Ever since hurriedly commenting on Joe Henderson’s “Without A Song,” I’ve been nagged with the feeling I got something wrong.
While working on a transcription, the penny dropped. I called the substitute changes “Coltrane changes.” However, that’s not correct.
Eb / A7b5 / Ab maj7 / Gb7
B / Eb over E (or E maj7) / Db maj 7/ Bb7
The mediant movement in the bass is not Coltrane-esqe. While descending thirds are like the melody of “Giant Steps,” I don’t think Coltrane ever used descending thirds in the bass. His famous “Coltrane changes” uses an upward third in the bass, followed by normal dominant/tonic stuff.
The second four bars of JoeHen’s “Without a Song” actually recalls the changes of Henderson’s own tune “Inner Urge.” And that big Eb over E thing is pure 60’s modernism. Coltrane never used that chord except in passing: That is JoeHen’s world, along with contemporaries like Woody Shaw, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter.
Still, the idea of using obtrusively hip alternative changes in order to give an old tune new meaning stems from Coltrane. I got that part of it right.
And just one more fun detail: JoeHen has chromatically alter the melody to make it fit the reharm, playing Gb instead of G in bar four in order to go with the new key. This reminds me of Coltrane playing a shocking Bb instead of B in bar seven of the melody of “Summertime.”
“Summertime” is an interesting tune to consider when thinking about jazz politics. It’s the most famous tune from the white composer’s black opera.
Duke Ellington’s trio version is a takedown.
But I think Duke (who had issues with Gershwin in general) is the exception. Unless I’m missing something, most straight-ahead jazz versions of “Summertime” are free of an ironic frame. Miles Davis and Gil Evans have a wonderful sophisticated arrangement but they don’t attempt redo the basic emotion. The only other possible “meta” version that I know about from the classic years is Jeanne Lee and Ran Blake, but Blake’s gospel rhythms seem honest despite the unusual pitches.
Perhaps – and this only a suggestion – Coltrane’s wildly swinging, Afro-Cuban influenced version with that big “blat” of Bb is a subtle rejoinder to white privilege’s appropriation of blackness. Certainly nothing McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones play on that track could be appropriated the way Gershwin appropriated spirituals.
“Summertime” is on the same album as the premiere Coltrane performance of “My Favorite Things.” Is “My Favorite Things” a political statement? It could be. I wouldn’t put anything past John Coltrane, all of his choices had depth. At the same time, we know that Coltrane tried out “The Inchworm,” “Nature Boy,” and “Chim Chim Cheree” explicitly to find another hit for his band like “My Favorite Things.” Hard to see that as really political (beyond how his band made these tunes really Afro-American and profound). It seems simply a way to gain more audience by playing current hits on the stage, radio, and silver screen.
This is all rather tangential, but after my first post, I got private correspondence from JM suggesting that JoeHen was reclaiming racist material and transcending the lyric as a purely instrumental work.
This is a familiar interpretation of certain events in hip-hop and other places where Black Studies plants a flag. But I just can’t see it as common-practice for classic jazz. Duke or Monk or Archie Shepp in certain cases, maybe. But not Joe Henderson.
Sonny Rollins has always said he plays standard repertoire because he loves the tunes. The Freedom Suite features not just one of the most famous political suites in all of jazz, but also cheerful renditions of “Someday I’ll Find You,” “Will You Still Be Mine?,” “Till There Was You,” and “Shadow Waltz.” Those standards feature fearsome black rhythm and a certain amount of natural Rollinish irony but surely aren’t an overtly political statement.
There’s no difference between the way Sonny plays the standards on “Freedom Suite” and the way he plays “Without a Song.” These are just good tunes for a improvisor to dig into.
Probably I should have mentioned Sonny Rollins in the previous “Without a Song” post. That song came up when I interviewed Bob Cranshaw: Sonny’s bassist says, “I like this tune.” Checking the discography, it seems like at one point Sonny played it a lot. It opens 1962’s classic studio date The Bridge. JoeHen certainly paid attention to Sonny Rollins, so his selection of “Without A Song” was a tip of the hat to Sonny as well as Trane.
Anyway, now that he knows that Eckstine changed the racist lyric on his hit record from 1946, John Halle’s renewed contention that “Without a Song” is politically incorrect for jazz musicians is baffling. I wrote the whole above post before reading his second sally, which includes this bit:
The difference with respect to the claims for Henderson’s arrangement of Without a Song is that there is nothing to debunk. While Iverson will, of course, deny it, I’d be willing to bet that he, or the other jazzers reacting with such outrage, never had any idea of the original lyrics before they encountered them on Sunday. His construction of the ex-post facto ironic narrative is pure invention-a bad faith attempt to shore up the ideological foundations of the music-a task which is both futile and, as I mention in the piece, entirely unnecessary.
Unless I’m misreading him, Halle’s essentially still scolding Joe Henderson for this repertoire choice. And, no, I didn’t know the racist lyric, and I’m surprised he thinks any of the masters knew it, either. If the racist version was common parlance, I doubt they would have played it. But if Mr. B did it! And if Mr. B did it, you knew you were cool.
There’s absolutely nothing there that I can see getting upset about. Halle’s idea is academia at its most disconnected. To double down on it with a bunch of references to Shostakovich and irony strikes me as bizarre.
To be fair to Halle, after my friend JM texted me something similar, I did suspect that my post could be misinterpreted as this kind of “ironic” defense, which is why I spent so much time above trying to define further what I mean. Before reading Halle today, I was going to cut him more slack in this space, mainly because I do believe in the left. However, now I’m less sympathetic, and am more aligned with Mark Stryker’s caustic tweet: “White pinhead playing racial ‘gotcha’ on point so irrelevant to black innovator’s art/life/politics = institutional racism.”
My speculation about “Without A Song” being a tribute to the departed Coltrane gained a bit of unexpected weight from MG reminding me that Sonny Rollins has a recent record called Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert. Instrumentalists like titles; the title “Without a Song” is evocative. People are gone: we are without a song.
But my Henderson/Coltrane riff is just a theory. I woke up the next day thinking my first post was more like a fever dream than reality. At any rate, it has been fun for me to check out this track in detail. Right or wrong, I’m learning.
I’ve never transcribed Joe Henderson before, and frankly this was a bit of a trial. At some point I lost patience with the double-time flurries. They are so fast and growly! What I ended up writing in the second chorus is occasionally just a pointer in the right direction.
JoeHen doesn’t play on the Eb over E chord much. Both he and Kenny Barron change it to E major when threading.
After trying to deal with this solo, I have even more respect for how funky Joe Henderson is, even at this fast tempo.
I do hear a little Sonny in there, certainly some Trane. But they only made one Joe Henderson.
(Update: The transcription is really pretty inaccurate, even by DTM’s sloppy standards.)