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Analyzing Jazz

A Schenkerian Approach

Steve Larson

214 pp.

0 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576471869

paperback $99.00

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"Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach demonstrates that the theories of Heinrich Schenker can illuminate not only the technical aspects of jazz (such as melody rhythm and harmony) but also its artistic content. In considering objections that have been raised to the application of Schenker’s approach to improvised jazz the book touches upon the content and origin of Schenker’s theories the role of analysis and the intentional fallacy the origin and function of dissonance in common-practice harmony and in jazz the nature of improvisation vs. composition and the role of simplicity and complexity in popular and art music. And although it qualifies the applicability of Schenker’s theories to jazz it also shows that Schenker’s theories offer basic theoretical principles and practical examples for explaining dissonance treatment in jazz and models useful in creating explaining and experiencing jazz. The book offers detailed analyses of Larson’s transcriptions into musical notation of five complete recorded performances of Thelonious Monk’s classic jazz composition " ’Round Midnight": two recorded by the composer one by Oscar Peterson and two by Bill Evans—and is thus the first work to publish complete transcriptions of the same piece as played by different jazz performers.

January 11, 2011

The late Steve Larson has contributed articles on jazz analysis to a variety of scholarly forums since the 1980s and is considered one of the pioneers, along with Steven Strunk and Henry Martin, of jazz research within the field of music theory. For more than twenty years, however, theorists interested in the analysis of jazz and popular music waited with anticipation for the widespread availability of Larson's dissertation, which was never available through UMI/ ProQuest. Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach thus represents the first publication of Larson's dissertation. Yet because many years have passed since he wrote the original document, Larson considers the present book as a "limited revision" of his dissertation and includes in-text citations of recent work where applicable. As part of Pendragon's Harmonologia: Studies in Music Theory series, this book positions the analysis of jazz alongside analyses of the classical canon and the history of music theory.

Although Larson's application of Schenkerian analysis to modern jazz may be problematic for those who do not have considerable knowledge of traditional Schenkerian theory (especially Schenker's Der freie Satz, from which Larson draws most of his analytical parameters), he does reveal important insights about composition/ improvisation, motivic economy, and how different jazz performers make a single tune their own. However, the title of the book deceives the reader somewhat by suggesting that the book might offer a wider application of the theory, extending to multiple tunes and soloists on varying instruments from the modern jazz period. Instead, Larson bases his analyses on complete and accurate tran- scriptions of recorded piano solos by just three artists: Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans. All but one of these-transcriptions reflect improvisations on Monk's tune, "Round Midnight," with the exception being a single chorus from Bill Evans's solo on Ray Noble's "The Touch of Your Lips." Nevertheless, the notation of entire improvisations by these virtuosic pianists is hardly a small task. Indeed, it is a unique accomplishment in jazz research, and the production of these transcriptions creates exciting opportunities for analysis via any methodology, including Larson's Schenkerian approach.

The physical appearance and organization of Analyzing Jazz reveal its Schenkerian influence. The book is formatted in the horizontal, landscape layout of Schenker's Der freie Satz, Das Meisterwerk in der Musik, and Der Tonwille. In general, Larson clearly formats all of the musical examples, analyses, and transcriptions, but the real advantage of this layout exists in the wider spacing, allowing the author to produce full-page Schenkerian graphs showing the various hierarchical layers involved in a passage. Instead of publishing three separate volumes for analytical examples, transcriptions, and text (as with Der freie Satz) Larson chose to amalgamate all three components. However, because he integrates the text with his analyses but appends the transcriptions, the reader may become frustrated by having to flip back and forth from the text to the analyses (when they do not coincide on the same page) to the transcriptions.

In anticipation of objections to his method, Larson poses and answers three important questions in Chapter 2 ("Questions About Method").* These are crucial for understanding how he adapted Schenkerian theory to jazz. The first question concerns the suitability of Schenkerian analysis for improvised music, given its status as a method for the analysis of composed music. While a thorny conceptual question, Larson explains that Schenker's writings do address improvised music (e.g., "The Art of Improvisation" from Das Meisterwerk in der Musik) and that his ideas are drawn from C. P. E. Bach's Versuch iiber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, which discusses harmonic and melodic strategies for improvising upon a figured bass. Larson also tries to dissolve the distinction between improvisation and composition. In Larson's view, it would be unwise to describe compositions as inherently structured, and their performance or analysis as a realization of that structure, while improvisations are ostensibly unstructured. Rather, both composition and improvisation reside in a similar domain, as evidenced from the clear working and reworking of ideas in recordings of alternate takes of jazz performances, often as part of one album. Taken further, one might also compare the virtuosic composers of the classical canon (e.g., Liszt and Beethoven), who often improvised or developed their musical ideas at the keyboard before deciding what to write down definitively, and jazz musicians, who often chose to omit the writing component of composition but still carefully honed their ideas before producing a definitive recording. In short, it seems inequitable to define composition as pertinent only to notated music.

