Sunday, April 22, 2012

Gene Lees on Melody, Harmony and Rhythm

© -  Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

Gene Lees, an informed and informative Jazz author and critic from whom I learned so much about the music and its makers over the years, passed away on April 22, 2010.

On the second anniversary of his death, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Gene on these pages with the following example of his insightful and instructive writing.

It’s always food-for-thought when reading Gene Lees on the subject of Jazz.

© -  Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Melody, harmony, and rhythm are all to be found within a single sound. Music is what the brain makes of the ordered processing of vibrations, i.e. rhythms. When you strike a guitar or bass or violin string, you seemingly hear one sound. But you hear many. The basic tone, the fundamental, is caused by the vibration of the string along its whole length. But that vibration subdivides, and in fast action photography, you can detect this phenomenon. There is a second vibration that is half the length of the string. It produces the first overtone. The next vibration divides the string into three parts, a sort of long S shape, giving the second overtone.

It is almost impossible not to know the do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do scale, that is to say the major scale. If you look at a piano, and start at middle C, which is the white note immediately below the grouping of two black keys, and go up the scale until you get to the C above it, you've played the do-re-mi scale in the key of C. In western harmony, chords are traditionally built by playing every other note, skipping the one in between: do-mi-so gives you a chord called the major triad. But re-fa-la gives you a minor triad. The major scale contains two major and three minor triads. Musicians think of the tones of a scale not as do-re-mi but in numbers, 1-2-3. So a simple C triad is made up of the 1, 3, and 5 of the scale. The two tones C and E constitute a major third. The interval 1 to 5 is called a perfect fifth.

It is the overtone series that determines our scale and harmonic system, and the timbre of our musical instruments. The overtones contained in a low C pile up in this series: C C1 G (the fifth of the scale) C2 E (the third), G2, B-flat C3, D, E, and an "out of tune" F-sharp (the raised eleventh — and also the flatted fifth), and more above that. Many musicians can actually hear a long way up the overtone series. If you analyze the lower tones in the series, you will see that they give you a dominant-seventh chord, the most gravitational in western music. Its natural tendency is to go to the chord built on the I of the scale, called the tonic triad.

Harmonic development in the vocabulary of Western music proceeded up the overtone series. Early music was triadic, and conventional country-and-western music still is. But composers began using more complex harmonies as time went on, and often they were considered crazy for doing so: the Fifth Symphony was called by some the final proof that Beethoven was insane. A Paris critic wrote: "Beethoven took a liking to uneuphonious dissonances because his hearing was limited and confused. Accumulations of notes of the most monstrous kind sounded in his head as acceptable and well-balanced combinations." Similar things would be said of Parker and Gillespie.

By the time of Richard Strauss, composers were using the harmonic extensions implicit in the overtone series. Debussy refined the method, arriving at the view that a chord didn't have to be "going" anywhere, as in Germanic music, but had meaning in and of itself. This produced a floating quality, which passed in time into the Claude Thornhill band, the writing of Gil Evans, the work of Miles Davis at his greatest period, and more.”

- Gene Lees, Jazzletter, March, 1999, Vol. 18, No. 3