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.” -Noam Chomsky
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
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:
Ever go to the practice room with a plan of what you want to get done, only to realize that an hour has passed and you’ve just muddled around? Playing your instrument is fun and it is easy to get distracted by the joy you get from simply playing. No reason to totally give up those free playing sessions, just save them for later in your practice routine once you’ve covered the material you want learn.
Combing two concepts, timeboxing and spaced learning, you can be sure to stay on task and achieve noticeable gains from your effort.
Timeboxing means assigning an allotment of time to work on a given subject or task, rather than working until completion. This process is especially effective for long term on-going projects, hence it’s great when applied to jazz improvisation practice.
Ok, now this may sound a bit excessive, but I promise it works really well. Buy a countdown timer and set a time for how long you are going to practice something. Using a countdown timer might seem ridiculous, but here’s why I think it works:
It forces you to estimate and assign how much time you are going to spend on something.
It forces you to pick precisely what you are going to work on for that time allotment.
For some reason (maybe New Years Eve parties?) we love counting down much more than counting up. Perhaps it’s the idea of getting closer to the finish line.
There are really two areas of musicianship, aside from technique on an instrument, that a jazz musician requires to be a complete improviser. One is developing great ears and the other is an intellectual understanding of harmony. These two qualities can especially be found among the countless innovators of the music.
Take the musicians of the Bebop era, for instance. Musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell learned the music of a previous generation by ear and as they progressed, used their harmonic knowledge to analyze what they were hearing and apply it to their own playing, altering scales and substituting chords to create a new style.
This is the model for the modern jazz musician; an improviser that is in control of the music both aurally and intellectually. Most musicians as they study the music, though, are stronger in one area or another based on how they learned to play.
If you learned jazz by listening to records alone you are likely going to have great ears, but little skill in explaining why the lines work and if you learned to read music first and studied lead sheets, you will intellectually understand the music, but have less skill in hearing it. Eventually you will have to work on one or the other, probably both, to get to the next level of playing.
In college I started to realize in my own playing that my intellectual understanding of the music was far ahead of my ears and that … Read More
Articulation…tonguing notes, it seems like a pretty simple concept, right? Well, not exactly. It has taken me quite a while and a ton of practice to figure out how to articulate my lines correctly when I’m soloing. If you think about it, articulation is not really focused on in jazz education when compared to the time spent on teaching concepts like chord progressions and scales, but it is just as important is terms of learning the style of jazz. When we start to learn jazz early on, educators usually teach jazz articulation by showing us a major scale in eighth notes with the second note tied to the third note, the fourth note to the fifth, and so on, with the instruction that swinging is tonging the upbeats and slurring to the downbeats:
In reality, playing this example without listening to a great recording is like trying to pronounce Das sind mir spanische Dörfer without hearing it pronounced first by someone fluent in German. With just a visual representation of sound, we are pretty much fending for ourselves.
Just as we should listen to recordings and other experienced players to learn the stylistic and harmonic subtleties of the music, we should be listening to the great improvisers to learn articulation. The stylistic component inherent in your articulation is a very important part of your overall sound and time feel when you improvise. In other words, if your articulation is not locked in, it doesn’t matter what you are playing harmonically … Read More
Being able to quickly hear, sing, and accurately identify intervals is essential to developing your improvisational ear. In this article, I’ve put together a plan for you to master your intervals in 28 days. For beginners, this will give you a much needed foundation. And for more advanced players, it will give you a chance to brush up on your intervals and fill in any gaps that might be there. The goal is to be so familiar with these sounds, that it requires very little effort to process them. You can never know this stuff too well!
