Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good Riddance

Last month I posted a blog praising Chris Cheek's CD, "A Girl Named Joe".  I continue to listen to this recording while running on the treadmill at the gym. The title track has really caught my attention and imagination.  I love the slow, "triplet" 6/8 feel.  The bluesy harmonic progression has elements of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind".  I decided to write a new melody over these chords.  I retained the bass line, but ditched the bridge of the original song. 

I think it is safe to call this piece a 24-bar blues, although not according to the traditional definition of doubling the blues' harmonic rhythm.  Mark Gridley, the author of the "Jazz Styles" jazz history textbook defines a blues as "a piece characterized by one or any combination of the following: a) the I-IV-I-V-I chord progression or some variation of it in a 12-bar package, b) a sad feeling, c) a slow pace, d) poetry in the form of paired couplets in iambic pentameter, e) many lowered third, fifth, or seventh intervals."  I've got "b", "c" and "e" covered.

This is song 29 of 30 in my self-imposed 30 day challenge.  I've got just one more to go!  What it will be, I do not know. 

Because those last 2 sentences rhymed, maybe I'll try out some iambic pentameter in the spirit of Gridley's fourth definition.  I guess we'll see...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I have written an E minor blues in 7/4 today.  Because the ostinato bass figure is fairly busy, I tried to keep the melody comparatively static.  I imagine the melody played by a trumpet in stemless harmon mute, doubled by an alto sax or clarinet.

It's hard to believe that this is blues # 28!  I now have only 2 more songs to write to successfully complete my 30-day challengeYippee!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Coltrane Changes on the Blues

I have been meaning to write a blues which incorporates "Coltrane changes", the harmonic progression John Coltrane superimposed over the harmony of many of his tunes during the early 1960s.  There are many articles written to explain the theory behind this progression, and they are easy to find by searching the internet for: Coltrane changes, Coltrane matrix, Giant Steps matrix, Coltrane cycle, augmented matrix, Coltrane substitutions etc.  The Wikipedia article (entitled "Coltrane Changes") referencing David Dempsey is quite good.

On the blues there are two common places to insert Coltrane's progression.  The first is at the top of the form, moving towards the IV chord.  In the key of B, this would look like:

B7  D7 | Gmaj7  Bb7 |  Ebmaj7  F#7 |  B7   =>  E7

The second possible insertion point is at measure 9, starting after the ii chord.  This would look like:

C#mi7  D7 | Gmaj7  Bb7 |  Ebmaj7  F#7  | Bmaj7   F#7 | => B7

I chose to use the first progression, because I didn't like going from B major at the end of the form to B7 at the top of the form, one measure later.

My friend Noah Baerman, devised an interesting Coltrane-based progression in his book, "Jazz Keyboard Harmony", which I endorsed a few years ago.  He started with the matrix and then made reference to the constituent tonal centers in the remainder of the 12-bar progression.  I decided to use his progression as the foundation for my tune, "You Would If You Loved Me".

A couple of days ago I made a Facebook posting, asking for song titles to spark my imagination as I near the end of my 30-day blues writing challenge.  I can thank my former student, Floyd Kellogg for today's title, "You Would If You Loved Me".

If it wasn't for Floyd I wouldn't have met my wife, Jana.  During my first year teaching at UConn, Floyd coaxed me into stopping by the bar across from the UConn Music Building to hear his band "Adios Pantalones".  Yes, they played their final song each night with no pants.  Anyways... Jana was in the audience that night.  I spotted her hanging out with some grad students, and worked my way into a conversation which (I'm happy to say) continues 12 years later.  Thanks Floyd!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

8 Bar Blues

As my 30-day blues writing challenge winds down, my friend (and musical insurrectionist) Jim Brenan suggested that I write an 8 bar blues.  Maybe I'm living under a rock, but I must admit to having never heard of such a thing. 

Naturally, I turned to THE SOURCE OF ALL KNOWLEDGE: Wikipedia.  Sure enough, I found a concise article entitled "Eight-bar blues" which not only verified the form's existence but referred to it as "the second most common blues form".  It provided me with the following progression, where the IV chord lands in measure 3 and there is "a characteristic V chord in measure 2".

Obviously I have a lot more research to do when it comes to this progression.  The article says it is commonly used in jazz, but it doesn't site an example that I recognize, and none come readily to mind.  If you know of one, please leave it in the comments of this blog (rather than on Facebook, for the sake of future readers).

