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  • Score Analysis - "House on Willard"

    1. Score Analysis - "House on Willard"

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    In advance of the next Paul Dietrich Quintet album, due in 2017, I'll be going through and doing a compositional analysis of all the tunes on the first album. Second is "House on Willard." Audio is available by clicking play above. You may download the PDF to follow along by clicking on this link:

    House on Willard PDF

    First: what is the House on Willard? I used to walk dogs in Chicago's west loop – the part of downtown covering from, basically, south from Jackson St. up to Washington, and west from a little past Willis Tower across the highway to Racine. Within this little section of the city there was a little street that was only a block called Willard Court, in between Racine and Elizabeth.

    This part of Chicago is fairly recently developed – lots of hip restaurants and old warehouses that were converted into lofts for young professionals, dotted with the occasional high-rise apartment building. What there are not a lot of are houses. There is a very odd exception on Willard Court. A large, three story red-brick house that just didn't fit. It was covered in ivy. It had these like Tuscan-style windows that would be open in the summertime. Open porches. And, most remarkably of all – a big, fenced in backyard garden. It was incredible! It was a high fence so you had to kind of be at the right angle to see it, but it was this kind of magical place – kind of overgrown, with a firepit and old wooden lawn furniture. This place was in the middle of the one of downtown Chicago's nicer new neighborhoods!

    Anyway. That's where the title came from. And I would always imagine it as this sort magical place that existed in it's own world, apart from the bustle of the what was going on around it, and that was sort of the place that the tune House on Willard came from.

    On a technical level, I was trying to do something different with this piece. I sat down and had a couple beers with Chicago's wonderful composer Matt Ulery, and this song was kind of the result of what we talked about that night. The main takeaway: I was consciously trying to find ways to reorchestrate a jazz quintet. To try to get away from the idea of the two horns leading the line and the rhythm section accompanying.

    So – the ostinato figure at the beginning, which would normally probably be in piano, isn't – it's in trumpet and saxophone. Then the melody comes in in measure 3 – in the left hand of the piano, joined for moments by bass.

    As a side note, you can clearly see a little bit of Matt's influence in the construction of this ostinato, too, I think. We didn't talk about this, but I think it's pretty obvious that there's a lot of Philip Glass in Matt's music, and also a lot of what I call 'machinery' – parts that move like gears or clockwork throughout a tune. That's obviously here, with the ostinato horn figure that will sit for a long time and then move just a little bit.

    At B we get a little bit of a solid hit for a couple beats, where the whole band comes together, foreshadowing the more aggressive section that will come. But for now we're returning to the mysterious left hand piano line. The other thing that happens here: piano joins in on the ostinato, but the horns are also broken up – they are filling in all the notes of the line but not always at the same time. This took a lot of rehearsing to make it feel comfortable. Measure 24 gives us the first long note in either horn, when trumpet holds the line. I kind of liked how that sounded when it came out, especially with the cup mute.

    We get our first big harmonic shift a couple measures later, at 28. This is also where bass and left hand piano start to fulfill their traditional roles a little more, playing what is definitely a “bass line” in mm. 31-36 and into the next “rockin” section at C.

    A lot of this tune is a little weird in that the harmony is kind of acting as melody – the melody that happens in the low voices early on is fairly stagnant and a little strange. Here at C, we don't really have a melody – it's just a baseline that's being accented by hits in the horns. In mm. 44-45, the line is clearly building to something...but we're not there yet, instead going back to the material from the beginning, but this time with piano playing the ostinato and bass playing the melody. I think when people hear this tune, they're not always totally aware of the fact that what the bass player is playing here (and the piano is playing at the beginning) is supposed to be the actual melody. Which is fine, I guess, as long as it fits into the whole thing. I don't know – I kind of purposely pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this song.

    Tenor and trumpet come back in with parts of this line again, but in a smoother, more lyrical way (and trumpet is open now) so it sounds a little different. E starts similarly to B from earlier, but a section of this is cut and after just five bars we get to F, which is the same as C, only this time we do get to the release of all of this buildup at G.

    Now – this solo section was not originally like this. I think I tried several different things for solos on this tune and never ended up liking any of them. I think that even as late as the day we recorded it in the studio, I had something else for a trumpet solo, decided I didn't like it, and we both just played the changes that I had written for the saxophone solo. So, sax and trumpet both play on the same solo form: a set of chord changes I came up with that actually isn't related to anything in the song other than I thought it sort of captured the feel. I thought the Andrew, Tim and Paul did a really great job kind of doing some different things behind Dustin and I that gave this solo section a lot of life. After repeating the changes, the soloist then plays over the figure from C and G (m. 98) with backgrounds from the other horn player. (The image below is the actual part I still use for this tune, with the last aborted solo section. I had built this letter I below off of the chords at G that lead into the solo, but it never felt quite right, so I just went back and played where the sax solo was.)

    After the last solo, we go from I to the end – the same melody from the beginning, but now with the ostinato in piano and the 'melody' in the horns. I really liked the way this ending worked, with sort of a deceptive thing regarding the key. We got a hint earlier (at m. 19) that we were actually in G minor, but if all you were listening to was the ostinato and the melody, I think it absolutely sounds like some mysterious mode of D, with a minor and major third and a flat 2. But, the end of this song gives it away obviously, resolving to a G minor (er, G power chord at least) for the last note.

    "House on Willard" is kind of unlike anything I've written before. I've struggled with it at times for that reason – I think it's cool and interesting but it's not the most comfortable thing to play. It's also probably the most difficult of the tunes that we play to actually execute, so we also have played it live less than the other tunes from this album. But! It was a valuable lesson for me in terms of treating the band differently and functioning outside my comfort zone, and I'm really glad it worked out and was on the album.