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Part 4 was an explanation of “So What” by Miles Davis as an example of Jazz improvisation.  My friend Bryan, after reading my explanation, listened to the track and had this to say…

Oh man, that was sweet. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to “So What” until after I had read your e-mail. Totally different listening experience. Very, very cool.

I think I’m tracking with everything you’ve said so far.  In “So What” I definitely saw the intro, the head on the front and back end, and understood (for the first time) what the soloists are doing in terms of exploring the
floor but staying in the form. Despite it only being two notes, I was able to pick up on the form throughout the soloing, mostly because I tried to hum what I heard in the head during some of the soloing to see if I could make sense of how they line up. In fact, I think the simple head made it easier to see how the form and soloing lined up because I had less to keep straight in my mind. So, I think I get that.

I don’t think my ear is nearly subtle enough (yet) to pick up on what the other guys are doing to dialogue with the soloist. It just sounds like they’re doing their own thing (within the form) regardless of what the soloist is doing. So maybe you can help me understand what it sounds like to dialogue with the soloist well and what it sounds like to do it poorly so I can see the distinction.

One other thing I’m not able to pick up on yet is how the transitions between soloists are signaled. I know you said that the soloist has the “floor” as long as he wants, and that’s always been my impression of soloists, but you also said that the soloist “plays something that sounds like a conclusion,” and I’m definitely not hearing that. I can’t hear any difference between the way Miles or Coltrane wrap up and the way Evans wraps up. I did clearly see what you said about how Coltrane picks up on Miles’ conclusion and is ready for it, but how no
one picks up on Evans’ conclusion and so they have to tread water for 8 bars, but ALL of the conclusions sounded abrupt to me. Nothing in me ever said, “Oh, he’s about to finish.” So maybe you can help me hear
that at some point.

So, here’s my response to Bryan, addressing the issues of musical dialogue and conclusions in solos…

Musical Dialogue, AABA, and Melody vs. Chops

Well, as far as the dialogue goes, a helpful thing for me is to imagine that I’m actually in the band.  So pretend you’re there, with the musicians, playing along, and try to let each of the soloists suggest things for you to play.  Of course, you’re just taking their suggestions – you’re not actually going to play anything. These “suggestions” just amount to what you’re hearing, the things that are being played by the other musicians, but if you treat them as suggestions then you’ll be listening for a direction from what you’re hearing.  That way, you’re listening with an ear that goes deeper than just an outside observer. This is the difference between active and passive listening. You have to think like you’re in the band. Once you’re doing that, picture each musician “suggesting” things not only to you, but to the other musicians as well, and try to hear the things the other musicians are do in response. The soloist has the floor, but the other musicians, as they respond to the soloist’s suggestions, might in turn suggest things to the soloist.

For some specific examples of good interaction, listen to the very beginning of Miles’ solo. Check out how Evans starts out by just playing the “horn hits” from the head, but then at 1:39 he just lays out and listens to Miles. Then check out his direct “response” at 1:52 to what Miles played right before then. At the top of the next time through the form, Paul Chambers (bassist) changes his line up quite a bit and that really alters the overall vibe. You can hear Evans also change as a result, but then at 2:43 , Chambers returns to a walk pattern and Evans goes back to the ideas he was playing earlier. Also, check out the Eflat dorian section on Miles’ second time through the form (2:57). Toward the end of those 8 bars, you can hear Evans wait for Miles to do something before he chimes in.  Again, all of this is known as “comping”… Miles is soloing, and Evans/Chambers are comping.

It would be important at this point to get some additional terminology in your vocab. First, the various sections in a form are labeled with algebra variables. We’ll call the first 8 bars the “A” section, which then repeats, and then the Eflat dorian section would be the “B” section, and the last 8 bars are another “A.” So the form of this tune would be described as “AABA,” and if I were to identify the section at 5:43, I would call it “the first B section of Cannonball’s solo.” Next vocab item: “Blowing.” This is a slang term for soloing, because at the beginning of the Jazz movement only horn players took solos (the rhythm section just played the groove and chord changes). So the only people who were soloing were people whose instruments needed air, so “blowing” became what they did during the solo section. Nowadays, I would say something about “blowing” even to a bassist, who of course doesn’t use any air. “Blowing” is just slang for all solos.

Lastly, for the concluding the solo thing, you have to think melody. These players aren’t just trying to demonstrate their chops and technique on the instrument, they are trying to compose MELODIES. This means that you want to listen to how cool the lines sound as music, and don’t just watch for instrumental fireworks. This is one of the most common misunderstandings about Jazz… that the players are always trying to floor you with their unbelievable speed and agility on the instrument. That’s boring for most musicians, because the amount of technical prowess you possess is a direct result of your practicing time, but your improvising represents something deeper… like your personality and your intelligence, so to speak. That’s why Miles is hailed the way he is, because his solos are notorious for the sheer EMOTION they deliver. He squeezes every drop of sadness out of every note that’s supposed to be sad, and so on. Try listening to his solo on this tune with that in mind.  You’ll maybe be able to hear his “conclusion” a little more clearly.

I just got back from Longview, Texas. The Jason Harms Quintet performed at LeTourneau University last night, and the performance was unusual to say the least. Our bassist (Jesse) somehow picked up a severe stomach bug, and so our Quintet suddenly became a quartet. Those of you who know jazz know that the bass is probably the most signature component of a traditional jazz sound.

The evening became an exercise in improvising, but not in the standard jazz improvising sense. I was struck by how the vernacular and vocabulary of my playing changed so dramatically. Of course things sounded different without the bass… but I’m talking about the way my mind approached the improvising.  Think what would happen if the NBA suddenly raised the height of the hoops from ten feet to twenty feet. The game would still be the same in essence, but things like defense down low would change entirely. There would suddenly be no threat of anybody dunking or hitting a lay-up, and rebounding would be completely different. It would probably take a while for players to override the long-standing instincts of how to play in the paint.  That was the case for me last night. Not only am I used to playing jazz with a bassist, but I’m also especially used to Jason’s songs. I’ve played them many times, all with the same sonic environment, and then with no warning I found myself in a completely different set of circumstances. The improvising felt very fresh and vibrant, while also urgent and risky.

I’m just trying to say that it was a cool experience. I don’t know if we succeeded or failed, but I think it wasn’t really that kind of thing anyway. There were some cool moments, and there were some less cool moments. Either way, the experience of being air-dropped into a situation so different from the normal environment reminded me of a great Miles Davis quote. According to Herbie Hancock, Miles used to always tell the band to leave their practicing in the practice room. “Don’t bring what you’ve been playing in there onto the stage,” he would say. What he’s getting at is the nature of good improvising.  True improvisiation responds to the situation you’re in RIGHT THEN, and doesn’t force things from a different situation into your current situation. If you figure something out in practice, then that’s great, but don’t just hit the stage and wait for an opportunity to use your new-found skill or trick.  The environment of the stage (in jazz, at least) is always changing and never truly predictable.  Every moment in the preformance can be responded to in a good or bad way, and searching for the right response without the asterisk of hoping to include your new trick is the most beneficial way to serve the music.

My experience last night helped to remind me that my preconceptions of what I’m going to play at a Jason Harms gig need to be kept in check so that I have more freedom to respond well in the moment. I’m pumped to hit the gig again with Jesse back in the saddle, but especially now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on the songs.

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