Tag: improvisation

Where I’m At

Where I’m At

Today I’ll report on two projects: last month’s attempt to learn a tune a day, and this month’s attempt to write a tune a day!

My secret to achieving these is flexible scope: each day I can choose to do something easy (e.g. cop the bassline for the solo in Cissy Strut) or complex (e.g. write an AAB samba tune with hits).

Someone else might prefer to do a standardised amount of work each day, but I generally achieve things by getting immersed in an activity and can’t predict how much I’ll do in that state. That’s kind of unstructured, but to compensate I have the feeling of a daily routine contributing to a larger project.

My favourite bass parts I learnt were the basslines to Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” and Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Some days I did a melody instead of a bassline.

Here are the songs I worked on:

  • In Walked Bud
  • Need Your Love So Bad
  • The Thrill Is Gone
  • Cissy Strut
  • Caravan
  • Summertime
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Nardis
  • I Feel Good
  • Wave
  • One Love
  • What Is This Thing Called Love
  • Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay
  • Chameleon
  • Mist
  • I Just Want To Make Love To You
  • ‘Round Midnight
  • Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City
  • In A Sentimental Mood
  • Have You Met Miss Jones
  • Like Sonny
  • Careless Whisper
  • Tonz ‘O’ Gunz (I learnt off the rap)
  • Cotton Tail
  • This I Dig Of You

I’m now 2 weeks into the next project, writing a sketch of a tune each day. As I’d hoped, I’m getting some data on what works and what doesn’t for me.

My ideal composing mindstate seems to be: getting emotionally fired up by the good qualities of what I’m making while staying clear-eyed about the bad. Excitement about the ideas gives patience to dig around inside them without getting sick of them or distracted. Awareness of problems pushes me to shape them into something better. Basically, the humility to follow your naive/wondering side plus the humility to note your failings. If that makes any sense… anyway, it’s a balancing act!

Digging inside ideas can turn into aimlessly toying with them. To avoid that I can either wait till I’m in a very creative mood, or try find some appealing structure within the music itself around which I can coalesce more material. Or, rely on genre conventions.

Suiting the tools to the task helps me a lot: sequencer, notation software, manuscript, piano, guitar, bass…?

I’m trying to stay in control of the material, i.e. not write stuff I can’t hold in my head or manipulate. This can be a frustrating limitation but I hope it’ll push me to improve my musical imagination.

My old arranging teacher in Amsterdam, Johan Plomp, always said to write 3 versions of every bit of material in your piece. Then again, the idea of this project was to write quickly so I don’t always take that time. This leaves me liable to what another composition teacher, Ronan Guilfoyle, used to say: “Needs more development”. The question of just how finished my pieces should be is one I’ll return to in a few paragraphs.

I’m only now getting back into jazz writing after over a year. In that time I became much more appreciative of good conventional harmony and melody, so I’m writing (somewhat) less gnarly stuff than before.

I also explored a bunch of concepts on this blog, all to do with physicality and interaction.

These mood-enhancing properties, like groove and timbral control, are not things you can notate. I have to find ways to provoke players into manifesting them. Some say good art needs vulnerability… I should be vulnerable to seeming ridiculous, unschooled, eccentric, or naive, in the service of achieving the ephemeral moods I’m after. (Previously, the desire to seem hip made me write overly complex music that didn’t groove.)

It’s hard. Although at the start of the month I listed out dozens of spicy ideas to use (e.g. “different instruments taking similar path at different rates” or “downbeat illusions a la “He’s The Greatest Dancer”“), I haven’t yet had the nerve. My first two weeks’ work resulted in mostly conventional jazz tunes.

Here’s where I want to return to the question of “how finished is finished”. While recognising that all of this month’s pieces will eventually need further development/arrangement, I suspect I need to start writing less finished music.

I once heard Vijay Iyer talk about a phrase from Paul Gilroy: “radically unfinished forms”. It took a few years for me to understand it. Gilroy and Iyer are talking about music where the pre-composed aspect is inadequate for performance… unless it is completed by improvisation in the moment.

This applies to most jazz, whether the pre-composed element is a cheesy show tune or a riff-based blues. (Even during the head of a jazz tune, improvisation is required in the rhythm section.) The written part is blatantly not enough. It incites improvisation by its (deeply intentional, hence “radical”) incompleteness. A solo break is the ultimate example of this aesthetic.

