I’ve been obsessed with harmony lately. Those of you who read my last analytical post on harmonic discipline might have guessed as much (yes, I still owe a follow-up to that post, and it’s coming soon!). Specifically, I’ve been experimenting with ways to expand my harmonic vocabulary.
Transcription: a place to start
You know those points in a solo where one of your idols plays an interesting line, something a little unexpected (out), and you think to yourself, “that was cool, but what was it?!” Maybe you’ll go and transcribe that lick; motivated students of the music will probably learn it in all 12 keys, and now you have something cool and new to add to your improvisatory arsenal.
But are you really learning the idea or just the lick?
There’s a critical distinction between plugging in a line and going for an idea.
A lick is limiting: you know a sequence of notes that, in the right context, sound pretty cool. You’ll spend a ton of time learning a lick, then either forget to plug it into your solo or forget it altogether.
An idea is a springboard: you have absorbed the sound of the harmonic or rhythmic gesture you are going to play, and you can freely move in and out of that concept at will. It’s part of your vocabulary, something you have conviction in, and not just a soundbite you’ve memorized or a vocab card that your 9th grade English teacher tested you on (you crammed for the test, never applied the new vocab word in your writing or everyday speech, and thus promptly forgot the meaning of “mercurial” about 15 minutes after the test ended).
Using licks to expand your lexicon
Ok, enough with the lick-bashing. I’ve actually found that licks are a fantastic vehicle for bridging the gap between “holy crap, what did that guy play?!” and gaining complete mastery over a new harmonic or rhythmic idea.
Let’s walk through an example. I’ve been digging the sound of “sidestepping” up a minor third in minor keys: i.e. over a C-minor chord, moving back and forth between Cm and Ebm. So, I sat for a minute and worked out a little line that gets me in, out, and back in again:
Now you could go home, steal my little lick, and have a nifty nugget to plug into your next solo. But that’s not the point. Remember the goal: to master the superimposition of the minor that’s a minor-third above the tonic.
Here’s what I’ve been doing to try to drive home this new concept:
About 1 year ago Josh Moshier and I took our group to Bogota, Colombia with John Tate and Jeremy Cunningham. It was an unforgettable experience, and it just so happened that Tony Malaby was playing across town. I still remember how excited the Colombian jazz community was to check Tony out, and the crowd of young, energetic, slightly bohemian jazz fans enthusiastically embraced his exploratory performance. This clip captures one of the more beautiful, sensitive, and in-time moments of a memorable evening. I regrettably don’t know the names of the local rhythm section, but they really brought it.
Through the wonders of YouTube, you can watch a full video of the show here:
Starting around 1:30 Nate Smith really lets loose over this odd meter, funky Adam Rogers tune, wow! Also, it’s nice to hear Adam Rogers in his element. Hard to catch all of the Fima Ephron stuff, but I can assure you it was tasty and locked right in. This is another set from my 2011 stint in NYC.
Adam Rogers – Guitar
Nate Smith – Drums
Fima Ephron – Bass
55 Bar, NYC, 10.13.2011