“Blues in A Minor” – The Modern Jazz Quartet
In the mid-1970s, my brother Joe, well-known now as a singer to audiences in Colorado, owned the album The Last Concert (Atlantic SD 2-909) by the Modern Jazz Quartet. As we were just getting into jazz listening at that time, the history of the group and the importance of the album (what was thought to have been the final performance of the group after twenty-two years) were mostly lost on us; we just listened to the music and particularly enjoyed the live rendition of “Bags’ Groove” which featured bravura solos from its composer, Milt Jackson, on vibraphone and the bassist Percy Heath. In the LP format, “Bags’ Groove” was the third of three tracks on the second side of disc one in a two-record set. The first track on that side was John Lewis’s composition “Blues in A Minor”, which my brother disliked – and still does; consequently, we would occasionally hear the first 5 seconds or so of it before he would pick up the tone arm and fast-forward to “Bags’ Groove” (also skipping Lewis’s “One Never Knows” in the process). I was somehow always fascinated by that short excerpt of “Blues in A Minor”, but it was many years later before I worked up the curiosity to actually play it in its entirety, and I still wonder if my junior-high-aged ears would have appreciated it had I heard it at that time. What did happen when I actually listened to it all the way through, more than a few years later, was that I was transfixed, and played it several times in a row to appreciate how it achieved its Bach-like “perfection”, and arrived at its beyond-words ending, which was unlike anything I had heard at that time.1If you’re unfamiliar with the work, I apologize now for ruining it hyperbolically, but my brother’s take is as valid as mine.
“Blues in A Minor” was originally recorded on the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1973 album Blues on Bach (Atlantic 1652-2), after which they wouldn’t record in the studio again for some eleven years. The album bears the composer’s heavy influence in the five pieces based on Bach compositions, and the four blues in B-flat Major, A Minor, C Minor and B Major (i.e., B-A-C-H in order with the first two composed by Lewis and the latter two by Jackson). The simple titles of the four blues suggest similarly nondescript titles in European classical music: “Sonata in C”, or more aptly here, “Prelude and Fugue in C Major”, etc. However, further, the A Minor blues features several characteristics that are generally more familiar to classical music of the common practice period than to jazz: a distinct ground bass, or passacaglia (the core of many variation settings in baroque and earlier European music), changes of tempo and meter, modulation to a closely related key center for a significant stretch (F Major, notably not the dominant with the minor home key), brief use of sequential phrases – based on the initial motif from the theme – which define the harmony during the modulating chorus, and a climactic, chromatic motion to a prolonged dominant (E, a thematic echo or amplification of the passacaglia’s returning chromatic ascent in measures 8-10 of all the A minor choruses) immediately preceding the “recapitulation” of the primary theme.
These qualities all bring to mind the “two styles forced together as if by centrifuge” fringe of the Third Stream. But while at least a couple of the album’s literal Bach reinterpretations might remind the listener of similar settings of Bach by the Swingle Singers, “Blues in A Minor” strikes as a path not often taken. In the same sense that the mood of the 1940s jump blues sounds far removed from the Delta blues and the tradition of Ma Rainey in the 1920s, “Blues in A Minor”, while retaining the blues’ formal structure and rough harmonic scheme, seems even farther from the expected blues conventions. The austerity and solemnity evoked are of a kind not common to mainstream jazz, even its funeral marches; other than the vibraphone and piano solos – which admittedly constitute almost half of the piece – and the climactic dominant chorus, the dynamic level is unusually low with frequently thin textures of one and two pitched voices. Drummer Connie Kay begins the piece on hi-hat cymbal and what sounds like a finger cymbal keeping the time, then holds his brushes to a faint whisper behind the bass solo, and lays out completely for the last four bars. We can also hear immediate factors for the piece’s character such as its minor key, the slow tempo of the beginning and the ending, and the occasionally chromatic descent in the ground bass’s first four measures.2Consciously or unconsciously, the descending part of the line is reminiscent of “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell – a piece also set to a ground bass in minor – which the MJQ recorded with the aforementioned Swingle Singers in 1966, seven years before Blues on Bach.
