Last year I made a diagram of the Sonny Rollins tune Oleo, using coloured rectangles to show the straightforward ‘rhythm-changes’ harmony, and overlaying them with a lattice of diagonal lines encoding the irregular rhythm.
Another tune in the same vein is Straight, No Chaser. Here Thelonious Monk takes a well-known harmonic outline – the 12-bar blues – and lets a little five-note phrase scamper all over it in a dazzling display of rhythmic variation. I assume the title refers to the difficulty of playing the tune when drunk.
I started drawing these diagrams because I am an indifferent reader of music. Standard music notation shows note durations, but a certain amount of mental processing is required to work out where each note sits against the pulse. Good readers can do this unconsciously. For the rest of us it can be a challenge.
Here is the diagram of Straight, No Chaser. The horizontal wedges are a new feature, denoting a repeating motif. (They are not crescendos!)
You might like to compare this with a conventional score of the melody line, with chord symbols, which I have posted here.
The colours in the diagram show the harmony – a simple blues outline. Monk wrote this in Bb. I have worked from the Real Book chart, in concert F. (Apologies to anyone familiar with the Bb version who finds this disorienting. None of the points I make are dependent on the key.) The ii-V in bar 8 is inessential but adds a nice spot of colour, musically and visually.
The lattice of grey rectangles and slanting lines is a visual code for the rhythm.
There is a rectangle for each beat, inscribed with diagonal lines to show whether there is a hit on the beat, off the beat, or both. How many rectangles of the first kind can you find? Yep, just the one. We’ll return to that. (For a longer explanation see the key to the Oleo diagram.)
There are twelve separate places where the opening motif, or at least its rhythm, is repeated in the course of the tune. The motif begins with C on a half-beat; the following F can fall on any beat of the bar. But this does not happen at random.
Most of the rhythmic variation in the tune is achieved simply by repeating this three-beat, five-note phrase over a 4/4 time signature. If you loop the phrase, it will repeat on beats 1, 4, 3, 2, 1, 4 and so on, for as long as you care to continue.
(I was not looking for other examples of this common rhythmic device, but I happened to notice one in the Bill Evans tune Peri’s Scope. It’s in bars 13-16.)
Straight, No Chaser contains three rapid-fire bursts of the five-note motif, with pauses of a few beats between one burst and the next. To make this more obvious, the wedge-shaped motif symbols are coloured slightly differently in each burst. Notice how regularly spaced the motifs are within each burst, even though it may not feel that way when you hear the tune or try to play it.
The rhythm repeats 12 times altogether, in bursts of two, four and finally six copies of the motif. The melodic line is the same every time – a five-note phrase rising from C to A – with three exceptions. Most obviously, at the 10th and 11th repeats the melody starts at C and arrives at A as usual, but it crawls upwards chromatically, taking two repeats of the five-note pattern to get there. The result is a bit like the chromatic opening phrase of Blue Monk.
The other exception is the fifth repeat of the motif, which is truncated to four notes, ending on Ab (G#), on beat four of bar 4. It’s at the top right-hand corner of the diagram, and you will see that this beat is unique: there’s a hit on ‘4’ with nothing following it on the ‘and’.
I cut up the lead sheet and electronically repasted it, vertically aligning all 12 instances of the five-note motif. Notice how the bar lines hop around within the phrase.
Of the 96 half-beats (eighths or quavers) in the 12-bar form, 30 are rests or sustains. Of the 66 actual notes in the piece, it turns out that the repeating motif and its variations account for some 59 notes.
The remaining seven notes occupy some of the space between the motifs. Like glue in a piece of furniture, they are structurally important. They control the tune’s stops and starts.
On five occasions, the five-quaver motif is followed by a Bb on the next beat. Usually this is followed immediately by the pickup of the next five-quaver motif, creating a continuous flow of swung eighths. In two places, at the end of a burst of motifs, a Bb is followed by Ab on the half beat. There is then a pause before the next burst begins.
That’s it. This tune is constructed from 12 copies of a five-note motif, five B-flats, two A-flats and, of course, the spaces in between.
Straight, No Chaser sounds like an unpredictable tune but actually it’s a pattern on a loop, with just a few carefully engineered hiccups.
Monk’s genius was to take a tiny kit of parts and assemble them into a piece of music that constantly surprises the listener (or the inexperienced player). Monk had a great musical sense of humour, and in this stop-start tune he demonstrates that comedy is all about timing.
Update, 16 March 2021. Ethan Hein has written an interesting piece about this tune. Like me, Ethan likes to use graphics and geometry to explore musical ideas. For example, he takes part of a DAW track and wraps it into a circle, so you can easily see things like the way the pickup flows into the next chorus.