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By Colin Lazzerini
That's what I do: I write the lyrics for jazz songs.
This is the story of one of them.
First, I like to start with some kind of design brief.
Sammy Cahn, when asked that perennial chestnut about whether it was the words or music came first, said it was "the 'phone call".
Admittedly, I get fewer calls than Cahn, but I still need a place to start and some idea of where I'm headed. The journey getting there, more sweat than inspiration in my case, depends on having some kind of route map. And the "call" - when it comes - is where you get the first directions.
Cahn's 'phone call is what I call a design brief.
I never seem to get very far without one.
Design Brief - A Preliminary Sketch
For the song at hand, the call came from Pat Coleman, the producer of a CD project I was planning, suggesting we write something new together. For my part as lyricist, the design brief then became defined in large part by the sound and structure of the music he subsequently delivered, as well as by the vision of stylistic landscapes that it presented.
- The sound of the tune somehow spoke to me with a great sad and sanguine beauty. Slow and haunting, with a strong emotional contour, it seemed to shape up like a classic ballad with the regular potential for heart-wringing proportions.
- The vision it encouraged was of something in the tradition of the most enduring jazz standards. One that we could imagine artists like Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, or Billie Holliday might have wished to include in their repertoire. But not that old. Hipper. Cool enough maybe for a Diana Krall.
- The structure was a basic 32 bar form: A-A-B-A.
Design Brief - Getting Down with the Detail
With the blueprint so far only the merest sketch, the next step involved laying out the structure in finer detail as part of developing an effective working intimacy with the music.
I had a lead sheet - always useful if not essential - but I aim to be able to run it at will inside the tiny 8-track studio of my imagination. I have to make it mine. To know it is to own it. I need to get it inside my head like the unshakable memory of a lover.
Getting familiar like this lets me do two important things: it allows me to identify points of particular individual significance about the tune, and it enables me to find some points of access for eventually working my way into the verbals.
The things I found significant about this tune were the bridge section, the hook placement, and a special little pivot point that occurs in the middle of each 8 bar section and leads into a temporary Major 7th colour before returning to the ruling minor tonality.
- The four 8 bar chunks that make up the song's 32 bar form would replicate the standard A-A-B-A structure were it not for the slightly devious bridge.
Normally, the bridge section at B would be constructed for contrast and respite. If the A section is a broody minor, for instance, the bridge might likely be a happy major. If the melodic rhythm is bright and brisk with lots of notes, the bridge may be slower and more pensive. If the lyric is dark, the bridge steps into sunshine. And so on? with everything vice versa. Contrast.
Here, the bridge does the contrast thing purely by shifting the tonal centre up a perfect fifth - so we do get some dramatically satisfying lift, with one neat turnaround progression climbing up into it, and another one resolving back into the closing 8 bars - but the actual arc of it's melody, as well as the relationship of the chord changes, is just like it is at A.
- Save for a small difference in the final resolution of the closing A section then, each eight bar chunk of the piece repeats the same constant and coherent melodic statement.
This meant that, in wielding the same phrase shape for each 8 bars, I could spare myself the challenge of constructing contrasting lyrical imagery and ideas at the bridge, and tell the story - whatever it turned out to be - as a continuity.
And it meant that the hook would sit happily and easily at the end of each 8 bar section.
- The special little pivot point is a simple half-step descending two note motif that sounded dramatically definitive to my ears, and which serves to conveniently balance the two 4 bar phrases making up each 8 bar section.
The temporary Major 7th moment that this pivot leads to was like a glimpse of brightness through the clouds.
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