Friday, 26 April 2019

I Can't Get Started Transcription

To showcase my new signature model SYOS alto mouthpiece and Signature Custom alto sax, I posted a short improvisation around the classic standard 'I Can't Get Started'. This is a reference to the forward-thinking Paul Bley piano solo entitled 'Started' and as such some of my old and new systems are combined here.

The introduction uses Olivier Messiaen's third mode, a nine note scale which comprises of 1,2,3 of the minor scale, played three times, a major third higher each time. This affords many rich possibilities of combining major and minor 7th and half-diminished arpeggios within that triple tonic axis. John Coltrane uses some similar constructions in his 'I Want To Talk About You' cadenza and later on in 'Interstellar Space'. The scale here is A,B,C,C#,D#,E,F,G,Ab.

When the theme arrives, the 'I Can't Get Started' tonic chord A major seven is formed from the centre of a sharpened 23rd Chord with an implied G root, although the G is never heard. The rest of the chord is stated in the solo: (G), B, D, F, A, C#, E, G#, B#, D#, F#, A#. The idea behind the 23rd chord is to stack thirds until all twelve notes have been used. The A major here actually is drawn from the middle of the chord, allowing a different light to be shone on it from above and below.

At the point in the standard sequence (bar 3) where the beboppers put their string of descending II-Vs, I did start on the G# minor (alto key), but played right through the Negative Harmony plagal cycle of minors, resolving on F minor as if it was an altered dominant, back to A major.

The SYOS mouthpiece (my own Signature) and the Signature Custom horn work really well together. The sound has a lot of flexibility and homogeneity across the range, as you can hear. It is incredibly easy to float out the top A# in the 23rd chord, and even the fourth register C#, E and G# at the end of the solo. I am very grateful to both companies, one in Paris and one in Kent, England for giving me the opportunity to create this splendid 'entente cordiale'.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Negative Harmony Update: Cherokee with Negative Polarity Chains

  John Coltrane developed the concept of bebop chord substitutions to include his own triple tonic Giant Steps system. These superimposed, alternative sequences could be used to replace the regular changes of a tune, although the cadential, polarity points would remain the same. Coltrane's version of Charlie Parker's 'Confirmation', entitled '26-6', is one of the best known examples.

  In this video I am playing the sequence of 'Cherokee' using chains of Negative Harmony 7th chords, polarised towards the important cycle of fifths junctures in the regular sequence. The 'backdoor' IVm-bVII can also be expressed with Negative Harmony ideas, as can the tritone versions of both progressions. Following these chains and loops, strings of minor plagal moves, gives a me wonderful sense of falling backwards through space. There is a feeling of navigating a parachute drop gently on to the cadence point, rather than the sharp, tension-release of regular jazz harmony. Using tritone substitutions of the Negative Harmony minor 6th chord movement gives a rising semitone sequence (D7-G7-C7 = Bbm-Fm-Cm or D7-Db7-C7 = Bbm-Bm-Cm) another marvellous, liberating feeling for a jazz musician who has been tied into the cycle of fifths for thirty years. A 'backdoor' version can also be mixed in: (Dm-G7-C = Dm-Ebm-Bbm-Fm-C) therefore (Fm7-Bb7-C = Fm-F#m-C#m-G#m-C).

  Here is a transcription of what I play in the video. The pulse comes and goes, giving it a sort of fantasia feel. I was short of breath, as the temperature in Ruislip that day in July 2018 was about 33ÂșC and Lockett Towers was not blessed with air-conditioning!

Friday, 9 March 2018

Kromolodics #2 It Don't Mean A Thing vs. Cherokee

 This is a more advanced Kromolodic puzzle: Ray Noble's 'Cherokee' is 64 bars long, moving a semitone higher in the third 16 before working its way back to the tonic key. Duke Ellington's 'It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing' is a typical 32 bar sequence resolving in the same key, but beginning on the relative minor. In a Kromolodic improvisation the player would have to reconcile the double length form of Cherokee against the Ellington sequence. Taking things a stage further, it is interesting to try the first 16 of Cherokee and the bridge simultaneously, together with the sequence of It Don't Mean A Thing. In a perfect Kromolodic solution each cadence of (all three sequences!) would be referenced, the musical essence and polarities of each tune would be retained, and the line would work if either tune were played straight by an unsuspecting band:

Kromolodic Line: It Don't Mean A Thing versus Cherokee

Studying Ernst Levi's Negative Harmony, Ornette Coleman's Harmolodics, Lennie Tristano's techniques of rhythmic displacement and side-slipping, and also John Coltrane's Giant Steps substitute progressions will all help to visualise how Kromolodics works. The fact that Sebastiaan De Krom, a drummer, invented this technique is absolutely key here. The drummer feels the rhythmic and harmonic polarities heading towards the important junctures of the tunes, and all the musical forces converging at these points. As a means of generating interesting melodic lines Kromolodics is exciting and compelling, and has all sorts of implications across the board.

