Reading about an aural tradition sometimes seems unneccessary, as practically all of the Jazz masters learned their craft from studying recordings. Still, I have found a few books especially profound, as they articulate artistic approaches, practice techniques, and experiences on the road. Here are some of my suggestions:
Wynton Marsalis: To a Young Jazz Musician
Wynton’s approach is sometimes a little traditional and opinionated for my taste, but this book was an inspiration to me years ago when I was first starting out. Through many letters to his student, Wynton articulates the challenges and joys of his life as a touring musician, offering advice for how to avoid common pitfalls young artists face. Every chapter in this is gold, I would highly reccommend it for everyone. Kenny Werner: Effortless Mastery
This is probably the most famous book on my list. Through meditations, personal anecdotes, and practice strategies, Werner offers advice for how to reach a point of true mastery. When one has fully internalized a musical language, Werner argues, they can improvise without consciously thinking. Many musicians tend to overanalyze and second-guess themselves when they play instead of letting go. This book is a recipe for how to achieve that ideal mental state.
Thinking in Jazz (Paul Berliner)
This is a very long, comprehensive book that I had to read for a pedagogy class. Even though there were sections I didn’t like or even agree with, there are a lot of great stories and ideas in here. In creating this musicological analysis, the author sifted through literally thousands of pages of interviews with many of the greatest Jazz musicians in recent history, choosing quotes that best embodied their approach to playing. I will hold onto my copy forever, as it contains perspective that I will return to for years to come.
The Pat Metheny Interviews (Richard Niles)
If you’re a Pat Metheny fan, this book is a very fun read. It’s basically a transcript of interviews between Metheny and the author, offering musical and personal insight into his upbringing and artistic achievements. There are lots of surprising stories in here as well, especially as Metheny describes how he started his musical career on trumpet and listened to rock music around the house. His personality comes through in a way that is both personal and revealing.
What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body (Thomas Marks)
If you’re a pianist looking to improve your body-awareness, this book is the place to start. Drawing on Alexander Technique, Dalcrose, and years of medical research, the author describes every part of the playing mechanism in substantial depth. Many technical inefficiencies, he proves, come from “mismapping” how your muscles and joints actually move. Through studying some of the diagrams in this book, you can quickly develop more efficient and ultimately healthier motions in your playing.
Others I have heard great things about:
Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (autobiography)
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (autobiography)
Dave Liebmann: Chromatic Harmony (really complicated theory book if you’re interested in that)
Hal Crook: Ready, Aim, Improvise!
Have other music-related books to reccommend? As always, I look forward to hearing from other Morningside Students. There are tons out there, so we can keep adding to this list for a while!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
This last semester I worked as an intern at Jazz 90.1, one of the only remaining 24-hour Jazz radio stations in the country. Every week they receive countless CDs from artists who want airplay, and part of my job was to take a stack home and “grade” them. Over time, I noticed that there were very specific musical qualities that made one CD a “yes” and another a “no.” Below are a few things that I believe make a group sound professional, mature, and effective:
1) Sound quality. Do the artists on the recording get a good sound out of their instrument? Do they demonstrate technical proficiency, good intonation, and dynamic range? Do they articulate clearly and blend well with the other players? All of these things are part of what I consider an overall “sound concept.” Having a well-mastered recording helps clarify that vision, but there’s no way to hide an artist who isn’t acutely aware of how to make sound on their instrument.
2) Rhythm. A lot of musicians now record with a click-track in the studio, editing entrances and releases during the production process. Still, there’s no way to hide how someone inflects their eighth notes, or compensate for a feel that isn’t quite locking in with the other players. If the rhythmic intention isn’t there from the very beginning, I’m tempted to move on to the next track.
3) Compositional coherance. There are a lot of truly great players out there who can improvise over anything and make it sound great. However, if the tune itself doesn’t hang together as an effective tune, I’m tempted to skip over the whole track to find something a little catchier. Often also, I find that the mood dictated by the opening theme has nothing to do with the improvising, even if they share the same chord changes. The most effective soloists to me are always those who link their statements somehow to the concept of the tune. If it’s a bebop head, engage with bebop at first. If it’s a more intervallic melody, at least start by exploring some of the intervals in the melody. I’m all for exploring other characters and concepts through the course of a piece, but I think it’s most effective to at least start your solo as a continuation of the head.
4) Artistic identity. This is kind of a broad, catch-all category, but it comes down to a few simple questions for me. Among them are: why would I want to listen to this artist instead of any other artist? Does this group have a specific sound that is somehow different from other ensembles? Does the artist demonstrate an awareness and engagement with the larger Jazz tradition? There are a lot of well-done albums out there, but there aren’t all that many that answer those questions for me. Even though most high-level albums get airtime, the ones that best answer these questions often get far more attention.
I hope some of these observations are clarifying for some of you as you practice, rehearse, and record your own ensembles. As always, I would love to hear your reactions and opinions. What types of albums do you find most effective as a musician and casual listener?
Morningside Music Studio Intern
By now you should have most of the information you need to book, advance, and prepare for gigs in previous sections of this four-part post. After my first two-week tour though, I thought it was worth sharing some parting thoughts on what it’s like to be a “gigging” musician traveling with a band.
First and most importantly, the music makes everything else worth it. Just like any other experience, touring has its highs and lows, especially when you’re dealing with different accommodations, venues, and audiences every night. For better or worse, no two gigs are exactly the same. Some nights we played for packed houses, but others we outnumbered our audiences. Sound was typically easy to manage, but there was certainly shared frustration when we loaded into a seemingly impossible room. In the end, it boiled down to one thing: we all loved the process of sharing our music. Once we started to play, the mutual desire to challenge one another, listen, and create a positive musical experience took over. The rush of that experience always made the rest of the day worth it.
Second, you meet a lot of interesting people when you travel. That’s especially true if you’re interacting with different fans, clubowners, and hosts as you move from town to town. People can be incredibly generous with their time and energy, especially if they enjoy your music. My only advice to others setting out on a first tour would be to make time to develop those relationships. I was amazed at some of the stories our new friends told us.
Finally, touring is a great way to form deeper bonds with your peers. Since everyone has the same schedule for the duration of the trip, it’s inevitable that the band will spend a lot of time together. That means countless meals together, hours practicing together, and conversations in the car. Personalities and values start to become even more clear as bandmates grow more comfortable with each other. That group intimacy and chemistry ultimately shows on as well as off the bandstand.
As always, I’d love to get your thoughts on gigging and travelling. You all probably have more experience with some of these topics than I do anyways, considering I’m only 23 years old!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
Now imagine all the pre-booking is done, your charts are neatly compiled, and that your band has rehearsed. It’s the day of the gig, so there are only a few details left to take care of. The checklist below proved very effective during the Affinity Quintet’s recent New Mexico tour:
1) Call ahead. It doesn’t hurt to give your contact a ring the afternoon of a gig just to make sure everything is on-schedule. Confirm once again the start time, the load-in location, and maybe even ask if there’s time to sound-check beforehand. You’d be surprised how often club owners throw in an extra clause that changes everything at the last minute. “Do you guys mind eating after the gig?” is a common one, along with “guests will be in the room for cocktails an hour earlier, so you should sound-check before then.” It’s no problem to eat beforehand or arrive sooner, but you need to know those things before you leave.
2) Know your space. If you’ve played there before, you don’t have to worry about this part. If you haven’t, find out as much as you can about what’s there. Is the piano in working condition? Is it a small or large space? Are the walls mostly glass or wood? Most importantly, what kind of audience are you expecting? Those details can make a big difference in what equipment you decide to bring. If the room is especially live, the drummer might opt to bring a partial kit or use only brushes. If you’re playing for a brunch crowd, it might be a better time to play standards than original compositions. In any case, it’s worth walking around the space before loading in if you have time during the day.
3) Be early. I can’t stress this one enough. Countless things can go wrong on any gig day, making it critical to build in extra time. For your education and entertainment, here’s a list of mishaps that actually happened during our tour:
1) We forgot the CDs at home, so we had to drive all the way back to get them.Thankfully we still arrived at the gig with time to spare.
