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.
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.
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.
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.
Looking for a refreshingly novel approach to playing over a minor ii-V-i ? Here’s an idea by Stan Getz. It’s from bars 15 & 16 in the first chorus of his solo over “O Grande Amor” from “The Stockholm Concert.”
B flat instruments start at line 1. Concert key instruments start at line 3, and E flat instruments start at line 12. (Double back to the beginning when you reach the end of the chart.)
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.
Have you ever ridden on a roller coaster blindfolded? That’s how it feels to improvise without understanding internal modulation. It’s like driving through a thick London fog. Progress is halting, movements are uncertain and tense.
By contrast, the player who understands how to navigate key changes improvises smoothly and confidently.
Last month, we looked at the major scale, which has been foundational to Western music for 400 years. Each of the 7 notes in that major scale can function as the root of a diatonic chord. A basic understanding of those 7 chords will greatly improve your ear and your improvisatory skill, so let’s focus on them this month. Continue reading “Diatonic Chords”→
Dexter Gordon is universally revered by saxophonists for his muscular sound. He is equally effective on ballads, blues, and fast tempos.
His Blue Note LP One Flight Up includes a fine reading of the Jimmy Van Heusen ballad “Darn That Dream” on which he dexterously employs a device favored by Charlie Parker. This maneuver involves momentarily raising the key a half-step and inferring a ii-V progression in that key.
Here are two instances in which Dexter deftly employs that ploy. As anyone who has ever tried to transcribe his solos knows, one of the hallmarks of Dexter’s style is his unique approach to rhythm. While his languid phrasing is pure joy to hear, it’s a nightmare to transcribe. I have greatly simplified the rhythm in these two examples, focusing instead on the pitches Dexter chose for the brief modulation. Continue reading “Darn That Dexter!”→