Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Adding to the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Why can't jazz musicians just leave a melody alone?
-Peter Capaldi

The previous two posts have dealt with improvising, what could be considered the mainstay of jazz. From small combos to big bands the music is wide open for the possibility of composing on the fly. How that improvised solo fits into the whole form of the particular song varies with styles, size of the ensemble, abilities of different members of the group. In some groups, for example, the first trumpet may not have as many improvisation skills so they tend to play the written parts while the second trumpet takes the improvised solos. In songs from the Great American Songbook of standards, the well-known melody of the song is shared around the different sections with one or two sections devoted to the improvised solo.

In most instances, though, this is built on the originally composed song. The song may be just the main theme (the head) and a closing coda of the theme. In-between the soloists go off on their own understandings of the song’s feel. The rhythm section often “comps” under the solo. (Think Dave Brubeck’s amazingly steady piano in “Take Five” under Paul Desmond’s wondrous solo.) In the beginning, then, all of the music is someone’s composition. The original song or theme or melody. Add to that the chord changes, tempo, mood, rhythmic structure, and written accompaniment and you have the song which will most likely change every time the group plays it.

That is jazz. But it requires that original song. It requires composing something on which to build. It is why jazz musicians do not leave the melody alone. They hear more than just the melody- they hear a whole composition starting with the original melody. This is not something new. Bach was known as a superb improvisor. For some of Mozart’s piano compositions, the solos are at times just a bare bones skeleton of the piece. Know one knows what Mozart played when he performed those pieces. The full score never existed.

How does all this happen? How does any one of us move into composition- either written scores or improvised solos? I have been experimenting on and off with that in the past year. I have a bluegrass medley that I would like to have our brass quintet play. I have been working on an improvisation on the folk song made famous by the Beach Boys and Kingston Trio- Sloop John B. I have some other melodies that I have heard in my imagination and would someday like to turn into a written composition, whether for jazz or brass quintet. I figured this was a good place in this jazz series to talk about that and see how it has fit together with so much else of what music is all about. So here are the essentials as I have been discovering them:

• Listening
“What jazz are you listening to? How often are you listening?” These are two important questions to ask yourself on a regular basis. In order to begin to grasp what jazz music can be you have to listen. On recordings; on the Internet; in person. Finding live, improvised jazz can be difficult in some places, but it is worth the effort. Get in there, watch the musicians, their interactions, their reactions. Listen to the phrases and get into the groove. Don’t use it as background music. It’s alive.

• Learning the language
The reason to listen is simple. Jazz music, like all music has its own unique language. I’ve talked about this before- and I will again. The learning for many of us is that initial listening. You may not understand what it’s saying at first, but as you surround yourself with the music the phrases and low of the music will begin to make sense.

• Listening
So you listen some more.

• Singing your music
For me singing along was a great start to working on composition. Sing the melody, sing a counter melody, sing a walking bass line, sing the chord changes of a 12-bar blues, sing nonsense syllables (scat singing), let the rhythm sing from within you.

• Experimenting
Then pick up your horn and play over some songs you like. Get an app like iReal Pro. Find web sites that have accompaniment tracks available. Work with the Jamie Aebersold books and CDs. Some of these will work better for you than others. For some reason I am still struggling with the Aebersold resources but iReal Pro helps me. One of my goals in the next few months is to double down on the Aebersold and see if I can move past that barrier. Your experimenting will help you get the feel of the language and you will be surprised (I have) when something happens that you never thought you would be able to do. Riff off the melody; play chord progressions; make the mistakes in your practice room and figure out how not to make the same mistakes more than once.

• Listening
Did I make it clear about the listening? By this time it may even be an idea on some of these to record and listen to yourself and your solos. But don’t stop listening to others. The language skills grow from the hearing, the imitating, the experimenting.

• Learn solos by ear- transcribe them
This is the most difficult for me. This is just like ear-training in any language learning. It is just as essential in learning jazz. Even if we never plan on doing much improvisation, to learn the solos, to improve our ear for the language, will help make us better musicians overall and will help the written scores become more identifiable and musical.

• Repeat
Go back to the top and start over.

As we do these things we are composing. We are making our own music. I know that none of this is all that earth-shattering- or new. I used to think and hope that if I bought the right book, read the right information, watched the right YouTube video that this would all fall into place. It won’t. Aebersold books could line my shelves, but if I don’t take the steps into the new and different, I won’t improve.

What this does is get me in touch with me- my music, my songs, my soul. As I express that music I am composing a whole new story to add to the greater story around me. That is important. This is what we do every day in our daily lives- we compose something new out of what has been around us. That something new can only come from us. I can’t leave life alone in the same old rut. Jazz teaches me how to take the risks to tell my story in a new language.

Last year musician John Raymond had this to say after he had spent some time focusing on composing. It is what it’s all about:

At the end of the day, so much of composing (to me at least)
is about trusting who you are,
what you love,
and about trusting the music that YOU hear.

Just like improvising, it's an incredibly personal process and your goal is
ultimately to be as honest as you can be.
(John Raymond, email, September 2016)

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