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Play Like Joe Pass

January 30, 2014

imgSo what is it about Italian jazz guitarists? When you think of names like Pass, Martino, Diorio, Tedesco, Bell, Caiola, Mottola, Viola, and Pizzarelli, their warm tone, deft touch, and heightened melodic awareness inevitably springs to mind, but why? For me, one word sums it up: romance. All of these guys are deeply in love with their instrument, and you can hear it in their commitment to every note. They’ve all quested for excellence and worked long and hard to achieve it, and none personifies these traits more so than jazz guitar’s own Iron Chef Italian, the late Joe Pass (1929-1994). Pass came from a working-class background, fought and conquered drug addiction, and rose to become a virtuoso guitarist and member of the crème de la crème of jazz royalty— one whose command of single-note and chord melody improvisation still remains both unprecedented and unparalleled.

Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey into a working-class family, who later relocated to Johnstown, PA., where Pass’ father, perhaps the real hero of this story, went to work in the steel mills and coal mines. Mariano Passalaqua was so determined to see his son not follow in his footsteps that he bought Joe a $17 Harmony flat-top steel-string acoustic for his ninth birthday and forced him to practice for six hours every day for the next several years. Needless to say, Pass got good fast, and three years later, the Harmony was replaced by an 00-42 Martin, which he fi tted with a DeArmond pickup. That guitar served him well beyond his first gig at 14 with Tony Pastor’s band, where he got to improvise on tunes like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Got Rhythm,” and apply on the bandstand the stuff he was learning from Charlies Parker and Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and pianist Art Tatum. At 16, Pass switched to a Gibson ES-150 sporting a Charlie Christian pickup and found his sound.

Pass moved to New York City in 1949, where he listened to and jammed with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum, but he soon entered a downward spiral of heroin addiction and prison life. After 12 lost years, Pass entered a rehab center in Concord, California, in 1960, where he recorded the now highly collectable Sounds of Synanon LP in 1961 with some fellow patients. Pass conquered his demons, and in 1963 emerged drug-free and ready to take on the jazz world at large. It didn’t take long for the word to get around. In addition to becoming an indemand Los Angeles session player, Pass cut his first three sides as a leader (Catch Me! [1963], For Django [1964], and Simplicity [1966], all on Pacific), and rode out the wave of mid-60s rock-and-roll with underrated World Pacific albums like 12-String Guitar, A Sign of the Times (both 1966) and 1965’s The Stones Jazz, a personal favorite on which Pass blows through hip arrangements of ten Rolling Stones tunes.

Pass went on to perform and record in almost every conceivable musical configuration and setting, including duos, trios, quartets, and orchestras, but it was his solo work, which coalesced when he began recording for Norman Granz’s Pablo label in 1972, that truly set him apart from the pack. Pass’ key Pablo releases include the ground-breaking, four-volume Virtuoso solo guitar series recorded between 1972 and 1977, 1973’s Grammy-winning The Trio (with Oscar Peterson and Neils-Hegging Orsted Pedersen), Take Love Easy (1973), Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), Fitzgerald and Pass...Again (1976), and 1983’s Speak Love (all with Ella Fitzgerald), Portraits Of Duke Ellington (1974), The Giants (1974, with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown), The Big 3 (1975, with Milt Jackson and Ray Brown), and the list goes on and on. Throughout his career, Pass also recorded dozens of albums as both a leader and sideman for a plethora of other labels, including Blue Note, Discovery, MPS, Concord Jazz, Columbia, Verve, Polytone, and Telarc.

Pass played a Synanon-owned Fender Jazzmaster until 1963, when an ardent admirer gave him a 1960 Gibson ES-175 with dual PAFs, which he played on and off for the rest of his career. He also did some recording with a custom-built Jimmy D’Aquisto acoustic during the early ’70s. The Polytone model 102 was his favorite amp, and he liked to string up with medium-gauge D’Aquisto flatwounds. Pass’ picking technique initially involved alternate down and upstrokes—curiously, he claimed to always use a downstroke when moving to a different string—but over time he switched first to a hybrid pick-and-fingers technique, and eventually to a totally fingerstyle approach.

