Be Careful What You Ask For


Mel Martin

This article will deal with specific practice approaches that players can utilize in order to improvise spontaneous musical ideas. The ideal that players aim for is to feel that their playing is "cliche free". This is the goal of many jazz musicians and one that is difficult to teach. The key is to "feel" cliche free. In other words, jazz utilizes a specific vocabulary just as there are no new words, there are no new notes. It is the context of the music and the state of mind of the player that dictates the coherence of the forms. The definition of cliche is [a trite expression] and the definition of trite is worn out by constant use; stale. So it comes down to the use of vocabulary. A solo that sounds fresh is one that doesn't sound overly practiced or thought out. Now, my understanding of John Coltrane is that during his Giant Steps period he practiced those solos and structures constantly and if you listen to the alternate takes they are very similar. But they always sounded fresh. If an actor rehearses his lines, this does not preclude his or her ability to bring these lines to life. However, poor writing has sunk many a film with a fine cast. The goal of the jazz player is to practice things that will influence his or her direction during a performance as well as practice things that will offer the player a high level of flexibility in terms of the ability to change directions on a whim. It is that kind of impulse that adds the element of surprise and makes a solo truly spontaneous.

One axiom holds that whatever you practice will show up in your playing. This can be extended to the way you practice. If you simply collect licks and patterns and then inject them into every solo, sure enough, that's the way you'll sound. If you practice things that will increase your flexibility, both technically and musically, then you will be perceived as a more flexible player. I have written at length about musically creative approaches in rhythm, harmony and melody that are useful in helping develop your approach. The Lee Konitz ten step method is great for developing a restrained approach. Ear training, arranging and orchestration are necessary studies. Transcription is a valuable tool. Keyboard knowledge is mandatory. Long tones and developing your sound are important. But what of day to day needs? What are some ideas that we can use to further our technical needs in the service of musical goals and concepts?

In beginning studies, a great struggle to develop proper instrumental technique occurs and this is true for both jazz and classical music. Good instrumental technique is a must for any kind of advanced musical concepts. This article is not meant to address that issue. This must be thoroughly understood before we go any further. It's my belief that studies in classical music with a good teacher are as important to jazz players as jazz studies are important for classical performers. It may not be the music that you are most drawn to or wish to perform, but it is the act of studying, performing and attempting to improve that is most important. On a more advanced level, every player needs to address their weak points and constantly devise ways to challenge and strengthen these areas. This is doubly true for the jazz player seeking to expand their flexibility and broaden their musical horizons. There are many fine books available that can help in this regard. Oliver Nelson's Patterns for Jazz, Gary Campbell's fine little book Extensions, Dave Baker's great series, Dave Liebman's Chromatic Concepts and many more.

One book not so widely known but which has achieved legendary status is Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.It is believed to have been used for extensive practice by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thad Jones and many well known jazz musicians. When I used to tour in bands with trumpet great Tom Harrell, he and I would practice in hotel rooms out of this book for hours, making notes of what scales and melodic ideas were pertinent to the music we were playing. The scales and melodic patterns in the Thesaurus are systematized in a manner convenient to composers and improvisers in search of new materials. The materials are arranged in the form of piano scales and melodic studies and labelled with fascinating terms that define their intervalic relationships. There are also interesting harmonizations. No fingering information is given and all examples are adaptable to any type of instrument. It is also extremely useful for vocalists seeking to expand their awareness of scales and intervals. The chapters are divided by intervals beginning with the tritone, one of the basic intervals of jazz and the exact half way point between the octave. The octave is then divided into three equal parts then four, six, twelve then the same divisions of two octaves, five octaves, seven octaves, eleven octaves, pentatonic scales, bitonal arpeggios, twelve tone patterns, crossing intervals, mirror interval progressions, permutations, pandiatonic progressions, polytonal scales and more. As you can see, this an extremely comprehensive volume and offers many interesting and fascinating ideas for all musicians. It offers approaches that may be taken and expanded upon by the aspiring improviser.

The concept of a scale and melodic idea working together is an important one. According to Slonimsky, "a scale means a progression of notes, either diatonic or chromatic, that proceeds uniformly in one direction, ascending or descending, until the termination point is reached. A melodic pattern, on the other hand, may be formed by any group of notes that has melodic plausibility." All melodies simply use intervals derived, partially or entirely, from the specific scales. As Slonimsky demonstrates a scale may be taken and expanded by what he refers to as "permutations". This involves inserting additional notes that may add contrary motion and chromatic intervals to basic scale or pattern. It is this concept that may be used to expand one's technical abilities as an improviser. In Example 1 I have demonstrated ascending triads, both diatonic and chromatic. These are basic patterns that can be practiced in all keys and all registers. Example 2 demonstrates the same concepts in a descending manner. After all, what goes up, must come down. These same patterns may be expanded to four note arpeggios. (Example 3.) The point of practicing something like this is to develop a kind of independence of motion in the ability to form a melodic line. Many players are taught that you may play the correct scale over the correct chord and this is all you need to know. Although this is a good starting point, it should be emphasized that this is only one approach that you may use in developing a solo. As mentioned above, melodies are derived from the intervals inherent in any given scale or those implied by any given chord. Of course, this takes place in real time as the changes are passing by. This is where the ear comes in. If you are truly listening as you are improvising, you will be able to make some quick decisions as to where you would like your line to go. This is where practicing bi-directional exercises really pays off.

The above exercises may be expanded on further by doing them in the minor mode (Example 4.), the augmented mode (Example 5.) and the diminished mode.(Example 6.) In addition,you can take all of the above ideas and convert them to contrary motion.(Example 7.) You may recognize many of these ideas as concepts that have popped up in solos by your favorite players. Indeed, they may be regarded as building blocks for not only technique but musical building blocks.

Another approach is developing a musical concept and then proceed to build patterns and exercises based on these ideas. The augmented and diminished concepts invite a plethora of musical ideas that require extensive woodshedding just to execute even the most basic ideas leave alone those espoused by such great players as John Coltrane and Jackie McClean. Example 8. demonstrates an exercise based on mutually exclusive whole tone triads strung together. Example 9. demonstrates the same concept using diminished intervals. The dominant chord receives the most amount of alteration and these are concepts that will offer many more readily available resources to deal with these alterations. Since there are only two whole tone scales and chords, they are applicable to six dominant chords each. Since there are only three diminished scales and chords, they apply to four dominant chords each. In order to apply these concepts, they must be practiced in such a way as to be woven into the fabric of an improvisation on a moment's notice.

Minor chords and half diminished chords present more conceptual challenges. The minor chord is important not only for minor tonalities which comprise at least half of the jazz repertoire but also as a functional element in harmonizing lines as used widely in the II-V concepts. In a II-V sequence, the minor chord becomes a prelude to the dominant where the scale is the same but the function adds needed motion. II-V sequences can and should be practiced so that when they come up in any given tune, they can be dealt with accordingly. They can be practiced chromatically or in various intervalic permutations. Examples 10 and 11 demonstrate some approaches to II-V progressions. I often recommend that students write their own exercises or eventually be able to improvise II-V exercises that do not adhere to a single pattern. Minor chords by themselves can be used as a study.

Chromaticism is commonly used in jazz soloing. "When in doubt, play the chromatic scale". Slonimsky utilizes some really useful chromatic and twelve tone exercises. Learning the correct chromatic fingerings is a must for all instrumentalists and should be thoroughly reviewed. Exercises 14 and 15 demonstrate some chromatic ideas that can be expanded upon. Again, write out some ideas of your own. The use of chromatic neighboring tones is always a useful tool in improvising. Many times this is a great way to turn a mistake into a great solo. A mistake! You mean musicians make mistakes? Of course they do. We're making this stuff up as we go along and as often as not chromatics can bail you out of many a testy situation.

I have attempted to discuss many of the approaches that experienced players use to expand their resources and flexibility. There is no limit on this type of practicing and musicians are free to take these concepts as far as their talent and abilities allow. My next column will continue the subject of creative practicing.

In my last column, I discussed ways to practice things that will add flexibility to your approach and, hopefully, result in a more creative flow of ideas. The concept of creativity is very difficult to define. To some people, a child in a crib playing with a baby's rattle is being [creative]. That would be spontaneous creativity without any discipline or craft involved. In music, true creativity takes place in the moment. To get to that moment involves much study, practice and experience. Sometimes, when you think you are being creative, you really aren't and sometimes, when you have grave doubts, you may be extremely creative. This clearly demonstrates that while in the creative act, personal critical judgement must be suspended. A state of mind whereby music is understood as a blank canvas must be achieved. The improvisation of phrases, lines and harmony constitutes the colors, lines and shapes of a painting. Creativity may be found in utilizing a new vocabulary, or creating a new genre or creating within the tradition already established by the great innovators. Since there are no new notes, there are only new ways to say things. The act of spontaneously creating memorable music is so intangible that it is truly difficult to teach. Yet we who do this seem to others almost as magicians, able to create music out of nothing. We are sought out by those who wish to delve into the mysteries of the art. Can creativity be taught? I don't think so but certainly musicianship and instrumental technique can. Musical and artistic concepts can. Creativity comes from an emotional imperative that has an irrepressible drive. The truly creative individuals in the world will always find a means of expression be it music, dance, painting, writing, composing or all of these.

