Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting Schooled

Just listened to a terrific 2002 interview and performance by Russell Malone on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. You can hear the entire archived show here. Stories of young players getting humiliated-- "schooled"--by veterans is one of the most durable tropes in jazz oral history. Malone's version involves the great organist Jimmy Smith and the tune "Laura." Invited on stage by the great Hammond B3 player a cocky 21-year old Malone struts everything he's got on a blues. Then Smith calls a ballad, Laura. As the guitarist struggles through the tune, Smith messes with the time and the changes. A chastened Malone slips off stage. But it all turns out well--Smith hires Malone for his group soon after.

Even though I've read and heard these stories many times over, I still find them completely gripping and satisfying. Even the best struggled. Everyone had to practice. Cliches, I know, but still inspiring. I've never been in anything close to what Malone describes, but I have sat in at jam sessions and struggled through a tune, unable to string a coherent melody together or remember chords to comp. At least when it happened to me, I didn't have to face Jimmy Smith pointing a finger in my chest chastising my overconfident attitude.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The blues anywhere anytime

My playing needs an infusion of the blues. The more I listen, the more I note how often the players I most admire use blues notes and phrasings. So how to get that sound into my own? I have often heard that your record collection (or CDs or MP3s, etc.) is your best teacher. A cliche, I know, but still good advice. In his fine The Jazz Theory Book (Sher, 1995) author Mark Levine describes the blues scale as part of his larger discussion of pentatonics (the blues scale can be understood as a minor pentatonic with a chromatic passing tone between scale degrees 4 and 5). He describes using the blues scale over a traditional 12-bar blues form but also on dominant chords more generally. So a C7 = C blues (C Eb F Gb G Bb). For playing the blues scale on a ii-V-I in C, Levine suggests either E or A blues (though one could play G blues over the G7, the idea here is to harmonically generalize) . Theoretically these choices make sense, but my record collection tends to disagree. Listen to Wynton Kelly tear up "On Green Dolphin Street" (from Kelly Blue, 1959). Near the end of his solo, Kelly plays something close a striking blues phrase on the Eb tonic chord, most often played as a major seventh chord. The phrase is straight Eb blues emphasizing all the blues notes: the b7, b5, and b3. I don't think Paul Chambers plays a D-natural so there isn't as striking a clash as there might have been. Still, the lesson is very clear: tonic blues over tonic chord--major, minor, anytime, anywhere.

Friday, November 30, 2012

I have more on Barry Harris and 6th diminished chords/scales coming,  but before that I wanted to write a bit more about transcriptions. Nearly every player and teacher will tell you to transcribe, and I can see why. I use the Transcribe! software--inexpensive and powerful. What you are "discovering" is a musical idiom in practice, and that, of course, is what you are trying to play in the first place. Yet I find the process of transcribing becoming an end in itself. Once I start one, I really just want to finish it. And then I want to start a new one. The process of putting down solos, note-by-note, rhythm-by-rhythm really is enlightening. It clarifies, and in many cases, demystifies, the process of improvisation (at least in the bop and post-bop idioms). But the real value, I am realizing, is the process of incorporating material from the solo into my real-time playing. So I went back to Hall and Stella to see what is there. So what did I find? Here are two small ideas that I want to fully integrate into my improvisational toolbox:

In measures 15–16, Hall plays a nice altered arpeggio over a minor ii-V (F#min7b5 to B7b9). You can see a larger version either by clicking on the image or checking out the full transcription below. It is a simple but hip phrase--Hall anticipates the dominant chord by starting the arpeggio-like figure on the last beat of the previous measure. The figure is pretty simple, basically an arpeggio of the B7 chord but with the addition at the beginning of the b9 (thus the altered sound): 1-b9-3-5-b7. It reaches its highest point at D (b3 or #9 of the B7) and then descends a C harmonic minor tonic triad. (B-G-Eb-C). Sounds much cooler and "intervallic" than a straightfoward arpeggio of the dominant chord. So now I am going to learn the phrase through the cycle of 5ths in at least two positions.

This is just the beginning. I also want to get under my fingers the nice pedal-like figures he plays in measures 21–23. Sounds very modern, but with a clear reference back to Charlie Christian, a guitarist who often played these kind of intervallic-pedal type figures.

Back to the woodshed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Barry Harris Method

Jazz, as many other writers have pointed out, is increasingly taught in high schools and universities. It has become "institutionalized." This has had an obvious impact on the way the music is taught. Instructional guides are not new--you can find books on how to play and improvise jazz going back to at least the 1920s. But the amount of pedagogical material has exploded in the past 20+ years. A student today has a surprisingly large number of approaches or methods to choose from. None of the teachers I've had were dogmatic in their adherence to a particular methodology, but they did have preferences. In high school I was exposed to the Jamey Aebersold approach--basically a scale-chord method. You derive the melodic material you want to play from a scale or set of scales. There is more to it than this, and the Aebersold world is also closely connected to legendary jazz educator David N. Baker and his ideas on playing jazz. For all its limitations, and there are problems with such a heavy focus on scales (see David Ake's discussion in Jazz Cultures, U.C. Press, 2002), the Aebersold approach has introduced many, many musicians to the music. One of the central messages of all his instructional materials is that anyone can learn to play the music. With so much mystification around the process of improvisation, that remains an important lesson.

A few years ago, I attended the Stanford Jazz Workshop--a week-long, all-ages summer "camp." That program is structured around the ideas of bebop pianist Barry Harris. The "Harris Method" is structured more explicitly around bop practice and focuses on creating smooth chromatic melodies through the use of certain "rules" (for example, descending from the tonic, 3rd, 5th or 7th of a major scale add one half-step between the 6th and 5th degree). There is obviously much more to it, but the system is less about learning specific scales (e.g. lydian augmented) than about chromatically manipulating major and scales. Where things get interesting is in the harmonic underpinnings of this approach. For Harris the diminished scale has a foundational importance for the derivation of all the harmonic materials a player will use. Out of this focus on the diminished come a set of scales, what he calls sixth-diminished scales: a major (or minor) sixth chord combined with a "related" diminished chord.

Although I attended Harris's workshops during my time at the camp, I wasn't sure how to incorporate his ideas into my playing. It seemed to involve a very different orientation to navigating the changes  melodically as a soloist or harmonically as a 'comping instrument. It was only a few years later that I found myself returning to the Harris material.  Frustrated with my 'comping--I felt like I was using the same set of voicings over and over again--I bought and started working through Alan Kingstone's The Barry Harris Harmonic Method for Guitar. That book, along with Roni Ben-Hur's Talk Jazz Guitar, have been immensely helpful, gradually changing some of my basic ideas and approaches to improvisation and 'comping. Both Kingstone and Ben-Hur are closely connected to Harris and explain the pianist's ideas in very clear and practical ways. Even more information is now available at Jazz School Online, a pay, e-school version of the Harris method (with video lessons by Kingstone and pianist Howard Rees).

All this material emphasizes movement--exactly what I wasn't getting with my existing stable of voicings. Thinking about sixth-diminished scales was a difficult transition, but it has proved to be a real breakthrough. Rather than ii-V, you start to think of moving through these scales. This breaks down to essentially moving inversions of major and minor sixth chords with "passing" diminished chords in between. Attached is an example of how a ii-V is reconceptualized as major and minor sixth diminished chords. Here a C-7 to F7 becomes Eb6 dim to Gbmin6 dim (see the Kingstone for a complete explanation. Eb6 is another name for C-7. Gbmin6 gives you a nice altered dominant sound over F7--b9, 3, b13, b7).  I worked out all four inversions of each chord (a PDF is available here). This is just a start--the real genius of this way of thinking this way comes when you add in those diminished "passing" chords. Then you add more movement by doing something Kingstone (via Harris) calls "Sixth on the Fifth": move down from Bb6 to Eb6 then to Gbmin6. I know this sounds very convoluted but with some time and patience it really starts to pay off. There is more--you can create much richer chords by "borrowing notes" from the diminished--but this is where I am now.

All this is not to tout one system over another. You can get movement with other approaches--for instance just working with inversions of familiar minor seventh/dominant seventh chord voicings and passing diminished chords. In the end, it is more a matter of choosing the path that moves you forward.

Monday, November 5, 2012

I still struggle with a practice routine: what is the best way to spend my limited time? The best advice I ever received was simple: learn tunes, lots of them, with the right changes and melody. To make the advice more guitar-specific, I have decided (though not fully committed) to  learning the melody in at least two different positions on the neck. And learning it an octave up or down would probably be useful too. There aren't many lists of tunes to start learning, so below is my modest contribution. The thirty songs below represent the first batch of tunes I want to have under my fingers. I created the list from what I see get called at jam sessions and what musicians tend to record. Only some of these I have memorized. A few slip away as soon as I think I have a firm grip on them (Jobim's "Desafinado," for one). I tried to create a mix of standards and jazz "classics" such as "Blue Bossa" and "All Blues." I also wanted to make sure there were  some Monk and Ellington tunes. And then there are blues' heads and rhythm changes' heads--those are listed at the end. In the end the list is just a start--I'll add more tunes in future installments.

Tunes for Memorization: Part I

  1. All Blues
  2. All of Me
  3. All of You
  4. All The Things You Are 
  5. Alone Together
  6. A Night in Tunisia
  7. Autumn Leaves
  8. Caravan
  9. Cherokee
  10. Desafinado
  11. Footprints
  12. Four
  13. Giant Steps
  14. I'll Remember April
  15. In Walked Bud
  16. Just Friends
  17. Milestones (the '58 version)
  18. My Funny Valentine
  19. Night and Day
  20. Night in Tunisia
  21. On Green Dolphin Street
  22. Stella By Starlight
  23. Scrapple from the Apple
  24. Softly as in a morning sunrise
  25. Solar
  26. St. Thomas 
  27. Take the A-Train
  28. There Will Never Be Another You
  29. What is this thing called love? 
  30. Yesterdays
Blues heads: Straight No Chaser, Blue Monk, Tenor Madness
Rhythm heads: Oleo, Anthropology, Cottontail

Friday, November 2, 2012


I created this blog to document my experiences learning to play jazz guitar. Before you dismiss this project as yet another narcissistic exercise in self-promotion or self-help (I can see that dismissive smirk...really, I can), let me try to explain. Learning to play jazz is hard, really hard. Besides working with many great teachers face-to-face, I have found the web to be an invaluable tool. So many terrific blogs, websites, and videos are out there, and I have a learned a lot from them. It is time, I think, to give back a little and share my experiences. More than just a document of my progress, I hope the blog can be also be a guide to some of the better digital resources out there. And I also want to use this space to share some of my own documents, especially musical transcriptions and exercises.

To get this started I am uploading a recently completed transcription of Jim Hall's marvelously concise solo on Stella by Starlight, from his 1957 Pacific Jazz record, Jazz Guitar. I initially found another transcription here, but I wasn't happy with it and decided to just start from scratch (note that it is written for guitar, so it sounds an octave lower than written). There are many things to say about this, but I was drawn to the solo mostly because I was so impressed by the strength of the melodic lines, how they carry through the changes. Right now I often feel "trapped" in the changes, even as I am starting to hear lines that, while marking the changes, have enough coherence to sound free of them. My favorite Hall solo—his first chorus on "I've Got You Under My Skin," from Intermodulations (with Bill Evans, 1966)—embodies this idea even more strongly. If you don't feel like doing it yourself, guitarist Steve Khan has a transcription on his great website (