Toolkit: Playing the Words

“I can’t improvise on the melody without knowing the lyrics first.” — Ben Webster.

“When [Billie Holiday] sang it was like she was telling you things from her life, not remembering words to songs a songwriter wrote. Amazing. I learned a lot about the stories of songs from Ben Webster. He once told me, “I can’t improvise on the melody without knowing the lyrics first.””  — John Levy, in an interview on JazzWax

Here’s the thing: most of these standards we play have lyrics, and that’s an integral part of the song that you don’t get from a horn.  That means you have the opportunity to say something different, perhaps something beyond vocal language, but it also means that a melody from a good songwriting team is crafted to the lyrics.  Maybe the music says the same thing as the words, but you can’t count on everybody getting the full message that way.  Maybe it just provides a context, but that means you have to communicate the message.  Maybe the audience knows the words, and you just have to play the head in a way that doesn’t interfere with their recollection of the lyrics.

But when you’re ready to do your thing, and you’ve got a bunch of tools on your belt, you need to start talking to the audience.  Sometimes I practice improv by singing spontaneous beat poetry.  When I know a song’s lyric well, part of the time I’m mentally singing words I’ve made up as I play solo phrases.  So, I might start a chorus of “Misty” with the first three notes of the melody, in time, and go from there: “Look at me, on a branch, up a tree, my paws are grabbin’ at a robin,” pause for a beat, “It’s a long way down and I’d land on my head.  I see birds, I see stars, in your eyes…”

I’m staying on the theme, and I’m thinking in terms of imagery and sentence structure but not rhyme.  Melodic rhyme is not quite the same as language rhyme.  It’s actually more like rhyming in sign language, which is based on visual symmetry.

As with many other techniques, most people aren’t going to be getting every literal thought.  Not everything in my head gets communicated with perfect clarity, and frankly I’m grateful for that.  Still, you know whether you’ve heard someone recite a poem or just ramble at the microphone, and that’s the difference I’m cultivating here.

There are practical applications as well, especially for a directional instrument like trumpet.  I’ve managed, in the middle of a solo, to communicate to a waiter that he should leave that drink where it is because it’s mine and I’m not done with it.  Hey!  You!  Walk away, fella!  ‘s cool.

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