Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Very Structured Thing: Jazz Compositions as Vehicles for Improvisation

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Jazz is not just, "Well, man, this is what I feel like playing." It's a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.”
—Wynton Marsalis


“Jazz tunes are great vehicles. They are forms that can be used and reused. Their implications are infinite.”
—Lee Konitz


Have you ever noticed that Jazz musicians rarely look at the audience while they are performing?


Unless they are reading music, they’re usually staring at something, looking fixedly or vacantly away with their eyes wide open.


As a drummer, my vantage point was to be seated with the audience directly ahead, except I was usually staring over my left shoulder. A front line Jazz musician in a combo often looks down at the floor while the other horns are soloing or stands to the side and looks directly at the soloist. The bassist is looking at the pianist’s left hand [to follow the chord changes] and then away to gaze at the floor [to think about how to frame the changes with the best choice of “bottom notes”]; the pianist is looking up at the soloist while comping the chords [to better lead the soloist with the next chord]. And to top it all off, the soloist is usually playing with eyes that are tightly shut.


As legendary alto saxophonist Bud Shank once said: “The most important thing you need for this music is concentration.”


The reason all of these musicians are focused away from the audience is because they do not want to be distracted from thinking about what’s being played or about what they are going to play next. There’s an immense amount of listening going on all the time.


One night while digging Howard Rumsey’s All-Stars at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, CA, I asked trombonist Frank Rosolino why he was looking down and away while Bob Cooper played his tenor saxophone solo he said: “I’m listening to what he’s doing with the melody and the chord progressions during his solo. But I gotta use a slide and a mouthpiece instead of a reed and keypads and I play in bass clef and not in treble clef! It all goes by so fast and there’s a lot to pay attention to and to think about.”


The iconic pianist George Shearing once explained that: “The hardest thing about this music is getting from the head to the hands.”


Although he meant it metaphorically, the masterful John Coltrane once likened not paying attention and losing one’s way in Thelonious Monk’s music “... to stepping into an empty elevator shaft.”


Why all the concentration?


What’s all this thinking about?


Perhaps the following excerpts from Paul F. Berliner’s book very aptly named Thing in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation can offer some explanation as to what’s going on in the musician’s mind while Jazz is in the making.


“Composed pieces or tunes, consisting of a melody and an accompanying harmonic progression, have provided the structure for improvisations throughout most of the history of jazz. Enjoying favor to varying degrees from one period to the next, spirituals, marches, rags, and popular songs have all contributed to the artists' repertory of established compositions or standards. Performers commonly refer to the melody or theme as the head, and to the progression as chord changes or simply changes. It has become the convention for musicians to perform the melody and its accompaniment at the opening and closing of a piece's performance. In between, they take turns improvising solos within the piece's cyclical rhythmic form.


A solo can comprise a single pass through the cycle, known as a chorus, or it can be extended to include multiple choruses. Just as the progression's varied timbral colors provide a rich setting for the head, they also highlight the features of solos. Moreover, the chords' pattern of change and its undulating scheme of harmonic tension and release create constant rhythmic motion, adding momentum to the performance.


The artist's repertory of jazz standards includes many "popular tunes that were originally used in musical theater," Lee Konitz explains. "For example, there are jazz standards from the thirties and the forties that have great melodies and harmonic sequences. Even the lyrics are great. There are also other good vehicles. More and more, musicians have been getting away from the standards and writing their own songs." Konitz's emphasis on form is appropriate within the discipline of jazz, for learners must, as he concludes, "become familiar with these tunes and their frameworks before taking any liberties in playing variations or in improvising."


Building Up a Jazz Repertory


Novices develop a storehouse of music from recordings and from demonstrations. When Tommy Flanagan and his high school peers got together at one another's homes, "one guy would try to play a tune from a new Bird record, and someone else would say, 'No, that's not right,' and we'd hash it out together. Then we'd all go home and work on it and come back and see who had advanced the most." As the house bass player at the Jazz Showcase, Rufus Reid routinely borrowed or purchased records made by the featured artists so that he could learn their compositions before engagements. The repertories that students acquire from recordings enable them to perform jazz at a fundamental level and to prove themselves worthy of the assistance of experienced musicians who teach them through painstaking demonstrations.


