The Most Beautiful Melody: Rutter’s For The Beauty of the Earth

I have a pretty good handle on what makes this one work for me, and it’s tied into why I don’t like any of the recordings I have.  It’s a little hard to find a performance that’s done in a flowing style, because most of the choirs I’ve seen are taking care to be precise, take it too fast, or have a wretched canned soft rock beat.  You can dig up a decent boy choir or SATB version, such as the St. Phillips Boy Choir (aka Libera).

This is all about suspensions.  Going by the melody itself you hardly need to change chords at all–“For the beauty of the earth; for the beauty of the skies; for the love which from our” all fit on the tonic chord.  But instead Rutter defines chords with a descending figure over a root pedal point: I – V/I – IV/I – I, putting a suspension decoration on the last I.  Then in the two repetitions of the phrase “Over and around us lies,” the melody is a figure on major seconds that must inevitably suspend against any given triad.

In the chorus, “Lord of all, to thee”, on “thee”, we go from a I chord to a suspended I chord (dominant 9 with a suspended 4), to an inverted IV with a suspended 2.  The final phrase, “This our joyful hymn,” is a 4-3 suspension, a step on the root, and a 6-5 suspension, all over a second inversion I chord that resolves to a Vsus4, then to a Isus2 and back into his descending figure over a pedal point.

He just never lets you enjoy a simple chord without overlaying either its predecessor or its successor.  That works with the legato melody, the sequentially arpeggiated accompaniment, and sustained harmony lines to establish a continuous smooth flow.  So the secret here is that it isn’t the melody but the arrangement that makes this one.

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Toolkit: Playing the Words

“I can’t improvise on the melody without knowing the lyrics first.” — Ben Webster.

“When [Billie Holiday] sang it was like she was telling you things from her life, not remembering words to songs a songwriter wrote. Amazing. I learned a lot about the stories of songs from Ben Webster. He once told me, “I can’t improvise on the melody without knowing the lyrics first.””  — John Levy, in an interview on JazzWax

Here’s the thing: most of these standards we play have lyrics, and that’s an integral part of the song that you don’t get from a horn.  That means you have the opportunity to say something different, perhaps something beyond vocal language, but it also means that a melody from a good songwriting team is crafted to the lyrics.  Maybe the music says the same thing as the words, but you can’t count on everybody getting the full message that way.  Maybe it just provides a context, but that means you have to communicate the message.  Maybe the audience knows the words, and you just have to play the head in a way that doesn’t interfere with their recollection of the lyrics.

But when you’re ready to do your thing, and you’ve got a bunch of tools on your belt, you need to start talking to the audience.  Sometimes I practice improv by singing spontaneous beat poetry.  When I know a song’s lyric well, part of the time I’m mentally singing words I’ve made up as I play solo phrases.  So, I might start a chorus of “Misty” with the first three notes of the melody, in time, and go from there: “Look at me, on a branch, up a tree, my paws are grabbin’ at a robin,” pause for a beat, “It’s a long way down and I’d land on my head.  I see birds, I see stars, in your eyes…”

I’m staying on the theme, and I’m thinking in terms of imagery and sentence structure but not rhyme.  Melodic rhyme is not quite the same as language rhyme.  It’s actually more like rhyming in sign language, which is based on visual symmetry.

As with many other techniques, most people aren’t going to be getting every literal thought.  Not everything in my head gets communicated with perfect clarity, and frankly I’m grateful for that.  Still, you know whether you’ve heard someone recite a poem or just ramble at the microphone, and that’s the difference I’m cultivating here.

There are practical applications as well, especially for a directional instrument like trumpet.  I’ve managed, in the middle of a solo, to communicate to a waiter that he should leave that drink where it is because it’s mine and I’m not done with it.  Hey!  You!  Walk away, fella!  ‘s cool.

The Most Beautiful Melody: Nessun Dorma

OK, I’m not actually going to pick a song and say it’s the most beautiful; but if I asked someone else that question and they answered Nessun Dorma, I’d accept that as a defensible choice.

Nessun Dorma is the tenor aria from Turandot reawakened in public attention a few years ago by Paul Potts on Britain’s Got Talent and earlier by Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup.  Everybody’s sung it.  I’m not going for a definitive analysis of a well-studied aria; I’m calling attention to some points that I’ll reference later in connection with other songs that I’d entertain as good answers to the question.

What is it that makes the key parts of this song so wonderful?  When you break down the melody itself, it’s mostly simple.  Most listeners don’t speak Italian.  It’s usually heard out of context.  After eliminating all that, I’m left with the use of the tenor voice, the orchestral accompaniment, and a few meager thoughts on the melody.

