Excerpted from Speaking of Jazz: Essays and Attitudes
Here’s a transcription of Herbie Hancock's Dolphin Dance, a unique piece which I performed with Herbie years ago in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, NYC. Since the melody is widely known and basically correct, I'm only including the harmonic chord succession here—which is rather different from the normal lead sheets. As I've stated before, sophisticated original compositions such as this especially need to be verified through transcription, rather than trusting the Real Book and other unofficial sources. Since not everyone played exactly the same pitch collections in every chorus, I chose to make judgment calls and come up with an overall composite of what I thought was the general consensus.
Some tunes are too special to entrust to unofficial sources. With a piece like this, I always try to start with the urtext, which is the original recording by the composer. As with Wayne Shorter, Hancock knows exactly what he wants—and is special and sophisticated. In the case of standards, it's instead about signifying—two different types of story, with different intent. For example, I would never reharmonize Dolphin Dance, but I reharmonize and arrange many of the standards that I perform.
The key to improvising on this piece is in its strong melody. There are some non-functional guide tone lines of a sort, too—especially over the pedals, which remind me of Debussy's Nuages. I don't take the chords too seriously in terms of direction for improvising, however—only color and mood. I love how the melody climaxes two-thirds through on the highest note of duration, a classic Golden Section. While all other melodic motives are well-developed, the climax motive only happens that once. It's a beautifully constructed work on all levels. For me, the most noteworthy chord is the Ab7-5 blues chord in the momentary Cm, suggesting flat five blues phrases.
Dolphin Dance, a very sophisticated Impressionist-inspired Herbie Hancock piece, is one of the most complex jazz compositions written to date. Hancock was influenced by French Impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, as the salient characteristics of this particular composition demonstrate. Since not everyone played exactly the same pitch collections in every chorus, I made judgment calls to derive a composite of what I thought was the general consensus.
Although lush and mostly non-dissonant in nature, this is an atonal composition (no primary key). As with Debussy's and Ravel's atonal passages, Hancock includes brief tonal references with occasional ii V cadences; but none of those cadences (four in this piece) establish a key. There are, instead, brief suggestions of keys in this non-functional chord succession (keys of : Eb, Cm, G, Cm, G, and F . . . ?). As with the Impressionists, Herbie employs various pedal points over which he suspends a variety of successions containing unresolved melodic Ninths, Elevenths, and Thirteenths—a rich milieu.
Hancock succeeds in achieving an extremely moody and subtle vehicle for his virtuoso, yet sensitive, piano style. Many professional jazz soloists fall flat on their asses attempting to improvise on this in public: It separates the men from the boys, since you really have to do your homework on this one, since your average jazz licks just don’t work.
Nice work Ed! I've analyzed the harmony a bit differently though. The harmonic structure of the tune is pretty original. The four bars at the beginning are played first time only; the song has a four-bar tag that replaces the bars at the top. After first solo, each solo and the out-head start from the tag.
The composition is harmonically very challenging. It includes for instance major, minor-major, mixolydian, harmonic major, double diminished and altered chords. Some of the chords are beyond standard symbols (e.g. EbMaj7b6 that stands for Eb harmonic major scale). Chords in parentheses show an alternate interpretation of the underlying chord.
After I found out this article and posts, I was curious to check it out by listening to original version from "Speak Like A Child" album and another Japanese release "Third Plane" Herbie with Ron and Tony, the latter sounds like put together rather quickly and somehow different from original version, however while the bass is kind of muddy in original mix here & there, this Japanese recording has Ron in upfront and every note he plays is loud and clear, so there's no guess work to hear what bass notes are on every bar and beat.
Anyway, below is kinda hybrid of both versions for your reference:
For the last head, after solo on B-C, play head on D-B-C to end.
Now, on Third Plane album on bar 8 of (B) section, Ron is definitely playing G as bass instead of F, so I suspect that this bar meant to be some kind of G7 instead of Bb7, which is logical resolving to Cm on the next bar. Though, I hear note F on bass in original version (it's still valid as G7/F though). Well, it's Herbie's call what it is.
Another tricky chord is bar 3 of (D) section, in original version, to my ear, note E, G, Bb, (may be C as well) and Eb are ringing over Eb bass note and that's why I notated as C7(#9)/Eb.
Chord symbols are indeed imperfect method to express given song accurately, I wonder who initially invented this stupid method to express voicing, only way to do this correctly is to accurately notate given song using staff notation with melody, voicing and bass notes altogether as starting point to learn new songs, I guess someone got lazy in jazz education & composing history. Chords on Real book, Fake book etc, are terribly misleading to express the beauty of original songs :( Many jazz musicians don't even know what is the original voicing for Summertime, or many other Gershwin's songs! So, Ed is right that only way to retrieve and transcribe given song is to listen to the original recordings either by composer, or widely & historically accepted versions, note by note, harmony by harmony, and then we have something to work on for new arrangement or interpretation of that song. Until that work is done, nothing is done to learn new song! Unless you just want to fake on it.
Here's my interpretation of the song (I tried to present it as a chord chart earlier, but it got all mixed up). The harmony is unconventional; some of the chord symbols don't have a standard symbol (e.g. EbMaj7b6 that stands for Eb harmonic major chord). Also, the structure is rather peculiar (ABCDE 8-8-8-10-4) in that the 4-bar E section replaces the 1st 4 bars of A on all choruses after the head (note that my chart is splitted up differently here). It's such a beautiful composition with an impressionist influence.