I believe these are the “ways to provoke players” that I should use.

However, what I only recently understood is that not only do radically unfinished forms call forth originality from the players, they call forth THE TRADITION. E.g. If you don’t have a clue how to play a blues, then the radically unfinished 2-note melody and breaks of “C-Jam Blues” will not stimulate anything special from you. If you do have an idea, that’s only because you have built a relationship with the tradition of jazz and blues.

So I want to write small pieces that, perhaps subconsciously, put players in dialogue with the tradition and each other. Provocative, allusive, appealing, pungent ingredients within a larger ritual. If I can manage it.

This requires that I’m honest about which parts of the tradition I like most, and how well I understand them. Because as I already said, I need to love what I’m writing and I also need control of it. The humility to write obvious or unfashionable stuff (as long as it sounds good to me) and humility to accept when something is not yet in my grasp.

(And I also want the music to express something personal from me.)

I’ll break off there. Alas I don’t yet have any music to post because, like I said, all these pieces will need further work. And then I have to record them. How my music should acknowledge the need for recording and distribution is something I’ve been thinking about recently… I’ll write about it soon under the theme of listening cultures. I also have a post brewing about this classic hard bop tune which I might as well link here because it exemplifies tradition plus joyful group interaction completing a radically unfinished form.

Thanks for reading!

Funky Structures

Funky Structures

The two bands I’m working with right now are both making albums this year. So I’ve been listening out for ways to structure albums. I found a lot to like in Charlie Hunter’s 2010 release, entitled Gentlemen, I Regret To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.

Because this album is modern I feel pretty bad linking to it on Youtube. If you dig it, buy it. My copy arrived last week and I instantly realised I wanted to blog about it.

The hook for today’s article is a term I made up, “funky structures”. By that I mean, ways of organising groove music on the medium or large scale (bigger than phrase or riff). Jazz/blues/hip hop/funk/techno etc. are built on cycles. Ideas of development, drama and narrative arc that suit European art music are not always the best explanations for those African-American-derived styles.

Layering is a technique familiar from techno and funk, where new elements are added predictably to a cycle. A canonical example would be Herbie Hancock’s 1973 version of Watermelon Man. The rather paradoxical thing about layering is that every new part adds to the groove, yet the groove is fully present in the initial, smallest texture. I’ll get back to that later.

How does Charle Hunter use it? Here is the order of added elements on the album’s first track:

(Charlie Hunter plays the basslines on this album on the bottom two strings of a custom 7-string guitar, but for convenience I’ll talk about the bass parts as a separate instrument.)

  • 0:00 Bass, 1-note stutter in staccato 8ths, and kick drum and high-hats.
  • 0:10 Drum fill introduces melody, snare and 8ths on hats
  • 0:31 Horns playing stabs
  • 0:41 Horns playing whole-note pads
  • 1:32 Ride cymbal
  • 1:54 Hocket-type texture as build into guitar solo

Or “Drop A Dime”:

  • 0:00 Bass and slow rock beat (a la Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks[LINK])
  • 0:17 Guitar melody
  • 0:55 Add answering horns melody
  • 1:19 Interlocking guitar-and-horns payoff section
  • 1:41 Long-note hits w/ drum fills, then solo

But, what exactly distinguishes this layering from increases of density in non-groove-based music? Well, first let’s investigate some other funky structures. If layering is gradually filling up space, what about emptying space?

Hunter places large gaps at the end of phrases in most of the tunes.

  • Track 1 0:18 has a one-bar space after three bars of melody – at 0:59 the same space is now filled by horns and guitar
  • Track 2 0:43 has a two-bar space for a long bass fill. The entire melody uses long notes which, particularly on a plucked (weak sustain) instrument like guitar, function a lot like space.
  • Track 3 0:18 has long note over two bars of groove after every two-bar phrase.
  • Track 4 again has half-and-half phrase-and-rest structure for the first part of its melody. Hunter fills one of the gaps with laconic chord stabs.
  • Track 6 has the same structure.

These intentional gaps in the melodies remind me of Thelonious Monk’s penchant for spaces in his themes in which the drummer can respond. On this Charlie Hunter album however, drummer Eric Kalb often maintains an unchanging beat through the spaces rather than improvising comments. Horns, guitar or bass sometimes comment instead. In all these cases, the point is to expose, and celebrate, the rhythm section.

