Musical Rhyme

A series of theatre plays (Smoke on the Mountain, Sanders Family Christmas, Mt. Pleasant Homecoming) feature a family of traveling bluegrass musicians. The elder daughter is the only one that doesn’t sing. Instead, she signs, performing ASL of the lyrics (although she has not encountered any deaf people so far). I’ve seen people do this at folk festivals, which are lyric-intensive. It adds a lot, actually; part translation, part interpretive dance.

There is a concept of rhyme in ASL, which has to do with using signs that are visually similar—mirrored, or both follow an upward move but diverge at the end, or both involve the same fingers in different configuration. One example that stuck with me was spelling out the last word of the line with the right hand sweeping out, and the last word of the rhyming line with the left hand.

With a musical instrument, equivalents include things like the same pattern transposed to a different chord, the same rhythm with different movement, inversions and retrogrades, or putting a stinger on the end of the rhyming lines. It’s particularly delicious to repeat the same form, perhaps transposed diatonically, at a point where it sits differently against the chords—the first time it fits perfectly, and the second time it starts in chord but ends a fifth off because the progression is different.

As with most ideas, it’s not necessary to be heavyhanded. Here’s a solo I do over Black Orpheus that is a limerick form, but I don’t square it off like I’ve written here. Slant rhyme gets the point across without wearying the audience, and I move on into the next chorus on the last line instead of completing the limerick. On a recording I would vary it a lot; live, it’s good to be clear, but if someone’s going to listen to it repeatedly it would just be singsong.


Inside Out

Let’s turn the idea of playing outside on its head.  Sometimes I’ll improv on a steady set of changes and let the band shift and crabwalk behind me.  Some pieces are written this way, for example “Cape Verdean Blues”–you don’t have to constantly shift your scale a half step and back.  It’s just an effect.  On the A section of “When Lights Are Low”, you can stay on the Eb scale the whole time.  It puts some tension in the latter part and resolves it at the cadence.

It helps me understand the larger structure of a song (in terms of chord changes) by thinking of the melody/solo and the rhythm section as two threads.  They can be braided, they can be parallel, they can be knotted, they can be perpendicular on a loom, they can be unrelated.  Most interestingly, they can be in motion or not.

Put more bluntly, if the piano and bass want to move to an A chord, I don’t have to–I’m the trumpet, dammit.  I mean, y’know, maybe I *want* to… but I don’t *have* to.

Cape Verdean–Horace Silver:

Try Miles for When Lights Are Low.

Outside Rhythms

I’ve taken a break from working on playing outside the chords; mostly I’ve been working on when to do it and how much.  Now I’m trying outside rhythms, crazy stuff like quarter note triplets in 3/4 time (9 notes in two measures) or quarter note triplets starting on beats 2 and 4, that kind of thing.  The former took a great deal of concentration, and the latter required letting go.  It was sort of the same contrast as Brubeck and Debussy.

The great thing about being a horn player in a group is that a lot of the time I’m not playing, so I get to study what the others are doing.  A soundman at a recent gig commented on how we all came back in together after a drum solo.  We do that all the time, and from years of practice, we know a lot of Mike’s phrases.  It’s dirty pool to end a drum solo with a roll, but he gives us tempo cues with dynamics in it.  I just hadn’t thought about how subtle they are, or how we’ve learned to roll with some of the other things he does.

Of course, as with playing outside notes, it devolves into chaos if you don’t have a solid context, a tight rhythm section.  We were playing some Bomba (I wasn’t familiar with the term) and similar rhythms, and the bass purely avoids 1 and 3.  I finally concluded that the bass plays the absolute minimum necessary to keep the dancers in line–about three notes every six or seven beats, and not just accenting the beats because that would be square.  Swing, too, is all about the upbeats; I just didn’t grow up immersed in some of the more complicated Latin rhythms.

So right now, I’m just trying to get inside.

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.

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.)