Chords, Chords, Chords


I am so ready to get serious about reading Willie and Dwike: An American Profile (reissued as Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz).  I’ve been flitting here and there, picking it up and reading wherever the book opens.  I’ve never been disappointed.  This book is chock full of treasure, with a capital T. 

My interest was peaked piqued   because William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, wrote Willie And DwikeOn Writing Well impressed me, but I wanted to read Zinsser’s work and see his style up close.  I had never heard of the jazz musicians Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell.

So I entered through the writing and I’m staying because of the music.  It. is. glorious.

Here’s what I read this morning, words that resonate, vibrate, relate, inculcate, and thoroughly delight me.  Because to paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the chords, stupid.”  Inevitably the chords grab me, hold me and squeeze me tight.  I think chords are to music what words are to writing: the greater your ‘vocabulary’ the more you are able to express. 

Here are snippets from pages 126-127, stuff that makes me want to shout and sing!  All emphases are mine.

It’s not a question of learning the song; he already knows most of the great ones.  The challenge is to give the song a series of lives that it had never had before, without violating its identity, and he will labor for days over one that engages his ear and his mind.  

Each chorus that Mitchell plays has a different feeling, the difference being in the emotional nature of the chords.  The chords themselves are like nobody else’s–elegant, surprising and yet apt; the ear never rejects them as “wrong.”  Beyond that, the chords in each chorus are intimately related to each other in how they are voiced.  They form a line and tell a story; they aren’t just showy chords plunked into someone else’s song.  The composer (whoever it is) is never harmed.

It was to try to understand how the ear arrives at such destinations that I began taking lessons from Mitchell… I hear chords coming out of his piano that make me quiver.  No matter how many complex chords I already knew or have since learned, there is no end of new ones: chords that I never imagined and would never be able to find myself.

When he and I analyze chords we are like two lepidopterists poring over a tray of brilliant butterflies, delighting in their infinite variety and their subtle gradations of color.

Most of all, he talks about feeling.  He often mentions some pianist who was technically flawless but who “might as well have not played at all.”  Emotion, to him, is the crucial ingredient, and music is a total commitment.  In his conversation and his concerns I glimpse what it is to be an artist and not just a musician.


4 thoughts on “Chords, Chords, Chords

  1. I. LOVE. THIS!!!! I have thought so many of the things expressed above, just not quite put anywhere near as well as this author. I have listened to best selling songs, and thought to myself, “It’s not really the melody that makes this song so wonderful, it’s the chording of the background music.” The best example I can think of off the top of my head is Eva Cassidy’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” So many people have sung that song over the years, but hers has brought me to tears. p.s. “My interested was ‘piqued.'” ~~from your friend, Miss English

  2. interesting post, Carol! My jazz teacher introduced me to Keith Jarret – watching him playing – grunting, groaning, standing, moving – jazz was quite an extra-ordinary experience….googling his name resulted in strange titbits about him… I would like to read Zinsser’s book – On Writing Well is still one of my favorite books.

  3. @sonskyn – I’m nominally familiar with Keith Jarrett – I need to hear more.  I like smooth jazz – the slower songs.  When it gets fast and intense and throbbing I can only take about five minutes of it.  Now I’m curious about the strange tidbits. 

Comments are cinnamon on my oatmeal!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s