Ignorance has yet to prevent me from diving in and trying something new, so here is my first attempt at making music with this 8-bar form:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Music Education Blues

My friend and "music education guru", Mitch Robinson asked me to write a blues for his son who is in sixth grade and plays the clarinet.  I decided to write something in the vein of John Coltrane's "Bessie's Blues", which is relatively simple, swings like crazy, and focuses primarily on outlining basic chord tones within the 12-bar blues progression.

I wanted "Jacob's Blues" to have a few improvisational lessons within it.  The first has to do with rhythmic entrances.  We don't always want to emphasize beat one.  I tried to demonstrate that a simple 4-note grouping could be moved around within a measure.  The half rest in measures 3, 7 and 11 is designed not only to force him count, but to allow him to experience "space".  I also wanted to show that it is possible to be somewhat "hip" while limiting oneself to chord tones, to clearly outline the harmony.

I thought this melody could be used in conjunction with the subsequent exercises, as an introductory improvisation lesson on the blues.

I hope you dig it Jacob. Go Spartans!

If you're playing quarter notes, just play the first two notes of your pattern when you reach the last 2 measures (known as the turn-around).

After you can do the above listed exercises with ease and by memory, try applying the following rhythms.  (*If this image, or any of the others on this blog appear small, just click on them to enlarge them to their original size.)

Why is it that my best work is always done on napkins?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Google Is Watching

After having written two blues tunes using the whole tone scale, I've decided to continue on my symmetrical scale kick.  This one is derived from the diminished scale (AKA octatonic).  I tried to mimic the effect of slowing down, by gradually increasing the note duration.

I now have just 6 more pieces to write, and March 1st can't come fast enough.  I'll go back and check the list of ideas I wrote on day 11 to see if I have overlooked any concepts.  At this point, I'm open to taking requests.  If you're got an idea for me to try, a great song title to spark my imagination, or need a piece written for that special someone in your life, let me know.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Stalker

In yesterday's blues I included a whole tone interlude. Today I've gone a step further by making every chord reflective of a symmetrical whole tone scale.  I like the creepy quality it achieves.  I added two measures at the end of the form, but I haven't committed to whether or not they will remain for the improvisational "blowing form".

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Internal Candidate

Form was today's preoccupation. To the 12-bar blues form I added a 16 measure interlude to be played at the end of every second chorus (including solos). It also serves as the song's introduction. To spice things up, I used whole tone scale harmony reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's "Ju-Ju".   This should be a lot of fun to play.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sensory Break

I do most of my (extracurricular) listening to music in the car these days, but twice in the past week I drove home in complete silence following musical events where my head just felt overloaded with sound. (Actually, I've been musically assaulted three times this week, if you count church). The first was after adjudicating 15 middle/high school bands, and the second was following a concert by John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble.  Although the later was inspiring, it left me feeling like I was driven over by a huge, sonic truck... and even more exhausted than after 10 hours of adjudicating.

I think I like Hollenbeck's music more for what it represents than for listening pleasure.  He has successfully wedded the aesthetics of jazz and contemporary classical music, to form something new.  In his pre-concert master class he expressed his discomfort with the musical status quo. The notion of pushing oneself to try new things is very appealing to me.  Do I aspire to write music like John?  Not really --- although there are plenty of beautiful moments within his music.  What I DO hope to incorporate is the mindset of questioning everything (process, form, desired outcomes... you name it), and forcing myself to experiment outside of my comfort zone.

Today's piece will be an experiment of sorts.  One of John's pieces, "Perseverance" offered a good reminder of the power of unison.  The main melody featured 3 tenor saxophonists and electric bass playing the same line together over a drum beat.  Despite being melodically quirky, it was powerful and convincing. I decided to run with that idea.

I began with the question:  If I were to write a 12-bar tune comprised of conventional jazz rhythms and typical phrase lengths, but worked exclusively with 12-tone rows, could the piece be easily distinguishable as a blues?  There would be no chord symbols, the line would be played in unison (or octaves) and the piece would serve as a launch pad for free improvisation, while always adhering to the 12-bar form. So I did what any other great composer would do.  I put all 12 tones into a hat, and allowed my wife to choose the pitches.

Writing rhythms was next. I then visited, where I generated a matrix.  From there, I tweaked my rhythms slightly so that the total number of notes would be divisible by 12.  The row and its various manifestations (prime, inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion) would be presented 5 times. 

