Scott Robinson: How About You?

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.

3/25

I first picked up “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” because I had met Ryan Truesdell and had great respect for his process and dedication to good music. It helped that I knew some of Gil Evans’ music, but I hadn’t really checked it out in much depth. If you haven’t checked out Gil much, you should know that he’s a master of orchestration, and an incredibly gifted arranger. After I got over the classiness and intricacy of the compositions, I noticed the individuals on the record. In the liner notes, Ryan explains: “In Gil’s compositional mind, a soprano wasn’t just a soprano, it became Steve Lacy; a trumpet became Miles Davis, or Johnny Coles.” As Ryan organized this band, he “chose each person on this record for what [he] felt their individual voice would bring to the music,” much in the way Gil would have written for his band. It’s this aspect of the music that makes this solo so great.

I’ve been a fan of Scott Robinson since I first heard him in Maria Schneider’s band while I was in college. His sound on the baritone is an all-encompassing history of jazz baritone, with a voice all his own. He’s been an inspiration to me as a doubler (he regularly has at least five woodwind credits to his name on recordings), and as a section player; his baritone is the warm bottom of every reed section in which he plays. In Ryan’s Gil Evans band, however, he holds down one of the tenor/clarinet chairs. I had never known Scott as a tenor player, and was consequently blown away when I discovered that he was the force behind this solo. In a band featuring so many great soloists (Donny McCaslin, Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro…), it’s obvious that Ryan gave this solo to Scott with purpose; his sound, his feel, and his melodic concept fit this piece like a glove.

Scott’s ability to use pseudo-contemporary language in a way that connects to an older style makes this solo so enjoyable for me. I play in a 1930s-era swing band every week, and always struggle with the balance of playing in the style of the era without abandoning too much of my vocabulary. Scott seems to strike the perfect balance in this solo. I say pseudo-contemporary because he doesn’t use much chromaticism typical of many modern performers. He does use a good deal of bebop language – not so much so that it takes away from the era of the song, but enough to make it more melodically adventurous. For example, in his first two phrases, he resolves to the ninth and major seventh, respectively. Aside from those moments, he sticks mainly to chord tones and passing tones throughout the solo.

The brevity of this solo was one of the most striking things I noticed at first. As I listened more to the album as a whole, it stood out because of its relative lack of modern language. The more I dug into the solo, the more I realized that Scott was incorporating himself into this classic tradition, rather than molding himself to it and playing a caricature of the style. This is a lesson I can learn over and over again – incorporation beats imitation any time.

How About You? – PDF
Scott Robinson’s Bio
Buy “Centennial”

Thematic Improvisation Through Games: Dovetail

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a technique used by John Ellis where he picks up the last note of a phrase to begin his next. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before: one soloist ends on a long note, and the next soloist uses that note as a springboard for their own improvisation – check out Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley on Milestones for a great example. I think of this technique as melodic dovetailing; it’s effective at drawing parallels between what has happened and what is to come. Rather than two disjointed phrases, you have a very clear question and answer relationship. Obviously, you don’t want to overuse this technique, but it can create great moments of continuity (especially for casual listeners) in a solo that may otherwise tend towards stream-of-consciousness. I prefer to think of this game as two-sided: melodic and rhythmic.

Melodic Dovetail

Miles’ use of this Dovetail is about as perfect as you can get. He restates the melody almost identically that ends Cannonball’s solo. As Miles’ solo continues, he uses Cannonball’s phrase as a point of departure for much of his solo that follows. In fact, if you listen to the end of Miles’ first bridge, he uses the same phrase again. Miles was a master of thematic, purposeful improvising, and is still the first place I go when I need inspiration for thematic development. When I present this concept to my students, they usually feel pretty intimidated; after some brief explanation, they understand more fully, are off and improvising themes by the end of the lesson.

We start with connecting one note – specifically, the last note of a phrase to the first of the next phrase. It doesn’t matter at this point if the preceding note will fit into the following harmony. The idea here is simply connection from one phrase to the next. As they get comfortable with just the last note of the phrase, I introduce the idea of using more space between the two phrases – connection over a longer interval. From there, we take longer and longer pieces of the melodies. I find this beneficial for my students in two ways: Firstly, they’re immediately immersed in motivic thought. Whether or not these first motifs are the coolest in the world, the student finds satisfaction in connecting phrases effectively. Secondly, students are more engaged in the notes they play, not simply wiggling fingers (a common pitfall for young improvisers). Because they need to remember the notes they play in order to repeat them, they give more thought to the melodies they create.

