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Practicing jazz should be fun. That's why we created a series of jazz play-alongs — to help you enjoy building your improvisational chops, no matter what level you are or what instrument you play. For more info about jazz play alongs and access to all of our tracks please visit

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Music Zone

There's an old joke in the music biz: Q: "How do you make a musician complain?" A: "Give him a job." That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play, we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income, dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant colleagues, living on the road, competing for gigs with other players of one's instrument, and so on.

And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?

There's a form of "addiction" that holds the lives of many musicians in its thrall. I put quotation marks around the word because the "whatever it is that keeps us coming back" isn't a physical or psychological addiction in the AA sense. I think that it's more of an emotional glue that binds us to the experience of making music. I will try to explain this more fully, though it is difficult to put into words.

Performing artists spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and sustained effort to become proficient at our crafts. The investments we make involve the kind of personal commitment that only exist outside of the arts in the most rarefied professions, such as education, health care and politics. The level of psychic, spiritual and emotional effort required goes way beyond the requirements of most other "jobs".

Most musicians, actors, dancers and other performing artists gave little or no thought to the "business" part of being a performer when they started studying, practicing and becoming addicted to expressing themselves in these ways. I did not, for example, learn how to play all the modes, triads, seventh chords, pentatonics and so on in all twelve keys so that I could play Louie Louie at weddings. I gave no thought to the commercial or practical aspects of playing music when I was playing original compositions and tunes by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and Chick Corea in tiny jazz dives in the late 1970's. I did it because I loved the music and the way it felt to create a literal and figurative groove with my band mates. I worked hard because I wanted to do it well and to (as Mingus would put it) "get it in my soul."

It is indeed rare to see a highly skilled musician walk away from this world voluntarily and permanently. The harsh economic realities and the other stressors associated with a musician's life usually have little sway when it come to separating a player from his horn. So, it's partially this commitment that keeps most of us in the game, but there's more to it than that.

So what exactly are we "addicted" to? Performing for other people is important. We like connecting with an audience, getting that feedback in the form of applause or, for the most part in my niche of the biz, the occasional positive comment like "It probably doesn't seem like we were listening, but you guys were great". Comedian Lenny Bruce summed up the motivation for performing by equating it with the psychological need for attention: "Everything we do is: Look at me, ma!" But I'm more "addicted" to the feeling I alluded to a moment ago. For lack of a better term I'll appropriate one from sports: it is this being in "the zone" that keeps me playing and practicing.

The "music zone" is the feeling of being wholly in the present moment, of being connected viscerally to the other players, of being subsumed as an individual into the temporary collective mind, of being outside of chronological time and free of bodily sensation. It looks really kooky on paper, but this is where the analytical/rational/linear part of the human mind fails to serve. For a few moments at a time (and it may not last long) I can re-connect with that feeling of living only in the present, without concern for the mundane, for what happened five minutes ago or for what will happen five minutes hence. None of that counts for a hill of beans when I'm in the "zone".

Rather than give that up, many of us diversify. The field of music encompasses not only the act of performing but other potentially remunerative endeavors as well. We can compose or arrange or copy music. We can become conductors, music directors or band leaders. We can go into music history, music theory, music therapy, arts administration. We can teach privately and at every academic level from kindergarten to graduate school.

All of these ancillary fields can serve as ways to augment our performance income or as primary careers. If you are skilled and lucky enough to have a job in a major orchestra or as a member of a major rock or pop act then you probably don't need a second job. But many of us blue collar musicians have to have multiple income streams to satisfy the performing jones.

There is no substitute for the experience of performing in the "zone", which is why I continue to do this crazy thing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Problem With Studying The "Jazz Language"

This piece is a guest post by Bill Plake. Bill is a Los Angeles based professional saxophonist and Alexander Technique teacher whose specialty is helping musicians perform pani free, effortlessly and confidently.

