The blues idiom offered early twentieth century musicians a new way to share deep emotional feelings vigorously and honestly.
A hundred thirty years earlier, Mozart had reveled in the fresh, airy lightness of the major tonality which superseded stolid Renaissance modal forms around 1600.
Periodic innovations like these keep music fresh and invigorating. Unfortunately, too many of today’s musicians bloat their playing with endless, unimaginative, repetitive blues licks. Sure, blues licks can add a funky edge, but overuse of these clichés leads to tiresome monotony.
The Mixolydian Mode is related to your familiar major scale, except that it begins and ends on SO instead of DO. NOTE: All charts in this post are for Bb instruments. A transposition table is provided at the end of this post for your reference.
Guitarist Patrick S. asked for some more examples of “motivic development” (MD). Whether you’re a composer, an improviser, or just looking to enliven your daily practice routine, MD techniques can stimulate your creativity and broaden your musical horizon. Beethoven elevated sonata form to new heights with MD, while Sonny Rollins used MD to revolutionize jazz improv far beyond “a bunch of memorized licks” and “sax players searching for the right note.”
Let’s take a look at six ways you can use MD to breathe new life into your music:
Jazz gigs seldom turn out exactly as we expect them to. Since jazz is, by definition, an improvised art, this should come as no surprise. It’s a maze which often thrills, sometimes shatters, and continually amazes us.
Let’s say, for example, that you arrive at the gig late, stressed, un-showered, and unready to perform. It’s at this point that a fan drops a hundred dollar bill in the tip jar, Herbie Hancock asks to sit in, and your first solo provokes a standing ovation. In your dreams, right?
Are you struggling to develop a personal improvisatory style or to find your unique compositional voice? Well, you’re not alone! Many musicians grapple with these dilemmas.
Perhaps my own story will help you unearth your path to musical originality.
I started playing because I love the way music sounds, the way playing the horn feels, the exhilaration of working with a great band of like-minded musicians. A couple years later, I began writing songs, just so we’d have originals for gigs and recordings. I didn’t think twice about trying to be original. On the contrary, emulating the masters was satisfying. It seemed to legitimize and validate my work.
However, about 10 years into my career, I suddenly faced an existential crisis, when nagging questions like these began keeping me awake at night:
“Is this composition any good? Is it too long? Which sections are valid and which need to be scrapped? Should that note be a Bb or an F#? Do my solos stink? What right do I even have to compose music or play the horn, when there are so many musicians out there who are way better?”
Ever feel totally drained after a big gig with no steam left to practice, like a malnourished Cro-Magnon? That’s how I felt this morning, after last night’s intense concert backing up my friend presenting 14 of his complex original compositions.
What’s a person to do? Well, “one foot in front of the other,” as the old saying goes. Just start blowing long tones; dig the sound of the horn, experience the feeling of wind on reed, fingers on pearls.
Here’s what emerged after an hour or so; a little chromatic meander that caught my imagination. As harmonized in this sketch, it forms a Dorian setting reminiscent of “So What,” “Little Sunflower,” “Jeanine,” or “Invitation.” It could also have been harmonized as a ii-V progression in C major modulating to D minor.
Click on “continue reading” below to see a chart and hear the recording in all 12 keys.
It comes from growing up with James Brown, Sly Stone, and Tower of Power:
I prefer punchy, funky, accented articulation and short, clipped, syncopated rhythms.
But comes a time when smooth, cantabile phrasing is on the menu. So here goes.
If you want to woodshed this lick in all 12 keys, click “continue reading” below to see a complete chart, hear the complete recording @ 180 beats per minute (BPM) as well as a slower complete recording @ 100 BPM.
When a novice improviser strays too far from the beat, the band often quips, “Where’s One?”, meaning “Are you lost?”
As improvisers, we seek fresh, innovative approaches which still retain the coherence needed to keep listeners’ interest. Sonny Rollins famously used “motivic development” to simultaneously add unity and variety to his improvisations.
Here is a melodic phrase which is then repeated verbatim. What makes the second statement of this phrase sound different from the first?
Notice the “rhythmic offset”: the initial statement of the theme begins on beat 3 (we’re in 12/8), while the second statement begins on beat 12. Jazz players call this “playing on the other side of the beat.” If your band mates are sufficiently skilled to avoid getting lost, playing on the other side can be used to stunning effect.
Note also that the second statement of our melodic phrase – while melodically identical to the first – is accompanied by chords from a different key. We might refer to this as a “transposed harmonic setting.” The new harmonies give the melody a distinctly different sound, as if stage lighting on an actor had been changed from red to blue.