It’s all about the shape of the phrases.  Ignoring the words, plot and characters from the opera, I’d conclude it was a song about climbing, reaching, holding, standing.  The first part–the A section, if you will–has the tenor pushing to the major seventh (“o, Principessa”; “guardi le stelle”).  Then in the more recognizable B section, it’s a rising and falling scalar figure.  What makes it work for me is the motion to inversions in the bass, which along with strings doubling the melody manages to suggest parallel sixths that aren’t really there (“Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me, il nome mio nessun saprà!”) culminating in an opposing figure that takes the V chord to a first inversion of the (momentary) tonic with the melody holding on the high fifth (“sulla tua bocca”).  It’s just a ii-V7-I, no extensions to the chords and hardly a passing tone to be found; but I could name that tune in one note if it was that note, and I wouldn’t even confuse it with Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev” (which sits itself characteristically on that same inversion).

However, I can pick out three specific chord-melody interactions that I think are important, and I’ll make it a little more clear why in later posts on other melodies.  In order of impact, at the end of the B section, it resolves not to the tonic but to the subdominant (applying those terms as if the piece were in D rather than G) ; in the A section, there’s a substitution very like a jazz altered dominant 7; and near the end of the B section where the melody is a simple descending D major arpeggio, it changes to the Gmaj7 on the F#.

The change from first inversion D to Gmaj7 is simply letting the leading tone in the bass drive the chord change.  The altered substitution uses an F# against the D in the melody to suggest the V, has a Bb to suggest the minor–I’d almost call it a blue note–and puts an Eb in the bass.  An altered D would be D-F#-Bb-C-F, and here we have D-F#-Bb-C-Eb; with the Eb and Bb in the bass, it sounds like an extended Eb minor, and it’s essentially a G harmonic minor scale, but it fills the role of a D7.  The resolution to G is a continuation from the inversion:  D/F# – Gmaj7 – D/A – A, and to G instead of D; that’s followed by the altered chord at the top of the A section, which re-establishes G as the key.

Enough armchair analysis; what do I take from it?  First, that one way to get a strong circular motion between an A and B section is to have a bimodal key center in fourths.  Second, that if you go from the tonic to another chord and back again, with most of the time on the tonic, that transition chord–whatever it may be–can be substituted for the dominant elsewhere in the piece.  Third, that the melody doesn’t have to dictate the chord changes, especially when the bass has good ideas on where to go.

Eye contact on stage

I’m sure it’s possible to be over-rehearsed, but it isn’t something I experience regularly.

In a Real Book group, it’s far from uncommon to be ten seconds before downbeat and get a quick rundown: “Last four, take the coda.  Two, three, four…”  Some decisions are made in-flight, such as who is going to play the head and whether the bass will take a solo.  That’s good, because jazz is in the moment.

It seems chaotically loose, but it works because of two things: defaults and eye contact.  In the quintet, we’ve been playing together a long time, and we know the default roadmap–who takes solos and in what order.  If nobody says anything, we’re fine and nothing needs to be said.  However, during the intro I can give the sax player a look that says, “You go ahead and take it.”  I might actually mean, “This sounds better on sax,” “I hate this song,” “I just swallowed a fly,” or “I don’t have my sheet music”, but those all boil down to the same result.  (It gets ugly when we both give each other that look.)

We can do more than that.  We have a rudimentary language that allows us to use hand signals or even lip-reading, and for that matter we can actually talk (wind players when not playing, rhythm players most any time), though we don’t much.  So in a group that’s been playing together for a long time, I can raise an eyebrow and find out if we’re splitting the head AA/BA.  A nod from the piano player can mean “another chorus” or several other things depending on context.  It’s hip, dig?

Even when we are following the standard form, as trumpet player I spend a lot of time not actively playing, so I go ahead and double-check.  We generally end solos with a physical turn to the next person, and something I learned from theatre is to step out of the way and focus my gaze on the person playing to direct the audience’s attention where it should be.  I look at the next person during each solo, wait for them to look up, and get visual confirmation.  When I get a signal I make eye contact with the others to be sure we all go there together.  There’s a whole different set of signals for communicating with the sound man (“The singer two people to my left needs to be higher in the center monitor”).

The other thing I do with my eyes is watch other people play.  This has a number of uses, including but not limited to learning new licks, enjoying the show, checking where we are in the changes, and realizing that my copy of the music is in the wrong key.  It’s good to memorize music and/or play by ear.  I mean, with all this going on, when do I have time to look at my stand?

Toolkit: Beyond the Melody

Why not just play the melody?

