modal-jazz

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#22: Mizzter Blizzard, Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Hi guys! I’d just like to quickly apologize again for the lack of posting yesterday. Life caught up to me and wouldn’t let me go >.< I’ll try to be better about that, but until then I’ve got a great post lined up for y'all today!

Very early in this blog’s lifespan I mentioned how appreciative I am of the Paper Mario: Sticker Star soundtrack. I really feel that Sticker Star was one of the sorely underrated games of 2012, and the dynamic, lively and altogether unique soundtrack was one of the big reason I fell in love with the game (not to mention that the entire soundtrack is jazz-based, of which I am very well-studied and not at all biased towards). Well, earlier this month a member of the OCRemix forums requested that I check out this track from one of the boss fights from the game, and after one listen I knew I had to analyze this music. Without further ado, here’s today’s track: Mizzter Blizzard from Paper Mario: Sticker Star!

Actually, I’d like to add one further ado before I dive into the score: I’d like to talk about some of the influences I’ve identified of this particular piece of music. During the following analysis you’ll hear me talk about how this is influenced by a style of jazz called modal jazz, and I’d like to explain what that is for a minute before I dive in. Modal jazz is a style of small-group jazz developed during the 1960s by Miles Davis, Bill Evans and many other important jazz figures of the time. One of the primary factors in this development of modal jazz is that the previous popular style of small-group jazz, bebop, was entirely based around fast-moving chord changes and verbose, virtuosic solos over these difficult changes. Modal jazz was a shift in the opposite direction, one where the harmonic rhythm would last four, eight, even sixteen bars without changing harmonies. Due to the fact that harmonies stopped moving so quickly, the exact harmonies themselves became more complex, moving away from simple ii7 – V7 – Imaj7 progressions and into chromatic vamps and other harmonies that shied away from the circle of fifths. We started to see the sus chord become an important figure, as well as quartal-style harmony. Many of these developments can actually be traced back to the Impressionist era of classical music, namely a certain Claude Debussy. The most influential piece of modal jazz, as well as the most well-known, is Miles Davis’ record Kind of Blue (this track, called So What) is a great example of these concepts).

Onwards to Mizzter Blizzard, the implications of modal jazz are evident as soon as the melody kicks in, for another important factor of the genre is that they often used modes of the major scale to compose melodies, rather than strict diatonic major or minor. The beginning passage is in C# minor, however we see an A#, which indicates the Dorian mode (think of natural minor, but with a raised 6th degree). The style of harmonization between the alto and tenor saxophone is also indicative of a modal style, as parallel perfect 5th harmony is a hallmark of the modal jazz era. The music builds excitement in this section through the syncopated sixteenth-note patterns in the bass and melody, as well as with the trumpet responses at the end of each phrase. The chromatic shift from C# to D is also an unexpected lift in the music, propelling us forward to the B section.

At the beginning of the B section we move from D minor to Ab minor, a move that would be unprecedented in many styles of music, however here the shift in color is incredibly appropriate (not to mention unexpected and exciting). This section also features the tension-building technique of changing each minor chord to a half-diminished chord two bars later. For those unfamiliar with the half-diminished chord, it is the same as a minor 7th chord but with a lowered 5th, meaning it is built on a tritone rather than the perfect 5th of minor. You can hear the clear difference in mood between the two chords here, giving each offbeat punch an added bite of tension.

The trumpet melody here has an improvisational quality to it, thanks to both the character of the line itself and due to the fact that the saxophones earlier played in duet, making the solo trumpet a nice change in texture. The line builds and builds into bar 18, where a three-against-two figure in the accompaniment drives the music towards an unexpected resolution on a sus chord.

C is very much a recap of the content from the A section. However, there are some key differences, which I noted in the images above.

