Photo of  Stella Castellucci

Lights and Shadows
by Stella Castellucci

When I was twenty-two I started playing harp in the group that backed Peggy Lee, the very luminous singer of jazz and beautiful ballads. The rest of her group consisted of piano, bass, drums including bongo and conga, and guitar. There were no written arrangements. Everything was a "head arrangement", meaning we played the music that was in our heads instead of on paper, rehearsing with Peggy until each song satisfied her both musically and harmonically.

How was I able to do this? To begin with, from early childhood I listened to and loved both jazz and popular music even before I began training in classical music and harp. Then I studied harmony and solfeggio (ear training), whose disciplines helped me identify and learn the chord changes of the great American standard popular songs. Equally important but unteachable, I think I was given the gift of being able to convey the jazz sound and color, and I am ever grateful for it. Without all those ingredients I could not have survived in that group. With them, my fitting in with these magnificent jazz musicians was not as unlikely as it could have been.

Playing in a jazz group is "faking" of the highest order. And yet, perhaps "faking" is a convenient but erroneous term. What the musician actually is doing is creating: the endless colors of harmony with substitute and altered chords, the rhythmic surprises of anticipation or suspension, the give and take of rubato playing, the constant improvising on and away from the melody. All are the subtle elements of jazz.

Substitute Chords

Harmonically, jazz requires intense concentration and computation - "where have I been and where am I going?" Knowing the songs and their harmonic changes so well has allowed me to use substitute chords at will, which seem to invite themselves naturally as I work through a standard tune. I don't believe in random or indiscriminate chord replacements, but I have heard treatments wherein the harmonies of almost every bar of a standard song were substituted, and the results were beautifully acceptable. This can only be done by a discerning, thoughtful and discriminating musician who is completely familiar with the song.

I call this process "trespassing" because we are, in a way, intruding on someone else's property, even if we feel we could walk there blindfolded because we know it so well. There should be an element of reverence in this trespassing, which I hear in the orchestrations of really fine arrangers, many of whom are or were excellent jazz instrumentalists who played the great standards. The recordings and live performances of gifted and seasoned jazz pianists reflect that reverence. I hope my versions do, too.

The following is an example of my trespassing in the tune "As Time Goes By" by Herman Huffeld. First are his harmonies:

As Time Goes By: Original Harmonies

then those from my arrangement of the same piece:

As Time Goes By: Arrangement Harmonies

In these measures from my arrangement of "Someone To Watch Over Me" by George and Ira Gershwin, you can see that the harmonies and some rhythms are brand new the second time around:

Someone To Watch Over Me - First Section

Someone To Watch Over Me - Second Section


Less Is More

Since the very start of my own venturing into playing the standard ballads with a jazz inflection, I have pursued the concept of "less is more". I've found that what I want to say, how I convey my feeling for the song, come more naturally when I use only the essential notes of a chord. Widely spaced chords with altered intervals, i.e. flatted ninths (-9), augmented ninths (+9), augmented elevenths (+11), and thirteenths (13), though sparsely voiced, can have a sound beautifully lush in their transparency.

Here are variations on the V-I and II-V-I cadence:

cadence variations

Sifting Out

When I improvise or make an arrangement, "sifting out" the unnecessary notes of a chord has first priority. In the above examples the notes in ( ) would be sifted out. This process elementally defines the chord and actually makes identifying it easier whether you're hearing it or looking at it. I learned to "sift" by studying four-part choral writing (SATB). The work was long and tedious, but invaluable, and has been pursued by the earliest composers to the present day. In four-part choral writing you see, vertically and immediately, the pure structure of a chord. This study has been the backbone of my improvising and arranging popular and jazz music for harp, and I would urge anyone who is serious about playing this music on the harp in a tasteful manner, in whatever personal style one ultimately arrives, to consider undertaking this fundamental and timeless study. Below are a few sifted measures from my version of "Like Someone in Love" by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen:

Like Someone in Love: Sifted measures

Written Arrangements

The very act of putting an arrangement down on paper is, in itself, getting away from the concept of being a jazz musician. If you are a true jazz player you don't rely upon an arrangement that is always played with the same notes, but treat the song differently in some way each time. The song comes off the top of your head (a "head arrangement") and it often floats away, never again to appear identically in your memory. For the many harpists who love jazz sounds but lack time, training or courage to let themselves feel comfortable improvising on the great old and new tunes, there are now numerous arrangements available. I would encourage these harpists, though, to use the arrangements only as guidelines in developing their own taste and special sound. That sound will come to anyone who truly loves the music and wants to play it to her best ability.

Developing your own style

In my formative years, there was not the help that is available now for harpists through workshops and the Lyon & Healy Harp Fests. Mine was a solitary struggle just trying to learn and deal with all the standard ballads and jazz tunes I had grown up with, and I had little time to adopt someone else's style. Neither do I remember, nor do I recommend, trying to emulate certain jazz players. As I believe I did, you, too, can arrive at your own personal style through osmosis, absorbing into your consciousness and memory the styles of the jazz artists you admire. I hope that eventually you will find a place where you feel comfortable in calling upon your own reservoir of color and creativity, playing from your own head, experiencing your own uniqueness.

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