Tune Shed

The Tunes

Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was
The Preacher
Round Midnight
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans

What is Tune Shed?

Tune Shed is a record of my explorations of various tunes and approaches to improvising and otherwise messing around with them. If you happened to stumble on this blog and got the sense that it was composed by someone writing reminders to themselves, well…you’re right! My main motivation is to have a reasonably well-organized and highly portable collection of notes on tunes available to me wherever me and my wireless device du jour happen to be.

Experimental,loose, sketchy, and subject to perpetual revision. Just brief descriptions of things to try on different tunes and some recorded examples to go with them. There are also notes on tune structure, what the tune’s chord progression does, how the melody works, how the melody relates to the changes and how the lyrics relate to the melody. These are NOT exhaustive analyses and are primarily intended as portable mnemonics to help me internalize the gestalt of each tune. Every one deserves its own set of impressions, understandings and approaches: generic cookie-cutter strategies don’t work for me.

My Approach

  • start with paraphrase of the original melody; frequently stay there; know and hear the lyrics if the melody and lyric are of symbiotic origin
  • take responsibility for making what you play groove
  • use repetition; avoid redundancy
  • silence is the 13th note and sounds good on any key,any chord at any time; it is forever the new black
  • play in a way that makes the rests sound like charged space
  • standards-based musical analysis is autopsy;idiosyncratic musical description is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Pursue pataphysics — science of the particular; avoid metaphysics

About the Approaches

For various parts of various tunes, I describe ,and sometimes provide recorded examples of, improvisational frameworks. These are not intended as recipes or — Lord have mercy — algorithms for performance. Their purpose is to provide a targeted practice exercise for exploring relationships between the original melody and harmony.

About Harmony Descriptions

There are tons of resources providing common-practice chord changes for a given tune. Knowing what the changes are is a useful practice. But keeping all those changes in your head is way too much information when actually playing. Ideally, you know the tune so well you don’t have to think at all about the harmony or your ears are so good you just hear it. In a less than ideal situation ( welcome to my world ) I find it’s helpful to understand where the changes are going and what they are doing via a harmonic shorthand. If I can quickly — (I’m talking like 10 seconds here without referring to a piece of paper) — review my harmonic crib notes in my head before the tune starts, it helps get me in the flow of the progression without having to identify every single discrete chord in it.

Here’s the vocabulary for my harmonic shorthand:
Starts on…: Where the tune starts
Goes to…: Describes a cadence harmonic event.
Backdoors to…: Describes a cadence that resolves to the “relative” of its typical target. For example, Ebm-Ab7-BbM (eg. Stella by Starlight ) where the progression lands on a chord based on the relative of Db, which is Bb.
Lands on….Describes a point of rest in the harmonic progression, frequently a target for a “Goes to” harmonic event.
Vamps onA cadence that cycles around the current center of harmonic gravity rather than modulating to a new one.
Goes back toharmonic motion leading the ear back to the beginning of the progression
Ends on…: Where the tune ends

For example, the first A section of “Take the A Train” looks like this:

Bars 1-2:Starts on I chord
Bar 3-4: Goes to V
Bars 5-6: Goes to I
Bars 7-8: Lands on I ,goes back to 1

I usually don’t recollect the specific bar lines since I now know what sequence of events to listen for. Each of these events can be realized in any number of ways by competent accompanists. For example, “goes to V” could be realized through a II major triad, a II7, a II7#11, a II whole tone, or a #V7 chord. Those all provide the same function. If the pianist chose a III diminished chord, that guy might think he’s being hip but to me that decision suggests ignorance, incompetence, lack of respect, contempt, or unconscionably bad taste.

This works pretty well on functional harmonic progressions. With more contemporary progressions, I don’t have an approach since I don’t typically play those kinds of tune.