The above track is really long, so a good strategy might be to start it playing now, and let it be the background music as you read.
This is a song called Listen Here, written by Eddie Harris back in 1968. I first heard it on the Sirius/XM station “Real Jazz.” I liked it a lot, and it sounded really familiar. Eventually I figured out that the reason it sounded familiar is because it is quoted in a solo on another recording I really like: Loft Funk by Mike Clark.
Quoting is when, during a solo, the musician plays a few bars of another song. So I recognized it, and bought an Eddie Harris anthology album, and put it on my playlist.
So while commuting one day, I was listening to Listen Here, and I noticed that the bass line was pentatonic. (You may recall that the pentatonic scale is 5 notes, spaced at the intervals of the black keys on a piano.) Or, at least, it sounded pentatonic. I don’t have perfect pitch, so I wasn’t positive. So when I got home I tried it out, and I discovered that not only is it pentatonic, but it is in B♭. That’s a magical key for a couple reasons: 1) you can literally use the piano black keys to play that bass line, and 2) that is the first blues key every horn player (sax, trumpet, trombone, you name it) learns. And when you are a sixth grade kid just learning to play the blues, one key is really plenty, so it’s the only blues scale you are going to play for about the first 3 years of your career. It is, therefore, the very favorite key of every horn player everywhere.
So now I have a song that has a bass line that you can play on the black keys of a piano, and it is in a key that I love. So I set about learning the melody. Which, it turns out, is all of 10 notes long. It’s not a head, such much as a riff. So I learn that in a few seconds.
It’s actually a peculiar riff, because although it’s played over a blues scale, it contains a major 6th (in this case, that’s G). That’s one of the notes that you typically skip when you play the blues. Because G is a white key. So I guess it makes you sound “white”. Anyway, that’s probably why that quote in the middle of an eight minute song, in the middle of a jazz playlist with nearly a thousand songs, stuck in my head.
At the time I made this discovery, I was playing in a small jazz group. Doug: a drummer who used to be my next-door neighbor, who I’ve been playing jazz with, on and off, over the past 15 years. Jamie: a bass player who grew up playing with one of the best blues players in the northeast, but who only recently started playing jazz. [The difference being that blues is typically just 3 or 4 chords in a simple pattern, whereas jazz is all over the place when it comes to chords.] And Michael: a really good jazz guitar player who taught at a local private school for rich kids — the kind of school where the kids are so rich there can be a teacher who just does electric guitar lessons.
So the next time we got together, I taught the bass line to Jamie, asked Doug to give me a funk beat, and asked Michael to figure out what to play because I literally had no idea. I found a couple chords to hit on the piano while it got started, and then I jumped in and played the riff. Did that a few times, and then started fooling around on the B♭ blues scale.
One of the thing I learned from listening to Eddie Harris’s solo on this song is a great way to use the raised 4th in the blues scale. I typically use it to walk chromatically up from the 4th to the 5th. But if, instead, you hang out on the raised 4th, and then fall to the regular 4th, you get this Grover Washington Jr. vibe. I do it at 6:45 in the above audio clip.
This became one of our go-to songs. It’s easy to stretch out and just play. A good jam.
Eddie Harris, who wrote this song, was an experimentalist. He was noted for doing strange things like putting sax mouthpieces on trumpets, and trombone mouthpieces on tenor saxes. However, the thing he was most noted for was putting a pickup on his sax and running the output through the strange electronics that guitar players of the time were messing with. He would create a second voice that matched what he played but an octave down, or whatnot. So I’ll leave you with a video of him doing that at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969. Check out the audience at 3:45 in, who manage to remain incredibly chill even when the band is absolutely rocking out. It’s kind of funny: