From time to time I like looking over the standard jazz repertoire to see if there is a tune that I can arrange or rearrange. A tune that not only appeals to me on an aesthetic level but one I can rearrange to make it more current, interesting and ultimately make it my own. Being a sucker for old movies, I decided a few years back to reinterpret many of the old classics such as ‘Over The Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz, ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca, and ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me In St. Louis.
When I compose an original jazz composition, quite often my first thought is what environment do I want to improvise in. Will it be swing, straight, changes, no changes, time, no time, etc, etc. When looking to rework a standard I use the same approach. So with a tune such as The Trolley Song, albeit a little corny or clichéd at first glance, I wanted to find if there was a conducive setting within which I was comfortable improvising.
My first realization was that the A sections were basically a double time type ‘rhythm changes’, and as such I could put them over a pedal point using a charleston figure as the bass line. My harmonic approach in the head was to use shifting dyads (2 note chords) thus leaving the harmony somewhat ambiguous and elusive . To make the bridge more interesting I used phrygian and Maj 7 #5 sonorities. For an intro, I actually took the tag, or final refrain of the original version, switching between a three beat figure and fast 4/4. I play this tag again at the end of the head in.
This now propels the improviser back to the charleston figure on a Bb pedal point. Playing over a pedal leaves the improviser with a lot of options. First lets clarify what is meant by pedal point. In this case it means playing on Bb. Not Bb major or minor or dominant. Just Bb. This allows one to play either chromatically or to play over specific chord qualities. I tend to think top down, that is to say what I play in my right hand determines my left hand reaction (kind of like comping for myself). So on this pedal point I am shifting between dominant, sus4, altered, diminished, slash chord, and sometimes just purely chromatic ideas (ie. not thinking of any particular scale or chord type).
Here's my version from a concert at McGill University featuring a couple of extremely talented young musicians, Miles Perkin on bass and Phil Melanson on drums.
Special thanks to Claude Thibault for providing this video and for his amazing website. http://www.sortiesjazznights.com