The World According to Keitho

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What’s in a break?

Posted by keithosaunders on April 1, 2010

Dizzy Gillespie’s NIght in Tunisia has been recorded hundreds of times. It is a forward looking tune, especially when you consider that it was written in 1942. It’s not quite be-bop and not quite modal, but a little bit of both. It consists of vamp centered around Eb7(-5) to D-7 and an 8 bar bridge that came to be known as,, well, the Tunisia bridge.

Tacked onto the melody is a 16 bar interlude — a series of descending chords building towards a four bar break on Fmaj7. What to do with this break, especially after Bird played it, has challanged and befuddled musicians throughout the decades. (I can personally own up to my share of befuddlement)

Charlie Parker, damn him, set the bar too high. In a 1946 recording for the Dial label, Bird played a seven second break that is stunning not only for its flawless technique — an unbroken string of 16th notes encompassing the entire four measures — but its dense harmonic underpinning. What he played was miles ahead of what anyone else was doing at that time. I would argue that it is still ahead of our time. Bird had a way of approaching major 7 chords that was so complex that we have yet to decode it! The track, however, was marred by mistakes in the ensemble and was not used at the time. It was subsequently released as a fragment because of Bird’s break.

So what do you do with that break after Bird? Sonny Rollins had the answer. He recorded Tunisia live at the Village Vanguard on November 3rd, 1957 with Donald Bailey and Pete La Roca. That night, Rollins played Tunisia at a medium-fast clip, much faster than Bird did. By the time he reached the break 16th notes, even for him, were out of the question. He executed an angular [mostly] 8th note break that is striking not only for its harmony, but for its warmth. It is intense, but in a way that invites you into the piece and it perfectly sets up the solo which is driving and filled with humor.

My favorite Tunisia break comes from John Coltrane. In 1960 he recorded his original composition, Liberia, with McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, and Elvin Jones. Liberia is based on the Tunisia changes except it has its own bridge consisting of one chord for the entire 8 measures, in effect transforming it into a model tune. Trane includes the interlude but adds his own set of chords.

Trane’s break is stunning and practically indescribable. He keeps the 8th note feel (the tempo is roughly the same as Rollin’s) while inserting harmonics and false fingerings, all without dropping a beat. It is unexpected, innovative, and thrilling. Not being a saxophonist, I cannot effectively describe what he is doing. I wonder if the most accurate, and artfully prose could do it justice.

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2 Responses to “What’s in a break?”

  1. TruCatalyst said

    As delicious as Sonny’s live interpretation is, I have to say that he isn’t my highlight on the recording. Not that Mr. Rollins doesn’t do his thing, but Elvin Jones’ solo is unbelievable. I’ve rewound the track a million times just to hear it. And you’re dead on about Coltrane’s “Liberia”. Indescribable indeed.

  2. […] Coltrane transforms Summertime from a languid, bluesy number to a tour de force model vehicle, complete with pedal point, whole tone harmony, and a four bar break that rivals Bird’s all-timer on Night In Tunisia. […]

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