Saturday, September 7, 2019

Gary Smulyan - "Alternative Contrafacts"

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

In its simplest form, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure.

Put another way a contrafact is the use of borrowed chord progressions.

Songs that are frequent candidates for such alterations are Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm, Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are, and Johnny Green’s Out of Nowhere.

The list is endless.

With the coming of Bebop in the early 1940s, the use of contrafacts really kicked into high gear because alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and other pioneers of the music emphasized the harmonies in the chords to a song as the basis for their improvisations whereas Swing Era soloists generally employed variations on the melodies.

The Beboppers went so far as to use substituted harmonies to alter the original chord progressions which consequently altered the logic upon which their improvised solos was based.

Many of these early Bebop combos were quintets with trumpet and saxophone forming the front-line which was backed by a piano-bass-drums rhythm section. The chords were “fed” to the horns by the pianist in the form of “comping” [short for accompaniment], with the bass player creating lines that outline the harmony while also working with the drummer to create a groove or a feel as a metronomic pulse to help keep the music flowing.

But altering the music with different emphasis on the musical elements was just one way that Jazz changed the manner in which it was played.

Over the course of its history, jazz has also evolved by adding some instruments and dropping others. For example, Count Basie’s classic swing rhythm section consisted of piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The bop revolution dropped the guitar, retaining it only as an occasional solo instrument.

Joe Goldberg commented in his Jazz Masters of the 1950s:  “In 1952, Gerry Mulligan, who has always had an affinity with several different eras of jazz, took the piano back out, and the result was the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, one of the most highly successful small groups of the fifties.

Mulligan …  wrote in the notes to his first Pacific Jazz LP - ‘To have an instrument with the tremendous capabilities of the piano reduced to the role of crutch for the solo horn was unthinkable ... I consider the string bass to be the basis of the sound of the group, the foundation on which the solo builds his line , the main thread around which the two horns weave their contrapuntal interplay. It is possible with two voices to imply the sound or impart the feeling of any chord or series of chords as Bach shows us so thoroughly and enjoyably in his inventions.

‘When a piano is used in a group it necessarily plays the dominant role; the horns and bass must tune to it as it cannot tune to them, making it the dominant tonality. The piano's accepted function of constantly stating the chords of the progression makes the solo horn a slave to the whims of the piano player. The soloist is forced to adapt his line to the changes and alterations made by the pianist in the chords of the progression,

‘It is obvious that the bass does not possess as wide a range of volume and dynamic possibilities as the drums and horns. It is therefore necessary to keep the overall volume in proportion to that of the bass in order to achieve an integrated group sound."

By 1959, the pendulum of taste had swung so far that the English critic Max Harrison could say of Mulligan's once-revered quartet that "its instrumentation threw emphasis on clear melodic expression and simple rhythmic construction. The resulting lack of tension was another attraction. Whereas artists like Tatum or Parker compel our attention with the hectic complexity of their work, the somewhat detached relaxation of the Mulligan Quartet entertains and even intrigues the listener without unduly involving him. Thus, audiences who failed to respond to the uncompromising attitude of bop or the Davis 1948 band were able, in listening to the Quartet, to congratulate themselves on their advanced taste while really experiencing quite straightforward music. . . . The air of rather smart disillusionment that surrounds interpretations like Funny Valentine would also be sympathetic to superficially sophisticated audiences."

As the legendary bassist Charles Mingus succinctly said - “You have to improvise on something” - and these contrafacts with their original and/or substituted chord progressions became the format of choice for Bebop and much of the mainstream modern Jazz that followed it.

On Alternative Contrafacts  [Steeplechase SCCD31844], Gary Smulyan takes melodic substitutions and instrumentation reduction one step further by limiting the instrumentation to baritone saxophone, string bass and drums.

As a result, there is so much space that you can almost hear the music breathe.

The uncluttered atmosphere also lends itself to a very close interaction between the players: Gary on baritone sax, David Wong on bass and Rodney Green listen to one another very intently and inspire each other.

Neil Tesser and Gary define the specific meaning of “alternative contrafact and more about the music on this CD in the following insert notes. Oh, and by the way, as you will soon read, Gary’s done this sort of thing before!

“You've heard of "alternative facts." But Alternative Contrafacts?

"It's not political," Gary Smulyan says, the words tumbling out with his customary energy. "It's meant to be humorous. I've just always loved contrafacts" - which, despite what that word seems to indicate, are actually not "contra" to the truth.

In music, the word "contrafact" refers to a new melody line that follows the chords and structure of an existing composition. This methodology dominated the bebop years, when musicians regularly superimposed complex melodies on such workhorse chord progressions as Indiana (which became Miles Davis's Donna Lee), or What Is This Thing Called Love? (most famously recast as Hot House); I Got Rhythm underlies a bookful of jazz tunes. These variations allowed the boppers to inject their ideas on melody, harmony, and rhythm into familiar designs; not incidentally, it also spared them from paying royalties to the original composers, since by law, only melodies not chord progressions can be copyrighted.

So a contrafact is, literally, an "alternative" to the underlying composition, and contrafacts constitute hundreds and possibly thousands of jazz melodies from the bop years to the present. But this takes us back to the original question: what's an "alternative contrafact"?