Rhythmic Dovetail

This concept is one that I haven’t found many examples of – partially because it’s harder to hear, and partially because it’s not executed as often (by non-drummers). I studied a lot of Michael Brecker in college, and learned a lot from his approach. He’s probably one of the main reasons I think more rhythmically about improvising (he was quite an accomplished drummer, and has a rhythmic language all his own). On one record, Time is of the Essence, Brecker brings in three drummers to play with his organ quartet: Bill Stewart, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, and Elvin Jones. If you take a listen to most of the record, Brecker’s melodies have been steeped in rhythm, most likely thanks to the presence of the three master drummers. Listen to “Renaissance Man” around the 2:30 mark. After a quick flurry of notes, Brecker ends the phrase with two eighth notes. As he continues on, he repeats the rhythm a couple of times before modifying it. After he modifies it, he plays another brief flurry of notes and ends that phrase with another modification of the two eighth notes. As he goes on, he plays yet another brief flurry of notes, ends the phrase with another modification of our two eighth notes, and then begins another rhythmic dovetail with a new end of a phrase.

As I mentioned, this technique is harder to hear, but adds a great deal of variety and has little to do with melody or harmony, which I find helpful for young improvisers. Brecker’s example is a good one to see where this concept can take you if used creatively. For my students, I treat this much in the same way as I do melodic dovetail: Come up with an interesting rhythm at the end of your phrase. Begin your next phrase with exactly the same rhythm. The notes can be different, as long as the rhythm happens the same way. As students get more comfortable, they recreate longer and longer phrases, based purely on rhythm. This, again, gets students paying closer attention to the solos they play, and more importantly, to how they end their phrases. Many times, I hear young improvisers simply trail off or end abruptly when they run out of air. This method helps to give finality to a phrase of music and helps students feel confident from beginning to end of a phrase.

Hopefully this will give you some new approaches to try with your students (or perhaps in your own practice). As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these techniques and your success (or lack thereof) with them.

Take a look at the examples I’ve discussed here.

John Ellis: Mestre Tata

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.

2/25

I love transcribing blues. Since coming to Chicago, it really hit home to me just how important the blues (both the language and the form) are to our art. Over the course of the last year, I catalogued as many of the blues in my listening collection as I could in an effort to see how many ways a blues could be approached. I never did anything with it, but it was enlightening to me just to hear the myriad ways all of the jazz heavyweights approached the form – consider the variety of melodies alone; from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman to Sam Rivers, everyone has their own take on both composing and performing the blues.

“Mestre Tata” has been on my radar for quite a while. I remember first seeing this DVD in college, having never heard of John Ellis before, and was completely blown away by this saxophonist. He had control over his altissimo, a great tone, and was playing all these cool, meandering lines through chorus after chorus of blues. At the time I had no idea how John was constructing his lines – they sounded so fluid and natural to me, but I knew he wasn’t just playing blues changes. This solo slipped away from my conscious efforts and I continued to grow and work. Now that I’ve revisited it, I’m still not entirely sure of his process, but I have a couple of theories that work for me.

I discussed in an earlier transcription analysis of Bob Reynolds the mixture of blues language with bebop. John employs a similar technique. This solo is drenched with the blues – he uses the blues scale and pentatonics all over the place – but John takes us outside of that world for extra tension, in effect, making the blues (a typically tension-filled scale) sound like home. My favorite instance of this occurs from the fourth chorus to the fifth chorus (mm 37-51). The first eight measures of the 4th chorus are solely blues material – the blues scale   alongside pentatonics and a momentary shift to the minor IV chord in the fifth bar. When we arrive at the last four measures of the chorus, John shifts into chromatic bebop language, full of chromatic enclosures and arpeggios that clearly outline the harmony. What makes this technique more interesting is that John employs it on larger and larger levels. To start out, he stays mainly in the blues world with momentary glimpses of chromatic language. As the solo continues, the ratio shifts to a more chromatic language. However, every time he brings us back into blues language, no matter how brief, we sound like we’re home because of the foundation set up at the start of the solo.

