Michal Levy’s Giant Steps (2001)

August 24, 2006

I think that at one point or another in the past five years, every jazz student has received an email saying, “Check this out!” with a link to Michal Levy’s animated adaptation of Giant Steps. So maybe this will be new to animation folk. If you’ve lived with the original recording and can sing along to the melody, or even a chorus or two of Coltrane’s solo, it’s really something see the music come to life. Levy describes her concept for the animation on her website:

When I listen to music I see colors and shapes and when I watch visual art I hear sounds. I wanted to express my sensing of shapes colors and music in this short movie.

I have chosen a short Jazz piece, which I have known for many years of my playing the saxophone: “Giant Steps” by John Coltraine [sic]. Coltrane made a major break through with his album “Giant Steps” in the year 1959. It was the first time in the history of Jazz music that someone based his music on symmetrical patterns, which stemmed from a mathematical division of the musical scale.

The structural approach of John Coltraine [sic] to music is associated with architectural thinking. The musical theme defines a space and the musical improvisation is like someone drifting in that imaginary space.
For musicians interested in the actual mathmatical architecture of Giant Steps, I highly reccomend checking out Don Adler’s article, The ‘Giant Steps’ Progression and Cycle Diagrams, originally published in Jazz Improv Magazine Volume 3, No. 3. He suggests using shapes as a way of understanding how “Coltrane changes” function.

from “‘Giant Steps’ and Cycle Diagrams” by Dan Adler


Three Little Bops (1957)

August 20, 2006

In honor of Friz Freleng’s 100th Birthday blog-a-thon, I thought I’d weigh on my favorite Freleng cartoon:

Three Little Bops (1957), directed by Freleng, is a retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” casting the three little pigs as hip be-boppers and the wolf as a jam session reject. In Tunes for ‘Toons, cartoon music historian Daniel Goldmark argues that the pigs are supposed to represent white musicians. I’m not sure I agree with this reading. I think what makes this cartoon special is that story deals with the music, and not the race of the musicians playing it.

Alexander Calder, Sumac II, 1952
sheet metal, wire, and paint
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The opening credits closely resemble the design of a Calder mobile. Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures, dubbed “mobiles” by none other than Marcell Duchamp, were inspired by Calder’s visits with Piet Mondrian. In Jazz Modernism, author Alfred Appel Jr. describes Calder as an artist “whose playful forms charm (too easily sometimes?) like idiosyncratic dance routines and children’s art.” He goes on to connect the accessibility of Calder’s artwork to the jazz of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, whose music is “the touchstone of accessibility.” Take this idea with a grain of salt, but as we will see – the idea of artistic “accessibility” emerges as the main theme in “Three Little Bops.”

Upon hearing the wolf blow on a chorus of the blues, the pigs are quick to dismiss the wolf as a square. His wobbly tone and wandering improvisation doesn’t blend with the pigs and their “modern sound.”


My favorite gag in the cartoon is when the wolf sits in the pigs. He gets out his music and flips to the right page. In any major jazz scene with a high level of musicianship, reading tunes from a “fake book” is taboo, a sign of poor musicianship – especially at a jam session. Of course, the pigs are playing without any written music.

An interesting aspect of the cartoon is that it represents the audience as being “in” on what’s hip. (As opposed to the typical “beboppers vs. the audience” stereotype that was prevalent ever since Variety declared “BOP IS A FLOP, COMMERCIALLY” in 1949).

The audience yells, “Throw that square out!”

The irony here is that the pigs aren’t really playing “bop” at all. Their music (composed and performed by west coast jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers and his band) is more akin to west coast swing and boogie-woogie. What makes the pigs “boppers” is that they subscribe to an elitist hipster culture. Freleng either co-opts the term “bop” to refer to his own idea of modern music, or he purposely uses more “accessible” music in place of actual be-bop to avoid alienating his audience. Regardless, he gets in a few digs at so-called be-bop culture.

The timing in this cartoon is really top notch – virtually every movement onscreen is synced to the music. We’re used to Carl Stalling’s manic tempo changes, written to score the frantic motions onscreen. The score to “Three Little Bops” is different from other Looney Tunes because the musical tempo stays the same for the entirety of the cartoon (with the exception of two gags: the wolf tries to get into the club by playing the ukulele, and later as a one-man-band. The additional music for these gags was likely composed by Stalling). Since the tempo is locked in, the animation timing engages the viewer with the groove. Check out the wolf’s shoulders after he’s thrown out of the jazz club – they keep grooving to the beat as he’s strewn out on the sidewalk.

Three Little Bops has several quirky elements that distinguish it from the usual Warner Bros. short. Firstly, the opening credits appear before the main title, and the typeface on the main title is animated, bouncing to the music. Secondly, the pacing of the story is subordinate to the twelve-bar blues – and it’s fascinating to see how storyman Warren Foster works within the context of a musical form. And rather than ending with “That’s all, folks!” the cartoon concludes with “The End.” That Freleng was willing to break from formula this far into his career is a testament to his creativity as a director. There is nothing radically different about this cartoon. Rather, the subtle differences are what makes this cartoon really stand out in Freleng’s enormous body of work. He experiments a little here and there, but his cartoons remain “the touchstone of accessibility.”

