Michael McClimon


Harmonic Interaction in Stitt & Rollins’s “The Eternal Triangle” (2016)

The 1957 album Sonny Side Up is widely regarded as one of the best “jam session” albums in recorded jazz, and on no track is the cutting session between Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt more pronounced than on Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle.” This is a Rhythm changes tune, and provides a wealth of opportunity for the study of interaction, both with the form itself and between the two tenor saxophonists.

After a brief analysis of the tune, this talk examines the twenty choruses of saxophone solos in more detail, showing how suggestions of outside playing in Rollins’s first six choruses are more fully realized when he and Stitt begin trading fours and eights after Stitt’s solo choruses. Drawing on models of interaction from Robert Hodson and Garrett Michaelsen, as well as a transformational model for chord-scales developed in my own dissertation, I examine interaction between the harmony as expressed by the two soloists and the rest of the ensemble, and how it relates to the larger genre Rhythm changes. Finally, the talk shows we might hear a remarkable moment in the final chorus of trading as arising from a process begun eight minutes earlier.

Reconceptualizing the Lydian Chromatic Concept: George Russell as Historical Theorist (2015)

It is difficult to overstate the influence of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept on jazz pedagogy; he has been called the first jazz theorist, and the book has been praised as “the foremost theoretical contribution” of its time. And yet, the Concept has been largely ignored in recent music-theoretical scholarship on jazz. This paper considers why, by examining Russell and the Concept from a historical perspective.

Russell’s work in the Concept can be divided into two components: chord-scale equivalence and Lydian generation. The former has taken a strong hold in teaching improvisation; the idea that a scale can stand in for a chord symbol was groundbreaking, and seems so obvious in retrospect that many authors today do not even credit Russell with the idea. This equivalence grows out of the more fundamental theory (indeed, the Concept itself) that the Lydian mode is the principal organizing force of all tonal music. This idea is more controversial and has not taken hold in the same way. But of course, theorists are used to adopting worthwhile theoretical ideas from authors without assuming their entire worldview.

By reconsidering Russell historically, we can begin to understand why parts of his idiosyncratic theory have flourished while others seem to have fallen by the wayside. The paper begins by briefly outlining Russell’s contributions, tracing their adoption, and then considers what we might gain by reincorporating some of his original intention of the Concept into modern scholarship.

Diatonic Chord Spaces in Jazz: A Transformational Approach (2015)

When approaching diatonic, functionally harmonic jazz, most analysts reach for the Schenkerian toolbox. Steve Larson and others have shown that Schenkerian analysis is well equipped to explain tonal jazz harmony, but the approach can sometimes obscure certain aspects of the music. This paper argues instead for a transformational approach, contending that David Lewin’s “transformational attitude” can better reflect the chord-to-chord connections—the changes—crucial to improvising jazz musicians. Steven Rings has demonstrated that transformational theory is illuminating even for diatonic tonal music; this paper extends his perspective to include jazz harmony. The paper begins by formalizing the concept of “diatonic spaces” in jazz, and compares their use to other analytical models. Once the basic spaces have been established, it extends the model to explore connections between individual diatonic spaces. Finally, analyses of the jazz standards “Autumn Leaves,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “All the Things You Are” (among others) are presented to show how these diatonic spaces can be valuable in interpreting jazz harmony.

Jazz Harmony, Transformations, and ii–V Space (2014)

Studies of jazz harmony in recent years have primarily taken the form of Schenkerian analyses that seek to uncover large-scale voice-leading structures to define tonality. Some theorists disagree on exactly how Schenkerian techniques should be applied to jazz, but hardly anyone, however, seems to doubt that Schenkerian techniques are the best way to examine jazz’s tonal structures. While I am certainly not opposed to Schenkerian techniques, using them as the only tool for jazz harmonic analysis misses some important aspects of the music at hand. With a few notable exceptions (people like Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau, for instance), jazz musicians conceive of the music harmonically, rather than linearly. As a gentle corrective to this situation, the present paper presents a transformational model that, while not totally devoid of voice-leading considerations, shifts attention back to harmony as a primary way of understanding jazz. While on the surface a transformational model may seem just as abstract as Schenkerian analysis, harmony in jazz fits in quite well with David Lewin‘s famous “transformational attitude.” A jazz musician does not think of chords as series of Cartesian points, but rather as a series of “characteristic gestures” between them. Tellingly, they do not refer to a piece‘s harmonic structure as “the chords,” but rather as “the changes.”