In tandem with his use of bluesy vs. non-bluesy language, John is a master at thematic development. The most obvious example of this occurs in the sixth chorus; through the first eight bars, John spins the same motif, changing it as necessary for the harmony. To end the chorus, he breaks into non-bluesy, melodic material. Moving on from there, John picks up the last note of his melodic material and begins a new chorus from there. I teach many of my students an improvisation game that deals with this technique (I’ll post about it in the next week). While I don’t think John is actively thinking about this game (or similar techniques), I’m sure he has internalized a variety of ways to develop themes and motifs across the choruses. Another example of John’s ability to maintain a motif across choruses occurs from chorus 10-11. Starting in the fifth bar of chorus 10, John starts an arpeggiated motif, planing through a couple of different keys before arriving at more chord-based melodic material. At the start of the 11th chorus, John reignites the arpeggiated motif, but shortens it into two triad pairs instead of seventh chords. This motif lasts almost the entire chorus before he finds his way back to our home base of blues language.

There are so many other readily recognizable techniques employed by John throughout this solo that I didn’t cover here. He’s one of the most unique players in our generation, and has myriad techniques (among them are his rhythmic feel, how he goes inside to outside and back again, and his affectation of notes). Whenever I think of John’s playing, I think of singable melodies and incredible time-feel. This solo is no different, and leaves a reminder that you can play the blues and still sound creative.

Mestre Tata – PDF
Follow John Ellis on Twitter
Buy “Right Now Live”

John Wojciechowski: West End Avenue

Here it is: the first in what will be a biweekly series of transcriptions lasting throughout 2015. Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through these solos.

1/25

In the summer of 2003, I went to Birch Creek for the first time. Although he wasn’t an instructor during my session, many of the other students at the camp talked about this saxophonist who had been a part of the first jazz session (I attended the second). Someone had a recording of director Jeff Campbell’s trio recording (West End Avenue), featuring John Hollenbeck and John Wojciechowski, and played this track. I managed to get my hands on the track and listened to it ad nauseam in the months that followed. It wasn’t until later that I got my hands on the rest of the record, and even later than that that I truly appreciated the music recorded. To anyone who enjoys chordless groups, I highly recommend buying it wherever you can – I haven’t been able to find it online anywhere lately, so if you have any leads, please let me know so I can share.

This solo is one of the first I ever really latched onto and needed to learn. Immediately, I was struck by the inside-outside language that John uses. Now that I’ve revisited the solo, it stands out even more because there isn’t much of it.

  1. The first instance, in mm. 42-44, was the first lick I ever remember wanting to learn. Now, I simply hear this as side-stepping E minor and moving up by a half step, but at the time, I had no idea what that was or how side-stepping sounded. The quick arpeggio in m. 43 tonicizes F major to my ear and keeps us there until John reintroduces the C# of E dorian in m. 44.
  2. The second instance, in mm. 75-76, I remember wanting to learn in grad school as I tried to hone my turnarounds. This is a simple tonicization of A minor: John plays a clear E7(b9) outline to lead to A minor. But what of the Eb-F-Ab? I interpret this as a preparation of E7 through the Eb diminished scale – I encounter it most frequently in the vocabularies of piano players. There seems to be a certain sophistication (almost old-school) when preparing your dominant in this way. Granted, there’s only a few notes, so he may have thought of this in an entirely different way, but this is my blog…
  3. The last instance occurs across the first half of the last A section (mm. 85-92). We hear John play the melody and then immediately begin to sequence. The first lies with his side-stepping motif from earlier. Then he picks up the last note (F), then moves away by a tritone (the C#, which lies within E dorian). To finish this sequence, he side-steps again (mm. 88-89). To get back to E dorian and close out his solo, he cycles through F major and Bb major after a couple of chromatic approach-tones.

To my ear, the most striking thing about this solo is John’s inventiveness within E and A dorian while going outside of that harmony only three times. The melodies are particularly memorable, and without flash, save for one exception (mm. 45-52). When I think of great modal solos, especially in a chordless format,  I think of players that can superimpose harmony at breakneck speeds. Anyone that has heard John play knows that he can burn with the best of them. In this solo, he has made a decision to focus on well-conceived, singable melodies. This is a solo I come back to when I need to remember that not every solo needs flash and monstrous technique. Thanks for the reminder, John.

