Blues and Variations for Monk by David Amram for Solo Horn.
Publisher - Edition Peters
The first three notes of Blues and Variations for Monk (the 3rd, dominant 7th and raised 11th for an F dominant-7th chord) are a motif based on the way Thelonious Monk played the piano in his unique style. When I visited his house and he visited my little place for the first of many times, beginning in 1955, he encouraged me, as he also did with my fellow jazz French hornist Julius Watkins, to pursue using the French horn as an improvising instrument in jazz ensembles, as well as pursuing my dreams of being a composer of contemporary symphonic music. And all of the times spent with Monk over the years during our memorable musical get-togethers included playing the 12-bar blues. That’s why decades later I wrote this piece to honor our friendship. All of the 12-bar blues variations in Blues and Variations for Monk are based on the timeless structure of the classic 12- bar blues. Each variation can be phrased in four-measure sections. And each of these 12-bar choruses should be played exactly in tempo! This will enable the audience to hear and feel the “jazz” elements, and give the the soloist the ability, within the exact structure, to concentrate on getting a great sound and elegant phrasing. Each 12-bar variation (or chorus) has its own character, and can be played in the style that feels natural and musical. There are also occasional transitions between some of these 12-bar variations, which are not meant to be played in an exact tempo. But in the return of each variation, the tempo should remain exactly as written. In the different series of variations, some are notated with syncopated eighth notes and some with “straight” eigth notes. They were notated specifically this way to honor the different styles of phrasing used by master musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Monk. Sometimes they played passages in their solos in the style of classic swing and sometimes they played in a style that sounded like a symphonic soloist playing passages from works of Sibelius, Ravel or Tchaikovsky. While they all embraced the fundamental deep spiritual roots of the Sanctified (African-American) Church and the heart-touching cry of the traditional blues in their work, the concept of soulfulness that fills their music comes from the same place as that of all great musicians express when playing any kind of sincere music: music built to last. And they never played in the herky-jerky “jazzy” style often used on cartoon shows for children. So when playing this piece, be sure to remember that the art of jazz is much more sophisticated than the clichéd versions of what we are told is “jazzy.” When I played with the Charles Mingus quintet in the Fall of 1955 for my first job in New York City as his French horn player, Mingus told me on my first night with the band, after I took what I thought was a hot solo: “I don’t want no ricky-ticky playing in my band.” “Ricky-ticky” was Mingus’s reference to the styles of jazz used by Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo and other society band leaders who played what they thought was jazz, but was music played in a way that sounded more like the highly syncopated music played by polka band, or the way freelance musicians would play for a bar mitzvah or for a New Year′s Eve club date. These styles of syncopated music have their own value but come from a different genre. If you listen to Charlie Parker with strings and hear his gorgeous tone and elegant phrasing, or listen to Monk playing piano, you will hear that jazz is a language with a huge vocabulary and, most importantly, these consummate musical artists each had a personal approach to playing that speaks to you in a way that touches you so much that it makes you want to express yourself. And your personal touch is what will make this piece come alive for the listener! Ultimately, the composer creates a map-quest for the player to express themselves once everything is figured out by the player and if the piece has substance. Except for the reference to the Siegfried horn call, every note of the piece is my own creation of what I thought would be the perfect series of jazz choruses I would love to play myself today, if Thelonious Monk were still here, as a way of thanking him for the blessing of knowing him. But, since he has left us, as a composer I had the chance to slowly construct the perfect combination of notes I might hear when playing, but never be able to play at the moment. Because, as a composer, I had the chance to suspend time, I was able to notate the best series of 12-bar choruses I never played but wished I had, with the hope that you, as the player, can share with today’s listeners the warmth and spirit of what it was like to spend time and play in a room with Thelonious Monk, one of America’s true musical heroes. And to give listeners the chance to hear a tiny bit of the infinite variety of melodic variations and harmonic sophistication which the art of jazz continues to enrich the world of music every day. And to know that today, the French horn is part of the family of this music that we call jazz, which has proven itself to be classic music of enduring value. David Amram
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