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a young jazz guitar player and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

This is all good stuff to do if you’re studying jazz. It lets you go deeply into the  heart of the jazz tradition, giving you perspective and context. It gives you insights about how the musicians formed their ideas. It helps you develop technical skill that you can use as an improviser. It improves your ear. All good stuff.

But then when I asked my student what else he practices, his face went blank. He said, “That’s pretty much it. I want to really absorb the jazz language. All my teachers tell me this is the best way to do that.”

Then I listened to him play. He was very competent, very fluent, had a nice time feel, clearly showing how much, and to whom he had listened.

He was also stunningly unoriginal, and rather disconnected from the improvisational process. Everything he played sounded like an excerpt from one of the lines or solos he’d memorized. I don’t mean he was copying things note for note. It was…well, as if he weren’t really feeling at all what he was playing. It was as if it came from some external source, foreign to him.

As I pressed on in my questioning, he said that he already knew his scales and chords thoroughly. As I sort of tested him on this, he showed great competence with his scaler and harmonic knowledge. So why the disconnect?

Well, as we went further into the lesson, it became clear: He wanted everything he improvised to sound as if it came squarely from the jazz language, the jazz tradition as it were (or at least his conception of those things).

That got me to thinking about what exactly that might mean. Especially, the jazz language. Is there a jazz language? If there is I don’t know how to define it.

Is it certain harmonies used in modern jazz? Nope. All those extended harmonies are found in many different pieces of 20th century classical music.

Is it the chromaticism? No. There’s plenty of chromaticism from other forms of music. Beethoven used it to great effect.

Is it the types of rhythms that are predominantly used in jazz? Not that either. There’s no such thing as “jazz” rhythmic figure. Even syncopation has been around forever.

Is it the time feel? Now at least were getting close. Jazz musicians have a certain way of feeling time and expressing it rhythmically that is immediately palpable.

But what is it exactly? The so called “swing” eighth note feel isn’t even close to being codified. Some musicians (I’m thinking of Clifford Brown here) play jazz eighth notes virtually “straight”. Yet when you here them play, you can easily tell it’s jazz.

And that’s usually the case. You might not be able to define what the jazz language is, but you can sure recognize it when you hear it. But the bottom line is that for every rule or principle of the jazz language there are countless exceptions. So why all the “learning the jazz language” emphasis?

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

Miles Davis was famous for this. As was John Coltrane. So was Lester Young for that matter. They was constantly pushing back against the established jazz language of their day. And they were consistently finding newer, more innovative ways to express themselves through what we still call the jazz tradition.

How did they do this? Well, if we take Coltrane as an example, he spent a huge amount of time re-mastering and exploring the elements of music: new ways of stacking chords; new ways of thinking about scales and modes; new ways to imagine rhythm and its relationship to harmonic tension. He in essence stopped looking at jazz and started looking at music in the much broader sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

For you this might mean spending a great deal more time creating and learning  your own distinctive scalar, intervalic  and harmonic patterns, building your own language. It could mean spending the next few years of your practice life devoted nearly exclusively to broadening your rhythmic conception (polymeter, odd meters, time feel, etc.). Explore the materials of music deeply.

Use your imagination, intellect, musical knowledge and ear to find (as the great jazz pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano would say) “your own melody.” Don’t let an over-emphasis on language limit your self expression. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Harmonic Analysis: Autumn Leaves

This month I'm going to take you through a quick harmonic analysis of the beloved jazz standard Autumn Leaves. This is a tune that has been and continues to be played by jazz musicians the world over. It's one that you should have in your repertoire. Autumn Leaves is great to work on if you're fairly new to improvising because the form and chord structures are relatively easy to hear and internalize.

[You can download a FREE chord chart and a FREE play-along track mixed specifically for your instrument by clicking the links at the end of this article. In addition, there are links to a couple of videos by guitarist Dave Onderdonk playing a few choruses and then talking about soloing on these chord changes.]

