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Discussing the tune “Blackbird”

Discussing the tune "Blackbird"
One of the greats of modern jazz piano today is the American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Brad’s made a significant series of recordings - albums - called “The Art of the Trio”.
I think it’s the case that Brad was classically trained. Certainly he brings classical playing into the jazz arena. He’s what I’d call a truly “two-fisted” pianist, in the sense that his left hand has the same facility (in a sense) that his right hand does. Typically, modern jazz pianists tend to use the left hand for chords and the right hand for soloing. So they don’t do so much with the left hand, but Brad Mehldau is capable of doing that and does use that technique in his playing.
He’s been obsessed by one tune which he’s played throughout much of his career and, funnily enough, it’s a pop tune, it’s a Beatle’s tune - Lennon and McCartney tune “Blackbird”. He’s played it over many years. I’ve given you a reference to a trio version - his trio version of “Blackbird”. I have seen on YouTube a solo version of him playing it, but I can’t seem to find it for you now. Maybe it’s been taken off - I don’t know - but have a look for it - maybe it exists. What I’ve done for you is written out a 2 page transcription close to what he plays on the trio album. We’ll look at the first page, first of all.
He bases it very much around - the tune’s in G - he bases it very much around a kind of repeated G figure in the middle of the piano and played by the bass, as well. Let me give you an idea of the role, first of all, of this G. I’m going to play the Intro and the first section which takes us through to the end of the first time bar.
Notice the G is going, pretty much, all the way through the A section - well the introduction and the A section and the first time bar. However, when it gets to the second time bar, there’s definitely a momentary modulation to F - and then you can’t play G any more. When we get to the second time bar it goes like this.
In parenthses in the second time bar, bar (2, 3, 4, 5) 37 and 38, you’ll see I’ve put a phrase which Mehldau plays.
If you go on to page 2. Now, he kind of plays the chords of the tune again but without playing the tune, after he’s got through to the second time bar. If you have a look at - let’s go from the second time bar onto to the second time page - onto the second page.
Then into the jazz - I didn’t play that perfectly well - but I’ve tried to give you as close as I can get to what it is that he’s actually playing in the tune. The structure then is 8 bar introduction, (2, 4, 6) then the tune taken to the first time bar - and it’s all G inflected - then the tune again going to the second time bar which has this very transitory modulation to F and then the tune chords - without the tune - that goes back to the second time bar. Then we go on to the jazz. The jazz is, I think, essentially over the first page, without the introduction.
So it’s A with the first time bar and then A with the second time bar.
What I really want to do is to play this for you and show you how you can use - when it gets to the improvising - just the pentatonic scale of G. Indeed, the tune pretty much uses those notes with one exception. It goes
In that (2, 4, 5) sixth bar there is a C, but all the other notes belong to the pentatonic scale. You could think of that C just as a mechanism to get you up to the D - you could play a C sharp, I guess, if you wanted to get closer to it. Then you can, more or less, keep the left hand going and improvise over the top using the pentatonic scale.
What he does, in a sense, is compare and contrast that pop-y sound with the jazz sound, so that eventually we get So we do get jazz chords that come in when the rhythm section joins him in the trio version. Let me talk about the end, because he has a particularly interesting Outro. He plays the tune once, I think, takes the Coda sign, then the last 4 bars of the tune are played a few times and then it sort of winds down.
Then I’m not sure what he plays, but something
Then he comes to this Outro, which I have written out for you.
What I have written down is the bass line he plays
and maybe you can do those last 2 bars in octaves sometimes. Then I think he improvises over the top with lines and with chords and then the track fades out during his improvisation. If I play this I like to play it with what I call a a “stop” ending with the hands separated - a bit like this. I’m just going to play the chords G, G over C, C, C sharp
Like this
What I call a “plink” ending, because in the end you go “plink”. And that’s the ending. I think I’ve given you enough ingredients to attempt a solo version of this. I hope the transcription leads you to having some fun with this piece. As I say, maybe try and distinguish between soloing for a bit over the pentatonic scale, and then soloing more over a jazz-inflected scale.

We analyse a transcription I have made of how the American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau plays the Lennon and McCartney tune “Blackbird” in one of his recordings.

You can download the chart for “Blackbird” in PDF format at the bottom of this step.

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