Dave McKenna's Rose Room
by Dr. Joel
Dave McKenna's music has a
special quality of reassurance. All the elements in his playing-lines, rhythm,
dynamics, harmony-work together to create a warm feeling that we are in capable
hands, that we can relax and be borne up by the music. Everything develops
organically, even the surprises: key changes and tempo changes. It's this
overriding quality which draws the ear in, inviting us to give our state of
consciousness over to this master of rhythmic strength and subtlety, of organic
growth, of buoyant unexpected turns.
As a self-sufficient solo
style, McKenna's is one of the most effective and appealing. His left hand, with
its strong assertion of the 4/4 beat, is a perfect foil for the rhythmic variety
of his right hand, including the slight pushing and pulling of the beat. His
melodic sense in the right hand is infallible: perfectly logical, often singable,
and therefore needless of pyrotechnics. In the rare case of his use of a
double-time run, it is a necessary one, often serving to finish off a phrase by
bridging a large intervallic gap in a short time. The more you learn of his
style, the more you will be assured of satisfying your audiences at a deep
of drawing them into your music with the confidence that they will be
well taken care of.
For all of McKenna's appeal and
popularity, there is a virtual absence transcribed material of his available in
published form. Part of that is due to the artist himself. McKenna is so
particular about his sound that he frowns on transcriptions and methods which
would claim to impart his style.
But with the caveat that any
printed transcripti ccdon is necessarily only part of the story, we present one here.
These are the first two pages of a seven-page transcription. You'll find
more page on the jssmusic.com website,
featuring the Dick Hyman Century of Jazz Piano CD-ROM.
The original performance was on
a Yamaha Disklavier in New York, and the only recording made at that time was a
MIDI one. This I transcribed both by listening and by watching the screen of my
Opcode Visionary c) program. In this article I will point out a number of the
salient features of McKenna's style and sound, both those that appear on the
page and those that don't.
The Elements of Style
The features that make
McKenna's solo style so good are for the most part features that will enhance
any piano style, solo or ensemble. Globally there are four basic principles:
Keep the right hand about 1-2 levels louder than the left hand, unless there is
some specific emphasis on a left-hand element. This presumes that you can create
four to five distinct levels of volume in your playing.
2. Line shape: Balance
long phrases with shorter ones, and anticipatory phrases with consequential
ones. Anticipatory phrases are those which lead up to a target note falling on
an important beat, usually the first beat of an odd-numbered measure.
Consequential phrases are those which flow out from those beats. See below for
examples from the score.
A balance between these two creates a flowing
call-and-response texture, much more nuanced than the literal call and response
found in traditional blues. If you are aware of these factors then your sense of
balance between long and short phrases will be more solid. Occasional play a
stentorian quarter-note-beat phrase for contrast.
3. Rhythmic nuance: use
anticipation and delays to lend weight to your lines. The right-hand comp chords
invariably fall on the "ands," the anticipatory eighth-note beats.
This pushes the music forward and adds a kind of "bouncing"
eighth-note effect, filling in eighth-note beats but making them come from
different places, making for a textural continuity but with distinctive shape.
4. Left hand: When
strumming, vary the chord somehow (change chord, chord voicing or chord
inversion) every two beats.
Although McKenna is famous for
his "three-handed" playing, in which he somehow manages to play a
walking bass in the left hand, a melodic line in the right and comp in the
middle, he seemed to spend more time in our session playing in a left had
"strumming" style. This is both easier to execute and harmonically
richer, if less subtle. The "Rose Room" performance transcribed here
features strumming virtually throughout, with some occasional forays into
In order to maintain interest
McKenna usually changes chord voicing every two beats, that is twice a measure,
even if the chord stays the same. He'll
alter the voicing or even just the inversion. This produces a very energetic
effect, even at medium and slow tempos.
A Close Reading
here to view transcription
Here are some notes on the
score, including a close examination of the second half of the first chorus to
illustrate the organic quality of McKenna's improvising style.
1. Notice how quickly McKenna
abandons the melody. He's varying the still recognizable melodic phrase in m. 6,
briefly strays from it until m. 13, but that's the last we hear of it until the
second half of the last chorus.
2. The phrase that begins on
the "and" of three in m. 15 and extends to the end of m. 17 is a
perfect example of a phrase balancing anticipation with consequence. Its fulcrum
is the Bb at the beginning of m. 17, the beginning of the second half of the
form, a very important beat. The 11 notes preceding it are the preparation or
anticipation, the seven notes following it are consequence, out-flow. Notice how
McKenna follows it with two short phrases: a response, and then a response to
the response, mm. 18 through beat 1 of m. 20.
3. Immediately after this,
still in m. 20 are six notes of an anticipatory phrase leading to the down beat
in m. 21 (the half-way point of the first half of the last half of the chorus),
an Eb. This is followed by a measureful of a consequential phrase, which in the
next measure turns into an anticipatory phrase leading to the Db, played on the
"and" of four of that measure (22), which itself anticipates the
downbeat of m. 23. The four melody notes in m. 23 form a consequential phrase from that note.
4. The melody notes of m. 24
constitute both the response to the previous melodic material and a kind of
pre-echo or detached anticipation of the assertive phrase which begins on beat 1
of m. 25. This is a perfect example of clear, discreet development, consisting
of three four-note phrases starting in m. 23 and culminating in m. 25. The
energy build-up is palpable, so that the short, 3-note response phrase that
follows serves to release the built-up energy.
5. The three-measure phrase
which follows brings the energy of the second half of the first chorus to its
highest point. It is the climax of the section and therefore of the entire
chorus. Structurally it falls in the perfect place: the third four-measure
section of this 16-measure unit. Look for chorus climaxes in this position.
It begins with an anticipatory
section of 6 notes in m. 26 leading to the downbeat of m. 27. This is followed
by a longer consequential phrase whose energy peaks on its highest note, the Gb
at the beginning of m. 28. This is also the highest note in the 16-measure
section, and the phrase is the purest pyramidal (rising/falling) phrase in the
section. All these factors emphasize this phase as the climax of the section.
The short phrase that follows in m. 29 is part of the "falling action"
or concluding gesture of the chorus.
We chose to include the third
chorus both because of its appealing bluesy content and its particular beauty.
The same principles of organic development apply, and they should come clear to
you as you study the chorus and contrast its structure with that of the first
These two choruses present a
fair sample of McKenna's developmental devices in their "purest" or
simplest form: the medium is the eighth-note phrase. The only triplet is
ornamental (penultimate measure of the third chorus). There are no double-time
passages. When he does use double time, McKenna does it very judiciously, as a
kind of energy escape valve after a build-up through eighth-note phrases.
We are not far from what
Schoenberg called "developing variation" when describing Brahms' composing
style. A conscious awareness of how this works in McKenna's playing plus
learning his solo can be of enormous value in lending that solid quality of
reassurance to your own playing.
About the author:
Dr. Joel Simpson plays
jazz piano and sings funny songs in the New York area, having lived and
performed in New Orleans for the past 27 years. He is the author of Blues By
You-the Direct Route to Piano Improvisation (Hal Leonard), and the producer
of Dick Hyman's Century of Jazz Piano CD-ROM, available from his website,
where you'll find an interactive demo: www.jssmusic.com.
Dave McKenna's latest solo
recording is Easy Street on Concord. It features a medley of