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...cause Papa don't allow no new ideas here - Sixto Rodriguez, Inner City Blues

Author Topic: Set Pieces  (Read 1481 times)

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Online Johnm

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Set Pieces
« on: April 28, 2010, 10:44:11 AM »
Hi all,
There is a tendency sometimes to think of the country blues as always existing in the moment, and being a primarily improvisatory musical style, but the more you listen, especially to either alternate takes of an artist doing the same number, or the same number recorded by an artist with a number of years intervening, the more you realize the extent to which set piece performances comprise a high percentage of recorded country blues.  What are characteristics of set piece performances?  
   * First and most obvious, a more or less non-varying instrumental pass through the song's form, continuing from the beginning of the performance to its ending;
   * Set solos, which when listened to on alternate takes of the same song, are identical;
   * In some instances, a set accompaniment, which is not song-specific, but is moved around an artist's repertoire and is used to accompany different sets of lyrics.
   * Perhaps most common of all are semi-set pieces, in which the musician repeats some aspects of the accompaniment intact when passing through the form and has other places in the form that allow for more spontaneous riffing.

Some examples of set piece performances that fall into the first category described above would be Carl Martin's "Old Time Blues", Curley Weaver's "Ticket Agent Blues", William Harris' "Leavin' Here Blues", Shirley Griffith's "River Line Blues" and Charley Patton's "Down The Dirt Road Blues". A performance that would fall into the first two categories above would be John Jackson's rendition of "Bear Cat Blues", which he delivered pretty much exactly the same way from the time he first recorded it, in the mid-60s (and probably well before that), until his death. Examples of set piece accompaniments in the third category can be found in abundance in the recordings of Lonnie Johnson, in the E blues accompaniment of Willie "61" Blackwell, and in George Carter's accompaniment that he used for both "Rising River Blues" and "Ghost Woman Blues".  An example of the semi-set piece accompaniment would be Lemon's "Bad Luck Blues", where he plays some of the accompaniment much the same from beginning to end while allowing for some variety in his concluding licks and what he played over the IV chord.

Performance of set pieces is sometimes treated as a less musical or spontaneous approach than riffing in the moment, but the spontaneity of the performance is a function of the player's engagement with the material and commitment to it while it is being played, and is not something that breaks down predictably as set piece=stiff or canned-sounding vs. free riffing=fresh and engaged-sounding.  Just as with the best performances of Classical music, a powerfully engaged and focused performance of a set piece blues is not necessarily less exciting than one that is ostensibly improvised, viz., "Down The Dirt Road Blues"; I doubt you can come up with a freely improvised performance more exciting than Charley Patton's delivery of that number.  And conversely, unless a free riffer has an unusually large bag of tricks, listening to an entire program of such material can leave you with the feeling of shuffling a deck of cards that has only four cards in it--there's just not that much potential for variety.

It seems that engagement with the material is the key to strong results, whatever approach a musician may take.  Both set pieces and composition in the moment have the potential to be gripping or tedious, and both have potentials that are specific to the process involved in performing them.  Set pieces allow for a finely honed clarity of concept and vision that preclude the likelihood of such information being arrived at in an instant, and the more improvised approach of someone with a huge imagination and the mechanism to access ideas in the moment, like Lemon Jefferson or Robert Pete Williams, has an excitement of a type that even the best set piece performances can't achieve.

Does anybody have favorite set piece performances or solos, or favorite in-the-moment performances to contrast with the set pieces?

All best,
Johnm    

    
« Last Edit: May 29, 2010, 09:48:26 PM by Johnm »

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #1 on: April 28, 2010, 11:01:45 AM »
Hi all:

I've had the same thoughts. One artist who comes to mind is Little Hat Jones. He recorded the same accompaniment to six sets of lyrics. The accompaniments vary only slightly and he often used an identical break in multiple tunes.

I wonder if this was to establish his "sound", so it would be distinctive and therefore him recognizable (like Lonnie Johnson's D stuff). Or was it just that he found a groove he really liked and wanted to re-use, rather than make it a one off.

On the broader question, these guys must have played their tunes thousands of times (can you imagine how many times Charley Patton must have played Pony Blues live!). After a few tries at a tune you'd naturally find an approach that the audience liked and tend to stick with it. It must be impossible to be original the 500th time you play a piece. Wouldn't you gravitate back to a performance of a particular tune you really liked/was really popular and then more or less stick with it? And then record that version if you got a chance. Don't mess with success!

Alex

Offline blueshome

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2010, 03:02:36 PM »
Big Bill is a great candidate here under all John's categories.

Offline mike s

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #3 on: April 29, 2010, 10:24:27 AM »
Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt comes to mind as do a few others by him.