Although youngsters rely heavily on aural means of learning, most eventually learn to read music in order to gain access to additional material. Written sources of repertory include printed renditions, or lead sheets, that provide a piece's notated melody and accompanying chord symbols; fake books, roughly drawn compilations of lead sheets—in many instances, technically illegal; and written musical arrangements or orchestrated versions of pieces providing specialized parts for each band member through representations of melody and accompaniment.


The degree to which performers can succeed in their community without reading skills depends both on their aural abilities and the specific demands that bands make upon them. Groups tend to strike different balances between the proportion of material that they compose and arrange in rehearsals and that which they improvise during performances. Moreover, some expect band members to read elaborate, written scores, or charts, while others rely upon relatively spare aural scores, or head arrangements, whose parts are transmitted through demonstration and memorized on the spot.


A band leader once fired young Charli Persip in front of the other musicians upon discovering that he could not read the drum parts. The incident ranks among the most terrible in Persip's childhood; he compares it to being disciplined by his father "thumping" him painfully on the head. Persip decided then and there that he would learn to read music so that no one could ever humiliate him like that again. Similarly, it was a "big breakthrough" for Walter Bishop Jr. when he "decided to take private lessons and learn seriously how to read and write music." Despite twenty-eight years of professional experience before he became a proficient reader, he "still felt like just half a musician."


Bringing different tools to the task, young musicians develop their repertories largely by performing in various bands. Seasoned members of John Hicks's early groups urged him to "learn some new tunes" so that they could play "something else together besides the blues." A leader recognized similar limitations on Rufus Reid's part and taught him how to compile his own fake book that included all the pieces for their duo. Newcomers also feel the pressure to increase their knowledge so that they are not left behind in other settings. At some jam sessions "the guys didn't even call the tunes' names. They just counted off the tempos and played. They expected you to recognize the tunes and to play along" (Calvin Hill).


Musicians faced with the prospect of enlarging their repertories proceed by tackling representative examples of forms that present unique challenges. In the late forties, "the older guys" advised, "if you could play a blues, 'I Got Rhythm' changes, and a ballad, you were well on your way" (Lonnie Hillyer). Youngsters also study specific genres and pieces by certain composers fashionable within the intersecting worlds of jazz and popular music. "For a while Latin things were in," so Keith Copeland and his peers learned "Tito Puente's, Machito's, and Cal Tjader's tunes." He also discovered Horace Silver and "tried to do his songs." Later, when Barry Harris came to New York, Copeland studied "all those Charlie Parker heads," practicing along with records so that "I could go out and sit in with Barry."


Kenny Barron also noticed the particular pieces "being played on the scene by different groups" and shifted his own focus accordingly, absorbing compositions by Benny Golson, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, and Donald Byrd. Because some of the bands he played with performed for dances, he "also had to know 'Night Train,' 'You Go to My Head,' and standard rhythm and blues tunes."


Other groups exposed learners to a stock of pieces reflecting the personal tastes and compositional skills of their band leaders and members. "Betty Carter always picked tunes that nobody else did; she never wanted to be like anybody else" (KW). As a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, John Hicks "had to learn the old tunes like Wayne Shorter's tunes and the Messengers' standards like 'Moanin.’ Some went back two, three, four generations of Messengers" and created a sense of tradition in the band which Hicks "really loved."


Rendering Composed Melodies


As youngsters study repertory from disparate sources, they find considerable variation among versions of the same compositions. Lonnie Hillyer would "learn a tune from records and then go out and play it with different people, and they'd have their own little ways of doing it." Artists may make decisions about particular features of their renditions outside of performance, but they reserve other decisions for the actual performance. Composers like Thelonious Monk vary their own pieces "each time they play them." Ironically, artistic creativity sometimes seeds new inventions as a result of the monotony of repeated performance routines. 'After you have sung a song one hundred and fifty times," Carmen Lundy observes wrily, "the chances are that you are going to begin doing little, different things with it." Finally, the initial learning process itself may contribute variants to the pool. Tommy Flanagan and his friends found some pieces on records to be "really tricky, like 'Ko Ko.' You can still listen to the intro and wonder exactly what Bird played there—both the notes and the phrasing. We might have three or four different versions of a tune among the players." Flanagan remembers that they would write them all out periodically and compare them.