D is where we see the unresolved sus chords shifting from one to another in third relationships. In the image I describe this pattern as influenced by “Coltrane changes,” which are based on the John Coltrane composition Giant Steps, which, to summarize it as simply as I can, constituted a merging of ideas from both modal jazz and bebop. Here, in a style similar to Debussy’s compositions, the sus chords move from sound to sound, completely unconcerned with the idea of tonic and resolution. The tonal center of this work is a volatile thing and although we do see a very cute move at the end of D to modulate back to C# minor on the repeat (here’s a hint: Ab is enharmonic to G#), the composer here considers a tonal center the least of his worries. He cares the most about his soundscape, with which he has created a magnificent, exciting piece of music.
That’s all for today folks. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing! :)

Bonus Track: For today’s bonus track, check out my paragraph above where I discussed the influences of this piece of music. I’ve thrown you plenty of music to listen to up there ;)

((Here’s the PDF of today’s score))

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has one of the best soundtracks in the series

Above: a handful of responses in an awful (as usual) thread on NeoGAF. They are, of course, all wrong. Harmony of Dissonance’s soundtrack, written by Soshiro Hokkai, is wild and weird, and the bile it continues to inspire is most of all a testament to the extremely small cultural pool gamers, and nerds in general, tend to draw from rather than the soundtrack’s craft and technical merits. Heaven help these people if they ever heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (well – that’s a bit of a delicious scenario, really; I love the idea of people still being scandalized by a composition from the early 1900s). Lovecraft’s writing isn’t a dominant reference point for analyses of Bloodborne because it’s the most pertinent or interesting one, but because gamers have almost no idea of how to draw connections between historical material and Bloodborne’s horrific and sublime elements. One funky hip-hop song is not necessarily akin to a given Persona song; it’s often just that the person doing the comparing has heard barely any funk or hip-hop outside of the Persona series. Similarly, HoD’s music confounds the gamer who has an apoplectic episode if less than 95% of the arrangements of Castlevania music on YouTube don’t involve an electric guitar. These people don’t have, and have no interest in acquiring, the means of engaging its music, so they dismiss it wholesale as a failure.

The critiques tend to come in patterns, and one of the stupidest is that Harmony of Dissonance’s music could be improved “if the samples were better.” The people saying this would almost certainly defend Mega Man 2′s soundtrack in a second, even though it also rendered through similar hardware; i.e., it is another “chiptune” score. In fact, HoD’s score is technically of a higher quality than Mega Man 2′s; the only 8bit Castlevania that can compare is the Japanese version of Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse, which is assisted by the VRC6 chip. These informed observations are irrelevant to those doing the criticizing, though, because they’re expecting something very particular that is being unmet. This myopic expectation was demonstrated by the release of Aria of Sorrow and the continual remarks about how much better, professional, and listenable its music sounded. You see, the instruments sounded like real instruments now. How couldn’t it be a victory? In other words, Harmony of Dissonance was damned from the start since it had the audacity to be a Game Boy Advance title that technically sounded like a videogame from a little over a decade ago. And isn’t all art linear? I’ll leave it up to readers here to decide which version of “Ruined Castle Corridor”, the opening area theme from Aria of Sorrow, they prefer: the original, or this “technologically dated” arrangement. For myself, the preference for one is unambiguous. We can find ways to argue for and against the qualitative details of something that is of an older mold, no question, but that can only be done once we accept that not every new thing has to advertise that newness in every facet of its make-up. “lol this sounds like an old videogame, fail” is not in itself a legitimate criticism, even implicitly.

If there’s anything I’d broadly find fault with in Harmony’s soundtrack it’s that I wish there were more thematic development among many of its pieces. Even though “Chapel of Dissonance” is about fifteen or twenty seconds longer than the typical environmental theme from Castlevania 3, it feels shorter in action and in my memory than, say, “Mad Forest.” It’s almost as if it’s missing a section after its first twenty seconds – a minor bridge that would let the first section’s material grow out a bit more, not for formal coherence, just because it is so beautiful and deserving of embellishment. In this respect, “Offense and Defense” stands out: it is about a minute-and-a-half long (the game’s longest environmental track) and also covers as much ground as it needs to before looping. What fascinates me about this score is how much it exemplifies the counterpoint-like aspects of chiptunes while sounding like a fusion of modal jazz jam sessions and restlessly chromatic chamber music. Just listen to the the drums’ and basslines’ escalating activities in “Name Entry 2K2″, or the yearning chord progressions of “Epilogue 2″, so reminiscent of bittersweet, heart-trembling chamber works by Enescu or Rachmaninov. How anyone who has some familiarity with the formal quirks of videogame music, and is not repulsed by anything that doesn’t sound like what is played on the radio, can listen to these and not feel at least a bit of excitement or interest is baffling. This isn’t bad or janky music at all; it’s crackling stuff, pushing at the edges of its technological constraints and skillfully using them to its advantage (seriously, the percussive work in this soundtrack alone is a detail-oriented marvel).