How’s your practice routine feeling lately? Are you practicing joy? If you practice joy, your audience will hear joy in your performance, and that lively winsomeness in your playing will win you way more fans than all the chops in the world.
Students ask what I mean by “practice joy.” Of course, it goes without saying that you need to develop your technique. But music is way more than just chops.
It may help to think of your practice session like a lavish banquet. …(we didn’t have many of those in 2020!) Think of it in 3 parts.
Your practice session
1. Introductions, greetings, catching up, small talk, hors d’oeuvres, drinks
1. Your warm-up, settling in, loosening up, getting in the groove
2. The main course
2. Working intentionally through an idea or challenge
3. Coffee, dessert, farewells, hugs or hand shakes
3. Reward yourself with a fun little jam!
Doesn’t that approach sound more doable, more inviting, more intriguing than staring forlornly at a closed horn case, wondering how to drum up energy to open that case and start playing boring scales?
Those 3 parts of your practice session remind me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s comment about how a simplistic idea develops into a complex struggle but then resolves into a simple but elegant design.
So how about let’s design a practice routine so enthralling — so much fun — that you just can’t wait to pick up your axe and blow! As one typical example, here’s a practice session from a couple days back which was both productive and immensely enjoyable. Every day isn’t exactly like this. Sometimes the focus is on long tones, sometimes it’s reading through transcriptions, etc. But – on this particular late evening session – I followed Sonny Rollins’ advice. Sonny said, “just start playing the horn. Listen to the sound. Feel your breath and the keys of your axe. Play a blues. Play a tune. Play any old licks that come to mind.” Rollins called them “clichés,” but he didn’t mean that as an insult. They’re the bread and butter of learning. Don’t evaluate, don’t judge, just relate to your axe and enjoy how it sounds, how it makes you feel. After I blew for awhile, this lick just popped out.
I kind of liked it, so I kept repeating it. Maybe I tweaked it as I went along, I can’t remember. After getting it smooth in one key, I ran it down in all 12 keys. Then I wrote it down in my journal, knowing full well I’d forget it otherwise. After a day or two, I looked back at the transcription and discovered an inner logic — the thing that makes a phrase seem natural and organic – that I hadn’t noticed before. Up to that point, I’d just been blowing, without a sense of compositional coherence, or any of that theoretical stuff. But there it was, the musical logic, just waiting to be discovered…
Below is a recording of me playing this phrase in all 12 keys along with a chart. After that, I discuss the logic hidden within this unusual phrase.
Benny Carter blessed us with an amazing solo on the 1938 recording of his composition “Blues in My Heart.” The entire performance is miraculous, but one four-bar passage in particular knocked me out, prompting me to shed that phrase in all 12 keys. Here’s the lick:
Benny’s rhythmic vitality propels the piece, his melodic contour is unique in all of jazz literature, his harmonic inventiveness is preposterously original, and his crystal clear tone is infectious. Here is my transcription of those amazing four bars.
Here is a slowed down recording of that phrase in all 12 keys:
If you want to play it yourself, click the “continue reading” button to see a complete chart.
Yesterday, I discovered a sequence in Stan Getz’s 1952 Clef recording of “Stella by Starlight,” (MGC 137). The three-by-three format unfolds as Stan finishes the bridge on his first chorus. Here it is:
If you’ve studied “Stella,” you know that the final 8 bar section of the form contains the intriguing 6-bar harmonic sequence shown below:
As shown here, that harmonic sequence features 3 iterations of 8 beats each, for a total of 24 beats. But Getz begins his amazing melodic sequence 2 beats before the passage shown above, so he needs to fill 26 beats.
The diagram below illustrates the incredible way he accomplishes this Herculean feat. Stan’s motif of six eighth-notes covers 3 beats and is repeated three times on each of three starting notes. But on the second iteration of round two, he leaves out a beat. Thus, the total episode comprises 9 + 8 + 9 = 26 beats. Even at 160 beats per minute, Getz is able to execute this monumental feat so smoothly that it sounds effortless.
If he’d survived, trumpeter Jack Sheldon would have turned 89 on November 30th, 2020. For one who never studied his recordings, it’s fascinating to watch a live video of his quintet in concert. The five musicians play in perfect sync, like a well-oiled machine, and they swing like crazy. Jack’s vocal style is instantly recognizable, and his trumpet sparkles with fiery assertiveness, crisp inventiveness, and unhesitating self-assurance.
