Brian Auger and the Art of the Hammond Organ Solo

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Brian Auger has an unmistakable style, combining a jazzy, modal approach with classic organ blues chops. Let’s explore some of his stylistics traits using a version of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” that he played at the Keith Emerson Tribute Concert in Los Angeles on May 28, 2016. (The full concert will be released on DVD in early 2018.)

The Auger Approach

Ex. 1. This is how Dave Brubeck first wrote and performed "Blue Rondo a la Turk" in 9/8. Think of it as three groups of two followed by a group of three.

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When Brubeck wrote “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 1959 (featured on his classic Time Out album), it was played in 9/8 time, as shown in Example 1. Keith Emerson, a big Brubeck fan, adapted it for his first band, The Nice, simply calling it “Rondo.” He put it into a straight-four feel, although it was really in 12/8: This emphasizes four beats per bar, with each beat subdivided into three for more of a shuffle feel (see Example 2).

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Ex. 2. When Keith Emerson covered “Rondo” with The Nice, he moved it into a four feel, though it was actually in 12/8.

Auger drew from both concepts in his Tribute performance, starting with the original 9/8 feel, then moving into the 12/8 of Keith’s version. Example 3 shows his jazzier approach (and the transposition into C major from the original F major). From there he starts a vamp in C minor (Example 4), and his approach for that is a classic Auger move, with some quartal voicings (chords using fourth intervals).

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Ex. 3. Brian Auger first plays the head in the original 9/8 (and in the key of C), and then moves into the same 12/8 groove as Emerson, but he plays the melody a bit more jazzy.

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Ex. 4. Here is a typical vamp before soloing that Auger often uses. Note that the Cmajor sound has moved into a modalCminor.

Solo Time!

In Example 5, Brian starts his solo economically, using the C blues scale against a colorful left-hand voicing (now on electric piano) that is rootless and outlines a C minor with an added sixth and ninth. In bars 4 and 5, he uses an A natural as well, which can be thought of as part of the C major blues sound. Notice the great rhythmic approach he has, and his interplay between the hands fits in the pocket perfectly.

In bars 11 through 13, he is playing classic blues/jazz organ riffs and uses the technique of holding a high note while playing some figures below it, which comes directly from Jimmy Smith (Brian’s foremost influence). Starting in bar 16 he varies his left-hand chords more, and in bar 18 moves into a common modal approach of playing the root chord and adding a minor chord a whole step above (C minor to D minor). He also plays a C minor and then an F major in bar 20, which can be thought of as a ii-V progression, a typical jazz approach.

Things start getting interesting in bar 21, where Auger plays what looks like an A7sus4 voicing in the left hand, and then in the next bar he includes E natural in the right hand, as if he was playing in C major or superimposing an A minor over the previous C minor tonality. In the following bar, he moves up to what sounds like a Bb(sus4) chord, although the bass player goes up to Db. He moves up once again in the next bar to a B(sus4), while the bass goes to D. This chromatic movement, and way of moving outside the tonality for a brief moment, is something Auger learned from listening to McCoy Tyner.

He gets very colorful in bars 25-28 by superimposing a Gbmaj7b5 over the C bass note, while playing what seems like Bb arpeggiated line over the chord. He might be thinking of it as a rootless D7(#9) sound, with the right hand also adding the flat thirteenth—who knows? It’s a very advanced and tense sound, which he keeps up in bar 28 as his right hand gets more chromatic. This leads him to the next bars where his left hand plays an Ab7 while the right hand continues its chromatic and jazzy movement, culminating in a great ascending figure that finally releases the tension in bar 33 by returning to the straight C minor sound.

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Ex. 5. This is the opening section of Auger’s solo, on the C minor groove. Note how well he mixes up modal, blues, and some outside harmonies.

A Great Lesson

There’s plenty to be learned from this brief example; in the use of colorful chord voicings, great rhythmic placement, and how to build tension and then release it. As you listen to more of Auger’s playing you’ll find these skills consistently used and developed. This is but the tip of the iceberg of this giant’s playing style. We’ll have to visit him again.