The evolution of the concept of melodic soloing

You will sometimes hear one player say of another, “Her solos are really melodic.” We intuitively value improvising in a melodic fashion. I want to talk in the next two columns about how this concept is evolving in jazz education.

If you have ever asked yourself any of the following questions, you may find this topic very interesting: What should I play in my solo? How do I keep coming up with new ideas? How long can I stay with one idea? How do I develop it? When is it time to move to a completely new idea? What makes a solo compelling for a listener? How do I make my solo interesting through the whole thing?

Keep these questions in mind, and let’s begin by looking at a little history of jazz education, and then we’ll look at how the focus is shifting with a larger spotlight on melodic improvisation.

Formal college-level jazz education has been around a relatively short time, with interest beginning to take shape in the late seventies. This interest was often slow in growing, as many academic programs showed resistance to both jazz and guitar as serious artistic pursuits. Conservative academics tended to look on jazz, and especially jazz guitar, as less desirable stepchildren that did not deserve to be even close to the esteemed place of classical music. That old order is rapidly changing, and jazz and other degree programs in guitar are finding acceptance as legitimate courses of study in the arts. The teaching methods and emphases within these programs are rapidly evolving as well. The early days of jazz education taught a rather pedantic approach to playing the music: “Outline the changes.” “Play this scale over that chord.” “Use this technique to play outside.” “Practice scales.” This intellectual approach to a form of music that was meant to be emotionally evocative is thankfully starting to run out of gas.

In the recent past, books with scale studies and rote patterns have been almost infinite in number. This represents the prior focus on the analytical approach to the music, which tends to be mechanical in playing the right notes against whatever chord. In contrast to that approach, I found a recently written book that I think represents a new trend and a new focus in jazz improvisation, and gives new direction to teachers. The focus is on melodic improvisation and the actual ways one can develop this ability, as well as on improvising meaningful melodies—as opposed to simply outlining the harmony with scales and arpeggios.

Brian Kane’s text, Constructing Melodic Jazz Improvisation, is a breakthrough in this area, getting young players focused on melodic intent rather than playing scales and licks. Kane discusses all the aspects of improvisation that can help move a player’s solos to a new level of meaning: how to develop a solo from start to finish; to be intentional about phrase length; to have melodic intent in a solo; use of techniques that can develop an idea; expanding one’s melodic memory so that previous ideas can be replayed; use of repetition and development of motifs; effective use of rest space; use of inflections to help develop a personal style; and many more innovative, intuition-building ideas. Emphasizing these techniques results in a totally different feeling in the solo—one that focuses on a communicative style. After all, isn’t that our goal, to communicate something meaningful in the music that can move people through listening?

Kane focuses on the 12-bar blues form to practice these techniques (with a CD play-a-long). And while the text is aimed primarily at players who are early in their career, I found the ideas so coherent and meaningful that I believe even experienced players who want to refocus on the craft of creating melodies—would also find this to be a highly valuable resource. Kane’s approach can help players from many skill levels craft more meaningful solos.

When you want to change something about your life (in this case, learning to play more meaningful melodic solos), put your energy in that direction. While you’re waiting for Kane’s book to arrive, conduct a web search for discussions as to what other players are doing to advance this skill. Use search words like melodic development, melodic improvisation, etc. Listen with intent to classic jazz recordings with regard to development of melodies—specifically, where the masters repeat ideas, develop them, make sequences out of them, invert them, and when they move on to a new idea. You can chart an entire solo to study the ways it developed—pay attention to how the contour of the solo unfolds and creates greater excitement by the end. Talk to other players you know about how they advance this skill. Focus more on memorizing melodies rather than playing scales (some advanced players believe scales should not be practiced at all). Above all, maintain persistence in advancing your melodic craft—it will pay off.

Exciting stuff! Come back next time for more in-depth work on melodic improvising and a review of a second text that tackles this topic.

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A look at different ways to approach practicing

Let’s talk about practicing! I got the idea for this column from a recent PG interview with Carl Verheyen [January, 2009]. When asked, “What do you do to further your craft in terms of practicing?” Carl replied, “I’m a serious practicer. To me, practicing is where I find my center as a person. If I go a day without practicing, I feel useless… To practice, I’ve always kept a lick book. It’s an ongoing musical diary that’s always on my music stand.” Carl went on to say that his personal style is a “direct result of the lick book,” and that “practicing is finding new things or getting the impossible stuff you already know down better.”

In recent decades, in jazz curricula especially, teachers (often younger teachers who are themselves coming from an academic jazz curriculum) seemed to be focused on the technical aspects of jazz improvisation, such as developing the technique of playing a wide variety of scales and matching those with their parent chords. The focus has been on the technical aspect of how jazz works. This is necessary stuff, but it’s not the heart and soul of the matter. A more important focus of our practice should be: When preparing to express something spiritual, emotive, and unique through the vehicle of improvisation, what, and how, should I practice? I think Carl nailed it when he talked about both the center and the lick book. Goals such as these refocus practice into a spiritual discipline in which we evolve as a player and as a person, while at the same time developing a personal, unique performance style.

In spiritual disciplines, ideas, techniques and prayers, etc., are repeated over and over as a way of gaining mastery over some part of the material, and as a way of developing a core and center. For musicians, this may be the repetitive (and often slow) practice of transcribed solos, licks we have transcribed from one of the masters, tunes, play-along pieces, singing what we practice, etc. Kenny Werner emphasizes this approach as the path to effortless mastery in his book by the same title. The idea behind this is that the material is known so well, and can be performed with such ease, that a path is opened for spiritual expression in the music.

