Those of us who attempt to make a living by playing music without a steady gig often see ourselves as mavericks, flying under society’s radar – somewhat like the cowboys of the wild, wild west but with instruments instead of six-shooters. But even in Buffalo Bill’s era there was a code of behavior that was more or less understood by all those who wanted to be in the game. It may be a jungle out there, but we don’t have to behave like savages. A little forethought and politeness can go a long way towards making our freelance lives a little more civilized.
Our experiment at the PJN Bandcamp page was a success! So we’ve decided to make all of our AppTracks available on the same Pay What You Wish basis. We’re doing this to encourage more of our users to try either the mobile (iOS) or desktop (PC or Mac) version of our JazzPlayer app. AppTracks are our proprietary 4-track audio format which allow you to ‘mix’ your backing tracks anyway you like. These tracks can ONLY be played via the app, which is, of course, FREE.
Head over to our AppTracks page and see what’s cookin’ over there. The track are excellent – you get to decide what they’re worth to you!
What is jazz?
Just let that question settle in for a moment. What definition could encompass the musics of Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Wes Montgomery, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, Keith Jarrett, Lester Bowie, Arturo Sandoval, John Scofield, Vijay Iyer… you get the idea. Talk about a disparate group of musicians! As we add musicians to the list of “jazz greats” our definition of “jazz” would have to keep expanding, because the music itself refuses to be limited by a word.
So those of us who think that “real jazz” is whatever style we favor (or happen to play) are repudiating the tradition of progress and inclusion that spawned jazz to begin with. Listen up, jazz “purists” – you’re going against the nature of aural tradition and improvisation, two of the central elements of jazz since the form came into existence.
Maybe we should stop arguing about what is or isn’t jazz and focus on tolerance and inclusion. Music flourishes when divergent styles bump up against each other. Jazz itself is a result of cross-pollination between several traditions: field hollers, blues, brass and marching bands, European music and who-knows-what else.
There’s a wonderful series that’s been airing on NPR for a few years called This I Believe. It’s not a show per se; it is a collection of brief personal essays chosen and recorded for broadcast during All Things Considered. I heard an essay a while back that struck a chord (no pun intended) with me. Entitled The Holy Life of the Intellect, it was written and delivered aloud by Canadian poet George Bowering.
Even though I am a devoted secularist, his essay reminded me of an aspect of jazz that I sometimes forget. Bowering states:
“I believe that the human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine. It is the way we can join one another in spirit.
Sometimes when you are listening to a great jazz musician performing a long solo, you are experiencing his mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds. This happens whether the player is a saxophone player or a bass player or a pianist. You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.”
This is a wonderfully succinct way of describing the ultimate goal of those of us who choose to express ourselves through the language of jazz improvisation. We desire to make this spiritual and emotional connection with our listeners, without which art does not exist. Musicians begin this process in our minds. We hear, we respond, we recall, we send impulses to our muscles to create certain sounds in the physical realm that express the inner workings of our minds.
So, we’re trying an experiment. Visit our Bandcamp page and download some of our tracks for whatever price you feel like paying – including nothing. Audiophiles take particular note: Our play-along tracks are available on Bandcamp in a variety of lossless and other high fidelity formats. And now you can get ’em for free (or for whatever fair price you’d like to pay). Visit Bandcamp now!
A while ago I read a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuro-scientist. Despite the unfortunate title, the book is a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain.
The chapter that most interests me discusses the venerable talent vs. hard work dichotomy. When it comes to developing true expertise as a musician, is it innate, genetic predisposition that matters most? Or is it what Artur Rubinstein referred to as “sitting power?”
The strongest evidence for the talent position is that some people simply acquire musical skills more rapidly than others. The evidence against that talent account – or rather, in favor of the view that practice makes perfect – comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do. …experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren’t judged as good. (p. 196)
One of the fundamental principles of PlayJazzNow is that musicians who want to reach their highest potential as improvisors need to work on material in all 12 keys. Every aspect of your playing improves with 12 key facility: technique, harmonic knowledge, the ability to play by ear and so on. My belief in this principal is based upon 30+ years of experience as a bassist. Whether accompanying singers or playing with instrumentalists who prefer non-standard keys, my ability to transpose tunes on the fly has proven to be an essential skill. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extraordinary musicians during my career, including a few who like to play tunes in a variety of keys without telling the bass player. Yes, it can be annoying, but it’s also challenging and fun.