Getting acquainted with the intervals
One of the best ways to get familiar with all of the intervals is to find a tune you already know that makes use of each one. There are 12 intervals total and you’ll need to practice them both ascending and descending, making for 24 total. You can find your own tunes that make use of each interval in both directions if you like, or you can download this handy little interval chart for free from Jamey Aebersold. He lists a variety of standards where the first two notes of the melody are the denoted interval. And for your convenience, here are some clips for all 12 intervals in both directions. In general, the denoted interval is the first two notes of the melody and the clip, but occasionally it will occur after a short intro. I tried to select clips that play the interval loud and … Read More
Kenny Dorham was one of the first trumpet players that I checked out when I was starting to listen to jazz and after years of studying the music he is still one of my favorite trumpet players. K.D. was a prominent figure throughout the stylistic changes of the music from bebop to the modern jazz of the 1960′s, but he received little widespread recognition compared to some of his contemporaries. Because of this, he was often called the “uncrowned king” of jazz trumpet. After really listening to his musical contributions though, it is clearly evident that Kenny Dorham is one of the masters of the music, a unique personal voice that deserves wider recognition. Check out this very rare clip of Kenny playing over his tune Short Story to see the “uncrowned king” in action:
K.D. arrived on the New York scene in the mid-1940′s as bebop was gaining momentum and quickly made his mark. He survived and thrived in a music scene where trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Howard McGhee were tearing it up. Dorham eventually joined Bird’s quintet after Miles left and shortly thereafter became a first call trumpet player for the top small groups in jazz. He became the trumpet player for one of the original versions of the Jazz Messengers, stood in for Clifford Brown after his tragic passing in the Brown/Roach Quintet, recorded with Monk and Sonny Rollins and continued on to record many landmark albums for Bluenote during it’s golden age … Read More
People are always spouting out the phrase, “Hey man, you should know this tune,” and they are probably right. But the attitude of knowing a tune just to know it, simply doesn’t make sense to me. I need some better reason than people play it down at some local crappy jam session.
As a teacher or mentor, next time you find yourself telling a student they should know a particular tune, give them some reasons why they should know it.
And the reasons should be better than, “You just should know it.” Help them out, by giving them some extra insights into why the tune is so important to their musical development. Not only will it help them, but it will also make you clarify what valuable information is contained within the tune.
Why you should know it
It contains over half of the possible twelve ii-Vs. Play it in two keys and you’re working on all of your ii-Vs. When ii-Vs make up more than 80% of the chord changes you’ll encounter in jazz, I’d say this is worth your time.
Often we are in a hurry to ‘catch up.’ Where ever you are in your personal development as a jazz improviser, accept it. It’s okay if you only know a few tunes, or can barely blow over a blues. Don’t sweat it. Worrying about our own deficiencies causes us to frantically scramble to learn too much too quickly. Instead, commit to learning one thing really well.
2.) Rather than comparing yourself to others, use them to learn
When everyone around you is so good, it is tough not to compare yourself to others. Maybe your buddy can play way faster than you, or someone else just sounds so good, you just feel like nothing in comparison.
We are all individuals. Don’t be frustrated that other people are better than you. Feel fortunate to have them as a resource to learn. Believe me. Every one thinks about this stuff differently and most of the time, they enjoy sharing their knowledge.
Perhaps, you have some bit of knowledge you can give them as well. My friends and I are constantly sharing our latest concepts, lines, or thoughts with one another. You can learn a ton from your environment if you choose to.
3.) Never Sacrifice a beautiful sound
Sometimes when we practice, we get so caught up in what ever it is we are practicing, that we forget to play with a rich beautiful sound. The sound you play with during your exercises will carry over to … Read More
Half diminished chords are generally overlooked. They are the neglected daughter of a V7 chord in a minor two-five, that never gets the attention she deserves. The result: we suck at them. Think about it. Are you as comfortable on Bb half diminished as Bb major? I’m guessing not. But there really is no reason you can’t be.
Common ways we get through them now
Part of the reason we do not perform as well over these type of chords as we would like is that we have adopted standard ways to get through them and have not moved past our tried and true methods. These techniques sound correct, were played by the masters, and are legitimate, the only problem being…they get boring.
This is what I call the ‘harmonic minor scale trick.’ You simply play the harmonic minor of the minor tonic you are headed to over the minor two-five. Bird used this concept constantly and you probably do too.
Another common way people get by on half diminished chords is by arpeggiating the chord. Again, not a bad place to start, but at some point you’re going to want to move beyond this.
Always knowing a few sure-fire ways of getting through a chord or set of chords is important, but it is just a starting point. The goal is freedom. If you are truly free over chords, then you are not limited by the number of phrases you know that ‘work’ over them. In other words, you … Read More
We are Forrest and Eric. We’ve learned from a ton of great musicians (Mulgrew Miller, Rich Perry and many more). We are sharing anything that continues to inspire us as musicians and creative individuals alike. Enjoy.
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