Mr Benn

If you grew up in the UK in the 1970s, you’ll be familiar with the children’s programme Mr Benn. What you might not know is that the theme tune was written by the great Scots jazz tenor sax player, Duncan Lamont, who died recently. He wrote the tune under a pseudonym, Don Warren.

Listen here.

It is a classic piece of line writing over a classic chord progression. Let’s take the chords first, in Bb, of course. The form is a song of two halves, ABAC (4-4-4-4). I’m using ‘%’ to mean repeat previous bar. Passing chords are in parentheses.


A: Bb | % | % | F-7 Bb7 ||


1) B: Eb Ab7 | Bb/F (F#o) G-7 / | C7 | F7 :||


2) C: Eb Eo7 | Bb/F (Ab7) G7 / | C-7 F7 | Bb ||

The analysis is really simple. The A section starts at home and then heads to IV. The B section ‘Yaks’ back arriving at chord I and then drops back to a slow launcher (II7 V7) in the last two bars of the B section, telling the ear we are half way through the form. The A section repeats, giving the ear some relief in familiar material. Section C is a ‘Pennies Ending’ using the classic way back from IV to chord I via #IVo7.

The melody is a brilliant lesson in using the chord notes to build a tune connected together with approach tones.

In the A section, the melody emphasises E natural over the Bb chords on strong beats 3 of bars 1 and 2. This is the #11 of Bb, which is the ‘go to’ 11 in a tonic major chord. It could be voiced as a V7 of V chord, C7, if you were bored of comping straight Bb. But this is the Lydian sound on Bb (#11) and predates the Simpson’s Theme (1989), which also majors on the Lydian, by almost a couple decades (1970).

Bar 3 has a classic enclosure of the third of the Bb chord (semitone below): D, Eb, Db, D.

The C section starts with lots of chromatic approach from below and ends with two bars alternating Bb and C triads which emphasises the #11 again as in the A section but also sounding like the tune is outside the key to great comic effect.

If you want to know what the terms ‘Yak’ and ‘Pennies Ending’ are all about, check out my book about memorising chord progressions.

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The Pink Panther

I have always loved the Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini since I used to watch the cartoon shorts with my father in the 1970s and later in the 1980s I played piano in a big band which had the chart in the pad.

Recently, I decided to add the number to my trio pad. I realised that it would need arranging to make it work for the trio without a saxophone or flute and I decided to give the theme to the double bass while the piano takes the role of the bass.

In the original, there is an abrupt modulation after the theme from E minor to G minor for a big-band soli section. I decided to use this an an opportunity to practice my drop-2 block chording and the knowledge from studying Barry Harris and others. It is this G minor section that this blog is about. You can hear me playing the block chords by clicking here.

The chords are pretty simple over a 16-bar structure:

| G-  | % | Eb7 | % | G- | % | Ab7  | %  |

| G-  | % | Eb7 | % | G- | Eb7 D7 | G- | %  |

Next I put this into Roman numerals based in the minor key, I am using “Julliard notation” which has “x” to mean a dominant on a degree other than V. Otherwise, chords take their quality that they should have according to the degree of the major scale:

| Im | % | bVIx | % | Im | % | bIIx | % |

| Im | % | bVIx | % | Im | bVIx V | Im | % |

We see some familiar landmarks:

  • Im (home, but minor)
  • bVIx is the “Nowhere chord” found in Out of Nowhere, but this time in a minor key. It can be thought of as the tritone sub of IIx.
  • bIIx is the the tritone sub for V.
  • bVIx V I  is a common cadence in minor keys.

John Mehegan in the 1960s recommended using Roman numerals based in the major key, calling the relative minor VI. This can reveal some common chords that we might not have otherwise spotted:

| VI | % | IVx | % | VI | % | bVIIx | % |

| VI | % | IVx | % | VI | IVx IIIx | VI | % |

Thinking in the major like this gives us an alternative view of the landmarks:

  • VI (the relative minor version of home)
  • IVx is the dominant on IV, a common blues subdominant.
  • bVIIx is the “backdoor” or “Yardbird” cadence dominant.

I am honestly not sure which is the better way of thinking of it; I do a bit of both.

Next I came to analysing how to make a drop-2 block-chord arrangement. First I transcribed the melody of the big-band soli section.

It makes a more interesting arrangement of block chords are not use for the whole section. We often See Oscar Peterson and others alternating between block chords and single line for a few bars. So, I decided I would use block chords for the easier bits and use alternative where the melody jumps around too much.

Next came the Barry Harris analysis so that I can move with the melody while the chords are not changing, i.e. which 6/dim scales should I be using? I decided it sounds good for all the of the chords to be treated as derived from melodic minor harmony,  and I also wanted to practice appying melodic minor. Here is what I chose:

  • G-: Treat as G-6 and therefore G melodic minor. The Harris scale is G-6/F#dim7.
  • Eb7: Treat as Eb7#11 and therefore Bb melodic minor. The Harris scale is Bb-6/Adim7.
  • Ab7: Treat as Ab7#11 and therefore Eb melodic minor. The Harris scale is Eb-6/Ddim7.

Here is the result played by me.

Building a model for how music works

I hear on Radio 4 tonight that liberal science has the best track record of any social system in history. For the past 3-400 years science has fiercely disagreed about how things work. You form a model. You make some experiments. You write a paper and the social network will provide a massively parallel review.

This got me thinking about jazz. And I have a science background which I find hard to leave behind and I use everyday in my job as a technical consultant.

