June 9th, 2011

Clark Terry’s 3 Steps to Learning Improvisation

Written by Eric

Clark Terry is one of the living legends of this music.

He has played with every big name in jazz over the last half-century from the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, to Ella Fitzgerald…the list could go on forever. With such a rich performing career spanning over six decades, he continues to play with today’s top musicians and inspire up and coming improvisers.

During school, I was lucky enough to have an impromptu lesson with the trumpet master. One night after a rehearsal for a gig, Clark came in unannounced to the practice rooms at our school looking to impart some wisdom to some aspiring musicians. Before I knew it I was sitting inches from Clark Terry’s bell and he was teaching me a tune by ear.

That sound that I had listened to for years on record was coming out of a horn a foot away from me. It was an experience that I will always remember. I don’t know what was more impressive, the fact that I was sitting down with a jazz legend or that Clark, age of 89, came into the music school practice rooms around 10 at night to hang out with students for free.

Pretty amazing, but then again Clark Terry has been dedicated to educating young jazz musicians for decades. He mentored a young Miles Davis and encouraged Quincy Jones as he was starting out as an arranger and trumpet player. With a track record like that, it’s … Read More

June 6th, 2011

Two-Five Substitutions in a Flash

Written by Forrest

Everybody wants to play “outside” the chord changes. They think there is something mysterious about getting outside the changes. In my experience, the phenomenal players that I’ve studied with along with the legendary players I’ve learned from on recordings, approach playing outside the harmony much in the same way they approach playing inside the harmony: they play over specific chords.

Playing other chords instead of the original chords is often called superimposition. Superimposing these substitutions on-top of the original set of chord changes allows you to keep a logical structure to your lines, while escaping the typical path.

An easy entry point to utilizing these substitutions is over ii Vs. It’s quite simple. Instead of playing the ii V in the original changes, you’ll instead play a ii V from a different key. The important thing to remember is: you still have to resolve the ii V to the original key and you have to engage your ear to make it sound right. Theoretical concepts can give you ideas of what to play, but then you must use your ear to tailor the concept for that particular situation.

Where these substitutions come from

The 3 substitutions presented in this article occur time and time again in the standard jazz repertoire; they are devices that composers have used for centuries to add tension directly before a resolution point (V7 to I).

The first substitution is simply what jazz educators call the “backdoor ii V” (iv-  bVII7  I ). And you can … Read More

June 3rd, 2011

Seeking Out Words of Wisdom

Written by Eric

In practicing improvisation, one common pitfall that we run into is expecting to find the secrets of jazz all by ourselves. We gather our books and recordings and head into the practice room determined to overcome the difficulties of improvisation with an army of one. What’s the big deal, you taught yourself Spanish, so how hard could jazz be?

Eventually, we encounter the inevitable – we get frustrated with our progress, hit a wall with our ear training skill or harmonic knowledge, and lose motivation. Not to worry. You are not alone.

While it is necessary to spend hours in the practice room by yourself studying records and working on instrumental technique, we can’t figure everything out for ourselves – we need some sort of guidance. If you look at the history of jazz, the best improvisers had mentors and studied intently under the guidance of their heroes. This is easier than it sounds. There are resources all around us – we just have to seek them out.

Looking for guidance

We have opportunities to talk to and take lessons with great musicians everywhere. Learn to take advantage of these situations. Find the players that you admire and aspire to sound like. These players may be local heroes that you see every week or huge names in jazz that you only have access to through interviews. Find out what makes them tick. What specifically did they practice? How long did it take them to get where they are today? Who … Read More

May 30th, 2011

FAQ: The questions we get over and over

Written by Forrest

Frequently Asked Questions

We get hundreds of questions every month. We do our best to answer as many as we possibly can and write articles about the most provocative ones. Below are answers to the most common questions, pointing you to the many articles that will help resolve the question. Enjoy.

Who should I transcribe?

