Forward to the Project
During this so-called “age of information,” young jazz musicians have become inundated with resources. With the help of iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, students can easily listen to practically any iconic recording. Personal websites and blogs contain thousands of free transcriptions, scores, and even excerpts of books by authors like Jerry Bergonzi, Dave Liebmann, and Hal Crook. I would wager that anyone curious enough could find five to ten-years worth of patterns to practice within minutes at the computer.
My pedagogical goal with this project, therefore, is not to introduce yet another set of exercises to master. Rather, it is to make a few improvisational concepts seem more musical and approachable. Each track on this recording doubles as an “étude” for tastefully improvising within specific harmonic concepts. Through simply playing through these tunes and becoming comfortable with their structures, I hope students can expand their ears and vocabularies in a way that feels thoughtful, organic, and fun. Rather than assigning a student more exercises to play, I would challenge them to create coherent, personal statements within the sound-worlds these compositions introduce.
For students who resist the idea of practicing in a systematic way, playing these tunes may provide a refreshing method of engaging with familiar concepts. This approach may help bridge the gap between the practice room and the stage, forcing students to come up with new and creative ways of weaving through harmonies. Through paraphrasing and developing the melodies of these tunes, I hope that students will discover sequences and shapes they can easily apply to standard tunes, and ultimately their own compositional styles.
This project would not have been possible without the help of several mentors and colleagues. Many thanks to Dave Rivello, Dariusz Terefenko, and Harold Danko for introducing me to many of the concepts explored throughout these compositions. I cannot imagine where I would be without their inspirational teaching and musicianship. Thanks also to the other musicians on the recordings: Nathan Kay, Orlando Madrid, Luke Norris, Jakob Ebers, and Stephen Morris. It has been an honor to call them classmates over the last few years, and I feel so lucky to feature their talents on my first original album. Last but certainly not least, many thanks to Richard Wattie for helping to record and master all of the tracks. His guidance has been invaluable throughout this entire process.
In no particular order, here are my thoughts about improvising effectively over each tune. While each soloist on the recording has their own individual approach, each engages with the framework established by the opening melodies. Each tune brings out a different side of the soloists, as they pose different focuses and challenges.
In his book on 12-tone improvisation, saxophonist John O’Gallagher discusses the concept of “trichord steering.” Originally a term coined by twentieth-century theorist Peter Schatt, a “steering” refers to a specific transposition and/or inversion of a three-note cell. Each trichord possesses at least one “steering” that will create a 12-tone row, in essence a way of transforming the same shape four times without repeating any pitches.
I originally stumbled on this concept while listening to one of Kenny Kirkland’s solos on Kenny Garrett’s album “Beyond the Wall.” I was struck by how organically he developed a few specific trichords, among them the (025) or C-D-F sequence that begins “Kennying Around.” I realized Kirkland transposed the cell up a half step and inverted the structure to create an almost completely chromatic set of six tones (Eb-Gb-Ab). From a visual perspective, the two trichords look like two interlocking puzzle pieces that fill in the first six chromatic notes on the piano.
It wasn’t too much of a stretch to fill in the remaining six notes of the row with similar shapes, and to come up with several variations of that opening motive to complete the blues form. The last four bars feature yet another set of “puzzle pieces,” with an open (027) structure collapsing into a triad (A-D-G to Bb-Eb-Gb). In improvising over this particular tune, I would encourage students to paraphrase these structures, finding other related trichords and steerings. By setting out the parameter of not repeating any pitches, students would be challenged to find ways of introducing and developing chromatic over an open form. After playing “Kennying Around,” I would be interested to see how students could transfer the same concepts to an open-sounding minor blues like “Mr. PC” or even a form like “Solar.”
Improvisors have experimented with polytonal structures and “slash-chords” since the very beginnings of jazz, superimposing another layer of tension and resolution on top of the written chord symbols. To name just a few, players like John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Paul Bley play diatonic ideas in distantly related keys to create unpredictable yet coherent melodies. They are able to navigate between “inside” and “outside” sounding superimpositions seamlessly, allowing the music to breathe on multiple levels at once.
