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Jazz tune writer’s block? We all know the feeling. In fact, I’ve also been in a massive blogging dry spell, having taken over a year off from this site. But in the spirit of this post, it only seemed fitting to blog about the idea of having no good ideas. Here are a few jump-starters to get cooking on your next tune when that elusive, perfect melody just isn’t coming to you.
1. Harmony Can Lead to Melody
For a long time I was embarrassed to retrofit melodies to the harmonies I would plunk out at the piano. Somehow the origin of my melodic content felt shameful and insincere, since I felt strongly that harmony served to reinforce melody, and not the other way around.
Upon reflection, however, I realize that revealing the perfect line over a set of chord changes is perhaps the very most natural and satisfying means for a improvisation-focused musician to compose. Think about it: we are “spontaneously composing” melodies all the time while playing over changes. So why not sit down until you’ve come up with a compelling progression, devise something lyrical that fits over it, add a pinch of rhythmically-engaging accompaniment, and call it a day?
2. Start with a Rhythm
Forget about the pitches and, just for a minute, allow yourself to draw inspiration from a rhythm. One time I started a tune based on the cadence of my bedroom ceiling fan’s incessant clicking. I ended up taking that tune in a different direction, using the melody I came up with to the rhythm of the fan clicks but eventually revising it to fit a different rhythmic idea. However, I never would have found that melody if it weren’t for the sleepless night I spent jamming out to my ceiling fan.
3. Bass Line and Go
If you write enough tunes, you’ll have the good fortune of stumbling upon a bass line that inspires a new composition. Run with it. Maybe one day it will turn into something that’s not a just a funky minor jam. The good news is that even if it doesn’t, everybody loves a good funky minor jam with a hot bass line.
Ok, the process of writing this blog post just gave me an idea for a new tune, so gotta go.
What do Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Sufjan Stevens, and Björk have in common? Besides their shared flare for artfully blending electronic and acoustic sounds, they are among the unintentionally curated set of non-jazz artists that jazz musicians, myself included, have almost universally anointed as worthy of seriously digging. And with its first three jazz albums, Kendrick Scott Oracle has dedicated a track on each to cover a song by one of these non-jazz artists.
In the band’s debut album, The Source, Scott arranges a contemplative version of Björk’s 107 steps. John Ellis’ melancholy bass clarinet sets up an evocative modern jazz ballad. But the song selection is as much a reflection of Björk’s influence on Scott as it’s an homage to drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, who also covered 107 Steps back in 2004.
With Oracle’s 2013 release Conviction, Scott brought the band back together after a seven-year hiatus. When I saw the track listing that contained a cover of Sufjan Steven’s Too Much, my excitement was palpable. I imagined Scott the perfect candidate to acoustically adapt the vast soundscape created by Stevens’ masterful blend of electronic revs and fuzz, given his uncanny ability to use the entirety of his drum set to create seemingly endless sonic variety. Instead, the band disregards Sufjan’s dramatic orchestration, strips the beat down to its most simplistic 7/4 meter, and brings in singer Alan Hampton. The result is vanilla at best, lacking the flare and spirit of the original version to which I had grown so attached. Perhaps too attached?
I was fully expecting to be disappointed by Oracle’s take on FlyLo’s Never Catch Me when their latest album We Are the Drum dropped three weeks ago. With the band’s history of covers it was a natural, almost too obvious choice, given the jazz-world popularity of both FlyLo and Kendrick Lamar, who is featured on the track off Lotus’ You’re Dead!.
Luckily my suspicion was well off the mark. Instead of bringing in a rapper or trying to mimic the original electro vibe, the band draws inspiration from the groove and plays to their strengths. This is apparent from the first note. Unlike the watered-down intro to their spin of Too Much, this cut begins with a drum solo. Drums are followed by the groove, artfully making the orchestrational choice to double a version of Kendrick’s flow on Ellis’ bass clarinet and Joe Sanders’ acoustic bass. It’s just plain bad (which, in jazz-speak, means really, really good).
The tune keeps building from there. Pianist Taylor Eigsti’s minimalist, driving chords that anchor the first half of the tune seamlessly morph into his virtuosic improvisation, a harmonically engaging display played with such rhythmic discipline that it reminds us why the piano is classified as a percussion instrument. Eigsti crescendos into a heartfelt and fiery transfer to a brief solo from John Ellis, who has laid down his bass clarinet in favor of the more soulful and passionate tenor sax. Scott’s propels the entire affair with his dynamic and inspired drumming, always punctuating each of the band’s musical sentences with an appropriately stimulating flurry.
Kendrick Scott is a musician first, drummer second. The composition-first attitude shines throughout We Are the Drum. The title is a statement about the groups shared timekeeping responsibility, which they all accept masterfully. Yet the essence of this band is a deep sense of groove combined with lush, powerful harmonies that inspire the listener to draw a long inhale.
