Years ago I had the privilege of studying with the great composer and arranger Michael Gibbs, and also played in his faculty populated big band at the Berklee College of Music. To this day what I remember most from that association was his idea that there was a direct relationship between an aesthetically pleasing visual line and its counterpart in music. A quick trip to Google Images and typing in “mountain range” will show a wide variety of lines running across the peaks, but some will appeal to you more than others. A few may look boring, more like a horizontal line (albeit at high altitude)…others appear to be Nature’s “cookie cutter” tract housing.
Superimposing a line over a music staff automatically suggests rhythms and pitches, due to the way those combined elements are produced on their respective horizontal and vertical axis. This is a great way to avoid cliche or break writer’s block, and I’ve never heard it fail to generate something musical, as long as the line itself has visual merit. Here is what Nick came up with over the ii-V-i progression in the bridge of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” (also an impressive achievement considering he did an entire chorus during his senior finals week in high school!). The first stave is an approximation of the original line he drew, which appeared to be a pleasing line (or mountain range) to our artistic eye. Nick also knew the spelling of all the chords and the applied scales that mirrored the sound of those chords, so he had the appropriate pool of notes to draw from that could trace his line and yet still honor the chord progression.
Because the line was drawn based on it’s visual appeal rather than harmonic considerations, the resulting notes can often be less conventional yet surprisingly successful, like the third measure’s C major arpeggio (which helped delay the final resolution to G minor until the end of the following measure). We also discussed syncopation and its role in jazz. By inserting those 8th rests he came up with a line that had more “swing” and is more fun to play. Great job, Nick…Picasso would have been proud of you!