No Rest for Merry Gentlemen

A couple weeks ago I took you through the song We Three Kings, played five completely different ways. That was kind of fun, so I thought maybe I’d do that once more. This time, we’ll be looking at the song God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. As before, let’s start with my brother’s version as our point of reference. You can buy the tracks here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

The song opens with a very straight, classic version of the melody. Next, the tuba comes in with a walking bass line. That means he is “walking” up and down the scales and arpeggios that go with the chord progression of the song. You often hear bass players do this (particularly upright double-bass players) in jazz. It’s much less common to hear a tuba doing a walking bass line, because it’s incredibly hard to play tuba continuously like that. Most players just don’t have the chops.

The second time through the melody, and you can hear they are swinging it now. Swinging is another jazz thing. When you play straight time, you divide each beat into two parts. But when you swing, you divide each into three parts and play the first and third (skipping the second). You can take any song, swing it, and it will sound a lot like jazz.

So that’s our reference point. Basically the melody is played three times, in a slightly different way each time.

Next up is a version from Roy Hargrove, on an absolutely excellent jazz Christmas album called A Merry Jazzmas. You can get the album here on iTunes.

If you don’t know Roy Hargrove, you need to check him out. He’s the trumpet player here, and I think he’s basically the Lee Morgan of our generation. Like Lee, he was discovered at an early age by another famous player. (Lee was discovered by Dizzy; Roy was discovered by Wynton.) They both had a lot of success while young. (Lee is the trumpet player on Coltrane’s Blue Trane, at age 19; Roy’s first solo album was released when he was just 21.)

The structure here is a classic head/solos/head (I cut off my sample partway through the solos, in deference to the musician’s copyrights, of course). The head is the melody of the piece. In most jazz music, you play that once or twice, then people solo for a while, and then you play the melody one more time. When you are watching live players soloing and you see one of the players point to his head, he means “Okay, that’s enough solos, let’s go back and play the head one more time.” Often the solos are played over the chord changes of the melody, but in this case they switch to a different progression.

Next up we have Loren Schoenberg on A Jazz Christmas: Hot Jazz for a Cool Night. Here’s the full album on iTunes.

Loren is a great tenor player but is actually more famous for writing liner notes. He even won a Grammy for them once. This version follows that same head/solos/head form, but here we have the chord progression (what we jazz musicians call “changes”) of the melody for the solos. These are more challenging to solo over than the standard progression Roy used in his version, and the guitar player (not sure who that is) is really struggling to come up with something lyric. Dude. Been there.

Next up, let’s hit a version from one of my very favorite holiday jazz albums, Merry Magic by Eric Reed. As usual, here’s the link to the full album on iTunes.

Eric is a piano player, but the instrument you hear primarily here is a vibraphone, played by Steve Nelson. The “vibes” are basically like a xylophone, except the bars you hit with mallets are made out of metal instead of wood. There are metal tubes of varying lengths suspended below the metal bars that act as a resonance chamber for each (lower notes have longer tubes, because they have longer wavelengths and hence need more distance to resonate). Inside each tube there is a baffle on a rod that is spun by a motor at the end of the vibraphone. Usually, there is a knob you can turn to adjust the speed. The baffle opens and closes the tube, giving a vibrato to the sound coming out. Hence the name vibraphone.

Before we leave that version, check out what happens at the end:

After a remarkably long pause, they start playing a little round (that’s where multiple instruments are playing the same thing, starting at different times). And then it devolves into what we call a “vamp.” That’s where the musicians are basically fooling around on a simple chord repetition. Like trading fours, except less structured than that. They take turns, play over each other, listen and respond.

So at the start of that little clip we had the bass playing the melody. Suppose you do that as the head. Just have the bass play the melody and have some other instruments play crazy shit that is totally orthogonal. Would that be a good idea? Wynton thought so on Crescent City Christmas Card. Here’s the full album on iTunes.

Again, we have the head/solo/head structure. But the head and the solos have basically nothing to do with each other. The tempo, changes, everything are different. (And thank goodness, because although that bass melody was interesting, that tempo and structure would have been unlistenable for the whole song.)