Mike

Offline Blue in VT

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #4 on: April 29, 2010, 01:23:15 PM »
I have to say that this topic comes at a very apropos time for me.  I've been beating myself up a lot lately because I can't riff or make it up on the fly....that's just not a skill I have...yet.  I still play most tunes very close to the way that I've learned them...sometimes swapping out verses or licks...reorganizing them ect. but still playing the same building blocks...and you know I like them that way...and the small audiences that I have exposed them to seem to like them too...as long as I play them with commitments and passion....I've found that with music you can't BS like you can with a oral presentation... :P

So now I know I'm in the company of the greats... ;D...if it ain't broke don't fix it.

But I digress...As far as the "Greats" go...I'll come back to my usual favorite...Mance.  Wolfgang's Vault has recently released a large number of Mance concerts that were recorded at the Ash Grove in the late 60's and early 70's.  If you listen to all the versions of a tune like "Shake Shake Mama" or "Goin Down Slow" you will notice a few new licks...and often a different ending...but the rest seems very set piece...so I guess these would fall into John's category 4 or semi set pieces.  Of course these are all being played for the "same" audience.  I would love to have some recordings of how Mance played some of his tunes a true down home Saturday night dance!

Cheers,

Blue
Blue in VT

Offline eagle rockin daddy

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #5 on: April 29, 2010, 05:37:15 PM »
Tremendous topic John.  I've thought about this a great deal.  I always used to think that players made up their arrangements on the spot, all improvised, and that there was something wrong about making up an arrangement, or a solo, memorizing it and then performing it.  My attitude changed after a lesson with Paul Asbell where we spent most of the hour discussing this.  Paul said that many jazz players work out their solos in advance, and play them during gigs.  He said that only a small number of players have the ability to truly improvise everything all night.  He also asked something like, well, don't you want the audience to see your best stuff?  That question really hit the nail on the head.  Of course I do.  When performing, I do want the audience to see and hear my best stuff, and that would involve playing a set piece.

I really love arranging songs for guitar.  I think that is really what we do, and how we play on stage reflects that.  One of my favorite recorded concerts is Dave Van Ronk's last cd.  The arrangements are all beautiful, and perfect.  I have no doubt that they are all set pieces.  In fact, I believe the introductions are all set pieces.  The introductions and stories are every bit as entertaining and enjoyable as the songs and guitar playing.  I have sometimes considered memorizing the intro and performing the intro and and song as a set piece, especially 'Ace in the Hole' which I love and have almost finished learning.  In fact, I did this once, when I had the pleasure and huge honor to perform at the Utah Phillips remembrance at Old Songs a few years ago.  I performed 'Ship Gonna Sail', complete with Bruce's introduction.  I know how carefully Bruce thought out all his intros.  In particular I know that he wanted this important song performed with the intro, because when I asked him for the words, he said that he would send me the intro also. The amazing thing was how well it all worked, and how the audience applauded for me at the right spots in the intro, just as they did for Bruce.  These types of performances are very powerful.  I think that that is what is the real idea here, the performance.  When we are just fooling around, or picking with our friends, or trying to learn, then of course we improvise, and crash and burn.  But in general, how entertaining is it for the audience to see you crash and burn? (unless you are watching Jerry Garcia and everyone is tripping....)  I want the audience to be entertained, and I want them to see my best stuff, and I want to feel comfortable with my playing so i can concentrate on connecting with the song, and the audience. 

But what about John's question about players?  Lately, I have spent a lot of time with Blind Blake's Early Morning Blues, and I am convinced that much of it is a set piece.  I think much of Rev. Davis' arrangements are set pieces.  the thing is both of the geniuses played so much, that they could also 'mix and match' or take certain set licks and insert them where the fit.  Is that improvising?  or just cutting and pasting?  Who know and who really cares.  I do believe the more you play, the easier it gets to improvise on the spot, or perhaps cut and paste riffs and licks.

I know I love playing a set arrangement well.  The challenge is to make the arrangement full, not repetitive and interesting.  This is a great subject, and I look forward to others comments.  Wax?  O'Muck?


Mike

Online Johnm

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Re: Set Pieces
« Reply #6 on: May 05, 2011, 08:25:48 AM »
Hi all,
I've been listening a good bit to the music of Roosevelt Holts lately, and it has been a special treat because I somehow missed his music altogether when his albums were first released.  Based on listening to the tracks from his Horizon album, his Arhoolie "Roosevelt Holts and Friends" album and the "Franklinton Musical Society" album, he comes across as a player with a strong compositional bent who favored set piece arrangements, much as did Tommy Johnson.  There are songs where he plays the same instrumental pass through the form from beginning to end, and also instances where he uses the very same accompaniment to back up different songs.  He was such a strong and assured player and singer, and maintained focus so well that you never have the impression that he was going on "automatic pilot" or losing contact with his material the way you can sometimes when playing a memorized piece.  His musical results argue very strongly for his approach to music-making--it certainly worked beautifully for him.
All best,
Johnm

 


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