A big interest of mine is adapting late 19th and early-mid 20th century classical compositions into the modern jazz idiom. So much of the harmonic and melodic language is similar that it’s kind of hard not to draw the comparisons. I mean, what modern jazz improviser hasn’t gone crazy for Slonimsky or Yamaguchi? The only major difference is in the treatment of rhythm – Jazz in all of its forms is heavily steeped in the language of syncopation and the tension/release of call and response, while “modern” classical…well, isn’t. Yes, form is generally more developed in classical music, but there are plenty of extended jazz compositions that have the same sort of formal development any other classical work might have. Rhythm is key.
One of the classical works I’ve been fascinated with recently is Aaron Copland’s 12-part song cycle based on selected poems of Emily Dickinson. Because Aaron Copland is an American composer, I’ve always felt that there is a smidgeon of jazz’s rhythmic concept already in his work – just like Gershwin, Barber and Ives – so it’s easy to get ideas from listen to the Emily Dickinson songs. I arranged “Heart We Will Forget Him” for my senior recital at Berklee, and recently I decided to tackle the song “The World Feels Dusty.”
The original is a meditative, melancholy composition in B minor perfectly reflecting the text’s somber reflection on death (hey, what Emily Dickinson poem isn’t a somber reflection on death?). The melody is rife with melodic tensions and some angular intervallic leaps, which only seemed perfect for a conversion into a jazzier setting. There are some very interesting and unusual excursions into other modal settings (B aeolian, dorian, harmonic minor), but for the most part it stays in diatonic B minor.
Check out the original. This is Jill Windes’ Master’s Recital, and I really dig the interpretation.
So what did I do to “Jazzify” it? Part of what struck me was all of the water imagery in the original poem. Here’s the original. In typical Emily Dickinson fashion, there are a few odd lines that seem to interrupt the flow of everything, so Copland changed the last lines to “Dews of thyself to fetch, and holy balms.” Check it.
The World — feels Dusty
When We stop to Die –
We want the Dew — then –
Honors — taste dry –
Flags — vex a Dying face –
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend’s Hand –
Cools — like the Rain –
Mine be the Ministry
When they Thirst comes –
And Hybla Balms –
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch –
There was a piano ostinato idea I had bumping around in the back of my head for a while that seemed to nicely fit this “water imagery” theme, and I used that for the basis for a lot of the composition. I kept the 3/4 time signature, although I stretched the melodic rhythms considerably, and interpreted it more as a 6/8 kind of pattern in the rhythm section. A lot of the harmonic structures I used are hard to classify with traditional chord symbols, and for the sake of sheet music I’ve had to come up with hybrid structure denotations of the voicings (Gmaj7sus2/Eb, Dadd#4/C, etc). Still, like the original, I keep the key center pretty much focused around the “B minor” idea. Since the melody is so through-composed, the “tune-form” I came up with to roughly represent the melody has a very through-composed feel, although there are certain bass figures that occur more than once to give it some cohesion. Just to add a little bit of interest, I modulate up a half step to C minor for the bass solo (the fact that I really enjoy soloing in C minor helped in that decision), and the form of the solo paraphrases that of the main “tune-form”.
Anyway, here’s the (slightly abridged) lead sheet of the arrangement. Excuse all the commentary, haha.
And, of course, the arrangement itself in YouTube form. Boston area vocalist Emma Boroson provides the vocals, and I’m there plunking away at the bass. Hope you excuse the bass solo, but hey, I have to let loose once in a while. Hope you enjoy!