Well, your audience has heard it.  Sure, they like to hear it again, but that’s what the head is for.  You can develop a solo off the melody.  However, there are a lot of jazz players in the world; other musicians and the audience as well have heard that too.

If you follow what people in the examples did by starting with the melody and developing from there, when you go to an open jam you probably want to go straight to the fourth or fifth chorus, skipping the first few on the assumption that everyone there has already covered that ground.

However, after years of this, you start to think in terms of larger and larger musical sentences.  The truth is, there are only so many classes of motifs, and eventually everything is going to remind you of some combination of things you’ve heard before.  Just as a child progresses from syllables to words to clichés to forms, a longtime jazz player is interested more in when you say something than what you say, how you construct the sentence more than what words you use.  OK, you played a fast scale; it might or might not be particularly impressive from a technical perspective, and it’s neither good nor bad that we’ve all heard it before; the question is, what does it mean at that point in the song, over that chord, after what you just played–and what are you going to play next that might expand its meaning?

Try it first by quoting other songs during your solos.  It’s cute, but what’s the difference between a random phrase and something that makes the audience laugh?

Blending

One of the challenges of playing in multiple combos is being able to blend well in each.  Even in one group, it can vary: it’s common for sax players to switch between alto and tenor and flute, for example, and the horn section in Play It With Moxie! changes lineup on every song.

Also, although we’re usually playing standards and often the same arrangements, each player learned it a little differently or takes different liberties with the rhythm.  When you rehearse weekly, you have the luxury of getting familiar with the other person’s patterns.  Otherwise, you probably won’t match exactly on unison or harmony parts (as in the quintet’s Comcast videos).  You can finesse it a lot more easily on harmony than in unison.

Harmony is a lot more forgiving for intonation as well.  Every instrument has its bad notes, and they’re not the same.  I know I have to be careful of low D and C# and middle A and high F, etc., and I know a few of the evil notes on other instruments.  Sure, you can say that a good player will play in tune, but that goes out the window when there’s an HVAC vent right above you.

My favorite part of blending in combos is mixing different tonal colors.  When playing with a flute, I usually use a cup mute, specifically a wood one (makes sense, right?).  There are some exceptions–the popular version of “Cape Verdean Blues” was flute and open trumpet, and “Lorraine” often  is flute and harmon mute.  Also, I stay in close harmony, though often in sixths.  An Alto flute is great for close thirds and unisons; octaves with a regular flute is asking for trouble.  I also like to invert, to have the trumpet above the flute on the occasional long note, but that’s hard from a volume standpoint.  With a sax or trombone I’m most often open, which actually is a little more forgiving on intonation, partly because I don’t hold back as much (playing quiet and in tune is the kind of thing trumpet lessons drill on).  Sometimes I’ll use a straight mute against a tenor sax, but it’s a more strident sound than some venues call for.  Usually if the bone is using a mute, I’d use the same one, although mixing plunger and wah-wah is interesting.

Unison and harmony are great sounds, but a lot of the time we just have one person play the melody and the other do decorative licks during long notes.

Live at the Met

Went with Mom to see Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.  On some Saturday afternoons, NPR does a simulcast of an opera at the Met with an HD presentation in selected movie theatres.  It has some distinct advantages over being at the Metropolitan: you get close-ups of the faces and costumes and sets, and you get subtitles.  During the intermissions (there were 3, each 15 minutes long), you are treated to brief interviews with cast members, camera tours of the opera house with all its glorious architecture, and watching the scene changes backstage.

That’s the trade-off.  You can fully appreciate how massive an undertaking it is, watching 150 set crew changing out 50-foot-tall pieces of scenery (for Act II they had a villa with a balcony and stairs, for goodness’ sake) on motorized platforms that fit together tight as the pyramids.  However, that crushes suspension of disbelief.  It began with seeing the orchestra, and the conductor’s entrance and first beats.  But then the camera focused on the curtain, which opened to reveal the set and characters, and they began singing.  I had more belief in the story than I do at most movies–until the first intermission.

This was actually the first time I’ve watched an opera all the way through.  Placido Domingo was going outside his comfort zone to sing the baritone lead, a lifelong dream, and he did fine.  In fact, I didn’t dislike any of the singers even though the vocal style is not to my liking; in context, it worked for me.  I’ll say this for the opera itself: the plot was good and surprised me more in avoiding cliches than in anything it did; and the music was pleasant all the way through but left me with no memorable melodies.

I want to go see a live opera production, and such things are available in Atlanta; but this is a good experience and a heck of a lot cheaper (plus one of the theatres happens to be just a few miles from home).