The MJQ were certainly no strangers to evocative dirges having recorded one of their most mournful – and famous – works, Lewis’s “Django”, a lament for the late Belgian guitarist in 1953, very early in their career as a group. However, it’s difficult to ignore their impending breakup, particularly in the 1974 The Last Concert version (from a live performance at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, although like Miles Davis, who would also temporarily retire in the mid-1970s, they would record and tour again in 1981). Other tracks capture the celebratory spirit of that occasion, and the 16-plus minute “In Memoriam” (included in More from the Last Concert, and The Complete Last Concert) may be their recognizably heartfelt “farewell”; but “Blues in A Minor”, occurring roughly a third of the way through their program (if the albums are preserving the concert order) very quietly alludes to the impending silence after twenty-two years of prolific music-making.
Arrangement – Uccello
In 2008 I was given free rein by the cellist Matt Haimovitz to arrange a number of jazz pieces for his cello ensemble Uccello up to an octet. My initial considerations were what might work best with string instruments, and eventually I settled on eight arrangements of varying sizes, and one original composition, all of which were recorded by Matt and Uccello – with several high-profile guests – on the 2010 album Meeting of the Spirits (Oxingale OX2017).3As you’ve probably surmised, it’s named for the Mahavishnu Orchestra piece composed by John McLaughlin, which is one of the album’s eight arrangements. Early on I was certain that “Blues in A Minor” would be perfect as a piece that could be effective as all-pizzicato, and using a very small number of players; it ended up being the only arrangement for less than four players on the album. The pizzicato aspect was, on one level, an homage to Percy Heath, whose bass soloing on The Last Concert and elsewhere brought great wit and an impressive lyricism. In addition to its obvious deployment in the arrangement’s written-out bass solos, which occur in roughly the same place as Heath’s in the originals, pizz. seemed the closest method to represent the vibraphone, piano and bass melodic instruments of the Modern Jazz Quartet throughout.
In the initial rehearsals, I learned the valuable lesson that seven minutes of constant pizzicato, not to mention the hours of lengthy practice sessions that performance would require, are murder on the fingertips of most string players; consequently there would be very few cellists likely to take on this arrangement. However, Haimovitz had among his ensemble of advanced musicians from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, a graduate student named Dominic Painchaud who was not only a wonderful classical cellist but also an accomplished jazz bassist. Consequently, Painchaud, who played the second cello part, had long since developed the requisite calluses to perform prolonged pizzicato passages, or in this case, an entirely plucked piece. Haimovitz himself, who performed the first part, soldiered through rehearsals, performances, and the recording session developing his own calluses in the process, and also discovering a moisturizing ointment used by dairy farmers to treat sore hands which he procured in bulk for his players. Additionally, Painchaud’s jazz background was ideal for the character of the music which requires a subtle swing at which pizzicato can tend to be at odds, other than for jazz guitarists and bassists.
Another obstruction necessary for this arrangement was the scordatura tuning of the C-string down to a low A on the second cello. From the initial ideas about the arrangement, it was apparent that Heath’s concluding low A, and those at points such as the fourth bar of each chorus where the ground bass line regularly descends to the lower tonic, were essential to the character of the piece.
Fig. 1 (head of “Blues in A Minor”)
This arrangement remains very close to the original. The beginning two choruses and the ending three are merely transcriptions and orchestrations of the Modern Jazz Quartet original down to two melodic players, and the pedal statement of the theme, the modulating chorus that precedes the “bass solo(s)”, and the sixteen-bar chromatic motion to the dominant just before the return of the theme and the ground bass/passacaglia are all faithfully recreated through a two-person band. The original form of the piece can be illustrated as the following:
“Blues in A Minor” by the Modern Jazz Quartet
(recorded live, November 25, 1974 on The Last Concert [Atlantic SD 2-909])
- 3/4 time; bass solo (passacaglia)
- 4/4 time; piano plays melody (bass repeats passacaglia)
- Vibraphone solo (Milt Jackson), tempo accelerates on chorus 3 (6 choruses total with passacaglia)*
- Piano plays melody, bass plays A pedal
- Piano solo (John Lewis, 5 choruses with passacaglia)*
- Piano modulates on melodic motif (from to F Major, Bb then C, setting up F Major)
- Improvised bass solo (Percy Heath) in F major (6 choruses)*
- Chromatic rising figure to E (dominant of A minor) – 16 measures
- Piano plays theme (mirroring chorus #2) in 3/4, bass reprises passacaglia (A Minor)
- Bass plays passacaglia alone, mirroring chorus #1 4*In the original Blues on Bach version of the piece, recorded in the studio November 27, 1973, Jackson takes four choruses, Lewis takes three, and Heath takes four. There is also a brilliant single chorus between the initial statement of the melody and Jackson’s first real “solo” chorus (where #3 appears here) in which both Jackson and Lewis seem to engage in contrapuntal improvisation, almost suggesting New Orleans-inspired polyphony before Jackson takes over in full; however this section doesn’t appear in the Last Concert version.
Below is a diagram of the form that I used in my arrangement of the piece, which is roughly the same except for length and the content of the solo sections:
“Blues in A Minor” by Matt Haimovitz and Uccello
(recorded November 28, 2010 on Meeting of the Spirits [Oxingale OX2017])
- 3/4 time; cello 2 solo (passacaglia)
- 4/4 time; cello 1 plays melody (cello 2 repeats passacaglia)
- Cello 1 solos, cello 2 plays passacaglia
- Cello 2 solos, cello 1 plays passacaglia
- Cello 1 solos, cello 2 plays passacaglia
- Cello 2 solos, cello 1 plays passacaglia
- Cello 1 plays melody, cello 2 plays A pedal
- Fugue, first two entries of subject
- Fugue continues, third and fourth entries of the subject (four-part polyphony on two celli)
- Fugue continues and arrives at dominant of C# minor before modulating directly to F Major
- Cello 1 modulates on melodic motif (from to F Major, Bb then C), cello 2 on pedal roots
- Cello 1 “bass solo” in F major
- Cellos 1 and 2, canon at the octave
- Contrapuntal solos, pianissimo, diminuendos
- Chromatic rising figure to E (dominant of A minor) – 16 measures
- Cello 1 plays theme (mirroring chorus #2) in 3/4, cello 2 plays bassline (A Minor)
- Cello 2 plays Passacaglia alone, mirroring chorus #1
Taking advantage of the situation where both players could cover the ground bass line for each other’s soloing, I had them trade the first four choruses, occasionally quoting from Jackson, Lewis, and Bach [Fig. 4, see measure nos. 25-72]
Fig. 4 (score to D. Sanford arrangement of “Blues in A Minor”)
Where the piano solo appears in the Modern Jazz Quartet performances (choruses 8-10), the two instruments execute a four-part fugue that stretches over three choruses. This fugue, which loosely follows the twelve-bar progression over the initial two choruses, very rapidly modulates over the first four bars of the third chorus [no. 10, measures 109-112] and ends up prolonging the dominant in the key of C# Minor, a major third (4 semitones) between the original’s two most prominent keys, A Minor and F Major (and the relative minor of A minor’s dominant, but not a common practice harmonic destination for a piece in A Minor). While it wasn’t my intention to create a “difficult” piece, I was aware that this particular section might be problematic for two string instruments; but I thought (before I knew of the added hazard of the physical discomfort involved) that the players would appreciate the challenge (at least they said that they did). It should be noted that that there are no overdubs in the Matt Haimovitz/Dominic Painchaud recording of “Blues in A Minor”.
The bass solo space near the end [choruses 12-14, measure nos. 133-168] honors Heath’s foreground contributions, and is likely the closest imitation to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s versions, at least as far as timbre is concerned; his cadenza at the conclusion of The Last Concert version is recreated verbatim. Chorus no. 12 is a Heath-esque bass solo (a rare moment of just one part), in F Major like the original versions; the next chorus is a canon at the octave between the two parts, and number 14 is free counterpoint which diminuendos as it grows more sparse before picking up its recreation of the Modern Jazz Quartet original’s sixteen measure chromatic climb to the dominant in A (tutti E’s), and the ensuing return of the main theme.
