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.