The Cement of Lament

There are certain pieces of music which stick in our minds for hours or even days and often these so-called ear-worms are unwelcome, as we chance to hear a snippet of something we don’t even like and it just won’t leave us alone, goddamnit. I’m very suggestible in this way, sometimes all it takes is for somebody to mention an old TV show or movie and suddenly my inner jukebox kicks in and I have the theme from “Green Acres” or “To Sir With Love” running through what’s left of my mind, thanks a lot, pal. Or I’ll wake up first thing in the morning with some dumb, arcane song in my head for no reason at all, making me wonder with no small anxiety just what the hell I was dreaming about that makes “I Love Jennifer Eccles” so all-fired important all of a sudden. It’s spooky….what? ….was I at some Hollies fan-club convention in my dreams? And if so, what does this say about me?

Sometimes though, I get lucky and an actual “adult” piece of music I really love lodges in my mind’s ear for a day or two and its persistence is only maddening to those around me, because I can’t stop humming bits of its melody, usually in my trombone-impersonation voice. (Honestly, just how annoying could that be? Apparently, very.) Such is the case with J.J. Johnson’s lovely ballad/tone poem “Lament”, which has been dogging me off and on in recent months, including right now. It’s that kind of tune, it just won’t let go, burying itself in my ear like cement. But at least it’s good company, it could be worse, much worse.

“Lament” has become prominent to me partly because in the last few years I’ve worked occasionally with the fine trombonist Kelsley Grant, who, as a card-carrying J.J. freak includes it in his repertoire. Also, about a year ago, guitarist Reg Schwager played me an extraordinary YouTube a capella version of the song by a French jazz singer named J.B. Craipeau, who sings every single part of the celebrated Gil Evans arrangement from the ground-breaking collaboration with Miles Davis, Miles Ahead. What Craipeau does is audacious and has to be heard to be believed, it must have taken him weeks. He not only has vocally overdubbed all the written parts, but also does a remarkably fine job of mimicking the uniquely fragile and dark sound of Miles playing the melody. It doesn’t come off as gimmicky, but the best part of this rendition is that it sends you straight back to hear the Evans-Davis version, with its beautiful voicing and orchestration and its direct segue into Bobby Troup’s equally sombre and delicate The Meaning Of the Blues. Surely this is one of the great medleys of all time and as profound and satisfying a five minutes as it’s possible to spend listening to jazz.

As great as Evans’ arrangement of “Lament” is, the song stands on its own as a testament to Johnson’s mastery not only of the trombone, but also of musical architecture, both as an improviser and composer. The song’s melody is simple to the point of starkness, its tight focus making it very, very strong. It has an inevitable, deja vu quality, as though carved in stone, which makes you ask, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

It’s 32 bars long, structured in an A-B-A-C form of four-bar systems. It was written to be played on the trombone and with typically reasoned practicality, Johnson places it in F, the horn’s home key. It moves throughout between the tonalities of F minor and the related D-flat major, then to F major and its relative D minor. There’s a logic and grace to this which makes the melody surprisingly easy to sing once you know it, despite the constant shifts in key. It’s also the kind of melody that strongly suggests implicit things underneath it – guide tones, root motion, resolutions and such – this is particularly true after hearing the Evans arrangement.

The real magic and mystery of the song for me though lies in the counter-intuitive manner in which J.J. deals with minor and major tonality. This has fascinated me ever since I first heard the blues and has continued through learning songs by Cole Porter and others (Porter was a particular master at mixing major and minor in unexpected ways.) To put it in a nutshell, Johnson writes major-sounding melodies in the sections with minor harmony and vice-versa, so that the minor parts sound bright and the major ones dark. It challenges the notion that chords alone determine these basic moods, really it’s the melody in relation to the chords which gives the underlying harmony its feeling and meaning. So, the song has an interesting tonal dichotomy quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.

It begins in F minor and the melody consists of the notes of an F minor triad, but arranged in a sequence that makes them sound like the relative A-flat major –  C, C, Ab, C and F – the F coming to rest on an E-flat minor-ninth chord, which resolves into the related key of D-flat major with a C in the melody. Then there’s a lovely turn from the C up and back down to a Bb to complete the first four bars.

This sets up the second system which starts on an F major chord with the third – an A – as the melody on top. It couldn’t be more major sounding, yet to me this begins the darkest part of the tune. The melody moves simply up to Bb and then to a C continued in the second bar, which is the most mysterious in the entire song because it’s so mournful sounding for reasons that are hard to fathom. The various published versions of the song have the chords here as an Am7 and a D7 for two beats each, but I (and more importantly J.J. Johnson and Gil Evans) beg to differ. The proper chord is actually just a straight D minor-ninth, it’s as clear as day on both Evans’ chart and J.J.’s various recordings of the song. This makes the plaintive quality of this bar a marvel, because the C melody-note is not a particularly dark or “minor” sounding one against the minor chord. It’s just a plain old minor-seventh, almost harmless, yet very grave and haunting, you hear the full depth of the minor chord below it here just from the root alone. I think this has to so with restraint, simplicity and context – everything that’s come before this bar makes it hum and glow. Bill Evans often achieved this same effect with his chord voicing choices, showing that sometimes a simple “vanilla” chord in the midst of some other dense or complex ones can stand out and be very evocative, even jarring. Contrast is everything.