Among the characteristics of a composition that can distinguish one artist's version from another is the choice of tonic. Awareness of this characteristic can itself come as a "shocking revelation" to beginners who assume that all music is composed in the key of the first scale they learn or that pieces are played only in the key of the first printed version they encounter. John McNeil went into a panic during an early jam session in which saxophonist John Handy "called the tunes in different keys." Afterwards, McNeil says, he "hid from other musicians for months," until he had made up his deficiency by relearning his repertory "in all twelve keys."


To meet the challenges of key transposition, students must train themselves to hear a piece's intervals, that is, to imagine their precise sounds, at differing pitch levels. Many experts advise learners to practice singing tunes initially with nonverbal or scat syllables—to master the melodies aurally without relying on physical impressions such as fingering patterns or the visualization of an instrument's layout. Learning to sing the letter names of the pitches or words of a piece is another method. To introduce students to rudimentary music theory, some players like Julius Ellerby vary these approaches by numbering each pitch in relation to the piece's tonic and suggesting that pupils sing the numbers instead of scat syllables in every key. After thoroughly absorbing a tune through these exercises, students work on reproducing it on their instruments to develop control over each version's unique fingering patterns—including their distinguishing points of ease or awkwardness.


The relative hardships associated with this practice vary, of course, with the complexity of each melody and the nature of its form. Some blues pieces comprise a single repeating figure or simple phrases based on AA'B melodic prototype — sometimes at multiple structural levels — and present little difficulty. More elaborate pieces rely on ABAC or AABA melody prototypes. The interval patterns of intricate ballads extending over thirty-two-bar progressions can be demanding, as can ornate, highly syncopated melodies of pieces that require seemingly endless repetition to master. Rapid, intricate bebop pieces such as "Donna Lee" and "Anthropology" are formidable "musical etudes" and keep improvisers in top form technically by providing challenges as great as any presented in "method books for classical musicians" (Lonnie Hillyer).


Beyond its variable key, a piece's precise melodic features can differ from version to version. Within an arrangement, singers or instrumentalists who carry the melody can transform it to varying degrees, engaging in compositional activities of increasing "levels of intensity" that Lee Konitz distinguishes along a continuum from interpretation to improvisation. Success at one level provides the conceptual grounding and "license" musicians need to graduate to successive levels, each increasing its demands upon imagination and concentration.


At the outset of a performance, players commonly restrict themselves to interpretation. They reenter the piece's circumscribed musical world along the rising and falling path of a particular model of the melody, focusing firmly on its elements and reacquainting themselves with the subject of their artistic ventures. Musicians take minor liberties when orienting themselves to a piece at this level of intensity, coloring it in numerous ways. They vary such subtleties as accentuation, vibrato, dynamics, rhythmic phrasing, and articulation or tonguing, "striving to interpret the melody freshly, as if performing it for the first time" (Lee Konitz).


With masterful control, players maintain uniform tonal quality and even articulation at times. At other times, they create interest along a melody's contour by coloring it with myriad tonal effects . They may forcefully exaggerate or repress the use of vibrato and dramatically change articulation patterns. At one moment, they may emphasize slurring, at another, tonguing. Moreover, they employ different tonguing syllables to create varied mixtures of light and heavy accents, sometimes swallowing or "ghosting" pitches so that they are, by gradations, more felt than heard. Wind players can vary the tonguing positions associated with such syllables as tu, ta, to, go, ku, or vu to produce different tone colors. Miles Davis appears to emphasize vu articulation if seeking to give his sound a soft, airy diffuseness, and to produce a ghosting effect on a grace note by using lah-dah syllables.

