Monday, January 16, 2006

Using Counterpoint in Jazz

Well, now I've done it. I dug out my archives of old jazz pieces. When I left pop, rock, and jazz behind in 1989 it was like a divorce: One day I was on MTV playing the Synclavier Guitar, the next day I was playing acoustic classical guitar in a church. Literally. A year later I was in a trad theory master's degree program. I haven't really looked back for fifteen years, but my jazz duo students want to play some of my stuff, so...

I found a very nice swing piece I wrote back in my enfant terrible days. This dates from 1979 when I was studying with Jackie King, who I believe is the greatest swing and bebop jazz guitarist who has ever lived. He also plays classical well enough that he's done the Bach Chaconne, so he's no slouch there either. Then, there's the fact that he was in The Willie Neson Family for a couple of decades. You get the idea. He's the most awesome all around guitarist I've ever heard of. He can play every Charlie Parker solo ever recorded... on the guitar.

Jackie is the guy who introduced me to the music of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown, among (many) others. I ate that stuff up. With a vengence. He also taught me jazz theory and composition, and that's where this piece came from. This particular piece is written on a sixteen bar jazz standard, but I can't remember which one to save my life. Wait: Let me dig out my old Real Book... (Sound of moving boxes and shuffling pages)... Bah... I gave away my old illegal Real Book, and the newer legal one doesn't have it (Whatever *it* is).

In any case, I wrote the melody on the guitar over the changes and the piece existed as nothing more than a lead sheet until last night. As I was working on a guitar duo arrangement of it, I realized both the melody and the bass line were playable on a single guitar using classical technique. It works amazingly well. I mean, amazingly_well_!

When thinking contrapuntally in the jazz idiom, you obviously have a lot more freedom. First of all, sevenths are fully consonant intervals in jazz when the interval is made up of the root and seventh of the chord of the moment. Ninths can be considered as consonant if they are between the root and ninth as well. Secondly, you don't really have to worry about resolving dissonant intervals between the melody and the bass line, since that's part of the color of jazz music anyway. About all you have to do is avoid parallel octaves and perfect fifths (And, obviously, you don't even have to do that, but the melody/bass combination will be better if you do, especially if it is just two-part counterpoint, as I've written here).

Again, the piece is notated in 12/8 so the swing is written out because... well because: It's more accurate that way. The changes I used are:

12/8, 1#||:_G(M7)_|_G(M7)_|_G(m7)_|_C(7)_|_F(M7)_|_F(M7)_|_F(m7)_|_Bb(7)_|



And here's the piece:

As you can see, it opens with an augmented sixth, and I use that interval in several places throughout the piece (And a diminished tenth as well). There are also several instances of intervallic progressions that would be forbidden in traditional counterpoint, whether strict or free. However, there is only one concealed octave progression, and that is completely not noticible at all in this genera: Here we don't have to sacrifoce a good line just for some frumpy old rule. I'm referring to the F-naturals and E's in measure three.

This is something you really ought to hear, because the melodies are definitely more than the sum of their parts; This thing swings hard. You can find it as JAZZ_too_fine_a_point.mid/.pdf on my FileShare page. I imagine I'll have to add it to my set.

I may get back into swing pieces again.


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