It is not often that you come across someone who manages to re-invent a style like this into something both beautiful and unique, but this take on Days Of Wine And Roses is a such a beautiful version of the song that uses a lot of new techniques, and actually stuff you can use in your own playing that isn’t that common in Jazz guitar.
With most Jazz guitarists when you say Chord Melody then they think of people like Joe Pass or Barney Kessel
Both of these are of course fantastic, but they are what I would consider a more traditional approach to chord melody, and Jazz is not only a tradition, it is also a style of music that while staying true to it’s roots also (luckily) keeps changing and evolving.
When it comes to playing chord melody then usually we are already having a hard time just laying down the harmony and playing the melody at the same time with any kind of phrasing, because that is already quite a lot to have going on. But what if you could open it up with a completely different sound an instead of trying to sound like a piano or use traditional drop voicings then you can explore the independent sound and possibilities of the electric guitar to create something else. I think that is exactly what Bill Frisell does in this version, and he manages to have a very clear connection to both Jazz tradition and to other styles especially Bluegrass but certainly also Blues and even Pop music.
The Blues and Wine And Roses
I don’t think I had this association right away, but if I listen now then to me the intro is really Blues inspired, and borrowing a lot from what you might hear in an acoustic blues song, something like Lightnin’ Hopkins, I am curious what you think? It is all pretty much just a playing a good old campfire C chord with some sparse fills giving you a #9 and a b7 to really make it more dominant and also make it sound like blues. One phrasing technique that I really connect with Bill Frisell is sliding down to a note. He seems to do that more than most people I am aware off, within Jazz at least. I think Guthrie Govan does it really a lot as well, he sort of re-invented what could be done with using slides to me, but I don’t really consider him Jazz. Here Frisell uses a slide to get to the minor 3rd from the major 3rd, It’s the blues thing. Because C is the V of the key, which is F major, then the intro still works as a “normal” intro where I think most Blues intros would set the mood up on the I chord, but Days Of Wine And Roses is of course not exactly a 12-bar blues.
What is also really great about this is that he is starting a Jazz chord melody with something that is mostly a triad sound, so it is not exactly Bebop tradition, he is almost hiding the extensions and I think the way he does that is really inspired! I A huge difference in both the intro and really the whole performance is how the priority for Frisell ito create a beautiful mood around the melody more than a sort of clear functional harmony based intro or a groove. This is also how he gets to incorporate some of the very uncommon chord sounds and voicings that he uses, but we’ll get to those.
The Melody Can Stand Alone!
I might get slaughtered in the comments for this, since I am saying that he doesn’t use chords, because he is playing a chord in the first bar of the melody, and a very basic and simple jazz chord at that. But he doesn’t harmonize the song the way you would usually work through a Jazz song. The “standard” way to create chord melody, that I have also taught in several videos, even using this song, is to put a chord under the melody on the heavy beats of the bar. For Days Of Wine And Roses that might give you an opening like this:
And that is very solid because it gives you a very clear picture of the harmony and the melody, but this approach is also very much focused on harmony and making that an important part of it, where Frisell’s take is much more about giving the melody a chance to shine, something you will see several examples along the way, and he also talks about it in his masterclass video:
This way of giving priority to the melody also sort of explains why he often prefers to just play the melody alone, and once that is there and if there is room then he adds things around it. While this is not the way we usually do things in Jazz, then I do think he has a point, and playing a complete chords under the melody also sort of takes away from the melody. If you listen to him like this then you understand what he does a lot better, at least to me it makes a lot more sense. Lets’ check it out and then also explore what he does with chords instead of playing full chords.
So you have the chords in here which are first an Fmaj7 shell voicing, so yes a very very basic Jazz chord, and this Eb7 which is really just an interval, but which does give you enough information in the context to hear what is going on, and if you listen to the melody that adds the 3rd of the chord G, that completes the picture with the Eb7.
It is Rubato!
A quick side-note about the sheet music: If you are only reading the tabs then you won’t care about this, but this entire performance is rubato, so I had to interpret it quite heavily when I was writing out the examples, and I wanted to keep the original structure of the song in there, since he is playing that song, but everything is actually out of time, so it may be difficult to follow, and I did have to make some choices to fit everything in there, but to me, it just makes more sense to relate it to the song to see it in that context.
Turning Chords into Arpeggios
On the two bars of D7 that follows he turns chords into a mix of arpeggios and smaller voicings, something you will see more great examples of as well. Here there are two voicings put together in a phrase that makes up the D7 and none of them are complete D7 chords. He is really as much playing them as a fill as he is playing them as chords. While doing that he makes the fill interesting with grace notes, open strings and sustaining minor 2nd intevals, and notice that he uses his thumb to grab a low note.
A Beautiful Gm Voicing
Another example of this is on the Gm7 chord that follows which also is an example of how he uses the volume pedal to add color to the sound, here it is sort of built around this shape
But he always splits it up also when he uses it later in the song
When Intervals Are Chords
The song moves from Gm7 to Bbm, so subdominant to minor subdominant, and here he fills up the long notes with shifting 3rd intervals and also adds some slides to add a different dynamic and sound to what is going on.
