“The Days of Wine and Roses laugh and run away, like a child at play, through the meadow lands and through the passing door, a door marked never more that was not there before. The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze, filled with memories of the golden smile that introduced me to the days of wine and rose and you.” – Johnny Mercer (lyrics to “Days of Wine and Roses” from the 1962 film of the same name).
A while ago, I heard several arguments on the complexity of music, particularly of jazz. As a jazz student, I have spent many, many hours studying this style of music, studying improvisational techniques, and ways to play a song “well.” One song that I know I can play well is a Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer tune called, “Days of Wine and Roses.” Here is a copy of the lead sheet (sadly, it is very difficult to convert something from a Finale notepad file to a file that I can use on this blog, but this should do). So, we will now examine how to approach playing the “head” as a saxophone player (or any horn player), how to improvise a solo, how to “comp” chords on piano, how to play a bass line through this (on bass or piano), and finally what the drummer would have to do. Keep in mind that all of this is done in the minds of musicians. We see nothing more than the lead sheet that is below. Nothing else. All the rest of the decisions are made in our heads, and are not made until we begin to play. This is what allows jazz to be so free and conversational. Now, here is the lead sheet. One short note, The first and second endings are not noted on this sheet. The first ending starts at the Fmaj7 chord before the D-, and goes to the repeat. The second ending is right after the repeat.
Now, as a saxophone player, the first thing that I must do is play the melody. However, this would be very boring if I simply played what is written. The first thing that I will do is make sure that I walk down on the whole note. So, I may play A-G-F-E natural. The E natural against the Eb7+4 chord creates a nice tension, which is then resolved by going to the Eb. The E natural is the flat nine of that chord, so that note will often work over that chord, seeing as the Eb chord is altered already (dominant 7, sharp 4). Next, I might add a grupetto or turn on the D on the A- chord. Simple things like this, or anticipating phrasing makes the melody more enjoyable. I would never play8-17 like written. There is plenty of space for more turns, anticipation or delaying of rhythms, and countless other possibilities. Next comes the solo. We are in F major for the first chord, so I would likely start my solo running straight up the scale. Start on an upbeat to give your lines momentum. I would then be sure to highlight the +4 and b7 of the next chord, so I would play some combination of Db and A natural. Highlight the +9 and b9 of the next chord, and then we go into G-. Here, I would highlight the Bb and Eb that are outside of the key signature, and this is also a great place for a G blues scale, as it creates a nice contrast to the rather simple, happy melody. Basically, from the D7+9 chord through the G- chords, one can use an Eb minor scale, G minor scale, or Bb major. I prefer the Eb minor. But don’t use too much of this yet, rather wait until the second chorus of solo to really hammer out the blues. Next, we see our beloved Eb7+4 chord again. Once again, emphasize the Db and the notes outside of the key. Now, we likely have only really used simple melodies to this point. We get to a point where we are in G major (and E minor, which are very similar) for a couple measures. Use a lot of 16th notes here, and go into a double time sort of feel, come back to the A minor, and then arpeggiate the turnaround to emphasize the chord tones that are outside of the key. Start each arpeggio in root position, but because we have two chords per measure, the second chord will not be arpegiatted in root position. The arpeggios will be straight 8th notes, and will be as follows E-G-Bb-D-C#-A-G-E, then in the next measure, D-F-Ab-C-B-G-F-D. We’re back to G-, so the rest of the turnaround is easy. Second chorus is the same until we get to the second ending. Really aim for the Bm7(b5) chord, and hit the F natural there. E7+9 chord is a good place to show off the #9 (G natural). Make up a nice closeing rhythm and you are done.
Now, for the piano player. This is only a medium swing song, so if you are a good piano player, you want to play a couple of different voicings on this. You don’t have to play the melody, so you can use both hands for chords. The bass player plays the root, so you really want a rootless voicing. For the +4 chords, you could choose a sort of sus voicing, where you play the sharp 4 for two beats, and then substitute the 3 for the +4 on the last two beats, or you could simply play a voicing like 7-9-3-+11 or something of the sort (the 11 is the +4). The most important thing is that the 7 and 3 of each chord get voiced. Why? The 7 and 3 tell what kind of chord we have (major, dominant 7, minor, diminished, etc.) As far as rhythm goes, any standard swing rhythm would work. Vary rythms accordingly. For guitar player, a Freddie Green style of strumming would work just fine.
For the bass player, you want to make sure that you hit the root on every chord. The piano/guitar player is not playing the root, so they are using what is called a rootless voicing. The bass can walk through most of this, but emphasizing the alterations on the chords is imperative. For the drummer, I would recommend using brushes on this tune, but light sticks would be alright as well. Make sure to carry the form through the song, and give a little crash to note the different sections of the song (repeat signs, 1st, 2nd ending, after each chorus).
The amazing thing about jazz is that all of the musicians have to know this and make their decisions within a few seconds. So, that is a little demonstration of how to attack any jazz tune, and there are many far more complex than this one. Hopefully this gives you a better appreciation for how layered the music is, and how much knowledge it takes to play these tunes. If a jazz musician is lucky enough to have music, they have nothing more than the lead sheet, like above. This small amount of written music allows for a greater freedom of expression and conversation between musicians, the essential elements of jazz.