Improvisation Practice – Small Goals

A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.

This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.

While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).

The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.

Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.

C6/C major pentatonic scale

Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.

Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.

Dmin7/D dorian mode

Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).

The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.

G7/G mixolydian mode

Here is a G7 vamp practice track.

The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.

Fmaj7/F lydian mode

Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.

There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).

Amin7/A natural minor scale

Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.

There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.

D7/D mixolydian mode
C7/ C mixolydian mode

The C7 chord happens just before the bridge. It functions as a V chord to the IV chord. In other words, C7 leads to F.

The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.

D7(#5)/D whole tone scale

Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.

Once your comfortable enough over the individual chords you can work on applying them in the context of a tune. Here’s a practice track to the entire tune Take the A Train.

If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).

Then after a while, make sure to forget about all this and jam. Let your ear be your guide as to what you play and let the spirit and mood of the music tell you what to play, when to play it, and how.

Rehabilitation and Music Conference

Kees Hein Woldendorp passed along the announcement for a conference an international congress about ‘rehabilitation and music’ at Revalidatie Friesland, the Netherlands on April 24, 2019. He will be defending his PhD thesis, “Musculoskeletal complaints and dysfunction in musicians,” there. There will be some presentations about brass embouchures there. Here’s the announcement.

Click the image to go to their registration page.

The 1959 Project

60 years ago was a banner year in jazz history.

1959 was arguably the most creative year in all of jazz history. Bird had already passed away, and this year would see the passings of Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Musically speaking, when we read jazz history texts or see the labels among the many diverse styles of jazz (i.e “Free Jazz,” “Modal Jazz,” “Third Stream,” etc…), we tend to separate these different styles into alternate universes. In fact, many of the contributions we now consider to be jazz “classics” all happened around the same time.

There were so many great records and performances that happened in 1959. Here’s a neat web site that posts a snapshot of jazz from 60 years ago with new photos posted every day. It’s called the 1959 Project.

Threadspotting – Brass Embouchure Certification

Time that I might usually spend doing a little blogging here has been taken up with other projects, including something that is related to a recent topic started on Trombone Chat forum, Embouchure mechanics certificates?

The beginning of the thread discusses the broader topic of degrees or certifications as a measure of the breadth and expertise of the holder. Where I find it gets more interesting is when it spins off into a discussion of brass embouchure pedagogy.

As I alluded to above, I’m currently putting together something related to embouchure pedagogy that I’ll be posting here when complete, but it’s a pretty extensive project and I want to have it complete (or complete enough) before it goes live. I will say this, there will be very little in it that can’t already be found if you poke around through all my blog posts, but the presentation and organization will be a bit different from how I’ve done this before.

The First Noel, Big Band Arrangement

North Carolina got hit with a blizzard overnight and it’s expected to continue snowing through tomorrow. Since I’m fortunate to not have lost power (yet), I’ve been putting the finishing touches up on a big band arrangement of “The First Noel.” Here is a MIDI demo of it.

If you’re curious, I do most of my composing/arranging directly into Finale and the above playback file is Finale’s playback. For the rhythm section parts I create a Band-in-a-Box MIDI file and open it up with Finale, then copy and paste the parts I want into my big band score. That gives me a quick and easy rhythm section playback.

It takes too long to fix all the weird import errors when I try to import a Band-in-a-Box solo into Finale and since the chart will soon be played by real musicians I didn’t worry about plugging in solos in the demo. There are three soloists. The first 16 bars is alto sax, followed by 8 of trombone and 8 of trumpet.

This tune was interesting to work with and arrange. It’s an unusual tune, the same phrase repeats and then a refrain follows that is very similar to the original phrase. Creating a swinging big band arrangement of that form presented some challenges. Because each of the three phrases in the “tune” are so similar, it would quickly become repetitive to have every phrase of the chart be based on the same phrase. I broke up that pattern in four different ways. First, I changed up the reharmonization for the refrain (third) phrase. I also wrote a new 8 bar section to use as an intro, interlude, and coda. During the solos section I inserted a bridge based on the bridge to “Frosty the Snowman.” Lastly, I modulate to new keys, on the shout chorus every phrase.

Assuming no weather related setbacks, the Asheville Jazz Orchestra will premier this arrangement at our annual Stan Kenton Christmas Concert this Friday night. If you’re in western North Carolina that night, please come on out.

Free Meditation Timers

It’s nice to not be distracted by the clock while practicing meditation, so a few years ago I created some MP3s to use with my iPod.  These days I tend to use the fancier timer on my cell phone, which is more convenient for me and takes up less drive space on my iPod.  Still, the meditation timers I’ve made available online remain one of my more popular resources.

Here they are.  Each MP3 starts with 30 seconds of silence (to give you a moment to get comfortable) followed by the sound of a bell ringing.  After a period of time the MP3s end with the sound of the bell again.  The files themselves are pretty large, considering that they are mostly silence.

5 Minute Meditation Timer
10 Minute Meditation Timer
15 Minute Meditation Timer
20 Minute Meditation Timer
25 Minute Meditation Timer
30 Minute Meditation Timer