Rhythmic Counterpoint

A conceptual framework of American groove, based on some ideas forwarded by David Penalosa in his excellent book The Clave Matrix regarding the structure of clave music. He specifically points out that most American music is not clave-based, and I would agree but only from a cultural/aesthetic/historical standpoint, but not by his definition of such. In fact, I believe it includes considerably more interactive rhythmic levels than those outlined in his book.

Penalosa defines clave-based music as having four elements of rhythmic counterpoint: 1) the primary beats (half notes in cut-time or dotted quarters in 6/8); 2) secondary beats (3:2 or tresillo); 3) key pattern (clave or standard pattern); and 4) a lead part.

In a typical performance of a jazz ballad not only could all of these elements be present within the group, the combinations of duple, triple, and double time can greatly expand upon a simpler four layer counterpoint once simultaneous variances of tempo come into play. Further, I believe the coexistence of these levels is essential in the perception and generation of a swing feel, even within a single player.

This chart does not represent any sort of hierarchy or traditional notation pyramid. Rather, it grows from the center, as an improviser may be using a whole, half, or quarter note as the felt primary beat and playing toward one side at a given moment (see Joe Lovano’s explanation of this practice here.) Also, the available patterns that could be used as key patterns are vast, and could even change through the course of a tune (here the 3-2 pattern is used as the example). The process reaches the same extents but at different tempos, turning this two dimensional framework into a sort of rhythmic mobius strip, entirely dependent on the perception and behavior of the player or group.

Ron Carter, Walking.

Not letting a quarantine stand in his way, Ron Carter has been creating and releasing some exceptional online content lately. One of these gems is an 11-minute 35-chorus walking bassline performance of “C Jam Blues” uploaded on June 13th 2020. This is an amazing display of variation, worthy of study by every aspiring bassist.

The transcription is below, or you can click for the full pdf.


Why Musicians Need Philosophy

A recurring source of frustration in my teaching work involves interactions with educators and institutions that aren’t fully engaged with a considered and informed music education philosophy. Not that musicians and teachers aren’t philosophical by default, most are on the first day, but often on an intuitive level, simply following what and how they learned: “This is how it’s always been done, so it must be OK!” The why question is ignored altogether at the expense of the seemingly useful short term curriculum goal.

The rapid change in the world’s awareness of social, racial, and economic injustice is causing serious problems for individuals and education institutions that, in the wake of this recent revolution, have been exposed as propagators structural bias, racism, and gross economic inequality that perhaps is in small part due to an unconscious, inadequate or outdated educational philosophy.

Some revered institutions lacking self-reflection are becoming transparent to the bias at the heart of their structures, with often created serious repercussions for educators who have not considered their content, communication, and culture. Of course the most serious implications are for the students involved, who unknowingly are being indoctrinated into a system that ignores purpose and ultimate outcome by focusing incessantly on other seemingly more pressing issues of the moment. The problem of this lack of attention to a vital area of study becomes most glaring when changes need to be made to a department or institution, as there is no coherence to the frame to which that change needs to be made. Squabbles over turf and resources, as well as navigation of the tenured insecurities of faculty that have no time or interest to read up on their own philosophical shortcomings can result (at least in the institutions I have found myself). This is not to say that one philosophy is necessarily better than another and will cause all educational misdirection to vanish, but the lack of a conscious frame at all in a school or department cripples the ability to respond to the changing needs of the students one purports to serve. No conceptual framework means no frame of reference – which results in no ability to change. Even beyond the transformation brought by the eventual retirement of faculty, these structures can stay rigid and self-reinforcing.

While the target of animus is often the school or department (how much is tuition now?!?) perhaps the ultimate onus is on the individual first, the one who has the ability to act first. A teacher doesn’t need to have a degree in music education philosophy to engage in some basic self reflection: Why am I teaching this, to this person, in this way, at this time? Most of the times I have tried this experiment I hesitated, grasping for detail in my our purposes.

These questions has been grappled with by some important authors in the field of music education philosophy, most clearly so by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman in the essential Music Matters. Chapter 2 specifically outlines the clearest summation of the last 150 years of evolution music education philosophy. This needs to be read seriously by anyone engaging with students, in the classroom and bureaucratically in the administration. The conclusions present a philosophy based on praxis:

“The central tenet of the practicum idea is holistic immersion. The aim is to develop all dimensions of students’ musicianship and listenership via students’ joyful, active engagements with all forms of musicing and listening.”

