19 February 2018


'What chord were you playing in Bar 3?' the pianist asks the banjo player.

'C minor.'

'That's odd. It's Eb7 in my book.'

Conversations of this kind can be heard constantly at rehearsals - and even at performances. The trouble is that so many thousands of chord books have emerged over the decades. Some of them have been commercially published. But most have been painstakingly built up for their personal use by individual musicians over many years, during which their repertoire has constantly increased. Here is the hand-written chord book belonging to a banjo-playing friend of mine. As you can see, it's alphabetical and loose-leaf, so he can easily add new tunes to it from time to time.
So every musician has his or her ever-developing chord book and they all like to think their chords are 'right'.

One of the problems is, of course, that there can be alternative chords in so many places in most tunes. Such alternative chords can sound correct if the entire band agrees to use them. And the truth is that there is much similarity between certain chords. For example, Bb major has much in common with G minor 7th, so it's no surprise when those chords are used by different players at the same point in the tune.

Another problem is that - over the years - the chord sequences of many of the good old tunes from a hundred years ago have been simplified for traditional jazz purposes. For example, in some of those tunes, the composer may have used four different chords over the four beats of a bar. But the chord-book writers have substituted just two chords - for two beats each. Or they may even find it possible to get away with just one chord for the entire bar.

Maybe one day a definitive 'correct' chord book for the hundreds of tunes we play will be produced. But I doubt it. While we wait, there is always something of interest to be found by those of us who enjoy investigating these matters.

I am largely self-taught and have always regretted not having had some music education that would have introduced me to more of the theoretical stuff. But even I find alternative chord structures fascinating.

Love Songs of the Nile is one of the tunes that throws up a particularly interesting conflict of opinions. It is a beautiful tune I first came across when I heard that very fine English trumpeter Cuff Billett playing it with his band in the 1990s. I also enjoyed hearing the late Lionel Ferbos singing and playing it at The Palm Court in New Orleans very shortly afterwards. I still have a treasured CD of his band and I'm pleased to say it includes that song.

Love Songs of the Nile was written for a 1933 film called 'The Barbarian'; and it was sung in the film by Ramon Navarro. The composers were Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. (Nacio Herb Brown also wrote You Stepped out of a Dream and You Were Meant for Me.)

The chord problem arises in the Chorus. Assuming the tune is played in the key of C, some chord books have Bar 9 on the chord of F and Bar 10 also on F, while others prefer Ab and Ab7 respectively. There's a similar problem with Bars 13 and 14.

To my ear, the versions using Ab and Ab7 sound better. In fact, John Dodgshon of California wrote to me about this very matter and he is convinced that this is the correct version, meeting the intentions of the composer. Here is the lead-sheet John has kindly sent me. It includes the Verse.