Jazz Without Chords

You’re prepared.  The time comes for downbeat and, horror of horrors, your keyboardist has car trouble and your guitar player is in jail.  It’s bass, drums, and horn staring down a deep, dark 2-hour tunnel.

Well, Mr. or Ms. horn player (or singer), I hope you’ve been hitting the treadmill, because you’re in for the Iron Musician endurance challenge.  The bass might take a couple solos–though if your drummer is also missing, that’ll be tough sledding.  You won’t be able to improv as freely as usual.  Granted, with no chord it’s hard to hit a wrong note, but that’s far different from hitting right notes.  How can you make the audience hear what isn’t there?

I wind up playing a lot of arpeggios, avoiding suspensions (suspend against what?), and not going outside very much (again, outside what?).  The bass player is more likely (but not guaranteed) to play the root on each chord change, so I’m hitting a lot of chord changes on the third and doing small scalar figures right around the color tones (like b9 or #9).  I’m also playing lots of long notes and looking for interesting through-lines.

If you have two horns, you’re still walking without a net, but at least you have a balance pole.  Now you have melody, the implications of chords from the bass, and a one-note chord instrument.  (I just got home from playing this gig.)  So I look at the melody note, listen very carefully to the bass, and pick the other note that most defines the chord.  The instrumentation is an awfully thin sound, so I do a lot of long notes even though just harmonizing key notes in the melody would suffice to indicate the harmony.  For the same reason, I do a lot of fills, again favoring arpeggios.  As for the melody on the head, it’s useful to do a lot of re-articulation (instead of a long note, play several short hits on the same note) to keep the rhythm going.  Beyond that, I hope the other guy plays it pretty straight because I’m doing a lot of guesswork on every note he’s going to play.

The best hope, however, is to play songs the audience knows well and let them fill in the missing chords.  Hopefully they know something other than Jimmy Buffet.

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Toolkit: Motif

Usually I have the first solo chorus in the quintet.  We try to put some overall structure into the song as a group, with a form incorporating all our solos together.  That sort of thing doesn’t have a detailed schematic, but we do think about it.  I often stay close to the melody or do something simple; that leaves room for the others to stretch their legs, and it provides a transition for the audience.

One of my tricks is to take a three- or four-note motif from the first bar of the melody and work it.  It’s relatively easy to do, and it preserves some sense of it being the same song.  For example, the song “Four” starts with five three-note phrases: three notes ascending three times (the same notes), three notes descending, and three notes ascending into a chord change.  Each is three eighth notes followed by an eighth rest.  So I’ll start with three notes ascending and go from there.  I can find three notes of a scale on any chord, so I’m free to think more in terms of the solo’s broader shape.  I’ll do several ascending, then instead of a descending set do a big jump to a low note and do more ascending.  That has the same effect of breaking the pattern.  I’ll leave out the eighth rest between two sets, then put longer and longer rests between the next few.  Then I’ll extend it and do sets of five instead of three (five makes a lot more rhythmic opportunities than four).  By then it’s pretty much time to wrap it up.  (Using a pattern this way is called a sequence.)

Now, I don’t know how much I buy into the idea that good composition techniques have a big effect on the quality perceived by the listener.  What does matter is that I’m confident in what I’m playing and can spare attention for structuring the chorus, looking at the audience, hitting some accents with the drums, or otherwise focus on the music beyond the technique.

When I don’t have the first chorus, I usually take something from the solo before mine.  That’s particularly effective when we trade off in shorter increments.  Listen to how these guys play off each other: Printup, Gransden and Gunn playing “Birdlike” at around 8:00 on this YouTube.

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Getting Started in Swing

If someone said they wanted to start playing jazz but weren’t sure where to begin, I would say:

Get the Real Book.

Look at the artist and album listed on songs in the Real Book and listen to those.

Go see live jazz whenever possible.

Learn 12-bar blues in all keys.  The ones I’ve needed most often are (concert keys) Bb, A, G, E, and Eb.

Associate with a group that has at least one old pro, emphasis on “old” and “pro”.

Find out where there are jam sessions in your city.  (Be ready for some late nights on weekdays.)

Music is a language

Pianist Tyrone Jackson quoting Ellis Marsalis in an interview by Jon Ross

“One thing he said was that I should transcribe everything. Music is a language, and the first words you learn how to speak are by imitation. A child learning how to speak may say dog, and then he’ll point to a cat and say dog, and you say no, that’s a cat. As you get older and you get more fluent with the language, you might not want to say dog, you may want to be a little more eloquent and say canine. If you want to speak on another level, you might call it a dawg. That’s non-standard, but it communicates to a different kind of person. That’s how music is. You can play as sophisticated as you want to play, you can play as dirty, or you can play somewhere in between.

Everybody can’t say the same thing the same way all the time.”

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Toolkit: What’s Wrong With the Melody?

A guitarist I knew used to wonder why players would whirl off into rainstorms of eighth notes whenever it came time for a solo.  “What’s wrong with the melody?” he would ask.

Actually, in a vocal band I usually play the melody straight if I have a solo.  Sure, I’ll decorate a bit, but the audience is either dancing or talking, and in both cases they want things to stay in line.  In a jam band, however, they already heard me play the melody on the head.  There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t repeat the whole form, but rather offer something new to say.

Still, it’s a good starting point.  If you’re new to improv, or if you just can’t get a handle on a song, play bits of the melody.  Take some liberties, insert something if you get an idea, build on it.  Do sexy music theory stuff like retrograde inversions.  Or just stay pretty close; at least you know it’ll fit, and we’re trying to play music, not impress anybody.

I was having trouble with St. Thomas, and this guy laid it out: GelZero on YouTube playing St. Thomas.  I don’t know who he is, but the dude knows how it’s done.

But to the original point, I want to hear a player put something of themselves into it, but I want to hear that from a player that is able to do the song as it is.

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Why You Should Go See Live Music

You can listen to an mp3 any time.  (If you’re cool, you can listen to vinyl any time.)  Live music is a special occasion, and you will enjoy it that much more.

With live music you get a visual.  You can see how the musician interacts with the instrument and how the group interacts.  You can see what happens when the stakes are high, because in live music it’s one take with no overdubs.  Musicians make choices and take risks in a live show different from what they do in the studio.  You will understand that the performers are flawed humans and why that makes the performance better.

People are willing to do this for you.  If you are a musician, the performers will get to know you and appreciate that you are showing respect for what they do.  They will interact with you and make you a part of the show.  If you are a musician, listening is the second best way to learn and the best way to network.

Take your children to see live music (at an appropriate venue).  They can observe what music is and how it is made.  The younger ones at least will be far more excited by a real person smiling at them than by a video on a handheld device.  You’ll be able to see what they respond to, which instruments and which genres.  They can speak with actual musicians after the show (or at the break).  This is how musicians get started.

What It Is

I’ll be blogging about music, specifically adventures in playing trumpet, jazz improv, theory and arranging, bands I’m in, and friends who play.  I’m also a contributor to Play It With Moxie! and will cross-post frequently.