Here's what resulted:

Does the experiment work?  I guess we'll see on my next quartet gig.  With the right players, I think it will, but even if it doesn't, I think the process has been valuable.  Ever up and onward.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Big Brother

On Saturday, I wrote a tune based on Miles Davis' "Solar". Today, George Gershwin's "Summertime" gets reworked, complete with a bass line and rhythm section hits.  I imagine it being played as a shuffle, in the style of Art Blakey.  Even though this piece is 22 bars long, I would argue that it is an extended blues, as it goes to the IV chord in measure 5.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote this after hearing "Passing", an online preview track from Kris Allen's forthcoming CD.  I liked the song so much that I started playing along with it in my office.  I decided then and there to write a variation on his progression with a new melody and bass line.  It wasn't until midway through the process of tinkering with this piece that I realized the harmony was actually based on "Summertime".

Although I'm pleased with what I've done here, Kris' version hasn't lost any of its original appeal. I look forward to hearing the whole CD.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


I've entitled today's blues "Un-American".  As a Canadian living in the US, I can't help but chuckle at the frequency with which this term is used in U.S. political discourse.

This piece utilizes an AABA form, where the A sections are a 12-bar blues and the B section is 8 measures.  I used a sequence of secondary dominants to take us to the IV chord in measure 5.  Imposing this cycle makes the tune more challenging/interesting for the improviser.  This is a well known device which has been used by many jazz musicians over the years.

The second half of each A section is improvised.  For fun, I also inserted the [dominant] cycle in measures 9 and 10, although one might choose to overlook these chords, as I suppose it is possible to have too much of a good thing (chocolate cake also comes to mind).  

The B section is a standard "I've Got Rhythm" bridge, although I put it in another key so as to lead to the flat II chord at the beginning of the third A section.

I dedicate this one to Newt.  Good luck with colonizing the moon.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Solar Flare

Back when I was a student, I remember being surprised when a professor suggested that Miles Davis' "Solar" was a blues.  I counted the measures, and sure enough there were twelve... but then there were all of those II-V's and major chords.  It got my wheels turning regarding what defines a blues progression.  If it goes to the IV chord in the fifth measure, it really doesn't matter if that IV chord is major, minor or dominant.

I decided to revisit "Solar" but present it in a triple meter, with an ostinato bass figure and a new melody.  I'm calling it "Solar Flare".  I usually write at the piano, but this time, as an experiment, I wrote away from the keyboard.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brood of Vipers

Today I have written a modal blues using John Coltrane's "Pursuance" as a model.  "Pursuance" is the 3rd part of Coltrane's A Love Supreme Suite.

Ironically, today is my mother's birthday, and I think it is safe to say that she despises the music of John Coltrane.  As a teenager I used to joke that she would do well in DownBeat magazine's blindfold test.  Clearly she could recognize his sound, because every time I played a Coltrane record she'd complain and say "That music is driving me crazy. Can't you switch it to something else?!"

Happy Birthday Mom.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Flip Side - Blues # 16

I woke up this morning with bebop lines running through my head.  Here's a bird blues bop line, which I'm calling "Flip Side".  The melodic form is ABC and the apex was intentionally placed in measure 10.  'Nuff said.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Conspiracy Theory

I have now reached the halfway point in my self-inflicted 30 day challenge to write a blues head daily.  I am gradually working my way through the list of compositional approaches I made a few days ago, when I sensed I was falling into a repetative rut.

Today I have written an aggressive, angular, phrygian blues.  I love the unsettling, agitated quality conjured up by the phrygian mode.

[Please take today's chord symbols with a grain of salt.  They are all just simple, white-note fourths structures.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lovers' Quarrel

To evoke some romance on Valentine's Day, today's blues is a waltz.  This is a 24-bar blues in D flat, created by doubling the harmonic rhythm.  I also superimposed a cycle of secondary dominants at the top of the form to take us to the IV chord in measure nine.

Thankfully, this one practically wrote itself.  (It was conceived and notated in just under an hour.) I say "thankfully" because for the remainder of today I will be adjudicating high school and middle school bands at the Manchester High School Jazz Festival.  Although I enjoy doing this, I know I'll be craving silence and avoiding music at all costs when I get home tonight. After eight hours of intense listening, I'll have reached my saturation point.

Happy Valentines Day everyone!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Stealing From Jim McNeely

It is no secret that Jim McNeely is one of my musical heroes.  I have studied with him privately and within the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop.  I have thoroughly analyzed his scores.  I have performed his music both as a pianist and conductor, and in April, I will again present his music with  the UConn Jazz 10tet.

The Swiss Jazz Orchestra CD, entitled "Paul Klee", is one of my favorite recordings of his work.   On this CD there is a piece entitled "Paukenspieler" (Kettle Drummer), where Jim had the ingenious idea to outline a blues progression on the drum kit.  The blues in it's rawest form consists of 3 chords, so by using 3 well-tuned tom-toms, it is entirely possible to outline the root motion of the blues using nothing but solo drums.

I took this idea, but decided to incorporate unconventional slash-chord harmony (triads over a foreign bass note).  I think it creates quite an eerie effect, giving this blues a "creepy" quality.

My performance instructions are as follows:

1) Intro: One chorus of drums w/ mallets playing the bass line
2) Add bass line, doubled in piano
3) Melody twice, over bass line
4) 1st soloist: one chorus of the slash chord changes, then Dmi blues (open)
5) 2nd soloist: Emi blues (open)
6) 3rd soloist: F#mi blues (open)
7) outhead (melody and bass line)
8) bass line, doubled in piano, w/ drums
9) drums alone, outlining bass line w/ mallets

TONIGHT: my 10-piece band, the New Directions Ensemble (plus 2 very special guests), plays at the Tea Lounge Cafe in Brooklyn, NY, as a part of the Size Matters big band series, curated by JC Sanford.  If you're in the city, I hope you will join us.  We start at 9 p.m.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ad Nauseam

Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" was the inspiration for today's blues.  It has a 16-measure, extended blues form.  I imagine this one played with a boogaloo feel, reminiscent of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder".

A simple, 3-note motif was used exclusively, to provide cohesion.  I tried to move it around rhythmically to keep it from becoming tiresome and annoying.  To be honest, I question if I succeeded.  Moving the motif around between a few different instruments might also help.  (This explains why some stems in measures 3, 4 and 12 are pointing downwards.)

Tomorrow night (Feb. 13th, 2012) my band, the New Directions Ensemble plays in Brooklyn, New York at the Tea Lounge Cafe:  837 Union Street.  If you're in the city, I hope you will stop by, give us a listen, and say hello.  We start at 9 p.m.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Upping the Ante

Now that I’m one third of the way through this “one blues per day” personal challenge, its time to take stock of what I have done and consider what possibilities remain.

In the first 10 days I used the following concepts:
  • AAA, AAB, ABC, A A’ A’’ melodic forms
  • compound line (2 guide-tone lines simultaneously weaving through the changes)
  • major blues
  • minor blues
  • Bird blues
  • sus 4 harmonies
  • 4/4 and 6/4 meters
  • ostinato bass figure
  • perfect 5th intervallic patterns
  • premeditated apex placement 
  • keys: F major, Bb major, C major, Cmi, Dmi

Ideas yet to be explored:
  • 16 bar blues (such as Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man
  • 24 bar blues (doubling the harmonic rhythm) 
  • modal blues 
  • dorian blues 
  • phrygian blues 
  • 3/4 
  • “odd meters”: 5/4, 7/4, 9/8 
  • mixed meters 
  • AABA: blues A sections, non-blues bridge 
  • AABA: non-blues A sections, blues bridge 
  • superimposed secondary dominants
  • "Giant Steps" matix 
  • venture into different key areas
  • more ostinatos 
  • motivic development techniques (through-composed)
  • "Solar" changes - modal mixture
  • a very slow blues
  • symmetrical scales
  • entertaining other definitions of the blues (?!)
  • external/non-musical impetus: ethnic ideas like "the Scottish Blues", "Moroccan Blues", etc.

For the moment, that's the extent of my list. It should be enough to get me through the next couple of weeks. If you notice the absence of a concept or device which I should not have overlooked, please let me know.  I certainly welcome ideas.

Today's composition is a  5/4 minor blues in A.  As I was searching for an ostinato bass figure, I remembered the bass line from one of my favorite minor blues pieces --- "Pumpkin's Delight" by Charlie Rouse.  I decided to "borrow" it, adapting the figure slightly to fit the new time signature and changing the key.  I think it works!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Force of Habit

It's Day 10 in my 30 Songs In 30 Days personal challenge.  I just finished today's song --- a minor blues in D with an A A' A'' melodic form.  The reality has hit that I'm only 1/3 of the way through this project, and drastic measures must be taken if I don't want to bore myself (and you!) by inadvertently writing variations of the same riff-based piece over and over again.

Part of me is wishing I hadn't limited myself to the blues form exclusively, while another part of me sees this as a great opportunity for growth.  Later today I will brainstorm, making a list of musical territory to explore.  I will post the list, so if you are curious, check back tomorrow.

Ever up and onward.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

30 Songs In 30 Days - Day 9

For this piece my goal was to write a through-composed melody with no phrase repetition.  Because I wrote with 4-measure phrases, this form could be considered ABC "Au Privave" by Charlie Parker has a similar phrase structure within a 12-bar blues progression.

I dedicate this one to my 6-year-old son.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cow Tipping

Here is a riff-type blues in C major with an AAB form.  To capture the feel of the Wild West I chose a lazy tempo, with a two-feel in the bass.  I call this one Cow Tippin' in honor of the cloned cows at UConn.  Here's a particularly interesting fact of trivia for you:  Did you know that the spots on a cloned cow don't typically match those of the original cow?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

30 Songs In 30 Days - Day 7

Keith Jarrett's "Bop Be" came to mind as a beautiful example of a contrafact melody over bop changes (Charlie Parker's "Confirmation"), where the melody wasn't overtly "bebop-ish" in nature.  I tried to capture that essence over a bird blues progression.  I left some breathing room in measures 7 and 8 and structured the melody so the apex appears near the end.

The playful, lightheartedness of this song made me think of my 3-year-old daughter, Stella, who often expresses her creative, improvisational spirit in a variety of ways, including her own expressive, carefree way of walking.


It feels good to have successfully completed the first week of my "30 songs in 30 days" challenge. I look forward to round two.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Riff Raff

Here is a simple blues, using 4-measure phrase repetition and a blues scale riff.  Perhaps this isn't my most innovative work, but it certainly falls within the jazz tradition.  I wonder how many thousands of riff-based blues heads have been recorded over the years.  Some of my favorites include "Centerpiece" by Harry "Sweets" Edison, "Pfrancing" by Miles Davis, and "The Blues Walk" by Clifford Brown.  What is your favorite riff-based blues head?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Fifth Dimension

For the fifth blues in this series I opted to write a minor blues in C.  The melody was constructed with the exclusive use of perfect 5th intervallic patterns.

(If you find the music difficult to read in any of my examples, just click on it to view an enlarged, legible version.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Jazz Makeover

It's day 4 of my blues writing challenge, and after writing three pieces in 4/4, trying a different time signature seemed appropriate.  I decided to give a makeover to "All Blues", by Miles Davis.  I changed the key, but kept his basic harmonic progression intact.  I modified the bass line ever so slightly and then applied some inverted fourths voicings to give it an updated, modern sound.  After recording several choruses of myself improvising over the vamp, I found this melody.  I call it "Bottom Feeders".

Friday, February 3, 2012

Guide Tones

Last semester I filled in for the professor who teaches traditional music composition at UConn.  While he was on sabbatic leave, I deviously exposed his students to the depraved ways of jazz.  In addition to working through some extensive listening lists, we literally devoured Ted Pease's text book, "Jazz Composition - Theory and Practice".  If you're curious, my course outline for the semester can be viewed here.

This next blues, is derived from a concept Pease presents.  The melody is based on two, guide tone-based lines simultaneously weaving their way through the harmonic progression.  By alternating between the guide tones and using ample embellishment (anticipation, passing tones, neighbor tones, indirect resolution, escape tones, double chromatic approach, etc.), a bebop flavored melody was produced.  "Jordu" by Duke Jordan, and "In Walked Bud" by Thelonious Monk are two classic examples also utilizing this technique.

For my tune, I used a harmonic variation of the blues commonly referred to as a "bird blues".  Charlie Parker's "Blues For Alice" is perhaps the most famous example.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

30 Songs In 30 Days - Day 2

The sounds of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner were on my mind as I wrote this "open sounding", simple blues progression using sus4 chords.  I sometimes think of composing as a game. This time the game was toying with the use of the third scale degree against the suspended 4th harmony in each phrase.

I like this one.

Charles Lloyd's "Hyperion With Higgins" is another suspended 4th blues I heard recently, which was on my mind as I wrote this.

On Day 2 of this 30-Day Challenge I'm enjoying the experiment and process.  I hope I can maintain the momentum. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The 30 Day Blues

This is the first of 30 blues heads I will be writing this month.  I decided to "start simple", using the Sonny Rollins tune, "Sonny Moon For Two" as my model.  "Sonny Moon..." consists of 3 identical phrases, comprised of a descending blues scale (minus the #4 scale degree).  At first I tried doing the opposite by creating three ascending blues scale phrases.  It worked, but in the end I modified my line a bit so that my first phrase ended on E flat instead of B flat.  The E flat anticipates measures 2, 6, and 10, and provided some more harmonic flexibility in these measures. I included some optional rhythm section hits in measure 4.  Here it is:

One down, 29 to go.
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