One of the things I’ve always been really
fascinated by is the idea of “finding
your own voice.” What does that mean?
Where do you find it? Most importantly,
when have we reached a level where it’s
appropriate to begin the search?
When I was a teenager, having been
playing for about six years or so, I started
to notice that it seemed like some players
were born with a natural talent for being
unique. They were composing and improvising
innovative music all the time, while
the majority of us had to stay focused on
learning the fundamentals before we could
even begin to contemplate something different.
On the flip side, though, I’ll never
forget the feeling of picking up the guitar
when I was five and having the sense
that the instrument contained infinite
potential, as though it was overflowing
with unique and interesting applications.
I started to wonder if maybe having a
unique and individual sound was really
reserved for the elite few, or perhaps there
was something I could be doing to encourage
a more creative and fresh musical
approach like I felt at the very beginning.
This pursuit led me to explore one of
the most profound areas of creative expression—how we practice. Over the past few
years, I’ve become increasingly interested
in how our musical development unfolds
when we’re driven by sincere curiosity,
rather than a regimented routine that’s
always rooted in achievement.
As jazz guitarists, there are certain prerequisites
we have to master in order to
begin developing our personal relationship
to the music. We need to understand
the physical mechanics of how to play the
guitar, gain an intimate knowledge of the
fretboard, and acquire a firm understanding
of scales, harmony, rhythm, and improvisation.
The unifying factor that can encompass
all of these elements is the act of playing
a song. As in so many genres, songs act
as the platform on which musicians connect.
It’s the musical environment in which
we get to realize our relationships with one
another, with our instruments, and with
our underlying creative impulse.
In learning a song, you are given an
opportunity. You can choose to focus on
learning the melody, the chords, or both
together—perhaps in a particular orchestration
like a chord-melody arrangement. Each
of these approaches will grant you access to
the musical world that lives within the composition.
If you learn a song by committing
one specific arrangement to memory, however,
you often end up defining your role in
the relationship as one thing, which down
the road can cause you to feel trapped, or
unable to expand upon your relationship to
the song as your playing and knowledge of
music increasingly develops. In essence, it’s
perhaps most liberating to learn songs the
way a classical conductor might learn a symphony.
If you study the complete picture
of a tune, you will be free to experience the
beauty of all its dimensions.
One of my favorite ways to go about this
is by using a technique I learned from one of
my greatest guitar heroes and teachers, Tuck
Andress. To paraphrase, Tuck talked about
breaking a song up into its three primary
dimensions: melody, bass, and harmony. In
most jazz standards, the melody and bass act
as a kind of framework that stays constant
no matter how the piece is interpreted.
However, the harmonic content—meaning
the voicings you choose—are subject to
change, and will vary from player to player.
So given that jazz players are encouraged
to improvise within the structure of the
song, Tuck talked about learning how to
play the bass and melody of the song simultaneously
before we include the harmonies.
This way, we establish a kind of general
architecture for the piece, allowing us to fill
in the chords as we wish. You can see in Fig.
what this basic architecture looks like.
or download example audio
Once you feel comfortable with outlining
each measure with the melody and bass,
it’s time to add a third part. The purpose of
this step is to begin adding color to the basic
structure. The key here is to start small and to
think in terms of melodic phrases, more than
stacking chord tones on top of each other to
create voicings. If you are playing a Cm7, you
may want to play something that highlights
the b3 or b7 of the chord. Conversely, you
may chose to keep the tonality more ambiguous
by playing lines that center around the
chord’s 5, 9, or 11. This line acts as a counterpoint
to the bass and melody.
In Fig. 2
, I embellish the original version
with some basic harmony. It happens
to imply harmonic motion, but should
also form a melodic figure in and of itself.
If you want to explore the art of inner
voicings even deeper, I encourage you to
check out J. S. Bach’s four-part chorales.
or download example audio
Lastly, start playing with what happens
when you add another voice to the mix as
seen in Fig. 3
. Does it enhance the harmony?
Does it take away? Does it paint a
harmonic picture strong enough that if the
bass were to drop out, you would still hear
the voice leading? How does this inform
your sense of soloing over the changes?
Does the line between improvising and
playing the song start to blur?
or download example audio
What I find so beautiful about this
approach to learning a new song is that
you become acclimated to its melody and
overall structure in relation to an ever-changing
set of harmonic circumstances.
And what makes this approach even more
special is how you can accidentally discover
voicings that might not otherwise
have been obvious choices. In essence, during
these formative stages, we’re allowing
ourselves to make friends with the music,
rather than taking ownership or falling
prey to it. From that perspective, anything
Julian Lage is one of those rare musicians who
feels equally at home in acoustic and jazz circles.
He has been a member of legendary vibraphonist
Gary Burton’s group since 2004, and
also regularly collaborates with pianist Taylor
Eigsti. Lage’s latest album, Gladwell, reflects
his wide-ranging musical interests and talents
by incorporating chamber music, American folk
and bluegrass, Latin and world music, traditional
string-band sounds, and modern jazz. For
more information, visit julianlage.com