Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Composition - Process: Seeking the Tao

My new cd - returning - is a collection of original compostions (with one exception) designed to create an atmosphere somewhat meditative in nature. The last tune I wrote, just before the recording session, is called 'Cavern Heaven' and gets its name from a 15th century silk scroll by Dai Jin entitled "Seeking the Tao in Cavern Heaven".  A copy of the painting is prominently displayed outside the Taoist Center where I study Chi Kung, Tai Chi and other internal arts. You can hear the complete song here at CBC Music.

One of my inspirations for this tune was the great Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. His trio music always has an amazing vibe and I wanted to create something along those lines. Step One involved finding an anchor to establish the vibe I was looking for. After a while at the piano I had found my ‘set up’ for the tune which was the piano bass line that enters after the intro (2nd system). It was the perfect beginning for the feel I was trying to establish. The harmonic structure it outlines starts off relatively vague and ultimately ends with a resolution to the major third.

 
Step two was coming up with a lyrical line to fit with the bass line. It wrote itself. I don’t know how to explain or teach these things. I love the major 7 on the sus chord



The next step was the most difficult and laborious and took a few weeks to figure out. I felt it necessary to keep the bass line movement continuous throughout the entire tune but finding just the right harmonic structure was difficult. The tune itself was taking on a lullaby quality and I wanted to preserve this idea. As with many compositions I find myself stripping away and stripping away, much like a sculptor sculpts, until the tune finally reveals itself. This was definitely the case with Cavern Heaven. It helped that somewhere in the middle of this process I came up the unison line (a scaler Phrygian motif - 2nd to last system on page 2)  which I knew would come at the end of the form. This is a most important part of the composition process…..knowing where you are going. I find many student composers sometimes seem to write in a ‘stream of consciousness’ way, bar to bar, without a sense of the bigger picture. The result being a bit of a mish mash…i.e. a bridge that should be an A section or part of another tune, an A section that would be better as an intro or outro...etc.



Step four was realizing I had written a really nice tune. Bass vamp intro, nice tune, logical form. There is however a point where that nagging feeling of “this needs to be better” creeps in. Again time to step back, and either see what’s missing or see what’s unnecessary. It was clear upon reflection that I had stripped the tune down but wanted something more, rather, than just the standard head in, head out format. I felt it needed to go somewhere else after the solos. A reprieve of some sort. I decided to write an interlude (page 3). While interludes are prevalent in large ensemble writing, I rarely hear them in smaller ensemble compositions. The challenge, with the interlude, is getting back to the original composition. Fortunately for me in this case the interlude just wrote itself and functioned as a substitute for the first 6 bars of the original composition. So now I had a nice tune with an interlude.



 There was still something missing. It had to do with the original vamp. I felt as if it should emerge from somewhere. Some ethereal, airy, netherland sound. My intellect told me it should be something atonal in nature, so I set out to compose. This took some time. I started working with different 12 tone rows and playing with that idea. After some time it eventually turned into a whole tone sound in 15/8 and I abandoned the row and went with what my ears were dictating. Always go with the ears!

The icing on the cake for me was having the idea of the bass playing quarter notes over the intro making it on the beat and then off the beat (1st system). Eventually the bass is left on its own and my original step one vamp is allowed to emerge. I’ve heard it said that one thing for sure about the creative process is that you have an inert knowing when it is completed. It can happen in a flash or can take months. Usually it’s a combination of the two.

Again you can hear the full song at CBC Music.  If anyone would like to have their own copy of the sheet music, go to my Jeff Johnston Trio facebook page, hit the 'like' button and send me a message.
My cd is available on my website.

http://jeffjohnstonmusic.com
http://facebook.com/jeffjohnstontrio

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Editing - spaces are alive

Something happens when you practice a lot. You eventually start to play everything you know all the time. It’s an unconscious, albeit normal and inevitable phase any good musician goes through. I actually love hearing students go through this phase. It’s a clear indication that they are serious and are working hard on the materials their teachers have designated.

There comes a time however when the student has to start evaluating all they know and all they are playing. There comes a time in one’s evolution as an improvising musician that you have to start the process of editing, or even deleting in some cases, much of what you have learned. I understand this may seem paradoxical to some, but all great artists at some point in their development make a decision as to what to keep and what not to keep in terms of the materials they have learned and how they use these materials.

The place to start, on this part of your journey, is in the “editing suite”. Many students in the “playing everything you know” phase tend to overplay almost all of the time, rarely making effective use of space. You will hear this quite often particularly with an intermediate or university level student. So much information is being absorbed at this stage and there needs to be an outlet, a get it all out there attitude. Good students with a good time feel and good articulation will play endless lines in their solos without any real defining sense of phrasing or any real sense of melody or melodic development. The editing process can start once the student becomes aware or conscious of their overplaying and along with this new consciousness, the student will discover that what they are playing is not a true representation of what they are actually trying to communicate.

If this sounds familiar then this is a good time to start recording yourself everytime you play, not just when practicing but also at gigs, jams, rehearsals etc. Listen to yourself with a critical ear and ask yourself the following questions. Did that phrase go on too long? Maybe several bars too long? Should I have ended the phrase sooner and more decisively? Should I leave more space before starting the next phrase? Maybe several bars of space? Am I communicating effectively with the other musicians or am I off in my own little world? Could I be more melodic in my approach? Am I playing good musical ideas? Am I developing or expanding on these ideas?

Start with these questions and use them as a springboard to come up with more questions. Make sure your self criticism is constructive and do not beat up on yourself in the process. Try to keep a detached and non-judgemental attitude as if it were someone else you were listening to. The study of space and how you use it will be as important a part of your musical evolution as any other area. You will gain insight and understanding into the reality that what you don’t play is as meaningful as what you do play. You will start to understand that there is no such thing as dead space. In fact you will realize that spaces are alive!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Technique pt 2 - expressive technique

What I want to talk about in this post is a technical area that is often overlooked - expressive technique. Expressive technique is about control, colour and balance. Shaping a melody so that it sings, creating the “illusion” of legato, the balance in volume between your left and right hand, balancing volumes within the fingers of one hand, etc. One extremely essential component of expressive technique is the sustain pedal. More on this later.

Here are a few examples of balance between the left and right hands. Both pieces demonstrate the pianist beautifully shaping a long flowing melodic line and accompanying the melody with a steady rhythmic chordal pulse. The right hand sings over the slightly softer left hand. This is where the pedal can be quite useful, helping smooth out the melodic line and giving it a legato feel.

When playing such a line try thinking of your right hand as another instrument, a flute, violin or a voice. Take note also of the left hand. All notes of each chord hit together in a consistently precise manner to produce an even tone.

There is an effortless simplicity to these performances. But be aware that these performances require great discipline and control. I hope you enjoy the videos I have chosen. There is a wealth of information here especially for the jazz pianist who is learning how to play ballads. The similarities between the two performances are really quite striking... proving that beautful music is beautiful music no matter what the style.

I will write more about expressive technique and pedal control in my next post.



Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Learning the language - ii-V lines

One thing that should be clear to any jazz piano student is the lineage of the music, not only harmonically, but particularly as it applies to right hand jazz language.
Bebop, modal, post modal, chromatic and free, are all languages and the student must over time gain a strong knowledge base of each.


Whether you are a fan of Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock, one thing is for certain, they have all studied and mastered bebop lines and basic ii-V language. I am talking specifically about the music of the 1940’s and 1950’s and the explorations of musicians such as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, to name a few, who created a language and laid a foundation for everything that was to follow. Some characteristics of basic bebop language include passing tones, surround sounds and the usage of altered notes such as the b9 or #5.

Here is a step by step method to get you started:

Step One: Saturated listening
Go to Itunes, YouTube, your library or record store - find and listen to the music. Parker, Powell, Dizzy, Sonny Stitt, early Trane, Cannonball, Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, Dexter, Barry Harris, Milt Jackson, JJ Johnson. The list is too extensive to mention here. Concentrate on the lines and try to get a sense of how these musicians are putting it together. Most important….just listen.

Step Two: Research
Once you get an idea of how good ii-V line should sound, start your search and find 15 or 20 really good lines. There are many books, online transcriptions or perhaps you have some solos you, or someone you know, have transcribed. The Charlie Parker Omnibook is an excellent source. Find lines that specifically have a bar of ii leading to a bar of V leading to the tonic and are primarily eighth note oriented. Become a researcher and find as many great lines as you can.



Step Three: Find your line
At this point you will want to find or assemble a line that appeals to you and that you would like to work on. Look through the lines you have found - perhaps it’s a line from the Omnibook or perhaps you like part of a Cannonball line and would like to combine it with part of a Barry Harris line. If you feel you are starting to get a grasp on the language you may want to compose a line yourself. A good line has a snake like quality to it. An interesting shape, not too scalar, not too arrpegiated , and makes use of the characteristics I have mentioned beforehand.

Step Four: Learn the line
Once you have the line you like/love, start to learn it in all the keys. Write it out in all the keys. Put fingerings to the line and learn it like you would learn a classical piece. I encourage my students to have a manuscript book just for lines.

Step Five: Use the line
Once you can play the line comfortably in all keys at a decent tempo, start using it in tunes. All the Things You Are is a great tune for this, as it has many ii-Vs (learn this tune in a few more keys and you will cover all the ii-Vs!). But don’t limit usage to your practice session. Use it at jams, gigs, club dates (great time to practice) etc. After a period of time you will not only have this line mastered but more importantly you will have a deeper understanding of its components and how they function. This is what is most important here, not learning the a line as a ‘lick' you can pull out of your hat, but as a means to getting deeper into the language.

Bebop is an intricate language and one can spend one’s entire life trying to master it. However, if you can master five or six lines that utilize various aspects of the vernacular you should start to gain a good foundation.

Here is a short example of working through a line on All the Things You Are. Later in the clip I loop the line in one key making slight variations each time through.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reworking a standard - zing zing zing

From time to time I like looking over the standard jazz repertoire to see if there is a tune that I can arrange or rearrange. A tune that not only appeals to me on an aesthetic level but one I can rearrange to make it more current, interesting and ultimately make it my own. Being a sucker for old movies, I decided a few years back to reinterpret many of the old classics such as ‘Over The Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz, ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca, and ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me In St. Louis.



When I compose an original jazz composition, quite often my first thought is what environment do I want to improvise in. Will it be swing, straight, changes, no changes, time, no time, etc, etc. When looking to rework a standard I use the same approach. So with a tune such as The Trolley Song, albeit a little corny or clich├ęd at first glance, I wanted to find if there was a conducive setting within which I was comfortable improvising.

My first realization was that the A sections were basically a double time type ‘rhythm changes’, and as such I could put them over a pedal point using a charleston figure as the bass line. My harmonic approach in the head was to use shifting dyads (2 note chords) thus leaving the harmony somewhat ambiguous and elusive . To make the bridge more interesting I used phrygian and Maj 7 #5 sonorities. For an intro, I actually took the tag, or final refrain of the original version, switching between a three beat figure and fast 4/4. I play this tag again at the end of the head in.

This now propels the improviser back to the charleston figure on a Bb pedal point. Playing over a pedal leaves the improviser with a lot of options. First lets clarify what is meant by pedal point. In this case it means playing on Bb. Not Bb major or minor or dominant. Just Bb. This allows one to play either chromatically or to play over specific chord qualities. I tend to think top down, that is to say what I play in my right hand determines my left hand reaction (kind of like comping for myself). So on this pedal point I am shifting between dominant, sus4, altered, diminished, slash chord, and sometimes just purely chromatic ideas (ie. not thinking of any particular scale or chord type).

Here's my version from a concert at McGill University featuring a couple of extremely talented young musicians, Miles Perkin on bass and Phil Melanson on drums.
Special thanks to Claude Thibault for providing this video and for his amazing website. http://www.sortiesjazznights.com

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Practicing pt 3 - a little hard work never hurt anyone



If I miss a day of practice, I know it. If I miss two days, my manager knows it. If I miss three days, my audience knows it.
ANDRE PREVIN
Pianist, conductor


If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.
MICHELANGELO
Renaissance sculptor and painter


When I played with Michael Jordan on the Olympic team, there was a huge gap between his ability and the ability of the other great players on that team But what impressed me was that he was always the first one on the floor and the last one to leave.
STEVE ALFORD
Olympic gold medalist and NBA player



Legendary violinist Issac Stern was once confronted by a middle-aged woman after a concert. She gushed “Oh, I’d give my life to play like you!”
“Lady,” said Stern acidly, “that I did!”




Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
STEPHEN KING
Author

Practicing pt 2 - building concentration powers

In this post I want to address issues concerning concentration and focus. Much of what we as musicians practice, whether it be scales, an etude, a transcription etc. requires rote repetition practice, playing the same thing over and over again. But be careful not to equate rote repetition with mindless practice or what some call going on “automatic pilot“. Rote practice requires your full attention.

Athletes know this and like an athlete, musicians need continued focused practice on the fundamentals of technique and theory. The greatest golfers in the world practice their drive and their putt everyday. In many martial arts there are only a handful of basic moves and concepts which the student practices day in and day out for years on end. Mastering fundamentals is a must!

The mind is like a muscle, it’s not actually a muscle, but like a muscle needs to be exercised everyday. Use it or lose it as they say. Perhaps you can only stay focused on one thing for five minutes. That’s ok. By practicing on a regimented daily basis your ability increases over time. In a short couple of weeks you will find you can concentrate for 10 or perhaps 15 minutes.

One exercise that helps is practicing extremely slow. Take a scale or a Bach two-part invention and play it as slow as you can. Pay close attention to make sure all the notes are producing an even tone and that both hands are hooking up perfectly. Pay attention to the space between the notes. Not only will this type of practice increase your concentration abilities but will also benefit your technique dramatically. Playing slowly and softly increases your tactile awareness and with a heightened tactile sense your whole relationship with the instrument is taken to another level.

There are many activities one can engage in away from the instrument to assist in increasing your concentration powers. Reading, crosswords, meditating, yoga, sudoku, learning a language, learning a martial art, are all good examples. Even practicing away from your instrument can be helpful. Next time you walk to the bus stop, try walking in 5/4 or practice identifying intervals in your head while waiting in line at the supermarket. Have fun with this and let me know if you come up with any other tips or tricks that help you focus.