the jazz box

Identifying where you first learned the standards and giving them your own signature

I have a pretty decent record collection. It includes a lot of singers doing their takes on standard jazz material and songs from the American Songbook. Flipping through the LP covers reveals Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Betty Carter, the Mills Brothers, Eddie Jefferson, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day, and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. That’s how I learned songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mercer. When it came time to play these songs on my guitar, I already had a clear memory of the melody, the harmony, the form, and the lyrics. Whether comping for a singer, another instrument playing the melody, or stating the melody myself, I could easily follow the unfolding song, having done the listening for years in advance. The catch is, if I had only heard, say, Betty Carter’s version of "Something Wonderful" by Rogers and Hammerstein, or Sarah Vaughan’s rendition of "Speak Low" by Jimmy Van Heusen, then I might not know that the melody actually goes like this instead of like that.

This came up in a lesson recently in which my student and I were talking about practicing and building a repertoire. One of us mentioned "Almost Like Being in Love." Great song, we both agreed. She knew it from a recording she’d transcribed by Lester Young and Oscar Peterson. She played it beautifully. At the end she noted, "He does this turnaround." I heard it as just the way the tune always goes. I also heard it as a transcription of an improvised chorus, or at least an embellished melody, but not the original melody as written by Lerner and Lowe. We talked about the wonders and dangers of learning tunes this way, and I thought about it in the hours and days that followed. "How do I know that tune?" I asked myself.

I pulled and tugged at the contents of my over-stuffed bookcases, mining for the answer. Out came a songbook from my piano lessons when I was eight or nine years old. What a treasure! Along with all of the doodles and scribbles on the pages—the graffiti my sisters would leave as they accompanied me at the piano bench—I found the simplified versions of many of the standards I have come to hear and play in a multitude of variations over the years: "Autumn Leaves," "Moon River," and "Lullaby of Birdland." There it was: "Almost Like Being in Love" in a very simple piano arrangement, with the melody right there for all to see.

That’s where a song begins for a player—the facts are all there. Once you have that basic sense of the tune, then you can begin the joyful process of messing with it. Do you want to play it as an unaccompanied chord solo? Find the places where the melody sits on top of the chord as naturally as possible in your fretting hand. Find the most natural way to express that harmonized melody with your picking hand. If the melody seems impossible to grab from the chord voicing on which you’ve landed, try a chord inversion. The next thing you know, you’ll be reharmonizing the tune just to better accompany the melody. Maybe the substitute dominant chord would sound cool there. Maybe a tension on the minor chord will pull at some heartstrings. That will likely lead to some rearranging and discoveries of bass lines as you break away from the original root motion. Then there’s the melody: Do you want it to swing? Do you want anticipations? Do you want to shorten any of the phrases or lengthen any patterns? Do you want it all in a high or a low register? Or some of each?

At this point, you’ll be free to tell the melodic story in your own way, which is a terrific place to launch the song. If you’re playing with other people backing you up, then you might state the melody as simply as you can, followed by your thoughtful commentary on it. Your embellishments might well include some ideas you’ve by now surely heard from other performances of the same tune. You’ll be on solid ground if you know the essence of the tune, apart from the adjectives and judgments thrown in by others. I want to know how you feel about it while you’re playing, not what someone else told you about it, which they heard from someone else in the first place.

If you’re comping for someone, then your job is to throw in "uh-huh" and "yeah, man" in the appropriate spots in the telling of the song. Again, knowing the song in its essence is key. If someone tells you a story you’ve heard before, but you’ve never heard their side of it, you might nod along politely at the parts you know, but you’ll likely have a more significant outburst of some sort when the storyteller interjects some fresh information, some colorful form of expressing the point, or some hilarious telling of a detail. Go ahead and play along with the soloist by recognizing the brilliance of their storytelling that sets it apart from the original melody. You’ll recognize these embellishments because you know the original melody.

Your homework this month is to find Andy Griffith’s telling of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, and read Shakespeare’s version first if you don’t know the story in its original form yet. Enjoy your music collections—audio and written—and then find that music on your guitar.

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