But back to the point. Why is it so exciting to discover that most books about jazz are wrong? Is Barry Harris right when he says the jazz schools are teaching all wrong?

Well, for me, these are signposts that things are going well. The radio programme offers three principles for disagreement:

  1. Steer clear of personal attacks
  2. Test yourself. When you strongly believe it’s a good sign you are wrong.
  3. Accept you will sometimes be wrong.

Right, back to developing a block chord theory of everything …

Lead sheet parts for the bandstand

I am often asked to make lead sheets for the band stand. Not for jam sessions (since the players should know the songs at jam sessions before they perform them) but usually for singers nights where the band might not know the song (or at least not in the singer’s key). When I do this, I use Sibelius to produce four versions of the leadsheet (or ‘parts’) to be passed out to the band to sightread on the night. Of course, the parts have to be easy to read and the correct part has to be given to the correct musicians.

So, how do we know who needs what? I thought it might be useful to document the logic which goes like this:

  • The song has a key which is typically chosen to suit the range of the singer while remaining reasonably familiar to the instrumentalists.
  • This key is known as ‘Concert’ key since it is the key in which the piece is to be performed.
  • Two parts are made in Concert key:
    • One where the melody is written on a treble clef. This is sometimes referred to as the Concert part lead sheet since it is the starting point from which all other parts are derived. The treble Concert lead sheet is given to vocalists, pianist, flautists, violinists, etc.
    • The other Concert part has the melody written on a bass clef and is sometimes known as the Bass part. This is given to double and electric bass players, cellists and trombonists.
    • Apart from the clef change, these two lead sheets are identical.
  • Some instruments are ‘transposing instruments’. This means that when they play a C, it sounds as another note. For example, a Bb trumpet plays a C and it sounds as a Bb. An Eb baritone sax plays a C and it sounds as an Eb.
  • To allow all the band to play in the same key at the same time, the transposing instruments need transposed lead sheets which means they are written in a different key from Concert key. There are many different transposing instruments, but for jazz, there are typically only two transpositions needed:
    • A Bb part lead sheet is given to players of trumpet, clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophone. The keys needs to be a tone higher than the Concert key.
    • An Eb part lead sheet is given to players of alto and baritone saxophone. The keys needs to be a minor third lower (or a major sixth higher) than the Concert key.

So, in summary, when preparing for a song on a gig with a band who will not know your song arrangement or key, you will need the following copies of parts:

  • Concert part: singer, pianist, guitarist, flute (one for the pianist as a minimum, a spare for guitarist or any other C instruments to share)
  • Bass part: bass, cello, trombone (one for the bass might be enough since cello and trombone are relatively rare these days in jazz bands). It is worth noting that if the bass is not playing the melody, they can read the chords from the treble Concert part, since they are in the same key.
  • Drummers (if they read) can use any part you have spare since they do not play the notes or the chords. The leadsheet will give them the song form and any rhythmic ‘hits’ they might beed to know.
  • If you are singing with a piano, bass and drums or guitar, bass and drums, you can get away with copies of just one part, the (treble) Concert part. So, always have a few copies of the Concert part which is typically more in demand than the other parts. (Advanced horn players can also transpose at sight from a Concert part.)
  • Bb part: for any Bb horns (one should do, they can share)
  • Eb part: for any Eb horns (one should do, they can share)

 

Picking a key

Every key has a key signature when we write music which is intended to make them easier to write. Some use sharps, others use flats. None use both. One key has neither and this is C major.

When instrumentalists learn their instruments, they tend to start with the keys that are easier to read and these are the one with the least sharps or flats in their key signature. Many players never learn to become familiar with all keys. Most are pragmatic and learn the ones they need in order to play in a band. Different instrument types prefer different keys. Guitarists prefer sharp keys and so a lot of folk, rock and pop music is in sharp keys. Jazz ‘horn’ (trumpet, clarinet, sax, etc) players prefer flat keys.

There are 12 possible keys we can choose, based on the 12 different semitones on the piano. But there are 15 ways we notate them because, at the extremes, three keys can be written as either a sharp or a flat key. Cb=B; Gb=F#; Db=C#. As shown below:

Keys and how to pick

Every major key has a relative minor key (and vice versa) and they share a key signature.

As mentioned, jazz bands often include horns that are tuned in flat keys and therefore the bands tend to play in flat keys, rather than sharp keys as a compromise to make life easier for everyone in the band. Unless they are seasoned professionals, they have around six preferred keys with which they are familiar. Half of the 12 available keys are not generally used because they are less familiar. As the instrumentalists improve, more keys become available, but they will always be less familair with the other keys.

Having said this, there are still six major and six minor keys which are commonly used in jazz, so there is quite some scope for variety.

Enter the singer who wishes to change the keys to suit his or her range. In order to maximise the chances of success, singers are advised to focus on the familiar keys. If they think their key is not one of the familiar keys, then choose one as close as possible (i.e. a semitone or half-step up or down). It is very unlikely the range of the song is such that the singer can only sing it in one key. For example, A becomes Bb or Ab; E becomes Eb or F (remember E# is F since there is no black note in between). C# or Db become C (or D).

If the singer does not know their key, find the lowest note in the song, and work out what note the singer is comfortable this being and let that define the key as above. This will be towards the bottom of their range, but not necessarily the lowest note they can sing.

When picking keys, a useful rule of thumb (for which I have to give credit to David Berkman) is that men often sing standards in the key they were originally written in, whereas women will often sing them around a fourth lower.