Thursday, September 24, 2009

Day 19 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Jazz-1 edition

A young friend, now overseas, is working on research on possible processes for studying and practicing medieval improvisation. Here's the first-half of my reply to her specific questions:

Good questions.

I'll answer under your four headings but should preface this by saying I was taught a couple of different approaches: notably (a) a very ear-training-centric approach (a man named Charlie Banacos in Boston area, who taught many of the great jazz players who went through the Boston jazz scene, including John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and Mike Stern) and (b) a very vocabulary/pattern-centric approach (David Baker's "How to play bebop" school of books). That said, I would further observe that, (c) having spent the last 14/15 years teaching people to play a different vernacular music by ear, in a method that's very much an outgrowth of David Baker's, I would now approach teaching improvisation in yet another fashion, one that drew upon (a), (b), and (c), but that was mostly based upon (b) and (c).

Some thoughts about why down below.

1.) what I've read seems to reduce the teaching of improv into transcribing performance and practicing scales, is this really how Jazz is usually taught, or is there more to it?

I'd break down jazz pedagogy differently, under the different categorical headings of the skills that each aspect of pedagogy is designed to enhance:

A. Ear training (mostly vertical sonorities) and melodic replication (mostly horizontal lines)

B. Vocabulary (knowing the melodic gestures, and the harmonic progressions, that make the music sound like jazz)

C. Harmonic expertise (understanding the very complex, seventh-chord-oriented chordal language of jazz, and (very importantly) understanding the very wide range of scalar alternatives to specific progressions, and the very wide range of chordal substitutions that can be superimposed upon the pre-set chord progression.

D. Tools that integrate the above.

A. All jazz players--horns, keyboard, bass, other chordal instruments, and (ideally) singers--spend a LOT of time working at the piano to develop the ability to hear complex vertical sonorities (4-note seventh chords, quartal/quintal harmonies, "upper-structures" including 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and their chromatic alterations) and, very importantly, to hear root motion. Jazz tunes tend to modulate every 2-bars or 4-bars, and so it is extremely important to be abel to hear what the motions are, where the modulations occur, and how the roots from key to key are moving. Related to this is learning the very wide vocabulary of "chord-scales" that can superimposed upon sonorities of various types: when I was practicing jazz actively, I would play scales, patterns, and transposed melodies in anything up to 13 different scale types, in all 12 keys. Just as chords can be superimposed on top of other chords, alternate scales can be superimposed upon the same chord. Especially in the case of the standard 8th-note lines of bebop, where on-beat/off-beat 8ths alternate, you can play many chromatic alterations on those "off-the-beat" 8th notes.

Example: in a jazz context, it is very common to substitute the lydian mode (#4) for the major scale, as, in an 8th note context where the scale is outlining the stacked-thirds of a chord, the #4 is often an off-the-beat note. Hence it's an easy way to provide chromatic "flavoring" within an essentially major-mode context. You practice those 11 or 13 different scale types over their related chords in order to begin to be able to "hear" the chromatic alterations as options.

B. Vocabulary: jazz players--with the exception of those who play "free" or avant-garde styles which consciously eschew any reference to earlier styles--play within a tradition which includes a basic vocabulary for communicative competence. This includes

1. Common-practice tunes--or at least chord progressions. There are literally thousands of jazz tunes based upon the chord changes of the blues, of George Gershwin's 32-bar "I Got Rhythm" chorus, or a small number of other jazz and Broadway tunes, mostly dating from the '20s and '30s. Because jazz, in most styles, is based upon improvising melodic lines over pre-set chord changes, having an intimate and practical aural facility with those chord changes is a basic part of being able to play by ear. It is possible to improvise jazz while reading the chords from a chart, but the results are usually quite unsatisfactory (a lesson it took me years to learn).

Hence, every jazz player will spend hundreds of hours practicing improvising over blues changes, "Rhythm" changes, and the chord progressions of tunes like "Indiana" and "Cherokee"--in all 12 keys and in every imaginable tempo. Knowing these chord progressions is a key part of jazz competency.

2. Additionally, the jazz vocabularies includes a close and facile familiarity with the melodic conventions of the various jazz eras. Sometimes these are specific melodic figures ("licks") associated with certain styles or players, but equally commonly these melodic conventions represent specific patterns which outline, negotiate, or otherwise imply specific harmonic structures. A competent jazz player will, for example, spend thousands of hours figuring out, and then practicing in all 12 keys, patterns that outline a ii7-V7 progression, in 1-bar, 2-bar, and 4-bar phrases. Having done this, s/he will spend thousands more hours practicing these same patterns in all chromatic permutations: outlining ii-V, ii7-V7, ii7b5-V7#9, etc.

3. Additionally, a competent jazz player is expected to be conversant with the melodic vocabularies--the pet licks--of his/her favorite players, or of the major players of his/her instrument. This is where listening to and transcribing (not "writing down", but learning and playing by ear) the soloes of noted players comes in: if you want to learn the melodic vocabulary, and use it with authority and suitability, you have to go to the players who shaped that vocabulary. Learning, playing, and transposing to all 12 keys the solos of noted players is, for jazz musicians, analogous to learning tunes for Irish players.

Moreover, it is possible to process those soloes into your own vocabulary: you learn the solo, you memorize and play it back at speed, then in all 12 keys, and then you go through the tune, phrase by phrase, and you isolate each chord-outlining phrase, and then you practice each phrase in all 12 keys, and then you practice using that phrase in all available permutations and situations in other tunes, and so on.

C. Harmonic expertise. Harmonic complexity: the way to build forward-moving horizontal root motions, and to build interesting, unique, challenging sonorities over those roots, is probably the area of jazz's greatest theoretical sophistication and highest expectations for improvisers. All improvisers spend time learning and practicing chordal shapes, and--especially--the very complex and diverse voice-leading which moves by 1/2 steps from one chromatic chord to the next. The art of jazz melodic improvisation, in those genres that use chords, is in finding ways to spontaneously create horizontal 8th-note lines that simultaneously create melodic interest AND fit the specific chord-tones of the underlying progressions. Jazz composers often create especially challenging and unique vertical sonorities in their chord progressions in order to inspire ilnear improvisations. Similarly, chordal players (piano/guitar) and bassists are expected to understand ways of voicing, superimposing, chromatically-altering, substituting, and voice-leading chords to create unique backgrounds for the improvisers. And bassists, of course, spend all night long improvising 4-quarter-note walking lines that simultaneously outline the chords and provide forward rhythmic motion.

D. Integrating. One practices chord voicings, progressions, root motion, and voice-leading on a chordal instrument, and on one's instrument (a horn player can outline chord progressions, substitutions, and voice-leading just as well as a chordal player); one practices patterns (derived from solos, invented, or both) over all these chord progressions; one practices and memorizes (in the ear) the progressions of common and uncommon tunes; one learns, transposes, practices, and breaks-down the solos of influential players. One plays over chord progressions, imagined and pre-recorded. This is all in addition to the basic technical practice of being able to get around on one's instrument, and the more advanced technical practice of developing one's own preferred timbre, intonation, and phraseology.

More later.

h/t to Taiyo.


Kim said...

I'll be using this as a primer for myself. Thanks!

Christopher said...

My pleasure. But really the thanks goes to Charlie, Larry "Guitar" Baeder, Dean Magraw, David Baker, and all the rest of them.