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?
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.
Let’s face it, we all want monster chops. There are some great books out there to help develop technique. I work constantly on mastering lix in all 12 keys, but I never play those lix on the gig. That’s not their purpose. The reason for practicing lix is to enhance your facility on the horn and expand your musical vocabulary.
But some of those lix get so obscure, I can’t even tell if I’ve made a mistake in transposing the lick to a new key. That’s when I know the lick is too obscure!
I just got a killer deal on a great classic clarinet mouthpiece. That inspired me to do some long overdue clarinet shedding. I was trying to come up with a lick that felt melodic, one that would swing and sound lyrical, as opposed to clinical.
Let me know what you think of this one.
To see the chart for this lick in all 12 keys, press the “Continue Reading” button.
Many, many thanks to everyone who volunteered for The Chord Committee. Numerous excellent solutions have been proposed. In order to avoid discord, I have combined all of your suggestions into one beautiful, majestic chord. In hopes you will find the solution acceptable, the chart and recording are presented here for your approval. (Click on “continue reading” to view the complete chart.)
Brazilian bossa nova’s introduction to the U.S. thanks to composers Luiz Bonfá (Samba de Orfeu and Manhã de Carnaval), Antônio Carlos Jobim (Desafinado, Girl from Ipanema, Corcovado, etc.), and instrumentalists João Gilberto and Stan Getz literally transformed the jazz landscape overnight.
For the past 50 years, casual straight-ahead jazz gigs have invariably featured at least one bossa per set.
Familiarity with the following exercise will greatly enhance your facility with the melodic and harmonic nuances found in these wonderful compositions. Here is the basic lick:
Here is a recording of the lick played in all 12 keys:
Develop your ear to flawlessly play passages such as this one in all 12 keys by downloading and working through “New Ears Resolution.”
Below is a recording of the pattern in all 12 keys. Submit a “comment” at the bottom of this post, if you need a chart to play along with the recording.
Note that this phrase traverses the first five chords of the standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” a long-time staple of Miles Davis’s book. That “harmonic quote” was not intentional. When you start creating patterns in a “stream of consciousness” manner, elements of your repertoire tend to crop up in various guises.
Multi-instrumentalist Kevin McCartney recently taught me about the ebb and flow of tension and release created by Cuban clave patterns. In this exercise, the many accidentals create a bit of harmonic tension, which is then released through resolution to adjacent diatonic notes. Note in particular the tension created by Si, Di, and Le.
Upon further reflection today (during surgical anesthesia!), it occurred to me that this phrase uses all 17 notes in the scale: the 7 diatonic pitches, the 5 sharps, and the 5 flats. For a horn player, G# and Ab are identical. However, a symphonic violinist thinks of them quite differently.
What you hear in this recording is actually 5 clarinets. Took me about 20 takes to get 5 usable ones.
Some saxophone & clarinet students have difficulty with jazz articulation, because they have not learned to tongue properly. They begin each note with a constriction in the throat, which sounds as if the student were humming into the mouthpiece. The beginning of the note is fuzzy and indistinct. Continue reading “Jazz Articulation, Accents, and Proper Tonguing”→
Even many accomplished musicians never learn the fine art of playing by ear. A strong ear is a “must” for those of us musicians with visual disabilities. I owe my ear to a uniquely inspired teacher. The story begins in 1963. Continue reading “HOW I LEARNED TO PLAY BY EAR”→
How often do we teachers hear students complain about having to practice long tones and scales? Every teacher knows that long tones greatly enhance tonal quality and intonation and that scales are the raw material from which improvised solos are crafted. The problem is that any musician who practices being bored will bore the audience. What you practice is what you perform. Practice joy, imagination, and freshness, and your show will be fresh. Practice dry technique, and your gig will be a desert.
Below is a 4-bar phrase containing a descending major scale (Ionian mode) and an ascending Mixolydian mode. I worked on this exercise until the rhythm and note sequence started to feel interesting to me.
Try playing along with the background track provided below and see if this approach adds a bit of zest to your practice time. Develop your own variations on this idea. Email me for a FREE copy of this exercise in all 12 keys, if you have trouble figuring it out. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play any melody in any key by ear.
What a great way to ring in 2015! We watched “Labor Day” on Netflix, and then I revisited Sonny Rollins’ 1998 CD “Global Warming.” Sonny has a wonderful ability to compose simple melodies that swing. And, of course, the unique way he develops motivic material during his solos is legendary. Solos brimming over with life and joy. I just had to pick up my horn and play along. Here is the lick that emerged, Adolph Sax’s new year’s gift.
Try playing along with this melodic minor phrase in all 12 keys using this background track. If you have trouble transposing it, email me for a free chart. Or download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play any melody in any key by ear.
Are your improvisations based more on the chord changes (Coleman Hawkins approach) or on the melody (Lester Young approach)? Many players look at the chord progressions and derive either arpeggios or scale patterns based on the indicated changes. Here is an exercise that will develop your ability to integrate larger leaps into your melodic flow.
To derive the maximum benefit, practice this pattern in all 12 keys around the circle of fifths using the background track provided below. If you have difficulty figuring out the pattern in the other keys, contact me for a FREE chart (no cost or obligation). Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” to learn how to play any melody in any key BY EAR!
Jeff Rzepiela is a talented reed player and arranger. His web site contains many transcriptions of solos by the masters of jazz. Check out his latest newsletter Scooby-sax_Newsletter_Oct_2014(1) which features an insightful analysis of an improvised solo by Arnie Krakowsky over the tune “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Jeff skillfully singles out several key phrases in the solo, shows how they relate to each other, and makes them available for those of us who benefit from “wood-shedding” over great “licks.”
Kenny Barron’s wonderful composition Voyageis a particularly apt vehicle for Stan Getz. The phrase in bar 4 especially caught my ear (example A.)
It would be fascinating to ask Mr. Barron whether he conceived of Voyagerapidly or – as often happens – the piece evolved over a period of time.
Focusing on bar 4, you see that the melody outlines the F7(b9) chord as shown in example A above. It’s tempting to speculate that the appoggiatura was originally part of the F7(b9) arpeggio. The Eb then takes its place as the 7th in the F7(b9) chord, as shown in Example B. Of course, Voyageas we now know it is far hipper than it would have been if bar 4 looked like Example B!
Speculation aside, one way you will definitely improve your instrumental technique is by playing figures such as this one in all 12 keys around the Circle of Fifths, starting with a slow metronome setting and gradually increasing the tempo.
While I practiced this particular lick, I experimented with various rhythmic combinations. If you do that, you will keep your imagination engaged, so that your practice time does not degenerate into a dry, lifeless exercise. You will also develop your own stylistic preferences, so that choosing the hippest rhythm for an improvised passage will not slow down your reflexes during performance. Some of the iterations I tried are shown in Example C.
The first iteration emphasizes the third of the chord – the “sweet note.” The rest of the sketches experiment with various rhythmic syncopations. Perhaps you also will benefit from playing along with the final lick in all 12 keys using this background track:
Are you or your students or friends interested in big band music? Please help me spread the word about a unique opportunity to join with like-minded musicians in making some swinging music and having a good time to boot. They say the setting is beautiful and the food is great! Many of the players return year after year.
A recent biography of jazz tenor sax giant John Coltrane verified that he had indeed studied the wonderful Bach Cello Suites. The suites, though quite challenging, are a joy to play, and they provide numerous opportunities to build your tone, technique, and conception. As it turns out, they also contain some amazing phrases which can be adapted as jazz improv “licks.” What do you think of this one? It’s from Bach Cello Suite Number 2, “Allemande,” bar 21. Play it through in all 12 keys (see chart below) and let us know whether Bach gives you ideas for your jazz improvisation.
Here is an interesting phrase I’ve been practicing in all 12 keys. As always, follow Kenny Werner’s cue to “play effortlessly” in order to get a relaxed, flowing, swinging feel. Try playing along with the background track provided below. If you need a chart, it is also provided below. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” and learn how to play in all 12 keys by ear with ease.
What you practice is what you will perform. A joyful practice session produces a joyful performance. If you “practice joy” instead of merely “practicing scales,” the joy in your performances will be contagious, and your audiences will grow larger and more enthusiastic.
Now here’s the rub: Any teacher of improvisation will tell you, “You have to master scales to be a great improviser.” But you hate practicing scales! Your mind grows numb. You can’t wait for your practice time to be finished.
The challenge is to keep your imagination joyfully engaged AND, at the same time, increase your technical mastery of your axe. Can you do both?
