Frank Caruso’s Improvisational Devices on ‘Without a Song’

September 5, 2018

by Clay Corso

Frank Caruso, a veteran Chicago pianist, is known for his strong time feel and dexterity at the instrument. His latest recorded work, Chosen, was released in 2017, and features Chicago drummer Bob Rummage and bassist Eddie Gomez. The album features impressive trio playing, as well as tracks that just feature Caruso and Gomez. Chosen is impressive in that it represents all facets of jazz playing. Caruso’s rendition of Chick Corea’s “Matrix” takes on a free jazz quality, building from an open drum solo into a statement of the melody and open solos. The album also features original compositions “Ascent” and “Waltz for Gomez.” Duo tracks, such as “Django” and “You are There, showcase Eddie Gomez’s expressive and lyrical playing, for which he was known as a member of Bill Evans’ trio. “Without a Song,” a Vincent Youmans composition, showcases Caruso’s dexterity at the piano, and also features a solo by Rummage at the drums.

“Without a Song” is perhaps best known as a standout track on Sonny Rollins’ 1962 album, The Bridge. Caruso’s rendition takes this composition and gives it a very different flavor, changing the key and feel of the tune. Caruso plays it in the key of B-flat, and with a samba feel. The statement of the head is clear and relatively simple, and a listener who is familiar with the tune would immediately recognize it from the very first pickup. However, the tune takes an interesting twist by the time Caruso’s solo comes around. The listener may not notice on the first listen, but Eddie Gomez drops out during most of Frank’s solo, only returning on the bridges of Frank’s two choruses. This provides an immense texture change, and Frank fills the sonic space by playing piano basslines with his left hand while he solos. In this article, I will examine a few improvisational devices that Frank uses, as well as some ways in which he constructs cohesive basslines.

Changes of Texture

This tune has an AABA form, which is extremely common in songbook tunes. The unusual part of “Without a Song” is that the A sections are 16 bars, and the B section is only 8. This means the bridge feels much shorter than the A sections, giving the listener a brief pause from the repeating rhythms of the A section melody. This short bridge gives the performers a chance to utilize a texture change to provide clarity and interest to the listener. That is where Caruso’s recording shines. The unusual choice of having the bass drop out on the A sections draws in the listener. It is easy to tell that there is an immediate texture change after the statement of the melody. Gomez’s simple bassline under the melody is driving and energetic, and when he drops out on the solo, the sonic change is very unique. The time feel is rock solid between Caruso’s simultaneous bassline and soloing, and Rummage lays down a driving groove. While the time feel remains rock solid, the frequencies occupied by the upright bass are gone when Gomez lays out. This leaves Frank Caruso with the duty of carrying the time feel and also laying down the harmonic landscape, all while shaping soloistic lines. Anyone versed in jazz improvisation knows that this is not an easy task, and it is rare in a trio setting for the bass player to lay out completely. Even the most heavy-hitting pianists can be daunted by the prospect of taking on the role of soloist and accompanist at the same time. Caruso does so elegantly on “Without a Song,” and there are times where it sounds like there are two pianists. When Gomez returns during the 8-bar bridge on each chorus, his impact is immediately felt. Caruso uses left-hand comp chords on the bridge, allowing Gomez to take over bassline duties. This brings the energy of the solo up, shaping the overall scope of Caruso’s solo. When Eddie drops out after the bridge, Caruso immediately picks up the basslines with his left hand. Interestingly, even after the second bridge, Eddie drops out, which allows Frank to finish the last A by himself. Many musicians would fold under the pressure of having a bass player drop out altogether, but Caruso steps up valiantly, delivering a heroic solo that showcases his strong rhythmic pulse and nimble right hand.

Constructing Basslines to Shape a Solo

When Gomez stops playing during Caruso’s solo, the sound of the bass leaves a sonic gap that is quickly filled by the left hand of the piano. This is a difficult task for a piano player, but it can be made simple, especially through examination of Frank’s basslines. One concept that stood out to me while transcribing this solo is that Frank almost always hits the downbeat of every single measure with his left hand. This gives the bassline a driving quality that makes it sound like an upright bass. Listen to Eddie’s bass when he arrives during the bridge of Frank’s choruses. Note how he always hits the downbeat, usually also emphasizing beat three. What gives Frank’s solo clarity and flow is that he is approaching his basslines in the same way a bass player would. Caruso also builds his solo by, in his second chorus, beginning to play around the downbeats (as opposed to on them) with his left hand, creating a contrast to his first chorus. Compare the rhythmic construction of his basslines in his first and second choruses. His first several lines from the first chorus are shown below. Note that every measure has a clear downbeat in the left hand. Because this first chorus comes immediately after Gomez plays underneath the melody, Caruso chooses to keep the bass texture similar to that of a bass player, emphasizing beat one and the “and” of two.

Let’s compare this to an excerpt from the second chorus.

Note how Frank often plays on the “and” of one or the “and” of four, without sacrificing clarity. Anticipating or delaying the downbeat creates additional tension.

Caruso builds layers of tension that create interest and contrast in his solos. Listen for different layers of tension and release at a rhythmic level on this entire album.

Varying Soloistic Phrases

Frank leaves no stone unturned in this solo, from a harmonic and a rhythmic standpoint. One part of this solo that stands out to me is his choice of phrase lengths. As his left hand supplies a steady foundation, his right hand plays long, winding phrases that provide additional flow. The first nine measures of this solo are a steady stream of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and triplets, with the first short rest coming in the ninth bar. Caruso thinks in longer phrases while switching rhythmic values inside these long phrases to provide interest. Look at the first two A sections of his solo. Count the length of his phrases, and you will find that he uses four- and eight- bar phrases. Much like Caruso uses rhythmic tension in his left hand in his second chorus, he uses varying phrase lengths to build interest and tension. In the first two bars of his second chorus, he uses a short phrase. In the next bars, he plays an over-the-barline pattern that is a stark contrast to the short phrase that begins the chorus. Note how the bridge of his second chorus also starts with a two-bar phrase. In the last 16 bars of his solo, specifically measures 97 to 100, he uses even shorter ideas that span just one measure. This provides an interesting conclusion to the solo, with the listener having heard many contrasting idea lengths. Often, listeners will examine solos from a harmonic standpoint, looking at how certain harmonies imply tension and release. A more subtly appearing, yet more visceral approach is looking at how varying rhythms and phrase lengths create tension. When harmonic tension and phrase-based tension are used simultaneously, as in Caruso’s solo, the result is masterful and mature.

The way that this album approaches trio playing is cutting edge. The three musicians are constantly switching roles. Without a Song is a perfect example of innovative trio playing. The elements of this performance that stand out the most to me are textural, serving the music at a deep level. Take a listen for additional elements that provide tension and interest. In addition to the ones I have described, you will find new layers of this music with every listen. Apply this to all of your jazz (and non-jazz) listening, and you will find your ears and intuition developing in new ways.

Clay Corso is a pianist and teacher from the Chicago suburbs. He has played behind artists such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Doc Severinsen, Ryan Truesdell, and Sean Jones. He is also a published composer and is currently working on presenting a recital of his original works. Clay can be reached for questions and comments at claycorso@gmail.com.

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