Sunday, May 17, 2020

Part 5 - "1959: The Beginning of the Beyond - The Lydian Chromatic Concept and The Third Stream" - Darius Brubeck

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Russell codified the modal approach to harmony (using scales instead of chords) in a theoretical treatise that he says was inspired by a casual remark the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis made to him in 1944: Miles said he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned that he might try to find the closest scale for every chord ... Davis popularised those liberating ideas in recordings like Kind of Blue, undermining the entire harmonic foundation of bop that had inspired him and Russell in the first place.”
[Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 1998, 6]

Part 5 is from Darius Brubeck’s essay - 1959: The Beginning of Beyond - which in its final form, serves as Chapter 10 in Merwyn Cooke and David Horn, The Cambridge Companion to Jazz [2002].

As noted in the first posting, it’s a long piece, so we have used the subject headings within the essay as a means of presenting it on these pages in smaller samplings.

Keeping in mind Darius’ observation of 1959 as a pivotal year in the evolution of Jazz, the factors building up to why this was so from this portion of his essay emphasizes “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, the first text written specifically as Jazz theory and The Third Stream which had the potential to be created from a melding of Jazz and Classical music.”[paraphrase]

© Copyright ® Darius Brubeck, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“The Lydian Chromatic Concept”

“The first text written specifically as jazz theory was The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation by George Russell, first published in 1953 and issued in a revised edition in 1959. Russell is a composer, teacher and sometime bandleader who had a great influence on the rising third-stream intelligentsia of the 1950s and early 1960s. He studied composition with Stephen Wolpe and also wrote scores for Gillespie. He taught at Lenox in 1958 and 1959, which gave his ideas the most important exposure imaginable at the time, (He later taught at New England Conservatory from the late 1960s.) As an academically trained composer he added unusual technical skill at manipulating structure, harmony and balance, affecting the usual concerns of jazz composition, which are the interplay of improvised solos and arranged ensemble passages. He was a daring and rigorous experimentalist as a composer (see, for example, All About Rosie and Living Time). Perhaps because he did not project himself enough as a performer (on piano) his music is little known to the public but it remains controversial, influential and respected within professional circles. Whatever the ultimate verdict on The Lydian Chromatic Concept, there is no doubt he was an inspirational teacher. All About Rosie (re-issued on Schuller, The Birth of the Third Stream) is a singular accomplishment: it is mainly the exciting piano solo by Bill Evans that gives it an aura of historic specificity, but in style and conception it sounds as if it could have been written much more recently.

Unlike its respected author, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation for Improvisation (to use its full title) has a mixed reputation, probably because, according to Russell, 'The Lydian Chromatic Concept is as large as all of the music that has been written or that could be written in the equal tempered tuning system.” ... Unfortunately, his attempt to present and prove such an audacious comprehensive theory sometimes resulted in unreadably turgid discourse burdened with jargon, yet the work's influence has spread far beyond those who have actually read it:

Russell codified the modal approach to harmony (using scales instead of chords) in a theoretical treatise that he says was inspired by a casual remark the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis made to him in 1944: Miles said he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned that he might try to find the closest scale for every chord ... Davis popularised those liberating ideas in recordings like Kind of Blue, undermining the entire harmonic foundation of bop that had inspired him and Russell in the first place.
[Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz, 1998, 6]

Davis, who according to this story was indirectly responsible for the Lydian Chromatic Concept, is reported to have given it its most succinct formulation, something like 'F should be where middle C is on the piano.' What this means is that instead of basing pitch relations on the major scale from C to C, our basic scale should be the Lydian mode, the white notes from F to F. The reasons given in Russell are acoustic (overtone series), historical (the major/minor scale system was a compromise which allowed for cadential harmony using the subdominant) and musical (the dissonant sound of fourth against major third making the fourth an 'avoid note’ in major harmony). The series, moving up the cycle of fifths seven times starting from F, is as follows: F-C-G-D-A-E-B (-F). The augmented fourth (in either direction) is the last interval in this series, taking it back to F. Rearrange these notes in stepwise order and the result is the Lydian scale. To get to an enharmonic [notes that are the same in pitch though bear different names] version of the 'perfect fourth' of the major scale (A flat) would require going right to the end of the series of fifths. (Continuing one more fifth would land on E# which is F, the starting note.) A#, that is, B flat, is therefore the remotest possible note from the Lydian tonic. 'Enharmonic' distinctions are inaudible and therefore meaningless to Russell who takes equal temperament for granted. Why do we have a major scale with a perfect fourth rather than a Lydian scale and its derivatives?

The major scale probably emerged as the predominating scale of Western music, because within its seven tones lies the most fundamental harmonic progression of the classical era... the tonic major chord on C... the sub-dominant major chord on F ... the dominant seventh chord on G - thus, the major scale resolves to its tonic major chord. The Lydian scale is the sound of its tonic major chord.                            
   - [Russell 1959, iii, iv]

This is original, brilliant, even self-evident, but no one had quite said it before. The practical implications are indeed far-reaching and amount to a theory that works both for playing and teaching jazz. It follows then that Davis's original aim can be fulfilled by studying what are now called chord-scale relationships; this is, in fact, what jazz students are taught and there is of course much material (published by Aebersold) that supports teaching in this way. Davis's Kind of Blue is often used to illustrate what chord-scale relationships mean in practice and a pedagogy based on an ahistoric [lack of concern for history] but serviceable system of modes (of major and melodic minor plus synthetic scales, etc.) is how improvisation is formally taught. For example, one of the first pieces I teach beginners is 'So What', which gives a convincing demonstration that the Dorian mode and the minor-seventh chord (with all extensions) are co-extensive; somewhat like describing light in physics as either a wave or a particle depending on what you need the description for.