This looming atmosphere has become Oracle’s signature voice, which is newly restored on this effort, their first for Blue Note. The sunny harmonic motion of Lizz Wright’s guest feature on This Song in Me is uplifting and folky enough to save the R&B tune from sounding like Blue Note’s attempt to mimic the success they created with label-mate Robert Glasper. Instead, We Are the Drum draws inspiration from many musical corners, jazz and non-jazz alike, to make a cohesive, sincere, and rich statement.
Learning to play in the altissimo (extreme upper) range of the saxophone requires patience, mostly on the part of the player, but also for whatever unlucky souls are forced to listen to your squawking. Progressing from squeaks to music is a process, but there are basic principles that should be isolated if you want to learn to control this demanding range of the saxophone.
2 key elements to playing in the altissimo range:
- Throat Control – practice your overtones! There’s lots of literature on this, but Rasher’s Top Tones is the bible. Most of altissimo playing is controlled by your throat, not your fingers, so you MUST start here.
- Fingerings – the saxophone wasn’t built to play in this range, and many “standard” fingerings are cumbersome to execute.
How can I settle on the right fingerings?
Ok, so you’ve developed great throat control through lots of overtone practice. But your technique is still not all that advanced up there. There are dozens of fingerings for each note on various fingering charts (see Ted Nash’s Studies in High Harmonics for a good reference), but most offer no guidance for which ones should be used together. Unfortunately it’s not so cut and dry, read on.
About 2-3 months ago, I was in a small group lesson with a true altissimo master, Ben Wendel. Being the unapologetic saxophone geek that I am, I asked about his altissimo fingering system. He patiently walked us through all his fingerings, but he also reinforced that the exact fingering system you use is less important than having great throat control, paired with a fingering system that’s comfortable and reliable. I ended up changing many of my fingerings as a result after much exploration, adopting a handful of Ben’s but also finding some of my own that just work better and are less cumbersome.
In my quest for my perfect system, I looked for the right combination of the following 3 elements:
- Fluidity – the more easily you can move from one note to another, the more technical mastery you will be able to gain.
- Intonation – Although fingerings are of far less importance than how you control each note, I prefer a system that trends a bit sharp, allowing me to loosen my embouchure and spare my chops.
- Stability – every saxophone is different, and some notes just speak better on each horn than others. You want to find fingerings that you can reliably hit and control.
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My tenor altissimo fingerings
These may or many not work for you. However, this is the set of fingerings I currently use on tenor, and they are helping me reach the next level with my altissimo playing.
Here’s me taking them for a quick spin:
A hidden second octave key?
Take a look at the above system. One thing you may notice is that for every note above G, I keep down the third finger of my left hand (G-key) as well as the side C. It definitely takes a bit of getting used to: you need to learn to relax your left hand while keeping these fingers down, which is unnatural. However, you’ll find that this key duo is an incredible altissimo stabilizer, acting as a second octave key just for the altissimo range! Will it do much for you if you haven’t done lots of throat study? No. But with the right foundation, it’s certainly helps. Take another look at the fingering chart:
In the past, I’ve used various pieces of software to alter the tempos and keys of recordings. Whether I want to slow something down to more easily transcribe a passage, or work on playing in different keys, the process involves (1) uploading said track so some program (i.e. Audacity, SlowGold, etc.), (2) finding the right combination of transformation buried in the dropdown menus, and (3) then waiting for the track to process. Plus, I need to be in front of my computer.
Enter Highnote. It’s an iPhone app that allows you to take any track that’s on your phone’s iTunes, and in a single tap, change the key, tempo, or any combination of the two. Similar to my previous post covering 3 groove and intonation focused apps, this is a hyper-focused app with a focus on clean and effective execution. Want to play over giant steps along with Coltrane, but up a half step? No problem! Need to slow that down a bit to get the hang of it? Done!
Although $4.99 is app-expensive, you’re going to get so much more out of this than the $5 stomach ache you earned from the Venti Skinny Double Cinnamon Dolce Latte you ordered this morning. Gross.
I love to play along with my favorite recordings. It’s not only fun, but also beneficial. Your improvisation, melodic phrasing, and feel are all being influenced by your favorite musicians—a bit of jazz osmosis. Here’s a clip of me taking Highnote for a spin, playing over Autumn Leaves off one of my absolute all time favorite recordings, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else. I start a 1/2 step up from the original, and as you can see, changes to key and tempo happen on the fly and instantly, allowing you to keep working over the tune without losing a step. Happy shedding!
“…it’s so hard to describe music other than the basic way to describe it – music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm – but I mean people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways…”
~Charlie Parker from an interview conducted by Paul Desmond (1954)
The more I ponder Bird’s fundamental decomposition of music, the more I discover how aptly anything musical can be described by its harmony, melody, and rhythm. There’s still that lingering, intangible “much more,” the part that gives music meaning. But let’s save the “much more” for another post…
As improvisers, we strive to use our instruments as a medium for channelling the musical thoughts that are trapped inside our mind’s ear. When I sit down to practice, I want to focus my routine around activities what work the mental and physical muscles that will get me closer to this goal on two fronts: working on my ability to execute the sounds I hear is one piece of the puzzle, but I’m also constantly looking to develop my ear and my mind’s ability to imagine new sounds. These sounds can be harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, or a some combination of the three.
