Monday, March 27, 2017

Storytelling Ability - "Thinking in Jazz"

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

I have yet to find a better book at explaining what goes into making Jazz than Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation.

Perhaps one of the reasons this is so is the author’s exhaustive reliance on Jazz musicians to describe what’s involved in the process of improvisation and then to synthesize and categorize some generalizations from these annotations.

There’s nothing like knowing what you are talking about based on experience.

Storytelling Ability

“Once again employing the metaphor of storytelling, the jazz community praises such attributes as the suspenseful development of ideas and the dramatic shaping of sound. These represent values related to those described earlier: the artist's ability to tell personal stories and to convey emotion through music.

Trumpeter Thad Jones likens the experience of listening to Roy Eldridge's solos to "being caught up in a thrilling mystery novel that you can't put down."  Eldridge himself found a comparable model for performance in the playing of Louis Armstrong, who "built his solos like a book—first, an introduction, then chapters, each one coming out of the one before and building to a climax." Similarly, for Dizzy Gillespie, "superior organization"is what makes a great solo: "This leads into that, this leads into that."

When great artists explore ideas with the force of conviction, they mesmerize the audience by moving toward goals with such determination and logic that their direction seems inevitable, their final creations compelling.

Among the "hippest thing[s]" Wynton Marsalis's father showed him was a Coltrane solo in which the whole solo formed a beautiful melodic curve, "and the key points in the phrases he was playing all went in a line."

Greg Langdon compares the gradual acquisition of dramatic precision and skill in executing ideas to the experience of an aspiring baseball player who initially must learn "to meet the ball with the bat" but ultimately strives to learn "how to place the ball."

In musical terms, the first challenge is to "make the changes" by correctly negotiating the structure of a piece and complementing the logic of its underlying progression. Failed improvisations, whether of melodists or drummers tend to be "disconnected demonstrations of technique removed from the pieces form. After a minute, you wouldn't know where a guy was in the solo" I (drummer Art Taylor). One distraught pupil described his frustration at "getting stuck" within particular key centers, "playing up and down" their related scales but unable to figure out how "to get out of" the tonality of one and into that of another. Only after analyzing vocabulary phrases whose movements described key changes and absorbing their general characteristics could he begin to invent new patterns that met the minimal requirements of logical harmonic practice, improvising through progressions with steady streams of harmonically correct pitches.

The second challenge, akin to "placing the ball," is to achieve the expressive treatment of pitches by "breaking up" their streams into interesting ideas "thematically and rhythmically."

An additional aspect of a musical story's logic is the motivic development of material. The insistent intrusion of physical reflexes sometimes complicates this objective. One student remembers, for example, the laughter of players at his improvisatory slip when, at the conclusion of a solo, he inadvertently departed from the bebop figure he had been developing by playing a cadential Dixieland figure. Directives of the verbalized or singing mind that suggest a rigid use of vocabulary can also be a problem. Very early, [trumpeter] John McNeil discovered that "if you try to force something that you've learned into your solos, say a phrase that is real hip, it will sound really contrived, like it doesn't have anything to do with what you just played before it." To avoid the artificial ring of musical non sequiturs, Miles Davis cautions soloists to develop the ideas that enter their imaginations as they improvise rather than being overly dependent on preplanned patterns: "Play what you hear, not what you know," he advises.

While negotiating the practical challenges inherent in thematic maneuvers, improvisers consider various aesthetic issues. One thing [bassist] Chuck Israels notices in a player is "whether he hangs onto a motive long enough to follow his investigation of it, or whether he is just rambling from one thing to another." Naive notions about the search for new ideas sometimes obscure such considerations for novices and lead them to strive for radically different patterns from phrase to phrase. When this tendency deprived my early solos of coherence,

[Alto saxophonist] Ken Mclntyre taught me about melodic sequences. His direction subjected me, for the first time, to the discipline of using discrete melodic ideas as a solo's conceptual basis. Also, I was unaware of how effective subtle embellishments and slight variations on particular musical models could be in transforming them. Thus, I continued being concerned about sounding repetitious.
As I was absorbing Mclntyre's teaching, however, I realized that I had begun to create solos that were not static but unified and distinct. Not long afterward, at a jam session, a young musician familiar with my considerable limitations as an improviser expressed astonishment, "I never heard you sound so together. I'm
not sure what it was, but your solo sounded like something you might even hear on a record."

Too strong a reliance on repetitive devices can, nevertheless, render solos too predictable, bogging down a story. "You need repetition as a basic part of musical form, but what you want is both repetition and development," Israels says. "It's a matter of how much change you want and when you want the change in a solo. Artists are always juggling such things, either instinctively or analytically." In [alto saxophonist] Lee Konitz's view, contemporary learning practices that "overemphasize" sequences cause improvisers to err on the side of repetition, "sounding like they're playing out of exercise books. Two-five-one patterns are essential material certainly, but by itself, it doesn't lead to an organic kind of playing. It's a contrivance."

Similarly, after once composing a solo for students, [pianist] Barry Harris reconsidered its opening phrases, in which the second imitated the first in a different key. "No, let's change that," he remarked, as a prelude to performing a variation on the transposed phrase. "Sequences should not be so obvious." There are times, however, when mature soloists abandon their reservations about repetition in order to create specific dramatic effects. They may perform a short phrase continuously for several measures to create momentum and suspense within a solo, heightening the listener's expectation for change.

Whereas some features of a musical story's logic derive from the motivic relationships of successive phrases and from their complementary relationships to chords, other features derive from the general flow of successfully improvised lines, lines with a continuity of rhythmic feeling and "smoothness" in their contours. They convey an ongoing sense of melodic coherence produced by the adjoinment of especially complementary shapes. In contrast, the early efforts of youngsters to improvise produce characteristically "jagged" lines. They "still sound young" to the experienced artist. In the beginning, "I didn't have the incredible flow of ideas that the players I admired did. You mature into that," [pianist] Tommy Flanagan remarks.

Eventually, learners increase their control over the precise shaping of melodies, "rounding off their edges." In part, this entails figuring out how to extend vocabulary patterns effectively. "If you're putting two phrases together when the chords change, one thing has to flow into the other,"[tenor saxophonist] Harold Ousley says. [Trombonist] Curtis Fuller gratefully acknowledges Barry Harris's crucial role in teaching him and his young friends how to achieve this essential quality in their playing, "how to flow ... the hardest thing to learn." Ultimately, learners distinguish aesthetically pleasing possibilities for expanding melodic shapes that convey a sense of forward motion and momentum, rejecting other possibilities that by comparison would be awkward or illogical — "a fragmented series of things, a bunch of isolated fragments," as [trumpeter] Lonnie Hillyer puts it. Hillyer sometimes keeps "one simple thing" in mind with a solo, "playing it from beginning to end as one complete thing."

Jazz is "real linear music in terms of the way it goes forward," [drummer] Akira Tana says. "You're developing linearly whether you play a saxophone or the drums. Iunderstand more about this conceptually than I did three or four years ago." In the beginning. Tana could "embellish phrases rhythmically, but had no control over where they would end up." Similarly, a young trumpeter routinely "began his solos well, but they always seemed to fall apart very quickly." He could conceive interesting patterns before he began playing, but quickly lost their thread in performance.

Some artists compare the efforts of young soloists to those of children learning to speak. Although periodically producing actual words, correct word groupings, and even credible short sentences within stretches of garbled sound, they cannot yet consistently convey meaning."

Even for experienced jazz artists, control over such features remains a variable of improvisations. Tommy Flanagan "can't say when it became easy because it's still not easy. Sometimes, you still have days when you just don't feel right, like there's some kind of congestion, and the flow isn't there. You're just not playing clearly."

In evaluating the stories that improvisers tell, musicians also consider the overall range of compositional materials in use and their imaginative treatment. "In a good solo, there should be variety in rhythm, melody, form, texture, color, development, contrast and balance, and so on,"

[Pianist] Fred Hersch maintains. "Either that, or one aspect should be worked at so intensely that it transcends the need for all the others." Artists are vulnerable in the latter case, however, when they fall short of their goals. The musician quoted earlier criticizing a bass player for "finding all the common tones" in his solos and "driving them into the ground" adds: "I do it too, sometimes. I run out of steam, sometimes. Okay? I can play the sharp nine on a dominant chord and just sit there playing that and the flatted third degree of a blues for a chorus or two. But I don't do it forever, and at least I look for some rhythmic invention."

Concerned with comparable pitfalls, Barry Harris constantly critiques student solos when their emphasis on particular elements causes the neglect of others. At times, he reminds them to "break up the running of scales" with varied intervals, chords, and arpeggios. "Different intervals are what's pretty!" When student inventions lack harmonic nuance, Harris playfully exhorts them: "Remember to use your diminishes and your augmenteds." Harris, as often, emphasizes rhythmic variety: "Don't forget different rhythms. Rhythm is what's pretty!"

From moment to moment, changes as basic as those produced by introducing sustained pitches and rests within a solo's busier rhythmic activity can provide welcome contrast. Alterations as subtle as periodic repetitions of pitches within a scalar pattern can also be very effective, standing out from neighboring musical shapes. The same principle of variety is likewise found in broader gestures.