There’s a tendency in blues for phrases to taper away, starting off high and active and ending up with smaller and smaller movements around the floor note, e.g. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. Hunter’s melody in “Tout Ce Qui Brille Ne Pas Or”, with its wheeling descent to a rest, uses this feeling. Whether tapering, ending on a long note, or ending on a rest, the idea is to return to the ground layer – the underlying groove/harmony.

A related gesture is the breakdown. Here, instead of leaving space in the weak parts (2nd halves) of phrases, sounds are stripped out on a strong bar (start of a section). Just to be clear on terminology, we could note that this is different to a jazz “break” which is typically before the top of a form (i.e. “A Night In Tunisia”). The breakdown/stripping out of sounds is more characteristic of electronic dance music and funk.

This structure is used in tracks 1, 4, 5, 6 at the start of solos. And tracks 3 & 8 work as breakdowns within the whole album due to their trio instrumentation.

Exposure is the key to these gestures. There is a feeling of contrast, and emotional vulnerability on the part of the remaining musicians. “Tout Ce Qui Brille” at 2:32 demonstrates how this can work really well. The second note of the guitar melody rings out with a bit of buzzing, creating a unique timbral moment that is very beautiful in context – the more so for probably being accidental.

This sense of exposure mustn’t distract players from the groove. I believe this requires a mental independence – part of you must keep track of the underlying ground, whether or not anyone else is playing it.

In a breakdown, those abilities are proved by spotlighting some part previously absorbed in the group texture. Despite the changed perspective (which might radically change how the part sounds/feels subjectively, simply by focusing attention on it) musicians must smoothly maintain their simultaneous awareness of the underlying pulse versus the musical surface.

The reason, by the way, that I’m going so deeply into this topic is because I used to have difficulty navigating breaks because I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I’ve been thinking this over in order to improve my own playing.

The last specific gesture I want to mention is what could be called limited improvisation or use of routines. Quite often on this album, there is improvisation so restricted that it could be pre-written. The trumpet riff at 2:01 in “High Pockets And A Fanny Pack” probably is written because it’s repeated verbatim, but it sounds improvised when you first hear it. (I love the descent to a different harmonic level there as well.)

On “Antoine” from 1:53-2:20 there is improvisation strictly around a harmonised riff. And of course the challenge inherent in Hunter’s combined bass & guitar approach means that much of his solo vocab must have been figured out beforehand: for instance the complex key-changing double-stops line at a peak moment in the form, 4:13 in “Tout Ce Qui Brille”. This reinforces thoughts I’ve been having on the importance of familiar gestures and internalised vocab in so-called “improvisation”.

So, what’s the meaning of these structures? I shortlisted some aesthetics that I believe Charlie Hunter uses.

Process: this album celebrates process: “how it’s said” over “what is said”, just like in that hip hop track I analysed last year. Eric Kalb’s drumming is a clear illustration. There’s huge craft and a deep moment-to-moment concentration on laid-back grooving in Kalb’s playing – but little remarkable content. It’s all about “doing it”, not expressing new ideas. The high points of the drumming are either cliched fills or attractive timbres (like the opening of “Antoine”). Along with this, the album is entirely in 4/4 and almost all tracks start with a straightforward vamp intro.

Restraint: one of the key themes of the album is holding back. This can be traced back to the instrumentation (7-string guitar, drums, trumpet, trombone, trombone). All of the instruments are technically demanding and impose physical limits. This naturally leads to slow melodies, space, sparse textures and simple comping patterns.

That restraint creates tension – used to propel songs from intro to melody in tracks 4 and 5, or to create epic payoffs whether improvised or written. A great example is from 2:50 in “Drop A Dime”. Massive horns and massive drums and fierce bluesy guitar playing (whose “hold a note over changing bass” hook epitomises Hunter’s self-developed style) – but only after a build-up of more than half the album’s length.

Subverting sweet chords: Charlie Hunter has an interesting way of using sweet harmony within a mostly ruggedly-grooving context. He writes gorgeous, sophisticatedly harmonised sections for the horns, that are emotional peaks in the album. However, these moments are then wryly undercut by breakdowns to sparse grooving and improv. 0:38-0:45 in “Ode To My Honda Odyssey” is a neat example. The same effect happens a large scale from 1:17-1:44. The contrast can be a little shocking, but the overall effect is to have the best of both worlds (sweetness and funkiness), while also allowing each to comment on the other. Plus, the album’s sparseness of texture – no standard “comping instrument” like piano – is a statement in itself.