A more contentious objection comes from the second question, "Can features of jazz harmony (ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths) not appearing in the music Schenker analyzed be accounted for by Schenkerian analysis?" Contrary to what the question implies, Larson explains that these traditionally dissonant chord extensions occur in both the common practice (i.e., "classical") and jazz repertoires. In the context of common practice music, the Schenkerian view accounts for these dissonant intervals in the foreground, or surface, of the music as melodic embellishments of more structural tones. In the deeper layers (i.e., those closer to the background structure of the work, or Schenker's Ursatz), these dissonances no longer appear. However, Larson maintains, albeit with caution, that such a hierarchical tonal system also exists for modern jazz compositions/improvisations: "Although these [foreground] notes may receive greater emphasis and may be treated more freely in modern jazz than in classical music, their basic meaning remains the same: they derive their meaning from more stable pitches at deeper structural levels".

To demonstrate this, Larson puts forth a lengthy discussion with accompanying musical examples that draws on Steven Strunk's research regarding pervasive dissonances in modern jazz. Strunk conceives of these musical "tensions" as "substitutions" for structurally superior pitches, which function as the "resolutions" of such tensions. These resolutions may or may not appear immediately, or be realized on the surface of the music, but nevertheless constitute the idealized structure of the otherwise embellished harmonic surface. Because Schenkerian analyses seek to uncover the consonant contrapuntal and harmonic skeleton of a composition, Larson must creatively explain how dissonances—such as the augmented ninth, and sequences of ninths and thirteenths—resolve or are realized in the background as consonances.

Opponents of the Schenkerian view of jazz analysis find such sly modifications particularly problematic. For instance, it seems, from Larson's Schenkerian perspective, that the jazz improviser's choice of notes must be "wrong" in some way if they are ultimately guided by the underlying Schenkerian structure instead of the phenomenologically oriented chord-changes that call for such dissonances. Why must these tensions be relegated to "substitutions" regardless of the aesthetic preferences or colorful desires of the improviser (e.g., Monk's whole-tone passages and austere dissonances)? It is because the Schenkerian methodology that Larson imposes would not work without somehow accounting for novel voice-leading phenomena specific to jazz as embellishments of a deeper consonant structure.

The third objection Larson addresses concerns the poiesis of jazz improvisations and the intentionality of jazz performers. As the culmination of the second chapter, he uses an interview from the 1970s with Bill Evans and Marian McPartland to answer the following: "Do improvising musicians really intend to create complex structures shown in Schenkerian analyses?" In the interview, Evans demonstrates how he conceives of his own method of improvisation/composition by taking McPartland through a chorus of "The Touch of Your Lips." Larson transcribes both the text of the interview and every note that Evans plays in order to emphasize Evans's artistic strategies. For instance, although he does not refer to Schenker specifically in the interview, Evans states, "I always have, in anything that I play, an absolutely basic structure in mind. I can work . . . between the strong structural points differently, but I find the most fundamental structure, and then I work from there. [By 'structure'], I'm talking about the abstract, architectural thing . . . the theoretical thing". While being cautious about the "intentional fallacy," Larson parses Schenkerian meaning from these sentences. In doing so, he refutes other Evans scholars such as Gregory Smith, who argues both that Evans relies on formulaic patterns rather than complex Schenkerian structures in his improvisations, and that an analysis of these patterns would offer a more realistic view of Evans's conceptual structure. Conversely, Larson points out that Evans quite likely learned some Schenkerian theory as a student at the Mannes College of Music. He then offers a complete Schenkerian analysis of Evans's solo on "The Touch of Your Lips" in order to introduce some of the central features that contribute to tonal and motivic coherence. These analytical themes reappear in chapters 3, 4, and 5, which explore the various versions of "Round Midnight" by Monk, Peterson, and Evans in significant detail. One idea, for example, stems from Schenker's concept of "hidden repetition," where melodic stepwise motives recur in different structural layers. With few exceptions (for example, when Larson must cross different structural voices to construct the repeated stepwise motive), this concept also gives more credence to Larson's Schenkerian method as a perceptible connection to an abstract idea.

