Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Using Counterpoint in Jazz II

This little "accident" is turning into a significant development for me. One of the things I have always admired about J.S. Bach is that, although he was a supremely talented composer, he nevertheless wrote a lot of miniatures (If only Beethoven had written more trifles). Not only that, but many of his miniatures were based upon dances: The pop music of his time. Jazz isn't exactly the current pop music of today, but a series of miniatures for solo guitar based on various jazz styles would certainly be an interesting and profitable enterprise (In the musical sense, not the necessarily in the monetary sense). Beyond that, it would be fun; not to mention that I'm quite comfortable in these idioms. So, I believe I'll create some more.

The approach to these pieces, which took twenty-seven years to coalesce, will be to - first of all - write a chord progression for the entire piece. Then, I'll write a melody that implies these chords and their upper structures. Finally, I'll write a countrapuntal bass line using this new freer kind of jazzy approach I've come up with. Since it is easy for me to think in large forms harmonically, some of these things could eventually reach significant proportions. Not only that, but I can see how this great circle will again close in on itself and I'll be using these very same techniques to write more traditional music again. "Far out, man!"

This is going to be significantly different than the traditional jazz guitar chord-melody style, such as Joe Pass was a master of (Best Jazz Concert I Ever Saw: Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass (Ron Carter on bass, if memory serves. No drums. It was sublime): These pieces will be much closer in spirit to Bach's Lute Suite pieces, which is why I'm so jazzed (ha, ha) about it. Now...

As I have taken a closer look at this piece, I made a couple of minor changes to the bass line. Interesting to me is the fact that this twenty-seven year old melody I wrote when I was twenty-one years of age has resisted all attempts at modification: It is really quite good. Amazingly so when you consider that I'd been listening to jazz for a grand total of about six months when I wrote it, and it's only the third jazz piece I ever wrote (And the first swing piece). I rock. LOL!

The reason I thought this worthy of a second post is because it gives me an oportunity to address the concept of compound lines.

First off, the changes are 1) The last beat of measure ten, where there was a D-flat and C in the bass line previously, and measure nineteen, where the second note in the bass of that measure was previously a G. These two changes helped out a lot.

Now, I want you to notice that the second notes of measures one, two, and three spell D, E, F (Too bad this isn't a hip-hop piece). Then, the E moves back down to the D in measure two, and in measure three the F moves through E so that it too can return to D. The D then becomes D-sharp and moves up to E in measure four, where this particular lineal progression is completed.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Measure one), the lower G is stated before and after the upper D, and then it moves down to the F-sharp, F-natural chromatic figure to target E at the beginning of measure two. At the end of measure two this chromatic targeting feature is repeated from A through A-flat to arrive at the G at the beginning of measure three. At the end of measure three, the upper line takes the inversion of the chromatic targeting figure, but the lower line gets it again at the end of measure four to finally arrive at F in the beginning of measure five: This process is that of creating a compound line. Bach did it all the time, and it adds a lot of vigor to a two-voice contrapuntal combination because it implies that the texture is actually an incipient three-voice one. On instruments which can only play one note at a time, compound lines are the only way to imply counterpoint.

During this first four bar phrase, a void was left at B and B-flat: That void is completely and perfectly filled by the next four bar phrase in the bass, which uses both B-flat and B-natural in the inverted form of the chromatic targeting feature at the end of measure five. This second four bars re-unifies the former compound lines into one, and it swings mighty hard, by the way: The chromatic decending licks in the lead perfectly compliment the ascending bass line. The parallel minor sevenths into the second beat of measure six are no problem: Sevenths can be treated as imperfect consonances in jazz.

This smooth rising then falling line begins and ends on F, at which point it splits off again with an ascending octave leap. After the decending line in measure nine, there is a lower line against a zero-axis D above in measures ten and eleven, after which the lines are again re-unified in measure twelve. Measure thirteen implies that the voices are again going to split, but this is a momentary effect as the final three measures simply use arpeggios of the chords of the moment to settle the piece down and return to the beginning (And note that the pickup measure and the end of measure sixteen are exactly alike).

Over the years I've heard just about every kind of equivocating expression comparing composition with improvisation: "The only difference between composition and improvisation is the time factor"; "Improvisation is real-time composition"; "Composition is non-real-time improvisation" &c. While there is an element of truth to all of these types of expressions, the real difference between composition and improvisation is the type of strategic planning I have just described: Improvisation is far more tactically biased. The reason I bring this up is that I teach a lot of jazz musicians, and they are highly resistant to the idea of learning counterpoint: They think that they can improvise this kind of stuff. Well, Bach demured from improvising a six-voice Ricercare when Fred the Great requested him to (Bach said "no" to the freaking KING, for crying out loud!) because he knew he couldn't do justice to such a piece on the spur of the moment. Now, any of you jazz cats think you're a better improviser than Bach was? Mmmmm, no: Didn't think so.

Jazz could benefit so much from a more contrapuntal approach (Because the melodic idiom is so vigorously lineal) that it's a shame more jazz cats don't learn how to do it. All that is required is that you learn the basic concepts and take a closer look at the melody while you write the bass line. Sure, you're going to improvise over/under the solos, but in big band arrangements? Much more vigor and drive could be added with a smidgen of counterpoint added to the recipe. "BAM!", as Emeril would say.

OK. You don't have to look that close.

Yes, I'm still working on the next Taneiev post.

UPDATE: I got rid of the diminished octaves in measures eight and seventeen (And, I updated the JPG pic to reflect that): Originally I had thought the octaves too empty, but the more I listened to it, the more I wanted the octaves there. I've decided to keep the cross-relation between B-natural and B-flat in measure eleven though: That's supposed to be a G minor seventh chord for the entire measure, but I like the diminished triad on the first beat followed by the minor triad on the second beat... so far. ;^)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Well, Bach demured from improvising a six-voice Ricercare when Fred the Great requested him to (Bach said "no" to the freaking KING, for crying out loud!) because he knew he couldn't do justice to such a piece on the spur of the moment."

Hello, I just wanted to contribute an interesting thought from Arnold Schoenberg in his essay on Bach, who wrote this:

"...I believe that he, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was the originator of the Royal Theme [from the Musical Offering.]
A trap it was; Philipp Emanuel had constructed a theme that resisted Johann Sebastian's versatility. In the Art of the Fugue a minor triad offered many contrapuntal openings; the Royal Theme, also a minor triad, did not admit one single canonic imitation. All the miracles that the Musical Offering presents are achieved by countersubjects, countermelodies and other external additions.
The Royal joke, through Philipp Emanuel's skill, had been successful. But Johann Sebastian must have recognized the bad trick. That he calls his 'Offering' a Musikalische Opfer is very peculiar, because the German word 'opfer' has a double meaning: 'offering' or rather 'sacrifice' and 'victim' - Johann Sebastian knew that he had become the victim of a 'grand seigneur's' joke."

Walter Ramsey

10:55 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Was that quotation from the book "Evening at the Palace of Reason"? I've heard many raaves about that book, but have not read it yet.

I was aware that it was suspected that the King and C.P.E. conspired against J.S. by creating the Royal Theme to admit of no stretti, but I was unaware that Schoenberg suspected that to be the case. Cool tidbit, thanks.

6:47 PM  

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