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There haven’t been a lot of articles of the form that I stated I was going to do. That’s because transcribing and annotating music is a heck of a lot of work. And anyway it’s not that easy to persuade people to read all the stuff you’ve ever wanted to say about a piece musically. People don’t write about music because music’s the hardest thing to write about. They’ll write everything relating to the music, other than the music itself.

Luckily, some great guy has managed to transcribe Weather Report’s “Birdland” for me, and it’s great. It’s a old piece, from the 70s instead of the 60s, so it’s somewhat past the golden age of jazz, but still very interesting.

Joe Zawinul has always done a lot of interesting things for “jazz”. With him, you have to put jazz in quotations, because it isn’t exactly that. He’s classically trained, got into jazz, playing for Cannonball Adderley. And then he helped Miles Davis steer Jazz in the fusion direction. I don’t think two people as headstrong as Miles Davis and Zawinul can stay in the band together for long, but he was there during Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. And then he founded Weather Report, which was all over the place with elements of jazz, ambient, hip hop, and world music. He probably called the band Weather Report because there has always been something elemental but unpredictable about that band, as though it were a force of nature that could not be tamed.

Between him and Shorter, they have two great composing talents. Shorter is also himself known for innovative and boundary pushing compositions. So much of traditional bop basically works this way: theme, sax solo, trumpet solo, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, theme, end. And you have to bear this in mind when you grapple with “Birdland”.

There was this notion when I first heard it: it was too commercial. Too melodic. The lines were too simple. The solo improvisations were too simple. There was no Coltrane, filling in every gap and space with dazzling displays of virtuosity and reminding you that he practiced 15 hours every day.

But after a while, it dawned on me that this was a whole new ball game. And to illustrate, let’s just go through all the musical ideas that are introduced in a flurry.

First, is this bassline:

Birdland 01

Then this figure as a counterpoint over it, and this would be the main melody, or rather a hint of it. Let’s call this part section A.

Birdland 02-1

Birdland 02-3

The first curve ball, the first diversion. (Section B)

Birdland 03-1

Birdland 03-2

After that, we have some sort of a vamp. Let’s call this section A’, since it’s harmonically similar to section A.

Birdland 04-1

Birdland 04-2

A word about the vamp. What is it? It’s the musical equivalent of treading water, where we take the tension down a notch. It’s some kind of a foreplay, where nothing seems to be happening, but actually it’s the calm before the storm, and it’s just there to prepare you for an impending climax when it comes. So this is the first stage. Then we come to the second stage where you’re stroking the proverbial shaft a little faster:

Birdland 05-1

Birdland 05-2

And a little faster still….

Birdland 06-1

Birdland 06-2

Birdland 06-3

So you see, this follows the principles of good sex. Like you only release it when you’ve built up to it properly, if you know what I mean. This vamp (section A’) is in a way a rehash of the beginning (section A) and it hints at what the beginning was leading up to. I would probably call “Birdland” modal since it doesn’t use chords as a basis for improvisation.

This, which I call section C, is the big release, what the previous cranking up of tension was leading to. And probably this is the main point of the whole song.

Birdland 07-1

Birdland 07-2

So you see, this is what we’ve been spending the better part of the song building up to. All that teasing, all that hinting is only to build up to this, and it is this main theme, or some variation thereof, that you’ll be singing over and over again.

For some people, it is pretty direct. They’ll follow the verse chorus verse pattern. So I like to highlight this piece to show something more indirect, something more meandering, and therefore something more surprising and unexpected.

And wait, there’s more. There’s a coda to all this, another vamp where you have this descending melodies / basslines to finish off the whole thing: (Section D) If any of you are fans of Thelonious Monk, as I am, you’d recognise that this “descending chromatic scale” is a favourite trick of his (check out “Skippy” and “Humph”). Maybe Zawinul just decided to borrow it.

Birdland 08-1

Birdland 08-2

So if you look at it, Birdland is a fairly rich collection of themes. There are around 6 or 7 parts that are coming in and going out, and only one or two of them are really prominent. The rest of them are hints or they’re there to lead into the main parts. When you put them all together they tend to bounce off and reinforce each other. When you listen to one part of the melody, in the background your mind is playing back something else that was played before.

In a way, this is similar to what jazz does: you have the same chords, or at least, the same modes, and you play a more fancy solo over it. But what “Birdland” does is a little different: these are not solos. They are mini-melodies, mini-themes in their own right. They are not really improvised on the spot, but they serve the same function as the improvised stuff. In fact, what do a lot of different but loosely related melodies reminds you of? An overture. So is it any surprise that this is also the album opener for “Heavy Weather”? If you notice, “Mysterious Traveller” opens with “Nubian Sundance”, “Black Market” opens with “Black Market”, “Tale Spinnin” opens with “Man in the Green Shirt”. All of them open the album with the most overtly melodic piece.

So the first main point is something that I’ve probably already said before: there’s a lot of traction to be gain from repeating yourself, but playing the same thing slightly different from the last time. If you’re stuck, you can always play back what you already have, but in a different way, and it works great until it becomes too boring.

Sorry for the overtly sexualized depiction of the music, but there are reasons why “jazz” and “jizz” differ by only one letter. It’s not the same thing but the elements that lead up to a good fuck are also the elements that lead up to a good piece of music. Tension, release and climax are crucial to your understanding of good design principles for music composition.

So the second main point: understand what you’re building towards. You could build things up slowly and gradually, and understand how to crank the tension up until you have a climax. Obviously, perfectly horizontal music is also possible, but then you’d have to make it artistically compelling in some other way.

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