So as your parting gift, I’ll give you a great version from Straight No Chaser. They switch up the time signature, doing this one in three instead of four like everyone else. Even though this is a vocal version, they still do the head/solo/head thing, although they keep the solo section really short.

 

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Jolly Old Saint Pachelbel

Keeping up with the theme of Convincing You Christmas Music Isn’t So Bad, I’m going to introduce you to a very clever version of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas that my brother put together. You can buy the track here for a buck. (Scroll to the bottom)

 

I’ve introduced you to the idea of quoting songs in the past. There, I mentioned the piece that we are listening to here. My brother is a great musician and one of his skills is putting together arrangements. He’s been doing this since he was a kid. I remember when he was in high school, he would spend hours at the piano coming up with 6 part arrangements of popular songs for his group to play. He would be so focused, for so long, that he wrecked his stomach and basically drank Pepto Bismol like most kids drink soda. He was a mess. But he was really good.

Anyway, this song starts off as Pachelbel’s Canon in D. That’s what going on for the first 20 seconds.

Then he overlays trumpets (he’s playing one) with the melody of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

At 45 seconds, the trombone comes in with the old Burger King ad “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us…” Remember that? If you missed it, don’t worry. It’ll be back.

At 1:08 the trumpet comes in with a lyric line that sounded really familiar, but I just couldn’t place. I went back and listened to the Canon and it was similar, but not quite the same. So I just called my brother to get the scoop. Turns out he was kind of improvising the Canon. He only vaguely remembered the melody, and what he remembered didn’t quite work, so he invented this line. I love this line in the song, partly because the trumpet has such as great tone.

At 1:33 the trombone is back introducing Puff the Magic Dragon. Don’t recognize it? You will at 1:48 when the French Horn comes in with the melody. “Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the sea…”

At 1:58 the trombone goes in for another Whopper. The lead trumpet starts the screwed up Canon melody. And the other trumpets come back with St Nick, and we basically have almost everything except Puff going on at the same time.

Genius.

I asked him about the genesis of this song, and it turns out that riffing on Pachelbel’s Canon is kind of a thing. In fact, here’s a tremendously funny video of a guy pointing out all the Pachelbel quotes in popular music. Bear with it through the first couple minutes, because by the end it’s an absolute riot.

We Fifteen Kings

A lot of people hate Christmas music. Like a lot of people, I find most Christmas music pretty annoying. However, there is one sub-genre of Christmas music that I actually really like. It’s Christmas music played by great jazz musicians. Holiday music works well as jazz, because the melodies are so familiar. You only need to brush the surface of the original song and the listener will get the gist of where you’re coming from. This gives the musicians tremendous freedom to go wherever they want. That’s when jazz is best—when the musicians are unconstrained.

To help explore this, I’m going to take you through five completely different versions of We Three Kings. We will start with my favorite jazz(ish) holiday album of all time, Holiday Drive by The Beltway Brass. If you don’t already own this album, shame on you. You can buy the tracks here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.) Here is their version of We Three Kings:

Have I mentioned that The Beltway Brass is one of my brother’s bands? Yeah. That’s him on lead trumpet and it’s his arrangement, of course. The time signature here is 3/4, which means three beats per measure, like a waltz. Other than the fact that it’s a really cool jazz-like take with the walking tuba baseline and the dissonant trumpet solo at the end, it’s a pretty stock version of the song. So we’ll use it as our reference point.

Next we hit a Dave Brubeck version. This is from an album called A Jazz Christmas: Hot Jazz for a Cool Night. Here’s the full album on iTunes. I’ve clipped out a minute of it for our discussion:

You know Dave Brubeck. He’s the piano player whose band recorded Take Five (which was actually written by his sax player, Paul Desmond). I absolutely love the intro. It’s in 2/4 (two beats to a measure), and after some really popping Afro-Cuban drums, the base comes in with this really cool fast walk. Then Dave comes in on piano, and the clarinet joins right away.

