Jazz improvisation is inherently subjective. What makes one solo “better” than any other is often a matter of taste, a preference for a given style. But while articulation, swing feel, and phrasing vary wildly from one great player to the next, every noteworthy improviser is able to effortlessly demonstrate a tune’s chordal movement. Just as any writer worth her salt showcases complete mastery over grammatical convention, the conversant jazz musician must be fully in command of the harmonic structure on top of which they are improvising. Simply put: You’ve gotta be able to play the changes!
Arguably even more important than their virtuosic technique and impeccable rhythmic feel, what makes the great players truly great is their unshakable fluency of harmonic language. Until you are playing all the changes over a tune, your not really playing the tune. All the cool licks in the world won’t make you sound any more proficient than a truckload of glue will convince anybody that little Tommy’s mustache is a all-natural, glorious Tom Selleck.
What does it really mean to be able to “play the changes”?
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, the “changes” are the chords that were originally composed to support the melody of a song. Many musicians first face chord changes by being presented with an excerpt from a Real Book, known as a lead sheet, which states the melody and chords to a given tune. As these changes are flying by, it is the job of the jazz musician to spontaneously compose a line that fits within the context of the harmony. More advanced jazz musicians will occasionally superimpose other, more complex harmonies on top of the original chord changes, with the intention of eventually resolving back to the originally composed harmonies to give their superimposition context. Some call this playing “out” and then back “in” [the chord changes].
Learning to play the changes takes many years of focused listening, practice, and patience. However, I’d like to offer
4 simple tips that will get you headed in the right direction
Last weekend I met up with a former student, who is now a good friend and has since shifted his focus away from saxophone toward his studies in biology at the University of Chicago. But despite spending most of his time on science that I can’t even begin to comprehend, he still wants to keep improving as a musician. We were playing through a few tunes when he asked for a bit of help cleaning up his articulation. As I was offering a few exercises and tips, it dawned on me…
Eighth-note articulation for jazz saxophone can be broken down into two simple tonguing manipulations: (1) on/off tonguing and (2) half-tonguing.
Why focus on eighth-note articulation? Eighth notes form the foundation of jazz. The style with which one articulates and swings their eighth note is, in essence, the core of one’s sound. This post will focus on the first part (articulation), and at some later date I would like to return to swing analysis.
Back in high school, I distinctly remember the day that fellow saxophone geek Jeremy Fratti (now a New York jazz player/professor) and I discovered on/off tonguing. It was truly a revelation. So what is it? Basically, when playing any eighth note passage, every jazz musician will tongue the upbeats while slurring the downbeats. Now there are three general exceptions to this rule:
1. Always tongue the first note, regardless of whether it’s an up- or downbeat.
2. Always tongue the last note, regardless of whether it’s an up- or downbeat.
3. Some notes should be “ghosted”, which I will cover in the second part of this post.
I like to have my students work through the following exercise to practice on/off tonguing, which is a simple loop of the ascending and descending bebop scale:
Try taking this slowly at first, articulating the first note the first time only, then every other note (G, Bb, D, E, E, D, Bb, G, -repeat-). You can then slowly increase the tempo, take it through different keys, and apply different lines until this articulation becomes second nature. Repetition is the key, as you want this to be so incredibly ingrained that you don’t have to think about it for even one second while improvising.
Half-Tonguing for Ghosting
Returning to exception #3 mentioned above, there are certain times when you will want to “ghost”, or de-emphasize a note. Generally speaking, when playing an eighth note passage that takes an unexpected dip, standard jazz style rules dictate that you should ghost this note. There are many other reasons and instances under which you would want to ghost notes, but providing a list of rules that you could memorize dictating when “ghosting” is appropriate would be doing you a disservice. Jazz is a language. When you were learning to speak as a cute little baby, nobody sat you down in front of a blackboard and made you conjugate a bunch of verbs. You just listened to your parents speak all the time. The best way to learn the rules of any language, including the language of jazz, is to listen carefully and listen often. If you want to lean to really play jazz, you absolutely need check out many, many jazz recordings.
So, once you know when to ghost a note and what that should sound like from listening to the masters, how do you actually execute the “ghost” on the saxophone? At 1:40 of the following clip, the great Jerry Bergonzi offers a wonderful description of the mechanics behind this behavior:
In essence, you want to put the your tongue on the very tip of the reed, half covering the sound, in order to produce the desired ghosting effect. A common pitfall when practicing this is to decrease the amount of air you are using. Don’t do this! Make sure you keep consistent, full air pressure throughout your line. Also, when coming out of a ghost, lightly tongue the next note by turning your ghosted half-tongue into a full tongue. This will give that note a clean, crisp start.
To practice this technique, I recommend repeating a simple line, such as the following:
The a-sharp should be ghosted using the technique described above, otherwise the on/off tonguing described in part 1 should be employed. So, the tonguing pattern is: