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Author David Luebbert
Posted 10/31/03; 6:53:07 PM
Msg# 3918 (top msg in thread)
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Bernard Chinn's Improvisations

When I was vacationing in England in July I had an opportunity to have a very pleasant phone conversation with Bernard Chinn who has contributed frequently to SongTrellis. Check out his tune list in Our Composers.  Bernard,  77 years old, is  a pianist now living in Birmingham, who has made his living performing all over England throughout his professional life .

At the time, he mentioned that he might like to record improvised choruses on public domain tunes in MIDI format and post those on SongTrellis. A few weeks ago I realized that there really was no reason that Bernard had to limit his improvisatory work to public domain tunes. He could create new lines based on the chords of any of the tunes he most liked to play without danger of copyright infringement, as long as he didn't recite the original melody during his performance,  kept any quotations of the original to two or three sequential pitches, and resolved to not echo subsidiary melodies and arrangement details from  famous performances of the tune. Basically the same discipline that Charlie Parker followed when he invented his "Bird of Paradise" solos on the changes of Jerome Kern's All The Things You Are.

Bernard has submitted five improvised performances this week on changes listed  in The Changes. He is doing beautiful work. His chorus on All The Things You Are is the work of a musical poet. His choruses on How Insensitive,  Baubles, Bangles and Beads, This Can't Be Love and My Romance are all wonderful. Hope you take a listen and then encourage Bernard to do more.

I would also encourage any musicians who can adopt the same performance discipline that Bernard used in his improvisations, (MIDI recording, no quotation of the original melody or previous performances) to post their own improvised choruses to SongTrellis.There are 1031 other chord sequences listed on SongTrellis to work with. 

 I think it's very valuable to have improvised examples that show what can be done improvisationally with the listings in The Changes. It would also be neat to have other folks take their turns on the changes Mr. Chinn has already used  so that we can experience the different moods that can be created on the same chord changes.

Translating for the Duke

Duke Ellington wrote thousands of works throughout his career. As marvelous and protean as his work was, jazz musicians have easy access to the music for only several handfuls of his compositions. Till last week I had managed to track down and post chord-only arrangements for only 25 of them on SongTrellis.

About six months ago, I found a sheet music collection "Rediscovered Ellington" that listed 70 or so piano arrangements of his songs. There were a few of the Ellington war horses on display there but many others were listed that I had never heard before. It was very frustrating to discover that the publisher had printed all of  the arrangements without naming the chords Ellington was using. This meant that it was fairly easy to play the main melody for a tune, but very difficult to apprehend the harmony that he was using.

If a score doesn't include chord symbols, many jazz musicians are severely handicapped when they try to create a solo for that tune. Even if your ear and knowledge of harmony is very good it's still very easy to get lost in such a setting. Beyond that, you had to be a reasonably proficient pianist or had to have a pianist friend who was willing to sight read one of the tunes repeatedly so that you could hear the harmony.

Deriving chord symbols from the note stacks extracted from a piano score is not a straight forward process. The soloist who concocts a piano solo has a large array of devices at his disposable that serve to disguise the identity of the chords that he uses to create his solo. The pitches of the chord can be permuted in almost any order, certain pitches of the chord may be omitted, pitches may be temporarily added to the base chord to color and decorate it, it can be arppegiated, so that the notes of the chord can be distributed in a quickly played  run of ascending or descending single pitches like the strumming or a harp or a guitar. I decided at that time that determining the chord sequences for the "Rediscovered Ellington" songs was beyond my capabilities.

This past month I ordered two more Ellington collections, one that's out of print entitled "The Genius of Duke Ellington" and the other called "The 100th Anniversary Collection" still in print from it's 1999 publishing date. These collections were even more tantalizing because a number of Ellington's greatest works from the late 30's and early 40's were listed. But just like before, for many of the tunes I most wanted to play the publisher presented an ornate multi-part piano score without chord identifications.

I didn't feel as helpless about tackling these scores because I was familiar with the way these songs should sound and figured that I would have an easier job decoding the complexities of the scores.  I was motivated because I badly wanted to play these songs myself. I also figured out how to enter the overlapping voices of the piano score into my music editor so that I could listen to the note stacks on each beat of the tune without having to actually play them on piano myself.

In the last two weeks I've done the chord translation for three of these great pieces of music. First was Serenade To Sweden a song that I've heard Stan Getz and Lew Tabackin play that I was very attracted to. Second was I Don't Know What Kind Of Blues I Got a fascinating compendium of blues arranging devices that in performance began with a soulful Barney Bigard clarinet feature which segues into a wacky blues lyric sung by Herb Jeffries, followed by a chorus with the entire orchestra shouting out a dissonant accompaniment to the original melody. The third was "Morning Glory", a ballad feature for trumpter Rex Stewart.

For Serenade to Sweden, I sent my chord identifications off to Bernard Chinn to review, who proposed alternate namings for the chords that would make more sense to the experienced improvisor. Thanks, Bernard! That one hit the site last Friday. I Don't Know What Kind Of Blues I Got was easier to decode because it was a blues which meant that once the first chord in the tune was identified, I could guess many of the others that followed. Also because it was a blues the chord sequence used was only 12 bars long, roughly a third as long as Serenade. I submitted that on Monday. I'm still holding onto "Morning Glory" because the piano solo was a single chorus long and the last 8 bars were interupted in order to exit the tune with a special ending where a soloist would actually want to continue playing for several choruses. I'll submit that when I've satisfied myself that the reconstructive surgery I'm doing to restore the last 8 bars sounds right.

As a bonus, the 100th Anniversary Collection does provide chord symbols for some beautiful pieces. In a few moments, I'll be posting scores for the progressions of Ellington's  Black Butterfly and I Never Felt This Way Before.


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Last update: Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 10:28 AM.