The Melody Lingers On


Mel Martin

In my last column I spoke about the rhythmic universe. In this column I would like to concentrate on the melodic universe. From a creative standpoint, melody may be, at once, the most simple and the most difficult aspect of jazz performance to understand. In terms of jazz composition, melodies are developed much like any other form of composition, over a period of time. In the heat of the music, the jazz performer must come up with ideas that will have lasting value. Now these ideas can be of a highly lyrical nature or be as complex and abstract as the player's imagination will allow or anything in between. They can relate directly to the melody of the composition or abandon the melody entirely and even become a new composition. Along with this freedom comes a serious responsibility. Just as a painter uses the many colors from his palette and devises the many kinds of shapes and contours, shadings and caricatures to come up with the vision in his imagination, the improviser must mix the various elements of melody, rhythm and harmony to come up with his musical statement. If you play a horn, you play a melody instrument, so you need to develop a unique melodic concept. If you play piano or guitar you must be able to complement your melodic ideas with the ability to use appropriate harmonies. If you play drums, you must adapt your rhythmic concept to the melodic ideas that are being played as well as to your own ideas of what melodies are about. Finally, if you play bass, you are in the unenviable position of having to define everybody else's idea of melody by playing a counter melody of your own with the restriction of only using quarter notes and half notes for the most part. The real world facts of this situation actually crossover these artificial boundaries such as the horn player that plays piano, the drummer that plays a horn and all the musicians that compose.

If you are a musician, you study all of music. The jazz improviser must also be a composer, arranger and orchestrator along with being a master instrumentalist, historian, psychic phenomena and all around wizard. The idea of melody is in itself a great mystery. Why are people so prone to remember the melodies of some songs? Why are some melodies revered for hundreds of years? Why do so many jazz musicians play the same songs over and over while seeming to discover new variations? There are only twelve tones in Western tempered music. How do these same notes result in new and hopefully, memorable songs? The truth is that melodies are an incredibly singular experience, at least for the listener. The concentration is on one note at a time, commonly known as the melodic line. This is the medium that conveys essential musical, tonal, emotional and subliminal information. However, the rhythmic and harmonic structures are an integral part of the listening experience conveying the mood and metrical or primal structure. But it is the melodic line that the listener will retain and be moved by. When lyrics are added from an expert vocal performance, the impact is broadened to include a specific storyline. But the impact of purely instrumental music can be very profound as instrumentalists may use their imaginations to coax sounds from their instruments that no vocalist can deliver. Stan Getz is a prime example of someone whose instrumental sound was the true voice of his imagination. Without the specific use of lyrics, the listener is not chained to the exact details of the story line, but their imagination may be stirred in a way that could evoke a highly creative listening experience. Of course, many great horn players use the lyrics of the tune as a springboard to their own rhapsodies such as the way Dexter Gordon would recite the lyrics of the tunes he was about to play or the way Sonny Rollins or Ben Webster would make a point of knowing the lyrics to any tune they were going to play.

Many players from the older schools of jazz playing were known as "ear players". All they needed to know was what note the tune started on and off they went, sometimes creating a masterpiece. In this day and age of jazz education and magazines such as this one where we go on for pages about the art of jazz, this simple idea has been lost. Yet jazz by definition is "ear music". I have probably gotten a dollar from every student that came to me and said they were having great difficulty "memorizing" chord changes as if it were some sort of test. When asked to just play a simple melody, many couldn't think of one to play. Maybe this is what Monk meant when he titled that song Think of One. My usual prescription at that point is for the student to not worry about the harmonics of a piece but to truly learn and absorb the melody. At one point in my life, I took some lessons from Lee Konitz who initiated me into what has been referred to as the Ten Steps to an Act of Pure Inspiration method.

