20 December 2011

Winter Break Stuff

I've long since abandoned learning tunes for the sake of learning tunes, but I still go out of my way two or three times a year to fill a hole in my knowledge of the standard jazz rep, as well as seeking out a few gnarly heads for their purely technical challenges. Whether in or out of school, this is often one of the only times of year when I can devote the time to see these processes through to completion, and so my mind almost habitually starts thinking that way.

This year's winter harvest? The standard "Darn That Dream" and Eric Dolphy's "Miss Ann" from the album Far Cry.

I live in/near LA now, there are jazzheads here, and this tune gets called. It's also a great tune that I should know by now. Like most tubists, I first heard it on Birth of the Cool, and for that reason its one of the few standards I come to with some of the lyrics burned into my memory. The hipness of the arrangement scared my teenage self away from trying to play it, though, and having already learned to thoroughly distrust the Real Book, I didn't take that chart seriously at the time. (Checking now, it's actually pretty close, but like almost every tune in the Real Book, there's one gratuitous, inexplicable slash chord in an odd place. Really, what would life be without all the gratuitous, inexplicable slash chords in the Real Book where plain old diatonic seventh chords would have sufficed?) Oddly enough, the last several standards I've made a study of have all been most commonly played in G: East of the Sun, Out of Nowhere, and now Darn That Dream. Interestingly, the first three chords of the latter two tunes are identical (Gmaj-Bbmin-Eb7), though on different durational scales; how many standards in Bb or Eb do you know that tonicize a key that far in the "flat" direction that soon? Similarly, thinking of, say, Groovin' High in Eb moving to A- D7 in that position, how many tunes in G or D do this in "sharp" direction? An interesting question for composers and players alike. Maybe writing in C isn't so much of a cop-out after all; by this logic, at least, you would be giving yourself the best chance to avoid being subconsciously influenced by what a distant modulation might entail.

And now for something completely different:

I LOVE this head and have wanted to play it ever since I heard it. The bugaboo, of course, is the range: it spans the entirety of the textbook alto range, which in sheer quantity is not unreasonable for most other horns, but the particular pitch level at which it lies is highly problematic. For tubists, the only viable "front line" solution would be to play it sounding down one octave, yielding a range from C# below the bass clef staff to A above it. A further octave displacement poses a wholly different technical challenge, but it is doable, and this is actually the range in which I plan to spend the most time. Because of the demands of front line playing (my exclusive interest as a jazz player for a long time), I am a much better improvisor up high than down low. This is also complicated by fingerings: in the highest ranges on brass instruments, one seldom needs bother with positions beyond the first four because the overtones are so close together. In the low range, though, you need all of them, bringing far more uncomfortable valve/slide positions into play, which is often the primary challenge in executing a passage. When I began pursuing bass functions in earnest, this was a tough lesson to learn, and one which I am still struggling with: fingerings and valve technique had been the "easy" part of playing since I memorized my elementary fingering chart in seventh grade, but with five of those suckers needed to play chromatically between the first two harmonics (which is still the "money" range if you play Eb or F tuba), boppish heads get challenging in a hurry. I've made progress; this will be another step if I can do it. One thing I've learned is that it's likely that at least one of the other 11 transpositions between these two extremes will sound and feel better than either of them do, and also that at least one will be nearly impossible, for whatever reason. It's good to know where those are.

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