Practicing a musical instrument initially requires basic coordination of fingers and mind. It is very difficult to separate the two and the longer you play, the more you will come to this realization. As in many sports, it is the training of the mind that ultimately becomes most important. The physical limitations of an instrument can eventually be overcome but the mind must be constantly trained and kept in a state of perpetual readiness and awareness. Many musicians use a form of mental practice and visualization to maintain a state of readiness. Let's assume there is a difficult passage that will come up in a performance. Simply try to see it in your mind. Think about whatever fingering difficulties the passage may present. Visualize yourself as playing the passage with ease. See yourself successfully integrating the passage into your entire performance. This procedure can be extended to improvising. Try to envision a particular set of chord changes and form. Go over it in great detail in your mind. Consider every extension and the sound of the various types of chords involved. See yourself performing an entire solo with a beginning, middle and end. When performing jazz, try to clear your mind before the performance. If you are worried about knowing the song or chords or technical deficiencies, you are already putting yourself in a defeatist mode. It is during practice time, both literal and mental that all the details of a performance need to be addressed. When performing, going into "automatic pilot" or a state of extended awareness is often the best way to function. If the mind is cleared of much clutter and preconceptions, then it will be possible to create that "blank sound canvas" where you can create a "new picture." As you begin your solo, allow the music to tell you where it wants to go. It's kind of a cooperative venture. The music says "I want to go here" and you say "but I practiced this lick all week just so I could jam it on top of that dominant chord." If you get hung up in this type of debate, the moment will have passed and you will find yourself lost. It is better to flow with the moment, letting the creative impulse carry you through. Start from a simple theme or premise. Let that idea develop and simply see where it wants to go. Some of the best musical experiences I've ever encountered left me with the feeling that I didn't play any of the things that I might normally use or have practiced. It was as if I didn't have the time to do that. The music itself kept demanding my attention.

So some may say "why practice?" Well, maintenance of technique is always a necessity. But it is possible to practice creatively, nurturing the ability to play anything that may come to mind in the most spontaneous fashion. It is the ability to train the neurons and synapses from the brain to be able to respond quickly to musical impulses. This is far different from simply learning licks and forcing them into every solo opportunity. That is a type of mindlessness that has no place in the hierarchy of musical thought. This is why it is of the utmost importance to listen, study and work with musical concepts and then transfer that knowledge to your instrument. There is also no substitute for musical taste. I would define this as knowing what is good to play and appropriate for the moment.

In the examples I have included for this article, I have attempted to stretch many of the concepts we have discussed. This is the same way I practice. These are some of the kinds of things I attempt, constantly trying to push the envelope of my instrumental technique as well as my musical concepts. Although you may find these useful as musical material, their primary purpose is to extend the ability of the player to be able to execute lines of increasing difficulty based in solid musical concepts. Pianists may find this easier than other instrumentalists as they have the advantages of seeing the keyboard in front of themselves. Exercise 1 takes major triads into contrary motion. The first set is diatonic, the second chromatic. First ascending then, Exercise 2 , descending. Try this in all keys and registers. On woodwinds, this forces the fingers to be able to easily reverse direction. On other instruments, the exercise will make demands that can be analyzed but the principle of contrary motion will remain. Exercise 3 extends to four note examples in the same way, utilizing major, minor and dominant sevenths in the diatonic mode and major sevenths in the chromatic mode. Exercise 4 offers minor triads in both diatonic and chromatic modes, both ascending and descending. These can also be extended into four note exercises. Exercise 5 stretches the interval to fourths. On woodwinds, fourths are more difficult to play. They take you out of the normal harmonic path and add a way to take your lines into a more extended place. In addition,, they have a sound of their own. Pianists such as McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea have used the interval of a fourth to innovate new harmonic developments. Playing an exercise in 5/8 is another way to extend your rhythmic sophistication. Exercise 6 Continues the concept of fourths being played in minor thirds (diminished) so the two concepts can co-exist. Exercise 7 Is based on the interval of the fifth. This is really stretching it. Fifths are far more difficult to execute than fourths and take your lines even further afield. Exercise 8 Is based on the interval of the major sixth. There are many other variations on this and I would encourage the player to see how many variation they can come up with. The Thelonious Monk composition [Misterioso] is based on this interval as is part of the Bill Doggett composition Honky Tonk.

Exercise 9 features diminished lines in triplets. They also create their own sound and particular structure. Diminished scales and lines fit well with many harmonic situations so it is important to develop the resources to be able to come up with a wide variety of musical ideas coupled with the understanding of the diminished concept. Exercise 10 displays that you can and should think beyond the octave. The flat ninth is yet another stretch for the player and fits within the diminished framework as does the major seventh and minor second. Exercises 11 and 12 feature telescoping twelve tone patterns and this really pushes the envelope, technically and musically.

As you can see, working through various intervallic and rhythmic concepts will begin to open new doors for your soloing abilities. Players such as John Coltrane, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk use these same techniques by incorporating them into their solos and compositions. The key is to remember that it is never about "licks" but creating a musical tapestry that offers an open ended and satisfying musical experience. Doing this type of practicing will help you to develop the abilities to navigate your way through the most complex types of musical material and reach for new planes of awareness. My next article will address the subject of modern jazz and beyond as we have come to know it

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