11 March 2016

Post 399: THE FUTURE FOR 'PYRAMID STRUT'?

NOTE: GOOD NEWS. Since I wrote the article below, Tuba Skinny have been filmed near the end of 2015 playing Pyramid Strut in the street: CLICK HERE TO VIEW. Also, I heard them play it twice [once busking in Royal Street and once at a Festival Event] when I was in New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival in April 2016.
I have written before about Shaye Cohn's 2013 composition Pyramid Strut. It is a little masterpiece, very much on a par with the music Jelly Roll Morton was writing in the early 1920s. Pyramid Strut deserves to become another popular classic in the traditional jazz canon.

However, this is not happening. Why? I think there are two reasons.

First, no band other than Shaye Cohn's (Tuba Skinny) plays it. Partly this is because it would require hard preparatory work. There is no sheet music you can buy; so it would be necessary to work out all the melodies and chord changes. This is do-able but would take time and effort by a musician with a good ear, a keyboard and manuscript paper - and then further time and effort by the members of the band to learn and play it. But more importantly, out of respect for Shaye Cohn and her copyright, musicians would not even consider 'pirating' her work in such a way.

The second reason why Pyramid Strut is still unknown to most audiences is that even Tuba Skinny (to judge from YouTube videos) seem to have stopped playing the tune since they put it on their 2014 CD. Why is this? It could be that Shaye is too modest to give prominence to her own work in the band's play-lists. Or it could be that (with occasional changes of personnel) it is difficult to ensure that all musicians in the pool of Tuba Skinny players know the tune well enough. This tune is - after all - one of the most complex the band plays.

So, sadly, I have to report that this fine piece of music risks fading into obscurity. I sincerely hope that will not happen. There is some hope. One of my correspondents says he has received this email from Shaye:
Pyramid Strut is a tune I composed a couple of years ago. I don't believe it's on Youtube. There is no written arrangement for the tune but you're welcome to transcribe it; just please include a credit to me and the band. Thanks, -Shaye

Meanwhile, here's a reminder of  what it offers.

Pyramid Strut begins in the Key of Eb.

It has a 4-bar Introduction which in other contexts could be mistaken for the final four bars of a tune. It runs down the scale of Eb in the third bar and so establishes the key.

Then we have a bouncy first theme consisting of 24 bars and played twice. Bars 1, 5 and 21 contain a distinctive little phrase (a minim each on A and Bb) which give this theme a special character. But its other notable feature is that Bars 17 to 20 inclusive are played as 'Breaks' (exactly what Morton would have approved of). The first time this theme is played, the cornet takes the lead and also the breaks; the second time the clarinet.


Then the tune moves immediately and energetically into a second theme. This consists of 12 bars (on the basic 12-bar blues chord pattern). As you may know, it was also a common practice in the 1920s to slot a 12-bar blues theme into the middle of structured compositions. (Think of The She's Crying for Me and The Chant, for example.) Shaye's 12-bar theme is played through twice - first vigorously stated by the cornet and secondly with the full ensemble. We are still in the key of Eb.

Straight into the third theme we then go; and we find ourselves now in the key of Ab. What we have here is a 16-bar theme and this too is played twice. But what a tricky theme! In each set of 16 bars, bars 1 and 2, bars 3 and 4, bars 9 and 10 and bars 11 and 12 are taken as Breaks! That gives you four breaks in 16 bars - twice; so eight breaks in all. On the CD, the eight breaks are taken respectively by cornet, clarinet, trombone, tuba, cornet, cornet, cornet and cornet.

This is followed by an attractive 8-bar Bridge passage, which is extraordinary because it teasingly plays around (if my ear serves me correctly) on the F minor arpeggio. But the Bridge ends by running down through the Eb7 chord which of course leads us back beautifully into Ab. This will remain the key of the fourth (and final) theme.

This fourth theme consists of 16 bars on a simple chord sequence. It is played three times. The clarinet leads us through it the first time, playing a tricky melody almost entirely of semi-quavers. Next, the banjo and tuba take the lead (a nice touch) in the second 16-bar chorus. Finally the whole band joins in for a climactic ensemble improvising over the 16 bars.

And there's one more (Mortonesque) cheeky surprise: in a brief coda, those two minims from the opening theme bring the piece to an end, rounding it off perfectly. But this time (because the key has changed to Ab) they are played on the notes D and Eb.

You can hear this recording (and better still buy it if you have not yet done so) by clicking here.