This is where you take a song and play ten choruses at a tempo around q=60 on the metronome, adding pertinent melodic variations to each chorus without veering away from the essential melody of the composition until the tenth chorus becomes an "act of pure inspiration." This method requires a great deal of restraint from the player while not actually requiring him to know what the harmonies are about. In other words, treat a piece of music as a theme with variations. Again, this has become somewhat of a lost art. In jazz, many players are in a hurry to display all of the wonderfully scintillating licks, patterns and technique that they have worked so hard to develop while ignoring the basic prerogative to their soloing: melodic development. Early on, Sonny Rollins used this technique to such a great degree that it became fun to hear him tease the melodies and ideas from the song. Joe Henderson also uses this method to great effect as well as throwing in quotes from such staples as Cocktails for Two, Love in Bloom (one of his favorites), All Night Marianne and many others that come into his fertile imagination. Of course, if you had no familiarity with any of these tunes you wouldn't get the joke. The more melodies you know, the more melodic you will play. Joe is also a master of mixing extremely melodic and lyrical ideas with some very abstract and stimulating lines that many times clash with the basic harmony in meaningful ways, sometimes in the same breath.

The other factor that an instrumentalist has to work with is the tonality and intonation of their instrument. It is understood that an instrumentalist aspiring to "sing" on their instrument should listen to great vocalists and, indeed, this will help the player to develop phrasing, breathing and lyric techniques. But the sounds you can get from your instrument are the most important part of your presentation of music. Your sound is the first and last thing heard and is what carries the melodic line so the two must be wed closely . This is why horn players practice long tones, pianists try to develop a "singing" touch, drummers and bassists breath with the music and everybody sings to themselves as they play. In some cases such as Keith Jarret and Billy Higgins this singing is entirely audible.

My feeling is that everyone has a "singer" in their makeup and that music is the expression of that part of our collective and individual psyches. Now, sometimes this "singer" results in some very unusual forms of music but this is what we instrumentalists rely on to actually make our music. If you only play from your instrument or the things that you practice you are kind of missing the point because you should be trying to reach the "singer" in your listener. This is the magic of musical expression. Without magic, we only have technical displays. It is also through this "singer" that we can learn songs. It is important to be able to sing, to yourself at least, a song that you you are trying to learn. It is necessary to be able to "pick out" the notes by ear, much as the layman who uses the "hunt and peck system" to pick out a tune on the piano. If you continually stare at a page of music you will find that the music does not actually exist on that page. It simply contains information regarding that piece. The music actually exists in your mind and heart which is where it came from via the composer. So one can see that "memorizing the changes" is not the best approach to learning a song. Changes need to be heard. Only then do they have any useful function which can be committed to memory. The player must work to develop the singer within and use it as a vehicle of expression.

In learning repertoire, it is important to work with music that you like, that you are attracted to. There are some tunes I don't want to know. When you perform music, you want people to like what they hear, so it starts with your attitude about the music. In learning standards, it helps to, at least, look at the lyrics if not learn them outright. It helps to play the tunes in different keys, not just for technical practice, but to find out where they sound best on your instrument. This also helps you to become very familiar with the melodic structure and rely on your ear. With more complex compositions such as Charlie Parker's bebop lines, many of which were based on harmonic structures of standards, it is best to work on them slowly, working each phrase and putting them together as a whole. Before the advent of fakebooks, we either learned these songs by rote from other players ( hopefully correctly) or transcribed them directly from the original recordings which allowed us to get it right. This is one of the best and most useful methods of ear training. To me, it is more important to transcribe songs than solos. It is fine to check out and analyze what others have done in their soloing, but it is the study of all the wonderful compositions that will give you a basis to perform as well as compose and improvise. I have found that many times it is more difficult to learn my own compositions than someone else's. I have no idea where some of the things I have written came from. Composition and, sometimes, improvising is like "channeling" which is a psychic phenomenon. To have to learn some of these things can be difficult. However, if a piece is written by ear it should be learned by ear.

In this article, I have attempted to outline a creative approach to melody. Other writers in this magazine will be offering more specific approaches for melody, harmony and rhythm so their may be some overlapping information. Take what works for you and use it. All we are doing is expressing our opinions based on our experience and education. You may find an approach that no one else has thought of. Although, I have not made specific references to vocalists and other instruments besides horns, piano, bass and drums, all of these approaches are directly applicable. In my next article I will cover a creative approach to harmony.

| Main Menu | Special Features | Upcoming Events | Bios | | Education Page | Interviews and Articles | | Recordings | Mel Martin Quartet | Benny Carter Tribute Band | Bebop and Beyond | Booking Information | Endorsments and Awards |

| Home |

© COPYRIGHT 1996 - 2007 and Beyond - Mel Martin
Questions/comments about these web pages