Mister Magic

“It goes on to relating to people too, because how many times have you seen a musician with a little infant? And the musician will be playing, and you will see a whole range of emotions walk across their face -which means that you are communicating. ”

-Grover Washington Jr. on why he plays music


Welcome back from an unexpectedly long break! As I’ve said before, we all need a vacation every now and again. Of course, my vacation came with a bunch of projects, deadlines, and some computer trouble to boot. But that’s all over now, and it’s time to start fresh again with a song for the beautiful Spring weather…


Grover Washington Jr. is a surprisingly controversial figure for someone so equally talented and humble. These qualities haven’t stopped musical icons as big as Leonard Feather or the Heath brothers from hurling insults his way for fathering the genre of smooth jazz. Love him or hate him, the Buffalo native was able to metabolize the sound of the pop saxophone from its gritty R&B roots to what may be the most common wind instrument on mainstream American radio today.


In 1971, Washington was lucky enough to be in the studio to record Inner City Blues. The alto sax part was supposed to be performed by Hank Crawford, but Washington asked if he could try laying down the track (in addition to his tenor part) since Crawford wasn’t in the studio that evening. The producers agreed, and the rest is history.



In 1975, Washington would record one of his most popular title tracks, Mister Magic, which critics met with better than average reviews, invoking Prestige Record’s Gene Ammons as a possible influence. Let’s see what we can learn from a minute of Washington’s virtuosic playing.


Download the transcription in Bb

Download the transcription in Eb

Download the transcription in Concert

Mister Magic Bb


Washington’s chief tool is of course, the Dm Pentatonic Scale (D-F-G-A-C). He emotes through the 5 pitches chiefly using rhythmic variation and alternating scalar and arpeggiated patterns.


But what I really want to talk about is implied form. In terms of notation, this solo section is essentially a straight concert Cm vamp. However, Washington uses chord substitutions and timbre changes to create the illusion of double bar lines, form, and structure.


The first 8 bars of the solo are marked by syncopated lines throughout the middle of the staff. The sixth measure emphasizes the fourth degree, G. As you’ll see, Washington uses his melody to create the illusion of a i-IV-i progression.


At bar 9, Washington leaves space, almost punctuating the end of an 8 bar section. He then proceeds to create a new motif at bar 14. It repeats in bar 16, but this time emphasizing the G. As before, this creates an illusion of harmonic movement as Washington implies a suspended i-IV progression (which was previously resolved to back to Dm). This suspension creates… well… suspense to imply another double bar line and the start of a new section at measure 17.


Here, Washington resolves his lines, outlining a sort of Fmaj6. Now we can bicker and argue about what was actually going through the soloist’s mind, and we certainly have to agree that the solo never leaves Dm, but bear with me:


The B natural and E natural not only contribute to that iconic Fmaj7#11 sound, but they also are idiomatically used to outline an F major resolution in bebop (C-B-C, A-G#-A, F-E-F) versus the C# that you would expect to see if we were in D. This departure from the mostly exclusive pentatonic sound is even more evidence that we’ve entered a new structural part of the form.



As for the rest of my implied chords, they are largely irrelevant except for the A chord (whether it’s an altered A7 or simply an Am chord is not as important as the root’s function). Measures 19-23 show an unprecedented use of the pitch, hammering home this idea that we’ve somehow modulated toward the five chord.


After ultimately returning home to Dm, the listener is left with the feeling of a rounded ABA type form. After 28 measures, it really feels like we’ve navigated through one chorus of a solo with the basic structure of i-i-V-i (or maybe i-i-III-i).


And for your bonus:

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