Sonny Rollins on "St. Thomas"

hard bop Dec 20, 2018

Jazz Odyssey

On some level, last week's post about saxophone giants Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane represented the antithesis of everything I imagine Fretboard Confidential to stand for. That is, it's been a long journey from baffled and insecure jazz student to Suave And Worldly Roots Musician About Town – a journey one could easily argue is still just leaving the ticket office, about to stumble over a trunk or two en route to the departure platform. Obligatory self-deprecations aside, one of my main aims in this educational racket is to demystify the idea of playing the changes, and to do so by focusing specifically on how jazz musicians approach the blues form. That specific, narrow focus is what finally enabled me to begin coming to grips with all that lies beyond the pentatonic scale, and the last thing I want to do is upend the unspoken promise of my little corner of the internet by whiplashing from Tiny Grimes to Ornette Coleman in the space of a week.

That said, close listening has its rewards, and one of them is that, when coupled with a wee dose of historical perspective, it can make for a slow but steady increase in one's listening chops. As I haltingly attempted to make clear in my last post, I've heard those Rollins and Coltrane recordings plenty of times over the past couple of decades, but it's only after spending a bunch of time with more obviously down home, groove-oriented records from the same era that I've acquired a kind of window into where else some musicians of the same era were attempting to go and, more importantly, why they might have been interested in heading there given the context of what was going on around them.

Back when I decided to focus specifically on how jazz musicians from the late '50s and early '60s played over the blues, my friend Bret mentioned an article he'd seen in which Wynton Marsalis suggested that students in jazz college programs should spend the first three years of school just studying the blues. We had a good chuckle about Wynton being Wynton but in the ensuing discussion we realized, well, yeah, that would provide you with most of the things you'd need to know to play on other kinds of jazz repertoire. You'd learn blues licks, bebop phrasing, altered sounds, diminished moves, and all the usual resolutions – the VI to the ii would teach you how to do altered dominant resolutions to a minor chord, and the ii-V-I turnaround would teach you, well, how to play a ii-V-I. What else do you need?

I still didn't want to play "Stella By Starlight," so I packed that away as an interesting conversation, and kept working on playing the blues.

Then, about six months ago, I started to notice that when I listened to the standards scattered among the tracks on my favorite hard bop records – the ones by Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine and so on – they didn't sound as different from the blues as they used to. And the more I listened, the more I noticed some of the same sounds going by. The same kind of phrasing, the same mix of blues moves and bebop chromaticism, the same kinds of altered moves and resolutions. Which was pretty shocking. The idea that I could hear and dig a standard the way I hear and dig a blues – as fun, groovy music that I don't have to try and like – is something I've kind of been waiting for my whole adult musical life. (If I can get that to happen with Beethoven, I'll over and done – though for one thing, I started 20 years later on that project, and by the time it happens, I suppose I'll be trying to see what the fuss over Stravinsky is all about.)

So that's where some of my excitement over Sonny Rollins was coming from last week. Just to bring things full circle, I've transcribed a bit of soloing from Rollins' first chorus on "St. Thomas." He starts out fooling around with just a couple of notes, turning them this way and that, and then at the four-bar release or B section, drops into an extended run of bebop moves through the changes. If you've checked out any of my six-part Youtube series on how to play the changes on the blues, you'll see some familiar altered-dominant and chromatic moves, just not always in the same familiar places. You can check out the Sonny Rollins audio and notation/tab below.

Note: The chords above the notation represent the "official" changes for measures 9-12 of the tune. The chords in parentheses underneath reflect the chord changes implied by Rollins' actual note choices, which is definitely open to interpretation. In some cases a given note can be functioning two ways at once, usually at the transition point from one chord to the next:

  • at the beginning of measure 3, the A is both the resolution to the root of A7 and the 5th of D minor
  • at the beginning of measure 5, the C is both the resolution to the root of G and the 5th of the C chord.
  • at the end of measure 1, the notes E and G are both the 3rd and 5th of C and the root and flat 3rd of Emin