A few weeks ago, I took a lesson in jazz composition. (I won’t name names because I don’t want my writing to sully his good reputation.)
One of the teacher’s observations was that my melodies are generally tethered to chord tones. Explanation: In traditional harmony, chords are constructed of root, third, and fifth. In jazz, most chords include a seventh, as well. But on top of those four notes are often a series of extensions and alterations, creating chords that look like math formulas: F7b9+11, for example.
I accepted my teacher’s challenge, writing a melody that only rarely rests on chord tones. Instead, it floats above the chords like…well, like oil and water. Interestingly, this freer approach to dissonance doesn’t sound as biting as one might think. If I hadn’t explained what I was doing, it’s unlikely you would have noticed a difference between this and previous jazz tunes I’ve written.
And that, my friends, is why I’m always trying new things. There is always something more to learn and often serendipitous accidents that come with experimentation.
Pastor Nate preached from Luke 14:15-24 last Sunday. The parable of the great banquet is compelling and comforting, but there aren’t a lot of songs based on this text. Charles Wesley to the rescue! In 1747, he wrote a beautiful hymn that turns this parable into a sung altar call. I found the text on hymnary.org and loved it immediately. The tune? Not so much.
In my opinion, my lively folk melody captures the urgency of the call to salvation in the text better than the staid hymn tunes traditionally used. I can imagine Charles and his brother John riding into a town on horseback, preaching a rousing sermon, then calling to the audience to come to Jesus. All while this song is sung by the town crier. (It’s my day dream; I’ll tell it any way I want!)
1. Come, sinners, come to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Let not even one be left behind, for God has called all humankind.
2. Do not begin to make excuse; do not his lavish grace refuse; your worldly cares and pleasures leave, and take what Jesus freely gives.
3. Oh, come and share the gospel feast, be saved from sin, in Jesus rest; O taste the goodness of our God, and eat his flesh and drink his blood.
4. See Christ set forth before your eyes; behold the bleeding sacrifice; his offered love make haste to_em-brace, and freely now be saved by grace.
5. All who believe his words are true shall dine with him and he with you; come to the feast, be saved from sin, for Jesus waits to take you in.
The previous Thursday I had learned that the owner of the restaurant where we play was grieving the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death. That was on my mind when I sat down to write this week’s jazz tune. The main melodic motif is full of aching appoggiaturas, while the bridge feels a bit more resolved with a series of falling fifths.
One of our regular tunes is George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Susan, our violinist slays that. As a favor to her, I wrote this one in A minor. Yes, she can play in any key, but she loves A minor.
The jazz tune of the week is “No More Need to Be Blue.” It is all sunshine and light. In fact, I wrote some lyrics for this one, and they’re all about the hope of a new morning after a long, dark night. I’m not sure how many jazz tunes with lyrics I’ll write, but I have noticed a distinct lack of lyrical depth in vocal jazz. I would love to hear more introspection and insight in a music genre that has so much emotion.
Today, today the light streams in, your life begins again. It somehow feels like the start of something new.
And now, now that the night is finally done, you turn to face the morning sun: nothing to hide or to lose.
All those dark days that you’re leaving behind will fade away like morning dew. All the sadness will disappear in dawning light.
There’s no more need to be blue. There’s no more need to be blue.
Faithful followers of this blog–both of you–will know that I’ve been writing a new jazz tune every week for my Thursday night gig at Euro Bistro. It has been great fun, and though I have no immediate need for a stack of jazz songs, it has reaffirmed love affair with notes. There are just 12 notes, but they combine in so many interesting ways that I find it endlessly fascinating. After 40 years of composing, I’m still discovering new things!
The downside of this weekly output is that I run out of titles. I can only write so many songs named for my fellow musicians (“Waltz for Ed,” “Susan’s Blues”) without it becoming…creepy. When I’m at a loss for new tune names, I often name them for something that describes some feature of the music or reminds me of what I was doing at the time of writing. In this case, I named the song “CP504” for the IRS tax form that lets one know they’re planning to seize one’s property for unpaid taxes. (Jen and I got one; it’s a clerical error on their end.)
I should point out that these recordings are made by sticking my iPhone on my music stand and pressing record. You can hear how things begin tentatively and slowly pick up steam. If you listen closely, you can also hear Susan (the violinist) turn to me and suggest that the restaurant should make this song their hold music. Ironically, as I write this blogpost, I’m on hold with the IRS. I heartily agree that my song would be a lot better than what the IRS has provided me for hold music.*
*For those of you who are interested, the current IRS hold music is in the key of E, features a melody with lots of seconds, harmonies with open fifths, and rocks back and forth between E and A with an exciting shift to C#m at one point.
This week’s jazz tune is called “Jenopédie.” What does that mean, you wonder? Well, certainly you’ve heard Erik Satie’s iconic “Gymnopédie #1.” As I worked on my tune I realized that it shared the same opening chords as that piece. So, with the tip of my bowler hat to Satie, I combined his composition’s title and my wife’s name (Jen) to create “Jenopédie.”
The tune doesn’t fit the normal categories one encounters with jazz standards–swing, bossa, waltz, etc–but instead falls in the cracks somewhere between ballad and I’m not sure what. Indeed, that’s one of things I like about it. It feels fresh but also familiar.
It seems to have struck a chord. You can hear the hostess walk up to us in the middle of the song and ask what it is and tell us how much she likes it!
I wrote a “Waltz for Ed” so it was only fair that I write a new tune for the other member of our jazz trio, Susan. It’s called “Susan’s Blues.” It starts with a bass groove (Ed and Susan felt that was a little self-serving) and then moves into a minor blues with a few twists. I quite like it. You can hear that everyone in the restaurant liked it, too. They all stopped what they were doing to listen to this world premiere jazz song. I’m kidding. They continued eating and talking, completely unaware that we were giving birth to a brand new song!
I’ve been playing a lot more jazz bass lately, courtesy of a weekly gig at Euro Bistro. (Thursdays, 6-9pm, if you’d like to come.) The thing about me is that if I play a lot of a particular kind of music, I tend to also write music in the same vein. As our trio makes its way through hundreds of jazz standards, I begin to internalize the musical logic and think about ways I can incorporate ideas into my own work.
“Human, Being” is a groove-oriented song. That is, unlike many songs from The Great American Songbook, the chords in this move slowly, allowing for expansive modal improvisation. Think “Stolen Moments” or “All Blues.” Of course, in this demo, it sounds like a mash-up of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” a bossa, and smooth jazz.
My Just Add People! series of piano accompaniments for congregational singing has got to be one of the best-kept secrets of the church music world. Each one adds a new twist or little sparkle that enlivens the congregation’s singing. My new arrangement of “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” uses the traditional harmonies for verses 1, 2, and 4, but adds an intro, coda, and effervescent third verse. As you can see from the video below, it is easy to integrate pipe organ with the piano.
Watch for a PDF of the sheet music at my main website soon!
When I’m not planning worship services for Fuller Ave CRC, learning a new notation program, or chipping away at my mammoth new composition based on Psalm 119, I’m writing arrangements like this piano accompaniment for “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” Counterpoint in a hymn accompaniment? You betcha!