The best jazz versions of classical pieces

For my tastes, you can’t beat the Ellington Nutcracker.

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Ellington’s Peer Gynt suite is also pretty wonderful.

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This one has inspired some remixing from me.

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What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

Another devastatingly simple groove.

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What goes on neurologically when a song gets stuck in your head?

The phenomenon of annoyingly persistent earworms is a great introduction to the meme theory: the idea that songs (and all other forms of cultural expression) are self-replicating informational “viruses” that use the mind as their host, the way DNA viruses use living cells and software viruses use computers. The best overview of this theory is Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine.

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How is it possible to compose jazz when improvisation is an essential component?

Typical jazz compositions are written expressly as vehicles for improvisation. Mainstream jazz tunes since the 1940s take the form head-solos-head. The head is a written melody, and the solos are improvised around the chord changes of the head. Scores for these kinds of tunes take the form of lead sheets, like the ones found in the Real Books.

The lead sheet writes out the head’s melody and chord progression. The specifics of accompaniment, interpretation and tempo are up to the performers.

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

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Remixing Duke Ellington

There’s no music I love more in the world than Duke Ellington’s.

When I was a kid, the New York Transit Museum had a commercial in heavy rotation on local TV that used “Take The A Train” and I remember being riveted by it. I should point out that Billy Strayhorn wrote this tune, not Ellington, but it became the Ellington Orchestra’s theme song for decades.

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Diminished chords and the blues

The blues is a good entry path for beginner guitarists. If you learn the standard fifteen chords and the blues scale, you’ll be well on your way. However, there’s one crucial piece of additional music vocabulary you need to fully inhabit blues tonality, and that’s diminished chords.

To make a diminished chord, you start on any note, go up a minor third, then another, then another. Here are the notes in C diminished — the scale tones are in red.

C diminished chord clockfaceHere are some good guitar fingerings for diminished chords.

Diminished chords are highly symmetrical, which gives them a peculiar property. The circle above shows C diminished, but the same notes also make Eb, F# and A diminished. The only difference between these four chords is their respective bass notes. This symmetry means that there are only four diminished chords total. The diagrams below show what I mean. On the left is the circle of fifths; on the right is the circle of half-steps. Each square is a diminished chord.

Minor thirds on the circle of fifths and the circle of half-steps

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Blues basics

Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.

Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.

Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.

So what exactly is blues?

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