Breaking Down Sonny Rollins' Catchiest Tune – Soundfly

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Breaking Down Sonny Rollins’ Catchiest Tune

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This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

Jazz saxophone great, Sonny Rollins is a justifiably famous for his improvising, but he has also written several jazz standards that are as catchy as anything on Top 40 radio: “St Thomas,” “Pent Up House,” “Doxy,” and the stickiest earworm for me personally, “Sonnymoon for Two.”

Here’s an early studio recording:

Here’s the really famous live version, from the Village Vanguard in 1957:

And here’s Horace Parlan quoting it in “Jelly Roll” by Charles Mingus:

Many of the charts in circulation online get the rhythm wrong. Here’s mine, with a generic walking bass line under it, and a possible harmonization:

The tune is an archetypal twelve bar blues, and the head is simply the same phrase repeated identically three times (but over different chords each time). Each of the phrases consists of three sub-phrases, which I labeled A1, A2 and A3 in my chart.

  • A1 is a walk down the B-flat minor pentatonic scale over the first two bars and one beat. (The whole melody is on that scale.) It starts on the “and” of one, the eighth note after the downbeat, which is the weakest beat in the whole bar. That is a pretty bold syncopation to lead off a tune with. The walk ends on the “and” of three, which is also a weak beat. In between, the other notes are all on strong beats, but they feel syncopated because your ear has been primed to expect weak beats. Hip!
  • A2 is a standard blues riff. It starts on the “and” of two and ends on the “and” of four, which is a lot of syncopation in just a few beats.
  • A3 is almost the same as A2, but it tacks a rhythmically complex figure onto the beginning of it. It’s a syncopated eighth note triplet! This is the rhythm that’s wrong in most online charts, but you need to get it right, because it’s the heart of the whole tune, reflecting its broader syncopation in miniature.

You can see the three-fold symmetry of the head in polar coordinates form:

Here’s the first four-bar phrase, showing the subphrase structure particularly clearly.

Sonny Rollins is the living embodiment of bebop, but “Sonnymoon for Two” sounds more like a Basie or Ellington tune, like “One O’ Clock Jump” or “C Jam Blues,” the kind of thing that the trombone section would play while the saxophone section plays countermelodies spelling out the chord changes.

But Sonny isn’t playing this against a lush big band backdrop, he’s playing over a basic jazz combo, or even less.

When I had a jazz group a thousand years ago, I worked up an arrangement of “Sonnymoon for Two,” and I asked for a specific approach to soloing: play a four-bar phrase and then repeat it twice as identically as possible, following the structure of the head.

Nobody was into this idea. They wanted to play regular twelve-bar blues and not do my weird improvisation game. But it’s an idea that I still think is a good one, and I want to revive it, or at least get other people to try it.

I wanted to do my “Sonnymoon for Two” game for a couple of reasons. One, at this late date, blowing over changes gets boring. It was boring for me as a player, I can’t imagine how boring it is for audiences. (Yes, I actually can imagine. So boring.) I wanted more structure and specificity to the music. That doesn’t mean that I was bored of improvisation.

I’ll never be tired of that!

But I wanted the improvisation to be more meaningful than just strings of eighth notes using chord/scale theory. I wanted more legitimation through repetition. I loved how Thelonious Monk takes a phrase and loops it in order to try out permutations and variations, and I wanted my bandmates to play that way too. I thought, if they had to come up with these repeated four-bar phrases, then it would give the solos the same shape as the head, making a clear and audible pattern that the audience would hear and engage with imaginatively.

I would generally like some new constraints for improvisation. It’s cool that modern jazz has evolved to the point where solos only need to have a tenuous harmonic or rhythmic connection to the underlying tune, but that’s too much freedom for most musicians, including me.

Not everybody is on that Miles Davis level of finding musical order within chaos. Not everybody knows how to retain folkloric integrity when playing angular abstractions. If you had to repeat your improvised phrase three times, then you’d have to play something clear and specific enough that you’d be able to remember it and play it again. And then it would be specific enough for the audience to retain it too.

To be clear, another reason I wanted to do constrained improvisation games is that I am not all that good at blowing bebop-style lines over changes. And the reason I’m not very good at it as that I could never motivate to do the practice at a disciplined enough level. Some of it is that I have trouble motivating to do anything. But most of it is that I couldn’t see the point. The world did not need another white guitarist playing a weak imitation of Wes Montgomery.

I wanted to find something more true to myself; which is what led me out of jazz entirely and into Ableton Live, and now here we are.

+ Read more on Flypaper: J. Hoard loves this tune so much, he named his artist moniker after it…

I do love jazz, I miss playing it, and I intend to resume when my kids are older. But I don’t just want to blow over changes, I want to do something fresh. In the meantime, one advantage of being a music teacher is that I can compel students to try my little conceptual games. It would be more fun to have other musicians do them consensually, though.

Anyway, “Sonnymoon for Two” is 64 years old and sounds fresh as a daisy. Sonny Rollins himself is 81. He hasn’t played in public since 2012 due to health issues. I’m grateful that I got to see him play a few times. And we have those tunes.

Don’t stop here!

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.