Composition Notebook

Composition Notebook will be an occasional feature in which we hope to give some insight into our individual writing processes, inspirations and challenges.

Late winter/spring is usually a fruitful time for me, composition-wise. This is in large part due to the fact that spring semester is when I teach Jazz Harmony at GWU. The course is essentially a composition class: as forms, functions, concepts, etc. are introduced, the students are assigned to write tunes utilizing or based on the topic at hand. First we start with blues, then Rhythm Changes templates, analyzing the progressions, their variations, and discussing how to create simple, singable melodic lines based on the chords and their tonalities. This leads to an in-depth look at secondary dominants, and then on to substitute dominants, minor keys, modality… all the way to "non-functional" harmony. At the end of the semester students choose 3 or 4 of their assignments to revise and notate as clear, professional lead sheets. This yields some wonderful, and often surprising results. Every year I get at least a few great tunes turned in that I wouldn't mind playing on a gig every night!

Teaching this class is very inspirational. Most years I'll write a tune or two for each assignment I give out. I don't strictly adhere to the parameters of the assignments, but rather let them be conceptual jumping-off points. This is one of the many ways I get motivated to write. The tune I'm sharing today, "H to H", is a direct result and good example of that process. 

Having spent a fair amount of class time discussing and listening to the blues, and looking ahead to dealing with minor key/modal tonalities, I began hearing an idea for an extended-form minor blues. It had some nice quartal voicings ("Fourthy McChords" would make a good nickname…) over a bass line as an intro, with variations of them continuing under the first two phrases of the head. The initial melody was a spare "call-and-response" that was very clear and came easily. At first I imagined it would evolve into a 16 or 24-bar blues, but as the tune organically developed from there, I ended up with something a little different (click images to enlarge):

H to H lead sheet p.1
H to H lead sheet p.2

Once I have a tune in my head, or at least a strong main idea, my next step is to put it on my horn and work out any melodic kinks. This is the most fun and challenging part for me, because up to that point the tune has been evolving without any conscious influence of saxophone technique or my own particular playing habits. I've written more than a few tunes that, to this day, are still extremely challenging for me to play! Luckily, this one laid pretty easily under my fingers...

When I feel like the melody is where I'm hearing it, I'll move it over to the piano and work on realizing the harmony. This is where I usually do the most tinkering. I tend to hear strong bass lines/movement and then flesh out the specific chord qualities between that and the melody line. Generally, I have a pretty clear idea of what it will sound like going in, but I like to experiment with different textures. It's just as easy to fall back on certain harmonic habits as it is instrumental technique, so this point in the process can be a good place to force myself to come up with something fresh and unexpected (for me). I tried a number of different things until I was satisfied with the progression in the last 7 bars.

After the melody and changes have taken shape, I'll start sketching out a chart and give some thought to the overall arrangement. In this case, the intro plus the longish form made it feel unnecessary to repeat the head. Instead, returning to the intro as an interlude seemed more natural, and a good way to set up and transition between solos. Additionally, it could be used as a vamp for a drum solo. A vital arrangement component is deciding how to end. I originally thought of vamping out on the intro, but if used for a drum solo it would be overkill. A hard stop in the middle of bar 16 proved to be the obvious answer.

H to H piano part p.1

While working out the arrangement, I might consider if the bass lines and chord voicings I'm hearing are an integral part of the composition, or if they would best be left up to the player. I decided that the bass line in the intro (not shown on the above lead sheet) should be a set part, and I wrote out a sample line under the first 8 bars to indicate the open feel I was going for plus some rhythmic hits in bars 3 and 7 (echoing the piano rhythm in bar 3 of the intro). This was also true for the piano voicings in the intro, the first eight and last four bars of the head, though I can always trust a real bassist and pianist to make some improvements! 

