Song Of The Day 8/1/2014: Professor Longhair - "Big Chief"



88 Teeth: In yesterday's edition (I forgot, who'd we cover in that one?) I referred to a couple of pieces I've been trying to play on piano my entire life in search of getting them right just once. Professor Longhair's "Big Chief," one of the greatest New Orleans instrumentals of all time, is a more recent addition to that list. I've been knocking out the main riff a couple of years now, although I've not yet bothered to play the whole thing. Mainly I like playing that crash of rolling chords at the beginning. And I just found out minutes ago that I've been playing it wrong this whole time, which led me to another subject: sharps vs. flats.

I've been playing "Big Chief" in the key of E. That splashy, springing chord you hear at the beginning is a B-seventh if it's in E. When I play it I hit six notes at the same time (my thumb's taking care of two adjacent keys). But as I just listened to Longhair's recording, I realized after comping it on my piano that he's playing it in E-flat, a half-note lower than I've been doing. So that chord's a B-flat seventh, which requires a different fingering strategy altogether. I can do a six-note B-seventh chord with little effort. A B-flat seventh, though, I can't quite get in six notes. I can barely pull off five notes.

Which is one of the crux of my -- well, I wouldn't say "problem," maybe "alternative lifestyle choice" -- with the piano: I wrote and largely play in the sharp keys. E, A, D, G, anything with sharps. That comes from most of my songwriting heroes being rock guitarists who lean on the sharp keys.

But the majority of piano players I got to know personally preferred to play in flat keys. Certainly a lot of the songs I should have been practicing were written in flat keys: most jazz, and songs like "Big Chief" that feature horns. I think my trepidation about flat keys come from the fact that the base note on keyboards is always a black one, which are higher up vertically than the white ones and a little smaller. So there's this fear of basing it on tenuous ground where my fingers might slip off and fall onto a white key.

By the way, this is even more frivolous than what are now commonly called "first world problems." This falls somewhere between Spinal Tap's sandwich dilemmas and Justin Bieber's impulse-control issues with eggs.

Or maybe my Professor Longhair recordings are a half-note off. Though I doubt it.

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