June 1st, 2016

How to Think Like a Pro Jazz Musician: Michael Brecker and The Power of Simplicity

By Forrest

Think like a pro jazz musician

It sounds so complex. So difficult. So advanced…

Great jazz musicians sound as though they’re implementing highly complex and difficult concepts that mere mortals could never hope to access, but in reality, professionals think simpler than you’d ever imagine.

It’s the beginners and intermediates who study the pros and abstract what they think is going on in a convoluted and complex way.

Jazz improvisation is a real-time activity. This means there’s no time to think.

And even in the practice room where you do have infinite time, simplicity is your best friend because when the heat of the moment comes and you’re on stage, it’s the simple stuff that will be there with you.

Professionals use simple concepts.

They use them effectively and they disguise them…

Michael Brecker and simplicity

When you think Michael Brecker, you probably don’t think simple.

He plays so fast. So effortless. So perfect.

But, when you closely study what he’s playing and take away the lightening speed that he’s known for, you’ll see many simple concepts you’re familiar with.

Listen to his solo on Giant Steps with saxophonist Bob Mintzer, from the album Twin Tenors.

A lot of what he’s playing sounds extremely angular and complex, but it’s actually not at all. He utilizes some very simple techniques, but knows exactly how to get the most mileage out of them.

Complexity = Disguised Simplicity

Studying music theory and analyzing jazz solos defines how we view what we discover. It’s a catch-22. Without knowledge of music theory we have no real framework to understand what’s going on, but with it, we may tend to artificially and subconsciously mold our findings to fit into what we understand.

This process of analysis happens time and time again when transcribing and figuring out how to think about our findings.

Through this line of thought, what may have been a simple concept in the performer’s mind, becomes an elaborate design in ours.

When you’re trying to understand how to think about something, here’s the key…

If things seem like they’re getting really complex, you’re probably thinking about  them wrong.

Complex concepts are not usually complex. They’re typically one of three things:

  1. A simple concept modified in a small way
  2. A simple concept applied to a different context from which it originated
  3. A simple concept combined with another simple concept

When you’re studying the music, language, and solos of your heroes, try to boil down everything you want to actually use into simple concepts that you can apply effortlessly.

Now let’s dive into Brecker’s solo and see how he modifies, applies, and combines simple concepts to achieve what sounds like a complex result.

Strategy 1: Modifying a simple concept in a small way

Adding Chromaticism, 00:43

In this first example, observe how Brecker plays over a ii V line in a simple way that outlines the quick changing harmony, but modifies it with chromaticism.

Chromaticism is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to modify a simple concept to make it sound more advanced.

Brecker lines 1 - ii v language plus chromaticism



Modifying the 9th, 1:19

Any time you want to modify a concept, line, or technique to make it sound more complex, simply add an alteration over the dominant chord on either the 9th or the 5th.

You can easily modify the 9th by flatting or sharping it. And, you can do the same thing to the 5th.

Brecker lines 2 - arpeggio with b9



Modifying rhythm, 1:57 

In this example, Brecker does something that you can do immediately in real-time to anything you want: modify the rhythm. Adding triplets to a simple arpeggio works every time to make simple concepts sound more elegant.

Brecker lines 3 - adding triplets



Strategy 2: Applying a simple concept to a different context

Think of only the dominant V7 chord instead of the whole ii V, 00:33

This is one of the most simple concepts that so many players do. Used in the right hands, it’s extremely effective. Instead of thinking of the entire ii V, ditch the minor chord and only think of the V7 chord.

It seems so obvious, almost too easy, but as you can see from Brecker, it really does work. He uses this countless times in this solo and in his general playing.

Brecker lines 4 - thinking V7



Use the ii minor triad in place of the V7 chord, 00:53

This Brecker line stands out the most to me in the entire solo. It sounds so advanced and downright awesome!

And I bet if you didn’t look at the line first before hearing it, you’d think it was something quite difficult, yet as you can see, it’s a very simple concept.

Instead of thinking about the V7 chord, think about the ii chord instead.

Brecker lines 5 - minor triad instead of V7



Use the ii V a half step below, 1:04

When we hear a player “go outside” the harmony, we automatically believe it to be an advanced concept that gets them there. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Playing outside is the same as playing inside, you’re simply applying a concept to a different context. For example, in this Brecker line, he’s playing standard ii V language, but thinking of the ii V a half step below.

Not knowing this, you may have tried to analyze the line as something involving the major 7th, 13th, #4, and 9th on the minor chord. See how that gets quite complex?

But notice that when you’re thinking about something like a professional, it’s simple.

Brecker lines 6 - ii V half step down



Strategy 3: Combining one simple concept with another

Combine a bebop scale fragment with a simple outline of a chord, 00:40

Combining one concept with another allows for limitless possibilities. Here, Brecker switches off between basic outlines of the chord (using arrpegios and scales) and bebop scale fragments.

Brecker lines 7 - chord plus bebop scale



Combine simple arpeggios with big unique sounding leap, 1:03

Just as before, Brecker uses a simple concept (arpeggios) and combines it with another simple concept: using a large leap.

Paired together, they form an exciting difficult sounding line. Separately, they’re just two simple concepts.

Brecker lines 8 - combine arpeggios with leaps



Combine thinking V7 only over a ii V, with a big unique leap to end a phrase, 1:16

And in this line, Brecker combines the concept of thinking of just the V7 chord (ditching the minor chord), with a large leap to end the phrase. Again, together these two concepts form an exciting complex sounding line.

Separately, they’re just two simple concepts.

Brecker lines 9 - combine arpeggios with leap at end



Learning to think like a pro: simple over complex every time

When you transcribe and start to analyze what it is your heroes are doing, it’s tempting to analyze everything in a strict jazz theory framework where each note corresponds to a particular chord-tone or scale.

Unfortunately, if you analyze your findings like this, you’ll think that every concept you come across is very difficult and complex.

Aim to re-think through things until you understand a simple way to think about what it is you’re looking at or listening to.

If you can’t understand something in a simple fashion, you’re probably not thinking about it how a professional would.

Notice how everything we looked at in this lesson boiled down to Brecker doing one of  three things:

  1. Modifying a simple concept in a small way
  2. Applying a simple concept in a different context from which it came
  3. Combining one simple concept with another

The power of simplicity when used effectively will make you sound more professional and advanced than ever before. Now, the power of simplicity is yours!

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