To return to layering…. It seems to me to work off the same principles as the breakdowns and spaces. That is, celebrating the unity of the continuous, all-encompassing groove that is felt equally in every instrumental combination, large and small. In African-American music (and probably a lot of other musics around the world), little distinction is made between musicians and the audience, whose vocal exclamations, finger snaps, claps, etc. – and dancing – are a valuable element in a performance. I think the joy of layering up and breaking down relates to the social feeling of a group of people entrained in the groove. Each addition or subtraction can provoke new perspectives on all the other material in a play of multiple simultaneous interpretations that are both individual and collective.

I’d better wrap up. I didn’t get around to talking about the note choices and harmony on this album which add so much to its melancholy mood – in particular, the masterful use of major-minor colour shifts. Also I would’ve liked to talk about the transparency which I think this album shares with, e.g., Thelonious Monk’s work. Well, another time.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog, as I’ve been doing it for over half a year. It has succeeded wildly in helping me figure out concepts. But I’m wondering what should my next step be, i.e., what to do with this knowledge. I’d love to write for an improvising band again, but it will take some discipline to realise these ideas.

Anyway, I’ll try do a nice technical post next week after the last few conceptual ones. See you then.

Buy the album!



This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.


  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.

Blues Parallelism

Blues Parallelism

Ever since last year when it clicked that parallel chord movements are probably an essential part of blues, I’ve been working them into my bass style. As a musical force, parallelism is probably familiar to jazz listeners from the style of guitarists like Wes Montgomery. Check out his playing from 4:16 in this iconic performance.

What I’ve been trying to do relates very much to jazz guitar and even more so blues guitar traditions. I remember how refreshing it was to hear Simon Jermyn once point out that bass guitar and guitar are closely related instruments. Rather than model my approach on double bass or synth bass, I’ve often taken guitaristic paths in my playing. So, to my mind, the parallel chord movements I’ll look at today are completely native to fretted bass guitar.

“Parallel”, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, means that each new chord has the exact same inner structure (distance between its component notes) as the one before, but starting in a different place. So, each note moves in “parallel” with the others to reach the corresponding notes in the new chord.

The reason this is native to guitar and bass guitar, is that you can form a chord shape, and then easily slide the whole shape up or down to make a new chord. (You’ll see it in the solo I do at the end of the post.)

The first time I really noticed parallelism was in electro house tracks with basslines doubled in major 10ths. Remember this one?

But, actually, since childhood I’ve loved hearing blues slide guitar which is built on completely parallel “open-tuned” chords sliding up and down. Guys like the hippy blues savant Alan Wilson (seriously check out that magnificent performance by his band Canned Heat!) or George Thorogood.

Not all chord shapes are equal for this application. The strongest shapes are those that resemble part of the overtone series. This similarity causes the notes to interact and buzz. Gerhard Kubik calls acoustically resonant chords like this “timbre-harmonic clusters”.

D Harmonics to 11th

So, the first interval (counting up from the bottom note) in the series is the octave. Wes Montgomery is famous for his use of parallel octaves, for example at 2:50 in the first video above. But I don’t particularly like the sound of them on bass. This is partly due to the lack of a satisfying way of sounding them – Wes strums them with a muted string between the root and octave, but that doesn’t work for me. Also, they don’t achieve that chiming sound in the bass’s register.

The next interval is the perfect 5th found between the second and third harmonics (D and G). This one is, again, completely guitaristic – the “power chord” of rock and metal. As an interesting demonstration of a distinctive resonance, if you play a power chord on bass or guitar with distortion, a strong difference tone an octave below appears.

(Sorry for the poor sound quality by the way – I’ve upgraded my microphone but forgot to plug it in here.)

Without distortion, the phenomenon is much weaker, but still noticeable as an extra fatness/bassiness at gigging volume levels. (Actually I think that’s due to the slight distortion in the preamp stage of my amp.) So I do use power chords sometimes at gigs to augment a simple bassline.

Okay so some quick thoughts on the use of the other intervals available… 4ths are very buzzy and strong, and obviously easy to play on an instrument tuned in fourths. Major 3rds are strident and bright, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but it can be used for some parallel cliches. In particular, the blues scale fragment b5 4 b3 can be harmonised a major 3rd away by b7 6 5, another bluesy cell.

Another interval I use a lot is the 10th – it’s good for “prog house” or “electro house” sounds. One interesting thing about lines consistently harmonised in major 10ths is that it becomes unclear whether the top or bottom note is the “main” one, despite the fact that a single 10th interval definitely sounds like the root is the bottom note. Try it!

Minor 3rds are a flexible interval for parallel cliches, and I wrote an article about one of those. Major 6ths are used in the classic blues chromatic descending run, but can also be extended into half-whole diminished sounds like Scott Henderson’s. Minor 6ths basically can work as the 3rd and octave of a dominant chord or its 2nd and b7th. Minor 7ths sound good but can only really function as the 1st and b7th or the 3rd and 9th of a dominant chord. So minor 7th and minor 6th parallelisms in blues are basically targeting these landing points.

An interesting larger shape is one using the fourth, seventh and ninth harmonics, which ends up as a root, minor 7th and 9th (a dominant 9th with no 3rd or 5th):

9th no 3rd no 5th

This shape has a lovely resonance. Other 3-note shapes that are nice for parallelism are the 3rd inversion of a major triad (fourth on the bottom) and 2nd inversion of a minor triad (fourth on top). These are both particularly compact shapes on bass. And of course the skeletal dominant 7th, 1st 3rd b7th.

I busted a blues solo using many of these shapes in parallel movement. Have a listen and let me know what you think! I’ve timelined the appearance of different chord/interval types below.

0:02 6th

0:06 minor 3rd

0:12 minor 6th

0:22 dominant 7th (no 5th)

0:27 minor 7th

0:31 major 3rd

0:47 4th

1:02 major 10th

1:08 dominant 9th (no 3rd no 5th)

Thanks for reading/watching!

Independence and Improvising

Independence and Improvising

Today I’m returning to some ideas from this piece. I look at how the ability to play two or more different parts at the same time, known as independence, might help with jazz soloing. My overall theme is the gestural side of improvisation – the movements we make on our instruments.

This is kind of opposed to the common harmonic/melodic idea of soloing which could be paraphrased as “consciously select notes to create new melodies that you can imagine singing.” The gestural approach is instead about letting your hands choose the notes for you.

This is fraught with the danger of playing stuff you didn’t mean to, as most students know too well. Why even investigate it?

Musical motion is, first and foremost, audible human motion.

Many sophisticated musical concepts develop as an extension of physical activities, such as walking, strumming, hitting, cutting, scratching […].

Those are some awesome quotes from Vijay Iyer’s “Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation”. They suggest that how musicians move around their instrument is a lot of what we enjoy in the African-American traditions of improvising.

For example, check out Jimmie Vaughan’s on a slow blues by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. (Vaughan and his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan immersed themselves in Dallas’ black music scene from their early teens. I think it shows in their music.)

I love the faint off-mic vocalisations that answer the solo at 0:03, 0:17 and 0:43 – someone was digging it!

Vaughan’s note choices are unremarkable. He expresses himself via time feel and a sophisticated repertoire of hand movements: bends, hesitations, vibrato, etc. His touch is phenomenal, for instance, the unexpectedly soft and gentle notes deftly placed in the middle of phrases at 0:07 and 0:11. (A tenderness befitting a track called “Full-Time Lover”. Check out the live versions on Youtube.)

Let’s move onto some jazz. Charlie Parker used much more sophisticated harmony than a blues guitarist. But I believe he similarly formed his improvisations by chaining together gestures – not guitar bends and pull-offs, but small cells, arpeggios and mordents. As we’ll see in his solo on “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”.

Solo Extract.png
Example of cell in bar 3, filling out the phrase and voice-leading smoothly

The harmony implied by this cell is the negative dominant resolution IV- to VI-, occurring 2 beats later (i.e. displaced) from where it would typically happen in a “Parker Blues” progression. But more important than the harmonic side, is the melodic strength and the effortlessly smooth insertion into a long fluid line.

My way of practising towards this gestural playing is to count the beats in the bar aloud as I play.

As I mentioned in my other post, this feels like untangling the melody from the lingual part of the mind. Anything not fully internalised will disturb the count, revealing how well you’ve learnt something.

This video shows a work in progress; the tempo is a good deal slower than Parker’s and I haven’t got Parker’s microtiming. This is a serious omission because his laid-back feel is a massive part of his artistry. But I’m still working towards being able to lay back while counting. The tendency is for the count to drag along with the notes.

This reminds me of a general question. When laying back consistently, should your foot tap the original pulse ahead of the laid-back playing? My current philosophy, considering drummers’ and pianists’ ability to have different microtiming in different limbs, is that it should. What do you think?

I want to have a quick look at some of the ways Parker uses those cells I mentioned. I think I’ll write a post about it after I study it properly.

In his head melody, solo, and in the head melody of “Blues For Alice”, Parker uses a 1 2 4 5 cell in bar 5 or 6 of the blues form – in each case, it resolves to a strong b3 tone.


Examples 2.png
1st two examples from “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, 3rd from “Blues For Alice” (transposed to C)

This resolution shows that the cell has a powerful inherent directionality – it wants to go somewhere. The idea of knitting together a solo from rhythmic elaborations of these elementally simple and strong melodies, is beautiful to me. Other examples are: 1 2 3 4; #1 2 3 4; 2 3 4 5; and major seventh and minor seventh arpeggios.

Parker’s use of cells means there is subtle re-use of material from the head in his solo. In his second and last chorus, he starts a chromatic descent with 4 3, the signature notes of the melody’s first phrase. Bar 8 in the solos and head uses the cell 2 3 4 5. And the distinctive blues scale finish to the head melody is reflected in two strong affirmations of the tonic in the last two bars of both solo choruses.

Let’s move on to something I didn’t tackle in my last article on independence: improvising!

There are a few cool things that emerge from applying the counting exercise to improv. For one, it forces phrases not only to interact with the beat at all times, but particularly to finish with a strongly defined rhythm.

Secondly, the only way to avoid tripping up the count is to chain together familiar shapes. If I start thinking of particular notes or rhythmic details, I lose it. But thinking strictly in shapes (that have a set melody and rhythm) allows the imagination to make choices instantly about what sound to go for, opening up possibilities for forward planning and complex composite phrases. I suspect that high-level jazz players might have something like this in their heads when they play, and be able to sustain it without interruptions.

In this little solo, I try to use this internalised shape (taken from Parker’s 2nd solo chorus), which, if I didn’t have it in muscle memory, would certainly trip me up:

Solo Lick

Gesture-based playing can sound quite annoying, i.e. when someone busts the same lick for the third time that didn’t sound appropriate the first time. This is the danger I talked about at the start of the post. But I now believe the gestural approach is not the problem (because many of the greatest jazz players obviously made use of it). It’s the lack of awareness: not knowing what licks you use repeatedly or not checking that it’s actually an attractive melody.

Thanks for reading!

Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta’s take on independence


Blue Monk

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:


… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.


(That’s from this cool site… http://www.kyushu-ns.ac.jp/~allan/Documents/Monk-Trans-F.html)

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Why would I ever compare playing jazz to playing videogames? Apart from the obvious answer that I’m a big fan of both.

Well, they both depend on what gamers call “twitch”: instinctive use of patterns kept in muscle memory, and triggered subconsciously.

To achieve this, musicians and competitive gamers practise intricate finger and hand movements, chained together and timed precisely. (E.g. a fighting game might give only 1/60th of a second in which to counter an opponent’s attack).

Aggressive competition defines much online gaming and was also a celebrated aspect of early jazz and bebop. Speed, rhythmic intelligence and imaginative reharmonisations were prized in those scenes, demonstrated at jam sessions, battles and cutting contests.

Speed, timing and rule-breaking shortcuts are the hallmarks of video game speedrunning, where enthusiasts develop techniques and exploit glitches to achieve impossible trajectories and velocities…

I’m gonna get a little more abstract now. Hold onto your hats. Both video games and music are virtual worlds. They transport us to somewhere imaginary. They also change instantly in response to the performer’s decisions. (Bandmates providing the reaction in the one case, the computer and/or other players providing it in the other.)

