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Django Speaks

By Warren Sirota

When I tell people that my music teacher is a Gypsy guitarist who died in 1953, they usually conjure up images of mystical offerings, seances and the sacrifice of small animals. "No way," I say, "who do you think I am – Hillary Clinton talking to Eleanor Roosevelt? I get my lessons directly from Django Reinhardt’s recorded legacy, a body of work that has taught me scads of applied theory as well as motivated me to get my fingers working at a new level of speed and precision."

To illustrate this (a special case of the World Wide Woodshed’s unofficial motto, "Thar’s gold in them thar CDs"), I’d like to share with you some of the insights I’ve been gleaning from my work transcribing a recording of Django playing Cole Porter’s standard, "Night and Day." These insights apply to jazz musicians mainly, and Django was an advanced player by anyone’s measure, so forgive me if I throw some advanced musical concepts around.

This version of "Night and Day" is from the Verve Collection Jazz Masters 38, a truly fantastic recording (there are some less great Django recordings out there too – he recorded hundreds of tracks). If this were an LP, the grooves on my copy would be completely worn out by now – thank goodness for CDs! Anyway, the cut is from 1953, and originally appeared on the 10-inch Blue Star LP, Django Reinhardt et ses Rythmes. Many of the licks clearly show the influence of bebop of Reinhardt’s playing.

"Night and Day" has some rather unusual chords. It starts with a half-diminished chord (also known as a ‘minor seventh flat 5’ chord), which in itself is pretty unusual as an initial chord, and Django has some neat ideas around that. But the really tricky section is in the second 8 measures, where the chords are / Am7b5 / Abm7 / Gm7 / Gbdim7 / and then on to / Fm7 / Bb7 / Eb / (this is all in the key of Eb, the key Django plays it in, a minor 3rd up from the Real Book key of C).

What’s tricky about / Am7b5 / Abm7 / Gm7 / Gbdim7 / ? The temptation, the easy path, is to play a standard pattern based around the first chord, then lower it a half step (with small alterations) for the second, then lower it again for each of the other chords, like this:

ex1.gif (2885 bytes)

(click here to download a small MIDI file of this example)

That’s mildly tricky from a technical viewpoint, but not hard with some practice and knowledge of the appropriate scales. However, the musical challenge is to create a melody that sings without being mechanical – in other words, one that is a single, coherent idea that moves towards a conclusion rather than 4 alterations on a single idea, which will, despite the zillion notes per minute that you might play, end up sounding comparatively static and lifeless.

Each time the chords come around, Django handles it a different, interesting way. The first time, he plays an absolutely amazing chromatic passage:

ex2.gif (4852 bytes)

(click here to download a small MIDI file of this example)

In this (and the next) example, I have put square boxes over the notes that are actually chord tones. In this examples, I've also used dashed brackets to indicate descending chromatic passages. Note that the run begins with four chromatic passages of 3, 3, 4 and 3 notes, respectively, then briefly departs chromaticism, and then returns with another 4-note descending half-note run.

What I find remarkable about this run is the way Django creates patterns that are only peripherally related to the chords, but that nonetheless are compelling and musical. He does this by creating a motif (3 descending 1/2-notes), and then repeating that motif starting on a different note a fourth higher, coming back to the original starting point but this time extending the motif down another note, then jumping up a fourth again. Then, ust when we might be getting tired of the chromatic effect (too much of anything is wearisome), he plays a few notes of a scalar pattern. But we're not finished with chromaticism yet, and he jumps up for another 4-note run before ending the phrase with and idiosyncratic riff (under the Gb-diminished chord) ending on a very dissonant non-chord tone. Then, in the next 4 bars, he gets very tonal and pretty, playing arpeggios derived from the chords of the song. This serves to bring us home, make us feel good, and to let us know he's not lost in the undifferentiated chromatic wilderness. Wow! It leaves us breathless.

How does he get away with this chromaticism, flaunting harmonic conventions, and yet sounding great even to uneducated ears? I see two key facts operating here:

  1. The chromatic passage is a musical device known as a sequence. It works by setting up expectations and then fulfilling them with variations - in other words, by repetition. Musical sequences do not necessarily conform to the underlying harmonies of a song. In my opinion, there is not so much music theory at work here as human psychology, as the clever Reinhardt manipulates our attention quite consciously.
  2. Django ends in the right place. My other unconventional piece of private music theory is that you can get away with almost anything so long as you end in the right place.

The second time Django plays through these chords, he approaches them quite differently:

ex3.gif (4384 bytes)

(click here to download a small MIDI file of this example)

Look at all those chord tones! Here, Reinhardt plays an ascending arpeggio on one chord (the half-diminished A), and descends on the next chord, ending on the 7th of the chord. If practicing arpeggios has ever seemed non-musical to you, try applying this kind of "template" to pieces you're working on, and watch what happens!

Well, there's our little look at some great riffs and concepts for this issue. Please address comments to Thanks for being here.


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