November 9th, 2010
A reader writes:
I play trumpet and improvise fairly well, but mainly play by ear. How can I learn the chord tones and use them effectively to construct my solos? For example, it takes a long time for me to name of the 6th of a chord. I’ve tried several books to find a good method to achieve this. It seems as though there are so many things to learn! I begin something then I go to another. The result is very poor. Can you help me?
Slim down your focus
Yes, I can help you because I’ve experienced that exact problem. Being able to conjure chord tones in a flash is essential to improvising at your peak, but let me start by saying, you’re right, it does feel like there is so much to learn and it can be overwhelming to say the least! Stop buying instructional books on jazz improvisation.
Not to say there aren’t wonderful books written on how to improvise. I even recommend quite a few on this site. However, I can tell you from experience, in general, the more books I accumulated, the more overwhelmed I felt, and the less I focused on the truly important aspects of learning how to improvise jazz: absorbing the music of the greats, developing my ear, and playing what I hear.
Narrow your focus and increase your depth. This is the way to learn this music.
Visualizing chord tones for instant recall
The reason it is difficult to name … Read More
October 11th, 2010
A reader recently wrote us asking about what we think about while we improvise. He writes:
“I’m a tenor saxophonist and still pretty new to the whole improvising scene. I was wondering what musicians “think” in their minds while improvising. Are you consciously focused on the scales and chord structures? Or do you just not think anything and let your subconscious play the keys and do the work?”
I remember wondering what I should think about while improvising and wondering what my favorite players thought about while they were improvising. Well, luckily, I ended up studying with one of my favorite players, Rich Perry, and had the opportunity to ask him what he thinks about while he improvises.
Rich Perry on chords
Rich tersely answered, “The Chords.” He went on to say, “What else would you be thinking about?”
But it’s not quite that simple. As our conversation ensued, I realized a number of clarifications to what he meant by “thinking.” In terms of thinking about the chords…he has the chords “burned” into his brain to the point that they are just there. In that way, he’s always aware of what chord he is on.
One of his examples was when we were playing a tune and he slipped in an Eb minor chord right before a D minor chord. He expressed, “How would I have known that I could put that Eb minor chord in, if I didn’t know I was about to be on a D minor … Read More
September 15th, 2010
I used to frequent the Village Vanguard to go see my teacher Rich Perry perform all the time. As you gaze upon the walls of the Vanguard, you peer into the past; jazz legends, the inventors, live on the walls. You sit there in awe, knowing that at some point, they occupied the space you now occupy. And that thought leads to another: most of the jazz legends are not around anymore. The only window we will ever have to them is through their recordings.
Recordings and their limits
Jazz is meant to be heard live. Rarely caught on recordings, the energy permeates the venue and hits you right between the eyes. In my experience, hearing Michael Brecker, Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Garrett, and a handful of other incredible players live, greatly surpassed hearing them on recordings.
Recordings represent an extremely limited time and space in a musician’s life. Who knows what was going on in their life that month, that day, hour, or even that moment. Some recordings are flops. Not even Charlie Parker could be a perfect player all the time. And sometimes the way he was miked made him sound B-rate, and we all know, he’s not B-rate.
Just find the best
Get in the habit of finding a player’s recordings that showcase his absolute best playing. If a friend says he loves a specific player and you’re not so inclined to agree, ask him what his favorite album is. Chances are you’ve never heard … Read More
August 23rd, 2010
August is finally here and with the approaching end of summer looms the shadow of the fall marathon season. Across the country runners are stepping up their training for races that they’ve been preparing for since the beginning of summer. As I have started to prepare for my own race, I’ve thought about how the concept of training for a big race relates to the idea of practicing towards substantial goals as a jazz musician.
Part of the reason that a marathon, triathlon, or any other race is appealing, is the pure challenge: an impressive feat that takes an enormous amount of sustained effort and a goal that many people aim to accomplish at least once in a lifetime. Running a marathon is achievable, thousands of people do it each year and have been doing it for years now, but the actual effort and determination required to run 26.2 miles separate the runners who actually train for the distance and finish it, from those who intend to but never get around to it.
In the three to four months that it takes to train for a marathon, a complete transformation takes place. Regardless of the fitness level that you start at, you have to train extremely hard for months to be able to complete the race or finish at your goal time. In other words, a marathon is not something that you can just go out and run with no preparation and expect to perform well. It is only … Read More
August 5th, 2010
Lately I’ve realized that to get to specific parts of a solo that I’ve transcribed to memory, I’m quite dependent on the material that comes before them. In other words, I’ve learned the solo from start to finish, the way it was originally played, and therefore, have difficulty jumping around to different sections at will.
The goal is to own this material: imitate it, assimilate it, and innovate upon it, as Clark Terry so eloquently stated. Being able to accesses the material from various entry points greatly improves your mastery of the solo, as well as your understanding of the construction of the solo. This is wonderful ear training too. Increasing your aural memory, strengthening it and giving you the ability to retain larger chunks of music in your mind.
Define each chorus in your mind
For this exercise, choose a solo you have memorized that has a short form, a blues works perfectly, and it should be between 5 and 10 choruses. Play through the solo at medium tempo and note where the beginning of each new chorus occurs.
Do not to break up the phrases. For example, if a chorus starts with a phrase that is a measure early, include that phrase in the chorus. When I start to practice a solo this way, I pause between choruses and verbally say what chorus number I’m about to play.