This may seems a bit wistful out of context for those who consider engagement with music a purely aesthetic experience, the inherited curse of a European aesthetic tradition that propagates a dualistic and culturally incoherent view of what should be considered useful or beautiful. That this bias toward the “pure” aesthetic is still omnipresent in traditional American music curriculum creates continuous friction between those that know, and those that only pretend to teach. The aesthetic view defies all but a section of potential musical engagements, and is incoherent and grotesquely incomplete as an unconcious philosophy of a 21st century music curriculum. This is obvious when I think of educators I have encountered, especially in the jazz education field, could teach the exactitude of Coltrane changes in a theory class but stammer and fall when asked why it is important to teach it at all. Shouldn’t purpose precede particularity? To have a meaningful reflection of curriculum without the tools needed to address and describe one’s purposes, there can be no meaningful planning of education beyond the present moment. These have been articulated in a myriad of forms, and to be ignorant of at least an introduction is to be not fully serving oneself or the student.

Elliott’s praxial philosophy attempts to embrace the numerous ways students can become meaningfully engaged with music, at personal, local, and global levels, and in an ever expanding web of modalities. For those that are continuously wrestling with the “Why am I doing this?” question, this book can help provide frames, and help you construct your own. This is the ultimate goal – not to blindly follow a prescription but to use it to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances fo the subject and the student.

At the end of the Spring 2020 semester and the torrent of zoom classes, technological inequalities, and administrative reinventions, I decided to do an inventory of not just what I accomplished with my students, but why we (actually I) did things in the first place. This was for various classroom music situation of 7-12th grade students, all of mixed backgrounds, interests, and abilities (it was not an elective, but part of a core curriculum). My why answers would be independent of the specific curriculum contents, and hopefully make me consider what my motivations were as a teacher, as well as where they guided me towards positive or negative outcomes. This exercise was completed without excessive analysis or trying to make it fit into a perfect shape as messiness was needed in order to find the most useful and perhaps hidden motivations. It would be filled with biases and blind spots, but that is true of any single point of view. I wanted this to result in a visual image, as that would help me view sequence from a distance. It was obvious some goals were much more significant than others, and there was a shape that indicated a network rather than a hierarchy.

I don’t believe the final product is as informed as it could be, nor is it perfect or perhaps even coherent. My teaching is filled with imperfections and problems, my job is to be comfortable with those issues and confront them, not unlike hearing one’s self played back at a recording session. Reflecting is a start/middle point, rather than ever being end point. The process brought me a bit closer to being conscious of why I introduce things as a teacher, feel there importance on an intuitive level, and helps me evaluate the actual content of a particular class. Hopefully this gives me more power to shape my practice toward a more fully realized result. I share this so that perhaps others can chime in with their own experiences or advice on how to better my own thinking moving forward.

Percy Heath “Blue Haze”

Two choruses of a perfect bassline from one of the most important bassists of the 1950s.  The control, evenness, and quality of his sound along with immaculate note choices and  the virtuosity of playing at a slow tempo set this line apart.

Percy discusses this session, along with the influence of Walter Page on his approach in this essential interview from an interview with Artist House Music:

This transcription is included in the book Progressive Jazz Double Bass Repertoire, found at this link.

Blue Haze

Ravings on Twin Peaks “The Return” Episode 8 and Penderecki’s “Threnody”

It is a rare encounter with art that leaves an audience member at once recognizing the music/image as being highly effective, yet also so original, unusual and confounding that you really aren’t sure what exactly it was that you’re talking about in the first place. Such it is with episode 8 of Twin Peaks “The Return”, aka season three. Of all the many things to speak of, the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” as the viewer is taken into the center of an atomic test blast stands out as one of the most striking moments in television.


Penderecki’s Threnody seems to defy its own definition (song of lamentation for the dead). Surely the piece is more representational of the incomprehensible chaos and death associated with the atomic atrocities at Hiroshima than reflective of those that grieve for those that suffer(ed). The music seems beyond fear and loss, containing perhaps the most devastating and sustained dissonances in western orchestral music.

As a Westerner it is especially difficult to describe the context this piece places itself in. The music, let alone the events, are constructed by the reader as a distant, from afar mental recreation of what must have happened there. Even with military films of atomic blasts, and the gruesome news reels of the aftermath, anyone who wasn’t on the ground really doesn’t know what the bomb looks/sounds like up close. If the listener connects this music to the event then that inconceivable surely is reflected in the extreme dissonance of the orchestra.  This is music that could never be mistaken for something pleasant, yet it is moving in it’s uncompromising attack on tonality and tradition. It is as if Penderecki has found a way to partially compensate for the listener’s lack of direct contact with history through his undeniably brutal sonorities.

