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Dave McKenna plays jazz piano with uncommon power and grace. His improvisations are not only hard-swinging and emotionally direct, they are also technically impressive and intelligently constructed. Yet his playing is not well-known or widely appreciated. Why? Perhaps it is because his style, rooted in the swing era but influenced by aspects of modern-jazz phrasing, is more traditional than path-breaking. Perhaps it is because his allegiance to lyrical melody playing (together with his own description of himself as a "bar-room pianist") has type-cast him more as entertainer than as artist. Or perhaps it is because scholarship and popular criticism tend to overlook high quality twentieth-century art when it is not wildly new.
As an introduction to his playing and a suggestion of one way to explore its beauty more deeply, this article analyzes a complete transcription of his performance of "Have You Met Miss Jones?" (Left Handed Complement, 1980, Concord Jazz, CJ 123).(1) My commentary, followed by the transcription, is divided into sections on the principles of this transcription, on the original melody of "Miss Jones," on the improvisational strategies in McKenna's performance, and on the role of the original melody in McKenna's performance.
James Dapogny's Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton: The Collected Piano Music, the first scholarly edition of a body of a jazz musician's work, serves as a model for this transcription.(2) There are four ways in which the transcription of "Miss Jones" departs from the actual pitches and durations played.
First, this transcription follows the jazz convention of notating "swung" subdivisions of the beat as if the subdivisions were equal in duration; in a jazz performance, the beat is often subdivided unequally, a practice often compared to the French baroque convention of notes inegales. In "Miss Jones" the beat is the quarter note, and eighth notes are played so that those that fall on the beat are longer than those that fall off the beat; in this situation, the eighth notes are said to be swung. (There is one exception to this rule: in the last two bars of the head [[1A.sub.3], mm. 7-8], McKenna swings the sixteenth notes.) At medium tempos, on-the-beat swung eighth notes. However, the ratio between the durations of these differing "eighth notes" varies with style and tempo. The ratio also tends to vary somewhat within a performance. Thus a transcription in straight-eight 4/4 with a note that eight notes are "swung" is a closer reflection of the original than a transcription in 12/8 or--worse--with dotted eights and sixteenths.
Second, there are a few notes in the performance that seem to be slips. In these cases, the transcription indicates what I believe McKenna intended to play, while a note at the end of the transcription indicates what is actually on the recording.
Third, in some cases it is difficult to be sure of what was actually played. Sometimes the harmonics generated by lower strings--particularly the first and second overtones (the second and third partials)--sound as loud as the notes themselves. In other cases, higher notes may "hide" in the harmonics of lower notes. McKenna voices his chords in many different ways. Sometimes the chords are dissonant, dense, staccato, and soft. This occasionally makes it difficult to tell exactly which notes appear in these chords, and in which octave they appear. It is also often difficult to hear precisely what notes McKenna plays in his rapid, low, rumbling bass lines, especially when, in imitation of a good bass player, he adds short notes between the quarter-note beats; where these notes are indicated in parentheses, they should be taken as educated guesswork.
Finally, only major changes of tempo, articulation, dynamics, tone, pedaling, etc., have been indicated; to include all such nuances would clutter the transcription. As Dapogny notes, a transcription of a performance differs from a notated composition:
The notation of jazz raises the question of just what notation can actually represent. It should be borne in mind that modern music notation developed largely as a prescriptive system, designed to give performers directions on how to realize a piece in performance. In this volume ["Jelly Roll" Morton] it is being used descriptively, to record performances that have already taken place.
Our notational system, with a simple proportional scheme for rhythm, does not lend itself to …