Lesson: Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" Revisited, Part 1

Re-imagining a Jazz Classic, Part 1
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It is thought that the legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk composed the song “’Round Midnight” as early as 1936 at the age of 19 . Since then, it has become a jazz anthem, played and recorded by a multitude of prominent jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie , Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Richie Beirach, and young phenom Joey Alexander, not to mention Amy Winehouse. The song was even the star of the film ’Round Midnight that featured Herbie Hancock’s Academy Award-winning score. This year, after NEA Jazz Master Jamey Aebersold chose the song for his Summer Jazz Workshop piano faculty to play at evening concerts, I set out t o reimagine it. For the purposes of demonstration and explanation, I offer this solo piano template and adaptation in the style of “Round Midnight.” This is the first in a series of two installments, presenting each section on its own.

Intro and First ‘A’ Sections

My first challenge in reimagining “’Round Midnight” was to break away from the standard intro of descending minor ii-V chords. Coincidently, I had recently transcribed McCoy Tyner’s solo piano intro to the saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s song “Lost.” It was McCoy’s intro and the circuitous route he followed to the altered dominant seventh target that propelled me in a new direction for my arrangement. McCoy’s “Lost” intro was setting up G minor, so I merely transposed it down a third to lead into Eb minor.

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After hitting the root of the Bb7alt chord, there are a series of descending quartal structures (a McCoy signature), which end with a chordal enclosure of the Bb7alt chord. This technique is referred to as “constant structure/variable function.” It’s a nonfunctional harmonization of a melodic line. I arbitrarily assigned chord symbols to the ten quartal structures. The Bb7alt is less ambiguous in sound and function.

Rather than diving directly into the theme, I came up with a motif in measure 4 to set up the melody and use as a recurring idea throughout the arrangement. Notice the changing tempo markings, another freedom of solo piano. The rhythmic augmentation (eighths instead of sixteenths) of the first four notes of the melody imparts drama in measure 5. The brief hold before the G major7# 5 chord accentuates the surprise of that uncharacteristic harmonic color, and the addition of the 2/4 measure lets the color saturate. The warmer Ab7sus4 in measure 7 leads nicely into the Bb7b9 in measure 8. Diminished structures reflect the “constant structure/variable function” of the intro. Mea sure 9 resolves to Eb minor with the addition of the colors of a major 7 and a b5. (Another way to look at it would be D-/Eb-). The rhythmically augmented melody is now harmonized in tenths.

Measure 10 mimics the harmonic color change in measure 5, this time diminished instead of maj7#5. Measures 11 and 12 borrow the quartal theme of the intro. The D7sus4 is a half-step-above approach chord to the Db7sus4 in measure 13, followed by the rhythmically augmented melody harmonized in tenths. Measure 14 accentuates the tritones inherent in dominant 7#11 chords. We go back to the maj7#5 color with inner voice movements in tenths for measures 15 and 16. The first ending is a disguised ii-V-i in Eb minor, with a restatement of my Eb minor motif. These motifs serve as landmarks for symmetry and unity.

Click here for Part Two!

Practice Tip

“Creating a solo piano arrangement poses many challenges and opens unlimited options. As a solo pianist, you’re in the driver’s seat, so you can switch gears and change directions at any time,” says pianist, composer, and longtime Keyboard contributor Andy LaVerne, who has performed with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. His latest projects include the book Chords in Motion, the DVD Chords & Lines in Motion, and the CD I Want to Hold Your Hand. LaVerne is Professor of Jazz Piano at SUNY Purchase in New York and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, and he’s on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. Find out more at andylaverne.com.

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Watch Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play "'Round Midnight" live.