Oxingale Music, the publishing company created by Haimovitz and composer Luna Pearl Woolf, sells this arrangement along with the other Meeting of the Spirits music.5https://oxingalemusic.com/ I couldn’t guess how many cellists may have purchased this arrangement after thirteen years, let alone attempted to perform it, but I apologize to Oxingale that this essay probably won’t help increase its sales. I can think of at least three Third Stream-leaning composers who, in some form or another, showed a complete lack of interest in others performing their work.6Perhaps this is grist for a future ISJAC conversation? I don’t share this sentiment, but being a realist, and aware of the physical challenges involved with the two-cello arrangement, I’m perfectly happy with the metaphorical unicorn of the Haimovitz/Painchaud version of “Blues in A Minor” that’s been preserved on a recording.7 I also heard them play it live for an audience at least once. To quote Joey “the Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), “sent by the Lord” in Alan Parker’s film The Commitments (1991, screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle based on Doyle’s novel of the same name), “…Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.” Regarding the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Last Concert performance of it, I recognize that I should have stopped at “beyond-words” at the end of the first paragraph, but Nat Hentoff’s firsthand account, in 1975, does it far better justice than I ever will (with apologies): “And that evening did fairly pulse with history…Actually, once you listen to this album, you will miss them a hell of a lot right now”.8From Nat Hentoff, liner notes to The Last Concert (New York: Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1975)
Recording (YouTube) – “Blues in A Minor” by John Lewis, arranged by David Sanford
Matt Haimovitz and Dominic Painchaud, cello
From Meeting of the Spirits/Matt Haimovitz and Uccello (2010, Oxingale OX2017)
About the Author:
Born in Pittsburgh, PA, David Sanford received degrees in music theory and composition from the University of Northern Colorado, New England Conservatory, and Princeton University where he received the PhD in music composition and completed his dissertation, “’Prelude (Part 1)’ from Agharta: Modernism and Primitivism in the Fusion Works of Miles Davis”. He is the director of the David Sanford Big Band (formerly the Pittsburgh Collective).
His honors include the Rome Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute, and a Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theater. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2022, and has received commissions from Chamber Music America for the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the Zéphyros Winds, and the Festival of New Trumpet Music, from the Koussevitzky Foundation for cellist Matt Haimovitz and the Pittsburgh Collective, and from the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players, and the Princeton University Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble, and he was one of six composers asked to arrange songs from Ornette Coleman’s album The Shape of Jazz to Come for an orchestra with all-star soloists (including Jason Moran, James “Blood” Ulmer, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Denardo Coleman) at Bang on a Can’s Long Play Festival in 2022. In addition, his works have received performances by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra under Marin Alsop.
The Pittsburgh Collective’s CD Live at the Knitting Factory, featuring his compositions and arrangements was named one of the albums of the year in Jazziz magazine for 2007, and the David Sanford Big Band’s 2021 album A Prayer For Lester Bowie featuring Hugh Ragin and released on Greenleaf Music was named number seven in the “Year in Review: The Top 40 Jazz Albums of 2021” in Jazz Times magazine. Haimovitz’s album with his cello ensemble UCCELLO, Meeting of the Spirits, which is comprised of eight jazz arrangements and one composition by Sanford, was nominated for a Grammy Award. He is currently Elizabeth T. Kennan Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College.
|↑1||If you’re unfamiliar with the work, I apologize now for ruining it hyperbolically, but my brother’s take is as valid as mine.|
|↑2||Consciously or unconsciously, the descending part of the line is reminiscent of “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell – a piece also set to a ground bass in minor – which the MJQ recorded with the aforementioned Swingle Singers in 1966, seven years before Blues on Bach.|
|↑3||As you’ve probably surmised, it’s named for the Mahavishnu Orchestra piece composed by John McLaughlin, which is one of the album’s eight arrangements.|
|↑4||*In the original Blues on Bach version of the piece, recorded in the studio November 27, 1973, Jackson takes four choruses, Lewis takes three, and Heath takes four. There is also a brilliant single chorus between the initial statement of the melody and Jackson’s first real “solo” chorus (where #3 appears here) in which both Jackson and Lewis seem to engage in contrapuntal improvisation, almost suggesting New Orleans-inspired polyphony before Jackson takes over in full; however this section doesn’t appear in the Last Concert version.|
|↑6||Perhaps this is grist for a future ISJAC conversation?|
|↑7|| I also heard them play it live for an audience at least once. To quote Joey “the Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), “sent by the Lord” in Alan Parker’s film The Commitments (1991, screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle based on Doyle’s novel of the same name), “…Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.”|
|↑8||From Nat Hentoff, liner notes to The Last Concert (New York: Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1975|