Advice for Jazz Students #8: H is for Harmony

Harmony drives me crazy.

My ambition was, and is, to be the least “harmonic” pianist in jazz. I like to see chord changes as a rhythmic sequence: whilst standard songs like “Body and Soul” are originally like a kind of simplified Da Capo aria (discuss), we are not dealing with Mozart anymore, wonderful though he (mostly) is.

The old fashioned aria sets up a “situation”, creates tension in the middle, comes back to the beginning with some kind of sense of resolution and…stops. Jazz takes that structure and loops it, a slow burn that gets more intense as it goes, as it goes nowhere, but just sits better and better in the same place. There’s no arc, no learning.

In a jazz sequence, a chord is therefore partly a rhythmic moment, the intensity of which varies depending on its position in the form. It’s like a big crotchet. When Sonny Rollins overlaps the harmony between one chord and another on, for example, his solo on “Tune Up”, he is syncopating.

I think harmony is a material, it’s not the structural, fundamental element it’s often seen as, but is rather absorbed into the rhythmic structure. This opened a lot of doors for me; it also explained why half of my record collection doesn’t relate to harmonic theory at all. And yet, it’s an invaluable and sophisticated tool. I’m not anti harmony in the same way I’m not anti garlic, but there’s a difference between the garnish and the main dish.

Harmony is a beautiful jewel box full of glittering premonitions. Harmonic theory is an invitation to create, but it’s not the finished piece. Harmony runs out, reaching both a critical aural density and a finite number of configurations. Melody and rhythm are infinitely variable: whatever flexibility harmony has, it’s completely reliant on melody and rhythm.

Take an idea. Play it, play it again, play it with a change, repeat these three steps, then play it with another change, make that the new idea, repeat, leave space, then repeat all this. Once you can feel the music this way, harmonic savvy will both intensify it and refine its curves.

That’s where the party’s at.

Advice for Jazz Students #7: G is for Gestation

Some of you might be getting a bit impatient. You might be thinking you want something concrete, something you can write down and take home. Enough of this Be A Tree crap, where’s the meat, the method?

I have good news. G is a high point in the series, despite it’s annoying position in the alphabet. I suspect Z will present similar problems of pacing.

So here’s something that cannot fail.

Take notes. And save them, keep them, occasionally go over them like old family photos. I rate paper over phones but then I’m a bit older than you.

G is for Gestation. People will show you things in college, on YouTube, after gigs. Things that may blow your mind or leave you cold. Note them all. If you love 50s Miles, you May not have your head in “Big Fun” from the early 70s. You may find Hank Mobley rather straight if you like Flying Lotus. Never mind. Write it all down. In a couple of years it might become useful, the papers, folded and worn flat, may blossom like a flower into a solution to the problem you’ve been grappling with.

I never, ever found anything I was taught in music lessons to have no use at all. Things that seemed over complicated, or trite, or dated or gimmicky, they all came to mean something. They are not all part of how I play or write, but they all somehow guided me elsewhere, back, forward. Teachers are giving you something special to them, an example of what it is like to have been in music for a long time and survived. It is not a conspiracy against you if you didn’t at first connect.

Everything changes and shifts, opinions mutate. My own falling out of love with Chick Corea’s Electric Band (after a period of devotional reverence) looms large in my memory. It marked a move towards something else. It may yet shift again.

I owe him one.

Anyway you’re at college, take notes, both question and do not question them. Soak it up. It is both important and unimportant as to what you think at the time.

That too is a process of gestation.

Advice For Jazz Students #6: F is for Folk Memory

The Specials, J.S Bach, Joseph Spence, Igor Stravinsky. They aren’t jazz. But….they all contain tunes, tunes I have copied, stolen, imitated. They are in my “folk memory” of melodies. Somewhere a light goes on, a light of recognition. They are in the body, and when improvising it’s the body that remembers.

Tunes are what you do when everything else has been prepared. You have harmonic knowledge, you can play in time (these two should be in reverse order), your fingers and/or lungs and/or face are coordinated in such a way that notes are produced, as far as possible, where your brain wants them. Now what?

Now you need tunes.

Patterns are great, but they are just tunes looped over and over, like lines scrawled for punishment in detention. “I will not draw genitalia on my classmate’s maths book” 100 times. At some point you will need this motor memory, maybe 20% of every gig, that’s a rough estimate.

But I want to hear tunes…long tunes, short tunes, swooping gestures, tunes that hover around a single note before dive bombing the senses in a death defying curve, notes that just jab at a noise or a pitch like a boxer, or simply sniff at it like a curious dog. Tunes that resonate with all the accumulated wisdom of human experimentation, roots and fifths, Greensleeves, spirituals, Tchaikovsky, Gnawa, journeys from one end of a scale to another wrought in jumps and bends.

This kind of thing.

Where do these ideas come from? From your “folk memory”.

Do you remember things your parents said to you? My Nan used to say:

She’s mad as a hatful of arseholes.”

This was directed towards pretty much anyone who didn’t agree with her. Apart from the vivid imagery in that sentence, and the comedy of an eighty year old woman spitting the words out, I love the melody of it. How the sounds open out. This is how tunes work, they stick in your mind. And they are personal to you.

I used to have a book called “A Dictionary Of Musical Themes“, a rather virtuous and ageing hardback bought from a second hand bookshop, and exclusively concerned with the Western Classical tradition. It was like an anatomy book would be for a medical student, thousands of examples of shapes in sound that had underpinned whole symphonies, or ear wormed their way into heads as songs. A book of lights that had gone on and, for the most part, stayed on. I realised that a “turn of phrase” is what defines us, our character, in life as in music.

