May 26, 2020

"Avalon" and "E Lucevan Le Stelle"

Another item from the history of music copyright violation: 

Was the song "Avalon" a ripoff of a Puccini aria?

Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry for "Vincent Rose," composer of "Whispering," "Avalon," and "Blueberry Hill":
In 1921, the estate of Giovanni Ricordi and the music publishing firm he founded, Casa Ricordi — the publisher of Puccini's operas — sued all parties associated with the song, "Avalon," claiming the melody was "lifted" from the aria "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's opera Tosca. The court found for Puccini and his publisher, and they were awarded $25,000 in damages, plus all future print royalties earned by "Avalon". The composer and his heirs, however, continued to receive performance royalties under an agreement reached with Ricordi for payment of only $1. Such royalties amounted to a very significant amount of money during the remainder of the 20th century, certainly far more than the $25,000 paid in damages to the publisher.

I think Puccini's heirs had a solid case, but you can decide for yourself. Puccini's theme is in minor, "Avalon" is pretty much the same theme, in major.

Benny Goodman got a major hit with "Avalon":

Here's Al Jolson's original version. Al wrote the words, and got a hit with his 1920 recording. The main theme starts at about 00:36:

Here's Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle." The clarinet introduces the theme at 1:10, the vocal at 2:34:

Apr 5, 2020

Jobim's "Gabriela" and Villa-Lobos' Prelude #5

Listening to the Villa-Lobos guitar Preludes the other day, I noticed a familiar theme in Prelude #5: The opening melody matches the main theme in Antonio Carlos Jobim's music for the movie "Gabriela" (1983, with Sonia Braga and Marcello Mastroianni, details here). Here's the Villa-Lobos:

Here's the Jobim theme, in a short version sung by Gal Costa:

It's common knowledge that Jobim thought highly of Villa-Lobos (who doesn't?), and Jobim certainly is known to have borrowed from other musical sources, from Chopin to Gershwin to Debussy.

The movie "Gabriela" was based on the 1975 Brazilian telenovela "Gabriela." The 1975 show had a theme by Dorival Caymmi:

Researching this post led me to some very pleasant listening! The Villa-Lobos Preludes, of course. I also found the full movie soundtrack, with a lot of great Jobim music I hadn't heard:

You can hear some fragments of Caymmi's theme embedded in the Jobim soundtrack.

Another Villa-Lobos borrowing in Jobim's soundtrack is a musical sequence that evokes the pattern of the berimbau. Villa-Lobos does this in Prelude #2 (at 0:58) :


Jobim uses this device at 0:59 in the movie soundtrack, above.

The movie character Gabriela is from the Northeast of Brazil; the berimbau is associated with capoeira, a martial art/dance that is also associated with the Northeast. Here's a nice introductory explanation:

Here's a concert performance of "Gabriela" by Jobim and his "Banda Nova" (Montreal, probably1986). The theme begins at 4:06, the "Northeast" music at 6:54.

Mar 31, 2020

Origins of Choro Form

My last post featured some points about choro, written up by my pianist friend Larry, in an email to some local musicians who have been exploring the choro repertoire. My choro expertise is limited, but as any reader of this blog knows, I enjoy trying to dig a little deeper into arcane music topics.

I thought Larry wrote a really informative piece, but I wondered about two points:

First, he mentioned that Jovino Santos Neto (who really does qualify as an expert) had said that early choro composers modeled the structure of their compositions on 17th-century classical music. Since the early choro composers (e.g., Calado, Gonzaga, Nazareth) were writing in the mid-1800s, this didn't sound quite right to me. Surely, their models would have been music as played in their own time: European classical music of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as dance and salon music from the same period.

To check on this question, I emailed Jovino, who graciously sent me a reply. He said that what he had meant was that "what comes from the 17th the rondo form of 3-part music...In its beginnings as the urban music of Rio in the mid-19th century, choro was basically a syncopated way to play the European music that was in vogue at the time: polkas, mazurkas, waltzes."

That sounded reasonable to me. But that brings me to my second question: 

European rondo form (ABACA or some variant) is often cited as the origin of standard choro form (AABBACCA or variant). Again, I'm no expert, but that seemed open to question. The polkas and marches that I am familiar with have a basic form along the lines of AABBA - trio - A (or variant). The repeats are significant; polkas seem to be a more likely model than classical rondos. 

Searching the web, I found this paper by Marcos Mesquita (if you download it, scroll way down to where the paper begins). 