I’m going out on a limb and say that’s a clarinet. Dave played with Paul, and Paul played alto sax on everything I’ve ever heard him record with Dave. But that is definitely not an alto sax. It could be a soprano sax, but there’s a richness to the tone that’s almost impossible to achieve on soprano. The soprano sax is a naturally shrill beast. Clarinet was actually Paul’s first instrument, so it kinda makes sense that if he wasn’t going to play alto, he’d go to the clarinet instead. Honestly, I can’t even prove that’s Paul playing. But if it isn’t Paul, this cat is doing one hell of a great Paul Desmond impression.

Now for a completely different take, let’s go to Wynton Marsalis on the album Crescent City Christmas Card. Here’s the full album on iTunes. This is typical New Orleans jazz with a whole mess of different instruments just going all over the place. But it works. A sample:

The soloist at about 45 seconds is a soprano sax, and underscores the fact that it wasn’t a soprano sax in the Brubeck track. At 1:20, we go to a straight ahead jazz feel with a really cool piano solo. This song is going a variety of places. It’s all a slow 3/4 (3 beats to the measure) feel.

Our next track is a version I ripped from an album called Noel Holiday Music 2000 Collection by the ever-popular Various Artists. Yeah, sorry, I have no fucking idea who this is or where you can find this recording:

I’m including the whole damn thing here, since I’m pretty sure whoever made this won’t give a shit. We are back to 3/4 time, like my brother’s version. Rich chords like Dave’s version. And there’s a soprano sax, again! But after the piano introduces the tune, we get into a much bigger group. Not necessarily a big band, but at least an octet. I really like the solo section here. It’s got a really driving chord progression, and the horn player seriously knows his scales. This is a solid piece of jazz music.

So when I got the idea to put together this post, I just set my iPhone to “Songs,” scrolled down to We Three Kings, and listened to what came up. And I was delighted to find this last piece. I suppose most people wouldn’t classify Straight No Chaser as a Jazz ensemble, but I do. They are named after a Thelonious Monk song, for crying out loud. But yeah, they are mostly known for doing a cappella vocal versions of pop songs. The album is Christmas Cheers. Here is the iTunes link.

The Mission Impossible-sounding part at the beginning is in 5/4. That’s an unusual time signature—one generally associated with Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, actually. They do the first part of the melody in 5, then switch to 3/4 for the bridge. Then 5, then 3, then 5, then 3, and suddenly it goes to a Reggae beat in 4. These guys are so fucking cool. And they end with a little Baptist Church choir thing. I mean, damn. If that isn’t jazz, nothing is.

 

Playlist: Bienvenue Dans Ma Vie

The next song on the playlist that we will be exploring is Bienvenue Dans Ma Vie, sung by Nikki Yanofsky. I tweeted that little joke about this song late last year. Nikki was 15 when she recorded this back in 2010. The same year she sang the Canadian national anthem at the Winter Olympics:

Not bad for a little kid. It gave me chills and I’m not even from Canadia. [Note to my editor: that’s not a typo, it’s a joke. Leave it the hell alone, dammit.]

But let’s look at the lyrics of the song we are supposed to be talking about:

Bienvenue dans ma vie
Tout est brillant ici
It’s warm inside
My door’s open wide
Don’t stand outside

Talk about double-entendre. First some French gobbledegook I don’t understand. Then warm inside. Yup, always is, in my experience. My door is open wide. Not something you usually brag about, but okay. It goes on:

You can see from far away
It’s a kind of place you’d like to stay,
Kick off your shoes,
Forget your strife

See from far away? Maybe a camel-toe reference. I dunno.

There’s a light on in the hall

Okay, well-lit is not a typical description. I’ll give you that. But hall? Yeah, hall is definitely carrying forth our metaphor.

Leading to a place
Where you can fall and rest your head

Rest your head. Right? Your head?

Close your eyes,
Welcome to my life.

I’m more of an eyes-open kind of guy. My life. Obvious metaphor for a vagina.

So this is clearly what we’re talking about, which is fine, except the girl is only 15! That’s just not right. I’m actually kind of surprised this isn’t labeled [explicit] in iTunes, and banned in Britain, and the national anthem of Japan.

Now that I’ve completely tainted the lyrics for you, here’s the song:

Nikki’s voice is still immature, so it is better suited to this song than it is to her Ella Fitzgerald covers, which have great technical accuracy, but lack any depth or soul whatsoever. She just hasn’t had enough heartache and pain in her short life to do justice to Ella’s songbook.