Besides hidden repetitions, Larson reveals other compositional devices in the Peterson transcription: use of formal transformation, metric ambiguity, and "withholding." Peterson plays with form in at least two ways. First, he begins with his own introduction to "Round Midnight" and returns to it in various manifestations throughout his improvisation. Second, he uses what Larson calls "abbreviated returns," where Peterson may play the entire form and then begin in the B section on the repeat, as opposed to the first A section. Peterson also often adds stunning yet ephemeral cadenzas interlocked between sections that temporarily suspend the meter. Larson's concept of withholding, as found in both Peterson's solo and Evans's ensemble performances, describes wily peculiarities of their improvisation. At structural points of the form, Peterson and Evans will seem to withhold a melodic note that would typically end the phrase or motive.

Analyzing Jazz provides a compelling demonstration of the adaptation of Schenkerian analysis to modern jazz music. By drawing not only on Schenkerian analysis, but also aesthetics, the history of theory, and rhythm-and-meter concepts, Larson reaches a wide audience of music specialists. Furthermore, this book offers topics for seminars in both advanced jazz studies and tonal music theory. Larson particularly engages the reader through his Schenkerian reductions of the modern jazz transcriptions to elucidate a deeper structural meaning of the music. As a result, he has laid the groundwork and executed a model for future research in jazz analysis.

* The material in this chapter previously appeared in Steve Larson, "Schenkerian Analysis of Modern Jazz: Questions About Method," Music Theory Spectrum 20/2 (1998): 209-41.