Mesquita argues that the AABBACCA choro form probably derives from European dance forms that had a “trio” section (that would be the “CC"), such as polkas and minuets. Polkas had repeats of AA, BB, and CC. Repeats are found in polkas and minuets, but are not part of the classical rondo form. Here's an excerpt from the paper:
We must point that: 1) Traditional choro form with its repeat signs is:||: A :||: B :|| A ||: C :|| A || – the recapitulations of A section after B and C areplayed by indicating da capo; 2) No rondo form has repeat signs in each section...
He points out that some pieces by early choro composers had a section designated as a "trio," in the CC position. Over time, the “trio” designation was dropped, but the form stayed the same.

This makes sense to me!

Interestingly, as Larry mentioned in his writeup, ragtime tends to have a form similar to choro. Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, for example, is AABBAACCD. Not exactly the same as choro, but similar. Joplin's Euphonic Sounds is AABBACCA, the same as the common choro form. Here's a page from a book on Joplin that makes the same point that Mesquita does, but with regard to ragtime - that is, some music historians see rondo as an antecedent form, but it's unlikely because of the lack of transitions, and the presence of repeats. Ragtime is often mentioned as having its roots in the march; many marches begin with AABB - trio. 

There is no way that ragtime could have influenced early choro, as ragtime dates from later in the 19th century. It's also very unlikely that choro influenced ragtime. Yet both genres developed similar structures, derived from European forms.

It's likely, though, that ragtime (and jazz) influenced later choro composers like Pixinguinha, starting in the 1910s-1920s, when ragtime achieved popularity, and was available in both sheet music and recorded form. The influence of jazz continued into the bebop years, and in fact to the present.

But again, I'm no expert. Comments are welcome!

Mar 21, 2020

An American Jazz Pianist's Comments on Choro

My friend Larry Lewicki, an American jazz pianist with an interest in Brazilian music, wrote up some comments for some mutual friends, musicians who have been exploring the choro repertoire. I thought some readers of this blog might find it informative. Comments are welcome!

Here's Larry:

Hi All,

I just have a couple of comments on choro for you. As a jazz pianist (with some knowledge of guitar), I was introduced to choro maybe 12 years ago when I was asked to sit in with some bluegrass playing friends - they needed a guitarist. I started on steel string acoustic and subsequently bought a nylon string guitar - got rid of the pick and taught myself some RH fingerstyle techniques. Then I went to the Centrum Choro workshop 9 years ago as a guitarist and got my butt kicked (but I learned some useful RH patterns - called levadas - that I've applied to my piano playing.) Since then I've been listening to a lot of choro - attended more workshops and read books about choro, etc. Here's my current level of thought.

1) Choro is not like jazz. People talk about improvisation in choro, but I believe that it's really a different concept than for jazz. The choro melody players "improvise" by playing off the melody and just adding embellishments. While the Brazilians I've met, like Dudu Maia, can shred bebop on bandolim (Brazilian "mandolin" but really more of a smaller version of the Portuguese guitar), they typically stay very close to the melody. So it's not typical to "blow solos over the changes" when playing choro. Very different concept than with jazz head charts.

2) Choro is not a rhythm. It's not like learning the samba tamborim patterns. Though there is a standard concept of "choro" rhythm - straight 16th notes in 2/4 - the term choro is really a concept that extends to many types of Brazilian rhythms. There are choros based on Tango Brasileiro, e.g. Brejiro (side note - the term tango originated in Brazil not Argentina - based on the habanera - like the L’amour est une oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen, 1874) - choros based on maxixe (a derivative of the African Lundu) - choro-sambas - choro-waltz - choro-baiāo - choro-cançao (though >95% of choros are instrumentals) - even choro-fado. I would even argue that a choro like "Vê si gostas" is more like a blues-choro. I believe that choro is a concept that is based around the whole ensemble articulating or supporting the melody. Melody is key - and choro melodies are typically very "notey," with long runs of 16th notes.

3) Even though a choro melody is key, the melodies are not absolutely codified like they are in classical music. I have 3 different lead sheets for the Joaquim Callado choro, Flor Amorosa - and each is different. Choros were taught aurally, and they mutated as the players got more virtuosic, adventurous and inspired. The "melody" is kind of an armature - different instruments have different characteristics. A bandolim line might alternate between a high and low note in a way you can't do on a flute - so the flute player changes the melody. A flute version may have ornaments that can't be done on a cavaquinho - and so on.

