The modest lesson to learn from this transcription is to not over-think things. Here I was trying to come up with some clever theme to write about, preaching how the laws of music are allowed to be broken, and wanting to lay down some deep, thoughtful shit, ya know? But what I kept coming back to, regarding "Dream On," was in fact the most interesting part of this tune: the horn melody that mimics the opening vocals, "It's time to dream…" Within those four notes, Trombone Shorty takes a simple motif and arranges an entire tune based on it.
The specific pitch that defines the line is the C natural, the flat-sixth in the key of E and designates the borrowed A chord to be minor. The relationship between the E and Am throughout the entire song is left unresolved, a suspended restlessness that is also present in the chorus, and it suggests to the listener a feeling of cyclical harmonic progression that doesn't really go anywhere. Add to that a bassline that strays away from the sturdy root and the listener may have to pinch himself to realize the situation.
Within the trombone solo, the clear lines between major and minor begin to disappear like a hazy dream. Shorty chooses the E minor pentatonic scale as his touchstone, but primarily focuses on the E, G, D pitches, which also have unresolved relationships: the minor third between E and G make the rock groove sound in a minor key; the dominant relationship between the G and D only suggests harmonic motion; the D is suspended over the Am chord and wants to resolve to the E. But it is the varied rhythms throughout the tune, in the melodies, phrases, and sections, that keeps all the unresolved tension at bay and prevents a jaded listener from killing everything.
But really, is it too much to ask for a V7-I cadence somewhere? I guess I'll just have to keep on dreaming.
Here's a recent YouTube video of Trombone Shorty jamming with legendary SNL bandleader, G.E. Smith. Check out the trombone solo!
Recommended Reading: Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews by Chris DeVito. Published by Chicago Review Press.