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A hundred thirty years earlier, Mozart had reveled in the fresh, airy lightness of the major tonality which superseded stolid Renaissance modal forms around 1600.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 vibrant 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
The vast recorded legacy of legendary tenor saxophonist Stan Getz still astounds the jazz community. Here it is in words and music. From his earliest days with Jack Teagarden, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman to the phenomenal smash hits “Desafinado” and “The Girl From Ipanema” (which sparked the 1960’s bossa nova craze), to his sublime later work with pianist Kenny Barron, Stan Getz continued to galvanize the musical world with his unparalleled technique, unmistakably unique sound, and gorgeous lyricism. Take a tour with us of this amazing 40-year jazz odyssey.
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.”
Jimmy Heath is another master with whom I hope to become more familiar.
Driving into a glorious autumn dawn on the way to church Sunday, I was listening to “Picture of Heath” and was particularly struck by the third chorus of Jimmy’s soprano solo on “All Members.”
I don’t usually go to the trouble of formally transcribing solos, since there are so many fine transcriptions available on-line. But Jimmy’s third chorus really knocked me out, and i felt compelled to examine the strategy, structure, and logic of this amazing 12-bar chorus. Continue reading “Dig Jimmy Heath!”→
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!”→
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.
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”→
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!