Russia, Brazil and the Blues

Jazz is a music of assimilation.  At the risk of entering the modern Jazz War of Marsalis & Crouch vs. “the jazz nerds,” I feel that there is a false dichotomy presented by the idea of traditionalism vs. innovation. Rather, jazz as it is today is an amalgamation of a hundred years of evolution and development that constantly references itself and other forms of music to keep it alive and relevant. Like the idea of America, the jazz is a melting pot of traditions that constantly builds and expands upon what has been built before from new and foreign ideas.

Also, like my idea of cooking. Anchovie, chicken, broccoli, onions and pasta burrito anybody?

In my jazz writing, I want to be able to reference all that has made jazz relevant and vibrant in the past while at the same time drawing from other music that has something equally important to say. I’ve been toying around with an arrangement of Russian composer Aram Khatchaturian’s short piano piece Ivan Sings for a couple years now, and recently recorded a version in my current YouTube Garage Band frenzy (my stopgap recording/composing method until I enter academia once again this Fall, please excuse the MIDI cheese). Check it out.

Forgive me while I geek out with the analysis of my harmonization of the tune (non jazz nerds, I apologize). Here’s the lead sheet/score to the piece. I used a simplified version of the changes for blowing.


The chord structure and the harmonies that I used were very much influenced by how Brazilian musicians approach harmony in composition and tune writing. One of the things I love about Brazilian music is the harmony is far more complex and intricate than your typical jazz II-V changes, but in a way that’s at the same time very subtle and sophisticated. Unlike fusion-style harmony, which can be non-functional and obscure, Brazilian harmony is very much functional, or at least gives the impression of functionality regardless of whether or not there can be a Roman numeral assigned to a particular chord. Harmonies slip into one another in a way that’s very difficult to analyze with traditional methods, but still are very accessible and understandable by the ear. Here’s the analysis for the first 4 bars.

Already we can see some problems with a roman numeral system – you have to use a narrative analysis for some chords, such as the G/Eb and the B07/C. These are common-practice style suspensions of a dominant sound over a tonic sound, which HAS to have some narrative analysis, otherwise you end up naming these chords “III+(maj7),” or in the latter case, “Cmaj9(sus4,b6)”. This, of course, is not only clumsier, but misses the whole point of the sonority.

This section uses patterns which might be a little unusual for a minor key, but if analyzed in terms of it’s relative major, Eb, the patterns aren’t so odd. For example, F-7 to Db7 is a II-7 to a bVII7 in Eb, which is a pattern that occurs frequently in some Brazilian music (the bridge to the Girl from Ipanema for example). I really like playing with this idea of taking common patterns from the relative major of a minor key and working them into new minor key patterns.

Good lord, look at the analysis for 2nd measure! The Eo7/Ab is another case of taking a dominant sound and suspending it over a tonic sound (the tonic in this case is F, not the tonic of the whole piece, C). This makes perfect sense when you hear it, but trying to analyze it specifically takes a lot of jargon. Basically, these first to measures are  V7/IV to IV, spiced up a lot with a suspension and descending chromatic bassline. The B7(#11) at the end of this phrase doesn’t really make any functional sense within the key of C, but it certainly SOUNDS functional, especially if you analyze it in the relative major key of Eb (SubV7/V).

The harmony in the first two measures of this passage is derived of the major key pattern of chords starting on the #IV-7(b5) and descending in half steps to the tonic. Normally, a chord like bVI-(maj7) would make very little sense as a functional harmony, but because it can be related to the major key pattern and the voice leading contained therein, it sounds very functional. I snuck in a little bit of constant structure planing for the second to last bar (chords going up, melody going down) just for some contrast. It worked well because the bar contains the only non-diatonic melody note in the whole piece.

</jazz nerd>

The harmony that I used for this piece of music was inspired by Brazilian musical concepts, the piece itself comes from a Russian composer heavily influenced by folk music, and when I actually performed the piece of music and soloed over the changed I channeled the first great American art form – the blues. Blues inflections, minor pentatonic vocabulary, etc, etc. Three continents, three ways of looking at music, but they all came together rather effortlessly through the common language of jazz music. It’s this sort of idea – the assimilation of disparate trains of musical thought – which I feel is essential to the art of jazz music. Not adherence to traditional vocabulary (which is important, in a way), nor searching for what has never been done before (which is also important, in a way). Rather, jazz, in my somewhat professional opinion, is about looking for what’s out there and how it can be related to what’s come before.

Otherwise, how else would it be jazz?


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