2) We couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flashing multicolored lights pointed at the stage, even though we spent nearly 15 minutes fiddling with the top of the control panel. Eventually we gave up, but it still threw off our setup.
3) The load-in door to one club turned out to be on a different street than the main entrance. We figured out the alternate address eventually, but we ended up driving in circles for a little while.
4) Our soundcheck at the Rio Grande Theater took far longer than we expected, since the bass mic kept feeding back through the pickup.
5) The “nice grand piano” in the lobby of one hotel turned out to actually be an electric piano that needed power. It took a little while for a maintenance worker to track down the right cable.
Some of these details were annoying to figure out, but none of them were a big deal since we had time to spare. Plus, it simply looks unprofessional to hurry around dealing with those types of things at the last minute. The downbeat time didn’t change no matter what happened beforehand. Stay tuned for Part 4, and happy gigging in the meantime!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
Swinging: An Overview
Huge thanks to everyone who came out to my masterclass today, it was a blast talking with all of you and hearing you play! I was struck by your thoughtfulness and depth, as I found myself listening differently once again to recordings I have heard countless times.
For those of you who weren’t there or want a brief recap, here’s a summary of what we discussed:
1) The quarter note “pocket” (Oscar Peterson Trio: Things Ain’t What they Used to Be from “Night Train”)
With this track, we focused primarily on how the trio established a solid quarter note pulse. Even without talking about accents or subdivisions (see below), the way Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen lock in “swings” all by itself. That feel comes in part from the way they dig into their instruments, the “weight” behind each beat, and also from the trust they have in each other. I often find myself tapping along with my heel to this group, as that physical motion has a similar kind of “gravity” to it. Oscar bends the time constantly while the others stay solid, though he always knows exactly where he is relative to the underlying pulse. We also discussed how these three musicians felt time in almost exactly the same way, which is so rare even amongst the best ensembles.
2) Subdivisions: Accenting the third triplet (Count Basie Orchestra: Speaking of Sounds from “Chairman of the Board”)
We continued our discussion by focusing on how this all-star band subdivides the quarter note. Within eighth note lines, every third triplet (the shorter of the swung pair) gets an accent. It’s sometimes subtle, but these accents give the music an “up” feeling that is unique to Jazz and other related genres. Jazz players sometimes broaden the third triplet of the grouping, straightening out the swung eighths, but most of the time that accent remains. Plus, when you’re playing faster tempos your swing feel has to come mostly from accents and articulations since there isn’t time to subdivide into triplets. We practiced swinging scales, accenting the third triplet as much as possible. It’s much easier said than done! At first, it’s nearly impossible to maintain that feel while improvising since you’re also thinking about what notes you’re going to play.
You can even work on your feel while listening, by consciously tapping the beat with your heel and accenting the upbeats on your lap. It’s a great exercise to do along with your favorite classic swing recordings.
Thanks again for a wonderful day, and hope to see all of you again sometime soon!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
At this point in the scenario, suppose your group has a few gigs and is ready to hit the road. Whether you're on tour or just around town here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) Idiot-proof your own setup
To quote my dad again, you never want to be unwrapping a new cable or testing out a new amp at the gig. Before you load up the car, make sure that the equipment you have is 100% reliable. If it's not, Murphy's law will make sure that you're on the bandstand the one time your gear doesn't work. I have found this to be especially true with cables, which might work if you "jiggle them" a little at home but won't work when you're depending on them most. Do yourself a favor and replace those items before they actually die on you.
2) Pack an "OS Kit"
My dad brings a giant grey suitcase labelled "OS" to each gig, and I've always wondered what it was. During our recent conversation, he revealed to me that "OS" stood for "oh shit." It contains everything needed for problem-solving, whether it be a broken mic or bad outlet. His kit is probably more extensive than you'll want yours to be, but here are some items it contains:
-Triple A card
-Extra quarter-inch cables, mic cables
-Duck tape and zip ties
-Extra chargers (usb or other)
-Power bars (as in the food)
-Sharpies and knives
The kit serves essentially the same function as a spare tire in a car. In fact, you can probably just leave it in your car and almost forget it's there until you need it. Chances are that someday one of your band mates will forget to bring an outlet strip and you'll have an extra, making you the hero of the day. No matter what you decide to put inside, it's definitely worth having. It makes you look (and often sound) more professional.
