Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Diminished Chords

I'm still running low on physics these days, so here's another article from my Jewish Post series. This is a long and intricate story with an unusual ending, and it's longer than most of my articles. So I've broken it up into three parts, which I'll post over the next three days. Here's the first installment.

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Breakfast At The Pancake House

My sister and her husband were visiting from out of town for his 30th Anniversary Medical Shool Reunion, and we were going out for breakfast…Peter and Cathy, myself, and my father. Peter was telling my father about the incredible coincidence we had experienced the night before when he and I had gone down the lounge at his hotel for a drink. Peter and I are both musicians; in fact, although he is two years younger than me, you could say he was my mentor and biggest influence when we were in university. We also share a mathematical bent, so music theory is a frequent topic of conversation for us. That night Peter had asked me if I had ever really thought about how diminished chords are used in popular music. You might  be surprised what an animated conversation two fifty-something-year-old guys can get into on that kind of topic; suffice to say it wasn’t long before we were hammering out imaginary piano chord progressions on the barroom table, arms waving and feet pounding in rhythm, shouting things like “minor seven flat five! minor seven flat five! That’s when a guy came over to the table. No, he wasn’t the concierge, come to ask us to please control ourselves…he was, as he introduced himself, a musician from out of town, here all alone, and he couldn’t help notice two fellow musicians having such a lively conversation about…music. Naturally we asked him to join us.

His name was Eric. “Where are you from?” New York. “What do you play?” Saxophone. Peter was suddenly very interseted. “Tenor or alto?” Tenor. “What did you say your name was?” Eric Alexander. 

Peter’s jaw dropped. “You’re the Eric Alexander? One of the best saxophone players in the world?” 

The stranger allowed as to how he was indeed. “This is unbelievable”, Peter said. He then explained that he had been planning to phone Eric Alexander that very week. Peter had left the medical profession in the early 90’s after his music software business, which had began as a hobby, suddenly took off. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that since his initial offering in 1987 of a relatively straightforward auto-accompaniment program which generated arrangements based on chord charts, Peter has almost single-handedly redefined the territory of artificial intellignence with regard to computer-generated music. One of his most interesting innovations has been the idea of having a computer take hours of human-generated jazz improvization and, using complex algorithms, chop those tracks into discrete segments (“licks”) to be re-arranged over new chord patterns. The results have been surprisingly musical and spontaneous; as Peter sees it, it works because it mimics as closely as possible the process whereby real musicians generate lead solos.

To this end he has been hiring world-class musicians on a whole range or instruments…piano, guitar, clarinet, pedal steel, you name it…to generate those hours of improvisations. And as he explained to us at the table, there was only one instrument remaining on his “to-do” list…you guessed it, the tenor saxophone. And who was he thinking of hiring? That was exactly the question over which he had conferred with his colleagues back home that very week, and they had short-listed three names: Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano, and Eric Alexander. And Peter had already decided that it was Eric whom he would approaching first, at the earliest opportunity. Well, it seemed that opportunity had come just a little earlier than expected.

It turned out that we were not yet done with coincidences. Eric for his part could hardly believe he was sitting at the same table with Peter Gannon, the inventor of the original “Band-in-a-Box”. Of course he had heard of Peter! He counted off for us this renowned soloist or that one of his acquaintance who used “the Box” as a back-up band to practise with at home. You can imagine how Peter was kvelling (as I was too, if there is such a thing as kvelling vicariously)! And not the least surprising was the way in which Eric leapt with alacrity into the discussion of diminished chords, analyzing with enthusiasm and intelligence their application in this jazz standard and that one. It was hours before the evening finally broke up.

As Peter finished telling the story, our breakfast was arriving. “I guess we’ve all experienced our little coincidences,” I offered, “but that one surely takes the cake”. 

“I’m not so sure.” My father had spoken up. “I think I have a better one.”


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