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23 November 2014

When Barbershop Met Traditional Jazz

When Barbershop meets Traditional Jazz: here's a possible programme. Can you think of any more titles?

I Wish I Could Shampoo Like My Sister Kate
Just a Closer Shave
When You Wore a Toupee
My Old Kentucky Comb
Bye Bye Black Beard
Somebody Stole My Curl
Wig Shall Not Be Moved
Joe Avery's HairPiece
Some Day You'll Be Baldy
Razors of Picardy
Whiskering
There's Soap Soap in Your Eyes
When You and I Were Young, Goatee
Moustache's Gone, Goodbye
Moonlight and Razors
Stubble in Mind
My Little Gel
You Always Cut The One You Shave
Is It True What They Say About Trichology?

22 November 2014

Harmonic Impact of the First Note in a Popular Song

I wanted to find out on what chord most popular songs start, and what effect this chord has.

I carried out an unscientific survey. But I believe my general conclusions are about right.

I selected at random 60 songs that have stood the test of time - tunes such as Tea for Two and I Can't Give You Anything But Love and It Had To Be You. I then noted the chord with which they start. I am referring to the first chord of the first bar of the Chorus (i.e., omitting any anacrusis).

Five of the tunes turned out to be in minor keys. That's just 8% of the total. These tunes certainly had a 'minor' feel but this did not necessarily make them sad.

I am going to give my attention to the other 92% - those in major keys.

Of these, no fewer than 50 tunes (that's a whopping 83% of all the tunes I looked at) started on the major chord of the tune's key. A tune in the key of F, for example, would start on the chord of F major.

I found the effect of this is to establish firmly and clearly where we are: there's no attempt at subtlety.

Of these 50 tunes, I categorised 38 as bright and cheerful in character, which means about 63% of all popular tunes are likely to be bright, cheerful, un-challenging and starting on the major chord of the home key.

The figure is about what I would have expected; and probably you would too.

But this leaves twelve tunes (20% of all I studied) that begin on the major chord of the home key but are more subtle and complex, perhaps with elements of sadness, nostalgia or melancholy. These include such tunes as I'm In The Mood For LoveSmoke Gets In Your Eyes and I'm Getting Sentimental Over You. If you look at the inner workings of these tunes you find minor chords, diminished chords and other surprises (such as a 7th based on the flattened third note of the scale in I'm In The Mood For Love). These chords make the tunes harder to learn but they also give the songs their distinctive colours and make them linger in our minds, it seems to me.

The only tunes from my original 60 not yet mentioned are five in major keys that do not start on the chord of the major key, so that's just 8% of the total. Four of these are 'bright' tunes, the other one less so. These tunes do not seem to lose any impact as a result of not starting on the key chord. Usually they begin on the Dominant 7th, and very quickly inform our ear of the key we are in. An example is (The Bells Are RingingFor Me And My Girl.

To sum up my main findings:

83% of popular songs are in major keys and begin on the major chord of the home key.

8% of popular songs are in minor keys.

(Note: all percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number.)

21 November 2014

Daisy Bell; and a Bicycle Made For Two

As someone who is interested in both old-time popular music and bicycles, I enjoy the 122-year-old song Daisy Daisy because the lady is offered a chance to ride on a tandem (‘a bicycle built for two’).

You probably know how the song starts: 
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do! 
I'm half crazy all for the love of you. 
It won't be a stylish marriage: 
I can't afford a carriage.
But you'd look sweet upon the seat 
Of a bicycle built for two. 

The song, actually called Daisy Bell, was written (both words and music) by Harry Dacre – the pen name of Frank Dean.
Harry Dacre and his own bicycle.
Harry was English but he visited the United States, complete with his bicycle, in about 1891. Apparently at immigration he was charged import duty on the bicycle and a friend told him he was lucky it was not a bicycle built for two, because he would then have had to pay double duty. Those words gave Harry the idea for the song.

It was composed in America and published in London by the company Francis, Day and Hunter in 1892.
Very shortly afterwards it was published by their partners Harms and Co in New York.

20 November 2014

Latest on The Stamford Stompers : A New Band

Under the leadership of my friend Derek - a clarinet player - four of us recently formed The Stamford Stompers.
We come from towns in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire - counties in the Midlands of England.

I'm pleased to say we have already been invited to play at three events, including a wedding reception.

Our plan is to provide street entertainment from time to time throughout our region. We also hope this may lead occasionally to an invitation to play at a party or wedding or similar event.

