Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Risk Taking VS Technical Perfection

Chris Potter- Saxophone

Anderson Silva and (Forrest Griffin knocked out)

Blog # 52: Risk Taking VS Technical Perfection

Recently I've been listening to a lot of bootlegs; specifically live shows of Chris Potter, Dave Holland and Joe Henderson. As a result I've been thinking about technical perfection and its relationship to Jazz; both historically and currently.

Being a musician, I am constantly striving to clean up my playing, and work daily on the technical aspects of playing the trumpet. Its a weird thing to be a trumpet player today and to listen to all the greats: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little etc. All of them have their own shortcomings. For example, Kenny Dorham seemed to play a bit out of tune occasionally and frequently bended into pitches(and whether you like it or not, its not textbook precision). However, the beauty of all these performers was that sense of adventure. Each of them seem to be operating at the edge of their ability. This caused them to make mistakes, flub notes, occasionally play out of tune etc. But the positive thing that came out of this type of playing was a real sense of excitement. When these performers 'went big', there was a chance they'd mess up, and a chance that 'they'd actual pull it off'.

The problem today is there seems to such pressure to achieve technical proficiency on one's instrument. With the institutionalization of Jazz at the university level, teachers must grade their students. It would make sense to push your students hard to have perfection intonation, articulation, as well as to play within the changes at all times. I think the result is you have a huge number of musicians who leave schools being able to play 'a perfect solo'. The problem is that 'the perfect solo' just isn't very exciting. Its safe and what made Joe Henderson and his generation so exciting is that they never played safe. They made lots of mistakes. And to me, that's the best part about Jazz.

I mentioned Chris Potter earlier, who is arguably the most technical improvisor on saxophone living today. Chris has perfect articulation, intonation, and plays things every night that you thought were impossible. However, I believe that Chris still plays at the edge of his limit. He plays at that border between what he knows he can play and what he might mess up on; and that's what makes him so exciting. He's really exploring while he plays. Which is why people are so attracted to his playing. He is playing with the same spirit of adventure and exploration, just with a increased technical proficiency.(He too makes mistakes).

On a similar note, I am a big fan of MMA (mixed martial arts) and have followed the career of Anderson Silva for years now. Silva is largely considered the best fighter in the world. For years he not only easily beat his opponents, he made them look like they had no place even fighting him. He was way beyond all others in his field(much like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzsky). However in the past year he has had some lackluster performances and seemed 'bored' during competition. He refused to take any chances and seemed content with 'a safe win'. However, last week he had a very exciting fight, where he lost the entire match, up until he finished his opponent in the last round. The consensus of the fans is that he is now exciting again, and people like him more because he struggled(for the first time of his career) and came back and won.

I think this same principle applies to music. People want to see that struggle, they want to see someone show their heart and risk what they have for success. The great musicians of the past were able to put it on the line for the adventure. They didn't care if they messed up, they were all about growing and testing themselves.

My advice to musicians today is: Its better to go big and fuck up, than play it safe.

At least that's how I feel.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More Reharmed Blues

Last night I wanted to see if I could re-write a blues using Maj7#11 chords. This is what I came up with. There really are a million things you can do to a Blues, and an infinite number of substitutions. Check out 'Teeter Totter' from Joe Henderson's Album 'Our Thing'.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Re-writing The Blues

Blog # 51 : Re-writing The Blues

First of all, I'm back! After a month of working and helping my parents move in Pennsylvania I'm back in NYC and ready to get this blog up and running again.

One thing jazz musicians have to do today is reconcile their style with the jazz idiom; IE how they're playing style can be adapted to playing standard repertoire. Some jazz musicians today choose to be traditionalists, learning classic bebop language and playing ONLY standards or tunes based off good 'ol ii-V harmony. Other Jazz musicians completely abandon the classic repertoire and play only original modern music.

While, I prefer playing original music, I have definitely found myself on numerous gigs with musicians I don't know well, without rehearsal and we have to rely on our common knowledge of standards to get through the gig. And while I enjoy playing standards, I don't think I would be satisfied playing ONLY standards for the rest of my life. I derive a lot of my musical identity from my writing, so I've made quick arrangements or reharms of standards and have composed a few of my own Blues to get through certain gigs(and feel artistically satisfied).

I could write a lengthy essay about 'THE BLUES', but it's unnecessary and I'm sure you could search the internet and find a lot better information than I have to say. When I talk about 'The Blues', I'm talking strictly about the 12 bar form used in Jazz. The most basic form being as follows:

Bb7 | Eb7 | Bb7 | |

Eb7 | | Bb7 | |

F7 | Eb7 | Bb7 | |

This form is usually the first thing a jazz musician learns and is relatively easy to play. The difficult part is saying something new on a form that has been around for SO long and that has been played SO much. This, coupled with the fact that I was sick of playing the same Blues' over and over, lead me to try to re-write the blues and add my own additional changes. This isn't a new concept whatsoever. Coltrane, Miles, Joe Henderson as well as countless others have all re-written the blues form to adapt to their style and I have also found that re-writing the blues has been a valuable compositional challenge.

In re-writting the blues, I think the most important thing to keep is the harmonic content which defines the blues. That is: starting on the tonic chord and going to the IV chord at the 5th bar. (I think it's relatively important to return to the tonic chord at bar 7, but there are ways around it). Both blues' I'll uploaded on this blog share these characteristics.

'Philly Nudge' was the first blues I ever wrote, which was about 4 years ago. I used two ascending dominant chords in bar 4 to chromatically move up to the IV chord in bar 5. Then bar 5 and 6 has the same 'up a minor 3rd' relation as bar 7 and 8 (notice I also returned to the tonic chord in bar 7). Normal V chord resolution in bars 9 and 10, and then a pretty standard jazz turnaround at the end of the tune. Melody-wise, you'll notice repeated rhythmic figures which gives the tune some cohesion.

Here is the chart:

Below is me playing the chord progression on Piano:

'Don't Vibe Me', I wrote recently and is a blues based of side-stepping. Here in bar 2 instead of going to the IV chord, I've gone chromatically up by a half-step. The E7#11 chord in bar 4 is a half-step above and leads into the IV chord at bar 5. Bar 5 and 6 have a 'down a minor 3rd' relation, which is also used in bars 7 and 8(still using the tonic chord in bar 7). And then instead of going to the V chord at bar 9, I've substituted dominant chords moving in whole-steps and arriving at A7#11, which is a half-step below the tonic chord, which it returns to at the top of the form.

Here is the Chart:

Here is the progression played on piano:

To my ears, both of these 'tunes' still sound and feel like a blues.

Just to sum up, re-writing a blues can be a really good exercise to start the process of reharmonizing tunes as well as a great way to play a tune on a gig that is fairly easy for everyone to read and feel comfortable on. If you really like the changes you've written and they make sense, there is also a good chance you can force them on a regular blues when playing at a jam session or gig.