UPDATE (8/22/06)

Two other blogs in the Friz Freleng blog-a-thon explore Three Little Bops: check out the posts at My Five Year Plan and Supernatural…Baloney.

Delmark and the Direct Method

August 19, 2006

This short animation was created to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Chicago-based Delmark Records in 1973. The film was created by Tom Koester, whose brother Bob Koester founded Delmark Records. Tom uses the direct method, drawing the images “directly onto the film stock.” I don’t know if Tom was hip to Norman McLaren’s films, but his short captures the spirit of Norman McLaren’s work. The playful animated text is befitting of the music, provided by “Terry Waldo’s Gutbucket Syncopators.”

Delmark Records is an independent record label that is hugely important to the Chicago jazz scene. I highly reccomend their latest release from the Deep Blue Organ Trio!

Alastair Graham

August 5, 2006

Bill Evans: “My Foolish Heart”

Alastair Graham is a London-based artist and animation designer. In the 70s, he was a producer at TVC London, the studio that made the animated Beatles film “Yellow Submarine.” Graham is a huge jazz fan, and for his next project he had the idea to do a “music video” for the jazz-fusion band Weather Report. He pitched his concept and a storyboard to Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who received the idea enthusiastically. When Graham began talks with Weather Report’s management in LA, the management balked on the proposed budget. Thus, the film was never made. Graham reflects that the film would have been “the first music video, some years before such things became possible.”

Graham remains active as an artist that creates music-inspired art. His jazz portraits have developed a following among jazz fans, and he’s currently developing a series of short films featuring the music of Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (of John Zorn, Paul Simon, Sting) for portable media players such as cell phones and iPods. To see some of his recent work, check out this short film inspired by the music of SUBA. The film recently screened in London theaters, opening for X-Men 3.

Take a look at more of his jazz portraits online at http://www.jazzfolio.com. His drawings succeed not just because he exagerates the physical characteristics of each jazz musician, but because he is able to illustrate the unique musical personality of each musician he draws. Graham even goes so far as to list the specific recordings that inspire his drawings. His saturnine, introspective Bill Evans (above) is my  favorite.

Visualizing Musical Lines

August 4, 2006

The first part of this post may seem a little off topic because it deals with classical music, but in the words of Charlie Parker, “It’s all music, man. Just call it music.”

In music, counterpoint literally means “note against note.” Visualizing counterpoint is a way of understanding the shape and tension of the music at a given moment. Take for example this excerpt from Rondo A Capriccio, a piano work by Beethoven:

The picture above is a piano roll, which displays the music on a grid with pitch on the y-axis and rhythmic value on the x-axis. This piano roll displays the top two voices from the Beethoven excerpt. (Click here to listen to the excerpt). When I listen to music, I try to visualize the musical line(s) – and looking at music on a piano roll has put this in a new perspective for me. Of course, counterpoint didn’t begin with Beethoven… If you want to learn from the master, Bach’s The Art of Fugue is a great place to try to begin hearing music in terms of shapes and lines.

The linear quality of improvisation in the bebop style has roots in the counterpoint of Bach (and the Bach-influenced classical composers who followed). However, bebop deals with a significantly different harmonic language.

Saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton creates a visual picture of what he calls “Bebop Sound Space” in the book Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton. The rhythm section (bass/drums/piano) inhabits the lower end of the musical spectrum. The soloist typically occupies the sonic space above the harmonic foundation of the rhythm section, and the shape of the solo reflects the contour of the harmony. (See how the dips and peaks in the solo line correspond with the ups and downs in the harmonic structure).

For Braxton, the individuality of the soloist is defined by the shape of the solo and how this that relates the the musical vocabulary of the soloist.

Link: Charlie Parker plays Confirmation (iTunes)

In Braxton’s words: “By gravillic weight I’m talking about how the gravity that underlines how a given forming is established in space. That being… Suppose I did a visual imprint, with respect to the gravillic contour; I would take one particular shape and section it off, then talk of the gravity points in forming as a way of understanding how that vocabulary works. Bird’s music would be like: (hums Parker solo and traces shape in the air).

link: Eric Dolphy plays Iron Man (iTunes)

Baxton continues: “Take Eric Dolphy’s language: the intervalic relationships between distances would be part of the contour of his music: (hums Dolphy solo and traces shape in air).”

Thinking about jazz in terms of shape and language is especially relevant when considering its historical relationship with animation. Many animators at UPA in the were highly influenced by the ideas in Gyorgy Kepes’s book, Language of Vision (published in 1944). I think many of these forward-looking animators saw the innovation of the be-bop language in the 40s as a model for creating a new visual language in animation. More on that later.

If you haven’t read it, buy Graham Lock’s book on Anthony Braxton! It will change the way you think about music forever.