Derek has just set up a website for the band:
Enter it by clicking here.  And to hear us in action during one of our first appearances on the street (at The Willow Place Shopping Centre in Corby), CLICK HERE.

19 November 2014

Shaye Cohn; and The Tools of a Genius

I have heard that Shaye Cohn used to play a pocket trumpet before switching to cornet. You can in fact see her busking powerfully and joyfully on a pocket trumpet in videos dating from 2008.
But here's Shaye Cohn's kit today.
What do we spot? First, a cornet that is surely older than Shaye herself. Its plating is worn round some of the tubes and valves, suggesting that it has had heavy use for many years. In close-up, you can see what a museum-piece it is.
A correspondent has told me it was made by Yamaha. To me it looks like a YCR-234 (with the third slide adjuster ring missing) from the 1970s. It's the kind of cornet you could pick up on an Internet auction for about 100 dollars.

Here, for example, is a cornet that has recently been sold on an internet auction for a mere £56 (that's 95 dollars or 71 euros). It came complete with mouthpiece and case, and in full working order.
(Bob Andersen of San Diego has kindly emailed me to say Shaye's cornet formerly belonged to Ed Polcer, father of the very fine New Orleans jazz trumpeter Ben Polcer. Ed has been playing jazz cornet for 55 years!)

Next to the cornet we see (white and red) a Humes and Berg 102 stonelined cup mute. With this, Shaye achieves the most glorious, crisp jazzy effects. 

The same is true of the other two mutes - the black rubber plunger and the amazing battered piece of metal that constitutes another terrific sound-modifier. I did not know whether this was home-made or whether it was produced by a professional mute manufacturer. I had never seen another like it. But Bob Andersen tells me it is simply an 'aluminum canning funnel'!

Finally - proof that Shaye likes to keep the cornet in good condition with freely-moving valves - there is the tube of valve oil lying on its side. If I'm not mistaken, it's Al Cass 'Fast' oil from Massachusetts, which is held in high regard by brass players. You can see Shaye using it to lubricate a sticky third-valve piston (at 1 min. 50 secs.) by clicking here.

Yet, with this modest kit (total value about 180 U.S. dollars [£120 sterling]) Shaye produces some of the most sublime traditional jazz to be heard in the world today. There could be no better proof that a really great performer can strut his or her stuff without recourse to expensive equipment.
The band in which she mainly plays is called Tuba Skinny.

Shaye is not a showy player. Not from her will you hear those screaming, raucous, high-note 32-bar solo choruses to which so many traditional jazz trumpeters resort.

But she is a very  energetic player of the cornet. She produces a unique tone that perfectly encapsulates the blues feeling that is at the heart of so much of our music. Listen closely to her busy fluent phrases, often muted and in the background, interwoven brilliantly into the polyphony of her band's wonderful music. Her contributions to ensembles remind me of the viola parts in Mozart's string quartets. (She is also great at what Punch Miller used to call 'fast fingering'.)

Shaye has an instinctive understanding of rhythmic possibilities, subtle and surprising harmonies and progressions, even when improvising at high speed. She can 'bend' notes to great effect and in exactly the right places. 

She always works hard to encourage great teamwork from the band, not just to display her own skills. Her playing takes account of (and usually directs) all that is going on around her.

In fact, she seems to be the arranger of the music for Tuba Skinny - discovering long-forgotten gems from recordings made by jazz bands and string bands and jug-blower bands 80 - 90 years ago, and making them sound completely fresh and exciting, with all the armoury of breaks, stop chords, long-held notes, offbeat rhythms, clever introductions and codas, key changes and so on. Shaye holds all this in her head for an astonishingly wide repertoire of tunes.

Shaye also takes great care in setting tempos before a tune is started. And when a fast tempo is required, she and the band ensure it is maintained with excitement and no dragging later in the tune.

On top of all this, Shaye is also one of the best traditional jazz pianists! You can enjoy evidence of this by clicking on
THIS VIDEO.
And her talents do not end there: she may also be heard and seen on You Tube playing the violin and the accordion (and even the spoons!) very well indeed.

Enough. Why not click on here, sit back and enjoy Shaye and her friends doing what they do best. Great stuff from all the other members of the band too. Their singer is Erika Lewis:
CLICK HERE   
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Cheeky Footnote
Here's Shaye on her Fifth Birthday. She was sleeping off the effects of a substantial Thanksgiving Dinner. I bet she was dreaming her way through the chord sequence of Carpet Alley Breakdown!
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