Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Mamas & The Papas - Dedicated To The One I Love

Usually when I get into new music I obsess over certain songs, they take over my life, I burn out on them, and put them away. But there I have another category of favorite songs that I call "rare gems" - not because they are hard to find but because, for some reason, I rarely listen to them. For that reason, I am always really excited when they come on the radio/TV/wherever. "Dedicated to the One I Love" falls into that category. It's short enough that it is difficult to burn out on, but full of interesting moments.

The Mamas & the Papas did not write the song, it should be noted. The original version comes from The 5 Royales in 1957. Theirs scores points for being the original, but it's kind of rough, pretty cliche, and full of hokey secondary dominants that don't hold up well. The Shirelles' cover a few years later is closer to the version we know. It's a little more patient and dreamy, but still lacks originality.

In 1967 The Mamas & the Papas coopted the song for good. This is one of those covers that becomes the de facto standard version by virtue of being so much better than the original. There are several things I love about their cover, including:

  • Soft guitar intro leaves room for song to grow, heavy reverb sets tone. 
  • Chords of the intro stay pretty close to the original version.
  • Abandons the I-IV-I progression at the end of each A-section.
  • After intro, choruses strip chords back to powerful I, IV and V.
  • The treatment of the bridge is a little unusual, with a sudden honky-tonk piano, but not unwelcome.
  • I think there's a mistake (?) around 1:41, where the band plays a Bm chord but the bassist plays an A. I love mistakes.
  • The second bridge is completely different from the first - like a whole new variation.
  • I love how Mama Cass pulls that Eb out of the Bm chord at 2:07 - that line comes out of nowhere.
But there are two things that really make the song, and that gets to the meat of my article:

1. 4:6 Rhythmic Hits

In the first big chorus (not counting the intro) we hear those big 4 hits over the 6/8 time. It's kind of a cross-rhythm: not unusual, but unusual for pop music. I can think of a few ways it could be written:

I actually find myself leaning toward the last, just because I feel like it reflects that feeling of dropping into a different meter for a moment.

2. Vocal Stacking

The vocals in the chorus are so nice that they rightly decide to get the band out of the way in the last chorus and just let them shine for a couple measures. In addition to that good choice, there are a handful of nice things happening here. Check out my rough transcription:

There are so many things you could do with four vocalists: when do you double notes? Where does the melody sit? Do you use that fourth voice for good or evil?

The harmonies in this chorus are really brilliant. (it is very difficult to hear, but I'm pretty confident I got the transcription mostly right) There are times when the two men seem to double up, other times splitting to fatten the chords. Michelle's melody is in the middle the whole time, but mixed in a way that it really stands out. The second line is especially genius. The four notes in measure four mostly have no business in that chord; they are an anticipation of a big C6/9 chord in the next measure. And I'm like 90% sure I can hear Mama Cass' high G crunching against the F# in the melody on that last measure.

The great thing about "rare gems" is when you sit down to look at them and find out what makes them so great. I don't think I'll burn out on this one any time soon, but I'm going to put it away for now...just in case.

The ending is really nice too. This song is the total package.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Steve Winwood - Roll With It

I rarely ever listen to any Steve Winwood on purpose, but when he comes on the radio I'm never disappointed. This song was playing at the store while I shopped today, and when the sax solo started (at 2:11) my first thought was "is this a direct ripoff of the sax solo on Aretha Franklin's Respect?" No, it is not, though similar in length and style. Perhaps it is an homage, or throwback.

My second thought was "what are these chord changes?" The song is in G, but here are the solo changes:

In order:

Em (VI) - relative minor, completely expected
Bb (bIII) - borrowed chord, tritone away, unexpected. Lasts long enough to feel like a new key.
Dm (v) - this would be the iii chord in Bb, so it's not as dramatic. Just reenforces the new tonal center.
Ab (bII) - ah, another borrowed chord a tritone away. This is a pattern, but it now sounds like the bVII in Bb. There's a kind of Lay Lady Lay thing going on.
F (bVII) - this is the actual bVII in G, but it looks more like a V chord in Bb, a turnaround like the end of the bridge on Dock of the Bay. Instead he just jumps back into the chorus in G. If the vocals weren't already so crazy high, I would have thought this a good opportunity to modulate up into Bb completely. It definitely takes a little journey, at least. The solo is short enough, though, that you have the original key in the back of your head the whole time.

I would bet that this is the only popular song that has used that chord progression, maybe ever. I've certainly never heard it anywhere, so I have to give major props for originality.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Musical Modulations - Followup

Last week's post about modulations generated a lot discussion and many friends were quick to remind me of some excellent examples I omitted from my list. So here is a quick list of some of the songs I was reminded of, or that later popped into my head:

Bon Jovi, Living on a Prayer - This song surprises you by not only moving up a minor third but by dropping a beat beforehand! (bar of 3 at 3:22) I like how the VII chord in the original key becomes the V chord in the new key.

Stevie Wonder: Summer Soft and Golden Lady - I wrote a bit about Stevie's modulations in my Black Keys post, but Stevie has the vocal chops to just keep modulating. He keeps both of these songs moving up in half steps until he finds the top of his range, if there is such thing.

Beyoncé, Love on Top - Beyoncé takes a page out of Stevie's book and does the same endless half-step climb in this one.

Chicago, Hard to Say I'm Sorry - From E Major the V4/2 chord moves us surprisingly to G, then back to E at the very end. Good stuff.

Mr. Big - To Be With You - This one-hit does the exact same thing as the Chicago song, moving from E to G (with a little less preparation) then back to E after one chorus. OK, the hair is a little embarrassing, but this song has one of my favorite guitar solos.

Earth, Wind & Fire, After the Love Has Gone - this song is all over the place. Starting in F, it slaps you in the face with some falsetto and a quick move to B! The chorus sounds like it's in Ab, but resolves its way to Gb. A big build up at 2:54 moves the chorus up a fourth. Man, this is a tough one!

Stevie Wonder, Lately - Yes, back to Stevie Wonder; he's just too good at this kind of thing. I love the extended build-up at 3:03 to move the song up a fourth!

Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years - Sometimes a great modulation is subtle - you might not even notice it happened at all. This song creeps from G to A for the last chorus by quietly changing the vi chord into the V of the new key. The sax solo is in A, so in a way it is a call back.

Backstreet Boys, I Want it That Way - My girlfriend insisted on this song, but I secretly kind of love the modulation. There's something about when the singer holds a high note and the new key comes in under them that just works. See also: Boyz II Men.

R.E.M., Stand - The drums do a lot of the work here, dropping out just before the first modulation. But it's that second modulation that really gets me, a la On Bended Knee. Having the snare on all beats at that point really ramps up the energy too.

Beethoven, 9th Symphony - yes, I have the Backstreet Boys and Beethoven on the same list. I apologize. The fourth movement of Beethoven's masterpiece has the famous "Ode to Joy" theme. The theme moves through many keys, meters and harmonic variations. My favorite part - and the most famous part - is the big moment at 12:39. We are on F#, the V of Bm. But then we hear a hint of the theme in B Major...nice! Then Bm again? Maybe we are going to hear the theme in a minor key? NOPE, big swell and the chorus roars in to the climactic statement in D Major. So good.

Thanks to all the friends who chimed in with their favorite modulations!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Musical Modulations - My 7 Favorites!

A modulation, or a "key change" can be one of the most exciting parts of a pop song; it is the moment when the song shifts into a new gear. (note - there is some debate about the difference between a modulation and a key change; I won't get into that too much) It is also such a cliché that many modulations have almost no impact anymore. Typically they come near the end of a song, moving the chorus up a half or whole step. If they don't offer anything musical, and/or help shape the arc of the song, it can just sound bland and unnecessary.

With that in mind here are some of my favorite, often very clever, modulations:

Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You

I start with this one because it is an example of a cliché done right. (3:05) Some modulations work well because they connect the original key to the new one without interrupting the flow of the song. Some work well because they surprise you. This is a case of the latter. I believe it wouldn't have worked nearly as well if there had been a chorus in the original key, then a modulation. Instead, they go right to it, but also create space to lure you in. Space in music is underrated. If you really want to knock people on the ground with a whole-step modulation, give them a few soft seconds of wondering what's coming.

Sting - If I Ever Lose My Faith In You

I always thought this one was particularly clever problem solving on Sting's part. He wanted to modulate the chorus at the end of this song, but the whole song is already ridiculously high in the key of E, even for a vocalist like Sting. So what does he do? He modulates the song DOWN a fourth to B with these two additional measures (3:15):

He does a chorus in B then brings it back up to E, making it sound like he's modulating up to something new. Brilliant!

