Isn’t it Rich – 5 things jazz folk would love about Sondheim

For the past 3 weeks, I’ve had “Stephen Sondheim on the brain, in the ears, and in the hands.”¹ No, it’s not because I’ve grown sick of all that jazz² in my music library. I’m currently music directing a summer stock production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in Princeton, New Jersey. For these 3 weeks, just about every waking hour has been filled with triple-time tunes about missed connections, gender stereotypes, and a whole lot of sexual repression. As I am someone who has never been able to sit through an episode of “Glee,” you might expect that music directing a piece of musical theater would drive me mad. But that has fortunately not been the case.

In fact, as a real Sondheim n00b³, the experience has been eye-opening from a musical standpoint. Though Sondheim is best known for his endlessly witty and psychologically probing lyrics, I was struck at how gorgeous and well-crafted the music in “A Little Night Music” is. It’s a pastiche musical – a romp through popular styles of late Victorian Europe – but hardly feels like a cheap imitation of the great European Romantics (no pints of Brahms-Lite here). In fact, the more I played the music in rehearsal, the jazzier it sounded. I mean there’s no swing or anything, but the way that Sondheim constructs each tune in terms of harmony, melody, and form bears striking similarities to some of the best jazz tunesmiths of the modern era. Although Sondheim’s work has gone largely unexplored by jazz musicians (except for “Send in the Clowns” of course), there’s quite a bit for jazz people to eat up, if they listen carefully.

1. Sondheim’s tunes are all built on surprisingly funky vamps.

Perhaps the most defining feature of today’s common practice, young-person jazz is the exaltation of the vamp. Think Gerald Clayton-Joe Sanders-Justin Brown or Taylor Eigsti-Joshua Crumbly-Kendrick Scott or Robert Glasper-Derrick Hodge-Chris Dave. A good vamp isn’t just a catchy, repetitive ear-worm. Those kinds of vamps just get really annoying, real quick. All of the above rhythm sections know that a vamp has to have some mystery to it – a rhythm or harmonic progression that unfolds and microscopically shifts over the course of the song. The best vamps underpin the entire song form, the verse and chorus magically spinning out of it.

Almost all of Sondheim’s tunes from “A Little Night Music” are based on some sort of vamp. “Now” pulses along with a rollicking do-da-do-da-do-da in 6/8 time. “Liaisons” floats on a graceful bed of rolled celeste chords. Even “Send in the Clowns” is undergirded by rolling triplets on the harp.

However, the funkiest (and my favorite) vamp from “A Little Night Music” is in the prickly duet “It Would Have Been Wonderful” (though I prefer it a bit faster). It’s jaunty and chromatic, played on that inevitable music jokester, the bassoon. But what’s really cool is how it transforms gradually throughout the song form. That poky triplet line slithers upward, then gets reinforced by a barrage of syncopated strings before blooming into a lush orchestral wash. It may not have a backbeat, but this vamp can definitely get a jazz person’s head bobbin’, and hold one’s attention all the way through the song.

2. The harmonies are rich and colorful…

After graduating from Williams College, Sondheim studied composition with leading American serialist Milton Babbit. The relationship between teacher and student is strikingly similar to the relationship between George Gershwin – a favorite songwriter among jazz folk – and the European masters Ravel and Schoenberg from whom Gershwin sought lessons. Both Gershwin and Sondheim wanted to write adventurous, perhaps atonal, classical music. Yet in both cases, their classically-minded teachers refused to teach them. Schoenberg said that he would ruin Gershwin’s melodic gifts. Babbit said that Sondheim had not yet exhausted the possibilities of tonality, so should work within it.

Like Gershwin, Sondheim never jumped into atonal composition wholeheartedly, but he certainly did develop an ear for rich, colorful harmonies usually found in concert halls or jazz clubs, not the pits of the Great White Way. One can rarely find a simple, unadorned triad in “A Little Night Music.” Sondheim almost invariably adds a 7th or 9th to a basic major chord, and frequently alters the 5th and 9th on a dominant chord. Sondheim is also fond of putting both the 3rd and suspended 4th together in a chord, a bright and bracing sound most commonly associated with Thelonius Monk. And like any good post-bop jazz musician, Sondheim sure loves his modal sus chords.

Not only are the sonorities themselves rich and colorful, Sondheim’s harmonic progressions are filled with the unexpected turns of a Wayne Shorter tune. “The Miller’s Son” for instance begins in a plaintive B minor, then drops to a bluesy progression in D before moving to F minor and later E minor, then finally returning to B. The minor 3rd jump and chromatic drop are two of the most common moves in modal jazz (think “Giant Steps” for minor 3rds and Pat Metheny’s “Phase Dance” for the chromatic drop). A song like “Miller’s Son” is just begging to be blown over.

