Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma”…a New Reharmonization

Dizzy-editedWhen you say the name, “Dizzy Gillespie,” many people think of the iconic trumpet player with the puffy cheeks, his crazy looking trumpet with the upswept bell, and the comedic personality…playing flurries of notes at lightning speed, all while soaring into the stratospheric range of the horn. But Dizzy had another side to him.  He was a warm, loving human being, with a very sophisticated sense of harmony.  I first discovered this facet of his personality when I heard his beautiful tune, “Con Alma” …first with Dizzy playing with the Mitchell-Ruff duo, and then Stan Getz’s 12/8 version. This was a far cry from his bebop offerings, and still stands as a unique composition in the jazz repertoire.  I learned a lot about harmony from studying his beautiful chord progression.

hqdefaultHaving said that, one might wonder, “why would I reharmonize a tune that is already great?” or for that matter, why reharmonize at all?  I remember reading an interview with saxophonist Branford Marsalis in Jazz Times, who shared an experience he had during his stay with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (that’s Brandford on the right, with his brother Wynton on trumpet, and Art on drums in the back).  Branford admitted that he couldn’t play ballads at the time, and so he started to change all of the chords in a Gershwin ballad to make it “hip.” Art would have none of it though, saying that the Gershwin tune was already hip, and that Branford was masking the fact that he had had trouble playing on the tune the way it was.

I would agree that we must learn how to play on the original tune the way it was written.  Our jazz standards are the bedrock of the language…and a thorough understanding of the harmonic language is required not only to become a fluent and informed improviser, but a successful reharmonizer.   Having said that, reharmonization has long been an accepted practice in the world of jazz, and is akin to the common practice of writing new melodies over a standard’s original chord progression (for example, Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee” is based on the chord progression of the older tune, “Back Home Again in Indiana”).  These practices are creative acts, which in many ways not only bring us closer to the heart of the original music, but also pay homage to it as well.

In spite of the added complexity this reharmonization brings, once one is familiar with it, you can still play the tune following Dizzy’s prime directive, which he states in the song’s title:  “With Soul.”

As with the other reharmonizations on this post, the viewable lead sheet below is a lower resolution JPEG file.  For a better quality, printable PDF, click on Con Alma.

Con Alma

Some points of interest in this reharmonization:

  • Dizzy’s theme was supported with a clever, descending bass line in measure 1-2, and 5-6 of the A Section.  I decided to try an ascending bass line (which carries the same harmonic momentum), only to extend it from two to eight measures.  If the written bass line in measures 5-8 is taken up an octave,  then the two, four measure phrases of Letter A neatly dovetail together with one, long rising bass line.
  • Before the repeat and D.S., this ascending bass line is lengthened by starting it sooner, in the measure preceding each A section….giving it a little boost, like a rolling start.
  • The original melody’s simple rhythm of four half notes in measures 1-2 and 5-6 of the A sections has been replaced with the equivalent of three dotted quarter notes…adding a little polyrhythmic interest and momentum.  Although a 12/8 feel is suggested for this arrangement, know that the 8th note figures (unless triplets) are not literal…the written notes on the offbeats will really fall on the last third of the beat.
  • The melodic motif in measures 3-4 and 7-8 of the A Section is used for the arrangement’s introduction and interludes.
  • The introduction is given a pedal point, as a contrast to the ascending bass line.
  • Starting with the third measure of the bridge, the bass line descends…adding more contrast to the arrangement’s fundamental form.
  • I’ve been asked why I use triads over bass notes (like in this arrangement’s introduction) instead just naming the chord from it’s root.  For example, the Ab/E in the second measure of the introduction could be called an Emaj7#5.  There are several things I like about this approach.  First, they give you an instant voicing, in this case (from the bass note up to the melody note)…E, C, D#(Eb) and G#(Ab).  Thanks to the triad, there is also a certain resonance to these kind of voicings.  If you use a series of chords using this technique (like the intro), it automatically lends a sense of consistency to the section.  And then there’s the flexibility in regards to the applied scale(s).  For example, the F#/E in the fourth measure of the intro could use (among other possibilities) E Mixolydian #4, F# Mixolydian #4, or E Diminished as applied scale choices.  I also like the contrast of a simple four note chord, as opposed to always using voicings so thick, that they often use all seven notes of the applied scale.

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