An assignment for my jazz theory seminar at SDSU required that I transcribe and analyze a solo in the chromatic modal idiom. I chose John McLaughlin's solo on Bill Evans's "Very Early."

Here's the transcription.

And here's the analysis:

John McLaughlin recorded Bill Evans's "Very Early" twice: the first time on Belo Horizonte in 1981, and the second on Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans in 1993. The accompanying transcription and analysis is from the improvised solo on the 1993 album, recorded in Milan, Italy. Personnel included John McLaughlin on acoustic MIDI guitar, the Aighetta Quartet on acoustic guitars, and Jan Maresz on bass. The instrumentation and approach are similar between the two recordings; both used an ensemble of acoustic guitars with one playing a single-note lead line and others providing arranged accompaniment lines. The 1981 recording consisted only of the theme statement and no improvised section, while the 1993 recording employed a more developed arrangement of the theme, a two-minute improvised solo, and a restatement of the theme.

The improvising form is identical to that of the theme: 48 measures in three 16-measure sections, stated as A A' B. The time signature is 3/4. The tune starts and ends in the key of C major, but it frequently modulates and departs from conventional tonal progressions along the way.

McLaughlin takes two choruses for his solo, 96 measures. Over the course of his solo, McLaughlin heavily employs long lines of eighth-note triplets. This is the rhythmic figure with which he develops his solo, even though the theme primarily uses more sparse rhythms of half notes and quarter notes. His most-used rhythmic variation is to play a quarter or half note on beat one of a measure, surrounding it with scalar lines of eighth-note triplets. While the eighth-note triplet is his fundamental rhythmic figure in this solo, he actually never plays two consecutive measures of only this rhythm. His rhythmic variation is frequent and allows for development of several small motifs, notably in measures 29-31, 46-48, 57-65, 71-75, 86-91.

McLaughlin sticks to the mid to upper range of the guitar, venturing into the low extreme once in measure 65 and into the high extreme once in the final ascent in measures 95 and 96. Harmonically, he tends to emphasize the fundamental chord tones over the color tones, particularly on maj7 and m7 chords. His use of upper extensions is most apparent on the dominant chords, frequently grabbing the #11 and evoking a Lydian Dominant sound. Upon analyzing his lines, I was surprised to find many roots over maj7 chords, often with an emphasis that I would expect to aggravate the ear. However, I hear nothing disagreeable in these moments of the solo.

First Chorus

McLaughlin begins the first chorus (measures 1-48) by playing completely inside each of three tonal centers in measures 1-7 over V7-I progressions in Eb, Db, and C. Measure 8 is his first departure from diatonic lines, with a run straight out of Bb Lydian Dominant. Following the example set in the first eight measures, he predominantly employs inside-the-key lines as the tonal centers shift, with occasional excursions into explicit Lydian Dominant lines over dominant chords. Usage of chromatic elements like passing and neighbor tones is rare.

A salient feature of the chord changes to this tune is the scarcity of minor chords. Out of the entire 48-measure form, only seven measures include minor chords. McLaughlin has an interesting method of dealing with the progression first appearing in measures 11-13: F#m11 - B13(b9) - Em11. The progression resembles a ii-V7-i in E minor, but without the appropriate extensions to make it authentic. However, each time this progression appears (measures 11-13, 27-29, 59-61, 75-77), McLaughlin simplifies his line to E minor over all three chords, similar to his approach to the major cadences. He combines elements from E Harmonic Minor with E Aeolian, sometimes bringing out the D# over the B13(b9) chord, implying B Phrygian Dominant and strongly leading to the E minor tonality in the next measure.

Melodically, the remainder of the first chorus is almost entirely chord tones, inside-the-key lines, and occasional Lydian Dominant ideas. A fascinating exception occurs at measure 42, in which McLaughlin employs G Phrygian Dominant with a natural 6 (5th mode of Harmonic Major) over G13(b9). Rhythmically, he does not stray far from the fundamental cells mentioned, but alludes to ideas for development in the second chorus, repeating a motif in measures 29-30, and shifting to a 4/3 polyrhythm in measures 19-20 and 46-48.

Second Chorus

The second chorus (measures 49-96) begins with a pair of cleverly juxtaposed melodic arpeggios. Over the Cmaj7 in measure 49, McLaughlin uses only chord tones from the basic 7th chord. Over the Bb9 in the next measure, he uses nearly the same collection of notes, an Abmaj7#5 arpeggio, to grab all the Lydian Dominant extensions at once. The 9, #11, and 13 of Bb9 happen to coincide with the 1, 3, and 5 of Cmaj7. McLaughlin exploits this opportunity several times, in measures 8, 18, 36, 50, and 66, all of which are Bb dominant chords.

In developing this second chorus of his solo, McLaughlin pulls a few ideas from the first chorus for another look. In measures 37-39, he introduces a rhythmic figure of a quarter note, three triplet eighths, tied to the first of three more triplet eighths, creating a one long two short feel which almost swings into 6/8 time. He brings this idea back for a much longer phrase in the second chorus over measures 57-65, the first half of which uses the same E minor simplification that was seen earlier. He brings in his first double-stops in measures 68-69, returning to them twice for an additional dimension as the solo progresses in measures 71-74 and 86-91. He also recalls the 4/3 polyrhythm (and the implied 6/8 time mentioned above) by cutting the bar in half with dotted quarters on that second round of double-stops in measures 72-74. One final similarity of note between the choruses is the Ab Altered Dominant sound in the first two beats of measures 34 and 82. These are some of the only Altered Dominant sounds I identified in the entire solo, and they occur at the same place in the form, over an Ab13(b9) leading to a Dbmaj7. McLaughlin closes the solo after the final round of double-stops with a sequential ascending line completely in C major into the upper extreme of the guitar's range.

Closing Comments

After analyzing the solo, I was surprised to find so many roots and fundamental triads on maj7 chords. It never caught my attention when I was listening and transcribing, but it makes sense after considering the harmonic rhythm. The chords go by in a manner similar to "Giant Steps." Restful maj7 chords are usually followed by the V7 chord of a new key, which in turn resolves to its I chord. Given the quick changes of tonality, as in "Giant Steps," it can sound natural to stick to the fundamental chord tones. This could also be viewed as a tension-release mechanism. Since following the chords through so many different keys can create a sense of turmoil, it's nice to hear some plain chord tones over a maj7 chord here and there. This approach culminates in the final measures with the sequential ascent in the tonic key of the tune.