4) Choro improvisation largely happens in the accompaniment - and the accompaniment is largely based on improvised counterpoints, not chord changes per se. The most variable feature of choro performances seems to me to be in the accompaniment. The seven string guitar plays counterpoints (or baixarias) - and often the other melody players provide counterpoint simultaneously with the melody. Check out this version of Pixinguinha's waltz, Rosa, from Brasil Toca Choro - the melody is played relatively straight and passed around between the flute, clarinet and bandolim, but the accompanying musicians are all counterpointing - bandolim, clarinet, flute, 6-string guitar and 7-string guitar. Each chorus is different. I think of the counterpoints as being like 17th century baroque classical music figured bass - like you hear in Vivaldi or Bach's Brandenburg concertos. (Side note - I watched Dudu Maia teach guitarist Henrique Neto a choro he'd composed. Dudu never mentioned a chord - he just played the melody - and Henrique improvised the chords based on what scale or arpeggio he heard in the melody. It was amazing and humbling - no chart. After 10 minutes, the tune was learned.)

Chord inversions. Since counterpoint is so important in choro, often the bass line doesn’t end up on a root note. Guitarists/pianists really need to learn inversions. That’s why you will often see Eø7/Bb to A7 to keep the bass line happening.

In the B section of Flor Amorosa you’ll see

|A- |D- |E7 |A- E7 |

On guitar I might play

|A- A-/C |D- D-/F |E7 E7/D |A-/C E7/B | or maybe

|A- A-/G |D-/F (fill F to C) |E7/B (fill E to B) |A- (ascending E7 arpeggio) |

Dudu Maia says he only hears three kinds of chords: tonic, dominant and subdominant. The rest are all inversions or suspensions. When you think like that, the harmonic landscape simplifies.

5) Rondo form is very typical in choro. In 1808, the Portuguese court fled Napoleon and re-established their European capital in Rio de Janeiro (no longer just a colony - it was a European capital). Approximately 10,000 court members brought their orchestras, held dance parties and subsequently trained their slaves to play European music. (Rio was known as “the city of pianos” because the British Broadwood company sold so many Beethoven-era pianos there). Early choro players and composers were classically trained musicians. They modeled early choros on 17th century classical music, specifically polkas (hence the “notey-ness”) - married with African syncopations. Classical rondo form is used in many choros.

Rondo form involves a recurring A section; a basic form might be ABACA. A typical choro form is AABBACCA. Rondo form came about because audiences might only hear a song once (an observation I heard from a Robert Greenburg lecture series on Mozart string quartets). How does the performer imprint a song in the memory of the audience? Repetition... repeat the A section - then repeat the B section - then repeat the A section again - then two repetitions of the C section - and a final repeat of the A section. Rondo is a formal structure to help the audience hold the melodies in their heads.

Rondo form choros typically have a 16 bar long melody in the A section. My teachers have emphasized that those melodies are typically broken into 4 parts (P1, P2, P3 and P4) - each 4 bars long. P1 is the statement or proposition, P2 is the answer (often with a temporary modulation) - often P3 is very similar to P1 maybe with a different ending - P4 is the turnaround, with the most harmonic movement.

The A section sets the key - the B section is typically in a relative minor or major (depending on if the A section is major or minor). The C section or trio is in a nearby key. This set of harmonic relationships doesn’t always happen - but is very typical. (Coincidentally, the same AABBACCA variant of rondo form was also adopted by ragtime composers in the US a few decades after choro started in Rio de Janeiro).

Melodies in ensembles are often distributed between players. Consider this version of Flor Amorosa (considered to be the first choro - written in 1880 by Joaquim Callado), originally composed with a polka rhythm - see figure 3.41 page 102 from this PhD dissertation - but typically played in a Tango Brasileiro style.

The melody is distributed section by section roughly like this:

A - flute
A - clarinet (note the bandolim counterpoints)
B - flute (nice ornaments)
B - clarinet
A - bandolim
C - flute - but she hands it off to the clarinet in the P4 bars.....
C - clarinet for P1 and P2 - flute for P3 and clarinet for P4
A - flute, clarinet and mandolin unison

6) Some newer choros have a binary AABBA form (e.g., Receita de Samba). The A and B sections are typically 32 bars - and P1, P2, P3 and P4 are 8 bars apiece.

While Tico-tico No Fúba is probably the most famous choro known outside of Brazil, inside Brazil the most famous choro is Pixinguinha’s song Carinhoso (every Brazilian knows the words). Pixinguinha wouldn’t play this song in public, he left it his desk after composing it because it only had an A and B section and he felt all choros had to be in rondo form. After 18 years, he was convinced to publish and perform it. Brazilians have told me that Carinhoso is considered to be the unofficial national anthem of Brazil.