3) Have your music "together"
I was terrible at this for the longest time, both as a Jazz pianist and a classical accompanist. During a voice jury two years ago, my music actually blew off the stand, forcing one of the judges to run and pick it up. Other times, I've forgotten charts altogether and have tried to read on with a bass player or drummer.
By having music "together," I mean having all of your charts or notes in some sort of organized binder. Ideally you'll have 2-3 page tunes taped together in a way you can easily unfold while on the bandstand. If you have a lot of music, you'll probably want to mark the pieces you're planning on playing with sticky notes or paperclips. I've caused many awkward pauses by frantically flipping through my Real Book while the rest of the band waits to start the next tune. If you spend five minutes marking your music ahead of time, this will never happen to you! If you're bringing music for others to read, double-check to make sure you've printed enough copies. Is everything transposed correctly? I can remember many combo rehearsals where I essentially ran laps between the printer and the studio, trying to find parts in the correct key. The rest of the group had every right to be annoyed at me, as I should have double-checked that before putting the parts away in the first place.
This might seem like a lot at first, but at most these details will take another 5-10 minutes to address. After a while, it starts to feel as natural as putting a cap on the toothpaste before you leave the bathroom, or doing the dishes before going to work. And if you develop good pre-gig habits, you won't have to experience the embarrassment I did throughout my college career!
Stay tuned for parts 3 and 4...
Morningside Music Studio Intern
Put yourself in this scenario: you've got a band you love playing with and a bunch of original music. You've rehearsed and developed group chemistry, and maybe you even have a recording out already. Now you're looking to start booking your group around town or maybe even going on tour. The question becomes: What are the next steps? The process of organizing and putting on your own concerts seems lengthy and intimidating at first, since there are simply so many variables to consider. Plus, you'll want to prepare for unexpected situations before they happen, and have strategies in place for handling mistakes from the very beginning.
I've been thinking about these questions a lot recently since the Affinity Quintet (one of my primary groups from Eastman) is going on tour in a little over a week. Fortunately, our saxophonist Orlando put the entire schedule together and raised almost a thousand dollars from an online "indiegogo" campaign. We created a group website, made a demo recording of our compositions, took group pictures, and wrote about our past performances, essentially creating a digital press kit. Over the course of the spring, Orlando called about fifty different venues around the Southwest, making all the connections he could. He talked to friends, family, and even met with the mayor of the town to see about possible sponsorship. By the beginning of July, we had 9 gigs booked, including our own show at a major theater in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
After all of that hard work, the rest of us have to simply show up ready to play, right?
After some lengthy conversations with my father, I can't believe I was ever naive enough to think everything was taken care of. Orlando did a masterful job with booking and marketing, but the "advancing" phase has yet to come. By "advancing," I mean taking care of all the other logistics involved with any gig. As a sound engineer who has worked literally thousands of gigs, my father has "seen it all." He's familiar with just how many steps have to happen before a band takes the stage. I've pasted his thorough pre-gig checklist below, along with some of my own thoughts. Hopefully this will save some of you the agony of trying to think of all these details yourself, and prevent you from making some common mistakes. In his words, "you never want a bad story to start with 'we got to the gig and then...'" Most of those situations are avoidable if you simply plan ahead more thoroughly.
1) Booking Tips
Orlando took care of practically all the booking for us, so I don't know quite as much about this side of tour management. Still, here are a few things to consider: do you have a contract for your group? It might be useful to have a document drawn up to clearly communicate your policies to the venue. Do you take a deposit? If you do, you'll have some leverage in case the club suddenly cancels or changes your hours.
If you're booking a tour, it's also worth pointing out a few things Orlando did right. First, he contacted far more venues than he planned to book. In the end, he got rejected about four times as much as he reached an agreement. We still ended up with 9 gigs, which is a healthy number for a few weeks.
Stay tuned for part 2 (having everything you need), part 3 (advancing the gig), and part 4 (wrapping things up)!
I’ve been wanting to start a thread about favorite "unknown albums” for a long time...there are so many great recordings out there that nobody has heard of!
