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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. 

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