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Playing Since: 1965
Experience Level: Expert/Professional
Jocko MacNelly has made 4 recent additions to Banjo Hangout
Guitar (electric, classical), bass (electric, upright), banjo, various plucked strings
(today...) James Brown, Ray Brown, Family Man Barrett, James Jamerson, Wes Montgomery, Claudio Monteverdi, Ali Farka Toure, Gilberto Gil, Tim O'Keeffe, Siama Matuzungidi, Richard Thompson
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Last Visit 6/18/2013
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 @11:09:08 AM
This is the link to a gorgeous solo that Lester Young (aka "Prez") played in 1950 over the chord changes to "Pennies From Heaven" (see my BHO homepage or the"Tabs" section for the transcription). Believe it or not, the recording is pitched in B major. Knowing of most musicians' aversion to the key of B-major and looking at the different players' hands (even though they're trying to "lip-synch" to a pre-recorded track), I'm guessing it was really in Bb, though I've rendered it in C, which seems to be the "stock" key these days, and makes the lowest note in this transcription our open low D. All the articulations in the notation staff are conjectural; the ones I'm suggesting for the banjo are in the TAB staff.
I'm hesitant to get too analytical with Lester Young. Not that there isn't a lot here to pick apart, it's just that it's so much more fun to ponder the mysteries: the way he can make three notes do the work of two bars, how two bars can be all about one note, or how he'll seemingly "toss off" a simple fragment - say, CDEFG in eighth-notes - and it sounds like the lost Eleventh Commandment. The casual-sounding way he can make musical statements that are, upon inspection, breathtaking in their organization and balance - there's nothing "casual" about them! Listen for how he scoops up to some notes, and how he hits some right on the money, also how he changes his relationship to the beat. The received wisdom is that he tended to play his solos "behind the beat," but then you hear at measure 27 for example, the way he stabs the D on beat one a little bit in front.
As you play through this, keep in mind that accents in jazz usually occur on the peaks in the melodic contour, and on the last note in phrases ending on the "and." Listen in this solo for the interplay between downbeat and upbeat accents. Above all, listen to the way that it all seems to be wrapped in a calm assurance that this note, this one right here, is precisely the one that needs to be played at precisely this instant.
One of my favorite moments is at measure 63 and 64; I've notated it as a B, and theoretically speaking B or Bb would work just fine here, but he plays basically a B half-flat, which he smears up a tiny bit (but not up to B), then down towards the following A. My suggestion is to play it as a Bb, bent up slightly. It's a fascinating moment! I like the idea that, having made prominent use of Bb in bars 56 and 57, and knowing a B-natural is imminent (it's in three of the solo's last four bars), he split the difference in bar 63, neither repeating the Bb nor reaching the B-natural too soon.
Prez once said that it bugged him to be at jam sessions and have the piano player calling out chord changes because "that's not what I hear." He knew what the changes were, but he seems rather to have gone to the DNA of the tune (perhaps this accounts for the illusion of simplicity), and is showing us how to really hear it.
Can you tell I love Lester Young?
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