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.
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:
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.
This very funky take on Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor” is from Cedar Walton’s Mobius album.
Off Minor (Cedar Walton arr)
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 Love
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.
Pianist Larry Willis recorded this blues a few times in his career, but the first version I know of is on Junior Cook’s Something’s Cookin’ album.
Here’s a transcription I did a while back of Israel Crosby’s bassline on Cheek to Cheek, from Ahmad Jamal’s Ahmad’s Blues album. This trio is famous for playing tight arrangements, and many of them feature a balance of busy rhythmic figures and moments of sparse piano accompaniment that leave space for the bass to shine through. Although Crosby is more than capable of improvising basslines that sound like written melodies, he probably honed this line into a finished product over dozens of live performances to a point where there may be no improvisation at all here.
Cheek to Cheek ICrosby bassline