I’ve been playing jazz standards since high school. Every now and then one of these tunes occupies my mind space for some time and I work extra on it. For whatever reason, some of these standards have the evergreen factor; it can be due to a built in mood, a melodic quirk, harmonic qualities or whatever. For me it’s virtually next to never the lyrics that trigger my fascination. A short sweeping statement about the history of this bag of 10’s, 20’s, 30’s show tunes for fun: As the story goes they were often made popular in musicals – then repurposed and used as song forms to jam on by jazz musicians – reharmonized, contrafacted (=remelodicized, for example “Whispering” becoming “Groovin’ High”), and revamped completely (for example Coltrane’s version of “My favorite things”), remeterized etc. These songs were almost exclusively in 4/4, or 3/4 occasionally. Many of them have a 32 bar-form, grouped in 4 sections of 8 bars each, commonly AABA, thus tending to be rather short forms withstanding cyclical repetitions. So the A-sections make up 75% of a song, quite a lot of it. If taken from musicals, these songs had a purpose and place within the tale, so the lyrical message of a story, a couple of verses long, was a key feature. However, this facet is irrelevant to what attracts me to these songs.
Very generally: A1 is the initial statement, A2 is the repeat and corroboration of the same with a different resolution, essentially confirming to the listener that you heard it right the first time around, B is a bridgein which new material is introduced, A3 is another repeat of the familiar A completing the circle, or square. The AABA song form is so ingrained, in most listeners acquainted with this type of repertoire, that it is second nature to feel familiar with how it goes. These three A-sections usually go the same route melodically speaking; commonly involving the same theme restated thrice with slightly different endings, and harmonically speaking; using authentic and half cadences at the end of respective sections to match that. Musicians often learn variations of the chord changes and/or melodies as recorded and made famous by jazz profiles, and continue searching. It certainly is one thing what is written on the page, or whatever the musicians are using as a blueprint, and quite another how the music is treated in the heat of the moment (hopefully). It is part of the jazz tradition to bend the paparameters to one’s satisfaction. It becomes a natural development to vary up these 8-bar sections with various touches, energy and inflictions as you play the songs through repeated choruses, using intuition, knowledge and musicianship to stay on the case and play engaged. Spontaneous reharmonizing, superimposing alternative harmonies, laying down pedal points, rhythmic pliability, melodic alterations, varied phraseology, etc. are organic results of this kind of experience and stretching. Many arrangers take advantage of these opportunities and possibilities in enriching song versions.
So lately I’ve been working on a few standards that I like for their intrinsic qualities. Two of them are in the typical AABA mold. Instead of repeating the chord structure more or less the same way three times, I simply changed the underlying harmony for each progressive section. By progressive section I mean that instead of merely replaying the thing played in A1, A2 and A3 present the option of new material in the structure and thereby moving the music forward. My own inclination is to have each variation support the melody still, thereby setting up 3 separate ways to harmonize the A sections, and the AABA sounds a bit more like an ABCD form. This way there is musical news in each section and a longer arc of chord progressions that lead to an ultimate resolution at the end of the 32-bar form, establishing the feeling of a longer route. I didn’t change the melodies at all so the melodic themes stay the same for the 3 A-sections but as is customary in jazz the melody is not restated when soloing takes over, instead the band is faced with several sets of chord changes to play with.
I have 3 examples to share with you (click on the links below); the first one is “Just You, Just Me” by Jesse Greer and Raymond Klages from the 1929 musical “Marianne”. The reason I like it is it’s a happy song with a simple and singable theme. Originally all the A-sections start, and end, on the I-chord which can become a bit tedious. When playing over the original changes I’d normally blues that up after a while to get more harmonic room and vibe to move around in, and as a continuation of that tendency I found that a change of bass note and harmonic color at the onset of each 8-bar section feels fresh. I left the 1st A-section intact. In my version the 2nd A-section sounds more like a turnaround using 7#9 – Hendrix chords, and 7b9 chords. I didn’t do anything to the bridge. The 3rd A-section features minor major 9th – James Bond chords, and takes a route more distant from the tonic (I) than expected, giving the third rendition of the catchy melody a more suspenseful touch. The 3rd A is the only section that sounds really different from the original, because the turnaround in the 2nd A is very similar to the 1st A (with E7#9 being a more colorful variation of C major). The first half of A3 is harmonically related to A2, but what gives the reharmonization it’s power is the change of bass notes. I haven’t thought of an arrangement otherwise, just a 4/4 swinger with an alternative reharmonization thrown in, establishing alternative chord progressions to play over that nudge results other than those of the original song. Chart: just you just me
“Softly as in a morning sunrise” – originally performed as a tango in the 1928 musical “The new moon”, was composed by Sigmund Romberg & Oscar Hammerstein ll. It is a very well-known standard with a beautiful melancholy feel and 4-bar structures. Like the previous song it’s in 32-bar AABA-form. It would drive a band crazy to stay strictly to the original changes chorus after chorus, so many colorful variations using various C minor related progressions usually happen as a natural thing. Although still “inside”, in this reharmonization I strayed a bit further from the expected tonalities. All the chord progressions work together with the melodic line but aren’t always centered around C minor. I picture this as a “crime jazz” version of the tune. A repeatable 8-bar intro is set up to introduce a mood, using chromatically circling chords, modulating, ascending, and moving in 2-bar patterns with a 2-bar cadence-like progression at the end before the melody comes in. This creeping chord set-up keeps going once the melody enters, for A1 and A2. For the B-section in Eb major, I stayed close to the original with a chromatically ascending bass line leading the way. A3 mimics the other A’s in this one, except for it avoiding resolution in another way. When it comes time to solo, there is an alternative set of chord changes for the A sections, now descending. Each 4-bar structure within the A-sections starts at a new harmonic point (again – different bass note) instead of repeating the original 4-bar phrase twice as the composition did. As an extra option the first chord of each 2-bar phrase of the intro can be used on cue or at will to play over during any A section: A7#9 l A7#9 l C7#9 l C7#9 l E7#9 l E7#9 l D7 l D7 l Chart: softly as in a morning sunrise
“Fly me to the Moon” by Bart Howard from 1954 was originally called “In other words”. It has 32 bars divided into two halves (the only difference being the words and the endings again). Everybody and his uncle can imagine the Sinatra-version of this one. I think I’ve played and heard this song, with that as a blueprint, at a few too many weddings. Sometimes a song doesn’t need chords. It has a robust descending fifths bass line with a sequential Baroque-like melody (like Autumn Leaves), and unearthly vibes in the lyrics. I changed the key from A minor to F minor, darker. I imagine a slow heavy version with the first 8 bars being looped over and over, saving the part that goes “in other words, please be true” until the very end of the performance. I hear an electric bass with fuzz playing that strong bass line with long, dominating fat tones, cymbals rolling, electric instruments buzzing, hints of sequential patterns, and the lyrics slowly being delivered syllable by syllable with spacey effects, reverse delay, and spontaneous improvisation that avoids the changes. Like being onboard a space ship. Chart: fly me to the moon