You did good, Soshiro Hokkai. You really did do good.

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John Coltrane/McCoy Tyner/Stever Davis/Elvin Jones - ‘My Favourite Things’

It’s always worth listening to this from start to finish every now and again when you have some time alone; it’s a surely unmatched 14 minutes of incredibly tasteful musical expression from the early 60s.

Wayne Shorter - "The All Seeing Eye" (1965)

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TRACKS

  1. The All Seeing Eye
  2. Genesis
  3. Chaos
  4. Face of the Deep
  5. Mephistopheles

Wayne Shorter became big when he worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He became bigger when he played with the Miles Davis quintet. During his period with Miles he also made some solo albums. Good ones too. His playing is so good on each album!

The All Seeing Eye is a dark album. Bebop, Hardbop, Modal Jazz… you name it. With support of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and many more. This album only has five tracks, but they all sound very fresh, daring, dark and mysterious. It’s totally different than his other albums. It’s a good album with good pointers.

Highlights on this album are The All Seeing Eye and Chaos.

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On this day in music history: August 17, 1959 - “Kind Of Blue” by Miles Davis is released. Produced by Teo Macero and Irving Townsend, it is recorded at Columbia Records 30th Street Studios in New York City on March 2, 1959 and April 22, 1959. Recorded in two sessions six weeks apart, it features Davis backed by musicians John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly. The songs will be created by Miles giving the musicians chord changes based on musical modes rather than traditional chord progressions, then improvising on those changes. The original LP release of “Kind Of Blue” is a source of confusion among musicians and fans for years when the three tracks (“So What”, Freddie Freeloader", and “Blue In Green”) on the first side of the album are a quarter tone sharper than originally played. The problem turns out to have been caused by one of the two tape machines recording the session running slower than the other. The album is not reissued with the songs at the correct pitch until 1992. All reissues from that time on are mastered using the back up 3-track session tapes cut during the initial recording session. The album goes on to become one of the most popular and influential jazz recordings of all time. Having taken over thirty years for the album to sell over million copies, its sales explode during the peak of the CD boom, tripling in sales during the 90’s and 2000’s. For the album’s 50th anniversary, Sony Music releases a three disc edition featuring the original album along with alternate takes of “Flamenco Sketches” and “Freddie Freeloader” (w/ the false start), along with in studio dialog recorded during the sessions. The second disc includes live recordings featuring the sextet, with the third disc being a DVD featuring a documentary about the development and recording of the landmark album along with the rarely seen television program “The Sound Of Miles Davis” originally aired on April 2, 1959. “Kind Of Blue” has been certified 4x Platinum in the US by the RIAA, and is inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1992. In 2002, the album is added to the National Recording Registry by the Library Of Congress.

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Miles Davis - Nefertiti

Released March 1968 

Recorded June 7, 22-23 and July 19, 1967

Miles Davis- Trumpet 
Wayne Shorter- Tenor Saxophone 
Herbie Hancock- Piano 
Ron Carter- Bass
Tony Williams- Drums

From Wikipedia: The fourth album by Miles Davis’ second classic quintet, Nefertiti is best known for the unusual title track, on which the horn section repeats the melody numerous times without individual solos while the rhythm section improvises underneath, reversing the traditional role of a rhythm section. The music of Nefertiti, while mostly low-key and impressionistic, is rooted in hard bopNefertiti would be the final all-acoustic album of Davis’ career. Starting with his very next album Miles in the Sky, Davis would begin to experiment with electric instruments, marking the dawn of his electric period.