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.
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
Tunes are our shared language. One of the most beautiful and unifying aspects of jazz is this common musical familiarity that enables any group of seasoned musicians to get together and immediately start making music. I’ll cover the pros and cons of learning tunes as well as the right approach to building a solid base of tunes in your arsenal. At the end I give a list of tunes to learn, separated out by their importance based on the frequency with which they get called at sessions/gigs.
Say what you will about Roy Hargrove’s current lifestyle choices; the man has blown some serious trumpet in his day. Roy’s ability to effortlessly glide between playing “in” (playing notes that fit the harmony) and “out” (creating tension by playing notes that don’t fit) has always impressed me, so I recently decided to pick a few lines to analyze his various harmonic devices.
Although he released a slew of post bop material throughout the 90’s, I reached for his more groove-oriented stuff in order to cut to the core of his soulful harmonic concept. His solo over Rich Man’s Welfare off RH Factor’s “Strength” fit the bill nicely.
But First, A Few Observations
Before getting into the meat of the analysis, I want to note a few keys to Hargrove’s playing in this era that made it all work. His time is impeccable, he shapes his lines with clean, clear articulations, and his style is…well he really swings.
Even more pertinent to the the analysis of his harmonic concept when playing outside the changes, RH could play nearly perfect bop, meaning that his “inside” playing is really fantastic. When Hargrove wanted to lay down a line to outline the changes, it was his for the taking.
Now, on to the solo!
Let’s dig into 2 excerpts from his solo and try to see if we can figure out what he’s thinking. Roy opens by stating some great dorian minor and blues-infused lines. These are firmly rooted in the groove and harmony, and they are the wonderful “in” that make his out playing “out”.
In measure 6 (see transcription below), he starts to play against the Em (concert Dm) tonality. Roy first moves into a F7 concept (could also be C7), then chromatically wanders to end the line implying Eb. He then continues that Eb thought, then moves down another whole step to imply a Db7 in bar 8.
Bar 9 starts with a hint of returning to the Em6 sound, but then moves back out to a Eb major sound, but that could also be interpreted as an F7. The latter would make sense given the next line, which moves from Em quickly to F7(#11). Not sure what that line is at the end…
Excerpt 1: Audio & Transcription
In case you didn’t already notice, this is a blog, thus I’m going to try to use an infographic to communicate an idea. Read below the graphic for more information.
As a saxophone player I’ve transcribed many, many saxophone solos. When you’re starting to learn jazz, transcription is one of the first pieces of advice you’ll receive: “Just transcribe a bunch of solos!” says random Joe jazz mentor/teacher.
But why do we transcribe?
And what is the best process? It can be tedious, but is the payoff to build your vocabulary, give your ear and notation skills a good workout, emulate the sound/style of one of your idols, to just figure out what the hell somebody is playing? Yes to all these things, but I’d argue that the value of transcription evolves as you develop as an improviser.
In the early stages of your foray into jazz improvisation, you can use transcription as a tool for starting to make the connection between the chord changes and the note choices an improviser makes. Knowing to play a C-major scale over a Cmaj7 is one thing, but understanding the standard language over a c-major within the jazz idiom takes a lot of listening and transcription.
As you become more fluent in the language of jazz, you will begin to understand most of what you are listening to without even writing it down. They are playing a language that you have spent many hours studying. Just as you don’t need to open your Spanish-English dictionary to know how to place an order at a coffee shop in Peru after studying 8 years of Spanish, you will begin to hear most of the lines and harmonic choices made by jazz musicians in real time. At this point, I generally use transcription to decode somebody’s harmonic and melodic language. That can be either taking a single line, or in select cases an entire solo, and figuring out what they were playing.
Stick to your instrument?
Many improvisers stick to their own instruments, and for good reason. Say you’re a sax player. In the early stages of your development, you will get the most out of a sax transcription. Your aim should be to learn the solo exactly as it was originally played, every inflection and detail should be copied.
However, as you evolve, you are getting less value out of the instrument-specific aspect of transcription and can draw more from the theoretical side. Look to other instruments to expand your range.
Aaron Goldberg over “One Finger Snap”
In that spirit, here’s a transcription of Aaron Goldberg on his contrafact “Head Trip” of Herbie’s “One Finger Snap”.
Currently Listening To Bud Powell, Time Waits
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:
It’s been a whirlwind of a summer. I almost moved to London, but then I heard the burritos over there are terrible, so last week my girlfriend and I moved into a new apartment together instead. So, the posts stopped for a while, but it’s time to get back on the horse!
I’ve been thinking a lot about harmony and come to believe that the difference between today’s best jazz musicians and the rest of us is their masterful command over the minutia of harmony.
I realized that I don’t have as a good a grasp of the plethora of dominant alterations out there as I should.
Why Harmonic Mastery is ESSENTIAL
Those of you with some degree of jazz exposure may be thinking…
…I know what a dominant chord is, and I know what a b9 and #9 sound like. It’s not rocket science.
Fine. But are you sure you aren’t just blindly applying alterations regardless of each particular context? Do you REALLY know when the piano player is hitting a #11 or b13, or are you just thinking…
…Ah, some sort of altered dominant, time to plug in my angular diminished licks!!
Have you ever played the board game Operation? The basic objective is to use little tweezers to take out tiny plastic organs from a dude’s body without without touching the sides. Jazz harmony functions in a surprisingly similar manner. Your hands don’t have to be perfectly steady and studied to come close to getting it right. But every now and then your hands (ears) aren’t studied enough to make it out (of the harmony) cleanly. The inappropriately dissonant buzzer goes off, Beaker’s nose glows bright red, and you’re busted.
I’m not here to sound the hater-buzzer every time you sit on an F over a C7#11. But I hope to help you understand that the more you play “close enough” with harmony, the further you will be from sincerely obtaining your musical goals.
Some chords are pretty straightforward. Major, minor, and half-diminished chords have consistent functions in conventional harmony, and their varieties are limited.
Take the varieties of C major for example. You can play a C major scale over Cmaj7, C6, C6/9; raise the fourth (lydian) and you’ve got the rest of the C major family covered (Cmaj7#11, etc). It’s a good bet that the C major you are playing functions as either the tonic (root), IV, or III (relative major) of the tune.
Similarly, 99% of minor chords you come across are the tonic, iv (relative minor), or ii of a ii-V-I. Again, I’m talking about traditional jazz/western harmony here, not the more contemporary harmonic approach to non-functional chord progressions.
What Makes Dominants So Special
Compared to major & minor, the dominant chord is unpredictable. It’s most versatile yet subtle harmonic family in music.
Before diving into the many forms of the dominant that I cover later, let’s pause to think about WHY it’s so flexible. Go sit down at your piano, play any simple dominant chord (i.e. C-E-G-F), and resolve it to the closest inversion of ANY major or minor chord. It works! I won’t get into why, but the presence of that embedded diminished triad (3-5-b7) creates a lot of tension, and that tension can resolve anywhere, which means that in jazz harmony, the dominant chord can function in many ways.
Western Classical: V7
Classical composers, or really any composer before the early 20th century, would employ the dominant chord in an extremely predictable manner: as a five chord. No alterations were used, and the presence of that embedded diminished triad created all the tension necessary to make the resolution sound good to your ears.
The traditional functions are:
When you hear John Coltrane, you immediately know it’s Trane. It’s not the notes he’s playing or his dazzling technique that makes him sound uniquely like himself. It’s his sound. Every jazz musician, at some point, ventures into the abyss in search of their own, unique sound. Your sound is what makes you, well, you. But where do you start?
Let’s begin by defining the core elements that determine one’s “sound”: