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
June 15th, 2010
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.
Timeboxing and using … Read More
June 12th, 2010
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
June 6th, 2010
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