Archive for the ‘Players’ Category

7 Surprising Qualities of the World’s Best Improvisers

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Wow.”

You’re sitting in the audience at a sold out concert and your favorite musician has just taken the stage.

Flawless technique, impeccable sound, and endless creative musical lines flow from the stage and fill up the concert hall.

Unbelievable,” you think. “This musician must be super-human!

They just might be, but have you ever wondered what this master musician is like in person?

What would it be like if you struck up a conversation after the show? What if you could see inside his/her practice room?

I’m sure your imagination could run wild with the possibilities, but be careful…

What you’re expecting isn’t always what you get. In fact, your perception of great players can often be completely wrong.

I’ve been pretty lucky to come in contact with some of the best musicians in the world and after each encounter, I always walk away surprised by what I find.

Here are seven qualities and habits of the best musicians that will catch you off guard.

1) It’s all about the fundamentals

It never ceases to surprise me.

I finally snag a lesson with a big name improviser and immediately envision an hour of life-changing insights, new harmonic possibilities, and secret licks that will transform my playing. However once I show up at the lesson, it’s all about the fundamentals.

Long tones, breathing, articulation, a single chord progression, time, scales, a standard tune…

Why? Well it’s no secret, the fundamentals of musicianship are … Read More

Becoming a Musical Character

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Have you ever seen a movie where a certain character stuck with you long after the film was over? Or what about a piece of artwork that kept popping up in your mind’s eye?

Maybe you’ve witnessed a speech that had the same lasting effect or attended a concert where the performer played their instrument in such a way that it altered your own musical approach.

We’ve all experienced these moments, but what was it about these performances or experiences that stuck out for us?

In any field there are certain people that stand out and there are certain voices that rise above the masses. Nonchalantly, we often say that these individuals have character…but what exactly is character?

A quick glance at a dictionary will give you the following definition: The combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another.

And a character is a person who embodies these distinguishing features.

A character is someone that stands out from the crowd. A character has immediately distinguishable traits. A character has a unique way of speaking or a specific vocabulary. A character has a unique sense of style. A character grabs your attention and sticks in your mind. And a character has a story to tell.

Characters of all types catch your attention and connect with you in a personal way and in an art like improvisation, this is an essential tool in developing your voice and connecting with the listener.

Musical Characters

Characters in … Read More

Jazz Contrafacts and Reharmonization: A Creative Approach to Jazz Standards

Monday, May 27th, 2013

Creativity in its most basic form is simply the act of taking something old and making it new.

Whether you’re a novelist, an architect, an engineer or an improviser, artistic creation stems from a desire to make something new within the existing confines of your craft. To put a personal stamp on your art form and to have your voice heard in some way.

For musicians this revolves around our personal interpretation of the fundamentals of music: sound, melody, rhythm and harmony.

However, creative inspiration doesn’t just appear out of the blue like a bolt of lightning, instead it slowly reveals itself through the diligent study of previous generations and the mastery of established skills. Schools of thinking must be studied, styles are to be imitated, and techniques will need to be ingrained.

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”~Albert Einstein

The study of jazz improvisation is a perfect example of the progression of creating the new from the old. This idea of continual reinvention and self expression is prevalent throughout the history of this music and you’d be hard pressed to find a lasting piece of music or style that didn’t have a direct line back to the creative work that came before it.

Take the process of transcribing a solo for instance: starting with the musical language from a previous generation, learning it slowly and eventually making it your own. An old musical language ingrained and interpreted into new musical language.

However, this concept of … Read More

Learning Tunes Your Way

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

On this site we’ve frequently written about learning tunes. This is no coincidence – learning tunes goes hand in hand with improving as an improviser.

Whether you’re practicing, performing, or simply listening to a few records with some friends you’re dealing directly with tunes. Keeping this in mind, building a solid repertoire of tunes should be near the top of your practice list as a serious musician.

If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out some of the these articles to help you get started with building your repertoire:

These articles are a good place to begin when you want to start building a solid base of tunes that you’ll feel confident performing, but what’s your next step?

If you’ve learned a handful of tunes and have a solid grasp of chord progressions, the answer is simple – you just need to learn more tunes.

However, this simple solution isn’t as easy as it sounds. As soon as you get into the practice room things begin to look a little different. The prospect of picking out one tune to learn from the hundreds upon hundreds of standards out there can be an overwhelming and even depressing process.

Where do I even begin? Why choose one tune and not another? Read More

Connecting to the Music…Wherever You Are

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Music is meant to be heard live.

There is no substitute for the visceral experience of sitting in an audience and soaking up a great live performance. Not only hearing the music, but feeling the physical vibrations of those melodies, chords and rhythms. Seeing the interaction between musicians as they collectively create music in the moment and experiencing the excitement of the audience.

This is what improvisation is all about.

As a performer, experiencing a great live performance is like a shot of adrenaline for your musical motivation. When you witness music at its highest level, you can’t help feeling like you need to rush into the practice room. Your inspiration is immediately renewed and you suddenly have a new focus for your musical direction.

Any way you look at it, there is no substitute for the atmosphere of an intimate live music venue. You can rub shoulders with the greats and be in an environment where people not only love jazz, but are often serious about pursuing it themselves.

All of this live music sounds great, but what if you don’t live in New York City, the jazz capital of the world? What if you don’t even have a venue for live jazz within a 100 mile radius of your home? Are you just out of luck when it comes to experiencing this music?

Of course not! It’s 2013 and the world is a much more connected place. Thanks to the web, there are some key resources to utilize … Read More

Thinking About Musical Phrasing for Improvisation

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Recently I’ve been studying and transcribing a lot of Miles from around 1956-1957. Albums like Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’.