  The late, great free jazz trombonist Albert Manglesdorff showed me at a class some years ago how he sometimes visualised imaginary chord progressions, as an alternative to playing 'free'. Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, beloved of composer Karl Heinz Stockhausen, is a fascinating book about examining seemingly unconnected elements and finding commonalities. Kromolodics is a very new art with all sorts of interesting applications. It remains to be seen how far improvising musicians will be able to take it.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Kromolodics - A Revolutionary Concept in Jazz

The celebrated London-based, Dutch/U.S. drummer Sebastiaan De Krom has hit upon a completely new intellectual concept in melodic jazz, which is making musicians' heads spin all over town. His weekly trio gig at the Troubadour in Kensington, at which Sebastiaan has been reworking the Sonny Rollins trio concept, has become a laboratory for radical ideas and ground-breaking techniques. De Krom's trio arrangement of Green Dolphin Street requires that the saxophone and bass player, for extended periods, visualise the chord sequence of the song, and the sequence of Night and Day at the same time! This also takes into account the fact that the lengths of the forms of the tunes are different. At first glance this looks like madness, but when you take the plunge it is incredibly liberating. With a lot of listening the experience is similar to how Charlie Haden must have felt, following Ornette Coleman's harmolodics by ear into unknown territories in the early 1960s.

  In the 'Kromolodics' arrangement of Green Dolphin vs. Night and Day, there is plenty to work with, There are tonic polarity points every four or eight bars, and contemporary melodic improvisers should have no problem with blurring the lines between major and minor tonality, or using Phrygian modes in place of dominants. The second half of the bridge of Green Dolphin Street, superimposed a minor third above the tonic II-V-I has a diminished 'four tonics' sound, or even the Negative Harmony, minor plagal feel to it. However, the idea for the improvising musician of holding two ideas in the mind at once for such an extended period of time is perhaps the most revolutionary idea De Krom has come up with. At a recent session, by dipping into Jerry Bergonzi's famous Night and Day vs. Giant Steps sequence, I was able to keep three plates spinning at once. The bass player present was the superb, open-minded and -eared Oli Hayhurst, with De Krom himself grinning broadly from the drums as the mayhem unfolded.

Negative Harmony Stella by Starlight

Pudding points the way forward

This reworking of Stella is an exercise in blending Negative and regular harmonic principles. The cadences are negative but I have stuck to the modulating keys in the positive - Bb major to Eb major etc.. This is therefore not a true inversion, but it did make it easier to stick closely to the original Victor Young melody and preserve the essence of the song. In this way it was possible to arrive at a reharmonisation in which the constant twists in Stella by Starlight between major and minor keys were reversed. Funnily enough the drama of the song is preserved, transformed, and quite a pleasing effect is achieved. I have taken numerous liberties in order to form musically satisfying chords, and I am not bothered whether this is proper Negative Harmony or not. I have also used 9th chords, as would be usual in a modern jazz performance. For the first chord for example, the intervals of the half diminished chord reversed would create a dominant 7th. Continuing down to the 9th would give a rather poor sounding minor 7th chord with a flat 9th. In regular harmony a diatonic 9th on a half diminished chord would also give a nasty chord with a flat 9th, so pianists from Bill Evans onwards changed this 9th to a natural 9th, for a very expressive chord. In the same way, if we widen the interval with the Negative Harmony chord, we get a major 7th with a #5 and natural 9th, a much better chord.

Here is an analysis of the first twelve bars, in which major and minor II-Vs and the so-called 'backdoor' cadence, the Negative Harmony, minor plagal in the positive world, are all used. To see how the Negative keys are achieved, refer to my previous posting on Negative Harmony:

Here is the full Stella by Starlight reworking. I hope it is musically satisfying to some extent and fun to play. It certainly takes you out of the box, as the usual formulas and licks for cycle of fifths harmony will not work:

Monday, 21 August 2017

That Negative Harmony Talk Unravelled

Photo: Tatiana Gorilovsky (Peter King's 75th Birthday, 606 Club, 2015)

   I was delighted that my lecture on Negative Harmony in France a couple of weeks ago drew a great deal of interest, many probing questions and a not a little controversy. The subject came up because a number of my students, enthused by Jacob Collier, had asked me about Negative Harmony, so I thought I ought to get up to speed with the kids! In order to find a way to work with this system, I set two musical criteria: (i) The chords could always be tweaked, extended or inverted, just as regular jazz chords would be in a reharmonisation. (ii) The goal would be to always to create musically satisfying sounds rather than awkward chords in order to be true to the 'rules'.