So how does one go about becoming a virtuoso? “If you want to master a particular style, you have to like it and live with it,” Pass told GP in 1984. “The music has to be in your head, not just your hands.” While Pass has authored several books that examine his style, approach, and technique in depth, including Joe Pass Guitar Style, Joe Pass Guitar Solos, Joe Pass Guitar Chords, and Joe Pass Chord Solos, he always felt that the most important piece of advice he could, ahem, pass on to guitarists is to concentrate on learning the melody and changes to as many jazz standards as possible. With that in mind, let’s start making gravy. First, you’ve gotta...

imgToday, we’re cooking up an in-depth look at JP’s improvised chord-melody arrangement of the Duke Ellington classic, “Satin Doll,” culled from 1974’s Portraits of Duke Ellington, a trio date featuring bassist Ray Brown and drummer Bobby Durham. Let’s start with a typical fakebook-style lead sheet containing the melody and chord symbols, as shown in Ex. 1. Scan the chords and you’ll discover that the tune mainly comprises a bunch of IIm7-V7 progressions (the most common harmonic movement in jazz), some of which resolve to a I chord, and some that don’t. Begin by exploring the melody and harmony in two-bar segments, keeping in mind that since the guitar is a transposing instrument, the melody should be played one octave higher than written. This also allows plenty of room to voice chords below the melody. To construct the entire 32-bar, “A-A-B-A” song form, follow the repeat signs, first and second endings, and D.C. al fine indicator at the end of the B section, which simply means to go back to bar 1 and finish the final A section at the fine mark in bar 8. Now, let’s see how Pass sets the whole thing up.

imgPass was a man of a million intros, and his short, fourbar chord-melody passage that prefaces “Satin Doll” is a true gem. Take your time sussing the opening rhythmic motif of Ex. 2 (a wise practice when learning new material), and then get to work on the first four Dm-based voicings in bar 1. (Tip: Play it over a G bass, and then transpose these moves to all keys.) With the exception of Cmaj7, all of the chords and single notes in bar 2 are derived from the third-position G13 voicing played on beat one. The Cmaj7 kicks off a passage of five descending parallel maj7 voicings that covers bar 3 and ends up back where it started. Finally, three chromatic, minor-tenth intervals applied to a dragged quarter-note triplet outline F#m, Fm, and Em, leading to our final destination: a hip A7#5#9 (or Db13) voicing nailed on the and of beat three. Swing it hard, and then...

imgImmediately following his intro, Pass launches a beautiful, eight-bar, chordmelody take on the song’s first A section. The Dm7- G13 IIm-V moves in the first two bars of Ex. 3 are designed around a stock, fifth-position Dm7 and the G13 voicing used in the intro, though here Pass adds a cool suspension to the latter in bar 1. The next two bars feature the same progression played a whole step higher (Em7- A13), but check out how Pass reverses the locations of the A13 and A13sus4 chords in bar 3, and introduces a new A9#5 voicing in bar 4. Pass ignores the Am9 in bar 5 by harmonizing the melody with D9-based voicings only, but in bar 6, he slides into its half-step-lower counterpart (Abm9) followed by Db9 and Db13, as dictated by the Bb and Ab melody notes. (Tip: The whole measure is a hip, flat-five substitute for G7, the V chord.) We resolve to an anticipated, quartal I chord, which in turn, begins the twobar, C6/9-F9-E7#9-A13 turnaround in bars 7 and 8. To complete the second A section, simply repeat the first six bars, and then leave the last two measures open as we...

imgAs with dozens of jazz standards in the bebop tradition, measures 15-16 and 31-32 in a 32-bar, A-A-B-A form are often reserved for a cappella solo flights, and Pass’s entrance to the bridge provides a textbook example. Commencing with a two-bar, single-note, solo turnaround, Ex. 4 notates the final two bars (15-16) from the second A section, plus the remainder of the eight-bar B section, or bridge. Pass continues his single-note strategy as he deftly runs the changes in bars 3 through 6, virtually ignoring the melody, and then snaps back into chord-melody mode, using a combination of three-, four-, and five-note voicings interspersed with single notes for the remaining four measures of the bridge. This is perfection in motion, so study it well. Next, we complete the form and...

imgPass’ final A section chordmelody (bars 25-30 of the 32-bar form) essentially repeats bars 1-6 from Ex. 3 with two exceptions: The cool run shown in Ex. 5a replaces bar 2 (Recognize those voicings from the intro in Ex. 2?), and the equally swinging fill in Ex. 5b subs for bar 4. Put it all together and you’re ready to...