3. …yet the melodies are well, melodic.

One of the difficulties of writing a good modern jazz tune is finding a melody that fits the complex harmonic scheme you’ve drawn up. Some writers seem to have a real knack for it, like Pat Metheny, Miguel Zenon, Terrence Blanchard, and Fred Hersch. Most don’t. In the vast majority of cases, the melody sounds secondary to the harmony. It’s untethered to the core of the song and just floats away out of mind.

In Sondheim’s songs, the melody and harmony cohere in a very potent way as part of the overall form of the song. In one of my favorite songs from “A Little Night Music” – “Every Day a Little Death” – the key surreptitiously slides from a poignant B major into B minor, opening up new harmonic space in a way that sends chills down the spine (think those awesome key shifts in Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made” at around the 2:30 mark). Yet this transition doesn’t get in the way of the melody. It marks a new section where platitudes about the difficulties of marriage turn into specific grievances. It’s all part of the song’s storytelling, a trait that gets lost on tunes that are really just improvisation workouts. A song like “Every Day a Little Death” shows that a tune can be harmonically adventurous and be good for blowing over, yet also engage listeners in a lyrical way.

4. He’s never afraid of mixing up rhythm and meter.

It’s cliche now to take an old musical theater tune – say “All The Things You Are” from the musical “Very Warm for May” – and put it in an odd time signature – say 7/8. The thought behind it I guess is that the old song itself isn’t rhythmically interesting enough on its own to be performed in a jazz context. Sondheim may not write in crazy mixed meters like Steve Coleman, but the rhythmic profile of his music is far from simple. “Every Day a Little Death” for instance is based on a bouncy 6/8 groove that’s deceptively tricky to execute smoothly, plus the melody begins and ends on weird beats, and there are irregular and elided phrases… let’s just say even rhythmically-facile jazz musicians wouldn’t want to mess with the time signature on this one.

Sondheim even plays with mixed meters – not all the much, but effectively nonetheless. In the song”The Glamorous Life” (yeah I went there), Sondheim transforms the sing-songy triple-meter chorus into a complex pattern that alternates between 2 and 3 beat bars. Sped up, this pattern could easily be something Vijay Iyer would play with in a tune. In the aforementioned “Miller’s Son,” the tune begins in a slow 3, then speeds up and goes into 2, then goes into a faster 3 before repeating this complex rhythmic cycle. A hard swinging rhythm section could really cut its teeth through meter and tempo shifts like that.

5. Sondheim can say a ton within a basic song form.

Let’s think of some modern jazz tunes that have become common practice standards of sorts – tunes that conservatory students will play on recitals alongside those obligatory Parker and Monk numbers. Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “Zhivago,” Aaron Parks’ “Nemesis,” and Brian Blade’s “Crooked Creek” come to mind, plus plenty of tunes by Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, and Dave Douglas. What I feel makes these tunes so popular is how much they can say within a typical song form. They’re like short essays with really fascinating theses. There are no complex, extraneous solo sections – everything relates to the melody, chord progression, and basic groove. They are easy enough to learn and fun to solo over, a perfect storm for a modern jazz standard.

Sondheim’s best songs work in the same way. They’re melodically arresting and harmonically complex, but packaged in an air-tight, easily transportable form. This rare combination of beauty and concision is what all of the above modern jazz standards have in common, and its the same trait a jazz person will find in the Sondheim tunes I’ve talked about here. There’s a reason I haven’t gone crazy teaching, playing, and listening to this music day in and day out for 3 weeks. There’s just too much stuff in it to get boring.

And all this stuff would prove mighty good fodder for a jazz musician looking for new avenues of expression.


1. If you’re a Sondheim nut, you would probably recognize that the line in quotes scans to “Every Day A Little Death.”

2. This pun’s a little more obvious. I know it’s not Sondheim, but I’m not a naturally funny person so I jump on any potential bit of humor I can muster.

3. The only Sondheim show I had actually seen in full before doing “Night Music” was “Company.”


Filed under Think Pieces

3 responses to “Isn’t it Rich – 5 things jazz folk would love about Sondheim

  1. Bridget

    Might I recommend this album? I think they’re all great interpretations, and a lot of fun to listen to if you’re familiar with the original versions.

  2. Yeah, I came across it not too long ago, when I first thought about why jazz and Sondheim don’t seem to mix. I really like Herbie’s “Color and Light.” But I guess what I’m getting at here is why do jazz musicians only take on Sondheim’s music for a special compilation project? The album sounds like a producer’s idea, rather than a performer’s.

  3. Bobby Hsu

    Coincidentally, weeks before you were writing this we were busy recording this album:

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