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.
Pianist, conductor

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

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.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Practicing pt 1 - confronting your worst enemy

The worst enemy any serious student of music must face and overcome is overwhelm. The sooner one comprehends this debilitating mental state, the better. Too often, it seems as if there is just too much to know and too much to learn. The deluge of material one needs to absorb to become an improvising musician is indeed immense and infinite.
However, you must not allow overwhelm to take over and control your thoughts, especially when you are practicing. If you are in the midst of learning a particular passage, or learning a specific ii-V line and you are thinking about how you suck at playing in 7/4, then you are in a state of overwhelm. This is a mild case, but there are some individuals who get so crazy about everything they need to know, nothing ever gets done. The key is to recognize when you enter this self-defeatist frame of mind, understand that it is your ego working against you and get back to the task at hand.

While overwhelm is your worst enemy, routine is your best friend. Routine is of the utmost importance and the more routine you are in your practicing methods, the quicker you will progress. You should know exactly what you are going to work on before settling into any practice session. In fact you should know this the moment you wake up in the morning, and if your approach is methodical, it will be an extension of what you worked on the day before.

Let’s be real, the more you practice, the better you get. I don’t think this is a shocker to anyone. It is, however, better to practice 2 hours/day, rather than 5 hours one day and ½ an hour the next. The latter signifies that your approach to practicing is not routine or methodical. If you are going to school it is perhaps unrealistic to think that you can put in 8 to 10 hours a day. However 3 to 5 hours seems reasonable. Plan ahead and set up a schedule at the beginning of each week. Let’s say you intend to practice 4 hours/day for 6 days (it’s ok to take a day off here and there - keeps you “hungry”). Break down the 4 hours into categories such as technique, transcription, learning lines, learning tunes, etc. You can further break down these categories into sub-categories. Be very clear and specific as to what you are going to work on. Understand also, that to effectively learn an etude, a transcription or even know a ii-V line well, may take months of consistent practice.
Stay focused and in the moment with whatever specific task you have laid out for yourself, and most important, do not let overwhelm take hold.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Looking Back - finding inspiration in the past

I recently came across a recording by Charlie Parker that blew me away. The phrasing, fluidity, and pure lyricism on this track “Embraceable You”, make it as fresh sounding today as it was when it was recorded in 1947. In fact, since stumbling upon this, I recalled the great saxophone master Dave Liebman saying how much this solo influenced his approach to melody and phrasing.

A few years ago, I remember asking a well known modern day guitarist what he was working on. I was expecting him to talk of advanced harmonic devices or complex time signatures, but instead he told me he was working out of the Charlie Parker Omnibook.
When Dave Holland was first putting his band together he saturated his listening with Dixieland music from the 1920’s. His goal was to was to recreate that vibe in a modern small group context.

I find all great artists from time to time feel a need to “go back” and draw inspiration from the past masters. One of my favourite art museums is the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. A beautiful and extensive collection of his works laid out chronologically. In the middle of the exhibit while Van Gogh is at the height of his artistic output one stumbles upon these large Renaissance-like paintings. While clearly having found his voice as an artist, Van Gogh felt the need to go back and copy (transcribe) such artists as Rembrandt.
I found a similar example at a Picasso exhibit recently. Again at the peak of his cubist period, his sketchbooks at the time reveal he was still sketching nudes and fruit baskets.
That’s what is known as ’keeping up the chops’!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Solo Piano Pt 2 - walking bass

Here is another video of how one can approach playing solo jazz piano. Playing with a walking bass line. Although not predominant in the legacy, it can be effective. I usually include a walking bass line piece when I perform a solo concert. Dave McKenna and Lennie Tristano were both masters at this.
The challenge for the pianist, is to find the notes ‘between’ the chord changes.
A tune like “The Touch of your Lips” has for the most part two chords per bar (which land on beats 1 and 3). So what do we play on beats 2 and 4 in our left hand?
The quickest solution is to find the dominant (or the V) of your destination note. For example, if your destination note is D (d minor), then the dominant of D is A (A7). Substitutions for A7 such as the tritone, in this case Eb, or C# diminished will also be effective (more on diminished substitutions in a later blog).

In this video I am paying tribute to Lennie, improvising on the changes of 'The Touch of Your Lips' or as I call this piece 'A Crutch for your Hips'

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solo Piano Pt 1 - the classical influence

I have been working on a solo piano cd recently which should be released sometime later this year. The history of solo piano in jazz is rich and vast. From Fats Waller to McCoy Tyner…Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett there are many resources to draw upon.
There is also a great deal of information available in the classical realm. In fact, if you listen closely you will find many of the great solo jazz pianists derived their material from the great classical masters of centuries gone by.
Bill Evans, for example, was clearly and directly influenced by impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. If it’s not clear to you, go have a listen to Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra. On this recording Evans pays homage to his primary harmonic influences. In pianists like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea one hears overwhelming evidence of Scriabin, Bartok and Stravinsky. Jarrett’s romanticism and as of late his atonal or pan-tonal (atonal with pockets of tonality) approach to solo piano are clear indications that he understood and relished the music of Brahms and Charles Ives and everyone in between. Cecil Taylor’s textural explorations should not go unnoticed as it reflected the textural explorations of many of the mid to late 20th century composers.

I want to share a few videos of a free improvisation I recorded last fall in the McGill studio where I teach. The first movement is a pan-tonal improv based on an intervallic motif, the minor 6th,and contrpuntal in nature. I am using harmonic and melodic material that may be heard in some of the early 20th century composers. The 2nd movement is more technical but again its source is early 20th century harmonic devices that I have applied to a modern free jazz improvisatory approach.

I’ll be talking more about the importance of playing “free” in later blogs.

First Post

Welcome to J-tonal. First and foremost I have to accredit the title of my blog to my good friend Wali Mohammed. Thanks Wali!!
My intention here is to pass on some of the materials I have been teaching and things I have learned as a piano/ensemble instructor at McGill University for the past going on 20 years. Many of my students have gone on to successful careers as performers, teachers and composers. The blog is intended to address the concerns of the intermediate/advanced jazz piano student (university level - grad/post grad) although all are welcome to read, watch and participate. I intend to address issues such as technique, harmony, ballad playing, learning lines, the importance of transcribing and much more.