Last semester (Spring 2010) I audited Rick Helzer's Elements of Jazz IV course at SDSU, the fourth in a series of undergrad jazz theory courses. Much of the course's content involved the "chromatic modal" idiom. We studied compositions by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Evans, and some of Professor Helzer's own works. Composing in this style involves limited use of tonality; some tunes don't contain anything resembling a V-I cadence. The tension and release that drives tonal progressions is still present, but effected in a completely different manner, through dissonant and consonant chords and the manner by which voices move within chords.
A requirement of the course (not for me, because I was auditing, but I did it anyway) was to compose a chromatic modal tune. I can't recall whether the title came first, or how much of the tune might have come before the title, but I remember that I composed a complete melody before I even touched the chords. I wrote in 3/4, shooting for the tempo and feel Bill Evans had on "Very Early." I wrote the melody not for exact notes, but for rhythms and melodic contour, knowing that I'd later tweak the pitches to fit into the chords. I wrote the chords with my existing melody roughly in mind, but when I found something I liked, I stuck to the harmony, as that was the hard part.
I named the tune "Out Doin' Good Again." It's a phrase from Disney's 1973 animated Robin Hood. The Sheriff of Nottingham is strolling through town when he sees Friar Tuck running furtively between buildings: "Every town, has its taxes too, and the taxes is due. A-do do-do do do. Well, lookie there. Friar Tuck, the old do-gooder. He's out doin' good again."
If I may digress, I'll explain the significance of that line. I'm an atheist, and learning of a person's religious beliefs tends to make me think a little bit less of them. No hard feelings, of course. I just take it into account of my complete impression of that person. To me, it's like learning that an adult genuinely believes in Santa Claus or ghosts or unicorns. I have no problem with that, but it's a significant piece of information about a person that they're willing to abandon or suppress my precious reason, and it disappoints me a little.
Occasionally, I maintain a profound respect for a person who is otherwise deeply religious. Friar Tuck is one of those people (I guess he's actually a mole in the film), especially when he belly-bounces the sheriff out of the church. Professor Rick Helzer is another of those people. He never preaches to students, and doesn't even make his beliefs well known, but he's spoken openly a couple times about how becoming and living as a Christian affected his music. This puzzled me a bit when I discovered it, because he has an intensely analytical mind, much like mine, and his textbook writing is so clear and logical. His teaching is my favorite part of attending SDSU, and my private lessons with him are alone worth more than the tuition. His knowledge of jazz history and theory is more developed than I've ever witnessed from a single person. As you can see, my respect for his character and achievements has nothing to do with his religious beliefs. In fact, his religion is nearly drowned out by all the other factors forming my impression of him, even though it's an important part of his own life.
So that is the inspiration for this tune: people like Friar Tuck and Rick Helzer whose personalities and actions efface the conflict in my mind between their deep religious beliefs and my deep atheism. They're always out doin' good, in a manner that has nothing to do with the things I despise about religion. This piece has no lyrics, but that is the association I make with the music.
At the end of the semester, the class met in the jazz combo rehearsal room to record everyone's pieces. Mine features Isaac Crow on drums, Doug Welcome on bass, Jesse Audelo on alto sax, and myself on guitar.
Here's the mp3: Out Doin' Good Again.
Here's the lead sheet.