What is a ‘Contrafact?’
A contrafact is a jazz tune based on an extant set of chord changes (usually a standard) where a composer uses the chord structure of an established composition to write an entirely new composition. The Gershwin tune “I Got Rhythm” is a perfect example of contrafactual recomposition: the popularity of ‘rhythm changes’ is second only to that of the 12-bar blues as a basic harmonic structure used by jazz composers. (Paraphrased from internet sources).
How will this help my jazz playing?
A great reason for doing this is that you can’t copyright a set of chord changes – only a melody; and as jazz musicians we like to play over changes we’re completely inside – standards and such. So if we rewrite a melody to a familiar song form, we can improvise to our hearts content over our favourite chord progressions in the solo sections.
Writing a contrafact to a tune also has the added bonus of giving us insight into how a composer constructs a series of chord progressions and creates melodic ideas that relate to each other over the entire form. A series of ‘linear’ phrases that bisect the tune and group these chords into a coherent, memorable and listenable piece of music.
It is a great way to look at improvising; as if you are basically writing a contrafact over the changes every time you solo a chorus.
How do I go about writing my own Contrafact?
Take the chord structure of a favourite tune (without altering it) and insert your own set of melodic phrases to form a new, original melody. Here are some ideas to help start the process of composing a new idea for the melody:
• Melodic patterns
• Extracted licks
• Chord melodies that outline the changes in an obvious fashion (spelling through the 3rd and / or 7th of each chord)
• Melodic quotes or references from existing melodies (extract the note intervals or melodic rhythm – if you copy it verbatim you will be plagiarizing!)
• Improvised melodic fragments
The only thing you really must do is NOT be too close or similar to the original melody!
Once the writing journey has begun, try some melodic developmental techniques which may yield great results in terms of writing related content from phrase to phrase. Keep the focus on creating a tune, a story which consistently refers to itself at several points along the way. It is easy to just write a heap of unrelated melodic fragments, but we want to avoid this!
So, with respect to the consequent chordal framework (make sure any newly composed harmonic material suits the chord changes!) –you may like to try:
• Call and response phrases (or ‘antecedent and consequent’ phrases)
• Repeating the melodic rhythm of the first phrase, but changing the notes
• Inverting the melody
• Retrograde / retrograde inversion
• Embellishing the melody by adding one or two notes into the phrase
• Embellishing the melody by lengthening note duration (try one note at a time)
Popular Contrafact Examples
There are many good examples of the contrafact in usable jazz repertoire – Rhythm Changes (taken from the aforementioned ‘I Got Rhythm’ chordal framework) has at least a dozen notable contrafacts, most of which are thanks to Charlie Parker (Anthropology, Moose The Mooch, Sonny Rollins’ Oleo etc).
A favourite I often call at gigs is John Scofields’ “Not You Again” – a cleverly titled contrafact to the standard “There will never be another you”. Also, ‘Weaver of dreams’ has a close enough chordal framework to this tune to be considered a contrafact (depending on which tune came first of course!). Charlie Parker’s ‘Ornithology’ is a contrafact of a Morgan Lewis tune entitled ‘How High The Moon’.
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