Monday, March 12, 2018

Black Coffee

12 bar blues with an 8 bar bridge

A lady vocalist at the Sunday jazz jam thoughtfully provided a chart, from a fake book, for “Black Coffee.” In another era it might be described as a “torch song” - familiar repertoire. But we stumbled through the backup, failed to give her audible clues to where it was going, and part of the problem was the irregular layout on the page required to accommodate the lyrics, missing staff lines that made low Ab and F look like Fb and D, no “D.C.” and 1st and 2nd endings were not clearly marked. A few moments study before we plunged into it could have saved all of us some grief. And we should have checked her key. The chart was in F, and looking at YouTube videos before writing this: Sarah Vaughan in Db, Ella Fitzgerald - key of C.

It’s important to remember that a chart is nothing but an aid to memory, a guide, a road map. Written music requires an artist to understand, interpret and deliver an emotional interpretation, somehow intuiting and even improving upon the composer’s intent. Check out author Carole King, honored at the Kennedy Center, as Aretha Franklin starts into “Natural Woman” - that’s what I’m talkin’ about! The point is, don’t be slavishly bound to the written representation - the chords are but a guide and there are elements of melody open to interpretation in the worlds of jazz, pop, rock and blues. Here’s some analysis I wish I had done before attempting Black Coffee the first time!

The blues scale is defined as 1-2-b3-4-b5-5-b7-1, and yet the “one chord” often contains a natural 3. That’s where art comes into play, reconciling the juxtaposition of 3 and the “blue note” b3. The initial chord of a blues may be I7, or a minor chord, or a dominant 7 with #9 - it can even be a major triad or a I Maj7 as in some of the more harmonic jazz blues. The move from I7 to bII7 is not uncommon as a vamp or element of the chord progression. Stormy Monday Blues with great guitarist Wayne Bennett interpreting T Bone Walker is a quintessential example of the use of bII in the blues.

Back to Black Coffee, the passing chord at the end of bar 4 slides down a half step to the IV9 in measures 5 & 6. IV9 can also be thought of as minor i6 over the 4 of the key as root - minor sixth chords are a mainstay in the jazz and blues idioms. Then it’s back to the I - bII “vamp” feel in measure 7. Measure 8 shows a I7+9 again which then moves down a minor third to a VI7+9 - this begs for a chromatic root movement - or perhaps one could use I-bVII down to the VI7b13 that occurs naturally in the key. The function of the VI chord here is to set us up for a “jazz blues” cadence, the ii-V in measures 9 & 10. Out of the several options we have for realizing a ii-V, the composer chose to keep the iim7 sound for two measures while the bass moved to 5 of the key in measure 10.

Trying to read the composers intent, on the piano I wouldn’t play all the sharp nines, just use the 7th-3rd tri-tones in the left hand to realize the parallel I-bII chords. The melody and solos - just play the blues. The blues scale always works against I, IV7 and V7 - don’t bother to analyze why! The 13th chord on beats 3-4 of measure 4 seems unwieldy - parallel 9th chords from bV to the IV9 could work, too. Bar 5 & 6, the (I7) blues scale against the im6 (over 4 in the bass), and the blues scale continues to work until the minor third root movement down to VI7. Almost any VI7 alt scale will offer a delightful dissonance that could resolve to IV Lydian in measure 9 (against the vanilla of the ii), and using the blues scale against the V7sus sound of bar 10 brings us right back home to the I chord destination in measure 11.

After landing on the I, the 1st ending featured a turn-around, although most recordings just use the I-bII vamp here. The move to VI7 on beats 3-4 of bar 11 could be done chromatically. The ii on beats 1 & 2 of bar 12 moves quickly to a C7 “alt” (which could be considered an inversion of bII Lydian dominant). Repeat the 1st 12, and the 2nd ending finalizes the return to the tonic before the accent chord on beats 3-4 of what is now measure 24. One could easily realize measures 23-24 as I7-IV7-I6-bV7 augmented. Or use I7-bII7-I7-bV7. Looking at my block chart, "B1" is way too complicated - instead, use the key changes of "B2." The lead-in bV chord (beats 3-4, bar 24) is actually a bIII in the new key.