H to H bass part p.1

Time permitting (thank you, no-show students!), often my final step before inking the parts is to make a MIDI sequence of the tune. This offers a little objectivism (the real proof is on the bandstand…) and allows me to have some fun "over-comp-ensating" trying to create a credible sounding rhythm section track. I'm a mediocre pianist, but I can walk a decent left hand-bass line with a pretty good comp in my right. I'm fortunate to have a nice Clavinova in my teaching studio with reasonably realistic sounds and an easy interface for creating drum loops when I don't use the presets.

At this point, some last-minute tweaks and additions may find their way in. While sequencing "H to H" it occurred to me that it would be nice for the piano to double and harmonize the chromatic melody at the start of bar 16. Also, I liked the bass line I played under the sustained chord at the beginning of bar 17, so both of those ideas made it into the final version of their respective parts. These sequences are useful as reference tracks when rehearsals are few and far between, and can serve nicely as a "poor man's play-along."

The finished piece is a 19-bar tune with an intro/interlude. The original minor blues idea, while a bit obscured, can still be heard, particularly in the head up to bar 9. The opening theme is a simple four-bar "call-and-response" where the "call" moves up a fourth when repeated in bar 5. It gets extended, linking it to a variation of the "response" line. The changes also follow a recognizable contour in those same measures: Dmi (i) in bar 1 progressing to a substitute for Gmi (iv), Eb∆/G, in bar 5. Bar 7 begins with Eø (ii), but instead of cadencing with the V chord back to Dmi, it moves to Db7sus which deceptively slips to Ami (minor v) in bar 9.

Bars 9-12 introduce a new idea. The melody outlines some alternating triadic shapes over parallel mi7 chords, which could be heard as chromatically embellishing a modal i-iv-i movement in Bb minor.  This is a case where I heard the general idea of the line, but put some conscious effort into keeping it sympathetic to the D minor key.

Bar 13 begins a development of the original "call" motif, steadily climbing over chords that initially function around B minor: i-SV-V-VI. This section builds to the sustained Eo∆/Ab chord in the middle of bar 16. This chord symbol is a literal spelling of what is really a partial voicing of Eb7-9/Ab: Eb triad over E (-9) over the Ab bass note, with the Db (7th) missing, but implied. It has a tonality of Ab harmonic minor, reinforced by the bass melody, and works like a combined tritone substitution of the original D minor key and it's V chord, A7. 

With a final variant of the "response" motif, the melody comes to rest on F/Gb. This chord has obvious commonality between its F triad and the D minor key. When spelled as F/F#, it can easily be seen as the upper structure of D7+9. Leading in with the Eb7 quality of the previous chord, you can make out a SV-I (or deceptively, to III) cadence. If you take away the bass notes, you can also hear the upper structure of C7+9 resolving to F, a simpler V-I. However, in this instance I hear the chord as a Bb harmonic minor derived tonality, Gb∆ lydian #2. This mode has nearly all pitches in common (except for the Gb) with an A7alt. chord/scale, which leads nicely back to the modal Dmi of the interlude or top of the head. It took me repeated listenings to notice all this. The bottom line is I just liked the sound of those two "crunchy" chords there. You can always go back and find "functional" relationships between any chords.

The head-to-horn-to-piano portion of writing "H to H" occurred over about two hours, while the sequencing and revising happened in drib and drabs over the next few days. The general process described is pretty typical for me, though the initial motivation varies from out-of-the-blue inspiration, my musical environment of the moment, a deadline, or sitting down and saying "I want to write THAT kind of tune!" Some tunes emerge more or less fully realized in my brain, while others can linger for days or weeks at any step along the way. The analysis presented above is not meant to be complete. Analyzing your own tune is like DIY psychiatry... it's hard to be objective and you can always come up with answers you want to hear. However, I think it's a useful and fun exercise, and exemplifies one of the things I like most about teaching: having to answer the questions, "How," and "Why did you do that?"

So, what does it sound like? This piece was going to be premiered at the last Jazz Composer's Session which unfortunately had to be rescheduled. When we get a good live recording I'll share it here. Until then, here are my trusty key-bots:

Cheers,
PF


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