Do this over and over until you can mentally replay the beginning of each chorus in your mind, knowing which … Read More
August 2nd, 2010
When I was younger, my father constantly cut out articles from Investor’s Business Daily that he found interesting or inspiring, and casually placed them throughout the house where I would stumble upon them. Not wanting to take parental advice, just like any other kid, most of these articles ended up in the circular file cabinet, however, albeit this childish attitude, one in particular managed to survive to live another day.
In fact, not only did it survive, but it made its way on to my wall where it would receive daily attention. Obviously, this one had to communicate real value.
These words of advice from Investor’s Business Daily (the issue’s from February, 2002) act as simple daily reminders that anyone on a creative path will benefit from. Perhaps they’ll even make it up on your wall…
Investor’s Business Daily has spent years analyzing leaders and successful people in all walks of life. Most have 10 traits that, when combined, can turn dreams into reality.
- How you think is everything: Always be positive. Think success, not failure. Beware of a negative environment.
- Decide upon your true dreams and goals: Write down your specific goals and develop a plan to reach them.
- Take action: Goals are nothing without action. Don’t be afraid to get started. Just do it.
- Never stop learning: Go back to school or read books. Get training and aquire skills.
- Be persistent and work hard: Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Never give up.
- Learn to analyze the
… Read More
July 16th, 2010
The altered scale allows access to the beautiful tensions of a dominant chord in a flash. The effective use of this scale, however, is not easy. In this article, I’ve assembled what I have found to be the keys to utilizing the altered scale to its full potential.
Get beyond the shortcut to the altered scale
To find the appropriate notes for an altered scale, simply go up a half step from the root of the chord and play the ascending form of the melodic minor scale (a major scale with a flatted third). So, on G7, you would play Ab melodic minor starting on G, and voila, you’re playing G altered. I call this a shortcut for a reason. Because it is! Gradually, get beyond it…by knowing the scale as it’s own entity.
Know the scale as its own entity
I remember attending Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camp in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 18 and having an absolute blast! Playing with great musicians, learning from professionals, I truly enjoyed every minute. One instance relevant to the discussion of altered scales comes to mind. Jerry Coker told our class that he and Jamey disagreed on one primary issue about the altered scale.
Jamey felt it no big deal to think of the altered scale as a mode of the melodic minor, however, Jerry Coker firmly, but respectfully, opposed Jamey, stating that knowing the scale as its ‘own thing’ was absolutely necessary to using it effectively. Jerry believed that knowing the scale … Read More
July 7th, 2010
At a certain point in your development as an improviser it becomes necessary to evolve beyond just playing “right notes” and using your favorite licks and move onto playing longer coherent musical phrases that develop over the length of your solo. This can be an especially frustrating stumbling block to overcome in that it takes a great amount of effort just to be able to play the “right notes” in the first place. So how exactly do you go from thinking about which scale to play over which chord to creating long innovative lines in the style of Bird and Trane?
Well, truthfully it has to do with improving every aspect of your overall musicianship. You need to have your technique developed to a point where you do not have to think about it while soloing, you must be able to hear chord progressions and their inherent resolutions throughout a tune and finally have an in-depth harmonic knowledge of the music. All of these skills take years of dedicated practice and persistent study to develop and master, this is why it is so rare to hear people that are actually playing innovative and interesting long lines in their solos.
When we begin to improvise we are taught to play certain scales over certain chords, for instance a D dorian scale over a D minor 7 chord or a G bebop scale over a G7 chord. This is effective to a point in that it is a means to an end … Read More
June 30th, 2010
“I’m always trying to learn new bits of language.”-Michael Brecker
There are a lot of things to practice. What is truly vital to practice if you want to get better at improvising? Plain and simple: Language. Spending time with the actual language of jazz, the recordings of the greats, should be your number one priority.
What is language in the context of jazz?
“Language embodies the world view of a culture and is unique to the culture that created it. It reflects values and concepts that are deemed to be the most important by a culture. A language describes the culture it comes from.”
I remember Mulgrew Miller talking to us one day about how the language of jazz has been created. It already exists. If you want to play this music, then you have to learn the language. This is a brilliant statement that I’ve never heard anyone else repeat in the same way. Everyone says that jazz is a language, but they never mention the fact that it has been created.
It may seem ridiculously obvious, but this subtle idea conveyed in Mulgrew’s specific way awakened me to the importance of the jazz language and that it is something that was defined by people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy, and the rest of the greats of the past. In other words, it clued me in to what jazz language is and is not.
Despite what countless books and magazine articles say, the language of … Read More
June 15th, 2010
The melodic minor scale is a scale that you’ve probably learned early on in your musical development, but it can take on a whole new life when applied to jazz. This scale is a very useful and versatile scale for improvisers to know and not just for soloing over minor chords or tonalities. The melodic minor presents some nice harmonic options when you are looking to get away from just playing diatonically over common chord progressions in your solos.
You can utilize the melodic minor scale over major, minor and dominant chords equally well, so there are many applications from learning just this one scale. Here are four ways (in C minor) to use the melodic minor scale over different chords in your solos:
1. Over Minor Chords
Obviously the first way to use the melodic minor scale is over a minor chord. Rather than playing the Dorian mode over a minor chord, try the melodic minor scale which includes the major seventh.
2. Dominant Chords (V7 #11)
Playing from the fourth note of a melodic minor scale you can create a V7 #11 or lydian dominant sound. This is a really unique sound using the melodic minor scale and because V7 chords are everywhere, there are endless opportunities to use this sound.
Another way to imply this tonality using the same scale is to play the triad a whole step up from the tonic, in this case G over F7, emphasizing the upper structures of the chord:
… Read More