Let's take a look at Autumn Leaves in the key of G/Em*. A lot of people also play it in Bb/Gm but we'll stick to G for this analysis. When you first look at the chart you might get confused - is this song in G or in G's relative minor Em? In a sense, it doesn't really matter, because the 4 bar phrases bounce back and forth between the two tonics. As long as you know which key you're in for each phrase you'll be on the right track.

The first 4 bars are clearly in G. Am7 D7 GM7 CM7 translates to ii V I IV. So if you improvise using the G major scale for those measures you will be in the right harmonic area. The next 4 bars are ii V i in E minor - F#-7(b5) B7 Em. It seems as though you ought to be able to play E natural minor during these 4 measures, since that is the relative minor scale to G major. But the B7 chord presents a bit of a dilemma because it's all-important 3rd is a D#. There is no D# in the key of G. So many players like to use the E harmonic minor scale in this spot, because it contains all of the notes of G major, except that the D becomes a D#. Play the two scales and you'll hear what I mean.

The next 8 bars are harmonically exactly the same as the first 4, so all the same ideas apply.

The following 8 bars reverse the pattern: The first 4 are in E minor (again ii V i) and the next 4 are in G major (again ii V I IV).

Things get a little more interesting in the last 8 bars of the song. There's a ii V i in E minor, then a couple of bars where the chords descend chromatically from Em down to B7, finally coming to rest on Em for the last two measures. What's really happening in those complicated looking measures? It's really just a sequence of chromatic ii Vs, where Em7 is ii and Eb7 is V, then Dm7 is ii and Db7 is V. Finally the C13 is a chromatic dominant of B7, which is V of Em.

Chromatic dominants, eh? If you're not familiar with tritone substitution we'll cover the larger concept in a future lesson. Suffice it to say that the Eb7 is substituting for A7 and the Db7 is standing in for a G7. In fact, you could play those "circle of fifth" changes instead and the harmony would work just as well. We chose to play the chromatic changes when we recorded the track in order to demonstrate the concept and because many if not most jazz players do use the chromatic variant.

*This analysis is for C instruments. If you play a Bb instrument (like trumpet or tenor sax) you will have to transpose everything up to the key of A/F#m. Players of Eb instruments (like alto sax) will need to transpose this explanation to the key of E/C#m. It's not hard - you can do it!


Play-along track TRIO
Play-along track PIANO/DRUMS
Play-along track BASS/DRUMS

Here's a video of a sample solo on Autumn Leaves:

Here's a lesson on this tune (NOT just for guitarists):

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jazz Listening 102: Trio of Oz Opens My Ears (and Eyes)

A few months ago my drummer pal Nick Coconato handed me a CD to check out. On it he’d written the words Trio of Oz, and that’s all I knew about it. I had no clue that this disk was going to lead to a couple of significant realizations about how I listen to and evaluate music.

I could tell right away that this is a drummer-led band. The drums are quite hot in the mix for a trio with piano and upright bass, and this player has a great feel for the nice variety of grooves and lots of room to stretch. The pianist is strong too – someone who’s obviously absorbed the jazz language of Herbie and Chick, and who has a great touch and lots of chops. The trio has a very good bass player as well, with a well-balanced sound and excellent groove.

I didn’t recognize any of the music. The Trio of Oz doesn’t play any jazz standards or tunes that use standard chord progressions on this CD. I had a vague feeling that I’d heard some of the melodies before, but it wasn’t until I heard the last track that I actually knew the song – King of Pain by The Police, which is not exactly normal fare for an acoustic jazz trio album.

Somewhere along the line I found out that the drummer for this project is Omar Hakim, who I’d heard with Sting, but had never thought of as a “jazz” musician. I was spinning this CD in my car all the time and really enjoying the freshness of the tunes and the playing. I thought to myself that, whoever these other guys are, they sure sound great.

I finally Googled Trio of Oz and wasn’t too surprised to learn that the tunes are all arrangements of pop/rock tracks, since King of Pain is in the mix. It turned out that I was somewhat familiar with the songs by Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie and Stone Temple Pilots. There’s also music by Alice in Chains, The Killers, Depeche Mode, New Order and a couple of other bands whose music I’m not familiar with.

But I was shocked to find out who the other musicians are. The pianist is Rachel Z and the bassist is Maeve Royce. Not only had I never heard of either one of them, but they are both women! It just never entered my mind that the other two members of this band are not “guys” at all. I like to think of myself as a highly evolved, egalitarian kind of guy – and it didn’t even occur to me that the other players in Omar’s trio could be women. Your Trackmeister hangs his head in shame.

Listening to The Trio of Oz has got me challenging a lot of assumptions I make when I choose what to listen to and how I respond to what I hear.

When I decide whether or not to attend a live gig or buy a particular recording, I usually do so based on my previously formed opinion of the artist(s). I’m much more likely to spend money on a “product” or experience that I can safely predict I will enjoy, according to how I’ve reacted to the particular artist or style of music in the past. But following this strategy severely limits the range of musical experiences I will have, because it’s fairly certain that a performance by an artist I know will bear many similarities to their previous work. I’m more comfortable spending money on a relatively sure thing; I don’t necessarily want to take the risk of “wasting” my precious resources on something I may not enjoy.

It’s very unlikely, for example, that I would have purchased The Trio of Oz CD based solely on the song titles or personnel.  And that would have been a real shame, because the music this trio makes is very satisfying.

So perhaps my criteria for choosing what music to investigate should change. Even though I have eclectic taste, I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking chances on new artists and genres that are outside my comfort zone. With the advent of internet radio, Pandora, Spotify, Lastfm and the many other online sources of streaming music, the risk factor is very low. All I need to do is open my ears.

If you’re experiencing a similar malaise, here’s a short list of contemporary jazz artists I can wholeheartedly recommend to you. I've tried to be gender neutral and ethnicity inclusive while leaving out some artists you have probably already heard. Let me know who you think I should be listening to as well.

Bass: Ben Allison, Avishai Cohen, Esperanza Spalding

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorsen, Julian Lage, Adam Rogers, Jeff Parker

Saxophone/Flute: Anat Cohen, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Nicole Mitchell, Greg Osby, Joshua Redman

Piano: Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Danilo Perez

Trumpet: Brian Lynch, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove

Trombone: Robin Eubanks, Steve Turre

Drums/Percussion: Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, Matt Wilson, Steve Nelson

Vocal: Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy, Cassandra Wilson

Ensemble: The Bad Plus, Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Trio of Oz

Monday, June 6, 2011

New Resource for Jazz Piano Students

I've been very fortunate to have been able to work with a lot of very smart and talented people throughout my career. One of them is Chicago area pianist Frank Caruso, who has just released a new book, Piano Improvisation: A Powerful Practical System. Along with his co-author Karl Mollison, Frank has crafted a very interesting new method that uses both art and science to address the needs of students who are relatively new to jazz and perhaps to the piano as well.

The book emphasizes four basic ingredients that the authors consider to be essential for developing one's potential:

1. A system of practical chord voicings and scale fingerings in all 12 keys, to be ingrained at both a conscious (intellectual) level and in the student's muscle memory.

2. Enough music theory to provide an understanding of pop and jazz harmony without complicating matters with unnecessary jargon.

3. Tips and tricks used by professional level musicians to quickly analyze new material and apply your theoretical knowledge to construct effective solos.

4. A solid technical foundation that will allow you to "find your sound".

As many jazz methods do, Frank begins with the basic blues. He provides practical fingerings for both scale patterns (in this case the blues scale) and functional left hand chord voicings.  Here's a sample page from early in the book:

 Then there are numerous written out solos on the 12 bar blues, two of which are reproduced below:

As a non-pianist, I'm at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of comparing Piano Improvisation to other methods, but it does seem like Caruso and Mollison make a convincing case. The book is certainly very thorough, and presents a lot of material in all 12 keys - and you know I like that!

There's a lot of information and more sample pages available at their website, which is the only outlet for purchasing as well.

Pianists and piano instructors, leave a comment here and let the rest of us know what you think.