike is the sax prodigy in the eponymous band I spoke of.]

December 04, 2005 1:14 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Now that we've figured out jazz, we'd do well to go here.

December 04, 2005 2:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...


December 04, 2005 3:09 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks, Girish. sometimes I wonder.

... I started writing a top 15 in 15 list and quit. I'd seen almost no films at all before 1995, though I've seen some awesome ones since.

December 04, 2005 5:21 PM  

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