imgPass kicks off the eightbar solo excerpt in Ex. 6 with another two-bar a cappella pickup à la Charlie Parker, before easing into the A-section changes, first with some relaxed, bluesy, eighth-note lines (bars 3-8), and then accelerating into sixteenthnotes in bars 9 and 10. Check out how his signature neighbor tones surround each C chord tone in bar 9, and how his sax-y sixteenths nail the Em7-A7 IIm-V in bar 10. The fact that Pass winged this arrangement, plus the rest of the tune, is nothing short of mind blowing. (Tip: My full-song transcription is available in Guitar Standards [Hal Leonard].) And this was only one performance—Pass reinvented it night after night! So there you have it: A family recipe for an old favorite cooked up by a master chef. Got room for dessert? Good! I hope you...

imgYou can tell how much Joe Pass loved the blues simply by observing how greatly the genre informed his repertoire. Thematic records aside, nearly every Pass album featured one or more blues tunes, both covers and originals. We’re all familiar with the standard, 12-bar, C-blues progression illustrated in Ex. 7, but getting a grip on Pass’ substitutions (inspired by “Pasta Blues,” a Pass original from Virtuoso 3) provides a fresh slant that includes a IIm-V move (Gm7-C7) into the IV chord (F7) inserted into bar 4, a #IVdim7 (F#dim7) added to bar 6, a minor IIIm7b5-VI7 (Ebm7b5- A7) into a diatonic IIm-V (Dm7-G7) in bars 8-10, and a I-VI-IIm-V (C7-A7-Dm7-G7) turnaround in bars 11 and 12. These subs are common devices found in many jazz blues tunes, so be sure to learn them in all keys. Once you’ve got ’em hard-wired, consider yourself prepped and ready to...

imgWhen it came to playing solo blues, Pass typically switched between three basic strategies: sparse chord-melody accompaniment and walking bass fragments with emphasis on singlenote melodies, denser chord-melody passages, and exclusively single-note lines. The next trio of examples illustrates how he might handle bars 1-4. Ex. 8a features a simple blues melody line imgpunctuated with both chordal stabs and walking bass bits to imply a full band arrangement, while Ex. 8b drops the walking bass notes and thins out the chord voicings in favor of some single-note solo improv. Highlights in the latter include the opening C13-based moves embellished with a bluesy b3#9 (Eb), and the Charlie Parker-isms that abound in bars 2-4. Ex. 8c takes flight with even more Bird-like phrasing, particularly evident in those hammered-imgand-pulled sixteenth- note triplets in bars 1 and 3, the F# diminished arpeggio used to create altered tension against the IV chord (F7) in bar 2, and the ultra-cool IIm-V lick in bar 4. Feel the love? Let’s spice things up and...

imgShifting into a denser chordmelody mode, Ex. 9a begins with a half-step pickup (not unlike Ex. 8a’s) into bars 5-8. The stretchy F7 voicing in bar 1 gets applied to a bigband- style rhythmic motif and is contrasted with an eighth-note triplet bass run on beat four. The F9 voicing in bar 2 gets the same rhythm treatment, but check out how the triplet on beat four jumps to the upper register and functions as a pickup to the chromatic sixths and could-be-Albert-King lick in bar 3. Bar 4 features Pass’s flat-five sub of Bb7 for Em7, plus some altered A7 action as we head for the imgDm7 target. Taking it further out, Ex. 9b’s ascending and descending triplets outline chromatic major and diminished triads over the same four-bar progression. The key words here are “momentum” and “target.” Want it even spicier? No problemo.

imgWe’ll wrap up our study and the remaifinder of the progression with a pair of turnarounds designed for bars 9 - 12. The four-bar passage shown in Ex. 10a begins with a measure of D9- and D13-based single-notes and block chords, implying a dominant II chord, and then shifts to a condensed Dm7-G13 IIm-V run in bar 2. More Bird moves inhabit bar 3, and in this case, we save our garlic (in the form of broken G and C# octaves ascending in enharmonic flat fifths) for the last measure. Need more? Get a whiff of Ex. 10b, which utilizes a valuable imgjazz shortcut for creating pungent melodic tension. Check out how the alternating 13th and 9th chords that begin halfway through bar 1 on Bb and descend in minor thirds through G, E, and Db create tons of altered V-chord (G7) flavors with a minimum amount of effort. (Tip: This works with both chords and single-note lines.) Finally, we resolve to an almost ragtime-y, pianistic turnaround in bars 3 and 4 (think Tatum), and we’re back to the top. You can combine four bars each of Examples 8, 9, and 10 to form a slew of 12-bar solo blues choruses, or just pick out the bits you like best and use them on the bandstand. Pasta’s ready, so buon appetito!

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