Alternatively, to increase the complexity of tone, improvisers can sing or growl through instruments, tinting and thickening their sounds. Other techniques include scooping into a pitch, bending within a pitch or between pitches, and falling off, or concluding a pitch with a short, downward glissando. Yet others are the shake, a rapid lip trill between pitches a whole step or larger interval apart; the flare or rip-up, a rough, rapid gliss that lightly touches all the harmonics between the initial pitch and target pitch; and the doit, an extended rip whose sound trails off toward an indefinite pitch.


Artists describe subtle bends and other microtonal melodic inflections — pitches sharpened or flattened for expressive effect — as blue notes. Charles Mingus once underscored this technique at a workshop by drawing a vertical column of overlapping notes on a large staff, indicating that each note had potential for stretching into the domain of the others just above or below it (Chuck Israels). Lou Donaldson, too, emphasizes the importance of learning to play 4 'quarter- tones ... to bend a note ... to make a horn talk, to make it cry. Johnny Hodges would actually make it cry," pulling pitches "ever so slowly in and out of tune with the band," so that other band members were "on the edge of their seats hoping he'd get back in there." And, of course, "he always did." As a model for such practices, Donaldson recommends that aspiring jazz musicians "concentrate on the blues," absorbing its special "feeling" so they can project it into their improvisations. Without cultivating "that type of sound," he cautions, "you never can play jazz."


Along similar lines, early New Orleans jazz clarinetist Louis deLisle Nelson insists that "you must handle your tone. . . . You can put some whining in the blowing of your instrument. There are a whole lot of different sounds you can shove in — such as crying — everywhere you get the chance. But . . . with a certain measurement and not opposed to the harmony."  When pitch inflections are combined with speechlike rhythmic cadences, soloists sometimes actually "sound like they're speaking words. It's like you're talking when you play. That's what it's about" (Doc Cheatham).


In part, the aesthetic values and procedures described above  reflect the African side of the dual heritage of African American music.11 In many parts of Africa, tuning systems use pitches outside the Western system of equal temperament; human voice and instruments assume a kind of musical parity.  Voices and instruments are at times so close in timbre and so inextricably interwoven within the music's fabric as to be nearly indistinguishable. Furthermore, some drums, marimbas, horns, and flutes can actually function as surrogate speech by impeccably reproducing the melodic-rhythmic patterns of the tonal language of their respective culture.


As early African American composers forged their musics from the diverse African and European musical elements around them, they preserved different African elements to varying degrees, adapting them to their own evolving social and musical tradition, much of which centered on the African American church. Sacred genres like the ring shout embodied many of the fundamental values that defined later black musical forms. Carrying sacred musical practices over into the jazz tradition, early improvisers included spirituals within their repertories and created instrumental arrangements from the different parts that they sang at religious services. Joe Oliver and other New Orleans musicians were renowned for their ability to use mutes to imitate the timbre and cadence of the stylized speech of sermonizing preachers and to recreate the spirit and sounds of holy-roller meetings.


Within the jazz tradition, instrumentalists and vocalists continue to influence one another. A reflection of this is instrumentalists' predilection for copying the pitch colorations and inflections of blues and jazz singers, and their phrasing of song texts. To this day, Barry Harris reminds instrumentalists at his workshops to "play legato" and to allow their vibratos greater prominence "like singers do." He elaborates: "Vibrato is what gives your sound individuality, because everyone's got a different natural vibrato."


Besides their use of such interpretative devices, jazz musicians can individualize the piece further, moving along Konitz's scale to embellishment. Even at the level of subtle embellishment, unique patterns of imagination lend a distinctive character to each artist's practices. A player can append grace notes to the melody's important pitches, articulating both pitches clearly, or, for variety, draw them out to produce a smear or dwa-oo effect. Some routinely favor the use of a single ascending chromatic grace note at the beginnings of phrases, but others use the same embellishment only sparingly or favor descending grace notes. As a matter of taste or due to idiosyncratic, physical features of performance, individual artists may consistently embellish particular pitches. Many players use an eighth-note upper mordent between a pitch and the adjacent scale degree; some tend to phrase this as a triplet, and others as an eighth note and two sixteenths. Inventive pitch substitutions, and occasional chromatic fills added between consecutive melody pitches, are also common. Additionally, soloists can rephrase the melody subtly by anticipating or delaying the entrances of phrases or by lengthening or shortening particular pitches within them.


