Mel Martin's Solo on Longhorn

Transcription and analysis


Tony Dagradi

I would like to thank the great saxophonist Tony Dagradi for his highly accurate transcription and flattering analysis of my solo on my composition Longhorn. This has to be one of the great ego strokes of the universe. I have included the sheet music and transcribed (and transposed) solo as well as Real Audio Files from the first release of Jazz Player Magazine, December 1993. Just click on the appropriate link and have fun.

Longhorn Menu


The many factors which make Mel Martin's solo on Longhorn an outstanding effort. The first thing that strikes the listener is Mel Martin's command of his instrument. His tone on the tenor is solid, compact, warm with just enough edge and consistently in tune. He has great control of the altissimo register and impeccable technique. He balances these technical facets with well crafted ideas which have deep underlying logic and continuity. His frugal use of space seems to perfectly offset his labyrinthine phrases.

Longhorn employs sophisticated harmonies in an intriguing and quirky approach to a conventional form. The AABA form common to so many standards is unusually long here encompassing, seventy bars. Each time the 'A' section occurs there are subtle but important differences to be found, both harmonically and in the length of phrases. The eight bar bridge section switches to a Latin feel and new key areas. All things considered, this is an interesting and challenging piece to improvise on.

Mel Martin handles these complexities with finesse. His scintillating melodic ideas generate excitement, yet conform readily to the chords of the moment. It is obvious from his use of arpeggios and various chord scales that he thoroughly understands the harmonic implications of each change.

Often times, his arpeggios will outline a chord or infer an extended structure of that chord. For instance, in bar 9 he clearly outlines a DbMaj7 chord. As he moves to the GbMaJ7 b5) chord in the next bar, he seems to be retaining the DbMaj7 sound, superimposing it over the new change. This works because the notes of Dbmaj7 form part of the upper extension of GbMaj7 (b5). He applies exactly the same harmonic logic the next time these changes appear in the form (bars 33-35).

A great deal of insight can be gained by examining Martin's choice of chord scales in various situations. When the Cm7 to Dm7 repeated pattern occurs, he often chooses to use the C dorian mode. Sometimes this results in an apparent clash, the Eb and Bb on the Dm7 chord, for instance. However, his approach is successful because of the modal quality which the progression evokes.

Each time Martin arrives at the Fm7/Fm7/Eb changes (bars 13-14, 37-38 and 61-62), he employs an F melodic minor scale. Interestingly, in bars 11-12 he anticipates the F minor tonality by forcing this scale over the DbMaj7 and C7 #9 chords. In actuality the scale functions as a type of C dominant scale.

Another interesting scale choice can be found right before the bridge (bars 39-40). At this point the saxophonist executes a rather disjunct phrase which implies a symmetrical diminished scale on the Bb7 b9.

Motivic development is a prominent facet of Martin's musical vision. In fact, it may be the most important element of the overall organization in this solo. In the very first bar of his opening statement, Martin plays a phrase which he develops in a descending sequence in the proceeding two bars. Another descending sequence is found in bars 29-30. Here the four note triplet figure moves diatonically down a C dorian scale. Still another descending sequence is found in bars 33-35. This time a three against four feeling is created.

In another instance (bars 49-50) Martin repeats his initial motive up a fourth. As he continues this sequence, however, he does not complete the cyclical pattern. Instead he treats his initial idea as a rhythmic motive which he contracts and then expands in bars 51-52. Yet another example of motivic development is found in bars 65-66. Here he repeats himself rhythmically while following the same melodic shape and adjusting accidentals to fit the changing tonalities.

A slightly different type of development can be found in bars 17-21. The repeated G in bar 17 generates an exhilarating change in feel. This idea is echoed an octave up in bar 20. Changing the octave, placing the motive in a different point in the phrase, and resolving it differently make this an extremely effective passage.

Martin uses the altissimo register to add excitement and drama. In bar 7 he completes an AbMaj7 arpeggio by employing a high G and Bb, the major seventh and ninth of the chord. The same high G is used to great effect in the transitional passage of the first 'A' section (bar 20). Similarly, a high F is used as the climax of a phrase in bar 52.

Rhythmically, Martin's articulation and placement of notes is very clean and precise. His sixteenth note triplets are especially accurate as are all his double time figures. This kind of consistency makes a transcriber's job easy. At several points he shifts from the swing feel which predominates most of his solo to almost straight eighth notes which are played in a staccato manner (bars 17, 20, 63).

He also employs many different rhythms in unending variations which help shape this solo and keep the listener enthralled. In bars 1-8 eighth notes are the primary rhythmic division. Double time sixteenth notes follow in bars 9- 12. As he moves forward Martin continues to vary the rhythmic density of his phrases; straight eighth notes, sixteenth notes, sixteenth note triplets and more eighth notes. His lead in to the bridge (bars 39-40), accenting a series of upbeats, is another dynamic spot.

Mel Martin's approach to improvising reflects his extensive background as a professional. His control of the saxophone is masterful. His handling of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements throughout is cohesive, dynamic and well balanced. Readers, playing along with him on this CD, will find themselves at once challenged and inspired.

©Tony Dagradi 1993



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