Similarly, Lynch’s imagery has little to comfort the viewer. The opening black and white, innocent text and countdown are violently disrupted not by the sound of  the blast (which is eerily absent) but by the flash of light and the sudden shock that accompanies the beginning of the music. The alien landscape emerges as we (or at least the viewer’s point of view) is hurled toward and into the mushroom cloud, quickly loosing sight of earth as we enter into the maelstrom.  The viewer is subjected to several minutes of visual chaos, with little continuity or conception of the images.   The viewer loses all context of where we exactly they are, how they could be there, why they would be there in the first place. The unanswered questions abound, leaving no footing to contextualize the unpredictable use of texture and color. Similarly, Penderecki’s music has no key, meter, or even obvious pitch content by with to understand the violent and unpredictable shifts in dynamics.  The montage is an onslaught of visual chaos in concert with all that is sonically damned.

mother-e1498463456678My own experience of this scene (and the entire series) caused me to give up any of my own feeble pursuits of what these images and sounds might “mean” within the context of history or this series. I though later that there seem to be two paths to choose from when thinking about much of Lynch’s work here, either 1) try to invent explanations the story which have no definitive resolution or meaning, or 2) give up the pursuit all together (if you can) and accept that you are along for the ride. The beauty of episode 8 is that choice has been made for you.

“Yes I Can, No You Can’t” by Lee Morgan

My nomination for the funkiest groove created by a jazz artist in the 1960s.  From the 1965 Lee Morgan album The Gigolo, here is a transcribed score for the lead off track “Yes I Can, No You Can’t”.  Bob Cranshaw’s line in the first 8-bars is played with such an incredible depth it is almost eerie, and when compared to the vamp at the end you realize how remarkable this opening really is.  This intro alone is worth the price of the album, but the rest of the track is on fire as well.

The piano part is a work in progress.  Obviously some notes are quite difficult to hear, and my intuition regarding these things is still developing.  Please add thoughts on Harold Maybern’s part in the comments below!

lee-morgan-the-gigolo-f3lee-morgan-the-gigolo-r1Yes I Can, No You Can't1



Yes I Can, No You Can't2Yes I Can, No You Can’t2Yes I Can, No You Can't3Yes I Can, No You Can’t3Yes I Can, No You Can't4Yes I Can, No You Can't5Yes I Can, No You Can't6Yes I Can, No You Can't7

Musings on “Scrapple From The Apple”

Students ask so much better questions than we “experienced artists” could ever think of; the ones that are especially simple, obvious, and the most important are usually the ones that we never fully consider until our answer might have the ability to help someone else.  For this and many other reasons the act of teaching is vital for personal development.  Sometimes in our arrogance we subconsciously assume that we already know the answer so we don’t bother even asking or investigating that question in the first place.  (I’m reminded of a quote from Kaufman’s excellent “Wired To Create” that describes exceptionally creative people as those that come up with the better questions, the better problems, rather than the better answers and solutions.) This week totally kicked my ass last with a question regarding the tune “Scrapple From The Apple.”

“How do I work on improvising over this?”

Of course this question was asked everybody was running out the door, including me, so I had about 30 seconds to try to answer. I think whatever I said was long-winded, rushed, and probably not very inspiring, hence the reason for this do-over in the form of a blog.  It won’t be 30 seconds, and will definitely be long winded, but hopefully this will be a good start and as direct as it needs to be.

1) Check out the recordings!  They are amazing!

There are some versions of this tune I really love, and it’s those in the groove they contain the foundation of why we do this.  I love the version Charlie Parker recorded back in the 1940s, as well as recordings by Dexter Morgan, Blue Mitchell, the Keith Jarrett Trio, and Tom Harrell among many others.  I think if you were practicing from the perspective of, “what are they doing? How are they getting this sound?” You’ll always be inspired and motivated to continue deepening your room and chops on a tune like this. If you are practicing from a more intellectual place, out of a pressure or duty to put something together perhaps for a performance, you just won’t be able to joy and excitement is easily felt on these recordings.  I know it is an obtuse thing to say, but try to find the vibe and play from that always.  By the way, a little research reveals that it was based on an old standard written by Fats Waller called “Honeysuckle Rose.”

2) Know your melody and scales, COLD!

If the basic building blocks of this song, i.e. the melody and scales inside of it, are not so together that you can play them easily without much effort, then anything else you try to do is going to be almost impossible.  (Improvisation is either easy or impossible right?)  Issues that come up usually involve us making the tune harder than it needs to be.  We do this by isolating small parts, trying too play too fast, or attempting to play things in time when we are still struggling to find notes, fingerings, and basic phrases.   Work through the melody, slow and so that you can feel the phrases, home tomorrow, beautiful harmony contained within the line, and all the instrumental and physical techniques and sensations you need to play it out of time.  That starts to feel effortless then putting it into tempo can be the easiest thing in the world.  That is unless you are still working to get it out of your horn.  Always practice from a place were you definitely feel challenged, but you also feel immense satisfaction because you are playing at least 80% of the music without much effort.  Then, practice becomes an endless joy rather than a grim duty.