Lonnie Hillyer once commented on the combined effect of these practices after hearing a recorded rendition of the ballad "Alone Together" by his late friend, trumpeter Kenny Dorham. Rendering the piece with his warm, intimate tone, Dorham embellished the melody with spare grace notes and varied its phrasing with subtle anticipations and delays. He articulated sustained pitches with soft unaccented attacks before bending them down and drawing them quickly back again, then allowing them to sing with an increasingly wide vibrato. Only once did he interject into the performance a phrase of his own by filling a rest with melodic motion. Seated beside the speakers, Hillyer responded immediately to Dorham. He leaned forward, covered his eyes with his hands, and remained perfectly still until the performance's close. Then, sighing, he shook his head, as if waking from a dream, and softly marveled, "K. D.! To think he could say all that, just by playing the melody."


When rendering ballads or slow expressive blues, musicians sometimes confine performances to the subtleties described above. Alternatively, they may venture into the arena of variation, transfiguring the melody more substantially by creating shapes that have greater personality but whose relationship to the original model remains clear. The liberal application of some of the techniques associated with embellishment can accomplish this goal. Lee Konitz "displaces certain pitches in the melody" with pitches of his own, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson inserts "different clusters of notes at different places" along its contour. Joe Giudice creates "extensions of the melody by reaching out and grabbing neighboring pitches or by leaping to important chord tones and painting a picture of the harmonic segment of the piece," procedures he describes as "natural ornamentation." Common practices also include prefacing a phrase from the melody with a short introductory figure or extending it with a short cadential figure.


Finally, musicians periodically raise performances to improvisation, the highest level of intensity, transforming the melody into patterns bearing little or no resemblance to the original model or using models altogether alternative to the melody as the basis for inventing new phrases. These artistic episodes can occur at various points in a performance, as when players add short melodic figures in such static areas of tunes as rests or sustained pitches at the ends of phrases. Additionally, if the player carrying the melody is the first soloist in the group, he or she may depart from the melody before its completion to improvise a musical segue to the solo. In other instances, an individual improvises an introduction to the piece before the group's entrance, or a cadenza at the piece's conclusion, or a short "break" passage, during which the other players suspend their performance. Jazz compositions like "Oleo," having chord progressions with only partial melodies, provide space for the player to improvise passages for either a couple of measures or a major harmonic segment of the piece during the melody's presentation. Moreover, some compositions consist of chord progressions alone at the time they are recorded. Pieces like Lester Young's "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid" and Charlie Parker's "Meandering" and "Bird Gets the Worm" required the extemporaneous invention of an entire melody in performance. Typically, however, players restrain themselves during the melody's formal presentation, reserving their most extensive compositional activity for improvised solos.


At the same time, the combined operations from interpretation to improvisation have the potential to "carry musicians more than halfway to creating a new song" within the framework of another melody (Lee Konitz). Such situations underscore the extent to which pieces serve jazz musicians not simply as ends in themselves but as vehicles for invention. Just as these procedures, taken in sequence, provide artists with a routine for practicing pieces, their sequential mastery corresponds, for some artists, to the progressive stages of their development. As a youngster, trumpeter Warren Kime first learned the "melodies of a Jot of tunes" from his father, a professional musician. "After I had been playing the melodies straight for awhile," Kime recalls, "I started making little embellishments around them. Gradually, my embellishments became more extensive, and eventually I learned how to improvise." Excerpts from transcribed performances of jazz compositions illustrate the differing emphases that artists place on these practices, accounting for the distinguishing features of renditions and, in turn, providing students with alternative models for their own versions . Gary Bartz would routinely purchase records "of the same song by many different artists" and analyze their different approaches.”


To be continued in a future post on Learning the Harmonic Basis for Tunes

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