Rather than me just listing a bunch of my favorites, I want to hear from all of you at Morningside. Here’s my criteria: The album has to be amazing, perhaps one of your favorites of all time. Think about your favorite top ten or twenty recordings. Are there any that aren’t particularly popular among other musicians? Any that surprised you when you first heard them, especially if the artists weren’t particularly well-known? Let the rest of us know so we can check them out!
I’ll go first...
Clare Fischer: Alone Together (solo piano album)
I never knew that Clare Fischer was a pianist until I heard this album, and it blew me away. His rendition of “Everything Happens to Me” is unbelievable-I’ve been listening to it for years and the harmonic content and motific development still gets me every time.
Bill Carrothers: Excelsior (another solo piano album)
Bill is still one of my favorite pianists out there, and this album flies under the radar a little bit. It’s all free improvisations that are surprisingly cohesive, simple, and profound. Some sound like hymns, others sound like impressionistic compositions. Ridiculous it was all completely out of his head.
Pete Kelly: Pete Kelly’s Blues (New Orleans-style band)
I still have no idea who Pete Kelly is, but this album is an amazing compilation of Dixieland compositions and old standards. “Smiles” is one of the most enjoyable tunes I have ever listened to.
I’d love to hear what some of your greatest “unknown” albums are!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
Becoming a Storyteller: Creating a Narrative as you improvise
Put yourself in this scenario: you’ve learned some bebop vocabulary, discovered some interesting harmonic devices, and developed your technique. As a saxophonist, maybe you’ve perfected your altissimo register, or as a pianist maybe you’ve been working on your “block chords” to generate a fuller texture. In other words, you’ve got all the tools.
The question becomes: how do you put those pieces together into a compelling story? Even if you don’t feel comfortable improvising yet, it’s never too early to start thinking about creating a narrative. Having a larger trajectory or structure in mind is often what makes artists sound mature and focused. You want to lead your listeners along, just like a singer progressing through each verse of a song. Here are a few parameters to keep in mind as you practice and play:
1) Energy Trajectory
Without getting too specific at first, ask yourself a simple question: where is the energy headed? Many solos tend to start simply and grow in intensity over time. Other improvisers prefer to begin with a more impassioned statement, cooling off as they go. There are a thousand variations in between, as you can ramp up or slow down at will. Some of my favorite improvisers build up to a peak in the middle of their solos, much like a good novel. Whichever way you choose to shape your solo, it can be effective to end in a different place than you began.
Once again, contrasts keep solos engaging. Over the course of minutes or choruses, you can progress from softer to louder, from sparse to dense, from the lowest register to the highest. While practicing a new tune, set yourself the goal of moving from one extreme to another. You could start “inside” the harmony and grow progressively more dissonant. The possibilities are endless, and each one takes control and patience to execute effectively. You need to learn how to maintain a sense of perspective even as you navigate all of the smaller-scale details in a solo. Easier said than done... That said, for a few minutes at the end of every practice session why not allow yourself to forget about all of the little things so you can focus on narrative? Addressing larger-scale issues takes practice too!
3) Develop a single idea
There are tons of good articles on motific development out there already, so I’ll keep this description brief. If you pick a simple melody or rhythm to develop over a chorus or two, chances are you’ll create a more cohesive statement than if you had presented a bunch of different ideas in the same amount of space. Try to “twist” your initial statement in as many ways as possible, varying the rhythm and transforming it to fit over a number of different harmonies. When practicing, treat your original idea as a kind of “thesis” statement that everything else relates back to. Even when you aren’t focused on doing that in other playing situations, you’ll likely find you tend to stick with ideas longer than you used to. You will learn to pace yourself more effectively, leaving more room to introduce other ideas and techniques later in your solo.
4) Listen to your accompanists
Luckily, the soloist isn’t the only one trying to create a narrative. Good rhythm sections are constantly looking for opportunities to “make things happen” by varying the time-feel, dynamics, or even the harmonies of a tune. Chances are that if you’re ever wondering what should come next, your pianist or drummer will feed you a few ideas to develop. Your bass player may start playing a pedal-point, creating tension and leading into the next section of the form. Even if you find yourself creating most of the drama, it will be four times more effective if your rhythm section is onboard. If possible (believe me, it’s hard sometimes!), communicate your musical intentions as clearly as possible with dynamics and body language. You may find that rhythm sections are listening harder than you thought for where you want to go.