He sort of uses the same idea in the second half, but the he is playing it with 10th intervals
You already saw in the first bars of the song how he also just plays intervals as chords, and this is a part of the open sound that he uses.
There are also some really unusual dominant sounds and chords that are relying on interval structures, but I will get those in a bit together with an amazing ending chord for the song.
To me, Bill Frisell is one of the 3 most important Jazz guitarists of his generation with John Scofield and Pat Metheny being the other two, and I have listened really a lot to all 3 them.
I am aware that this may be a polarizing opinion, and it is certainly an opinion more than anything else, so you can always run amok in the comments with complaints about leaving out Mike Stern or John Abercrombie or maybe someone else that you like more. Frisell is probably the least famous of the 3, but like the others he has really managed to stay true to himself and keep on creating new music and new sounds, and he still does. The last year or two I have seen both his trio and a bluegrass project of his live, both concerts were fantastic, I can only recommend that you check him out if you get the chance, his playing is truly impressive and actually a lot more technical or flashy than the example I am covering here.
In Polyphony Less Really Is More
You have already seen how Bill Frisell uses a lot of voice-leading and is very creative with that. The next part of theme shows how he will sometimes take out a single voice and leave out almost everything else to let this voice shine next to the melody. In this case, it is very effective and he is really just using one simple melody to move from Gm7 to C7 and continue from Eø to A7
It is really just a guide tone line, and it is simple but also really used in the right place. Notice how this also means that he relies only on the melody and just leaves out most of the chords for this section.
There is another spot later where he does something similar but here the voices are really moving at the same time and there is a bit more going on also in the harmony, even if he is still just spelling out the harmony with one or two notes at a time. Beautiful minimalism using intervals and arpeggiating chords while having a top melody and a 2nd voice moving down. Playing this with full chords would not have the same effect.
Let’s look at some more of those strange dominant chord sounds.
Frisells Funny Dominants
Before the 2nd half of the theme, Bill changed the C7 into an Gb7, so a tritone substitution, fairly straight forward, but as you saw on the D7 in the beginning then chords are turned into a combination of arpeggios and intervals.
In this case he is using that a Gb7(b5) is the combination of 2 7th intervals: Gb E and C Bb, I know I am being a bit liberal with the enharmonic spelling here.
And then moves on while sustaining some notes to add a simple fill on top, and keeping it all practical and playable.
The D7 chords are, maybe except from the ending, the chords which are most surprising. This next example is first an example of a place where the melody is block harmonized (sort of) and then it disappears into a dissonant incomplete A diminished voicing that works as a D7. In this example, you also hear how the extensions and intervals within the chords are more important than a clear picture of the harmony, which is especially on the first two chords that don’t contain a 3rd and the first one is really just a Dm triad. It is actually funny that being vague is also a statement in music.
The Song and The Sound
Days Of Wine And Roses, is a Jazz standard that Bill Frisell really likes to play, since there are quite a few versions of it on YouTube and he also uses it in his masterclass video as an example for chord melody, I thought this was from there, but I am not sure about that anymore, since this is a different guitar? What is great about it is not only all the different things he is using borrowing from other styles and playing surprising things. It is as much how he manages to make that into a complete piece of music that doesn’t sound like things put together with copy-paste licks and gimmicks. In that respect he really reminds me of Hendrix.
This video of Days of Wine and Roses has him playing an SG, which is not the most common jazz guitar, but which I found out was his main guitar for quite a long time after he had stopped using an ES175, and in fact he was at one point playing in a band with Vinnie Colaiuta, this is a bit random but I thought it was very funny that they had been in a band together since they are so different. In the video, It sounds like the bridge pickup through a fender amp to me, but I can’t really tell for sure. Frisell often uses solid-body guitars, mostly telecasters and strats. I have also seen him play a 335 type guitar quite a few times. He also had a period where he played a Klein solid-body. In the video you hear quite a bit of reverb and delay which is probably a lexicon LXP-1 for reverb together with a digital delay. He was one of the people I saw using an LXP-1 that made me decide to get one. I had also seen Scofield, Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder using LXP-1 reverbs. You can even see his settings for the lexicon here if you want to in this clip:
In the song, you also hear a fair amount of volume pedal, plus that and I am pretty sure he is also using a compressor of some sort.
A Suspension that more people should use
The ending of the song shows a few things that I think deserve to be highlighted, and actually we should all steal the ending chord!
First you get a C(b9) and then a typical very simple F triad melody, played largely with the left hand thumb!
And then he comes out on (yet another) strange dominant sound, in this case a phrygian chord: Fsus2/E. He switches to playing with his right hand thumb to get the a different sound and the chord then resolves by letting it ring and playing the low F with the thumb on the left hand.
Check out another great chord melody player:
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