Wayne Shorter: “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”

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.

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6 Responses to “Wayne Shorter: “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum””

  1. Sean says:

    The quintuplets in Shorter’s solo seem implausible to me, especially given that you’re generally accepting of him being “lazy” elsewhere, so why not just consider this rushed?

    Whereas the polymetricity of Hancock’s triplets at the end is undeniable.

  2. dfan says:

    Yeah, I struggled with the first one (in m. 61). I couldn’t really deduce the original intent, so I just did the best I could. In retrospect, maybe I’d notate it sixteenth – eighth – eighth – dotted eighth.

    You could totally argue for turning the one in m. 64 into straight sixteenths and saying he rushed it. I personally felt like it arriving before the beat crossed the analog/digital line I mentioned in the first paragraph. It may be that I’m much more likely to think of early notes as being anticipated (explicitly syncopated) and late notes as just being “lazy”, due to the former being more common as a rhythmic device (I think – I haven’t really thought about this before).

    Note of course that there’s a difference between playing fast and playing early (velocity vs displacement).

    I put a couple of quintuplets in the “Party Time” solo too, but in general I try to avoid them.

    OK, let’s see how Kevin notated those two spots. Wow, he has the first one as sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth-quarter (turning the last into eighth triplets – I heard that more as vibrato than three distinct notes, but I don’t know anything about how sax playing works, so it could require fingers). I can hear this intellectually, but only if I totally ignore the rhythm section; the strings on the balloon are just too long. It’s defensible, though. The second one he turns into five sixteenth notes ending on the beat, instead of before, the way I mentioned before.

    I should go through his transcription measure by measure and see how our rhythms diverge; it would be pretty interesting. He actually plays the sax, looks like, which gives him an advantage…

  3. Sean says:

    Yeah, there’s a difference between velocity and displacement, but I was assuming that laziness tended to happen gradually, rather than just being lazy from the beginning of a phrase, which maybe I’m wrong about (I really can’t accurately decipher any of this stuff without many, many repeated listenings, which I haven’t done), but seems to me a common happening from rock vocalist live performances.

  4. dfan says:

    I think it’s more of a displacement thing with Shorter (and, I feel, jazz performance in general), like there’s a pretty consistent wind blowing on all those balloons.

  5. Kevin Sun says:

    Thanks for posting this! Pretty incredible transcribing work; I’m looking forward to digging into it in the near future. Also, I should apologize for the rhythmic discrepancies in my transcriptions: I’ll be the first to admit that some of the rhythms are certifiably wrong in the sense that if you were sight-reading them, they’d be pretty off from what’s played on the record. Most of the transcriptions I put up are more-or-less memory aids rather than textual reproductions of what’s being played. Since they’re practice tools primarily for me, sometimes I simplify rhythms on paper or write the nearest-related rhythmic phrase to what’s being played, like a frame of reference, and when I’m using the transcription, I’ll make notes as to where Wayne or Freddie are laying back, pushing ahead, or some combination of the two within a phrase. But again, thanks for sharing this!

  6. dfan says:

    I was impressed with yours too, Kevin! I don’t think either of our rhythms are necessarily “right” – the actual performance is too sophisticated to be reducible to a single correct rhythm. It’s most interesting in exactly those spots when it’s not clear what the baseline rhythm that the performer is playing with is. Sometimes when I play my fingers get ahead of my brain and I’m not sure of my own “intentions” either! I was psyched to see someone else had taken another shot at this piece that I could compare mine to.

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