Transcribing is an extremely personal process. I remember asking one of the great tenor saxophonist of today a similar question when I was 19. He told me that no one can tell you who to transcribe because that’s essentially who you’re going to be influenced by the most. He asked me who I listened to a lot. Who could I not get enough of. And said, “That’s who you should transcribe.”

Hopefully that gives you a better understanding of what transcribing means to your  development and how important it is you make your own decisions about it. Everybody’s list of who to transcribe would be completely different because we all have differing ideas of what we want to sound like and what kind of language we want to absorb.

Refer to these articles:

I’m learning language but now I feel like I’m just playing practiced material. How do I get beyond this?

Learning language often starts out like this. You memorize … Read More

May 27th, 2011

5 Jazz Survival Skills: Do You Have Them?

Written by Eric

You’ve seen it on TV or maybe you’ve even done it yourself. Trekking into the wilderness alone, armed with just a few essential tools and your own courage. Find your own shelter, find your own food, find your way out. You vs. Nature.

To make it out alive, you need a few tools that will ensure your survival: a knife, a flashlight, some fire-starter, some waterproof clothing, etc. With these few items you’ll be able to build a fire, find your way in the dark, build a shelter and stay dry, and gut a fish.

However, the most important thing that you need to bring on your trip can’t be put into a back pack – Survival skills.

The best preparation you can have are the skills and knowledge that come with years of study, practice, and real-world experience. Knowledge of what plants are edible, how to stay warm, how to catch food, how to determine direction, and what to do when things turn dangerous. Tools or no tools, these skills are what will ultimately save your life out there.

Anyone venturing into the wilderness cannot predict what they’ll encounter out there (sudden storms, threatening wildlife, unforeseen accidents…). But, you can be prepared for the unknown by developing certain skills that will ensure your survival.

The same is true for jazz musicians.

Jazz survival skills

Yes, there are indeed jazz “survival” skills. Certain techniques and proficiencies that you need to have in order to survive and thrive in any musical … Read More

May 23rd, 2011

Too Much Information…Not Enough Knowledge

Written by Eric

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…~ Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate

Let’s be honest, we’re pretty lucky as jazz musicians in this day and age. As a musician interested in jazz in the year 2011, you have access to more recordings and resources related to learning this music than any previous generation of improvisers struggling to learn how to play over chord changes.

This is the age of information after all. By clicking a button, you can look up virtually anything you desire to know. With sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Google Books, and countless other resources, you have thousands of years of knowledge at your fingertips. The only thing slowing you down on your path to infinite knowledge is the speed of your internet connection.

For musicians, the resources available online are vast: you can download virtually any recording or song that you want, you can watch videos of the masters, past and present, on YouTube, you can look up chord progressions in countless fakebooks, you can read interviews with notable musicians… You can even watch live performances online from New York jazz clubs like Smalls and hear archived shows of some the best players in the world.

But, is this overabundance information really helping us improve as improvisers?

Too much of a good thing

As it turns out, instant access to a plethora of information can be both a blessing and a curse. With a computer we have access to limitless information, but … Read More

May 20th, 2011

How Rock Climbing Taught Me How to Approach Improvisation

Written by Forrest

Rock Climbing and Music

The torrential rain won’t stop. Day after day it pours, keeping us inside. After an epic winter, the weather lightens up and the sun soaks up the moisture on the rocks. Finally, rock climbing season is in full swing. I make the trek up to the boulders, chalk up my hands, and go to town.

I know what you’re thinking. What does rock climbing have to do with learning how to improvise? Am I even at the right site? What the heck is he talking about? Relax. You’re at the right site. This is a site about jazz improvisation. But learning how to improvise is not so cut and dry. And many aspects of your life will provide surprising insight into how to approach your musical endeavors.

I’ve been an avid rock climber since I was in my early teens. The serenity of nature combined with the superhero-feeling of ascending vertical towers of rock; there’s nothing quite like it.

