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?
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.
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.
It’s definitely impressive to hear jazz musicians improvise at incredibly fast tempos. What is, however, far more inspiring is hearing how the great masters are able to create beautifully crafted, swinging melodic lines, regardless of tempo. Continue reading “RIPPING RIFFS OR MEMORABLE MELODIES?”→
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!”→
The road to dynamic, expressive improvisation is paved with practice and listening. Hank Mobley’s near perfect solo on Irving Berlin’s “Remember” from his classic LP “Soul Station” is filled with profound lessons on phrasing, rhythm, tone, melody, pacing, and development. Here is just one of the great ideas you will encounter when studying this wonderful recording.
Have you ever had difficulty playing a tune, even though it presented no obvious technical hurdles? Perhaps the problem lies in a hidden harmonic riddle, which, when solved, will unlock your understanding of the song and make it easier to play and to remember.
At a recent gig, pianist Mark Schecter called off Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High.” Although Storyville used to play the song, it still made me stumble. However, after deciphering its harmonic implications, playing it became simple.
Do your solos brim with vitality, gliding across a colorful landscape, as you explore ever deeper into the ocean of sound? Or do you flounder among waves of notes, swimming through a maze of chord changes?
Thematic development will transform your playing, as you weave your exciting, personal story.
The following clips illustrate three powerful tools to stimulate your creative potential and enthuse your audience.
1. RHYTHMIC SHIFT– Example 1 presents a 7-beat phrase that starts on the “and” of beat 3. The phrase is then repeated, but this time, it begins on the “and” of beat 2. Repeating the phrase gives your thought unity, while the rhythmic offset offers variety and surprise. Try playing along with this recording in all 12 keys.
2. DIMINUTION– In example 2, the 7-beat phrase is the same, but a triplet compresses the second statement of the theme. Your motif is still easily recognized, but you have added variety.
3. TONAL SHIFT– In Example 3, the second statement of the theme modulates up a minor third. Tonal shift was a favorite device of John Coltrane. The listener still recognizes your theme, but her ear delights in this fresh new element you have added to the mix.
As you become more comfortable with creating and developing thematic material, your unique personality defines your individual style. You improvise dynamically and coherently.
To master these 3 techniques, play along with the 3 audio files offered here. Contact me, if you need a chart. Or, if you want to learn to play by ear in all 12 keys (as I did while recording these clips), download “New Ears Resolution” and liberate your musical imagination!
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.
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.