I like the French 1920’s jazz instrumentation of this song, but I’m a sucker for a good jazz accordion. That’s just a cross I must bear. Don’t worry, there aren’t any more accordion songs in the list. And there aren’t any more 15-year-olds singing about their naughty bits either.

Playlist: Mambo-Italiano

Admit it: when you saw this song on the list, you rolled your eyes. You’ve heard the Rosemary Clooney version of this song, and you know it’s a ridiculous novelty song featuring the same harpsichord as the Addams Family TV show theme song. Right?

Well, yeah. That song is pretty awful. And this is kind of the same song. But man oh man, is this ever not the same song. Here is Annie Sellick’s version:

First, replace the ridiculous instrumentation of Rosemary’s version with a really tight rhythm section. Bass, drums, and piano simply nailing it. The piano solo in the middle of this tune is just awesome.

But keep the lyrics, which when you look at them, are actually brilliant. For example,

Hey Cumbah (?), I love-a how you dance the rumba
But take-a my advice pisano, learn how to mambo
‘Cause if you’re gonna be a square, you ain’t-a gonna go nowhere

This joke is just for the people who know how to dance a Rumba. If you ever took a ballroom dancing class and learned the “box step,” that’s a Rumba. So you are dancing in a little square, and you are therefore not going anywhere. Get it? Not bad for a song allegedly scribbled on a napkin just before a deadline. (It was written by the “How Much is that Doggy in the Window” guy.)

The singer, Annie Sellick, is a new favorite of mine. She made the best playlist three times. Her voice is just wonderful—rich, playful, strong. All the qualities you want in a jazz diva. Her other two songs on the playlist will get their own post later, when I explore the naughty bits of the list.

The lesson here, I think, is that you can’t judge a song by the version you know.

Playlist: Waters of March

Next up in my exploration of the Best Playlist Ever is Waters of March from Nicole Henry:

The rhythm you hear is called Bossa Nova (literally, “New Trend,” which is kind of funny since the last time it was a new trend was around 1950). As a rule, if you hear a Bossa Nova song, it was written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Seriously. Every Bossa Nova you’ve ever heard was written by him: Desifinado, Wave, Dindi, The Girl from Ipanema (you would recognize all those songs, even if you don’t know them by their titles). And even though this song doesn’t sound old, it too was written by Jobim way back in 1972.

Part of the reason it doesn’t sound old is because it is being sung by a hot young jazz diva. That’s an example of the anachronism of the playlist: old songs performed in new ways by young artists. (Jamie Cullum being another example, who I looked at already.) The other reason it doesn’t sound old is harder to put my finger on. I guess it’s more over-produced than your typical Bossa Nova from 1972. Or something. Anyway, it sounds fresh, and if I hadn’t told you that it was an old song, I’m quite certain you wouldn’t have guessed that.

I was talking with a friend on twitter and she mentioned ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), which is the fancy name for chills you get when you hear certain music. And the next day as I was listening to this song—loud—I had those ASMR chills. It happens right when the bass comes in at the end of the first stanza. I recommend getting this song onto a device where you can hear it with some really cranking bass.

The lyrics are fascinating. I’ve heard them described as a “collage” which is about right. Or maybe a mosaic. Close your eyes as you listen. Picture each thing Jobim names. It’s crazy. Sometimes they are connected—”the foot, the ground, the flesh, the bone”—and sometime they are just… weird: “a truckload of bricks in the soft morning light, the shot of a gun in the dead of the night.” Huh?

The song is transcendent. Beautiful. Interesting. And, being a Bossa Nova, it inspires dancing. Of course, if you don’t have a dance partner at the moment, that can be a little sad…

Playlist: Too Close for Comfort

This is the first in a series of posts about songs in The Best Playlist Ever. The overarching theme of the playlist, other than love, is anachronism. I’ve written about anachronism before, because I have an affinity for things that are out of place, out of time. I also like the irony of anachronism in a music playlist since, you know: chronos, time, music, rhythm. There’s an irony there.