Steven D. Mathews, University of Cincinnati
Music Research Form, No.26

December 20, 2010

Typically, Ph.D. dissertations are placed on library shelves and left undisturbed. Occasionally, an aspiring academic or ABD candidate might place an interlibrary loan request for a certain dissertation. In the field of music theory—or, more specifically, jazz theory—there have been a handful of dissertations that not only have been very influential, but also so daring in their ideol-ogy and scope that they have shaken the very foundation of the discipline they purported to advance. Steve Larson’s dissertation from 1987 is clearly such a work, and, at last, can be widely appreciated by jazz scholars and practitioners in a handsome volume published by Pendragon Press. Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach takes us back to the beginning of Larson’s academic career, a budding period in jazz theory scholarship when novel concepts were suggested and fresh analytical directions were attempted. In 1987, Larson’s study was an outgrowth of earlier works by different scholars: George Russell’s The Lydian-Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation, for All Instruments (New York: Concept, 1959), Steven Strunk, “The Harmony of Early Bop: A Layered Approach” (Journal of Jazz Studies 6 [1979]: 4–53), and others; since then, such research has affected the work of jazz theorists such as Henry Martin (Charlie Parker and Thematic Improvisation [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996]) and Keith Waters (“Blurring the Barline: Metric Displacement in the Piano Solos of Herbie Hancock,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 8 [1996]: 19–37), to name just a few. Having subsequently written profusely on the subject of Schenkerian theory and its jazz applications (Steve Larson, “ ‘Strict Use’ of Analytic Notation,” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 10 [1996]: 31–71; “Composition versus Improvisation?” Journal of Music Theory 49, no. 2 [2005]: 241–75), it seems odd that Larson decided to publish the original version of his dissertation with only limited revisions. In the preface Larson writes: “I chose to study Schenkerian analysis of modern jazz because of my interest in the theories of Heinrich Schenker and because of my interest in jazz” (p. x). With this declaration, Larson sets a rather lofty—if not unattainable—objective, given the overall conceptual framework of Schenkerian theory. While Schenker was largely sympathetic toward improvisation (as his writings on C. P. E. Bach indicate) and did not consider written composition to be completely divorced from the act of improvisation, his theoretical construct was designed for a very specific musical repertory. And, as with any theory—be it scientific, literary or other—that has a consistent and coherent testing apparatus, Schenkerian theory is most accurate and fruitful when applied to the musical genres and styles approved by its creator himself, which consists almost entirely of masterworks by C. P. E. Bach, J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Domenico Scarlatti, Schubert, and Schumann. There is an apparent trap in trying to ap¬ply a specific theoretical model—especially one that had been so carefully designed—to a musical repertory that falls outside of the explanatory scope of that model. To put it more bluntly, employing a theory to analyze a repertory that the theory’s author would have most likely detested seems risky at best and irrelevant at worse. Clearly, Larson’s study ventures far beyond the familiar turf reserved for Schenkerian purists and follows the research of a more progressive crowd for whom no musical style or genre is off limits from Schenkerian analysis. Given his apologetic tone at times, Larson is well aware of apparent difficulties and ensuing criticism his book might trigger. But despite the obvious risks, his magnum opus constitutes—for the most part—a well-thought effort with subtle recontextualizations of some crucial tenets of the original theory, and lives up to the reputation it has accumulated over the years. The book is neatly organized into six chapters, a preface, and the transcription section. The introductory Chapter 1 offers general remarks about the overall structure of the book. In addition, a reader who is unfamiliar with transcribing can learn about the transcription process with its nuanced pitch and rhythm notation. I would be more cautious than Larson, however, in declaring that “available editions of jazz repertoire—whether in lead sheets, in published sheet music, or in transcriptions—are often inaccurate and/or incomplete” (p. 1). Jazz scholarship, especially in the area of published transcriptions, has improved considerably since 1987; one needs only peruse any of Bill Dobbins’ transcriptions to encounter well-produced, professional, high-level work in this area. Chapter 2, “Questions about Method,” launches an important theoretical discussion concerning the validity of Schenkerian theory and its use in jazz. The content of this chapter is anchored around three pivotal questions: (1) “Is it appropriate to apply to improvised music methods of analysis developed for the study of composed music?” (p. 4); (2) “Can features of jazz harmony (ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths) not appearing in the music Schenker analyzed be accounted for by Schenkerian analysis?” (p. 5); and (3) “Do improvising musicians really intend to create the complex structures shown in Schenkerian analyses?” (p. 10) While these are obvious questions (and Larson answers them all in the affirmative), I would pose a few slightly different questions: What essential modifications and/or expansions need to be applied to the Schenkerian model so its theoretical apparatus is effective in explaining the structure of jazz music? And a follow-up question: At which point does the number of modifications and expansions alter the original theory so it becomes a new model barely resembling the original? The second question hints at Kuhn’s famous paradigm shift responsible for progress within a scientific discipline. I think that these are equally valid questions to ask, and finding answers to them might momentarily shift our attention from local concerns about the methodology, to more global ones about the structure of theoretical systems. After probing the questions, one might be surprised to discover the need for a completely new theory for jazz music that emerges, via a paradigmatic shift, from the Schenkerian model. The main premises of Schenkerian theory—the concept of prototypical progressions, the mode of explanation, simplicity of design, graphic representation of structural levels, and, even the recursive principle that preserves the same rules of voice leading, counterpoint, and harmony of prototypical progressions at various levels of the musical structure—are so powerful (and amazingly flexible) that they might serve as the pillars for the establishment of a new theory. The real power of Schenkerian theory lies not in the adaptability of its concepts to different musical repertories, but in its conceptual framework that might spur the development of new theoretical systems. Chapter 3, “ ‘Round Midnight,” offers an exhaustive analysis of the Thelonious Monk classic. Particularly interesting and original is Larson’s take on the internal structure of the tune as a series of variations on the theme. Given the opening quotation by Hofstadter, “Careful analysis leads one to see that we choose to call a new theme is itself always some sort of variations, on a deep level, of previous themes” (cited by Larson on p. 33), Larson’s observations are quite fitting, especially in light of Monk’s creative prowess and the overall nature of jazz improvisation. The voice-leading analyses of the A1, A2, and A3 sections are impressive; by horizontally aligning the four structural levels and providing a relevant analytical commentary, the reader can marvel at Monk’s ingenuity and Larson’s analytical insightfulness. Not only does the inclusion of Schenkerian concepts such as hidden repetitions or motivic parallelism in explaining melodic, contrapuntal, and voice-leading properties of the tune render it highly relevant, but it also is crucial in pointing out the role of motives occurring at various levels of the musical fabric. Chapter 4, “A Solo-Piano Performance by Oscar Peterson,” analyses a version of Monk’s “ ‘Round Midnight” from the album Freedom Song: The Oscar Peterson Big 4 in Japan ’82 (Pablo Live 2640–101, 1983). This chapter attempts to reconcile the problem of integrating a theme with the subsequent improvised choruses. Larson asks: “[H]ow can an improvisation based on such a theme [an AABA form] avoid excessive sectionalization and achieve integration?” (p. 51) Again, in Larson’s typical matter-of-fact manner, the answer declares that “Peterson’s performance of “ ‘Round Midnight” . . . exploits an aspect of Monk’s theme: hidden repetition of the linking motive” (p. 51). Larson’s superbly produced transcription highlights the latter, making for succinct and precise analysis of Peterson’s rendition. The only problem is whether Peterson, while improvising, was at all aware of these hidden repetitions of the linking motive. It is quite probable that there were other, less tangible factors influencing the improvisational outcome, and these factors are likely less classifiable than Larson wants us to believe. In analyzing Peterson’s performance, Larson often reiterates his main point pertaining to the integration of the individual sections. Not only would Larson’s five conclusive remarks make a theorist smile, but they would also make a jazz improviser reconsider the value of musical analysis in performance. Indeed, devices such as “(1) lead-ins [that] connect half cadences to the downbeats of the following sections; (2) cadential suspensions [that] postpone or eliminate the complete arrival of tonic at authentic cadences; (3) elisions [that] bind formal sections, reducing or even eliminating the closure of authentic cadences; (4) structural puns [that] overlap formal sections, allowing one passage of music to serve two functions simultaneously; and, (5) fills and cadenzas [that] add content within phrases at cadences” (p. 66) can be quite useful, even for a seasoned jazz improviser. Having established the theoretical apparatus for integrating and concatenating sections of the improvised solo with short rhetorical declarations: “proximity,” “similarity,” “substitution,” “withholding,” and “confirmations,” Chapter 5 continues to advance some important points in relation to Bill Evans’s improvisations. Chapter 5 tackles two versions of “ ‘Round Midnight”: a live version appearing on the album Bill Evans: Recorded Live at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, Hollywood California (Riverside RS-3013, 1968) performed with Chuck Israels (bass) and Larry Bunker (drums), and a studio version appearing on the album Conversations With Myself (Verve Records V-8526, 1963). Given the relative complexity of these performances, Larson arrives at similar theoretical conclusions as he did in the previous chapter. Not only does Evans integrate formal sections of his improvisations, but his remarkable skills (as well as skills of participating musicians) enable a tight integration of sections of the respective performances. Chapter 6, “Conclusions,” adds some additional material that differs from the original dissertation. In a succinct manner, Larson recapitulates his main points: the role of a theme and variations procedures in the improvised performances, the explanatory power and “artistic economy of means” of Schenkerian theory, and the role of structural levels in the study of rhythm—an area of research still underdeveloped both in common-practice and jazz music. The “Transcriptions” section, which accounts for roughly half of the volume, offers excellently produced transcriptions, some of which, like an overdubbed version of “ ‘Round Midnight” from Conversations With Myself, require an impressive set of musical ears to produce. The landscape layout of the book helps readability of transcriptions and analytical graphs. The concept of theme and variation, as seen in Larson’s various transcriptions of the same tune, lends itself quite well to Schenkerian analysis. The pioneering aspect of the book is not only evident in the selection of different performances of “ ‘Round Midnight,” but also in Larson’s ability to implement a theoretical model that pinpoints the different soloistic approaches to this tune in particular, and to the role of creativity in general. Throughout the book, Larson revisits his premise that Schenkerian analysis of jazz improvisation can reveal much about the art of improvisation and analysis. Given his profound analytical intuition, Larson demonstrates the validity of using Schenkerian theory to analyze jazz. As I mentioned earlier, one of the truly attractive features of Schenkerian theory is its logical, positivist structure, yielding considerable explanatory power. Any future scholarship that Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach might stimulate should concentrate more on developing new theoretical systems carefully attuned for jazz analysis that borrow only the logical, explanatory facets of Schenkerian theory rather than rehashing, revamping, or restructuring the existing model, regardless how venerable and popular that model might be.

Dariusz Terefenko, Eastman School of Music
“Music Library Association”
Project Muse Notes, Volume 67, Number 2

January 10, 2010

While jazz is an original American music, it has achieved and enduring world-wide popularity, with improvisational jazz being considered its purest form of expression. It is also the subject to theories originating with Heinrich Schenker with respect to such factors as melody, rhythm, and harmony. In Analyzing Jazz: A Schenkerian Approach, the latest title in the outstanding Pendragon Press 'Harmononologia: Studies in Music Theory' series, musicologist Steve Larson provides analytical transcriptions into musical notation for five recorded performances of the classic jazz composition 'Round Midnight' by the legendary improvisational jazz musician Theolonious Monk. Of these five, two are by Monk, one by Oscar Peterson, and two by Bill Evans, allowing the jazz student to benefit from comparisons from three different musicians.

Analyzing Jazz is a 204-page. compendium that should be a part of every professional and academic 20th Century American Music History reference collection in general, and American Jazz Studies curriculum supplemental reading list in particular.

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Steve Larson:

Steve Larson is the Robert M. Trotter Professor of Music at the University of Oregon and a member of the UO Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences. In the School of Music, he leads THEME, a group of faculty and graduate students interested in music research.