The Okeh Ellington

27 Apr

After my brother Jamie’s recommendation to seriously consider Duke Ellington as a resource for tunes that would work well in arrangement for a bowed string jazz combo, I looked up some reviews to see where to begin. I remember listening to some late, piano-heavy Ellington (or perhaps covers of Ellington?) years back and not being so impressed, so there’s been a little anxiety around the idea of returning for a close listen.

Picking up courage I found a good thread with some recommendations.

I decided to start at the beginning with the 50-tune collection The Okeh Ellington, from his early period 1927-1930.

This well-written review by Kevin Gallaugher clinched it:

I empathize with the audiophiles’ comments here regarding sound quality of this recording, but at some point we must move on. Let’s concentrate on the music itself, groundbreaking art of the highest degree. These recordings come from perhaps Ellington’s most fascinating period, that two to three year window when his orchestra was not yet the world renowned, household name it would soon become, but was actually in the process of creating the body of work which would ultimately render that condition inevitable. During this period, the orchestra members seem fully cognizant that their band is the finest in the land. The recordings on display here palpably reflect that attitude. The blues was perhaps a more predominant element to the Orchestra’s sound than it would ever be thereafter. Critically, Bubber Miley is present, and in incandescent form. Miley was one of the most swinging, creative, emotionally expressive blues musicians who ever lived, and the growling, muted plunger style of interplay between Miley’s trumpet and Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone exhibited here would never again grace a recording studio once this period had passed. These two geniuses have influenced jazz musicians far and wide up to this day, whether or not they even realize who it is they copy…

Jamie, and K. Gallaugher, are absolutely right. The Ellington tunes are incredible. To my ear anyway, this is the pinnacle of what I’ve heard done with the blues. Check out Black and Tan Fantasy below.

Fun fact about Ellington: he was born in 1899.

One surprising thing to me is how similar the rhythm section in many of the Ellington recordings sounds to what Django and the Quintette du Hot Club de France would be doing in Paris with guitars a couple years later in the early thirties.

Compare Jubilee Stomp (Ellington) and Swing Guitars (Django).


Fourth Grade Fabulous

26 Mar

I wrote this tune many years ago for fourth grade beginning string orchestra, and recently revised it a little bit, incorporating changes that are helpful to first year string players. Here’s a pdf download for anyone with a beginning string orchestra or chamber group looking for some accessible rep. It features scalar, unison melodies, and a simple harmonic progression. The parts are grouped into two: upper strings (violin & viola) and lower strings (cello & bass). There’s some call and response to encourage listening across the ensemble. String crossings occur over open strings, and fingerings are included in helpful places. There are no slurs. This tune is correlated with the end of the Essential Elements Vol. 1 series.

All the planes that intersect

26 Mar

Last week was parent-teacher conferences at the Waldorf School, and I met with the parents of a second grade student in my general music class, both of whom are from Ethiopia. The father really wants to learn the Krar, a 5 string lyre-like instrument from the Ethiopian musical tradition. He was lamenting that he can’t find a teacher of the Krar in Chicago. I’ll keep an ear out, I told him.

A buddy of mine recently forwarded some wonderful mixes he’s made. Deep cuts, not the sorts of tunes one comes by easily. Mix003, an Ethio-jazz mix, starts with a tune called Tezeta. This is actually the name for a whole genre of Ethiopian jazz, somewhat similar to The Blues as a style in US music. I looked it up, and Tezeta means something like “reminiscence” or “nostalgia”. I asked the students’ parents if they happened to be familiar. Their eyes lit up and they told me that not only were they familiar, but Mulatu Astatke, the grandfather of Ethio-jazz and the arranger of this particular Tezeta, was playing a show in Chicago soon, did I know? I didn’t, and sadly it turns out the May show sold out quickly.

I did some research on the Krar, and it turns out that it, like the lyres we use in first and second grade music at Waldorf, is tuned to a major pentatonic scale. The planes begin to intersect.

Concurrently, I’ve been doing some blues improv with my cello students. We’re learning to solo over the 12-bar blues changes. I wrote a post at Chromawheelmusic about how Music Compass has helped me finally understand some things about why the minor pentatonic scale works so well over a major blues.