Russell himself, perhaps thinking more as a composer and theorist than as a musician in search of an 'approach', took things in a somewhat more obscure direction, inventing special terminology (e.g., Vertical polymodality' and 'auxiliary diminished scale'). The details of this aspect of the Lydian Chromatic Concept seem so far not to have infiltrated practice today but the basic principle of chord-scale is now pervasive, even cliched.

Russell was not merely tinkering with abstract relationships for the sake of it. His vision also had an observational and predictive dimension that was proven correct by the end of the 1960s:

Since the bop period, a war on the chord has been going on I think... [Parker] probably represented the last full blossoming of a jazz music that was based on chords... Even the need to do extended form pieces, whether successful or not, is a desire to get away from a set of chord changes.                                                                             - [Russell 1959, xx]

Ian Carr (Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, 1999) believes that Davis's mature career can be plotted as a gradual reduction of harmonic activity. The decade that started with Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain ended with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

The justifications, precedents and far-reaching claims Russell crowds into his oddly organised treatise tend to complicate rather than clarify, but the Lydian Chromatic Concept meant liberation from the obsolete concerns and dictates of ‘legit’ academic theory which is based on a different tradition of tonal organisation.

Even back in 1959, the 'war on the chord' escalated to thermonuclear proportions with the advent of free jazz and [Ornette] Coleman's harmolodic theory, which he has not systematically defined. His music generally seems to include reference to a tonal centre but no key or tonal hierarchy, accidental harmonies generated by moving parts (considerable parallelism) but no set sequences of chords, and communicative and often beautiful or humorous melodies.

In recent correspondence on these jazz theories, Barry Kernfeld wrote to me:

the theoretical underpinnings of harmolodic theory are extremely suspect, even more so than those of George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept, but there is no question that these sorts of casual, home-made approaches to jazz theory have been of great value to performers and educators, helping them to capture, or to communicate, through inferential or emotive means, some of the processes involved in jazz improvisation.

To which I replied:

I think the word 'theory' in Coleman's case has to be taken in a less technical - as in music theory - sense and recast as something like 'critical theory', 'reception theory'; even a musical version of relativity theory. It is an outlook or idea rather than a process of analysis or a set of instructions. 
My workaday answer to 'what does harmolodic mean?' is 'the theory that melody, harmony and rhythm should not be considered separately, especially in improvisation, because they all generate each other'.

My workaday answer is an example of both the strength and weakness of formalism. It isolates a principle which Coleman has made the centre of his musical universe just as Russell has made the Lydian scale — 'the sound of its tonic major chord'- the centre of his. On the other hand, my quasi-definition cannot explain any particular musical result or why there was a need for harmolodic theory. Coleman must have had an intuitive cultural motive for dreaming up a word like "harmolodic' and making it stick by playing out its implications throughout a career spanning decades. Coleman came from obscurity and gutbucket rhythm-and-blues gigs to the foremost intellectual forum of jazz in Lenox, encoding as 'theory' the emotional, primal and sacral substratum of a music now on the threshold of entering its academic phase. He renders unto academe a substantial and varied body of work and a word for it, a technical-sounding neologism of dual 'signifyin, and formalist connotations. Now it is up to us, not him, to do the explaining. I think Kernfeld is right about the pedagogic importance of leaving a path open to continue communication 'through inferential or emotive means, some of the processes involved in jazz improvisation'. I would add, in the creation of music generally.

The Third Stream

'Third stream’ ideology offered the potential of the two great mainstreams of western music, jazz and classical, blending into a third style. For those who have not yet heard The Birth of the Third Stream, 'blending jazz and classical' could have kitsch connotations ranging from Paul Whiteman's orchestral jazz in the late 1920s to modern popularisations such as the often disparaged Bird with Strings, Jacques Loussier playing Bach accompanied by brushes on the snare drum, and orchestral 'pops' arrangements of Gershwin tunes sung by an opera star or even with a lonely jazz soloist in front. That third stream was entirely something else will become clear to any jazz fan looking at the list of composers on The Birth of the Third Stream: Jimmy Giuffre, J. J. Johnson, John Lewis, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller and George Russell. The majority of the players are jazz musicians (for example, Bill Evans, Bernie Glow, Miles Davis, Urbie Green and the composers) and, other than the basses and Barry Galbraith on guitar, there are no strings attached.

Despite well-made manifesto albums [two Atlantic LPs by the Modern Jazz Quartet] on major labels in the 1950s and a prolific and respected advocate in Schuller, third-stream music seems at first to have been only a movement of its time. Did any "invisible missiles' arrive in the future? Record producer George Avakian writes in the liner notes to The Birth of the Third Stream: 'With the passing years, it's been said that one doesn't hear much about third stream any more. There is a good reason for this; it has been absorbed into the mainstream.' Some of Schuller's new liner notes for this re-release contain the same message:

Looking back to those heady, exciting days of 40 years ago, it is also fascinating to observe how the technical and stylistic horizons of musicians have broadened and deepened in the intervening years... it is commonplace today to find many performers who will readily deal with any kind of music: improvised or written ... Varese and Stravinsky... Mingus and Coleman ... The world of music in the 1950s was still for the most part divided among sharply defined lines of musicians who, on the jazz side, could not (or preferred not to) read music... while on the 'classical side' musicians could not improvise, could not swing, could barely capture the unique rhythmic inflections and expanded sonorities of jazz.

To be continued ….

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