How high the moon – analysis part 1

How high the moon (1940) by Morgan Lewis, a nice and easy-going jazz standard, with a catchy melody. A pretty common tune in the gypsy jazz repertoire as well. Contemporary guitarist Adrien Moignard plays a good version of it in that tradition on youtube. For a quite different version check out Louis Armstrongs bassist Arvell Shaw play it here. He plays both the head and a long solo. It’s pretty impressive!

My favourite version is by Sonny Stitt and can be found on the album “How high the moon” with Sonny Stitt and Friends. Look out for a very cool and straight-to-the-point-intro!


So first of all, why do we chose to learn/play the tunes we do? There can be several reasons: You’ve joined a band who plays it, it’s a common tune played at jam sessions, your teacher urge you to learn it, you want to study the theory etc. But I think the best reason we can have for playing the tunes we do, is that we like them! This is often the best motivation. But here we go:


For learning this tune (and more or less every jazz standard) the following list would be a good start:


1: Find a good vocal version.

One you really like and learn the lyrics by heart. It will be easier to remember and you get a more “personal” approach to the song. Instead of just learning a chord chart. You can almost always find a good version of the most popular jazz standards by some of the old masters; Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Anita O’day, Nat King Cole etc. For free versions use, or your local library for example.


2: Finding the sheet.

Of course the best thing would be to workout every note and all harmonies by ear, but for most of us that demands a very good ear, a lot of time and a lot of hard work (although I don’t doubt it will pay of in the end). But until then you can find the basic changes in the Vanilla book. I think this is a good way to start. Start to learn the changes in their most simple form: major, minor, dominant, diminished without too many substitutions and extensions. Later on when you know the fundamental changes of the tune, you can start re-harmonizing.


3: What is the form and tonality?

Most standards are in AABA, AB, ABC or AAB forms.

Look out for which chord the song is ending on. It is often the first chord in the tune, but not always!

Tonality in this case is G major, and the form is AB. Where the last eight bars in the B section differs from the last eight bars in the A section.


4: Study the changes.

A: / G / G / Gm7 / C7 / F / F / Fm7 / Bb7 /

/ Eb / Am7b5 D7 / Gm / D7 / G / Am7 D7 / Bm7 Bb7 / Am7 D7 /

B: / G / G / Gm7 / C7 / F / F / Fm7 / Bb7 /

/ Eb / Am7 D7 / G / Cm6 / Bm7 Bb7 / Am7 D7 / G / (Am7 D7) /


A good approach is to take 8 bars at a time and see what happens:

/ G / G / Gm7 / C7 / F / F / Fm7 / Bb7 /

Tonality is G major. To bars of G major, going to one bar of G minor, to one bar of C7, making a II-V in F, which leads to the F major of the forth and fifth bar. Again major becomes minor in bar 7 and make a II-V in Eb major (Fm7-Bb7) which leads to the first chord of the next 8 bars.


So the tonality changes 3 times in the first 8 bars: We have 2 bars of G major, 4 bars of F major and 2 bars of Eb major. And tonality is descending in whole-steps: G to F to Eb.


Next 8 bars: / Eb / Am7b5 D7 / Gm / D7 / G / Am7 D7 / Bm7 Bb7 / Am7 D7 /


One bar of Eb major, then one bar of a II-V in G minor, which leads to one bar of G minor, then one bar of the dominant seventh (the V chord) of G major, which leads to one bar of G major, one bar of a II-V in G major, then a two-bar turnaround of descending II-V’s in A major and G major respectively. This finish the A section and leads to the G major in the first bar of the B section.


Notice two things!  


First: turnarounds can be voiced in many different ways. Alternatively we could play the last two bars like this: / G E7 / Am7 D7 / a I-VI-II-V progression and make the II-V in bar 6 lead to the G chord. On the other hand the original turnaround (Bm7-Bb7-Am7-D7) gives you a nice descending bass line: B-Bb-A. (alternatively you can even make a flat 5 substitution of the D7, which then becomes a Ab7, giving you Ab in the bass and therefore the base line: B-Bb-A-Ab. And now the B section will start with a G major chord, and then we will have a G in the bass, and voilà! A long elegant descending bass line).

Second: when you substitute chords you have to be aware of the melody note. In bar 7 the melody note is D, and we don’t want that to clash with the chords we are playing. The D note works with the G chord (the 5th), with E7 (the 7th), with the Bm7 (the 3rd) and with the Bb7 (the 3rd as well). So both turnarounds will workout fine.


So the tonality changes 3 times: From Eb (bar 1) major to G minor (bar 2 and 3) to G major (bar 4-6) to A major (bar 7) to G major (bar 8). Bar 7 can also be seen as in the key of G major, in my opinion is redundant to say we change tonality, but we do it here for the sake of argument. The Bm7-Bb7 could be seen as a II-V leading to A minor. Strictly speaking the Bb7 belongs to the Eb major scale, but here it’s used as a b5 substitution of E7, which can be seen as a substitution of Em7 which is the 6th in the scale of G major. But in short, the important thing is to make a turnaround which leads smoothly back to the G chord, without clashing with the melody notes.


Let’s move on to the B section.


Okay, the first 8 bars of the B section is the same as the A section, so no problems here.


Last 8 bars: / Eb / Am7 D7 / G / Cm6 / Bm7 Bb7 / Am7 D7 / G / (Am7 D7) /


One bar of Eb major, one bar of a II-V in G major, which leads to one bar of G major, going to a Cm6 (! I’ll get back to that), to one bar of Bm7-Bb7; a II-V in A major, with the Bb7 being a flat 5 substitution of the normal V-chord, E7. In bar 6 the II-V in G leads “back home” to the tonality and end of the song; G major.

In the last bar you normally play a II-V leading to the beginning of a new chorus if you’re not ending the song.


So back to the Cm6 chord in bar 4. In the Realbook they suggest Am7-D7 in that bar. The melody notes is A, B and C, which is the 6th, the mMaj7 and the root of the Cm6 chord. All notes works pretty well with that chord. In relation to Am7-D7 the notes A, B and C are the root, the 6th of Am7 and the 7th of D7 respectively. All notes works pretty well too. Cm6 has the advantage of making a descending bass line (C-B-Bb-A..). On the other hand the chord will give us one bar with a whole new tonality: The 3rd in the Cm6 chord (Eb) will stick out. (remember the Cm6 can also be seen as a Am7b5 or F9 without the root).

With the Am7-D7 as the Realbook suggest, we stay in key of G major. If you’re the only chordal instrument in the given group, you can do pretty much as you like. It’s really a matter of taste and what you feel like. Try to make turnarounds which smoothly leads back to the root chord and don’t clash with the melody notes. It is very important that not only you, but also you’re band mates are sure of where you’re going. In the end it is all about getting « home » in a good way. Follow your heart.. and your ears!


5: Practice the changes with a metronome and/or play along with your favourite versions of the tune. To practice with a metronome is maybe hard and sometimes boring, but very rewarding. Playing along with recordings is fun and inspiring!


So, this was the first part. Next in part 2 I will talk about the melody and improvisation ideas I like. And about Charlie Parker and his piece made over the same changes: Ornithology.


Hope you liked this first lesson/guide in my blog and learned something, feel free to leave a message!


Somewhere there’s music / how faint the tune..


All the best, Bjorn.


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