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Chicago Style Blues

March 20, 2021


Chicago Style Blues is published in Well Tempered Blues [MB 99967B] and I have sometimes included pieces from the book in my formal recitals. Figuring that classical guitarists play folk music from Spain and South America, it seemed to me that blues was equally valid, a folk style that we in North America are surrounded by. As yet, I don’t know if the style is accepted thus, but I remain optimistic.

When writing this piece there was a secret thrill because the opening bars were like two pieces I grew up with. Steamroller Blues from the Sweet Baby James record [which James Taylor released in 1970], included an ironic aspect to the lyrics but a down-home feeling to the music. The same opening chords are in a song called The Pusher by Steppenwolf. Composing this piece included a sense of revisiting powerful musical memories.

Like much of my music, there was a pedagogic aspect embedded in it and I wanted to use different turnarounds and show how to walk a bass line to increase the musical tension. The basic chords E, A and B7, use the entire neck in many different inversions. This piece turned out to be a kind of fretboard harmony lesson. One of my colleagues described the rhythmic feel as visceral which is a term I like: the music pulls you in and demands accuracy. As the music pulled me in, I learned more about it.

The normal form in a twelve bar blues would be AAB, where each letter represents a 4 bar phrase. In the early days of the form – we’re now talking juke joints in the Mississippi delta – a singer would sing an initial four bars and the audience would respond singing the section back – the second A. This was useful for the improvising singer because there was time to think up the last phrase of the verse – the B part. This meant that there was a rich dialogue between the audience and performer, each needing the other for the music to shine.

Then I started singing a few old lyrics and discovered that the text often ended just after the beginning of bar three which meant there was a gap before the next phrase started. This created time for an instrumental response, a non-verbal comment on the lyric. This would follow in the next 4 bar section and so on. It became clear to me that dialogue was built into this form at every level. If a story could build over 4 or 5 verses, then an instrumental solo might take the music from the verbal into the zone of pure feeling.

Somewhere, I had heard that it was a good idea to play with the metronome clicking on the second and fourth beats: the way gospel choirs clap on beats two and four. Initially this was a challenge, but gaining the necessary skill, I noticed that all the turnarounds started with the clicks of the metronome. So did the walk ups [which is when the bass lines moves to a new chord], and so did most of the melodic figures. It was like putting new glasses on and seeing the world differently. I had only written the music, but the music wasn’t finished with me.

On classical guitar, an instrument that demands remarkable accuracy and precision, I found myself wanting to do things that weren’t written down. I added some slides and an occasional pitch bend, but some of the music wanted to go slower than I had initially envisioned. Slower music gets tricky because there is time to add more filigrees. I then found that the rhythm wanted to be altered and that steady eighth notes weren’t always the best choice: the notes wanted to dance around the pulse. Within these tightly structured phrases the style demanded more from me, as if the notes were trying to escape the box I had put them in.

I watch in awe as this music keeps changing me.

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