Bonnie Tyler - Total Eclipse of the Heart

This is more of a key change, as it doesn't really modulate existing material but rather introduces new material in a new key. The verse itself goes through a couple keys, starting in Bb minor and working its way to E but the big moment, and part of what makes this song so epic, is the shift from E to Ab at the phrase "fall a-PART!" The G# in the key of E becomes the tonic Ab in the new key. It's unexpected and dramatic, and moving up a major third is pretty unusual, so big props to this one for originality.

Dusty Springfield - Son of a Preacher Man

This is the musical equivalent of hustling. She does the whole beginning of the song in A, then explodes out of the bridge at 1:43 in E, a full fourth higher.

Whitney Houston - How Will I Know

I'm just going to say it: women have better modulations than the men, at least on my list. I come back to Whitney to give a little shout out to this song. My first thought was to write about I Have Nothing, but I covered that one extensively in an earlier post.

The modulation in How Will I Know might be more interesting; despite sounding and feeling like an upward modulation, the song actually moves DOWN from Gb to Eb (at 3:30). It's magical. For a similar kind of thing, check out Roberta Flack's Set the Night to Music, which moves from F in the verse down to E in the chorus.

Celine Dion - All By Myself

I'm sure I've said this before, but I think Celine Dion has some of the best producers in the business. Her cover of Eric Carmen's power ballad almost merits its own post. The original is epic, but this cover takes it over the top. The modulation at 2:42 might be my all-time favorite. What happens here?

In the key of A she sings her way up to the flatted six, a high F. This note is a bit unusual, but she holds it, holds it, holds it, big drum fill and BOOM the band comes roaring back in Db, a major third higher. She's now siting on the 3rd of the key. Bold move, huge payoff.

A fun side note about this song: I once played in a circus band, and there was a ribbon aerialist who did her routine to the track of this song. She would climb to the top of the ribbons at this part of the song then fall (to gasps in the audience) only to catch the ribbons just as the band came back in. It gave me goosebumps every time.

Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror

I'll end with the masters - MJ and Q - for another example of a cliché modulation done right. At 2:50 they pull out the carpet for a moment then explode back in with a gospel choir up a half-step, completely unprepared. A good modulation can make you want to stand up and cheer. Shock and awe, this is how it's done.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Vocal Ranges of Jazz Standards - How Do They Stack Up?

In yesterday's post I mentioned in passing that Spring Can Really Hang You Up covers a pretty wide vocal range. That was an unqualified statement, so I figured I'd do a little research on popular vocal jazz standards to see if Spring is really unusual.

There was no method to choosing my list; this is just a sampling of songs that I have played with singers frequently over the years. It seems Spring really is in the top few, tied with My One and Only Love and second only to Misty. I would argue that it lingers on the high and low notes much more.

Spring Can Really Hang You Up The MostGD12
My One and Only LoveGD12
Lush LifeAbD#11
When I Fall in LoveBbEb11
God Bless the ChildBbEb11
Nature BoyAD11
Night and DayGC11
The Days of Wine and RosesCE10
Our Love is Here to StayCE10
You Don't Know What Love IsCE10
I Can't Get StartedCE10
Don’t Get Around Much AnymoreCE10
My Funny ValentineCEbb10
Lullaby of BirdlandCEbb10
Autumn LeavesBDb10
Ain't MisbehavingEbF9
All of MeDE9
Georgia on My MindDE9
How High The MoonCD9
The Nearness of YouCD9
Stormy WeatherCD9
Someone to Watch Over MeAbBb9
The Girl From IpanemaBbC9
Fly Me to the MoonBCb9
Take The "A" TrainEEOctave
I Could Write a BookDDOctave
Bye Bye BlackbirdDCb7

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most - Jazz Music's Biggest Troll

Since it is officially spring - never mind the snow and lack of flowers, warmth or sunshine - I figured I'd write about something spring-related. For some reason jazz musicians seem to love the topic of spring. I had my pick of Joy Spring, Up Jumped Spring, You Must Believe in Spring, It Might as Well Be Spring, etc. I went with:

Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most has always amused me. I don't know much about the composer, Tommy Wolf, but I'm going to guess that he hated singers. Parts are almost unsingable, guaranteed to weed out weak vocalists. Just look at the verse:

That second line is rough. (:16-:30 in the clip above) It requires picking notes out of the air that are very much not in the chord/key that you are currently in, several times in a row.

