Understanding Modern Jazz-Alternate Melodies Or Contrafacts

Understanding Modern Jazz-Alternate Melodies Or Contrafacts

Writing and performing alternate melodies, sometimes referred to as contrafacts, over a jazz standard chord progression, is a common practice amongst jazz musicians.  I was surprised to see that Wikipedia has an entry for this……https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrafact.  Here is their definition…..”In jazz education, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure.[1] Contrafact can also be explained as the use of borrowed chord progressions.” 

The Wiki site also states this regarding examples of this form…..”Well-known examples of contrafacts include the Charlie Parker/Miles Davis bop tune “Donna Lee,” which uses the chord changes of the standard “Back Home Again in Indiana[3] or Thelonious Monk‘s jazz standard[4] “Evidence”, which borrows the chord progression from Jesse Greer and Raymond Klages’s song “Just You, Just Me” (1929).[5] The Gershwin tune “I Got Rhythm” has proved especially amenable to contrafactual recomposition: the popularity of its “rhythm changes” is second only to that of the 12-bar blues as a basic harmonic structure used by jazz composers.” 


Background Music

Further examples that immediately come to my mind are Ornithology, the Charlie Parker line over How High The Moon, Background Music written by Warne Marsh, a snaking line over All Of Me, and Day And Night by David Liebman, a very modern sounding line written over Night And Day. 

Liebman really has a way with modern harmony and melody, the man is a living master.  I have been influenced by his books, recordings and writing in an extremely positive way.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Liebman and http://davidliebman.com/home/ for a thorough overview of Mr. Liebs, and be sure to research his many books and instructional materials; these are fantastic resources and terrific examples of jazz educational materials about modern jazz, saxophone and harmony.

The great blind pianist and theorist Lennie Tristano may have been the most significant contributor to the canon of contrafacts.  See this Wikipedia entry about this mercurial pianist….https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lennie_Tristano.  Lennie, in addition to his own composed contrafacts, had his students write lines over standard tune chord progressions as exercises to develop fluency with various harmonic concepts that he was teaching, and many of these compositions where subsequently recorded by his most famous students.  Lee Konitz wrote many memorable lines this way, including his famous tune Subconcious Lee, which is a line over What Is This Thing Called Love that exploits the diminished scale.   

Sub Conscious Lee

Here is a chart I was passed along by Gary Foster, this is Tristano’s line Two Not One, which is based on the chord progression to I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me.  Notice the lines starts on beat two, not beat one…..

Two Not One

Night And Day


Night And Day is a tune written by Cole Porter for the 1932 musical Gay Divorce, and Wikipedia has a short entry here for this tune….https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_and_Day_(song).  There is a good description here of the structure or form of the tune, and there is also discussion of the harmony of the tune.

Have a listen to a great Ella Fitzgerald version of Night and Day on Youtube here…..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEM_63_P0CY

David Liebman wrote Day And Night and recorded it while a member of drummer Elvin Jones band on the Earth Jones recording……https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Jones.  This recording is a fantastic document of a wonderful band, and it is interesting to me to hear how Liebman takes this old standard and mines new, more modern melodic material for his melody.  I’m willing to bet that most experienced jazz listeners would have a very hard time hearing and identifying the Night and Day progression to Day and Night.  This is the sort of thing that the musicians themselves know and shapes their conception of composition and improvisation.  Have a listen on Youtube to Day and Night here….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trizby5lXcQ

Day And Night:B Flat:Liebman


In order to hear and view this juxtaposition of melody more clearly I wrote a saxophone quartet that integrates the two tunes and recorded it a few years ago.  I called it Night And Day/Day n’ Night, and it can be heard here on Soundcloud:  https://soundcloud.com/user-84203206/nightday-n-nite……The original melody is stated very plainly from the beginning, and then at the 1:15 point the Liebman melody appears.  It is a seamless transition and I did not vary the accompanying saxophones too much in order to illustrate the marriage of the two melodies.

As an added bonus I am including the parts to the quartet in case anyone would like to try them out “live.”

Night & Day:Day 'N Night-Soprano Sax


Night & Day:Day 'N Night-Alto Sax


Night & Day:Day 'N Night-Tenor Sax


Night & Day:Day 'N Night-Baritone Sax


In the later 1980’s I was fortunate to meet and study with Joe Henderson.  Yes, that Joe Henderson……

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Henderson.  Joe moved from New York to San Francisco in the very early 1970’s, and several us of had the opportunity to study with him.  You know who you are!  While the stories of studying with Joe are best left to legend, needless to say it was always a thrill to go into the underground basement where he had an old keyboard set up and work for hours with this true Master of Jazz Music. 

As part of my studies with Joe I wrote, in the Tristano school style, a line over the chord changes of the standard There Will Never Be Another You, which I titled Question Mark.  Playing this challenging line brings back some fond memories, I was so much younger then.  Check out this ancient Composer chart from the late 1980’s,  printed on a dot matrix printer!  

Question Mark Orig


I ran into this great article about Joe on the Internet, check this out…..http://nepr.net/post/joe-henderson-phantom-would-have-been-80#stream/0.  Great stuff there.  I plan an in depth blog post about Joe in the near future, and  I am really looking forward to diving into that at some point.

Here is another draft of Question Mark, a bit updated, thankfully!!


Another aspect of the contrafact that was a lure for jazz musicians is the way these “original” compositions bypassed copyright laws.  I use quotes around “original” because as I said before, the chord progressions were usually borrowed directly from standard tunes, although in many cases harmonic variations were often employed.  Many jazz musicians have used this compositional technique, and it is also a very useful study for students to compose lines over standards, rhythm changes or blues.  I always encourage my more advanced students to try their hands at this.

Contrafacts are almost literally something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue(s)!  It is important to understand their use and significance in the jazz repertoire, and there is much to discover and digest in this sophisticated jazz form.  Another advanced study is the practice of playing improvised solos from a jazz legend as an alternate melody.  Guitarist John Klopotowski and myself make a habit of playing in unison the Bird solo to Billie’s Bounce and Lester Young’s solo on Poundcake on our all too infrequent gigs.  We see this as a tradition handed down from our mentor Warne Marsh, who in addition to his recorded contrafacts like Dixie’s Dilemma (All The Things You Are)  often, along with Lee Konitz, recorded classic jazz solos as alternate melodies.

Dixie's Dilemma:E Flat

So there you have it, CONTRAFACTS demystified.  Have a turn at composing a few yourself, you will be surprised how developing this aspect of your musicianship can influence your improvisations.  Work with some specific elements, harmonically or melodically or both, and examine examples of other contrafacts.  They are a rich layer of the jazz strata that can be easily mined for education and inspiration.  Always listen carefully for the underlying harmony and try to hear or sing the original melody along with the contrafact melody.  You will likely have an “Ah Ha!” moment if you work at it hard enough, where you begin to hear new things and appreciate different layers of complexity in this fascinating music we call jazz.

Strive for tone, thanks for reading…… 

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