A case in point is the style of Booker Little, whose solos characteristically include high sustained vocal cries, short interjections of phrases with speechlike cadences and rhythms, long, rapid passages mixing complex scalar and chordal elements, and melodies with simple singable qualities often treated as sequences.

There are limitless aspects of performance to satisfy the music's insatiable demand for variety, and improvisers are open to them all. Carmen Lundy's accompanist offered invaluable advice about dynamics, reminding her that singing in a "whisper" could be as effective as "screaming to get your message across." Wynton Marsalis recalls, "A cat once came up to me after a solo, and said, 'Well, man, play low.' I said, 'Damn, that's valid. I really don't play enough in the lower register.'" Such feedback keeps improvisation’s infinite considerations before musicians, enhancing the dramatic qualities of their stories.

With criticism received or overheard, learners gradually become more discriminating themselves in their evaluations of players, able to distinguish those individuals whose handling of the language of jazz is sophisticated and varied, replete with clever turns of phrase. "When Tommy Flanagan plays, every note of his is saying something," Fred Hersch remarks. "He doesn't throw a note away. He has his own little language, and you listen for the subtleties in his playing as you would listen to the subtleties in a Mozart piece. Like the way Tommy might make a change of voicing here, a little change of quality, the way a melodic line will kind of halt at a certain moment and turn back on itself, the way he'll extend a little motive. Anybody who has a sense of musicality will hear what he's doing. He's just communicating."

A related concern is the pacing of ideas over an improvisation's larger course. "Does the solo's feeling sustain, mount, diminish, and change from chorus to chorus and within a chorus?" Chuck Israels asks. Reflecting a similar understanding, [guitarist] Emily Remler usually "does the old climb-up-and-come-down action—build and release, tension and resolve. That's a great thing," she asserts. In part, the acquisition of the ability to create increasingly sophisticated and longer musical patterns facilitates this process, thinking "in terms of whole choruses instead of two-bar and four-bar phrases," she continues. "Building the tension over a whole chorus and ending on the 'one' of the next chorus for the release are very typical things to do, but it takes a certain sense of maturity."

Mature soloists constantly balance such factors as predictability and surprise, repetition and variation, continuity and change, displaying the discipline to make choices among different possibilities and to work with them methodically throughout a performance. In one instance, Miles Davis confines one chorus of his solo on "Blues by Five" to the trumpet's middle register, featuring a short, repeated offbeat rhythmic figure and varying the timbres and inflec-

I lions of its restricted pitches. In another chorus, he shifts the emphasis from rhythm and timbre to melody, improvising longer, artfully shaped phrases and climbing slightly higher in range. In yet another, he provides contrast and excitement by leading his melody with an arpeggiated leap into the instrument's high register, gradually descending with intricate chromatic movements (ex. 8.25d). Improvisers also create climactic events in solos by gradually increasing the rhythmic density of their creations.

Before cultivating the mental rigor to handle varied musical elements within a solo successfully, measuring their application, young musicians meet frequent criticism for "trying to play everything they know all the time on every tune." [Trumpeter] Tommy Turrentine refers to "cats who jump out there like it's the last tune they'll ever play. They blow their load even before they're out of the second chorus. That's pitiful." Similarly, Barry Harris criticizes a young player for failing to allow his ideas to develop "organically," instead "forcing" the conclusions of solos with "screaming," contrived intensity. "Endings must come naturally," Harris insists. "You're supposed to let it happen, not just to make it happen like that."

Ultimately, just as jazz musicians differ in their abilities to imbue musical patterns with the subtleties of wit and emotion, they differ in their abilities to control and develop their ideas overall. Some are simply better storytellers than others, Carrying listeners with them through each stage, their solos begin with patterns having the character of "real beginnings," build to a climax, perhaps through a series of peaks, and close with patterns having the character of formal endings."

"Timeless masterpieces," exemplary solos are regarded as works of art equal to the compositions that serve as their vehicles (trumpeter Art Farmer). Some solos even surpass them. Barry Harris praises the young Miles Davis for "improvising his own song over the song he was playing," that is, for "playing beautifully, lyrically, not just playing lines." Similarly, many improvisers strive to create solos that, whether in theory or practice, lend themselves to repeated listening and performance. "You can create new melodies in your solo that can become the melody of a new song," [bassist] Buster Williams says. "I want my playing to have that kind of cohesiveness, that connection, that kind of syntax."

As described earlier, compositions sometimes actually do evolve from the player's own improvisation of solos, and occasionally instrumentalists adopt another player's recorded solo as the basis for a composition. Finally, the vocalese composer's creation of lyrics for improvisations reinforces the narrative features of invention, giving literal translation to the metaphor of storytelling for improvisation, showcasing the dramatic musical content of outstanding solos.”

To be continued ….

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