More than the notes or the harmonic devices in his solos, the one thing that sticks out about Miles is his sense of phrasing. This is what sets him apart and why so many listeners connect with his sound. Miles could play anything he wanted, but he always plays musically.

It takes an advanced and honest musician to improvise a melody that they are hearing in their heads amid the wash of constantly moving chords and time. And it takes an even more mature musician to not play all the scales, and patterns and language that they’ve practiced for hours.

Most people don’t realize how much work and focus it takes to get to the point that you can free yourself from the theory and play something that you’re hearing and feeling.

This idea of phrasing and creating meaningful musical statements is one aspect of improvising that is missing from a lot of players’ solos. Improvising is not just using scales or inserting a pattern into a chord progression, in the end it’s all about creating music and performing personal melodies.

What is a musical phrase?

When you improvise a musical phrase, you essentially become a composer, creating new melodies on the spot over an established chord progression. Therefore, studying or at the very least becoming familiar with the elements of composition is essential for creating a … Read More

Finding a Fresh Approach to Playing the Same Old Tunes

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Repetition. It’s one part of learning to improvise that’s par for the course. We practice scales over and over again until the technique is securely in our fingers, we spend hours repeatedly working out ii-V7 lines that we’ve transcribed, and we memorize the melodies and chord changes to numerous tunes until we can play them in our sleep.

The great part about all of this repetition is that when we finally have something ingrained into our ears and fingers, we can play it anywhere, especially under pressure.

However, the one drawback with this type of practice is that it’s extremely easy to get stuck in a rut. If you aren’t continually incorporating new language into your playing and searching for new creative approaches to those familiar progressions, you’ll be left with your same old musical approach – and this can be a problem.

In the past I would find myself frustrated, bored, and completely out of ideas on the standards I was practicing. It seemed like I couldn’t think of any new ideas to use over the chord progressions and that I was playing the same stuff over and over again. Although, this didn’t happen without reason. Looking back, the way I approached these tunes mentally and technically contributed significantly to how I played over them.

In the practice room I would play a melody, reading from a page in the real book, the same exact way every time. Instead of getting out the recording, I would turn on play-a-longs … Read More

Clark Terry’s 3 Steps to Learning Improvisation

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Clark Terry is one of the living legends of this music.

He has played with every big name in jazz over the last half-century from the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, to Ella Fitzgerald…the list could go on forever. With such a rich performing career spanning over six decades, he continues to play with today’s top musicians and inspire up and coming improvisers.

During school, I was lucky enough to have an impromptu lesson with the trumpet master. One night after a rehearsal for a gig, Clark came in unannounced to the practice rooms at our school looking to impart some wisdom to some aspiring musicians. Before I knew it I was sitting inches from Clark Terry’s bell and he was teaching me a tune by ear.

That sound that I had listened to for years on record was coming out of a horn a foot away from me. It was an experience that I will always remember. I don’t know what was more impressive, the fact that I was sitting down with a jazz legend or that Clark, age of 89, came into the music school practice rooms around 10 at night to hang out with students for free.

Pretty amazing, but then again Clark Terry has been dedicated to educating young jazz musicians for decades. He mentored a young Miles Davis and encouraged Quincy Jones as he was starting out as an arranger and trumpet player. With a track record like that, it’s … Read More

The Music of Thelonious Monk: 10 Tunes You Need To Know

Friday, January 21st, 2011

There are certain composers in the jazz tradition that have such a uniquely personal style that their compositions seem to take on a life of their own, becoming part of the jazz pantheon long after the lifetime of the writer. Composers like Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, and especially Thelonious Monk come immediately to mind. Monk’s tunes, exceptionally unique at the time – not unlike the man himself, have become beloved and frequently played jazz standards with the passage of time.

Everyone has probably played Straight No Chaser or Blue Monk at one time or another, but the music of Thelonious Monk runs much deeper than these frequently called blues heads. Many of the compositions of Monk are now standards and as numerous musicians continue to play his music, more tunes are being rediscovered and added to the standard songbook of the modern jazz musician. If you are serious about jazz, the musical contribution of Monk is one that can not be ignored.

Like many of the innovators in this music, Monk’s music spanned across generations of musicians, even as the music underwent drastic changes. Today, his music continues to inspire and captivate musicians and listeners alike from all parts of the world. If you’ve just discovered the music of Monk, the best thing to do is to immerse yourself in his records and absorb the distinct style of this musical innovator. If you don’t already have the albums below, do yourself a favor by clicking on the album … Read More

3 More Gems From Harold Mabern

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

In my first 3 Gems Harold Mabern Told Me, we learned how much Harold stresses: Relying on your ear, Being greedy for the music, and The difference between inspiration and motivation. Here’s 3 more to dwell on.

1.) Good music is good music

Harold would play all sorts of tunes in my lessons. Sometimes it was a straight-ahead jazz tune and sometimes it was a pop tune. It didn’t matter who wrote it, who performed it, or what the general public thought about it.

Often, he would take a pop tune and create his own arrangement, transforming it into a work of art. Don’t discriminate against non-jazz music. Trust your ear and figure out what makes particular music appeal to you. Good music = Good music.

2.) Learn your standards in all keys

Take tunes from the jazz-standard-repertoire and learn them in all keys. Some standards Harold loves and plays are not so familiar by many people today. Tunes like, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and “Let’s face the Music and Dance.”

You can tell when Harold plays these tunes that he has a connection with them; that he’s fallen in love with them. That’s how you should feel about the tunes you’re playing. So find some standards you like, develop a relationship with them, and learn them in all keys.

3.) Understand where players came from

In our combo rehearsals, Harold would write a few players on the chalk board and say “Who influenced all of … Read More