Jazz counterpoint? What, like Bach meets Herbie Hancock? Well, yes. Sort of.

First, let me be clear: I am obsessed with Bach and counterpoint.

Obsessed? Maybe you should listen to the Venting in Two-Part Inventions episode of my podcast, which, by the way, is built around this very piece. 

My obsession stems from the idea that in an era where just about anything goes in music, where excess often equates to success, you can still make music with only two melodic voices. And on one instrument. Music stripped down to its essence. For me, counterpoint is not just a test of one’s skill, but musical honesty. Can you tell a story with only two interdependent voices, weaving around each other sans any effects, any tricks, any hyperbole?

Develop Musical Ideas

As a composer and improviser, my main job (if you look at being musically creative as a job) is to develop musical ideas in compelling ways. There are many ways to do this—harmonically, rhythmically, texturally, with production techniques. Any decent composer knows how to employ all of these and other “tricks” of the trade.

But when you think about it, all of these tools derive from two meta-technique: counterpoint and thematic development. Thematic development is fundamentally about the many ways you can manipulate musical motifs. The methods are myriad, and they include all of the above and more: rhythmic, harmonic, melodic contour, sequencing, and… counterpoint.

 

About This Work

I composed this piece in 2007 as a challenge to myself—could I write a convincing piece of music for piano with just two voices? There were other limitations, expectations, and general rules involved. Most importantly, it had to be in a contemporary musical language, essentially modern jazz. Why these “rules”? Because limitations are what make a contained piece of music possible. 

Within that set of limitations, however, a lot happens. The piece starts with a simple motif that follows bebop or post-bob “laws” of scales and chord substitutions. (These include use of the modes of the melodic minor, passing tones, and, I suppose, the much-hailed flat-five substitution.)

But on page two, the harmony settles into a more static G Dorian modal style. Here, the more modern “outside the changes” approach rears its head, as a seemingly new theme emerges out of the primary theme. These static harmony sections keep coming back to foil the more active harmonic regions—the two sort of meld together in the end.

Note that this analysis comes after the fact. I compose by instinct, not theory.

Jazz Two-Part Invention

$3.95

Movie Theme is a romantic, yearning piece for piano that starts simply but moves to a dramatic climax—advanced Intermediate level because of the tricky ending.

Counterpointing Themes

Yes, counterpoint is a way of developing one’s themes, but it’s so powerful and complex that it deserves its own category. Counterpoint is the idea, as anybody reading this knows, of musical motifs interacting interdependently as pure melody. Interdependently because while each melody acts independently (as opposed to, say, in homophonic music where there is one melody that sits over a series of chords,) they collectively add up to harmony.

Multiple independent melodies adding up to harmony: that could be a definition of counterpoint. But it’s a different kind of harmony. 

The Power of Multiple Melodies

When written well, counterpoint has a unique and exciting power. Because melody, the primary force of music-making, is all the more powerful when we multiply it. Like anything, it takes practice—both to compose it and play it. And also to improvise it. Improvising counterpoint is the goal I’ve always had since I was a teenager and read that Bach could do it with almost superhuman control.

So yes, obsessed with Bach and counterpoint. And a two-part invention in jazz style is a perfect place to start working through my obsession. Think of it as jazz counterpoint 101. The only problem being that this piece is pretty difficult to play. But so is jazz. Counterpoint is hard. Jazz counterpoint? Not for the faint of heart.

Deal with it!

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