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I’ve mentioned before that I love the music of Sun Ra.  I think of him as something of an “adjacent-universe Duke Ellington”, and he probably would have been delighted with that description.  There are some close parallels between Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) and Ellington; he was an accomplished pianist with a deep knowledge of ragtime and church music, but made his name mostly as a composer for jazz orchestra; his music was often tailored to the musical strengths and personalities of individual band members, and many of those collaborators stayed with the band for decades; he was always writing and rewriting music on the fly, and it’s sometimes hard to know how much of a Sun Ra piece is improvised and how much is preconceived.  Even though he used to travel with suitcases full of sheet music, portions of a Sun Ra Arkestra concert would be open to group improvisation and experimentation.  I recommend John Szwed’s biography Space is the Place if you want to learn more about a unique American icon.

This song comes from one of Sun Ra’s early studio albums, and it’s reminiscent of a lot of the popular music from the big band era.  Still, it has a few harmonic quirks that give it a more modern flavor.

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Yekatit

This is one of the better-known songs by percussionist Mulatu Astatke.  His music has a sound and style all its own, and Yekatit is a good example.  The whole song is based on a 5-note scale:

Yekatit chord scale

This scale is just two triads on top of each other, Bb minor (Bb Db F) and an A major (A Db/C# E), and the tension between these two sounds really makes the song.  The melody describes a Bb minor tonality, but the bass is always playing an A chord underneath.  It’s not until the B section that the polarity is flipped and the melody comes to rest on an A major sound.  The soft but insistent buzzing of dissonance in the low frequencies reminds me of the tingling numbness I feel when I’m out walking on a freezing cold day.  I was pleased to learn that Yekatit means “February” in Amharic.

YekatitYekatit

Take Time for Love

I’ve had a bad cold the last few days, so as much as possible I’m staying indoors close to a warm teapot and a good book.  I also like to use these periods of forced torpor to digitize old albums and transcriptions.  This song comes from a James Williams CD I borrowed from a friend.  I returned the album long ago, but playing through my handwritten lead sheet on piano brought back good memories.  James had a beautiful sense of melody and harmony.

take time for loveTake Time for Love

Son Contemporaneo

Here’s a partial score for Yosvany Terry’s “Son Contemporaneo” (or “Contemporary Son”).  This tune is a far cry from the folkloric son music of 1890s Cuba; it eschews traditional instrumentation and tonality, and is mostly built on a major triad with a flatted 6th, a sound that’s been in vogue in the early 21st century.

This almost never happens, but when I heard this on the radio for the first time I had to pull my car off the road just to listen.

Son ContemporaneoSon Contemporaneo