Billy Boy and Red Garland’s block chords style
In 1957, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal recorded a highly successful arrangement of the traditional song Billy Boy, currently available on the Mosaic (or Verve Reissues) 9 CDs boxed set The Complete Ahmad Jamal Trio Argo Sessions 1956-62. This arrangement was so influential that shortly after various other pianists recorded very similar versions clearly modelled upon Jamal’s. Among these pianists was Red Garland, whose own trio version was recorded in 1957 (on Red Garland Revisited!, Prestige Records) with Paul Chambers (bass) and Art Taylor (drums) and has been transcribed by myself in the Spring 2011 issue of Sheet Music Magazine (USA). Garland also recorded another very similar version of Billy Boy as the piano/bass/drums trio feature piece in Miles Davis’s famous 1958 album Milestones—as it is known, from 1955 till January 1959 Garland played in Davis’s groups and participated in many of his important recordings of that period.
Influenced by Jamal, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, Nat “King” Cole and Art Tatum, William “Red” Garland (Dallas, Texas, May 13, 1923-April 23, 1984) became especially famous and influential for his trademark “block chord” technique, which was very different from earlier “block chord” stylings devised by Milt Buckner, George Shearing and Nat “King” Cole, and was slightly different from Jamal’s too. As you can see in most of our transcription of Billy Boy presented here, Garland’s innovative and distinctive “block chord” style was made of three notes in the right hand and four (rarely three) notes in the left hand, with the left hand playing around middle C and the right hand playing one octave above the left. In this style:
- the right hand plays the melody in octaves, with a perfect 5th always placed above the lowest note of the octave. As a very important feature of this styling, note that perfect 5ths are played in the middle of right hand octaves even when they seem to not suit the underlying harmony (see for example bars 7, 13, and 34 of our transcription). In fact, these perfect 5ths become virtually inaudible when left hand chords are played simultaneously, and above all they also give these voicings a particularly rich, distinctive and slightly out-of-tune delightful character;
- the left hand mostly plays four-note (rarely three-note) “rootless chords” in exact rhythmic unison with the right hand. On this matter, it should also been noted that Garland was one of the earliest pianist to make extensive use of “rootless chords”. (Along with Gershwin, Ellington, Tatum and Garner’s pioneering examples of “synchronizing” the melody with left hand chords, “rootless chords” are discussed—with practical applications too—in my method Jazz Piano: The Left Hand, published by Ekay Music/Steinway & Sons.)
As testified by existing recordings, Garland seems to have perfected such voicing towards 1955, when he started using them extensively in his recordings with Davis. Compared to previous “block chord” stylings, Garland’s had a brighter quality, slightly more dissonance, and more fullness in the upper register. Also, in a specific comparison with Jamal’s own Billy Boy, we can see that Garland’s “block chords” were almost exactly the same as Jamal’s, except for Jamal placed major or minor 6ths—instead of perfect 5ths—in the middle of right hand octaves.
In the bridge of the first chorus as well as in the following improvised choruses, Garland plays in the customary bebop style, i.e. agile right hand lines in single notes, with sparse left hand “comping” chords.
Billy Boy is perhaps Garland’s most celebrated recording and his “block chord” style has become a widely used resource in modern jazz piano. Have fun in trying it and also applying to other tunes and to your improvisations!