Just the Contrafacts, Ma'am

Dec 05, 2019
The secret to holding insider information is to scrupulously avoid becoming the kind of person who uses it for evil, rather than for awesome. If you've ever watched someone take over a conversation with the opening phrase "actually, it turns out..." you know what I mean. Personally, I've been that guy, in day-glo spades, more often that I'd care to admit – it's one of the perils of enjoying a subject enough to spend copious amounts of time informing oneself about it.

The following lowdown is nothing but temptation to become that kind of person, as it is all about contrafacts. A contrafact is a new melody based on the chord changes to another song. Which is not to be confused with a reharmonization, which means changing up the harmonies to a song without tampering with the melody. Contrafact is a fairly recent term for something that was commonplace in the bebop era, and there are those who find the term insufferably academic, not to mention hopelessly pretentious. I think it's cool to have a name for something people were doing anyway, and besides, according to Merriam Webster online, it's got 16th-century roots: a contrafactum was a kind of mass created by replacing the words to a secular piece of music with religious ones, and the Latin term shares roots with the word "counterfeit."

Pretentious or not, this post, and the playlist it revolves around, was inspired by a random Spotify recommendation. If you let a playlist run its course, Spotify will proceed to pull up other music it thinks you will like based on what you've just been listening to. Yes, creepy, but in this case one of the first things it handed me was Allen Toussaint's version of "Bright Mississippi." Allen Toussaint is one of my very favorite musicians, and when I was reading Robin Kelly's Thelonious Monk autobiography a few years back, I learned that "Bright Mississippi," which I'd never heard before, was based on the chord changes to "Sweet Georgia Brown." The Allen Toussaint version is almost unbearably cool, and sent me to the Monk version, which is far less "weird" than anything you've ever read about Monk would lead you to believe. And that Monk rendition, from 1963's Monk's Dream, led me to check out a couple dozen versions of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

All of which got me thinking about some of the classic contrafacts from the Charlie Parker playbook, like "Ornithology" (based on "How High The Moon"), "Scrapple From The Apple" (based on "Honeysuckle Rose") and "Donna Lee" (based on "Indiana"). To hear them back to back, along with Toussaint, Monk and a Teddy Wilson version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," click below for a playlist on the Fretboard Confidential website:


More soon,


P.S. Actually, it turns out, just knowing the word "contrafact" is potentially annoying to 97% of the people you run into, as are impromptu Latin etymologies and made up statistics. Caveat emptor.