West End Avenue – PDF
Follow John Wojciechowski on Twitter

The List

Here it is – after making a few tough calls, I came up with a list of 25 solos I plan to transcribe over the course of this year. Some I transcribed in years past, but want to revisit and glean new lessons; others have been on my list since I started listening to this music. Choosing 25 was a difficult decision – I strived to keep variety in the artists I would represent here. I’m sure I will work on others not on this list, but these give an idea of the styles that I both appreciate and want to incorporate into my own vocabulary. Without further ado, here are my selections (* indicates the solo has been posted):

  1. *John Wojciechowski, “West End Avenue,” from Jeff Campbell’s album “West End Avenue”
  2. *John Ellis, “Mestre Tata” (Live), from Charlie Hunter’s DVD “Right Now Live”
  3. Scott Robinson, “How About You,” from Ryan Truesdell’s album “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans”
  4. Michael Brecker, “Delta City Blues,” from “Two Blocks from the Edge”
  5. Donny McCaslin, “Cerulean Skies,” from Maria Schneider’s album “Sky Blue”
  6. Walter Smith III, “Development,” from Eric Harland’s album “Voyager: Live by Night”
  7. Donny McCaslin, “Madonna,” from “In Pursuit”
  8. Dayna Stephens, “Mister Magic,” from Lauren Denberg’s album “Sideways”
  9. Seamus Blake, “Body & Soul,” from a YouTube bootleg
  10. Avishai Cohen, “Mood Indigo,” from “Introducing Triveni”
  11. Ravi Coltrane, “26-2,” from “Mad 6″
  12. Walter Smith III, “Kate Song,” from “Casually Introducing Walter Smith III”
  13. George Garzone, “Night & Day,” from “Alone”
  14. Branford Marsalis, “Free to Be,” from “Braggtown”
  15. Branford Marsalis, “Yes or No,” from “Random Abstract”
  16. Mark Turner, “Confirmation,” from Billy Hart’s album “Quartet”
  17. Marcus Strickland, “Butch & Butch,” from Roy Haynes’ album “Fountain of Youth”
  18. Rich Perry, “Choro Dançado,” from Maria Schneider’s album “Concert in the Garden”
  19. Joe Lovano, “Blues on the Corner,” from McCoy Tyner’s album “Quartet”
  20. Michael Brecker, “Naima,” from “Directions in Music”
  21. Gerry Mulligan, “Just in Time,” from “What is There to Say?”
  22. John Coltrane, “I Want to Talk About You” from “Newport ’63”
  23. Clifford Brown, “Cherokee,” from “Study in Brown”
  24. Paul Gonsalves, “Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue,” from Duke Ellington’s album “Ellington at Newport”
  25. Stan Getz, “I Want to Be Happy,” from “Stan Getz & The Oscar Peterson Trio”

I plan to publish one of these every two weeks. They won’t necessarily be in order, but they will all be done by the end of 2015. As I mentioned, I will likely work on a few not from this list as well. I have yet to decide if those will be published on here or if I’ll save them for another project (the wheels are already turning for the next one). You can expect the first solo to be posted by the end of this week. Here we go!

New Years’ Goals

Happy 2015 everyone! 2014 was a great year for me – it was my first year living full-time as a musician, I got my foot in the door in a wide variety of projects, and I figured out how to better balance a playing/teaching/writing lifestyle. All of that said, I’m happy to close the book on 2014 and am looking forward to 2015. Here are a two of my most prominent goals I plan to accomplish this year:

  1. Record an album with Outset
    We’ve been playing together for more than a year, and have developed a substantial book of music. The process of going from rehearsal room to recording studio (by my estimation) involves many more live shows than what we’ve done previously. You can expect to see a number of dates popping up on the calendar for us as the year goes on. Hopefully we’ll have success getting around the Midwest and have even more recognition within Chicago. If you have ideas of venues of which I may not know and we might fit, please let me know! I’m always looking for new places to bring our music.
  2. Transcribe more
    I’ve made no secret of my love for transcribing. In fact, there have been phases in my career where I’ve done nothing but listening and transcribing for weeks at a time. I haven’t done much in the last year though, so I plan to up my game and aggressively get after the projects I’ve had planned for a few years. In the coming days, I’ll post my list of solos I’ve been planning to complete (it’s a long one). As I finish them, I’ll post the transcription, an analysis, and (hopefully) a video of me playing the transcription.

For me, accountability is one of the key components to completing goals, so I try to tell everyone I know about them. The more reminders and inquiries I get into those goals, the more likely I am to complete them. If you notice me slacking off, say something! I’ll either have a really good excuse or get back to work right away.

For now, I’ll leave you with a recording that I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks, and will likely make my transcription list:

Walter Smith III, Kate Song:

Jerry’s Sandwiches, 12.2.14

Outset is back! We played two shows last week, one at Martyrs’ and one at Jerry’s. Both nights were great, but Jerry’s was the only one with good video. Take a look at our new tune, “Dropped,” and three old tunes – “Steppin’,” “Bixotic,” and “New Rain.” Leave a comment and tell me what you think! Keep your eyes peeled for new dates coming in early 2015 – we’re hoping to get out into the region.