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.

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