The bulk of the song itself is not too bad, totally singable:

I especially love what happens at the end of the bridge. After a little hairiness, it's like Mr. Wolf wrote himself into a corner with the ii-V leading back to G, not the song's key of C. So rather than rework it, he does the first measure of the last "A" section in G, then abruptly goes back to C. Brilliant.

The Coda is where he really kicks you in the mouth. (5:07 in the clip) If you miss the coda of this song, you are boned. That Eb-7, and the melody over it, come out of nowhere. It's a pretty long coda, which is refreshing, and the composer makes sure to get a few more jabs in before the end. The whole last line is pretty acrobatic, with big leaps, then a descending line with two consecutive half-steps to end on what is a pretty low note for most singers. If you can tell the character of composers from their work, I would guess that Tommy Wolf was a very clever, total pain in the ass.

Add to these things a pretty large vocal range and an obscene amount of verses and lyrics - it is no surprise that the song is not performed very often. Its obnoxiousness is no accident; this is the work of someone who wanted to make singers unhappy. I can't help but admire.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Black

Beginning pianists are often drawn to the white keys. They are orderly, collectively making up a major scale; it's easy to noodle on white keys and come up with something that sounds loosely musical.

But the black keys are not without their charm. Making up a pentatonic scale, they allow young players to play some familiar sounds and melodies without worrying about hitting an off note. Pedagogically it is often preferable to start young students on the black keys, as they are grouped in twos in threes, allowing players to start seeing patterns on the keyboard.

I have a theory that Stevie Wonder was drawn to the black keys from the beginning because of his blindness. To a blind man the white keys are uniform and indistinguishable without noodling for a bit.  But the groupings of the black keys allow him to find his place immediately. Where many pianist/songwriters are drawn to common keys, I feel that Stevie is more comfortable in the deep keys. For example, here are ten famous Elton John songs and their keys:

Your Song - Eb
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - F/Ab
Tiny Dancer - C
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues - C
Saturday Night's Alright - C
Crockodile Rock - G
Bennie & the Jets - G
Someone Saved My Life Tonight - Ab
Can You Feel the Love Tonight - Bb
Daniel - C

Not too adventurous. For contrast, here are the top 12 "frequently mentioned" Stevie songs (according to Google):

I Just Called to Say I Love You - Db, modulates to D and Eb
Superstition - Eb minor
You Are the Sunshine of My Life - C, modulates to Db
For Once in My Life - F, modulates to Gb
Isn't She Lovely - E
Higher Ground - Eb minor
Living for the City - Gb
My Cherie Amour - C, modulates to Db
Boogie on Reggae Woman - Ab
I Was Made to Love Her - F
I Wish - Eb minor
Sir Duke - B

7/12 of them are in what I would call uncommon keys - Gb, B, Db, Eb minor - and those in common keys usually modulate at some point.

Playing in these keys also allows Stevie to do some glissando tricks on the black keys at times. As mentioned, the black keys constitute either an Eb minor pentatonic scale or a Gb Major pentatonic scale. Running your hand up and down the black keys makes for a pretty cool effect, when used well. Stevie uses it on several keyboards for the intro of You Haven't Done Nothing:

It also works well over certain chords, particularly the Ab11 chord. This type of chord is called many different names - sus9, Ab/Gb, 7sus, etc...I like calling it an 11 chord. Its function is typically to act as the V chord, in this case in the key of Db.

In Knocks Me Off My Feet, you hear Stevie go to town on this when the big Ab11 chord sets up the modulation. Check it out around 2:40:

It also works well over a BMajor7 chord, as the black notes turn it into a BMajor13 chord. In Summer Soft, which modulates constantly, you can hear Stevie do this around 3:40:

There is no physical reason one key should have a different sound than others; it all depends on the song. But anecdotally speaking (as a musician) there is a definite warmth to the darker keys. It may just be that they are less cliche, and thus sound more novel. I'm sure the musicians who played with Stevie were pushed out of their comfort zones and probably in to much more explorative areas by having to play in uncommon keys. It is one of the ways that blindness may have contributed to his musical brilliance, by simply giving Stevie a proclivity for the ebony keys.