Adapting Pop Songs into Jazz Compositions

In July, the SJCW decided to select pop songs (the top 7 most downloaded songs for the week on itunes) and use that as material for the creation of new jazz works. This was challenging for several reasons.

  • Most melodies, as written, were not good. Frequently, maybe a bit to often, the melodies to pop songs have little melodic movement. These songs are popular because of the singers ability to take these simple phrases and bring them to life. In many cases, the singer makes or breaks the song. When looking to adapt some of these melodic statements for our own instruments, we discovered that they were going to work. Several pieces we played stuck with the “original” melody and used advanced bass motion/chord movement to help create a cohesive piece. Other pieces had to move away from the harmony.
  • Most chord progressions were also very lacking. Several of us considered writing a contrafact on the existing changes, but this was not possible, mostly because there just wasn’t enough information.

Despite some limitations with the material, we did have a good level of success with the compositions presented. This was due to a lot of creativity and some willingness to take the material out of context.

  • Make it free. Two pieces utilized a free component to great success. By stripping down the composition of its rhythm, groove and harmony, things opened up greatly for creative input. 
  • Write the bass part first. By creating some interesting bass counterpoint, several pieces also opened up. If you have a melody and bass part (which could be more involved than the melody itself), the piece then becomes a “fill-in-the-harmony” work. Writing an interesting bass part/line can be very creatively satisfying and can compliment a bizarre melody.
  • Change the groove. Make it weird. Don’t swing it. While these seem like the could be contradictory towards writing them in a “jazz” style, sometimes they are necessary to get the most out of a song.

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