Digging Deep Into Etta James’ “At Last”

For the past couple of weeks, the focus of the AFP Young Adult Music Program has been an in depth study of the basic mechanics of jazz. We have been working on Etta James’ “At Last” for the past couple of months, but we have now begun to break down the chord progression into a series of key changes, and to investigate how we can navigate those changes using scales. We have been breaking down the requisite parts of the chords into the bass movement, the harmonic color notes, and the melody notes, and observing how each note relates to the key, to the chord, and to the function of the chord in the progression.

Jason has been learning to walk the bass, playing the notes that clearly indicate the movement of the chords, while Raymond, Alex and Gabriel have been learning chord voicings on guitar and piano, observing the movement of the functional character notes from chord to chord. We have been identifying which notes change from chord to chord and which ones stay the same. This is helping to elucidate how the flow of the song works. We have also been looking at how the order and character of the chords indicate which key we can play in at any given time, and where to modulate to a new key.

With this knowledge, we can determine exactly what function each note of the melody plays from a diatonic harmony perspective. All of this is very analytical and confusing of course, but with the foundation of knowledge these guys have accumulated over the past four years, it is beginning to come into focus. At Last is a great tune to learn this stuff through. The changes are quintessential, and the melody is unique and complex, but very accessible and simple in a way, as well. It is one of the best examples, in my opinion of the cross-pollination of jazz and blues.

The next step in our exploration of jazz is to incorporate all of this information, forget it momentarily, and improvise freely, whilst never losing at least a distant view of the melody to serve as a guide and blueprint for infinite variations and departures.

-Barry Komitor