The ideas behind our Melody Transcriptions

Don Sickler: When I'm confronted with a lead sheet of a composition, especially if it's one I'm not familiar with, I want to see the melody and chord symbols, along with any rhythm hits under the staff that are basic to the composition. Often composer's compositions are easy to clearly notate in lead sheet form. Sometimes, however, I get quite frustrated trying to create a definitive lead sheet edition. I'll give you two examples that immediately come to mind.

My job of notating lead sheets of Thelonious Monk's music started in 1980, when I became involved with Nellie Monk and Monk's family. I was fascinated by the subtle variations I discovered as I began to explore every recording of each composition. I started creating different lead sheets based on the different recordings. When an artist would want to record a specific composition, say Criss Cross, should I add confusion by asking if they want the version with the six-measure bridge, or the one with the eight-measure bridge? When the distributor Hal Leonard wanted to create a Thelonious Monk Fake Book of all of his compositions I was ready to panic, until guitarist Steve Cardenas came up with the idea that we should just pick one recording for each composition and do the lead sheet based on that recording. This gave me, as editor, the opportunity to add a section at the end of the book to talk about specifics from other recordings that I felt were important for an understanding of particular compositions.

The extraordinary musician and composer Buddy Montgomery also came into my life in the 1980s. Buddy didn't read music, so he wasn't used to the problems of trying to convey music in notation. With his incredible musical gift, he also never played any of his compositions exactly the same way. As I'd sit next to him with pencil and manuscript paper in hand, attempting to notate the melody he was playing, he would repeat sections (always a little differently). I'd then play it back for him on the piano, saying, shall I notate the melody this way, or that way? He'd usually say something like, "Either way is OK, they both work."

Our goal at that time was to create a lead sheet that could be handed to the other musicians for a recording date, since the songs hadn't been recorded before. So, I just picked the way that looked best to me and handed Buddy lead sheets that he could pass out to the musicians. Some type of lead sheet was necessary because often Buddy would have some wild rhythmic ideas that would take too much rehearsal time if he tried to teach his compositions to the group by rote. When I got to hear the recording after the session, it was always very stimulating to see how often the composition would take on a different shape from the way Buddy originally played it for me on the piano.

So, in Buddy's case, now that I'm able to make his music available for other musicians to perform, I always also provide a melody transcription edition from a specific recording. This approach makes sense with several other composers, and I'm sure you'll find the extra time it takes to explore the melody transcriptions will be rewarding.