Returning to the mix I was forwarded, and this lovely tune Tezeta, I wanted to encourage some friends and family to build the major pentatonic shape on the Music Compass webapp, and experiment with jamming along with tune. Pentatonic scales are great for soloing as they seem to float easily over the music. It turns out that this Tezeta is in Eb, so forwarded the Major Pentatonic page from the soon-to-be-released Visual Guide to Music and suggested they try to build the pentatonic shape in Eb.

Eb Major Pentatonic

Meanwhile, my mom was in California this past week enjoying the beauty of life with some friends. She brought back a very sonorous windchime for my father, which he hung on the porch. He’s sent a couple of videos to the family Whatsapp thread because the label on the windchime asserts that it’s tuned in D pentatonic, and he’s quite puzzled. This source of his confusion? It sounds like there’s a Bb and an F in the chimes, which I’m sure he’s discovered by trying to jam along with the chimes on the piano. How he got the piano near the porch where the chimes are hanging I’m not sure I want to ask.

I asked him to send a video of him playing each chime in turn, which he did, and I gave video a close listen. It turns out that the windchimes are actually tuned to an Eb pentatonic scale, and thus will accompany Mulatu Astatke’s Tezeta perfectly.

Thanks Synthtopia!

7 Mar

The Chromawheel project got a nice writeup in Synthtopia. Chromawheel Music Compass allows students to play with music theory in a unique, tactile way, and to see how music works.

Sensible Position Names for Cello

2 Mar

I’ve always felt that if I can’t understand something myself, I can’t really use it as a musician, and I certainly can’t teach it. This is how I’ve felt for a long time about the standard position naming system for the left hand on cello.

The system widely in use, for example in the Suzuki Method, by Samuel Applebaum in the Beautiful Music series, by Rick Mooney in all his otherwise excellent books, is totally mystifying.

I’ve been using my own system of sensible position names with my students for about 10 years now, with much success. When we talk about positions, I get a smile and a nod of real comprehension, rather than the uh-huh and dull eyes of non-comprehension. I even get laughs as my intermediate students read the standard position names written in their music, translate them immediately to their sensible names, and ask jokingly “Why would they ever call that fourth position??!”

I took some photos of my left hand on the cello fingerboard (actually, my wife was the photographer), and illustrated the sensible names for the positions on one sheet. I then notated all the fingering possibilities for the first 6 positions on the A and D string. Finally, I correlated the sensible position names to their first introduction in the Suzuki books for cello, volumes 1 – 3. That way, a teacher or student can easily look up the sensible name for a position when it’s first introduced in the excellent sequenced repertoire of the Suzuki method. This pdf is available for download here.

A little more about why the standard system is confusing: [Warning: this will get a little technical.]

“Second Position” seems to describe a range of possible positions. Not particularly helpful for aspiring cellists. For example, it can mean the position where the 1st finger falls on C on the A string, or the position where it falls on C#. “Third Position” seems to refer to the position where the 1st finger falls on D on the A string, and “Fourth Position” to the position where 1st finger falls on E. What then should we call the position where 1st finger calls on D#? Is it “Third Position?” Is this same position called “Fourth Position” when the note is spelled Eb in the key? I wouldn’t wish this conundrum on my worst enemy. Maybe there’s a key to understanding what’s going on, and I just don’t get it. If there’s a cellist out there who gets it, please help! In the meantime, I’ll be using my sensible position names.

Greatest all-time two minutes of pop writing and orchestration?

20 Feb

The greatest two minutes of pop writing and orchestration has to be Leonard Bernstein’s tribute to Beethoven, “Somewhere”, from his 1961 orchestral suite West Side Story.  The counterpoint between the leaping and returning themes is exquisite.  The delicate harp raindrops accompanying.  Video starts at 4:30.  The orchestra is extremely close-mic’d, and it sounds great!




Singing and playing cello: Santa Lucia

19 Feb

This is an old recording for cello and voice but I was thinking back to it.  I plan to arrange and learn a couple more songs for cello and singing, as it’s incredibly difficult and also incredibly good practice / very rewarding.  The arranging for cello is also a neat process, because the arrangement can go from very simple to very complex.  In fact, learning to play and sing requires building up the arrangement from the simple to the complex in a very deliberate manner.  More on that process later!


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