   Negative Harmony is offers a darker, more thoughtful, minor or Subdominant alternative to the extravert, bright Tonic-Dominant relationships of classical music. The main problem with Negative Harmony is that it is supposed to be derived by an reversing polarities inherent in the natural harmonic overtone series, while at the same time applying mathematical ideas using equal temperament, which is an artificial creation. The idea of an upside-down 'undertone' series below the tonic, which cannot be heard, is pure hokum. This does not mean that it is not possible to use some of the ideas from Negative Harmony to find new sounds and make interesting music.

   The idea of a pull between the the root and the fifth, the first natural harmonic that produces a different note, is fundamental to a lot of music theory. The first melody ever blown on an animal horn (in Greenland allegedly) would have been a fifth, and we are hard-wired to recognise the primacy of this interval. Negative Harmony creator Ernst Levi used 19th century analyst Hugo Riemann's reversed major triad (C major: C-E-G becomes C minor: G-Eb-C, built from the G downwards using the same intervals) and built a scale of triads coming downwards from the Dominant G, starting with G-Eb-C and using the same intervals as the regular major scale. This produces 'Negative C major', a Phrygian scale of G, with chord I being Cm and chord V being Fm or Fm6 if the chord is extended down to include the 7th. Moving from Fm6 to Cm creates a minor Plagal cadence in place of the regular Perfect one, and this is one of the characteristic sounds of Negative harmony. Some theorists argue about whether the F in the Fm6 should be the bass note, or whether the chord is Dm7b5. The problem here is that we are used to hearing the lowest note as the bass note, not the top note as the generating root. Anyone familiar with Bill Evans however will be aware of the concept of rootless voicings - the chord could be Fm6, Dm7b5 or even Bb9 to him. As jazz musicians therefore, we need not be overly concerned about this, nor bound to the rules at the expense of good sounds. II-V-I in Negative C could therefore be Gm7 to Dm7b5 to Ab major7, or even Eb major7 to Bb9 to Fm9 if all the chords are extended (down) to the 9ths.

   In applying this reverse, or 'reciprocal' principle to jazz standard harmony, all sorts of fascinating possibilities are occur. One of the most interesting questions concerns polarity. For example: is the first chord of an F blues a tonic chord, (F minor in Negative) or, as an F7, does it belong to its destination key in bar 5: Negative Bb major, making it a Cm7b5? The end of the blues sequence would have to have a II-V heading towards Negative F in any case. Another question is, should the Bb chord be a Cm, chord IV of Negative F, or should the harmony move in the opposite direction, to Negative C major? In a more complex jazz standard with many changes of key, these relationships and choices become more and more interesting.

This interpretation of an F blues (below) supposes that the first chord is a tonic chord, a 6th/9th in fact, as it was often played during the 30s and 40s. With all the intervals inverted, this gives a Bb7sus chord as the the first chord. In bar 4, when the chord becomes F7 for the modulation, the chord is Dm7b5, or Bb9 here, which is Chord V in Negative C major, since we are modulating in the reverse direction to a normal blues. From bar 8 we have a simple Negative Harmony VI-II-V-I progression to complete the structure.

This is not really that interesting as a chord progression, but it does serve to demonstrate the principles involved. The idea of slipping down from the Bb7 onto the F7 conveys the relaxing Plagal feeling of Negative Harmony. At the end of the sequence the root movement Db-Abmj7-Eb-Bb again shows the negative 4ths cycle.

In a future post I am going to present a Negative Harmony interpretation of one of the most complex and tonally interesting jazz standards, Victor Young's Stella by Starlight.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Signature Custom Sax Masterclass at

   Here is a video from my Signature Custom masterclass at London, August 2016. Laurence Cottle, Mark Fletcher and myself play Donna Lee, with the Signature Custom alto, followed by Giant Steps on the tenor with the Donna Lee contrafact melody, and the sax solo through all twelve keys. Below the video link is a transcription of my alto solo on Donna Lee. I have added a few theory notes here and there, although I am playing mostly Closed System stuff which 'any fule' should 'kno'. Many thanks to Trevor James saxes and for hosting the event, and the guys from Fletch's Brew for their great playing! Check out the Ronnie Scott's Late Show listings for our next appearance at the club!