This month’s transcription is Israel Crosby’s bass line from Poinciana off Ahmad Jamal’s album: At the Pershing But Not For Me. Before reading through the piece, take a listen to the track. The lesson to take home from this recording is the use of themes and arranging techniques within a jazz bass line. Listen for the themes in the track and take note of how often it switches to a new theme. Listening once before you play will give you a better idea on when a theme is temporarily interrupted, or when the theme actually changes. At first glance at the notation, it could seem like there are too many changes in themes, or that repeating one theme too often will make the song boring, but listening to the track once before playing it will answer all those questions.
It’s important to keep in mind that Israel Crosby is a heavy cat. If you listen to the rest of the album, you will find that he can play incredibly melodic and interesting walking lines even during blazing tempos. He is capable of walking through a song without having the same idea happen twice. If he wanted to, he could play devoid of all themes or motifs. Remember that a lot of thought went into this song before it was performed, and Israel specifically thought this bass line was best.
Poinciana is filled with extremely strong motifs, not only in bass but in all the instruments. Imagine for a moment what the song might sound like without such distinct and specialized parts. Imagine a standard jazz drum groove and a walking line where no two measures are the same. The tune would definitely lose most of its flavor and appeal. When listening or working on a tune, ask yourself how often the audience could sing parts from the piece once the song is over. How much should they be able to sing? Some melodies can be very corny, but the fact that it can be buzzing in our heads long enough for us to be able to sing them later, proves that we were able to identify with it on some level. Isn’t that what music is all about?
Onto the analysis. When I analyze a piece, I want to find out why the bass player chose his or her approach. This piece has the most thematic bass line of any other jazz song I have ever heard. It’s not like some tunes where the bass line plays the exact same pattern for the entire tune. I am a fan of that too, but that’s a different approach than what we’re seeing here. This tune has at least 16 different themes. That’s a ton for a single song. A theme gives the listener something that they can hold onto and identify with. An audience needs to have something to identify with from a song or they will lose interest. This is why some jazz tunes appeal only to jazz musicians. It means that the only identifiable elements are elements that can only be recognized if you have studied jazz. The only other reason people might appear to identify with such a tune is when they pretend to appreciate it in order to look hip. It’s funny, but true.
Now that we know that themes were very important to either Ahmad or Israel (most likely both), and that the idea of using such strong themes was clearly intentional, let’s take a look at when the themes change and why. Take a look through the sheet music and circle the theme (usually one measure long) and note how long it takes before the theme stops repeating. Remember that a fill or slight variation doesn’t mean the theme has been abandoned unless the change keeps repeating. A good example of this difference is measures 59-66. Measure 59 is the theme. You’ll notice that 61-62, and 65-66 depart from this theme, but a new theme doesn’t start until measure 67. It’s basically a call and response. The main theme at measures 59-60 and 63-64 are the call, and the parts that occur in the opposite measures are the responses.
When I went through the song, I circled each measure that introduced a theme and assigned it a letter. This helped me to see where the same theme reoccurs and identify it quickly later on. After you mark the themes, make a note about how long each theme repeats. Once you are done, your analysis will tell you how often themes reoccur, how many themes exist total, and any trends in how long themes repeat. I personally want to learn about what Israel and Ahmad think are the strongest musical choices, and I analyze a tune to try to find this information.
16 major themes occur in this tune. Each theme is a measure long, and they are introduced at these measures: 1, 17, 27, 43, 59, 67, 75, 91, 99, 107, 115, 123, 139, 147, 155, and 163. Most themes last only 8 measures. The exceptions to this usually have a reason. The intro and outro have themes that last longer, but this makes sense. Both sections use the same theme and serve to relay the feel of the song. The intro is just that, in introduces you to the song by giving you a little idea on what you are about to get into. The outro for this song gives you one last reminder to the feel of the piece. Another place that a theme lasts longer than eight measures is when the introduction ends and the tune actually begins at measure 17. This is a common arranging technique. Keep the top of the song simple. When a song begins, the audience might be exposed to it for the first time in their life, even if it is a standard. Keeping the beginning of the tune simple teaches the audience the foundation of the song. With this foundation, the audience will have an easier time relating and identifying variation and improv later. Being confident in the foundation of the tune, they can more readily recognize what the performer did to vary or embellish it. If you come right out of the gate with tons of improv and variation it can sound like a mess to someone in the audience.
Good arranging is all about texture. A song needs changes in texture to keep it interesting. Texture changes can appear as changes in volume, tempo, motifs and themes, space, being busy, energy, instrumentation, playing more or less notes, key centers and modulations, ride vs. high hat, etc. A commonly accepted rule of thumb for arranging is that there must be a texture change about every 8 bars. When you start thinking about texture changes, it makes some parts of the song make more sense. It now makes sense to keep a theme going for 16 bars at the beginning of the tune, because it will make it more apparent later when a change in texture occurs. Also keep in mind, that if everything is crazy in a song and if no two measures are alike in any instrument, this is an example of only ONE type of texture. If you keep this going throughout the entire song, it’s not an overload of texture, it’s actually a song with NO change in texture. Boring!! Take a listen to Ahmad Jamal’s song “What’s New” on the album (you guessed it) At the Pershing But Not For Me. Listen to it from the beginning. What happens at 1:38? A huge texture change occurs in all instruments. The song goes from an open “two feel” to a looped rhythmic motif that stays strong for a little over 60 seconds. Now that’s what I call giving your song some serious flavor and personality. Without this element, it would still be a great jazz ballad, but not very different or special compared to any other jazz ballad. This kind of arranging device is what can keep people thinking and talking about your performance for a long time.
So how does all this apply to Poinciana? It tells us that it is important to note when the motif changes because this is a texture change. These guys are pros. The have a lot of experience and knowledge in what works and what doesn’t concerning texture changes and arranging techniques. When I look at this tune, I take away the knowledge that a texture change about every 8 bars is important after the song has been established.
Think of the last time you saw a jam session where each soloist played the exact same amount of notes continuously at one constant volume. It’s so boring!! Even if they are good players. But if there are obvious differences in amount of notes, space, volume, or intensity in a solo, it makes every one listen and relate. I think a lot of us can get in the mind space that every measure has to be its own amazing idea and can never be repeated in jazz. This piece definitely disproves that. I hope that for some this analysis will open up some freedom and new ideas.
Thinking from an arranger’s perspective forces us to think “big picture.” What’s good for the song? What makes the song stronger and helps the audience to identify with it? This kind of thinking will develop a much different song when compared to playing with the mindset of “let me impress everyone with my vast and varied catalogue of walking licks.” That’s cool too, but nothing trumps the perspective of making the song stronger. Hope you enjoyed this month’s tune.