Mar 9, 2011

"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Wayne Shorter)

Wayne Shorter’s contributions to jazz, as saxophonist/composer/bandleader, are immense. His best known compositions are those that he recorded in the 1960s, both on his own albums and with Miles Davis. Wayne's melodies tend to be simple, while his harmonic style is often complex. His approach varies from tune to tune, but it's accurate to say that he uses mostly logical, established harmonic devices. However, he employs them in creative ways that might seem hard to fathom at first glance.
How to play on Wayne's tunes is a pretty deep subject; it's difficult to address it in blog-post length. Here I am just going to look at one representative song, “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” from the “Speak No Evil” album. 
Lead sheets for this tune can be found in the Jamey Aebersold playalong series (Vol. 33), and in the Hal Leonard "sixth edition" Real Book. You'll find a chord chart at the bottom of this post. In consideration of copyright, I am reproducing only the chords here. You can find the melody in one of the above sources, and/or just listen to it. Be sure to listen to the original version - that's the only way you will understand the piece (99 cents on Amazon, $1.29 on itunes, posted quasi-legally on youtube). 

To get to the essence of a Wayne Shorter tune, listen to the melody. The melody drives the tune. The melody is surrounded by a harmonic atmosphere. Wayne sets up progressions that take harmonic excursions, and in the process, often result in the melody notes occupying color tones like 9, b9, #11, etc. This compositional style gives the improviser some options - how much to work with melody, how much with chords. 

Regardless of the complexity of the chords, you should be able to tell by ear what key you are in just from the melody - that's your starting point. “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” is in Bb. We need to take a wide view of what a “key” is: Bb major, Bb minor, Bb blues, Bb dorian, and G minor are pretty much the same thing.

Here is what I see in the harmony of this tune:

We are in Bb. The first chord, Eb7, is a blues-style IV dominant. The first melody note comes across as a #11. The second chord (D7#9) is V7 in G minor, which reveals the Eb7 as also being subV of V in G minor. In other words, the Eb7 is both a blues IV and a pivot chord heading for G minor. G minor is the relative minor of Bb major; they are pretty much the same tonality. The Abmaj7 chord is a sort of subV in G minor, but I think it is there to put the melody note Bb on the 9th, perhaps also to set up the Bmaj7 (explained next).

The chords in bar 3 reference John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Bmaj7 to D7 is the first measure of that tune. In "Giant Steps," Coltrane explores the motion of key centers by major third. He repeatedly states a major 7 chord (e.g., Bmaj7) followed by a dominant chord a minor third higher (D7); this then resolves to its tonic (Gmaj7) - thus, moving into a new key a major third lower than the first (B major into G major). In our tune, notice that the root motion of Abmaj7 into Bmaj7 is by minor third. The next root motion is another minor third - Bmaj7 into D7, as in “Giant Steps.”

It may be "Giant Steps," but to me the Bmaj7 sounds like a dominant preparation chord, setting up D7, like the Eb7 in bar 1. Bars 1-3 come across as being all in G minor. Bar 4 reminds me of a minor blues, where the tonic minor chord is made dominant in order to set up a IV chord in bar 5. In this tune, Wayne delivers a return to Eb7 instead. This sounds fine (1.) because it's a new 4-bar unit, and (2.) because Eb7 has 3 notes in common with the "expected" Cm7.

Wayne could have kept the Coltrane progression going in bar 4 by writing Gmaj7 to Bb7; this would have made a nice V7, setting up the Eb7 in bar 5. But maybe that seemed too obvious. 

The title “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” seems to reference Giant Steps - it's also in the same bag as Wayne's other mystical/mythical titles (ESP, Nefertiti, Pinocchio, Witch Hunt). The beginning of the melody of “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” also resembles the opening bars of “Giant Steps,” outlining a major 7 arpeggio, with the Shorter tune adding some passing tones (and of course, harmonized very differently). 

Bars 5-8 are the same as bars 1-4, except that bars 7-8 cadence into Bb7 (overall tonic) by means of C7b9 (V of V) to F7 (V) to Bb7 (I, with a bluesy b7 note).

Next comes the bridge: Eb7 (bars 9-10) is a blues-style IV dominant chord, going to Bb7 (bars 11-12), a blues I chord. Then back to the funky Eb7 (bars 13-14). In bar 15, instead of another Bb7, Wayne puts in Bbm7 Eb7. This appears to be a II V in Ab, but notice that it is also a I to IV in Bb dorian. This is the same harmonic device found in "Oye Como Va," or the intro to "Wave." Again, Wayne is giving the improviser a couple of possible routes. In bar 16, the II V shape is moved down a half step, to Am7 D7. This would normally lead to G major. In fact, it does set up the key of G - actually G minor, when the opening progression repeats in bar 17.

From bars 17-21 the initial progression repeats; in bar 22 it takes a different turn. This time the D7#9 resolves down as a subV of Dbmaj7. The chromatic descent then continues to C7b9, resolving down to the final Bmaj7. This last chord puts the tonic note Bb on the major 7 of the chord, with all other chord tones suspensions that never actually resolve. This last trick is actually common enough in jazz, except that in a more ordinary setting this progression might have then resolved to a tonic Bb6 chord (e.g., the last two chords in "One Note Samba"). But that would have been way too ordinary for this tune.

The solos on the original recording (Freddie Hubbard, Wayne, Herbie Hancock) seem to generally take a reductionist approach - that is, the soloists don't concern themselves with hitting every chord, but rather play mostly in Bb major/blues or in G minor. Once in a while, a line will veer into other harmonic territory, e.g. the Am7 D7 in bar 16. Melodic/expressive phrases are more important, not running changes - even though the changes offer a lot to work with.

I hope that made sense to some reader, somewhere. A lot of Wayne's other tunes can be viewed the same way as this one. Remember - melody first.

If you'd like to dig further, there's a discussion of this tune with some interesting perspectives on


  1. Thanks for the post. I am in the jazz studies master's program at University of Central Oklahoma and we are doing this tune in one of my combos. It was nice to get your take on it.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad to hear that you found it helpful!

  2. Hey Peter thanks for this helpful article. The possible connections to Giant Steps is really interesting. I'm working on gaining fluency with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock quasi-modal 60s stuff, because its my favorite kind of music but is not often covered in jazz theory courses, which usually look at standard progressions and substitutions.