The principles in this well-written blues are fairly universal. The modulation up a minor third to go to the bridge, and the two places where I moves down a minor third employ a principle known as Lender’s Rule. I first heard about this in a lovely book that discussed the writings of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn - I wandered into the library and found this detailed technical discussion of “who wrote what” - and it takes an almost forensic analysis to figure out what part of an arrangement came from each man. Even some wholly original Strayhorn tunes were credited to Ellington because he won the rights in a poker game or on a bet! Strayhorn often modulated by minor thirds, or even a tri-tone (3 whole steps), which is a distance of two minor thirds. Lender’s rule states that because a dominant chord with a flat nine lends itself to a diminished scale, there are four roots possible. For example, the scale for C7b9, C-C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb can be used against roots C, Eb, Gb (F#) and A. Hence the most sonorous modulations go to bIII, bV (#IV) and VI.

So the Bridge starts on the ii chord of the key that’s up a minor third. Pause a moment to digest that - to “metabolize it!” We’re moving from the I chord of the home key, going up a third (m3 understood in that phrase), and when we get to the new key we’re landing on ii, setting up the key with good old ii-V-I, except that in relation to the old key (where the song started) it’s iv-bVII7-i minor. It’s good to realize the root movement from I to the ii of bIII is up a fourth but it would be patently wrong to continue with that logic. Look at how complicated B1 gets - we’re leading ourselves in the wrong direction - the chord roots make even less sense as we go along the errant path. If a song seems too complicated, we’re probably not onto the organization scheme. It’s always based on the same principles. To the tune of Wilson Pickett’s 634-5789, it’s 4-7-3 6-2-5-1! We’re always looking ahead, leading to the next downbeat, concluding a phrase, or playing up to the one. The joy and the challenge for us is to use the same tools, but to develop individually different approaches and answers within ours agreement on the tonality. We converse within a language. Like James Baldwin said, “The blues is a conversation, it’s not an argument.”

That’s a lot of text just to get to the bridge - which is strikingly in quite a different mood, and starts in a new key up a minor third. Here we go, we’re in the new key now: ii chord-dominant chord, surprise chord vi. Then vii half-diminished to III7b9 - or is this a V7 of the old key? Yes it is, we’re back to the old I chord - play it real pretty, now! That’s the first four of the bridge. Looking ahead, we’re going to modulate again. This time the key only moves up a half-step, measures 5-6 of the bridge are simply ii-V, I-vi. When modulating a half step up using a ii-V-I, the root movement from I of the old key is up a minor third - Lender’s Rule again - a pleasing root movement. We continue on with a parallel ii-V action, the 8th measure of the bridge drops down a half step compared to bar 7 and takes us back to the original key. And it’s a vanilla ii-V (does it have to be vanilla?) that sets up the return to the I7-bII7 vamp.

Da Capo - return to the head. Play the final A section, and conclude - create a Fine [
fi'ne or fine’ ?]. Or use the first ending to go back around again through the whole form. If invoking the D.C., measure 43 is a logical place for a I6, followed by some kind of a turn-around. If finishing the tune, maybe use the second ending and delay the I6 to bar 44, stopping short of the "pivot chord." A A B A in a “blues with a bridge” will be 12, 12, 8, 12 for a total of 44 measures. Sections start with: bar 1, bar 13, 25, 33. Sections are 1-12, 13-24, 25-32, 33-44. IV chord on the 12 bar blues measure 5, measure 17 etc... bla bla bla - there should be some kind of reward if you’ve read this far! And no, I don’t get paid by the word! I don’t get paid at all. But I have an "SSA grant" that makes my nut and allows me to do this!

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