Over the years, I have assembled a book of 300 licks that both challenge my technical ability and — AT THE SAME TIME — keep my heart and my imagination fully engaged. Most of them evolve as I work them out in all 12 keys; others are borrowed from the solo transcriptions of the masters. Below is a recording and a chart for 1 such scalar lick which I just finished practicing. Try it! Can you play it in all 12 keys? If not, contact me using the contact form below for a free chart. Better yet, download New Ears Resolution to learn how to play any melody by ear in any key.
New Ears Resolution has helped hundreds of musicians learn to play by ear over the past 15 years. And now, the Second Edition offers scores of new innovations designed to make your learning experience more enjoyable, effective, and thorough.
Whether you work with a jazz combo, rock group, or big band, or just play for your own pleasure, “New Ears Resolution” will help you become the musician you have always wanted to be.
i’ve taught this method for years and have used it in my own performances. i’ve researched extensively in order to improve its design and have thus developed a comprehensive approach to the art of playing by ear.
This most unique ensemble is comprised of HONK member Craig Buhler along with bassist Jack Prather, trumpet & vibes man Brian Atkinson (Disneyland Band), brass man Dan Barrett (Benny Goodman, Woodie Allen, etc.), and first call L.A. session players Karen Hammack (piano) and drummer Paul Kreibich (Ray Charles Band). Their repertoire is amazingly diverse spanning jazz history from Louis Armstrong to Wayne Shorter, pop icons from Benny Goodman & Nat King Cole to Bob Marley & Steely Dan Continue reading “What is This Thing Called “Storyville”?”→
Here is an exercise to develop your rhythmic precision, finger dexterity, and improvisatory diversity.
In Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery,” he states that in order for a phrase to sound relaxed & swinging, it must be played effortlessly. How do you play a line like the one below and make it sound effortless? You must sacrifice one of these qualities:
playing it fast
playing the whole phrase
playing it perfectly
Try looping little sections (as few as 2 notes) until they flow effortlessly. Use your metronome in order to keep the groove going smoothly. Start slowly and gradually extend the length, speed, and precision of what you are able to play effortlessly.
Are you hip to Ralph Moore? He has a fabulous sound and great ideas. The following lick is taken from Ralph Moore’s solo on the tune “SOS” from the CD “Moore Makes 4” by the Ray Brown Trio with Ralph Moore. This is an amazing solo, packed with wonderful lyricism and dazzling technique. For details, see the book “Ralph Moore Jazz Tenor Solos” Transcribed by Bill Sears, published by Corybant Productions, Inc., 1994. I have recorded the lick in all 12 keys, so you can play along with the recording. On the following page is the link to the recording along with a chart showing the lick in all 12 keys. Below is an analysis of the various key centers traversed by the lick. You will note that the melody & the chord changes both adhere strictly to this key center scheme. (See “New Ears Resolution” for details on this analysis technique.)
This wonderful phrase illustrates how Charlie Parker (“YARDBIRD” or “BIRD”) could take a simple chord progression (such as III minor / bIII minor / II minor) and transform it into an opportunity to modulate. In this case, he raises the key by a half-step, a favorite be-bop modulation. (Thus, the bIII minor becomes a II minor in the key a half-step up from the original key.) To solo properly over this progression, you need to use the Ab major scale for beats 3 & 4 of measure 1, the G major scale for the rest of bars 1 & 2. Try it! As always, try to master the exercise without resorting to the printed page. Click here to hear the audio.
There are so many great phrases in this classic solo. This one deserves attention because of its rhythmic & melodic vitality and its effortless harmonic insinuation. Click below to see the phrase in all 12 keys. However, it is better to practice your ear training by figuring out the lick through melodic extrapolation. Click hereto purchase the Charlie Parker Omnibook with its 142 pages of heads & transcribed solos by Bird. Click here to hear a play-along version. (To slow it down or change the key, download the free program “Best Practice.”)
This arpeggio is very useful over a V7 (or a V9) chord. Notice that the iteration beginning on A# is actually in the key of C major. The A# is LI (sharp 6) in the major scale. For “New Ears Resolution” students, also note that the key change is indicated by the presence of a “pivot note.” Marked as (TI=LI), this notation is understood to mean “The note B natural, (TI in the old key of C major) will now become LI in the new key of Db major.” Once grasped, this understanding of modulation as described by a pivot note is a very powerful concept when one attempts to navigate the changes of a song with many internal key changes (such as “All the Things You Are.”)