The third four-bar system starts in D minor (described by Nigel Tufnell of Spinal Tap as “the saddest of all keys”) and yet, it’s the brightest sounding part of the song. This is because the melody is simply an F major scale ascending over two bars, resolving to the second, a G above the octave-tonic. I missed this for a long time, maybe because I’m a bit slow and partly because the scale is somewhat rhythmically staggered.

The last system of the B section begins on a D minor chord with an F repeated in the melody and even though that note is the minor third, this D minor chord doesn’t sound as dark as the one I mentioned earlier, with the C on top. It’s something of a mystery and maybe it’s just me, but I somehow doubt it. I’ve learned to trust my emotional responses and to realize that mine aren’t all that much different from anyone else’s. The miracle of music is that it can evoke these inexplicable feelings in us; part of it is the brilliance of a composer like Johnson, but at least some of it lies with the listener. We all have feelings hidden under the surface, just waiting to be awakened and stirred by combinations of sounds. That’s what music is all about, that’s what it’s for.

While all this tonal manipulation is happening,”Lament” also has a rhythmic component that’s very contoured and well-structured. The first bar of each four-bar system starts with a quarter-note rest, which gives the piece a feeling of space and keeps it moving even at a slow tempo. This rest is often followed by a quarter-note and a quarter-note triplet, or a quarter-note followed by two eighth-notes and another quarter-note. Either way, these rhythmic motifs impart motion and the frequent rests give the song a call-and-response quality.

Like all great narratives, this song has a strong climax near the end, in the first few bars of the C section. It starts out just like the B section, with the rising F major scale over the D minor chord, but this time it goes up to the third above the octave, an A over a B minor-seven flat-five chord. The effect is hair-raising, absolutely thrilling, but short-lived. The crescendo fades quickly as there’s a winding down with a quiet descending phrase ending on an E-flat over a B-flat minor chord, which leads to the closing system. The last four bars are an odd echo of the tune’s very beginning, only in F major instead of F minor : an F major arpeggio beginning on the third and ascending to the tonic, resolving back down to the second, then the third and ending on the low tonic F.

The song is a perfect little miniature of a masterpiece, not one note could be added or subtracted or changed. Though sombre, it’s not as down as the title suggests, in the end it’s uplifting because it’s so beautiful. Really it’s a lot like life itself, a succession of high moments and low ones, of light and shadow, often coming when they’re least expected. The big challenge of playing “Lament” is in trying to improvise a solo that comes close to matching the melody, which is well-nigh impossible. I’ve found the best way is to not stray from the melody too much when soloing, to use it as a guide and return to it, almost playing variations or decorations against it.

J.J. Johnson wrote many other fine compositions, catchy and interesting bebop pieces such as “Elora”, “Teapot”, “Kelo”, “Turnpike” and “Mohawk” and other fine ballads, such as “Enigma” and “Vivian”, written for his wife. As his writing skills grew he became one of the noted composers of the Third Stream movement, with extended and ambitious works such as “Poem For Brass” in 1957, “Perceptions”, a 1962 six-part suite featuring Dizzy Gillespie and “El Camino Real”, written for a big band in 1964. I feel his reputation as a composer could rest solely on the taut, minimal 32 bars of “Lament”‘ though, it’s the Johnson piece that will still be played 50 years from now.

I’ve been told that the best way to rid yourself of an ear-worm is to share it with someone, in fact I had a demonstration of this a few nights ago. I was with an old friend en route to another friend’s house for an evening’s bacchanal and happened to mention that just that afternoon I’d heard Bunny Berigan’s classic version of “I Can’t Get Started” on a jukebox. No sooner had I mentioned this than my friend started to sing the song, complete with Berigan’s inflections. This kept up for some time and I finally told him to cut it out, only to find myself singing the dratted thing a few moments later, these babies are contagious.

It’s not my intention to plant an ear-worm on those that already have heard “Lament” – for one thing, I have no desire to exorcise mine – but if I have, I apologize. For those that haven’t heard the song, I urge you to. There are many versions of it on YouTube, including J.J.’s first one on Savoy from 1954 and a much later one from an album called J.J. & Company, which features Milt Jackson playing the first half of the melody and the composer taking the second half. Milt makes the sparse melody seem almost voluble with his many decorations and grace-notes but gets away with this because his sound and phrasing are so musical and swinging.

Hearing “Lament” won’t change your life, but its lyrical beauty and intelligence may provide a brief respite from the mindless aggression and misplaced angst in so much of the music on offer these days…… anyway, I hope so.

© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The Cement of Lament

  1. Steve, I know the circumstance, but you really should ‘amplify’ your remark about hearing “I Can’t Get Started” on a JUKEBOX!

    You’ll have to first explain to many what that device actually is, and then how a seven-decade plus song was on it… (Can’t you afford an iPod, or at least a Walkman?!? A Jukebox — really?)

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