“Pinwheel” is specifically designed to help students feel the push and pull of polytonal structures. While the bass line descends in major thirds, the horn voicings outline a minor plagal motion in the home key of Ab major. The B section introduces even more striking tensions as the horns continue to outline a major plagal motion while the bass ascends to an A pedal. The final four bars of the section feature more descending bass motion and superimposed sonorities, including a relatively dissonant Db minor triad over a G in the bass.
Through paraphrasing and embellishing the horn voicings, students can internalize the feeling of a thirds cycle and a fifths cycle spinning simultaneously, hearing where they coincide and diverge. While the harmonies appear complicated when reduced to chord symbols, students will find the voice-leading framework in the horns helpful in creating cohesive phrases over the bass progression. I hope this tune can help demystify the concept of polychords, and provide a vehicle for more lyrical playing over complex harmony.
The Dream Catcher
Most students are instructed to play “outside” the key by shifting to a pentatonic scale a half-step above the root. Saxophonists like Kenny Garrett and Michael Brecker have become known for using this technique, though it is a gross oversimplification of their linear concepts. Specifically, this description of “playing a half step above” pays no attention to precisely when and how these master improvisors shift between pentatonic collections, which is perhaps the most ingenious part of how their lines work.
By studying, paraphrasing, and embellishing the melody of “The Dreamcatcher,” students can explore several different ways of shifting between pentatonics. The opening D minor statement briefly slides into Eb minor before resolving by the middle of the third measure. In the second iteration of the theme, the Eb minor sequence extends farther, implying a Db major pentatonic before resolving back to the opening key. The B section features further development of the same scalar material, fitting roughly the same ascending fifth motive over several other bass notes.
Students can use the melody as a kind of “contour map” or “dissonance meter” while improvising over the bass ostinato. I would challenge soloists to begin within the tonic key of D minor, shift up a half step, and then resolve at the end of the first phrase. They could continue their solo by repeating part of the first phrase and continuing in other closely related keys. Even without using the specific motives from the tune, students can use the phrasing of the melody as a guide for how to thoughtfully introduce and resolve dissonance. Hopefully this framework can help players discover for themselves how to create an engaging statement within a modal framework.
This tune originated from one of Bob Brookmeyer’s composition exercises, though it quickly took on a life of its own. The opening theme features a wedge-like progression of trichords that collapse inwards to a triad at the start of the second measure. The stepwise voice-leading makes even relatively dissonant structures sound logical underneath the simple, diatonic melody.
Midway through arranging the tune, it occurred to me that improvising over this “trichord map” posed an interesting challenge. While traditional chord symbols could easily represent most of the vertical sonorities, I wondered if soloists could weave through the changes by arpeggiating the horn voicings. As we rehearsed, the horn players grew more comfortable with the specific shapes from the score, deriving some unusual compound melodies from paraphrasing the structures. After a while, adhering to specific trichords seemed liberating rather than confining, as each presents several possibilities when rotated, inverted, and rhythmically displaced.
While improvising over a tune like this may seem like a more advanced exercise, adventurous students could learn some valuable lessons by studying the voice-leading in the score. In picking even a single part to embellish over the course of a solo, new harmonic pathways begin to open up over the harmonically ambiguous bass line. The B section also provides students with linear language derived from the same type of “trichord map,” as the line navigates through a relatively unusual chord progression by highlighting specific resolutions within subtle compound melodies.
The idea of improvising over a series of wedge-like structures is ripe for further exploration. I hope to write and explore similar compositions over the next years, gaining a better understanding of the how the “trichord map” can help students develop a better sense of voice-leading. I would encourage ambitious students to compose their own chord progressions using Brookmeyer’s framework, to improvise on them, and ultimately play them with a larger ensembles.
