FROM THE FALL 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY MARCY MARXER
“Dark Eyes” is a melody closely associated with the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt—and by extension the Gypsy jazz repertoire in general. This traditional melody comes from the rich musical history of Russia. The lyrics by Ukrainian poet Yevhen Hrebinka first appeared in the Russian journal Literaturnaya Gazeta in 1843, and the full song debuted in a songbook in 1897.
Gypsy jazz comes from a strong musical tradition of community and family, both nuclear and extended, with groups ranging in size from duos to larger configurations and incorporating musicians of all ages. While the genre includes songs with lyrics, it is built on instrumental music, most commonly with guitar, fiddle, accordion, and bass. The music tends to be based on keys that work best with these instruments. Players learn a given tune in the same key, which leads to magnificent jam sessions and a wonderful community of musicians around the world who might not speak the same language but can make music together beautifully.
“Dark Eyes” is typically played in the key of D minor, which works out beautifully on the ukulele. The melody sits easily in first position and equally well in the middle of the fretboard, where there is plenty of room for improvisation and embellishments. You can slide from a lower to middle position and then move further up the neck for some angelic harmonics or high, ringing notes.
I prefer to play “Dark Eyes” with a low G, but it also works well in reentrant or baritone tuning. (If you’re on a baritone, this notation will sound in the key of A minor.) Since it’s a short tune—16 bars, as opposed to the typical 32-measure structure—I run through the head (melody) twice. As with any typical jazz performance, this sets up the mood and tempo of the piece. After the melody is firmly established, “Dark Eyes” is a playground for improvisation.
If you’re new to improv, start with the basic chords, playing each note separately. Don’t worry about timing at all—just get to know the notes by playing them quickly and then muting them, or letting everything ring together. Notice how each note feels and sounds, and slide into it from above or below, building familiarity with all aspects of the chord to which it belongs.
Once you’re good and comfortable with a chord in the lowest position, move on to the next higher voicing. Work the new position one voice at a time before exploring the surrounding notes. Play the note a fret lower and go back to the chord member. Use the same process with the other notes, then try the notes one or two frets higher than the chord tones. Which notes sound good to you?
This might seem like a lengthy process, but remember that this is just a three-chord tune, so it should be quicker than you think to experiment with all of the harmonies. If you’re thorough about this, when you listen to the melody it will be much easier to find and play.
Check out the Django Reinhardt album featuring “Les Yeux Noirs” (Dark Eyes)
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