I don’t place a lot of value on originality in music. My tastes lie mostly in blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. While there’s plenty of creativity in all of these forms, it’s built around shared musical materials: stock licks and phrases, standard song structures and schemas, frequently borrowed beats and samples. Hearing a familiar blues riff or funk break is like encountering an old friend, and the intertextuality created by all of the shared musical DNA enriches the listening experience.
The title of this post could be read a couple of different ways. You could take it to mean “people who electronically rework jazz recordings.” Jazz has certainly been a bottomless source of inspiration for hip-hop producers. A significant portion of my own creative output is based on samples of my favorite jazz recordings.
By the way, if you’re looking for a good break, let me recommend the drumming of Sam Woodyard in the late-period Duke Ellington Orchestra; he’s a gold mine.
Really, though, the title of this post refers to jazz musicians themselves. Jazz is all about repurposing pop and folk material for new expressive ends, and the greats were remix artists before the term existed. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers, such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.
Some of Coltrane’s most compelling statements of musical truth are renditions of extremely corny pop songs. The best known one is “My Favorite Things,” from his 1961 album of the same name.
Coltrane’s arrangement of this tune bears the same relationship to The Sound Of Music as “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z bears to Annie. Jazz uses different technology than hip-hop, but it makes the same musical statement: putting a stamp of personal ownership on a piece of public musical property. The lawyers among you will probably now want to jump in and point out that neither The Sound Of Music nor Annie are public property. Even though both function the way that folk songs do, they’re both very much under copyright. Music has always consisted of endlessly reinterpreted and recombined folk memes, but now most of the really good memes are privately owned. It makes for some legal and cultural awkwardness.
I bought My Favorite Things when I was eighteen or nineteen after reading a Jerry Garcia interview in which he raved about it. (I have never been steered wrong on a music recommendation by Jerry Garcia.) On my first listen, I wasn’t impressed. A show tune I sang in middle school chorus played on soprano sax, whee! Now I experience Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as the mind-expanding flight of imagination I was promised, but I had to grow up a little to appreciate it. And appreciate it I did, to a point of near-obsession. When I had a jazz band, I insisted that we perform it regularly, and that we include it on our one album.
Coltrane had a way of anticipating what music would sound like in the future. He was particularly prescient about the importance of looped bass lines. Jazz bass is usually a complex semi-improvised stream of quarter notes. But Coltrane liked to have his bassists play strictly unvarying two-bar loops. On “My Favorite Things,” Jimmy Garrison plays a few simple octave patterns on the root and fifth of the key with no variation for the entire duration of the song. This kind of bass line anticipated the looped, sequenced, and sampled bass parts in hip-hop and other electronic music.
Coltrane was also prescient in his liking for open-ended loops on a single chord, or a few repeating chords from a single scale. This is the basic structure of nearly all forms of electronic music, and most contemporary pop too, but in 1961 it was a radical departure from most of the music in the air. Like James Brown and the hip-hop artists he inspired, Coltrane relied a lot on the “repeat until cue” instruction. In between the phrases of the “Favorite Things” melody, he inserts open-ended grooves, first on E minor, then on E major. He and McCoy Tyner play each groove as long as they want, signaling the band that it’s time to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody. Coltrane was a great admirer of Ravi Shankar, so much so that he named his son after him, and you can hear the influence of Indian classical music on this recording.
The album My Favorite Things is most famous for its title track, but it also includes three other startling reinterpretations of standards. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is played double-time at an extremely slow baseline tempo, stretching the melody like Silly Putty. “Summertime” is played fast, with an angry feel and crunchy, dissonant chords built from the melodic minor scale. Finally, “But Not For Me” is transformed almost as radically as the title track. Here’s a conventional version of the tune by Judy Garland:
And here’s Coltrane’s version:
The most obvious change is the first four bars. In the Gershwin tune, the line “They’re writing songs of love but not for me” runs over a simple ii-V-I progression in E♭. Coltrane’s first four bars are a sprint through the keys of E♭, B, and G via those keys’ respective dominant chords. The bass line spells out the descending E♭ whole-tone scale: E♭, F♯7/C♯, B, D7/A, G, B♭7/F, E♭. Coltrane rewrites the melody completely to fit this new chord progression. Coltrane also inserts some new structural elements of his own. He adds a long tag section where he lifts unexpectedly up to several distant minor keys for eight bars each. There’s also the extremely extended open-ended tag on the ii-V-iii-VI turnaround. Should we consider Coltrane’s arrangement to be the same piece of music as the Gershwin original? Certainly, if you want to play the Coltrane version at a jam session or a gig, you’d better come prepared with charts and a lot of explanation.
Radical jazz adaptations of standards raise the same questions about authorship and ownership that sample-based compositions and remixes do. Where do you draw the line between an arrangement, a new melody written to existing chord changes, and an improvised solo? Bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman routinely used improvised phrases by their band members as the basis for new tunes (and were not overly concerned with crediting those band members). The borders between arrangement, interpretation, improvisation, and composition are blurry at best. Should we consider “Whispering” and “Groovin’ High” to be the same song? How about “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love”? Or “I Got Rhythm” and the uncountable bebop heads it inspired?
Jazz was largely built on a scaffolding of show tunes and other pop songs. The ones that have emerged as standards share certain musical characteristics that make them more amenable to jazz adaptation. They have singable melodies with rhyming lyrics accompanied by a simple chord progression (or sometimes not so simple, but always intelligible to the ordinary person’s ear). They’re repetitive and predictable. They follow a small set of conventions in their structure: four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar phrases, repeated two or three or four times, with the larger grouping of phrases repeating more or less intact for the entire duration of the tune. There are some recurrent harmonic tropes involving counter-clockwise trips around the circle of fifths. The modular structure of standards makes them amenable to disassembly and reassembly. These jazz compositions and improvisations are constructed from a giant box of shared musical Legos, rearrangeable at will on paper or in the improviser’s head.
As with harmony and form, there’s a finite toolbox of riffs, patterns, and scale runs you can use to build your jazz melodies and solos. Blues is particularly reliant on Lego-like modular riffs. Jazz and blues intros and endings are few, highly standardized, and easily interchangeable. One much-recycled ending is the one Count Basie uses in his performance of “Fly Me To The Moon” with Frank Sinatra.
Another basic Lego is the Duke Ellington ending, as in “Take The A Train.”
Miles Davis turned this ending into an entire bebop head called “The Theme.”
You can hear a stretched-out but still recognizable rendition of “The Theme” at the end of each set on Miles’s Fillmore East performances from March 7, 1970.
The distance between a jazz module like the Duke Ellington ending and a sample like the Funky Drummer break is short. In my own experience, the creative process of writing a jazz tune based on licks and progressions from existing songs feels much the same as building tracks from samples. It can’t be an accident that the most creative jazz musicians are the ones who borrow the most heavily from one another, from pop culture, and from themselves. Coltrane’s tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “Pavanne” by Morton Gould and “So What” by Miles Davis (which is itself partially inspired by “Pavanne.”) The 6/8 single-chord grooves in “My Favorite Things” also appear in Coltrane’s versions of “Greensleeves,” “Spiritual,” and “Afro Blue.” And why not? That groove never gets old. If the most creative artist in the history of jazz is doing so much sampling, I think everyone should feel emboldened to do the same.