Here’s one approach I’ve used to structure my practice routine around this goal.
Core, Ear, & Mind
As I delve into any new concept, my abilities will evolve with continued practice.
Looking for an answer to something like this? “I love Bill Evans, Monk, and Keith Jarrett. But I don’t even know where to start with most of these modern guys.” Well, here’s a list of contemporary pianists that will get you off on the right foot. I recommend starting at the top and working your way down.
The following lists represent a group of amazing jazz musicians.
This is entirely my opinion. If you know jazz, you probably disagree with me.
In fact, I would hope you disagree and have an opinion of your own. Jazz is an inherently subjective matter. Creating a finite list and then applying a rank-order to anything this personal is an absurdly biased exercise. Thus, this is by no means the gold standard, nor is it a survey or peer reviewed study, and the exact rank order should be taken with a humongous grain of earthy salt scraped from the bed of the Dead Sea.
It is meant to be representative of how each musician is currently playing, which means every individual is not only living BUT ALSO still making incredible music. Hopefully this helps you discover new artists who you will be glad you checked out.
Top 50 Pianists
From local Chicago friends to Armenian prodigies, musicians worldwide continue to knock my socks off with their new releases. Here are three recent albums that span the vast array of music that gets lumped under the unassuming and all-too-broad label of Jazz.
Tigran Hamasyan: Mockroot
Tigran made his first journey to Chicago 2 weeks ago, and after attending my first Tigran live show, all I can say is “wow.” His music is rhythmically complex, but somehow it still manages to groove insanely hard. I call it Armenian folk jazz metal, maybe Armymetazz? I’ll workshop that. But for all the intensity this group brings during the hard-hitting grooves, they balance it out with sparse, melodic interludes. The contrast can be schizophrenic, but that’s also part of the appeal. He sings, whistles, and tickles the ivories as well as anybody in the business. I’m so glad Nonesuch is now backing Tigran’s efforts, since he has deserving of wider recognition for many years. Get it on iTunes.
First, The Grid:
Then, Out Of The Grid:
Katie Ernst: Little Words
An equally gifted bass player and vocalist, Katie offers a gentle touch and compelling melodies in this beautiful release. Setting to music the work of American poet Dorothy Parker, Little Words
As some of you may be aware, my day job is in mobile app software development. So, when I come across useful, intuitive apps that actually help me solve real problems that I face as a musician, I get really excited!
I’ve been using Pitch Primer and Time Guru with some regularity for over a year now. I recently also came across Double Time, and let’s just say it’s revealing glaring issues in my time, which you will witness for yourself below. These apps might not win any design awards, but the highly specialized utility they offer makes them invaluable practice tools.
Let’s go through each of these three iPhone apps, and along the way I’ll demonstrate how and why I use them in my quest to become a better musician.
Sorry Android users, only Time Guru offers an Android version, but please, don’t even get me started with the follies of Android…
As I said above, this one is relatively new to me. Developed by fantastic jazz pianist Dan Tepfer, DoubleTime‘s basic premise is that you can learn to feel the groove by incrementally spacing out metronome clicks. That’s the app’s killer feature – a big button that says DOUBLE – allowing you to easily “double” metronome click intervals with a single tap, so you don’t miss a step. It’s so simple, yet so brilliant. Dan is a wonderful solo/duo player, so if this is the process he’s using to improve his internal rhythm, there must be something to it!
In the example below, I improvise over the standard All The Things You Are at quarter note = 240bpm. I’ll start with clicks on beat 1 of 4 (clicks every 60BPM = one second) and begin to play the tune. Each chorus, I hit the DOUBLE button. Here’s a play-by-play of the embarrassment that ensues:
Back in the late 60’s and 70’s, fourths were the hippest thing since sliced bread. Jazz entered the age of treble-heavy bass and electric fusion, and musicians were overlaying fresh-sounding (at the time) intervallic fourth patterns over all sorts of funky modal groove tunes.
But fourths are so much more than just a few licks to plug in. Let’s explore the harmonic and intervallic possibilities the fourth creates. I hope to open your mind, your practice routine, and your playing. After all, it’s called a perfect fourth for a reason!
Let’s start from the beginning and work our way up.
What is a fourth?
Let’s take 10 seconds and cover the extreme basics. The fourth is an interval. In the key of C, moving from C to F is moving from 1 to 4 if you number each note sequentially:
Harmonically speaking, the fourth takes a similar form. In the key of C, an “F” chord is known as the fourth.
Building a Major Scale Out of 4ths