Archive for December, 2012

Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 1

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid group has made some really interesting recent music in an original musical language, but I’ve seen very little discussion of what the language is, and Threadgill himself doesn’t seem to be very forthcoming. The best description I’ve found comes from guitarist Liberty Ellman in a phone conversation with Nate Chinen, but there’s still not enough detail for me to reverse-engineer it. A diagram would probably clear it all up, but it’s hard to provide a diagram over the phone!

So I started transcribing a piece to see if I could start to make some sense of it. I chose “To Undertake My Corners Open” (YouTube link) from This Brings Us To, volume 1. It’s pretty gnarly stuff, so I’m pausing a couple of minutes in to report my findings so far. If I waited until I finished the whole thing, it would be a really long time before I wrote anything, plus I would have a novel’s worth of things to say about it; this way I can write as I go, and maybe even get some feedback.

I’ve transcribed the “head” as well as the first “chorus” of the trombone solo (his solo lasts just under three cycles of a repeating bass progression). The score so far is below but it’s probably handier to look at the PDF.

 

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 1

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 2

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 3

 

Caveats: I have a pretty good ear, but this stuff is hard! It’s not particularly tonal and there are two “analog-pitch” instruments (trombone and bass). Meanwhile the guitar has nice discrete pitches but is hard to hear behind the other instruments.

The beat can be hard to identify; Threadgill tends to deliberately avoid obvious downbeats, aiming for a more homogenous pulse. I tried to switch meter only when I really had to.

I should mention that I use the fabulous Transcribe! program, and there’s no way I could have gotten remotely close to this amount of detail without it.

Does the opening phrase of the trombone remind any one else of the beginning of Berg’s Lyric Suite? Probably a coincidence, but I get the impression that Threadgill knows twelve-tone history.

I’ll come back to the head, which seems pretty through-composed, in a minute, but moving ahead to the trombone solo (the bass cycle starts at m. 18): one thing that surprised me when transcribing is that it’s a lot more normal than it sounds at first. The trombone is following the bass progression very faithfully, and even navigates it in a quite tonal manner, measures 21-27 being the clearest example. It’s mostly the guitar that colors the harmonies in an interesting and dissonant way. The thing I’m most interested to find out next is whether the guitar part’s structure is more vertical (choosing notes each measure from a harmony relative to the bass) or horizontal (charting an independent path that creates interesting harmonies by chance). Ellman’s comments give the impression that it might be the latter. Once I finish the next two choruses of this solo, I’ll have a better impression of what is consistent each time around, which will help illuminate the structure behind it.

Here’s the bass structure of the trombone solo. Like I said, it repeats three times, starting at m. 18. (I get the sense that it changes for the following guitar solo, but I haven’t listened closely yet.)

 

Trombone solo structure

 

I said I would get back to the head later, and here’s why: the structure of the head is basically exactly the same but twice as fast! Even the lead-in, not pictured above, corresponds: m. 2 is mm. 16-17 at double speed.

The intro goes through one of the two G♭-D♭-C-B♭-F cycles, skips the second one, takes a weird repeated 7/4 break that could be related to the 5/4 D♭-C measure, then meets up again with the E and corresponds perfectly the rest of the way. That’s the most interesting tidbit I’ve found so far, and something I never would have noticed without writing it all out.

Note by the way that the repeated guitar figure in that 7/4 section is almost palindromic.

That’s about all I have for now. Open questions:

  • What’s the structure behind the guitar lines underneath the trombone solo? Whatever it is, it seems to be changing at about the same rate as the bass progression.
  • Are there any particular harmonic or melodic rules behind the through-composed head? Nothing has leaped out at me so far, but I haven’t looked very hard.

More later, I hope.