There are some well-known jazz masters who have stressed 12 key fluency, among them Bill Evans and Jim Hall. I remember reading the liner notes for a live duo recording by Hall and Red Mitchell (“Embraceable You” on the Artists House label) in which the bassist remarked that they would often ascend the bandstand without knowing what tunes or keys they might play in the next set. Red also wrote that he and Jim would decide in the moment which one of them would play the melody, so for them it wasn’t just a matter of transposing chord changes; they had the ears and experience to be able to play melodies and improvise regardless of key.
What makes a jazz solo great? Why do musicians keep coming back to certain master players for inspiration in developing their own skills and style? Is there any single quality common to the most admired (and most transcribed) solos in the jazz tradition?
Rhythm, whether it is a sense of swing or groove or an individual player’s use of rhythmic elements, is crucial, of course. Note choices (the “melody” or pitch content) is also critically important. Dynamics, articulation, style… all of these factors contribute to the overall quality of a jazz performance. But I would argue that none of these elements, taken separately, inevitably makes for a great, memorable solo.
It seems to me that, to be effective in a deep way, a solo must breathe. There must be a dynamic sense of phrasing where all of the individual musical elements converge in a convincing way. The oft-mentioned balance between the expected and the unexpected is certainly a part of this, but it is more than toying with the listener’s expectations that gives a solo that certain something that makes it all but unforgettable.
Jazz musicians spend a lot of time working on fundamentals – scales, arpeggios, transcribing, ear training etc. If you’re reading this you no doubt know exactly what I’m talking about. Becoming an effective soloist with something to say takes a lot of effort and time.
Here’s a suggestion for the coming year’s practice sessions: put some of your attention on phrasing and breathing regardless of what instrument you play. Listen not only to the great instrumentalists but also to the great vocalists. Pay attention not only to when they breathe, but also why they chose to start or end a phrase where they did. Experiment with varying lengths of your phrases. You can do this while working on your fundamentals as well as when you’re soloing.
Let it breathe.
There’s an old joke in the music biz: Q: “How do you make a musician complain?” A: “Give him a job.” That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play, we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income, dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant colleagues, living on the road, competing for gigs with other players of one’s instrument, and so on.
And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?
There’s a form of “addiction” that holds the lives of many musicians in its thrall. I put quotation marks around the word because the “whatever it is that keeps us coming back” isn’t a physical or psychological addiction in the AA sense. I think that it’s more of an emotional glue that binds us to the experience of making music. I will try to explain this more fully, though it is difficult to put into words.
“I never have any trouble playing anything I can think of. The trouble is thinking of what to play.” – Stan Getz
If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a hundred times. If you want to play on this chord change, use this scale or that scale. Or, use this one scale to play over this two or four bar phrase. Or, here are the “target tones” you can use to indicate that the chords have changed.
Good advice. All true. But not so easy to actually DO if you really aren’t HEARING how the scale(s) or target tones sound in the context of the harmony.
When a beginning improviser says something like “I just can’t play what I’m hearing” what they most often mean is “I’m not hearing anything specific enough to play”. Most of the time, an inexperienced player can make some notes on their instrument but they aren’t yet able to generate anything in their “mind’s ear” and then re-create that sound on their instrument.
A 7 or 8 note scale contains far too many choices for the untrained ear. It can be very intimidating for a neophyte to pick something – anything – to actually play when she has very little idea what any of those notes will sound like in relation to the underlying harmony. Talk about “free jazz”!
So I propose using the KISS method. No, I’m not nominating Gene Simmons to be our musical mentor. Keep It Simple (and) Swinging is the idea. Start with an easy to hear, repetitive chord progression and experiment with playing one note at a time and listening carefully to how it sounds with each of the chords.