Don’t Burn Down the Shed
[Recording coming soon]
One of my favorite Bill Carrothers recordings is a rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” off of his duo album with Bill Stewart. Carrothers maintains a driving left-hand ostinato for nearly the entire take, superimposing a slew of shapes and polyrhythms in his right hand. The interaction between “the two Bills” is an adventurous, back-and-forth banter of harmonic and rhythmic layers that always seem unexpected yet always complimentary.
“Don’t Burn Down the Shed” is my attempt at recreating the magic of that duo recording. The bass ostinato has a similar phrygian flavor to Carrothers’ left-hand pattern on “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and the melody highlights many symmetrical shapes characteristic of Carrothers’ linear vocabulary. The second phrase begins with a whole-step sequence of (0146) set classes, which spill over the bar in a hemiola figure reminiscent of some of Stewart’s accompaniments. Some of the later melodic material sounds bluesy and polytonal, characteristics of Carrothers’ playing that I have come to admire over the last years. The line over the Eb7 and D7 at the end of the piece fits neatly within a few closely related hand positions, and can easily be reduced to voicings useful for comping and chordal solos.
Piano students in particular could study this piece as a means to develop both rhythmic independence between the hands expand their linear vocabularies. Through studying, paraphrasing, and inverting the shapes in the melody, they could learn how to introduce new tensions within the context of a single chord change. Many of the lines lie neatly within a single hand position, providing a convenient visual and kinesthetic means of internalizing chromatic shapes. This tune too provides a vehicle for more atonal explorations, which can be useful on modal standards like “Footprints.”
I originally intended that “In Lavender” remain a solo piano piece, though its harmonic implications are ripe for further development. In writing out a two-staff reduction of the melody and accompaniment, I noticed several interesting passing sonorities I had stumbled on through combining various non-chord tones and maintaining a focus on smooth voice-leading. Many do not lend themselves especially well to traditional chord symbols like the Ab minor-major seventh chord over the D root in the second measure. The passing Gb-7/Bb sonority in the fifth measure creates additional tension, as does the dramatically altered B diminished passing chord at the end of the bar.
In improvising over the tune, I sought merely to paraphrase and pianistically enhance the already dense harmonic framework. I soon discovered that crafting lines and suitable accompaniments over the chromatic passing chords was challenging, as each passing tension still had to be carefully prepared and resolved. Maintaining the voice-leading set out by the two-staff arrangement within lines and other pianistic enhancements became an engaging form of ear-training.
Students who wish to study lush passing harmonies and solo piano playing in more depth would benefit from looking at this composition. In limiting themselves to the harmonic framework set out by the two-staff harmonization, they could discover new voice-leading pathways and passing sonorities applicable to a range of standards and more modern compositions. Featuring a slow tempo and static bass, this tune is perfect for helping students clarify their use of less conventional passing chords. The contemplative character of the piece forces improvisors to assert ideas that are tasteful and melodic.
This tune did not originate as an exercise, though it quickly turned into yet another means of exploring harmonic and melodic shapes over a stable accompaniment. The progression roughly resembles the archaic template of the “lament bass,” as the left hand of the piano chromatically descends from B to E over the first sixteen measures of the tune. This entire bass line roughly resembles a completely chromatic “rule of the octave,” as it contains practically every possible bass note within the span of a single octave. Harpsichordists and other continuo players have been learning how to harmonize major, minor, and chromatic scales dating back to the sixteenth century.
At the same time, the angular nature of the opening trumpet melody suggests a much wider range of colors than traditional triads and seventh chords. I would encourage students to improvise using widely spaced voicings, larger intervals, and less traditional shapes to float on top of the accompaniment. They could compose and improvise their own harmonizations of the chromatic bass motion, enhancing both their concept of vertical harmony and of counterpoint. Above all, slow compositions are good exercises in creating longer phrases with compelling points of tension and release. Improvising on “Empty Visions” could help students develop a more expressive, dynamic style.
If you would like scores to the compositions, email me with the contact form provided on the home page. I would be happy to provide them, and to talk in more depth about my pedagogical philosophy!