Here it is: the first in what will be a biweekly series of transcriptions lasting throughout 2015. Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through these solos.
In the summer of 2003, I went to Birch Creek for the first time. Although he wasn’t an instructor during my session, many of the other students at the camp talked about this saxophonist who had been a part of the first jazz session (I attended the second). Someone had a recording of director Jeff Campbell’s trio recording (West End Avenue), featuring John Hollenbeck and John Wojciechowski, and played this track. I managed to get my hands on the track and listened to it ad nauseam in the months that followed. It wasn’t until later that I got my hands on the rest of the record, and even later than that that I truly appreciated the music recorded. To anyone who enjoys chordless groups, I highly recommend buying it wherever you can – I haven’t been able to find it online anywhere lately, so if you have any leads, please let me know so I can share.
This solo is one of the first I ever really latched onto and needed to learn. Immediately, I was struck by the inside-outside language that John uses. Now that I’ve revisited the solo, it stands out even more because there isn’t much of it.
- The first instance, in mm. 42-44, was the first lick I ever remember wanting to learn. Now, I simply hear this as side-stepping E minor and moving up by a half step, but at the time, I had no idea what that was or how side-stepping sounded. The quick arpeggio in m. 43 tonicizes F major to my ear and keeps us there until John reintroduces the C# of E dorian in m. 44.
- The second instance, in mm. 75-76, I remember wanting to learn in grad school as I tried to hone my turnarounds. This is a simple tonicization of A minor: John plays a clear E7(b9) outline to lead to A minor. But what of the Eb-F-Ab? I interpret this as a preparation of E7 through the Eb diminished scale – I encounter it most frequently in the vocabularies of piano players. There seems to be a certain sophistication (almost old-school) when preparing your dominant in this way. Granted, there’s only a few notes, so he may have thought of this in an entirely different way, but this is my blog…
- The last instance occurs across the first half of the last A section (mm. 85-92). We hear John play the melody and then immediately begin to sequence. The first lies with his side-stepping motif from earlier. Then he picks up the last note (F), then moves away by a tritone (the C#, which lies within E dorian). To finish this sequence, he side-steps again (mm. 88-89). To get back to E dorian and close out his solo, he cycles through F major and Bb major after a couple of chromatic approach-tones.
To my ear, the most striking thing about this solo is John’s inventiveness within E and A dorian while going outside of that harmony only three times. The melodies are particularly memorable, and without flash, save for one exception (mm. 45-52). When I think of great modal solos, especially in a chordless format, I think of players that can superimpose harmony at breakneck speeds. Anyone that has heard John play knows that he can burn with the best of them. In this solo, he has made a decision to focus on well-conceived, singable melodies. This is a solo I come back to when I need to remember that not every solo needs flash and monstrous technique. Thanks for the reminder, John.