Other suggestions or thoughts? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about a fascinating topic!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
When I got to Eastman this fall, I almost immediately discovered a bunch of great tunes written by faculty and guest artists. Most were charming yet complex, consisting of intricate bebop lines and quirky harmonies. My question became: how could I internalize all of that information besides just playing the melodies over and over again? Was there a way to weave parts of the lines I liked into my own? I have always sought to avoid the “copy-and-paste” mentality, or the process of playing entire phrases that I’ve transcribed during my solos. There is no such thing as “solo plagiarism,” but I never like to feel like what I’m playing isn’t mine. Plus, repeating favorite phrases in different keys gets boring pretty quickly and doesn’t force you to listen to yourself very critically.
With my teacher’s help, I developed two useful strategies for internalizing melodies and harmonies more organically. Whether you’re working with Charlie Parker heads or your own transcriptions, these techniques can help you engage with the material in ways that stretch your creativity.
1) Use a melodic “word” in your own sentence
Imagine that you’re trying to teach a small child what the word “luxurious” means. You might give them a definition before using it in a few phrases to give them a sense of context. To test their understanding though, you’d likely tell them to write some sentences of their own using the word. Their first few might not make sense, but that’s ok. “This pen is luxurious,” the child might say. Pen isn’t exactly the kind of noun an adjective like “luxurious” applies to, you might say. “What about a house?” Yes, that makes more sense...
Let’s apply the same process to integrating a simple bebop phrase into your own musical sentences. Pick a theme or pattern you like, no more than four or five notes. Try moving it around, starting on different pitches and different beats in the measure. Try adding rests in the middle of the phrase or embellishing part of the phrase. The possibilities are endless, and chances are you’ll learn both from what sounds good and what doesn’t. You’ll get a sense of what notes in the phrase are harmonically significant and which are less crucial. Those relationships may change as you move the idea around, or if you try applying it to a different chord progressions. As a final exercise, you could even try playing an entire solo over a familiar tune using only variations of that idea.
2) Contours and Contrasts
If you’re not looking to be quite that specific, you could also take a more birds-eye approach. To continue with the language analogy, let’s say you’re trying to teach that same child how to write a short story. “Suppose the most exciting part of your story is in the middle and the main character lives happily ever after in the end,” you might suggest. Your focus would be providing a more general structure they can use with the sentences they have already written.
You can take a similar approach with phrases of solos or melodies, extracting shapes or dramatic progressions rather than specific words. For example, your favorite solo might start with a line that gradually ascends to a peak by the fourth measure. You could try writing or improvising a line of your own that does the same thing. You might also notice that when the tune modulates to a different key, the soloist starts using different rhythms or articulations. When improvising your own solo over that section of the tune, you could try making similar changes to your own sound. An especially effective way of practicing these kinds of concepts is actually improvising your own solo along with the original recording. When the soloist ascends, you can ascend also with your own lines. You’re essentially improvising duets with the artist you’re emulating! Alternatively, you could compliment the artist you’re emulating by doing precisely the opposite of what they do. That can be a fun way of creating an accompanying part.
Again, I hope that at least a few of these ideas inspire you in some way. I invite your comments and questions, and hope to see you play again sometime in the near future.
Morningside Music Studio Intern
One of the first things my teacher in college emphasized was the art of singing solos along with records. Jazz is a musical language at its core, so it only makes sense to learn it through imitating the “native speakers,” or the great improvisors of past generations. The process is simple: put on a recording you like and try to sing along with the soloist. At first you might only be able to get a half a second at a time, which is why I usually use a software that allows me to loop tiny sections easily. Programs that can slow things down are useful for faster sections, though I try to use those as a last resort unless I’m working on something really complicated.
