Farmer, Quincy and Coltrane

Riffs—short, repeated musical phrases—have been around since the beginning of time. From the moment man (or woman) began beating rhythms and melodies on surfaces to communicate or entertain, catchy patterns have been a highly effective way to ensure that an audience wouldn’t forget the message. In the era of recorded music, riffs performed much the same task—getting listeners to remember and buy the records they hear. The funny thing about a powerful riff is that it can take up residence in your unconscious and remain there dormant until heard again or summoned through thought. It’s amazing what the brain recalls and why we respond to riffs. I’m sure there have been plenty of exhaustive neurological studies on this phenomenon.

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Musicians are not immune to the unconscious power of riffs. Riffs enter the musician’s head and can knowingly or unknowingly resurface years later when the musician is composing. If a musician recalls where he or she first heard the riff, they most often will change it somewhat to add their own twist. Jazz has always been a borrowed language among musicians, an art its participants applaud by building upon nifty things already created. For example, Charlie Parker’s blues riff on Now’s the Time became the basis for dozens of hit songs that followed, including The Hucklebuck. [Image above, John Coltrane’s score for A Love Supreme]

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Which brings me to the point of this post. The other day, I was listening to a favorite album—The Art Farmer Septet, recorded for Prestige in July 1953, featuring Art Farmer (tp), Jimmy Cleveland (tb), Oscar Estelle (as,bar), Clifford Solomon (ts), Quincy Jones (p,arr), Monk Montgomery (el-b), Sonny Johnson (d), and unknown (perc-1).

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As the album’s Mau Mau was playing, I suddenly realized that the background riff sounded awfully familiar. The more I focused, the more the riff sounded like the famous one John Coltrane used 11 years later on A Love Supreme. Did Coltrane knowingly use the riff credited to Art Farmer and Quincy Jones? Or was it one of those riffs that entered a composer’s brain and sat there until one day it was used to create a new song. We’ll never know, of course, since Coltrane died in 1967 and Farmer passed in 1999. Either way, there’s no crime here. It’s all part of the creative process—taking what has been and turning it into something even more revolutionary and beautiful. Inspiration is a wonderful thing.

Here’s Art Farmer and Quincy Jones’s Mau Mau from 1953. The riff starts at 1:43…

And here’s John Coltrane’s Acknowledgment from A Love Supreme (Impulse) recorded in December 1964. The riff starts at 00:30 and continues throughout the track…