The Woodshed: Fiddling with Jazz Chords
Fiddle tunes are an incredibly deep reservoir of instrumental melodies that have been molded by the passage of time, and yet, they remain infinitely malleable. They are the native language for fiddlers, mandolin players, and guitar players in a variety of idioms. Moreover, fiddle tunes are generated from concise melodic cells that are memorable, and tell a musical story with just a few notes. Think of the opening phrases of “Turkey in the Straw” or “Arkansas Traveler,” for example. In a short amount of time their powerful melodic motion creates indelible phrases that tell a story using tension and release. As the great composer Béla Bartók said, “Folk melodies are the embodiment of an artistic perfection of the highest order. In fact, they are models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed with utmost perfection, in terms of brevity of form and simplicity of means.”
I have been writing original fiddle tunes on jazz changes since the mid- 1970s. But recently, I began experimenting with taking phrases from famous fiddle tunes and paving them over the form and chord changes of jazz standards. Fiddle tunes (like bebop lines and the melodies of J.S. Bach) are predominantly flowing eighth notes. By manipulating the phrases of fiddle tunes to fit the underlying harmony of jazz standards, one develops a keen appreciation for good voice leading, and gets a lesson in “making the changes.”
Many people learn to improvise on jazz standards by using chord scales, learning a set of appropriate notes to play on each chord. This approach might be valuable if you already play jazz at some level and want to refine your skills. Chord scales, however, do not teach you how to create and vary a melody. By manipulating the powerful melodic cells inherent in fiddle tunes to accommodate the challenges of jazz harmony, you can create single lines that, like Bach’s, embody harmonic motion, but are expressed in a purely melodic way.
Perhaps the most valuable practicing you could do would involve making up variations of many of the two-bar phrases that occur throughout these tunes. Starting with a theme and creating variations on it is a common practice in Western European classical music. The concept can also serve the developing improviser very well. Instead of worrying too much about playing on chords, use your internal compositional ear to create manifold variations on a simple sequence of pitches. I suggest first trying to play rhythmic variations, and then attach pitches to your newfound rhythms. This will give your improvisations more vibrancy and life. Asked once about how he approached improvisation, Dizzy Gillespie replied that he first thought of rhythms and then added notes to them.
Turkey in Indiana
The tunes in the musical examples on page 27 use harmonic progressions similar to those that occur in popular jazz standards. Example 1 uses the melodic cell from “Turkey in the Straw” and paves it over the chord changes of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” a jazz standard that gave rise to various bebop and modern jazz tunes, including Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.” In this example, I tried to fully exploit the melody of “Turkey in the Straw” while adapting it to the familiar harmony of “Indiana.” The B section of “Turkey in the Straw” contains the important American rhythm known as the “cakewalk”.
Those skilled at musical forensics may notice a quote from Lester Young’s solo on “Shoe Shine Boy” (from his first recording session) in bars 11 and 12. This solo also contains the cakewalk rhythm. The second half of the tune beginning at bar 17, takes the melody up an octave, which leads us into the climactic moment at bar 21 where I quote the fiddle tune “Limerock” on the A7 chord. In bar 25, there is a brief quote from the Charlie Parker tune “Donna Lee,” which occurs at the same point in the tune “Indiana.” In bar 29, notice the “chromatic below, scale tone above” lick, which leads into a brief quote of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe,” before landing on the flat-5 and mercifully ending this torturous experience!
A Big Step
Examples 2 and 3 are two different tunes written on one familiar set of chord changes. “The Terpsichore of Robert Wadlow” was the first fiddle tune I wrote on a jazz chord progression, the changes to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” A harmonic labyrinth, “Giant Steps” functions as a rite of passage for young jazz musicians. In the late 1970s, I lived in NYC and studied with the great jazz pedagogue, Adolph Sandole and wrote this tune as an assignment for him. I’m still tinkering with it after all these years.
Example 3, “Big Sailor Turkeywheel Liberty Polka,” has many fewer notes than “The Terpsichore of Robert Wadlow” and is more melodic and lyrical. You might notice references to the fiddle tunes “The Sailor’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Wheel Hoss,” and “Liberty” sprinkled liberally here—especially in the last eight bars.
The chord changes in “Giant Steps” are truly challenging. One way to simplify the harmony is by reducing all chord changes to either V or I. All the chords in this progression are either the tonic triads B, Eb, and G, or the V chords that resolve to those triads. The entire harmony of this tune can be reduced to F#7 going to B, Bb7 going to Eb, and D7 going to G. As I often say, all harmonic music in the universe can be reduced to either V or I. Even the most complicated chord changes are some kind of V chord or some kind of I chord. That being said, I’ve been working on these changes for nearly 40 years, and I still find them to be difficult!
Enjoy playing these tunes as etudes and exercises, and make sure to vary phrases frequently. Then try your hand at writing your own fiddle tune. Take a jazz standard that you’re trying to master and incorporate a melodic motif from a fiddle tune. The goal is to weave your way through the song adhering to rules of good voice leading while making the changes.