Another exception to the forms above has occurred with the Ernesto Nazareth tango, Brejeiro (1893). Originally in a binary form, AABBA with the A section in A major and the B section in E major. Jacob do Bandolim rearranged Brejeiro as a 4 part form - and its been codified that way ever since as: intro-AABB-modulation-A’A’B’B’-modulation-A-coda. Typically the A section is played in the bandolim-friendly key of G major, the B section is in D major - the A’ section is in G minor and B’ section is in Bb.

7) Choro is a very social music in Brazil - with players clustered around a table drinking and eating. A roda - or a circle party. A challenging environment for a piano player to fit into. That’s why I’m trying to learn to play melodica.

Dec 28, 2019

Tunes published in 1924 will be entering the public domain in 2020

United States copyright law is quite restrictive as compared to many other countries. According to the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1988 (aka "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), works published or registered before 1978 remain under copyright for 95 years.

Since the passage of the 1988 law, the cutoff date for works entering the public domain has been 1922, with any works published in 1923 or later remaining under copyright. Beginning in 2019, the clock began running again, with each new year bringing one more year of songs and other works into the public domain. Over the next 20 years or so, most "Golden Age" jazz standards will lose copyright protection.

As of January 1, 2020, U.S. copyright will expire for the following works published in 1924. These songs are all on the "Top 1000" list at

All Alone (Irving Berlin)
Everybody Loves My Baby (Spencer Williams)
Fascinatin' Rhythm (Gershwin)
How Come You Do Me Like You Do (Austin, Bergere)
I Want To Be Happy (Youmans)
I'll See You In My Dreams (Isham Jones)
It Had To Be You (Isham Jones)
The Man I Love (Gershwin)
Nobody's Sweetheart Now (Erdman, Kahn)
Oh, Lady Be Good (Gershwin)
The One I Love (Belongs To Someone Else) (Isham Jones)
Somebody Loves Me (Gershwin)
South (Moten)
Tea For Two (Youmans)
What'll I Do (Irving Berlin)
When Day Is Done (Katscher, De Sylva)

As you can see, 1924 was a very good year for George Gershwin, and not bad either for Isham Jones. We may see an increase in Gershwin tribute albums this year.

There's a nice youtube playlist for 1924 tunes here.

In the realm of classical music, Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" is losing copyright protection, also Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and Puccini's "Turandot."

And we certainly should not leave out "The Prisoner's Song" (Guy Massey), a country classic.

Last December I posted an article similar to this one, listing tunes that became public domain in 2019. This subject has the potential for a yearly update - unless Congress messes with copyright law again, to rescue Mickey Mouse from becoming fair game in 2024.

Many other countries have shorter terms of copyright; one common formula is the life of the author plus fifty years (see this table). For example, in Canada you can record songs written by Wes Montgomery (d. 1968), without paying royalties.

Copyright Law of the United States (Wikipedia)

Dec 8, 2019

Review: "The Leak Light Speaks" by Tom Levitt

The Leak Light Speaks is subtitled, "Saxophone Purchase, Assessment, Set Up, Repair, Overhaul, Customization and Reflections on Jazz Education outside of Academia." Quite a list of topics! Author Tom Levitt offers us the benefit of his experience on these subjects, in a writing style that one might even call poetic at times. The book is aimed at his fellow saxophone enthusiasts, and in particular at those who might be interested in DIY (do-it-yourself) repair and customization. I've been playing for over 50 years; I learned some things, and had a fun read along the way.

For the uninitiated, I should explain that a "leak light" is a light dropped by a woodwind repairer into the body of the instrument, in a darkened room. When a pad is closed, there should be no light leakage visible around the outside rim of the pad. Thus, the leak light is a speaker of truth, so to speak.

Before I get into the content of the book, I have to say that it could have benefited from some proofreading and improved organization. But I'm willing to forgive a lot with a self-published book - I have to respect the sincerity of the project, and the effort that the author put into it.

A short anecdote: When I was in college in the 1970s, I attended a week-long summer jazz workshop put on by National Stage Band Camps (predecessor to the Aebersold summer workshops). The faculty included John LaPorta, Marian McPartland, Lou Marini Sr., and some other great teachers. I played in a big band class taught by trumpeter Wes Hensel. At the end-of-the-week final concert, he had me take a long tenor solo on a very fast "rhythm changes" tune in 5/4. I was in way over my head, but got through it somehow and survived. That did a lot for my confidence going forward. I also had an arranging class with Wes. What stuck with me from that class was something he told us on the last day: "If you remember nothing else from this class, remember that clarity is the magic word." Wes was talking about arranging, but that advice applies to all creative endeavors. I've used that line quite a lot in teaching, over the years.