Just as you subconsciously internalize the inflections of pop songs played hundreds of times on the radio, you’ll intuitively copy the phrasing and articulation of the soloist you’re singing along with. Your swing feel will inevitably improve, as will your pallate of dynamics and articulations. Never underestimate the power of how you present your ideas-it makes or breaks soloists at all levels.
Above all though, I love this process simply because of how intuitive it is. Even little kids can learn surprisingly complex solos through singing along, as no music theory knowledge is required.Below is a fine example of just how simple it can be to sing along with even an artist like John Coltrane. These kids likely don’t know anything about third cycles or chord-scale relationships, yet they have internalized Coltrane’s unique harmonic language.
Wherever you are on your journey to becoming a better improvisor, this video is good food for thought.
Learning a lot of tunes is key to becoming a better Jazz improvisor, both because it establishes a common repertoire between players and because studying old standards is the best way to internalize fundamental harmonies and forms. Many veteran musicians know literally thousands of tunes, which they can play in any key. At New York jam sessions, that is even an expectation if you're a rhythm section player!
The question is: how do you get to that point? Fortunately, not all of those house bands are filled with geniuses. Those players have simply developed pattern-recognition skills that allow them to learn a lot of tunes quickly. Here's a rough outline of what I think they do:
Step 1: Jazz Karaoke
I always start with the melody, and preferably learn the words along with it. Pick a few favorite recordings of the standard you're learning and try to sing along with the lyric. Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby are all good resources and cover most tunes you'll need to know. Pick a version that's as clear as possible, though inevitably singers improvise around the melody. As you sing along with the recording, try to internalize the inflection and phrasing too-it will help your sense of style and swing, and allow you to tastefully improvise your own variations of the head. If you're thinking of the words as you play the melody or solo, your phrasing will inevitably match up with the original tune. Other musicians and even non-musicians who know the original recording will appreciate your depth of knowledge.
Step 2: It's All About the Bass
Now go back through the recording and see if you can sing along with the bass motion. That means a single low note per chord change, or a reduced version of the bass line. This can be tricky at first, but the classic recordings usually delineate the harmony pretty clearly.
After a while, you'll start to notice patterns in how chords move. Standards typically only “land” on a few chords, and most of the changes in between are typically part of a ii-V progression. For example, you could quickly explain the first 8 measures of "There Will Never Be Another You" this way: The tune starts on Eb major, then goes down a half step to a minor ii-V in the key of C minor, then goes down another step to a ii-V in Ab major. Granted, there are a few chords after that you'll have to memorize, but that’s most of what you need to know already.
If you "chunk" the harmonic information that way, it won't take long to commit the bass-melody counterpoint to memory. Often, it's just a matter of remembering which keys the ii-V progressions are leading to and filling in a few passing chords in between. Even for non-pianists, I would recommend playing the melody and bass line together slowly on a piano. The melody can even help guide you if the bass line is hard to remember, as it too has a harmonic function!
Step 3: Quality Control
Now that you have the outer voices straight, it's just a matter of figuring out the chord qualities. Start by figuring out which chords are "tonic" sounds, the stable major and minor chords the tune lands on for extended periods of time. Then, figure out all the dominant 7ths that immediately precede those chords. Finally, the chords before those will typically be minor or half diminished, depending on where it resolves. There will inevitably be a few other sounds, but the information you have already should help guide you.
Initially, this may seem like a lot of information to absorb simply through listening. The first few times you try approaching tunes like this, it might be confusing and a little more time-consuming. You will want to check your work with a Real Book afterwards just to make sure you're right, but chances are you won't have that much correcting to do. After learning a few more tunes, you'll likely start to notice that learning by ear is faster and more reliable than memorizing tunes from a book. When I first started picking up tunes this way, I was surprised to find how much easier it was for me to transpose what I had learned. If you memorize bass movements rather than specific chord symbols, it isn't as much of a problem to simply start your melody and bass line on a different note.
Plus, if you're more aware of the motion between the bass and melody, chances are you'll outline harmonies more clearly while you're soloing. It won't be a matter of choosing the right scale that fits over a chord, it will be filling in the specific chord qualities you learned from the original recording.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I hope that at least some of these tips are helpful, and to hear more about what Morningside students would find useful in the future.
Morningside Music Studio Intern