July 24th, 2012
“Jazz is smart people music!”
I first heard these words from the great pianist Harold Mabern. Walking through the practice rooms at school one day, as was usually the case, a group of eager students was huddled around him as he told a story. An impromptu musical lesson that didn’t involve scales or chords, but just as valuable – maybe even more so.
This man probably has two stories for every tune he knows and he literally knows a thousand tunes. To hear one of them was to get closer to the music, the history you’ve only read about in books, your musical idols from Lee Morgan and Miles to George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard.
But, there was something about that particular phrase that stood out for me: smart people music.
If you’ve ever spent any time around this legendary musician, chances are you might have even heard him say this phrase and more importantly, if you’ve ever tried to play jazz or improvise, you know he’s not kidding around!
It’s no secret that it takes brains to play jazz. The typical improviser is determined, focused, dedicated, well-rounded, and studied…and that’s just a list of what it takes to get some basic instrumental technique and music theory down.
Getting up on stage in front of an audience and improvising in real time demands the utmost from both your intellectual and your physical senses. It’s an understatement that you need to be intelligent to survive in that … Read More
June 26th, 2012
This is a box. This is your mind in a box. Many people’s minds never leave the box. Why?
Thinking creatively is something we all do naturally. It’s our instinctive and ordinary way of being. To be creative is nothing less than being human. You can’t help but be creative.
But back to the box. Why? Why do we tend to stay within our capacity, within our own perception of what’s possible, within a dull dark lifeless box?
Simply put, it’s difficult to escape the box that is the accepted social norm, the seemingly permanent reality of things. While being creative is our natural state, perhaps going against the grain is not. Let’s view this idea from a biological standpoint.
If you’re a deer and you suddenly notice each and every one of your deer friends frantically charging in a particular direction, you best join the herd or chance getting consumed by a ferocious hungry lion. Join the herd or get eaten. Hmmmm. I think I’ll chill and eat some more grass…ummm NO!! I don’t think so. I’ll join the herd and try to blend in best I can. My survival depends on it.
Our pre-programmed biological tendencies pervade every part of our life from how we think to how we interact with others. In terms of interacting with others, we have a desire to be accepted. A desire to fit in. To fit in it’s only natural that we act accordingly with what others are doing. In the interest … Read More
May 17th, 2012
It’s already May and before you know it those lazy months of summer are going to sneak up on you. And just as quickly they’ll be gone, leaving you wishing you had more hours in the day to devote to your music. Before you find yourself in this all too familiar situation, here’s a quick question to ponder: What exactly do you want to accomplish musically this summer?
If you’re not sure and you have yet to give it any thought, chances are you aren’t going to get as much accomplished as you could as an improviser.
For many musicians the summer months are a time when we lose our drive and end up getting rusty. I mean it makes sense, why stay inside a dreary practice room working on ii-V’s all day when you can be outside enjoying the sun and warm weather. However, chucking your practice routine out the window for the entire summer can leave you musically stagnant or worse by the time the fall rolls around.
The encouraging news is that you don’t have to lock yourself up like a prisoner in a dark practice room to see improvement. With a little planning, the summer months are a time when you can take advantage of some extra practice time and still get out and be a normal human being.
You might be a student looking to transform your playing for the next school year, a player looking to capitalize on a few extra hours of daylight, … Read More
May 1st, 2012
Each day when you get your instrument out of its case and set out to practice improvisation, your goal is to play the right notes. Whether it’s playing with great technique and great sound or finding the best line to play over that new tune, you’re looking for the fastest way to sound good over all those chords that you stumble upon.
Lucky for us, the right notes have been laid out for us in theory books and on the pages of play-a-long tracks. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself: “Why exactly are those notes the “right notes?”
What is it that makes them right and the other notes wrong? Are we just following the rules of music theory on blind faith or are those “right notes” right because we hear them that way?
Music theory is important in understanding the inner workings of harmony, but the true test of the “right notes”comes with your ear. What does it sound like? The interesting aspect of music is that this “sound” is different for every person. Listening is a truly subjective endeavor. What one person hears as pleasing, another person can find unlistenable, even unbearable.
Sometimes it has to do with personal taste, but more often not it has to do with exposure and experience. I remember the first time I listened to Schoenberg’s Pirot Lunaire:
To my untrained ear, it sounded overly dissonant, almost like noise. However, putting it on today it sounds surprisingly accessible. The piece … Read More
April 9th, 2012
If there is one thing about playing jazz that’s shrouded in mystery, it is improvisation.
Improvisation exists in other types of music, even in musical traditions from the far reaches of the globe, but in jazz it goes much deeper. It is somehow vitally tied to the spirit of the music, and it’s not just musicians who recognize the power of the improvised solo. This essence has been captured in everything from literature to movies to pop culture.
There is something alluring about the idea of the jazz musician; a creative soul channeling the intangible through their instrument, essentially creating something out of nothing.
However, despite all of the attention, we still can’t seem to define this creative endeavor. You can get a degree in jazz studies, you can study the philosophy behind improvisation and creativity, and you can even scan the brains of improvising musicians to discover the secret pathways of the mind in its most creative state, but there still seem to be more questions than answers.
Alas, improvising continues to remain an elusive mystery.
As musicians hard at work developing this skill in the practice room, we often get lost in the music. It can be all too easy to lose the ability to look at the music objectively from an outside perspective and after some time, we’re no longer able to hear music with a naive untrained ear.
We become part of the music and suddenly we see the world in a different way. It’s … Read More
March 20th, 2012
One of the questions we’ve been getting a lot lately is where to start learning jazz improvisation. There’s so much information out there, that knowing where to start is a complete nightmare.
If I could start again today, I’d ignore nearly all the information out there in terms of method books and do my best to learn this music the same way that the greats learned. They didn’t have books filled with transcriptions of their favorite players. They didn’t have real-books or fake-books packed with sheet music of tunes. And they certainly didn’t have play-along records that they could pop in and jam with.
They learned from the recordings of their heroes, coupled with playing with others.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s up to you whether you use any of these materials and even play-alongs can be used effectively, however, why fix it if it’s not broken?
In other words, people were learning how to play jazz long before any of this material existed and they certainly sounded just fine Sure, the convenience of playing with a play-along record when you have no one to jam with can be fun and beneficial, but in my experience, as well as observing countless other musicians’ experiences, nearly all these resources distract you from the pathway that will get you where you want to go.
Where to start
Here’s a checklist to get you started learning jazz improvisation. If you simply go through the checklist, you’ll be well on your way … Read More
March 13th, 2012
As an improviser, you can transcribe solos. You can improve your technique. You can listen to your favorite recordings for hours each day. You can practically live in your practice room.
But, no matter what you do or how much time you spend, at the end of the day you still have to deal with tunes. Despite all your hard work and preparation, there are still those tunes you don’t know. Lot’s of them. Hundreds of tunes. How exactly are you going to learn all these tunes?
The truth is that you aren’t going to know every tune ever written. Try as they might, no one does, not even the greatest players out there. However what you can do is slowly but steadily add tunes to your repertoire, one by one.
Each day you can make a little headway. This is the mark of a great player. Aim to know more tunes this week than you did last week. Work tirelessly on your ears and playing what you hear, so you can figure out the tunes you don’t know. Strive to learn something new everyday.
Expanding your repertoire is something that every improviser must deal with, it’s a process that never ends. However, this process of learning tunes doesn’t have to be a recurring nightmare that’s constantly holding you back and preventing you from going out and playing. It can be simple, even fun.
Here are three things that you can do in your daily practice to make the process … Read More
March 5th, 2012
Just learn a few ii V licks in all keys, learn how to use them, and that’s jazz, right? Unfortunately not.
ii Vs make up the bulk of chord progressions found in all western music from classical to pop music, hence, ii Vs are necessary to master. However, a common result from working on ii Vs a lot is something that sounds like a combination of noodling around and plugging in ii V licks. We never want to sound like were noodling around, and we’d much prefer to sound spontaneous and interesting than uninspired and predictable.
When we finally decide to start devoting time to studying ii Vs, our ears open a ton and we get excited, as if we’ve found the key to unlock everything. Studying ii Vs does unlock a ton of mystery and will greatly help you improve as an improviser, but know that that this study is only part of the picture.
Getting stuck in ii V land
We all practice ii Vs. We practice lines over them, we practice freely improvising over them, and we try to figure out how to use any concept we’re working on over them, but to what end?
Somewhere in this mess of working on ii Vs, we lose track of the real goal: to sound musical. That’s right. To actually say something with what we’re playing. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
What happens when we get enthralled with ii Vs … Read More
March 2nd, 2012
Transcription can be a real struggle sometimes. Some days it feels like you can spend an hour trying to learn a few measures, and after a dozen frustrating attempts, you end up in exactly the same place you started.
If this feeling rings a bell with you, you are definitely not alone. Many of the questions that we get every week have to do with this exact problem. How exactly do you make the transcription process easier?
In a perfect world transcription would be a breeze. You would hear a solo that grabs your attention, bring it into the practice room, and figure it out in a matter of minutes. The entire process would be seamless and easy: hear it, sing it, and play it; translating those harmonies and melodies right to your instrument and on to your solos.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, this is actually closer to reality than you might be willing to believe. You can get to this point in your playing, however, the path there is not what you may be expecting.
Getting simple with it
With any complex technique, advanced skill, or in-depth harmonic knowledge that you wish to acquire as a musician, the process has to begin with a very simple concept. A small exercise or idea that you expand, explore, and expound upon. You take this simple idea and master it; building it up step by step, until you are playing at an entirely new level and using skills … Read More
February 22nd, 2012
When we practice jazz improvisation, we zoom in on one area of study so much that we often lose sight of the whole. How do we practice in this truly focused way, while simultaneously train ourselves to perform in a way that expresses all of what we know?
In other words, how can we shift our perspective from a one-pointed zoomed in view to a wide angle lens where we’re capable of drawing from many concepts, lines and techniques?
The answer: practice mixing.
Mixing is just that. You practice mixing multiple techniques during a chorus or several choruses of improvisation. By doing this, you learn how to widen your gaze and not get hung up on playing the same thing every time around.
The more you learn to mix everything you practice, the more it will be available in live performance as it will be natural for you to move from one idea to another, or to sprinkle in some new concept you’ve been working on at just the right moment.
What to mix
What can you “mix”? Well, when you think about it, in general, anything you play is either a piece of language, or a concept. Really, even a piece of jazz language is an example of concepts in action, so essentially everything is a concept, but for sake of clarity, I prefer to think of language and concepts as two complimentary entities.
So, you can mix:
- language with language
- language with concepts
- concepts with concepts
These are … Read More