In The Leak Light Speaks, Levitt's writing is great on the level of his sentences, but the book's format is short on clarity. If he ever decides to revise this book, it would help his readers if the chapter divisions and subheadings were visually clarified, the Table of Contents revised, and the spelling checked.

Here are the main sections of the book and page numbers as they should have appeared in the Table of Contents:

Introduction  7
Perspectives on the Saxophone   11
Repair, Overhaul, and Customization  89
Journey to the Centre of the Saxophone  121 [the author's personal history with the sax]
Saxophone Study and Formal Education  137
The Customized Saxophone  155  [a summing-up]

The second and third sections above are the longest, centering on practical advice.

The book's factual advice concerns how to find a decent saxophone in need of work, but with potential, and turn it into a superior instrument through DIY repair and customization. Candidates can be found on eBay, but the buyer needs to know what to look for. Levitt considers the Yamaha 23 to be the standard by which other student-level horns are measured (I agree). For sturdy build, the Bundy II can be taken as a standard (I agree). These, or quality-equivalent horns, would be the place for an aspiring DIY sax repairer to start.

Levitt discusses "stencils" - i.e., horns made by a manufacturer to sell to another company, which then in turn puts its own name on the horn. One prime example is the Vito 7131, which was actually made by Yamaha, and is equivalent to the Yamaha 23. Stencils have been produced by various manufacturers since at least the 1920s. Tracing different stencil producers and labels is difficult and convoluted. Levitt lists quite a few, but a better list is here:

Regarding modern student saxophones, Levitt is disparaging of many of the current super-low-end offerings, saying that they are sometimes made of soft metal, are easily damaged, and are almost impossible to keep in good repair. I agree. Some of my students have had discouraging experiences with low-end horns that their parents bought, trusting that they would be usable. Caveat Emptor. If you are shopping for a student horn, you need to do some research, and talk to someone knowledgeable, who can make a good recommendation. IMO, the last thing you want is a brand-new $250 Amazon horn.

(On the other side of this argument, Stephen Howard, a respected sax technician, states that some of the cheap Chinese horns aren't too bad, and that he believes quality is improving. See this article. But again - if you are buying, be very, very careful.)

Personally, I am not a DIY repairer, beyond easy minor adjustments and pad replacement.

Nevertheless, it was informative to read through the advice on repair and setup. If you are interested in acquiring this skill, Levitt's book could be quite helpful. The aforementioned Stephen Howard also has a nice book out on sax repair, Haynes Saxophone Manual. Howard's book is clearly written and presented, but goes into somewhat less depth; when a particular repair seems too complicated for the average reader, Howard simply tells the reader to take it to a pro repair shop (that's what I do). Levitt's readers are encouraged to take more chances, in the pursuit of self-education.

The Leak Light Speaks covers some subjects that might raise some eyebrows - e.g., DIY lacquering, making DYI plasticover reeds, and "rigidifying" soft-metal horns, all using polyurethane (Varathane). Also, if I read it right, refinishing/rigidifying horns with white glue...I have to assume that Levitt has tried all of these techniques.

In the section titled “Journey to the Centre of the Saxophone,” the author relates some autobiographical stories about how he developed his interest in saxophone playing and repair, and about some of the characters he met along the way. Levitt ends the section with philosophical comments on jazz saxophone playing and the artistic life.

In “Saxophone Study and Formal Education,” Levitt discusses the way jazz musicians were educated in the early history of jazz, contrasting it with the “artificial jazz milieu” that he sees in university jazz education programs. He is not keen on the value of “formal” education, as it applies to playing jazz. He prefers the DIY approach. Many musicians would take exception to this. It is true that the only way to acquire the tools of jazz improvisation, really, is through self-education. But it is also true that “formal” education can open a lot of intellectual doors. Levitt considers this question from the viewpoint of the artist/philosopher. This section includes some practical suggestions for practice routines, all perfectly reasonable.

The last section, “The Customized Saxophone,” is a summation of the main points of the book, with some final words of encouragement for the DIY repairer/customizer.

Considering the practical information in this book, the entertainment value of a good read, and the inspirational words of artistic encouragement, this book is well worth the $10.00 that it costs on Amazon. Thanks to Tom Levitt for writing it!