Monday Notes

Footprints, a jazz classic between avant-garde and jam session

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[Monday Notes no. 110] In its original version Footprints is an avant-garde piece, at the same time the simplicity of the harmonic progression has turned it into a jam session piece that anyone can play. It is difficult to think of another piece in which these opposite qualities coexist. Let us listen to and analyse the version by Miles Davis and co.

The author of Footprints is Wayne Shorter, however the band’s unconventionality and free approach is certainly a mark of Miles Davis, who always asked his musicians to avoid clichés and formulaic phrases during their solos.

No one renders this point of view better than drummer Tony Williams. Although he was the youngest in the band, Tony Williams already had a strong personality and this performance proves it, his accompaniment at times pauses, lingers, restarts, expands and intensifies in unpredictable ways.

Footprints has a 6/4 time signature and follows the form of a minor blues almost in full: we have the I degree chord in the first four measures, the IV I passage in the next four measures.

Footprints - Wayne Shorter-misure 1-8

However, in the last 4 measures, which complete the classic 12 bars progression, we see an unexpected harmonic solution: instead of the V degree we find some chords that move chromatically and have nothing to do with the starting key, C minor.

Footprints - Wayne Shorter-misure 9-12

These chords seem to move towards the key of D minor, a tone above the key of the song. Through this device, Wayne Shorter makes the harmony of Footprints more unstable and interesting.

An interesting thing also happens in the time of the piece: shortly after the beginning of Miles Davis’ solo (2’20”) Tony Williams transforms the initial 6/8 time into a 4/4 time. Double bass player Ron Carter quickly adapts, transforming the bass line in a manner consistent with the new time signature.

Footprints - Tony Williams cambio di tempo

The double bass plays this pedal also during the solos, thus allowing the other four instruments to play freely. A freedom of which everyone seems to take advantage, in particular drummer Tony Williams, the real soloist in this performance.

Until next Monday!

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