The recordings and solos that really move us in this way are able to take us to a different plane of existence, and our feelings change in some way as a result. For the ancient Greeks, this was known as mimesis. It is the unique spirit of the performer, whose soul somehow becomes present in the music, that allows this process to happen.

When you keep an active musical diary—a kind of spiritual journal of practice—your music starts going in a different direction than when you’re simply learning the technical aspects of scales and chords. Carl’s diary consists of a lick book: the writing down and repetitious practice of ideas that he wants to incorporate into his own unique vocabulary. Personally, I have found this approach to be helpful. All players have a stock collection of licks and phrases that they regularly refer to. It is true among all styles. Listen to Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Terry Kath and you’ll hear many licks repeated—or repeated with variation—from solo to solo. The musical diary aims at helping us develop that kind of unique vocabulary and recognizable style.

There is no timeline for when this integration might begin to occur. Some players experience it earlier in life, some later. Below are some quotes that I found insightful on practicing and developing a spiritual approach to the music.

Barry Harris: “It’s amazing, but lately I’ve been suddenly feeling myself getting better and better each time I play. I don’t know why it’s happening now, at this late stage of my career, but it is happening... I must hope that I live long enough to solve more of the mysteries.”

Howard Alden: “Develop your repertoire. You’re better off spending time learning and practicing tunes rather than running scales up and down the neck. Play with other people as much as possible. An hour spent playing with other musicians is worth six hours practicing by yourself.”

Ken Karsh: “Do as much recording of yourself as you can. Listen to yourself with ‘tough love’ and don’t put yourself down. That attitude only works against you.”

Jimmy Ponder: “I put everything I have into the music, and hopefully the spirituality about my music is what prevails. It’s not the mathematics of it or the articulation, insofar as dealing with the amount of notes I can play within a given span of time. It is how it feels to the people that hear the music. How it makes them feel. That is my purpose—to please.”

Transform your practice time into a spiritual art: keep a musical diary, and a new path for the music will emerge.

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A look at T-Bone Walker''s introductory 12-bar chorus from "I Got a Break Baby"

Welcome to our exploration of T-Bone Walker, part 2. Last month we covered some T-Bone history and ended with some classic T-Bone licks. Today, I have transcribed the introductory 12-bar chorus on “I Got a Break Baby." This is essentially an improvised guitar solo that opens the piece, and there are some fantastic classic T-Bone riffs here! An important early work, T-Bone recorded this in 1942; it’s just as fresh and inspiring today!

T-Bone shows his interest in jazz horn-like phrasing by alternating swing eighth-note phrases with double-time sixteenth note lines. His mastery of the blues scale is apparent, but mixed in are a few jazz-like harmonies, such as leaning on the A natural note at times. Other jazz tendencies include the Charlie Christian-style licks, which use the natural third (C-Eb-E-G-C), using a pure, natural archtop tone with no overdrive, and using syncopated rhythms that are very akin to jazz phrasing (especially the implied hemiola that starts on beat two of measure 5 [F7]).

The chorus immediately following this one starts with a classic double stop (notes Bb and G played together). Continue transcribing that chorus as a great ear-training exercise and to incorporate T-Bone’s vocabulary into your own!

For more on T-Bone, check out:
“I Got a Break Baby” solo on YouTube
Also on YouTube: T-Bone Walker sitting in with Chuck Berry… the “student” honoring his main influence

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T-Bone Walker influenced countless guitar greats. Jim Bastian looks at his life and licks.

There are few figures in our pop music history that have provided such long-term excitement, had such far-reaching influence on artists of many styles, and caused such inspiration for the electric guitar as has T-Bone Walker. The list of stars that cite Walker as their chief influence seems unending. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown—all regarded T-Bone as one of their principle guitar heroes and influences. Chuck Berry commented that everything you see him do on the stage came from T-Bone.

Laying the foundation for modern urban blues, the electric archtop-playing Walker bridged a gap between blues and jazz guitar styles, and played in a manner that borrowed stylistic cues from both traditions. Although he is credited with moving the acoustic blues style to the electric guitar, his signature style really came from combining that with the influences of both jazz and the forties-style jump-swing bands. Four or five players stand out as the first ones who transferred the blues to electric guitar, but Walker boasted that he beat them all, and claimed to be the first in the late thirties!

It is no wonder his harmonic vocabulary reflects both jazz and blues: in his early days he was mixing with the likes of Charlie Christian, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and other Texas performers. In the forties, when he fronted his own bands, his choices for sidemen were the best jazz players he could find. Writers refer to his style as the smoother “California Style” blues. Although he has some of the grit of earlier blues players, as well as that harmonic language, his interest in chordal lines, jazz-style improvised single lines, rhythmic jazz phrasing, and playing with a smooth clean tone are all elements more akin to jazz guitar playing.

His star burned the brightest through the forties. Following that decade, his career was slowed down by growing popular interest in rock ‘n’ roll and declining health (probably related to alcoholism). A devoted European audience and tours to Europe helped keep his career alive in the sixties. Health problems, likely the complications of alcoholism, took their toll when he died of a stroke in 1975. Glamor shots over his career show him with Gibson guitars: ES-250, ES-5 and, in the sixties, the Barney Kessel Regular model.

Come on back next month for T-Bone, Part 2, and even more signature Walker phrases for you to woodshed!

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