Wayne Shorter: “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Another step in my continuing quest to learn more about jazz by transcribing recordings. I like Wayne Shorter’s 1960s albums a lot, and “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” (YouTube video) is my favorite tune from the most famous of them, Speak No Evil. The spur to do a Shorter tune came when Ethan Iverson transcribed his solo from Lee Morgan’s “Party Time” and I found that our conceptions of Shorter’s rhythm were pretty different, largely because he is so lazy (behind the beat). There’s a fine line between playing ahead or behind the beat and syncopating; in one case you’re turning a knob in an analog way and in the other the knob has turned so far that it’s reached the next “notch” and you’ve actually created a different rhythm. Shorter straddles that line really interestingly, playing in such a fluid way that even when he’s super late you can feel the “real” rhythm that he’s relating to, like the note is a balloon on a long string tied to the beat.

I did all the parts except for Herbie Hancock’s piano comping during other solos and Elvin Jones’ drumming, so the whole thing came out to 10 pages and I won’t dump it all here, but the PDF file is here. Some thoughts I had about the song while working with it:

Those piano chords at the beginning are really tasty. I haven’t the faintest idea how to analyze them from a jazz harmony theory viewpoint; from a classical perspective I’d say they serve the same sort of function as a I64, sitting on a dominant drone, setting up a real arrival on I (which, eight bars into the head, turns out to be B♭). I’m not certain about every note in every chord but it sounds pretty right to me when I play it on the piano.

The tune itself is really interesting. It starts out in a clear G minor; then the B♭ that the melody lands on basically turns into an A♯, creating a major-seventh dissonance in the bass, and resolves to the B♮ of G major, but the line still ends like a question, largely because it curves up to the fifth (D) rather than down to the root (G). The second four measures imitate the first four but end up in the parallel major, B♭, with the melody again landing on the fifth instead of the root as the underlying B♭7 harmony immediately moves us away towards E♭. The middle eight measures have a pretty simple implicit harmony from the bass (and the solos later refer to that harmony rather than what’s going on in the melody here), but the melody instruments do a cool parallel-fourths-and-tritones thing that adds some nice dissonance. A standard ii-V-I progression brings us back to a recap of the first eight measures, in which the melody finally lands triumphantly on B♭, but the bass refuses to follow suit, obstinately sitting on C♭/B♮, forming the exact same major-seventh dissonance that was the first hint of harmonic oddness back in the third measure.

Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo feels the most classical of the three in its rhythm and harmony. He plays most straightforwardly in the bluesy middle third, a pattern the other soloists will follow.

Wayne Shorter’s tenor sax solo is really rhapsodic by comparison. He takes two choruses and I’m glad he does. It’s not super virtuosic but he stretches and pulls the beat in really interesting ways. The simplest rhythms are the ones he massages the most, like the simple eighth-note riffs starting on measure 69; they’re so laggy it’s tempting to try to notate them differently, but they’re clearly really lazy eighth notes, not some crazy syncopation. I particularly like the syncopated three-note blasts starting at measure 93, especially the way that they gradually subside back into the A section rather than exploding as you might expect them to. After I finished it I discovered Kevin Sun’s transcription of the solo, and the comparison is really interesting. We agree 99% on the pitches (unfortunately for you, my transcription is at concert pitch and his is in B♭), but we often have big disagreements on the rhythm.

Herbie Hancock’s solo is the least lyrical, in the sense of sounding like a vocal line; it comes more in little bursts of riffs. The left-hand voicings are probably the component I’m least sure of in the whole transcription; I wouldn’t be surprised if I accidentally put in something unidiomatic there. The style is really interesting to me, since my instinct when I try to improvise is still play something that sounds like a sax plus harmony, rather than this more interesting collections of riffs and stabs. The rising pattern of four triplets as he finishes is really tasty.

I transcribed Ron Carter’s bass all the way through because I noticed that transcribing the bass is something that Ethan does, and I learned a lot from it that I’m sure will be useful for my left hand. It’s tough to hear the bass and sometimes he’s between pitches, so you may not agree with me about every note. In general I was impressed by how he was able to sustain interest but not distract from the soloing going on on top of him.

I’ll try to pick something more simple next time! Maybe something from the 50s. In the meantime, comments and proposed corrections are encouraged.