Take the same approach basic skills involved in the song. In this case there are a few Mixolydian scales, a major scale, and the often-overlooked harmonic minor scale.  This is where, if you have practiced your major scales on a regular basis, we reap the payoff.


3) Work through somebody else’s improvisation as an etude.

There are a million books and teachers in the world that can spend countless hours giving us important knowledge about scales, theory, harmony, the history of bebop, rhythm, technical information on the most detailed level, and ideas for practice for a dozen lifetimes.  You can obtain a great majority of this knowledge intuitively if we use a master solo as an exercise.  I’ve included the Charlie Parker solo below as an example.   Obviously, in this case the tempo on the recording might be too fast for many of us to play initially, but that’s ok.  Playing through even a few phrases very slowly Will allow all of the advanced rhythmic and harmonic elements experience directly first, rather than explained.  Adding the theoretical stuff to the sound is easy; working from the other direction is much more difficult and often leads to a unique brand of jazz mental illness where musicians ignore their intuitive knowledge of the music and try to shoe horn it in to an theoretical idea that flattens the music and belies what they actually hear.
scrapple-from-the-apple24) Blow!

Use small sections of the tune and improvise, using small parts of what you have learned from the above.  What sounded good?  What made you stop and ask, “What is THAT?”  This is where you discover, and adapt preexisting melodies and lines to your own musicality.  This is the fun zone 🙂

I love Bird’s solo, because it makes so much musical sense, yet is complex and makes me dig in my ears and head for why it is so logical to the ear, if not always to the brain.  Take his solo on the bridge in m. 11-13 as an example:


Why does this sound so good to me? Breaking it down into some parts we can see hear that the first part of the phrase uses a really slick turn centering around the F#-G-F#-E, then descends the scale.  While he is using notes from the A Mixolydian scale,  when we listen closely we and hear what  notes  fall on the beat, we discover the sound is closer to E Dorian (E-7), the “important minor” that is tucked inside our dominant/Mixolydian sound:


Much like all of the G-7 sounds contained in the first 4 bars of the melody, this “scale inside the scale” is the jumping off point for the beginning of the line. It certainly sounds different than starting on the root of the chord!  He then connects this line to the 3-5-7-9 arpeggio of the A7 chord, really outlining the sound of the chord clearly, but also spilling over the bar line into the next measure. Bar lines are like rules: made to be broken!


Here are just a few of the many “movements” through this tune: playing off the “important minor” (5th of the Mixolydian), connecting the 3-5-7-9 arpeggio, and being able to play within and over the bar line. That should be more than enough to practice in one month let alone a week or a day!  Of course if the notes of the parent A Mixolydian scale are sketchy, lack certainty or confidence, or have some technical issues yet to be worked out, then the above is totally impossible. If you own them however, then it is completely easy and fun to play and work this stuff up because it sounds really good and you can’t stop playing it.

5) Play time!

Once you have gotten some phrases under your belt, it’s time to groove and really feel why all of this harmonic stuff is amazing;  It’s connected to the beat!  For example: put on a drum machine, a recording of the tune, a metronome clicking on beats two and four, a loop, or an app such as the amazing “Drum Genius” and play your improvisation in time, really feeling the pulse and where your notes fall, whether the upbeat or the downbeat, inside or over the bar line. Feel the rhythm’s that you are creating as they relate to this external reference.

6) It’s not about you.

Listen to your place in the tune, how you relate to the musicians, and make the solo not about you but all about them. Make the people or sounds you are playing with sound good; now and always. People listen to music more often not just to learn something about the musicians who are playing, but rather to discover and feel something new about themselves. This isn’t about you, which I know sounds strange if you are the one who steps up to a solo mic to take a solo, but tap into the experience of it feeling so good when you play to make the people around you sound good rather than worrying about what people think about “your” playing.

Way too many words, but hope this helps.  Practice and let me know what you come up with!

Two Choruses of Mastery: Johnny Hodges “All of Me” 1963

A recent transcription taken from the album “The Great Paris Concert”(1963) by the Duke Ellington OrcheTheGreatParisConcert.jpgstra; the Johnny Hodges feature on the standard “All of Me.”  The arrangement is only two choruses (plus a tag) and is sublime in its development, dynamic, subtle use of harmony and repetition, form, articulation, patience, swing, and highly developed blues playing.  Check out the shapes he uses to articulate various dominant chords, adding natural 9ths to create color and contrast, and the long form terraced dynamics that so effectively build to the arrangement’s climax. Ellington’s orchestration is perfect in it’s support and minimalism, matched perfectly with Hodges improvisation and seamlessly blending the two into a single musical impulse.