I’ll start by looking at the only song that makes an appearance twice in the playlist: Too Close for Comfort. One is an old version from Mel Tormé, and the other is a new version from Jamie Cullum. We will start with Mel’s:

You have certainly heard of Mel Tormé. He got onto my radar in the 1980s because Harry on Night Court was a huge fan. Mel’s voice earned him the nickname “The Velvet Fog,” which, frankly, I never really bought in to. I love his voice, but it’s not foggy. It’s crystal clear. It is velvet, though, on account of him straddling that tenor/baritone range, and having the best tremolo you’ll ever hear. One really interesting thing about this version of the song is that the bass line is being carried by… listen for it… yes: that’s a tuba. What the fuck is a tuba doing in a jazz band? Weird.

Now let’s contrast that with the version from Jamie:

The tempo is a bit faster, giving the song a brighter feel. And the tuba is gone, replaced with an upright bass. Although perhaps as an homage to Mel’s classic, there is a very prominent trombone in the horn section giving it that tuba-ish character. If you go back and forth between these, you will realize that the arrangements are almost identical (slightly different key, to accommodate Jamie’s slightly lower voice). The sax player in Jamie’s band clearly listened to the sax solo from Mel’s version. The notes are different, but the feel is exactly these same. Fast bop licks, but with a lyric quality, like Charlie Parker might have done.

Jamie Cullum is a fascinating character. I heard him interviewed once, and he has this thick English accent; yet his singing mostly reminds me of Harry Connick Jr., who is from New Orleans. He has played around in a bunch of different genres including hiphop and rock, but has had most of his success breathing new life into jazz standards. We will be hearing a few more songs from Jamie as we explore the playlist.

The song itself deserves a little mention, of course. It starts and ends with the same refrain: “Be wise. Be fair. Be sure. Be there. Behave. Beware.” (I like how those last two sound like be-have, be-ware.) I’ve never seen the musical this song comes from, so I’m not really sure of the context. The lyrics are extremely ambiguous. They are an admonition, but against what? Against falling for a woman who will just use you up and leave? Against falling for a woman when you are already spoken for? Against being too eager, and risking having the woman not want you because of that? It really is not at all clear, which makes it versatile, I suppose.

I tried to find out the context of the lyrics, and I learned that the song comes from a musical called “Mr. Wonderful,” which basically had no plot, and was just a pretense to bring Sammy Davis Jr’s Las Vegas act to New York. “Listen here, man, I’ve got this idea. We’ll do a musical. A big production number. Lots of dames. And you, Sammy, you’ll be at the center of it. Your Vegas act. But in a musical. Dig it? It’s gonna be huge!” That’s how I imagine the idea was pitched. And then Sammy says, “Yeah, man. I dig it. That’d be cool. Lots of dames. Yeah.”

A revival of Mr. Wonderful doesn’t seem too likely, so we may never know what exactly the lyrics intended. Perhaps it was just an admonition not to sit too close to the tuba player.

The Best Playlist Ever

A couple of years ago, I found myself in charge of organizing the music for a library fundraiser. I played at this same event a few years later, and have some tracks from it in this post. Since I was in charge, I needed to put some music together to play on a shuffle during setup and breaks. The event was Valentine’s-themed, and I figured love songs would be the way to go. It’s an older crowd, so jazz vocal standards won the day.

As I assembled this playlist, I tried to hit a wide variety of artists, and to take just a couple of my favorites from each. Since then, I’ve found that this may be the best playlist I’ve ever created. In fact, it may be the best playlist ever.

Of course, I’m in love. So of course I’m going to be partial to lists of love songs. But there is something special about each one of these songs. And I’m going to tell you what that something special is. There are 37 songs on the list, so it’s going to take a while. The songs are meant to be shuffled. Order doesn’t matter, so here they are alphabetically. Each of the album names links to a place you should be able to find that track on iTunes, although sometimes I couldn’t find exactly that album. If there is no link, that means you can’t get that on iTunes at all (sorry), so google as needed.

Song Artist Album
Almost Like Being In Love Nicole Henry The Very Thought of You
Bei Mir Bist Du Schon Robin McKelle Introducing Robin McKelle
Beyond the Sea Bobby Darin Aces Back to Back
Bienvenue Dans Ma Vie Nikki Yanofsky Nikki
Bye Bye Blackbird Etta Jones Don’t Go To Strangers
Comes Love Robin McKelle Modern Antique
Dance Me To The End Of Love Madeleine Peyroux Careless Love
Devil May Care Jamie Cullum Pointless Nostalgic
Do It Again Annie Sellick Street of Dreams
Don’t Wait Too Long Madeleine Peyroux Careless Love
Embraceable You Nat King Cole Stepping Out of a Dream
(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons Nat King Cole Stepping Out of a Dream
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was Robin McElhatten Never Let Me Go
I Love Being Here With You Queen Latifah Trav’lin’ Light
I’m Gonna Lock My Heart Nicole Henry The Very Thought of You
I’ve Got the World On a String Robin McKelle Introducing Robin McKelle
In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning Jamie Cullum Pointless Nostalgic
L-O-V-E Nat King Cole Stepping Out of a Dream
Let’s Fall In Love Diana Krall When I Look In Your Eyes
Lullaby of Birdland Robin McKelle Modern Antique
Mambo-Italiano Annie Sellick Street of Dreams
Monk’s Dream Sachal Vasandani We Move
No Mood At All Robin McElhatten Never Let Me Go
On the Sunny Side of the Street Robin McKelle Introducing Robin McKelle
Señor Blues Anita O’Day All The Sad Young Men
Snap Your Fingers Perry Danos Snap Your Fingers – Single
Some Cats Know Annie Sellick Street of Dreams
Sweet Lorraine Nat King Cole Stepping Out of a Dream
The Nearness Of You Norah Jones Come Away With Me
They Can’t Take That Away from Me Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong The Verve Story: 1944-1994
They Say It’s Wonderful Eliane Elias Everything I Love
Too Close For Comfort Mel Torme The Verve Story 1944-1994 (Disc 3)
Too Close For Comfort Jamie Cullum Pointless Nostalgic
Waters of March Nicole Henry The Very Thought of You
Yes Sir, That’s My Baby Etta Jones Don’t Go To Strangers
Yes, My Darling Daughter Robin McKelle Introducing Robin McKelle
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go Madeleine Peyroux Careless Love

 

Hard Tweets Explained: So What

I’m pretty sure this was a subtweet, directed at someone who was going to try something new that I didn’t think would stick. And clearly this person I was talking to had to know about jazz to have a chance of getting this tweet, so I’m pretty sure I know who that person was. But that’s not important now.

The tweet is in reference to a song from Miles’ album Kind of Blue called “So What.” This was a pretty important song in the development of jazz, because it established the thing called “modal jazz.” Let me explain that.

You may recall that a very common chord progression is the 2-5-1. That starts on a 2: meaning that you play a major scale but start and end on the second note. For example, the 2 of a C-major scale would be DEFGABCD. As I explained in that other post, this is called a minor-dominant-7 because you have to flat the third note of a D scale (making it minor) and the seventh note (making it dominant-7). But it has another name, and that is the “Dorian Mode.” Dorian meaning second. Because it’s the two. Are you writing this down?

The song “So What” has the chord progression: 2. That’s it. Just 2. 2 2 2 2 2 2.

That was the innovative part. They decided that instead of moving around 2-5-1 or 1-4-5 or whatever, they’d just hang around on 2. It wasn’t truly innovative, since it had been done before. But Miles’ band took it to an extreme.

Playing just one chord for a whole song is a little dull. So after a while, they moved up a half step. This is not a change in the chord progression. It’s a key change. So this new part is still just 2 2 2 2 2…

And then after that, they go back to the original key. And more 2.

Playing a whole song in a single mode (in this case Dorian) is what we call Modal Jazz. And this is the canonical example of that.

So, without further ado, here’s Miles. You can easily hear the key change during the melody (we call that “the head”) when the horns are playing.