And, music and games both happen in virtual space. The perception of space in music is complex, but here are some known aspects:

  • High notes are heard as being above low notes and never the other way around (although some cultures use a different binary, e.g. thin-thick). More here.
  • Our hearing automatically interprets stereo differences, echoes and reverberations to give us an impression of our surroundings. In music these effects are called “spatialisation”. They have always been an area of cutting-edge technology, because their virtual spaces seems so futuristic. Psychedelic music has always relied on spatialisation!
  • Most importantly, “music is the sound of human movement”. We interpret rhythm by imagining, using our kinesthetic sense, the body movements that could produce it.
  • Loosely speaking, musicians and informed listeners tend to imagine music as made of shapes (phrases, sections) and to imagine points in a cycle as locations. So, a jazz musician might ask another, “What are you playing on (or over) bar 5 of the form?”
  • These spaces must be learned off for high level performance. Set sequences of moves (i.e. licks in bebop, or a chain of jumps in a game) are used to navigate the space.

In general, I think the African-American tradition of improvisational music has game-like qualities anyway: misdirection, illusion, masking, changing context. Steve Coleman turned me on to this stuff. Further parallels can be drawn with sports, martial arts, and forms of ritual speech like telling tall tales.

So, music/games is obviously a fun analogy to ponder. But, beyond that, it suggested to me some interesting crossover ideas.

“Let’s Play” videos, of gamers commentating their own playthroughs, have become massively popular in the last few years. Could improvised music work with a commentary?

Actually, it traditionally does: non-verbal exclamations of approval, musical imitations, and jokes (“knock knock” at 0:50). Or in classic hip hop lyrics that turn attention to the present moment, “You’re in awe when I’m gripping my mic cord”, “Hey you sayin’ what the hell is this shit/Reaching for the cover, turning up your deck”.  I wonder could a contemporary artist build off these traditions and consciously add forms of commentary to improvised performance?

Visuals help a lot to make games accessible. The technology is available to visualise the harmonic choices made by improvisors – most simply, how about assigning a different colour to each note?

The practices of “modders” who repurpose commercial game content seem to mesh well with how jazzers used showtunes or classical music etudes for their own creative ends. Here, for example, is a level released in 2014 (for free) that uses content from a 1996 game in ways the original creators could not have imagined.

by Simon O’Callaghan

The open-source movement, meanwhile, reminds me of the great common pool of licks and ideas that jazz musicians take from and give to.

With my last band, Glitchpuke, I consciously copied indie game “development logs”by including analysis of my own mistakes in the band blog.

And these days, I’m feeling inspired by game level designers – particularly, their cycle of repeatedly exploring and then refining a space. I want to have a band that does that.

Can games learn from jazz? One thing I’m anticipating with interest is the appearance of black-coded movement/performance styles in virtual reality. As a point of comparison, think how twerking rapidly entered the cultural mainstream from both corporate music videos and home-made ones on Youtube – probably generating a lot of money for some people.

Okay, I’m gonna start rolling it up now, but first I’ll look at some instructive differences between jazz and videogames culture.

Games culture started in by far the more privileged milieu: prestigious US universities that turned Cold War funding into technologies like programming languages, the personal computer and the internet. As Jeru The Damaja put it, “Chips that powered nuclear bombs power my SEGA.” The people involved were predominantly white and guaranteed of social acceptance in the middle classes.

PDP Team

By contrast, jazz originated in African-American urban communities which experienced much racism and poverty, crime and corruption.

Then again, today, all kinds of people are represented in improvised music and in gaming. A book could be written about the changing demographics of each. Jazz has become broadly academicised, with its mass appeal claimed by rock, hip hop, dance etc. Gaming has gone from embodying both tech culture privilege and geeky outsiderhood, to hosting vocal feminist, transgender and non-Western communities. All these changes have provoked gatekeeping reactions of many kinds.

To wrap up, and to reassure any musician friends reading, I want to point out areas where computer gaming can’t compete with music performance.

  • Nuanced expression is one. Although performance capture technology and detail of simulation are always advancing, the complex, multi-layered, intimate connection of a live instrumental performance won’t be digitised for years to come.
  • Gaming, as we currently know it, is not a fully-fledged form of expression – you can’t convey feelings by how you jump around a map. Although maybe this fellow would disagree:
  • Finally, games are dependent on technology. Of course, you could say this about electronic music. But for me, that’s a major mark against electronic music – if it takes you a minute to start your computer and another to load up your preset banks, you can’t claim to have the immediacy of raising a horn to your lips and blowing.

Hope you enjoyed that! Back to my usual music chat next week! As always, your comments are welcome and you can show appreciation by liking or following on WordPress, or liking/sharing on Facebook.