Putting Things Together


One of my pet peeves with "Jazz Pedagogy" (read that in your most exaggeratedly reverent tone of voice) is that it so often seems to be written with the goal of leaving you saying "Holy s%#t, is that guy smart!", but doesn't do much to give you an idea of what playing jazz might actually be about.

To be fair, that's largely because playing jazz is really, really hard to write about. For starters, the act of improvising is different for everybody. It's never even the same twice for any one person! To write about what you were actually thinking about when you were soloing, you'd have to think about what you were thinking about while you were thinking about it. (Does your head hurt now? Mine does.)

Writing about it, we can only get so close. One common strategy is to just write about particular aspects of the experience. That's the approach I've most often used in these lessons. In other words, we can isolate little bits of the process, like scales you can use material from or rhythmic devices you can use. That's helpful to a point; these are things you can work on with the goal of eventually being able to have them "pop out" in your playing in a natural and unforced way. Whenever I write about anything like diminished scales or subdivision, that's the goal I have in mind.

Unfortunately, these kinds of lessons sometimes encourage what I consider to be a kind of "wrong end of the binoculars" view of improvising. When the rubber hits the road, so to speak, and I'm on a stage playing jazz with other people for other people, hopefully the last thing on my mind will be "What are the tetrachordal implications of F#13b9?". If I'm having a reasonably good gig, I'm going to be listening to all the music going on around me and responding to it with whatever I hear in my head that seems fitting at the moment. It's that simple...

...And that complex. All the weird non-instinctive, non-intuitive stuff that I've worked on over the years is also in my head and has become part of "whatever I'm hearing". So it's available to me too. On a good night, it usually comes out in a not-too-obvious way, just as part of a melody that I hear in my head. Sometimes, it'll come out as a more obvious "lick", often as something to use until I think of something I like better. As I get older and (hopefully) better at this improvising thing, though, I find that in places where I used to put "licks", now I just stop playing. I guess that's a sign of maturity. (Or of just not caring...)

Okay, I'm starting to sound like those authors I'm complaining about. Let's cut to the chase! In the next few lessons, we're going to be looking at the whole enchilada instead of little dabs of beans and sour cream. I'll transcribe solos that I actually played "in the moment" on gigs and talk, as best I can, about the reasons why I played what I played. Frankly, I won't always know why I played what I played! And don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that these are the best solos that could possibly be played on a given tune. No, no, no! But they're at least real, live solos, and they'll serve as examples of what happens when I'm not just focusing on one aspect of harmony or theory in order to make a point. Let me know whether or not this is helpful to you: bobrussell@ec.rr.com

On to the first lesson in the series - a look at an improvisation on a very familiar tune involving locomotion and the alphabet...