Jazz Compositions and Contrafacts

The jazz contrafact, i.e a new composition written on the chord changes of another tune, is usually associated with post-war jazz. Beboppers superimposed dense riffs and angular melodies over popular standards, often adding then “unusual” chord substitutions that would eventually become standard operating vocabulary for jazz as we know it.

In the same spirit, Adrian Rollini and his colleagues in British bandleader Fred Elizalde’s ensemble get to recomposing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” right from the start of their record, and several years before Tadd Dameron and Miles Davis put pen to stave:

The opening ensemble turns Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel’s melody (already all too familiar even by 1929) into a completely new theme constructed out of tight, cool gestures. The format of horns stating a “head” followed by round-robin solos would become formula for the boppers, but at a time when collective improvisation and cross-sectional writing were just as prominent, it has the air of one refreshing approach among many. The solos present a variety of instrumental personalities, starting with Chelsea Quealey abstracting the melody further and ending with Rollini’s bass saxophone muscular and lithe all at once.

The execution is slightly different, but the principle has always remained the same.  Contrafacts have been around at least since some band got sick of playing “Tiger Rag” the same way over and over again (but we’ll save that long list for another day).

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2 thoughts on “Jazz Compositions and Contrafacts

  1. Andrew Homzy says:

    Elizalde is a fascinating musician/character. But is he an Artist? He had a unique piano style – at times, imitating a broken record – now that’s a sonic description that is fast-moving beyond our ken –

    Elizale’s tracks with Rollini lovingly reconstruct the Bix/Tram/Challis concept. And wasn’t Challis to Bix what Gil was to Miles?

    It’s interesting that the early contrafacts – and even the original melodies – were never scored in unison. That didn’t happen until Duke’s “In A Mellow Tone” and “Cotton Tail”. Instead, the lines were usually harmonized. And not in the the stereo-typical block harmony.

    In “Nobody’s Sweetheart”, the scoring is for clarinet, alto sax & bass sax. But who is actually playing the melody against the other two instruments? It seems to change throughout the chorus.

    But as I said, this is a reconstruct of the Bix/Tram/Challis concept – in which Rollini was also an important player. To hear a masterly voicing/performance/recording, listen to “San” – start at 1:13 – better yet listen-to and marvel-at the whole thing. Mystery abounds – and that’s what makes it Art.

    • M. Figg says:

      You’ve said a mouthful, Andrew. Great point about what an innovation unison scoring for the horns was, and I really like your analogy between Beiderbecke/Challis and Davis/Evans.

      And “San,” is just, well, wow…

      Thanks as always for reading and sharing your insights!

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