Two-Five-One

A little while ago, I explained the jazz tradition of quoting other songs during solos. One of the things I mentioned in that piece is that we do this to impress and amuse our fellow musicians, since we assume the audience doesn’t know enough about jazz to get the joke. Well, this comedian seems to agree:

And he has a point. A lot of jazz is pretty complicated. And to completely appreciate everything that is happening on stage or in a recording requires a lot of historical context. But there are some things in jazz that are actually pretty simple. And one of those things is the 2-5-1 chord progression.

Let’s start with the C major scale. CDEFGABC. If you number those C=1, D=2, and G=5. So for the key of C major, 2-5-1 is DGC. For any scale, the 2-5-1 means the second note, the fifth note, and then the first note (also called the “root”).

The first chord is 2, so we’ll start there. A D major scale has a F# and and C# in it. But we are going to bring those down a half step. So we are flatting the 3rd note (bringing F# down to F) and the 7th note (bringing C# down to C). In jazz, we call a flat third “minor” and we call a flat seventh “dominant seven.” We are going to play a Dm7 (D minor, dominant 7) chord. Why did we do all that flatting? Because we are lazy. Once you’ve done that to the D scale, it’s got the same notes as that C scale we started with. We’re just starting in a different place. DEFGABCD

The next chord is 5. A G major scale has an F# in it. Guess what we’re going to do to that pesky #. That’s right. Flat that sucker. So we are going to play a G7 (G dominant 7) chord. Again, this gets our scale back to the same notes as the C scale we started with. GABCDEFG

The final chord is 1. That’s plain old C, which we already covered.

So a C major 2-5-1 is: Dm7-G7-C. Let’s listen:

Drink Up! All you people!

Drink Up! All you people!

That is probably the most common chord progression in jazz. For example, the bridge in Angel Eyes is B♭m7-E♭7- A♭. B♭ is the second note of the A♭ scale and E♭ is the fifth note. (About the notation, in jazz -7 is another way to say minor dominant 7, and maj7 is another way to say plain old major scale.)

So why is it so popular? There are a few reasons, I think. First, it helps to understand that minor chords sound sad, and major chords sound happy. This progression starts at a really minor mood (flat 3 and 7), goes to a slightly minor mood (flat 7) and then resolves to a happy major mood. So it’s got a tension-release thing going on.

Another reason is that we are playing three different chords, but the actual notes of those scales are exactly the same. That makes it much easier on the soloists, because they can draw from a single scale for quite a while.

The last reason is that this progression is particularly easy on the piano player. To understand why, we need to cover something called voicings. I’ve been slipping back and forth between the words “scale” and “chord” as though they are the same thing, but they aren’t. A scale is all the notes of the key, whereas a chord is just some of the notes. There is no hard and fast rule which notes you should use. In church music, they always use the first, third and fifth note. Always. Boooooring.

In jazz piano or guitar, you choose which notes for your chord. And that set of notes is called a voicing. Let’s consider piano. What you are looking for in a voicing is to emphasize the notes that make that chord special. As you saw in our derivations, we tend to screw around with the third and seventh notes a lot, so let’s make sure we have those. We’ll stay away from the first note, since that’s the bass player’s job. 4 and 6 are just weird. So how about for the Dm7, we use F and C (3 and 7), and E and A (2 and 5).

For the G7, we use B and F (3 and 7), and A and D (2 and 5). See what I did there? Same voicing as we used for the previous chord.

And finally for C, we use E and B (3 and 7), and D and G (2 and 5). Same voicing again!

So we were really consistent with our voicings. Let’s look at the actual notes, in the order I played them in that video: CEFA, BDFA, BDEG. To get from the first chord to the second, I moved two fingers down one note and left two fingers where they were. To get from the second chord to the third, I—wait for it—moved two fingers down one note and left two fingers where they were. It’s like magic!

You can see how this is easy for the piano player. They are only moving a couple fingers each bar, and they don’t even need to move them very far.

So we have a progression with a tension-release feel, easy on the soloist, and easy on the piano player. That’s a great set of characteristics, so it became sort of the “go to” progression in jazz. It’s everywhere. And since it’s everywhere, it’s familiar, which is yet another reason to use it. Because people like songs that sound like songs they like.

So drink up, all you people. Order anything you see. And have fun, you happy people. The drinks, and the laughs on me. 2-5-1. So reliable, it even buys you drinks!