Integrate: Putting The Pieces Together

Years ago I overheard jazz vocalist Betty Carter admonishing her young bass player to “get your three together!” as he was having some difficulty locking into the jazz waltz groove her trio was trying to get going. Having your act together or simply being “together” is one way musicians denote having attained a certain level of mastery. “Getting it together” is an apt way to put it because there are a lot of skills that need assimilating to achieve success as a jazz player. So let’s have a peek at this process.

in-te-grate: to bring together, form, coordinate, incorporate or blend into a unified, functioning whole; to unite, complete or combine.

Last time we discussed “imitation” as one way to initiate your development as a jazz musician. It may not be necessary to try to literally copy someone’s style, but many successful players start out with an inspirational role model who they seek to emulate. You might be able to start by grabbing various elements of another player’s musical identity, but what other skills do you need to “get together” in the “integration” phase of your musical education?

1) Mastering the technique of your instrument
2) Training your ears
3) Understanding jazz harmony
4) Learning the jazz repertoire and internalizing standard song forms
5) Developing a strong sense of meter, tempo and rhythmic “feel”
6) Performing with an ensemble

You will need to work on the first three skills independently.

1) Know thine instrument: It should be obvious that you will need a certain amount of physical technique (“chops”) to be able to express yourself on your chosen instrument. How much is enough? How “fast” do you need to be able to execute? A lot of that is up to you. Many musicians develop distinctive “voices” with quite limited technical means. Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis come to mind in this regard, as neither one could be accused of having great chops. But they’re both acknowledged as innovative jazz masters. Paul Desmond allegedly once quipped that he had to stop practicing because he started playing “too many notes” in his solos! In short, you need to have enough technique to be able to play what you hear. Speaking of hearing…

2) It’s all in the ears: Jazz is an aural performing art, even more so than so-called “classical” music. As opposed to playing a written score flawlessly, most of what we do is conceived and executed in the moment. In other words, we make it up as we go along (within certain parameters, of course). Jazz players need “two-way hearing”: we have to interpret what’s happening in the ensemble (input) and we must be able to play the parts we are hearing for ourselves (output). And all of this needs to happen in real time. Traditionally musicians have picked up these skills by deep and careful listening to recordings. A lot of this comes in the “imitation” phase, but there’s a lot of aural information that you must be able to process on the fly. These days there are plenty of additional resources available to you, like this, this, and this. Also, Roberta Radley’s Real Easy Ear Training Book.

3) What jazz harmony means to you: Having a thorough basis in traditional (or academic) theory and harmony may serve as a good starting point, but jazz players use their knowledge of harmony as a means to their improvisatory goals. In general, we’re not so much interested in the analytical as in the practical. So when a jazz player does a harmonic analysis of a standard tune, for example, she’s interested in knowing how the chord progression can be mined for improvisational material. What key(s) is the music in? How does the root motion define the architecture of the harmony? What scale(s) can be applied to particular sections of the piece? Are there alternative chords (substitutions) or scales that might yield material that particularly suits her style? Again, there are a myriad of good books and web-based resources you can go to for help with the nuts and bolts of this: Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory Book, Dan Hearle’s The Jazz Language and Marc Sabatella’s venerable Jazz Improvisation Primer.

The other three items on our list require both individual and group work.

4) The jazz repertoire: Many jazz standards conform to pre-existing song forms. There are a limited number of these “templates” that have been used in much of the jazz repertoire. Examples of these forms includes the 12 bar blues, the 32 bar AABA form (where each section is 8 bars long) “I Got Rhythm” changes (which is a specific AABA form) etc. Accomplished jazz players have mental maps of these forms, which makes both playing and learning much easier.

But learning the structures by themselves is just the first step. Many jazz musicians commit as much of the standard repertoire to memory as possible. The melodies, song forms and harmonic progressions of this repertoire “fill the well” from which creative musicians draw when they improvise. These elements work in tandem as a kind of database of jazz language.

You can memorize tunes in the practice room. But repeatedly playing through your ever-expanding repertoire with other players is the best way to internalize the form and specifics of any song. It’s always best to work with musicians at or above your skill level because there’s nothing like interacting with live humans. But since you won’t always have your colleagues available, backing tracks are a pretty good second choice. Hey, that’s why I created PlayJazzNow!

5) Time, time and time (That’s the answer to the question “what are the three most important aspects of playing jazz?”): My old friend and mentor Ed Petersen used to say that if the time feels right everything else will fall into place. I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. As with learning tunes, some of your work in this area can be done on your own. Break out that metronome or drum machine and practice everything in a variety of meters and tempos. Work on both straight and swing 8th note grooves. Develop what John Scofield calls a “rhythmic vocabulary” of your own, just like you work on the melodic/harmonic content of your playing. Then take this stuff into your jam sessions and gigs and see how your playing “feels” in the context of the ensemble. Which leads me to…

6) Playing well with others: Making music with other people is what it’s all about. Jazz is a collective art, and a democratic one as well. Every member of the band contributes to the end result, for better or worse. This is the one skill that you can’t work on in isolation. You can learn to keep your place in the form of a song and add to your rhythmic and melodic vocabulary by working with backing tracks, but it is only in live situations that the “magic” happens. Playing with people is unpredictable: people make mistakes, rush or drag, get lost in the form etc. They also play unexpectedly beautiful things that inspire you to perform at a higher level than you thought was possible.

There are just two rules for playing in an ensemble: 1) Stay in the present moment and 2) Listen. The music the group is making is going on right now, not in the last song nor in the song you might play later. Keep focused on what’s going on around you; your colleagues will give you everything you need to know now. So listen. If you play a rhythm instrument, make sure you can hear the other rhythm players at all times. Are you locking in with them? Are you “with” the soloist, harmonically, rhythmically and intensity-wise? Are you playing at the appropriate volume and density level? Don’t be the one who’s overplaying and stepping on other people’s musical toes.

Getting it Together

Ultimately, “integration” will get you to the point where you can express your musical personality in the service of the overall performance. In order to play with other people you must have your individual skills at a high enough level where your “stuff” only takes up a portion of your attention. You need some mental bandwidth reserved for observation, listening and intuition. It’s easy to get distracted by listening too intently to yourself or being overly concerned with what your fingers have to do. Remember that “getting it together” is a process; it won’t happen overnight. But that’s where at least part of the fun of it exists. There’s no end to the amount of growth that’s possible, with time, effort and patience.

As a reward for getting through all of this, here’s an entertaining look at a form of “integration” that has perhaps gone far enough!

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