|| SONG JOURNAL || Beginnings - “How High the Moon”
 BEGINNINGS - “How High the Moon” by Morgan Lewis
Going all the way back to the beginning would not be the best starting point in telling my story. I picked up the guitar as a 13-year-old freshman. During that time, I was more fixated on learning pop/sing-along/cliche guitar hits than buckling down and strengthening my fundamentals. Even having joined jazz band my sophomore year, I still preferred to focus my efforts toward Red Hot Chili Pepper songs over learning jazz standards. I looked to that class as an outlet to just play guitar, rather than an opportunity to learn how to play jazz
Playing the upright bass in Monta Vista HS Jazz Band - circa 2007
Fast forward a few years: I ended up studying music in college. As a music student, I was required to enroll in private music instruction. My teacher, Bob Scarano, introduced me to many different exercises that I had never learned yet. From scale exercises to sight reading to alternate chord voicings, his assignments helped me become a more disciplined player.
Out of the new skills we covered, the topic of chord voicings caught my attention the most. Chords are a collection of notes played at simultaneously that sound harmonious (or sometimes not, depending on the intent). These new voicings were a departure from the big, clunky barre chord shapes I heavily relied on. Typically, guitarists use certain voicings/grouping of notes such as barre chords because they are easier to form due to a parallel pattern. For example, let’s use food as a metaphor. The chords are dishes, and the notes that make up these chords are the ingredients.
Example of a standard barre chord
If you’re making a sandwich, even if you switch out the filling ingredients, it is still a sandwich, and the structure remains the same. It is similar when you construct a barre chord---switching out notes to make a different chord, but placing them in the same order maintains that parallel structure. These type of chords are easier to understand and wield, hence their popularity and frequent use in contemporary genres of music.
The difficulty was breaking away from using these types of chords. In my college Harmony class, we learned to move from one chord to another, minimizing big jumps between pitches. Though I knew my theory relatively well, I struggled with applying that knowledge to the guitar. To remedy this, Bob introduced me to “drop-two” chords. This grouping of notes contained all the notes needed for the chord, but did not have that heavy, parallel structure that I mentioned earlier. They allow more notes to remain static, rather that make a big leap to the next note. This created a sound that was subtle in change.
Let’s return back to our food metaphor. With drop-two chords, I essentially learned to put together different variations of the same ingredients, and not rely on that sandwich structure. The new chord structures also allowed me to bring focus to different notes within the chords. For example, tomatoes, cheese, basil, bread---can make a grilled cheese, but also a pizza, or even a caprese salad with crostini. One of these dishes may highlight the sharp, fresh quality of the tomato, while another may emphasize the balance of the ingredients cooked together.
Examples of drop-two voicings for Dominant 7th chords
Bob essentially expanded my recipe book for ways to construct a dish. He did not want me to just learn the “recipes”, but the “techniques” as to why they worked. He gave only a few musical examples and asked me to describe the structure of each chord out loud. He then instructed me to decode the rest of the possible combinations like a puzzle. This method forced me to be more analytical and look for patterns, rather than rely on him for the solution. I appreciated this method of instruction because it made me take initiative in my own learning. After months of trial and error, I became more proficient. Ultimately, it opened my mind to accompanying and arranging with chords simultaneously. This was the breakthrough of my first year of college.
Freshman year ended and I returned home for break. I always spent my time off from school...in school. Every summer, I took classes at De Anza, enrolling in the Jazz Combo class to keep my chops up. One warm summery day, I decided to whip out my guitar in the cafeteria. I had an hour to kill and always had to lug that heavy case around, so why not be that guy with the guitar sitting on a college campus? I randomly flipped to a jazz standard, “How High the Moon.” With the remaining free time, I thought, let’s see if I could use all the skills that I learned during the school year and arrange a solo guitar version of the song. I sat there, adamant that I would find a way to play the melody on top of these elusive “drop-two” chords.
Joe Pass’ rendition on his album, “Virtuoso” heavily influenced my version
After much fumbling, I put together something that worked, and I was proud. While rather crude, the melody could be heard over the chords, and these new chord voicings made it possible. I did not want the song to sound sparse or empty so I mixed in some other embellishments that I feIt filled in the gaps. In all honesty, the arrangement was probably messy and not super artistic or expressive. That was besides the point---the victory was not becoming a technical wizard in that moment, but opening the door to the possibility that it could happen one day. I discovered that I could actually wield these new chords voicings effectively. This moment revealed that I could create, express and perform music in a whole new way.
After that revelation, I made it my mission to incorporate these new chords into solo guitar arrangements. This song, “How High the Moon,” catalyzed the development of my style. I consider this moment “Year Zero.” Everything before this moment felt “prehistoric”---like an unstructured formation of ideas that had little correlation. Although the “prehistoric” years were important in developing my love for the instrument, it consisted more of aimless dabbling and exploring. I was trying to keep up with the skilled players around me, rather than define my own identity. From here on out, there was a path. There was a clear goal in front of me. This song started it all.
Impromptu duet of “How High the Moon” at the Canvas Open Mic - circa 2011
“How High the Moon” became a staple in many “Beginnings” for my life. I recall it as first song I ever performed on bass as a senior in my high school jazz ensemble class. That launched an entire year of musical curiosity and ambition---I decided to attempt the upright bass a few months after. It was also the first song I ever performed at an open mic! (The Canvas Open Mic at the now defunct Sunnyvale Art Gallery) That opportunity connected me to a whole new network of friends and musicians, who are still important to me to this day. It was the song I played in my first ever interview for a music/guitar teacher position---and after getting hired at Myriad Music School and Dance Academy in 2010, I found a passion in teaching and mentoring students. I even played “How High the Moon” as my audition song for the Jazz Studies master program at San Jose State.
“How High the Moon” played an integral role in many impactful stages of my life. I have not performed the song much lately, but I fondly reminisce about those moments where I did. It was present during my early memories of musical exploration in high school. It helped me gain a greater understanding for the guitar. It was the song that introduced me to the performance scene. It was the song that allowed me to discover my passion for education. “How High the Moon” did not just spark one important moment of discovery---it inspired many beginnings.