The lick leading into the bridge of Jack’s solo especially knocks me out. Here it is:
There’s a dynamic shape to that melodic line and an infectious rhythmic vitality which combine to offer a wildly exciting listening experience. Equally impressive is Jack’s ability to infer fascinating harmonic curve-balls creating two deceptive modulations before settling onto the home key, as portrayed on the chart above .
Here’s that lick in all 12 keys.
A complete chart is provided below, if you want to woodshed this unique lick.
My friend Bill – an excellent trombonist – voiced his frustration after attempting the licks on my blog at full speed. I reassured Bill that I certainly do not begin by playing any of these licks at its ultimate pace. Here is the original tempo over which I started wood-shedding.
It took me several hours to get the lick up to tempo. With each new pass, you ratchet the metronome up maybe 3, 4, or 5 clicks until you reach your goal, and the most difficult note sequences require extensive looping in order to achieve smooth, effortless execution.
On the band bus one day, a buddy criticized me for playing too many descending lines. According to him, “Descending is negative; Ascending lines are much more uplifting.” Oh….really?
Players constantly hear advice like that.
Another commentator assured me, “Your phrase cannot EVER begin on the downbeat; It’s got to be asymmetric.” OK, you win, asymmetric it is, smart guy! The customer’s always right, ay?
One nameless critic insisted, “In order to sound hip, your line has to include several non-harmonic tones.” Still another self-proclaimed “authority” touted the need to stuff many rhythmic devices into your phrase.
Finally, a laconic trombonist named Tex snoring in the back of the bus roused himself from slumber just long enough to drawl lazily, “How a – bout we try ta swing, Stan?”
So what do you think? What is it that makes a player sound fresh and innovative?
While listening to the masters and practicing, lines like this one seem to pop out of nowhere. Hit ► below and let me know if it works for you.
Click on “continue reading” below to see a chart in all 12 keys. Or download “New Ears Resolution” to supercharge your ear, so you can play licks like this one in all 12 keys without a chart.
Reading an amazing article last night about alto legends Hodges, Carter, Bird, Cannonball, Stitt, and Desmond, i got this uncontrollable urge to practice alto. That’s unusual, as i generally grab a tenor or clarinet for wood shedding, but alto just felt right last night. Well, it takes a while to warm up to the alto sound, if you’re used to shedding on a different horn.
Do your ideas ever start to feel stale, like you need a musical Altoid to put the kick back in your licks?
Well, you ain’t alone, brother. So how do you punch through the clouds and fly up into blue sky?
I just hold up on one note, “fill the horn with air,” dig the way the horn feels, enjoy the sound – or maybe try several sounds – until “i start to feel much more like i do now than i did when i first got here.”
Well, that happened last night, and i want to share the resulting phrase with you. If you like how it sounds and want to try it on for size, click the “continue reading” button below to see a chart of the phrase in all 12 keys. If the chart looks gnarly, download “New Ears Resolution,” so you can play any melody in any key without a chart.
How has the quarantine impacted your chops? This no-gigs lock down has been absolutely disastrous for many working musicians financially. But our chops don’t have to take the same hit our wallets are taking, if we’ll explore innovative approaches to practicing.
My practice strategy is similar to what Sonny Rollins described when asked how he practices. Sonny said:
“I start out playing things I know to get the blood flowing. Those things are often described as ‘clichés.’ You begin with the cliché so you can get the process in motion. Once the process is in motion, ‘thinking’ gives way to ‘playing.’ At that point, you get out of the way and let the music play.”
Over the past decade, I’ve written down over a thousand licks I keep in a notebook, each of which I woodshed in all 12 keys. Some of these ideas come from transcribed solos of the masters, but most simply emerge as I’m connecting with the horn. Practicing joy. I encourage you to try this technique, as it supercharges your chops, strengthens your improvisatory muscle, and turns you into a composer.
Here’s a lick you can play with, in order to get started down that path. The tonal center of this phrase baffled my friends and me at first. Eventually, I settled on a basic ii-V-I progression, which perfectly fit the melodic contour. If you want more background, leave a comment at the bottom of this post.
To see a chart, click on “CONTINUE READING” below.
Putting my heart & soul into this one, so come join us. Let’s leap and dance on Leap Day. It’ll be my 80-year-old buddy Tom’s 20th birthday. A great band, some groovin’ music, the finest concert hall on the Peninsula.
In just 45 minutes, you can revolutionize your understanding of THE HARMONIC LANGUAGE. Learn how chords are created, what notes they contain, how they’re named, and how they’re used to evoke emotion and make music come to life. Quickly gain harmonic mastery and confidence which will set you apart as a composer or improviser.