Steadily improving at this deceptively cerebral activity has led me to some unique ideas about how to approach learning improvisation. No need to be a climber or to even have known that it was a sport to gain value from these points. And perhaps it will inspire you to look to other parts of your life for alternate perspectives on how to learn this music.

Returning to a solid base

The endless rain I described at the beginning of this article accurately describes the weather of this past year in much … Read More

May 18th, 2011

Why Jazz Education Doesn’t Fit the Mold

Written by Eric

One thing we’re all accustomed to in this day and age is results with a limited amount of work. From daily tasks to larger life goals, this mentality has been ingrained into our collective mindset. Put in a set amount of effort and time and you’ll reach your goal, getting the exact results you’ve envisioned. This attitude especially holds true for our educational system.

You spend four years in high school and with a minimal amount of work, you get a diploma. You are now a high school graduate. Next step, college. Pick a major, complete each course, pass your finals, and now you’re ready for the job market. This is the typical model for most jobs, every step of the way there are minimum requirements and goals to meet. Once you’ve jumped through these hoops, you’ve accomplished your goal.

However, as jazz musicians, we don’t exactly fit into this system.

Jazz education

This model is not conducive for creating innovative jazz musicians, yet this is how the jazz education system is set up. While nearly every other discipline has adopted a collegiate degree system to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a profession in a field, this does not have the same success for jazz musicians.

The reality of the matter is that the skills needed to develop as a mature improviser can’t be acquired in a single course or even over the years it takes to complete a music program – you need to spend your entire … Read More

May 16th, 2011

Two Five Progressions Made Easy

Written by Forrest

Two Five Progressions

The ii V progression makes up the vast majority of chord changes within the jazz standard repertoire. Much of our success or failure as improvisors comes from being able to navigate this deceptively simple progression.

Learning how to play over ii Vs is actually much easier than you think. The mistake most people make is they try to play over them using theoretical knowledge instead of utilizing language and their ear. You’ll notice that in this article I won’t be talking about 7 to 3 resolutions, dorian & mixolydian scales, or anything in that vein.

These types of things are excellent points of theory to know, but in reality provide little help compared to the knowledge you’ll gleam from transcribing. Use theory to supplement what you learn from studying how the music sounds.

Get ii V language

Everything starts with a model. Observing a definitive way of how to do something.

Listen to one of your heroes on a tune you know the chord changes to. Take note of where all the ii Vs occur in the tune. Focus in on those areas and listen for a line that grabs your fancy. If you have a program like Transcribe, loop the line and listen to it carefully to make sure it’s something you genuinely like. Do not neglect how important this is.

Many people have been writing in lately about who they should transcribe, asking specifically for us to tell them what solos and what musicians they should … Read More

May 13th, 2011

Why You Need Your Whole Brain to Improvise

Written by Eric

You’ve probably heard of the popular theory that when it comes to thinking, people are either left brained or right brained; they’re either analytically predisposed or intuitively creative. The rationale is that artistic proclivity originates from the right hemisphere, whereas logic and reasoning skills arise from the left hemisphere. This philosophy has influenced educational methods, test preparation, psychology, and even the self-help industry.

A cut and dry method, it makes it very easy to classify people. You’re either technically oriented or artistically inclined. No in-betweens. Great artists must be right brained and great scientists and mathematicians must be left brained, right?

Well, not really. It’s simple to put things into black and white for the purpose of the theory, however the human mind is anything but simple. Many of the great discoveries and achievements in the sciences as well as the arts were facilitated by people that utilized and combined both ways of thinking.

Would Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork be possible if he had no technical or analytical faculties? Would his engineering feats and inventions exist without a forward thinking imagination? Would Einstein have come up with his theory of relativity if he relied on facts and figures alone?

As musicians and artists, we’re supposed to be right-brained-creative and intuitive, but is this the only way that we are capable of thinking? More and more, it’s becoming clear that the skills expected of modern improvisers require the qualities and colaboration of both sides of the brain.

Right brain vs. left

Read More
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