Well, for every well-known contrafact, you can find plenty more that, for whatever reason, never gained traction among musicians. "There are so many of them that were recorded just once and then disappeared. Some of them were never played on gigs; some were composed and recorded for the sole purpose of documenting them" speculates Smulyan, who has been fascinated by this cornucopia of material for decades. He has made it a goal to corral as many as possible of the more obscure examples - the alternatives to Hot House and Donna Lee, among the scores of other tunes that lent themselves to these reworkings.

For listeners with an ear for old standards, Smulyan posits a game of sorts: Try to figure out the underlying tune without referring to the rest of this essay.The instrumentation on this disc makes that harder than you'd think. Smulyan's trio features neither piano nor guitar - the instruments that would normally outline the chords, which would make it easier to identify the original tune once the improvising begins. But for a clue, here's a list of the originals that inspired these contrafacts: Yesterdays, A Foggy Day, Love Me Or Leave Me, Strike Up The Band, Out Of Nowhere, Dinah, Lady Be Good, and Get Happy. (Mix and match.)

You've likely encountered few of the songs Smulyan has gathered for this collection. He readily admits that they're "really obscure"-even more so than on his two previous forays into arcane contrafacts, Hidden Treasures (2006) and More Treasures (2007) "But it's been an interesting project to resurrect them" he points out. I could make 20 records like this; it's fun just finding the recordings of all these things."

He's had help.

In 1970, a pianist and psychiatrist named Maurice "Reese" Markewich literally wrote the book on contrafacts when he published a now unavailable volume titled Bibliography Of Jazz And Pop Tunes Sharing The Chord Progressions Of Other Compositions. Smulyan stumbled across this book in the 1990s, and soon spent considerable time with Dr. Markewich, visiting him in an office filled with "folders and folders of sheet music and lead sheets." As Smulyan explains, "This has become my little reference book "- but one that he can't recommend to friends, since he has never unearthed another copy.

In the Bibliography, you can turn to any page with the heading of a familiar standard and find a list of the contrafacts based upon it. In addition to the well-known, it includes hundreds of tunes that, true to Smulyan's description, "were recorded just once and then disappeared." It has proved so valuable to his ongoing excavation of alternative contrafacts that Smulyan dedicates this album to Markewich (as well as to the memory of his mother Sonia).

You might wonder why it matters to have yet another contrafact to, say, Green Dolphin Street. After all, if the soloing takes place on the same chord structure as all the other Dolphin contrafacts, what's the big deal? But as Smulyan points out - and then demonstrates throughout this disc - savvy improvisers don't simply run through the melody and toss it away. "Very often, the melody is a springboard for how you improvise on that song. It can become a sort of reference point for the solo." In other words, the best players can take a cue from something in the contrafact - a phrase, a rhythmic motif, the alternate chords implied by the melody - and incorporate it as they spin their variations. And this trio comprises some of the very best players.

David Wong owns a light but authoritative touch that distinguishes his solo passages (bowed or plucked) and especially the understated solidity of his time; his stand-alone accompaniment to Smulyan on the opening passage of Deep People offers a good example. On drums, Rodney Green employs an array of consistently inventive rhythmic materials, from the hard-bop pulse of the opening track, to the lovely brush work of Moodamorphosis, to the Latin drive of On The Minute.  As for Smulyan, his mastery of his instrument brooks no doubt, and he puts it to the service of a fiery, intense imagination - just as he has on the dozen albums under his own name and in the big bands he has so ably anchored, including Woody Herman's Young Thundering Herd, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and the Mingus Big Band. Many of us consider him the leading baritone saxophonist of his generation - he just keeps racking up those poll victories - and in the context of this freewheeling trio, you can hear why.

As for the tunes themselves:

Vodka, by pianist Mal Waldron - first recorded by a sextet that paired tenor saxists John Coltrane and Paul Quinichette - is based on Yesterdays by Jerome Kern. Three of these contrafacts refigure songs by George and Ira Gershwin: Jimmy Giuffre's beguiling Deep People (based on A Foggy Day), Paul Chambers's Tale Of The Fingers (from Strike Up The Band), and Moodamorphosis, based on Lady Be Good, written by bop composer Gil Fuller and trumpeter Dave Burns for a James Moody recording date in 1948. The witty saxophonist-arranger Al Cohn used the Depression-Era anthem Get Happy as the foundation for Cohn Pone; of similar vintage is the romantic (You Came Along From) Out Of Nowhere, written by Johnny Green, and transformed by trumpeter Ted Curson into Ahma See Ya on a 1961 album entitled Horn Of Plenty. The American expatriate trumpeter John Eardley appended On The Minute to the framework of Love Me Or Leave Me, a Broadway hit from 1928 by the team of Donaldson and Kahn. Even older is Dinah, written by Harry Akst in 1925; in 1958, Coleman Hawkins wrote a new melody, then reversed the original title to come up with Hanid. The remaining track here, I've Changed, derives from the 1941 torcher You've Changed by Bill Carey and Carl Fischer. It’s not a true contrafact in the sense that it begins with Smulyan's solo, instead of a written melody line to replace the original; I doubt anyone will complain.

All of this would be merely academic if not for the luminous performances throughout. Nearly two decades into the 21st century, cries of "fake news" and "alternative facts" have done a pretty good job of muddying up the public discourse.”

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