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

 

Independence Day

In this short post, I’ll look at some ideas for practising rhythmic independence over a Charlie Parker melody.

“He started playing a song, he didn’t play any of the original melody but I knew which song he was playing; you could hear the whole rhythm section and everything. My father used to say the guys sounded like they had a drum in the horn, they had such strong time.” – Steve Coleman reminiscing about Sonny Stitt, from this interview.

This is a great quote, and one that started me thinking when I encountered it some months ago. It suggests that great jazz musicians imagine rhythm section parts as they play, convey that in their improvising, and that this contributes to their great time feel.

To try get to grips about how that could work, I made exercises for imagining rhythmic parts independently of a melodic line.

I chose Charlie Parker’s famous tune “Blues For Alice” as my basis. The first thing I did was count through it, 4 beats per bar. What’s nice about this is that, when you first try (and fail), you can feel very clearly what parts are tripping you up. In this melody, after the basic 8th note syncopations are internalised, the hard parts are the triplets in bars 4 and 9.

I discovered something when I first started using this exercise. Namely, that I was using my vocal imagination to perform the rhythms, making little muscle movements in my mouth as if singing the melody “boo bap a doo bap a dooby apa dapada ba”. How I discovered it was that my “1 2 3 4” count kept getting dragged into the melody rhythm, because my mouth was trying to phrase the melody.

So, even by simply counting through the tune, I tapped into another way of imagining the melody – by muscle memory and by ear. The two ways feel quite different.

When I’m using my vocal thinking to guide the melody, it feels like it’s in the front of my head, behind my nose, say, kind of blocking out other aspects. When I imagine it by how it feels in my hands and how it sounds, it feels like the melody is surrounding me, and I can connect more to the head-nod feeling of the swing pulse – and also imagine hits against the melody.

(Obviously this epiphany is not relevant to wind instruments or vocalists who have to use their mouth to play their instrument. I suspect that drummers also are used to the muscle memory mode because drummers often say they are singing the melody to themselves as they play.)

Some ways to make this more complex are to use a different length of pattern instead of 4 beats, to use syllables other than numbers, and to use a different subdivision than quarter notes. Here I am repeating ten syllables from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in swung 8ths.

Making the exercise harder like this increases the benefits. Talking in swung 8ths is particularly nice because it forced me to fully internalise and understand the triplets. Having part of my brain occupied with the spoken phrase meant I also felt as if I was supervising my hands instead of forcing them to do things. Both of these things made me feel very relaxed, physically and in terms of time feel.

However my tempo in that video isn’t as bang on as I’d like it. I worked on a different exercise to try bring together laid-back/behind-the-beat playing and strict tempo-keeping.

Although here I’m improvising on a 3-chord blues, there is a similarity to all the other exercises – I’m trying to open up what’s going on in my head, feeling the music streaming by instead of having the current line in the forefront of my attention. In particular, finding space between my tempo perception and my played phrasing. Attempting to play laid-back can disturb my pulse if I don’t have this space.

In this video, I stay conscious of how every note relates to the nearest beat, using my kinesthetic sense. This is instead of trying to somehow play in a steady stream that is just off-set from the pulse – I can’t do that yet. I have to keep track of every beat, feel it slotting in correctly, and place my laid-back notes intentionally around it.

(The feeling of the kinesthetic sense, by the way, for me is kind of imagining a bigger wind-up movement for notes I want to be laid-back, i.e. imagining swinging my arm way back to hit a drum. So the notes are late as if I had to travel further to hit them.)

Obviously there’s much further to go in that direction.

That’s all I have this week. These exercises gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to play at a higher level – relaxed and open. I’d have liked to get into improvising over spoken counts and rhythms, speaking normally while playing the melody, and other vocalising techniques. Check this cool video if you haven’t seen it already:

I’d love to hear your experiences with time feel, independence, and what goes on inside your head when you play. Follow, comment, like and share!

Fun In Seven

A bunch of nice drum chants in 7/4 popped into my head while I was hiking around Powerscourt Waterfall last week. So today I’ll show various applications for them, and talk about a basic force in syncopation: maximally even rhythms.

Here I’m singing one of my drum chants while improvising over “Like Someone In Love” (one repetition of the chant per bar of the original song). The chant uses the grouping 2 3 3 3 3.

Drum Chants In 7 - 2 3 3 3 3

What’s fun about this is that it really exposed weaknesses in my rhythmic conception. I noticed I was playing notes without knowing exactly where they were placed. Normally I would rely on my foot tapping to get back in time. But now that I was busy singing the drum chant, these vague notes made the whole thing collapse. To avoid this, I had to clearly imagine phrases before they were played, and also rely much more on my muscle memory to let my fingers solve the problems. Both of these techniques required a lot of relaxation and focus. I’ll be trying this again for sure.

Here I took the shape of the drum chant – its rhythm and use of a high and low tone – and turned it into a bassline consisting of two moving guide tones through the A sections of “What Is This Thing Called Love”. The grouping this time is 3 2 2.

Drum Chants In 7 - 3 2 2
In the B section of “What Is This Thing Called Love” I use a grouping of 3 2 2 2 3 2 (or 5 4 5) as a variation. I made that into a chant of its own.

Drum Chants In 7 - 5 4 5 2

Then I turned that into a bassline and used it for some slow metronome practice, in different placements.

Finally, I took the distinctive “short short short long” part of the previous rhythm…

Drum Chants In 7 - S S S L

… and arranged it three times across two bars of 7.

Drum Chants In 7 - Long

The long notes (the Ls) now mark out a large-scale grouping of 9 10 9. There’s an important similarity between the last few drum chants: they all split 7 beats into three “maximally even” parts.
With 7 beats, the maximally even grouping is 3 2 2 (or a mode of that such as 2 3 2).
With 14 beats (or 7 beats divided into 8th notes), the maximally even grouping is 5 4 5 (or a mode).
With 28 beats (or 7 beats divided into 16th notes, or 14 beats divided into 8th notes), the maximally even division is 9 10 9 (or a mode).

Maximally even divisions are crucial in syncopation: 12/8 clave, for instance, is a maximally even division of 12 notes into 5 parts (2 3 2 2 3). For that matter, the major scale itself is a maximally even division of 12 chromatic notes into 7 parts (2 2 1 2 2 2 1). The principle is that the “odd ones out”, e.g. the 1s in the major scale, should be spread as far as possible away from each other. So a 2 2 1 1 2 2 2 scale wouldn’t be maximally even because the 1s are beside each other. For an example of a maximally even rhythmic division in 4/4 swing, check out the vamps in my band’s version of I Remember You. Stream it here.

To develop my 9 10 9 drum chant, I smoothly subdivided the 9s and 10s to make a cymbal pattern (3 3 3) (3 4 3) (3 3 3).

Drum Chants In 7 - CYmbal

As you can hear, it sounds very much like a simple triplet pattern, with a barely noticeable skip:

Then I wanted to add a cowbell but realised it would need a three-armed drummer. So I turned the rhythm of the original chant into a blues scale bassline (much like the one I used for the metronome practice above), with drums playing a “long seven” kick pulse and the cymbal and bell parts.

Drum Chants In 7 - Re-Orchestrated

Here’s a video of me smiling smugly as I play all the parts:

Hope you enjoyed that. Let me know if you’ve any thoughts or if anything should’ve been presented differently. And merry Christmas to those of you celebrating it!