The most common harmonic progression in jazz is undoubtedly the ii7–V7–I7 progression (hereafter, ii–V–I, or often, simply ii–V). It is the first progression taught in most jazz method books, and the only small-scale progression to have an entire Aebersold play-along volume dedicated to it. The progression is so prevalent that many jazz musicians describe tunes in terms of their constituent ii–Vs; such a musician might describe the bridge of “All the Things You Are” as being simply “ii–V to G, ii–V to E, then V–I in F.” While some theorists are quick to dismiss this kind of description for lacking rigor, in this paper I take the way jazz musicians actually think about the music they play as a starting point for developing a more rigorous transformational approach to jazz harmony. This paper begins by outlining the basics of what I will call “ii–V space,” compares this space with other models of jazz harmony along with other transformational approaches, and finally two analyses to illustrate the utility of ii–V space for jazz analysis. (Examples for this paper available here.)

Projecting the Grid: A Preliminary Study of Metrical Induction in Solo Jazz Piano Introductions (2011)

Building on my study of Monk‘s “Evidence,” this paper attempts to create a set of preference rules for how listeners understand the creation of meter in solo jazz piano introductions. This represents the first stages of what I imagine will become a much larger project, and is by no means meant to be a complete study of the phenomenon of metrical induction in jazz.

Expressing the Inexpressible: Thelonious Monk‘s “Crepuscule with Nellie” (2010)

While few doubt the expressive potential of jazz music, this topic has not been well explored by music theorists. While many jazz musicians and authors talk about “creating a story” with their improvisations the question of expression in original jazz composition is simply overlooked. Building on Robert Hatten‘s theories of markedness and musical agency along with Garrett Michaelson‘s topical approach to jazz “grooves," I use Thelonious Monk‘s “Crepuscule with Nellie” as a case study for the examination of musical meaning in jazz composition.

“Crepuscule with Nellie” provides an ideal sample for this type of inquiry. Monk wrote the piece in May of 1957 while his wife, Nellie, was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. It is a unique piece in Monk‘s output (and unusual for jazz in general) in that it was never played with any improvisation; the piece was simply the “head" of the tune, with no solos. Monk felt that the composition should stand alone, as a kind of concerto written for his wife. My paper asks the obvious question: What is it about this work that makes it somehow too intimate to be commented on, by Monk or anyone else? A thorough analysis of this work helps to illuminate how a consideration of expressive meaning can enhance our understanding of both Monk‘s unique style and, more generally, the art of jazz expression.

The Temporal Importance of Scale Degree 5 in Schubert‘s C Major Piano Sonata, D.279/ii (2010)

This paper takes a close look at the second movement of one of Schubert‘s early piano sonatas, with an eye toward its interesting temporal aspects. With a combination of historically-informed sources like Danuta Mirka‘s Metric Manipulations in the Music of Haydn and Mozart and Schenkerian voice-leading sketches I am able to uncover some interesting rhythmic/metric features of this otherwise highly regular Classical-style work.

Examinining “Evidence”: An Inquiry into Thelonious Monk‘s Metrical Process (2010)

Though rhythm is one of the most important elements of jazz, the underlying metrical structure is often taken for granted. In most of the scholarly literature on jazz rhythm the meter is seen only as a background on which other, more rhythmically interesting ideas unfold. While it is true that a majority of what may be called “common- practice jazz” (swing through bebop) is in common time, how this meter is established is often overlooked. As a means of beginning to address the issue of meter (as opposed to rhythm) in jazz, this paper provides an analysis of one of Thelonious Monk‘s most metrically complex pieces, “Evidence.”

Monk‘s “Evidence” is particularly suited to such a study: its melody is sparse and pointillistic, and most recordings feature a solo piano introduction with no other rhythm section members helping to clarify the meter. In this paper, I use Christopher Hasty‘s (1997) approach to emergent meter to examine how the expected 4/4 meter is uniquely created in this piece. Given the primacy of common time and the high degree of syncopation in jazz, Hasty‘s emphasis on varying projection lengths seems superfluous for listeners already entrained to a meter. Rather, the entrained jazz listener is more likely to experience meter as a fixed background on which many varied rhythmic events take place. Hence, my analytical model begins with Hasty‘s approach, and then turns to Lerdahl and Jackendoff‘s (1983) metrical grid once the meter is firmly established. By examining “Evidence,” I hope to show that neither of these approaches provides a complete picture of metrical structure, but that a combination of both can serve as a starting point for addressing the issue of meter in jazz.

Older Projects

This is a collection of older things that I don‘t really have any further plans for, but that might be interesting to someone.