I often think of Ornette Coleman, who has no set harmonic pattern over which to base his melodies. He has no problem with “flow”. Everything is always moving and, whilst his band mates are able to follow his every move and surround him with harmonic suggestions, he’s leading it. Line leads, harmony follows. His melodies are rooted in blues, folk music, classical music…in memory.

Melodies trace the path of your life like a diary, and in some way they are the authentic mirror of that life. They are you.

Advice For Jazz Students #5: E is for Eco System

There’s no one else here. This is only seen by me until it’s seen by you, by which time I’ve finished it. So the first person to hear this advice is me, and it’s as much for me as it is for you, whoever you are.

The jazz world, with its soft borders for some, it’s strict rules of engagement for others, could be seen as a single eco-system. In doing things their way, people make space for each other, whether they like it or not. We feed off each other, support each other even in our differences.

Those of you who know me might be surprised to hear me say that. As I said, it’s for me as much as you.

Musicians can be obsessive, they need to be, and often equally so regarding criticism of other people’s ways of working. Familiar scenarios might include, but not be limited, to the following:

He Sold Out (Has An Audience).

She Doesn’t Know Her Way Around Chord Changes (doesn’t play standards).

They Went “Avant Garde” And Abandoned Their Values (They Abandoned My Values).

It’s All Image And No Music (The Band Are Younger Than Me).

These sentiments are always sincere, often justified, mostly bluster and catharsis, and can often run riot when work is scarce and adulation scarcer. They are not to be sniffed at. Let them in.

In the end though, a musician who plays in a way you don’t approve of is making a space for you. He or she is cementing your own ideas about what you want to sound like. What do you hear in that space instead of them?

Musicians I don’t like much inspire me, they are part of a process of elimination in finding my own way through the endless maze of music. I try and thank my lucky stars they exist.

I often fail.

(Writing this down helps).

I also love to hear musicians who can do things I can’t do, because then I can enjoy listening to them. From my distance of indifference to measuring myself against them.

(Again, writing helps).

Relish the differences in taste, because they come from your history, the million micro-experiences of hearing certain things in music and feeling a light go on.

Bluffers and charlatans are ultimately left to face their own demons, regardless of their successes. The work will be it’s own reward. It’s just like writing blogs. A face in the mirror looks back and tells you to work harder. Or relax. Relax harder.

Ok that may not be correct. I left out the people who a) don’t care about getting better and b) can’t hear how bad they sound.

Don’t be like them. Work hard. Get better and enjoy getting better. That’s my only real advice, and this blog series will probably turn out to be an alphabetically restrictive circling of that thought. I see myself basically as an apple-thumbed hawk above the hapless hamster of musical process.

So, don’t be like them.

Don’t.

Be.

Like.

Them.

Writing this down helps.

Advice For Jazz Students #4: D is for Do It Now

Do it now. You are young. You might be paying to go in a course, or maybe you are living at home and having rehearsals, watching YouTube tutorials….however you do it, you may not have time later. Do it now.

A lot of what I did when I was a teenager and into my twenties formed the basis of what I do now, for better or worse. At that age the knowledge beds in, gets in your body as well as your head. My practice was chaotic, I liked a lot of different things, and spent intense periods of time on them both separately and together. I didn’t have a system or a practice diary, make of that what you will. (I don’t endorse this strategy, it just happened because my brain is wired that way.)

When a teacher shows you something, exercises, patterns, mannerisms, gestures, and, yes, chord voicings…..go to the music, the records, try and find it happening in real time. Find evidence of its usefulness. That way you will pick up the emotional essence, the context, as well. You’ll hear something spring to life as Bill Evans hits a certain chord, or as Sonny Rollins tears through a tune that seemed to start off so simple, or when Geri Allen locks into a groove that you suddenly realised was already there.

You’re learning a language, get the sound of it in your bones and use the paper only when you need it. Make sure you don’t need it too often.

Sometimes it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried to get better at playing complex structures. It didn’t fire me up, the numbers boxed me in. Other people do it better. Reluctantly I let it go: if I was twenty, I might have had time to get to the bottom of it. Life’s too short. And that’s ok, that’s how it should be.

But not when you are young. Do it now. Now’s The Time, as Charlie Parker said, and he himself didn’t have much of it, as it turned out.

Do It Now.

Do it. Netflix is overrated.

OK, E next.

Advice for Jazz Students #3: C is for Chords and Cart (before the horse)

Colouring books came into fashion a while back. Colouring books for adults. The drawings are complicated, often pictures of dragons or birds, and the considerable time it takes to colour in the spaces between the lines quietens the mind.

C is for Colouring. C is for Chords.

I mentioned chords in the last blog, and you can’t move for chords in jazz. You are never further than five feet from either a rat or a chord these days.

Chords are what happens when more than one note is heard at once. Harmonic theory is our analysis of that sound and it’s relationship to other sounds around it.

I like them, just to be clear. They have their place.

Pianists always want to know more and more “voicings” (specific ways to combine notes into chords) in the way that people learn the Highway Code in preparation for driving. You can sit and study them. They work very well if you don’t want people listening much to what happens in your left hand. They are….mostly unobtrusive, and direct attention to your right hand, which is where the party is. Where the melodies (largely) are. It’s part of an overall template from the mid-20th century that has proved very flexible and successful (many ways of making music before and after this period seem to be excluded, but that is part of a bigger discussion.) You also don’t have to be a virtuoso to make a start.

I have lots of little sketches in my manuscript books that are just endless chords….but I have never made a finished tune out of most of them, which tells me everything…..there’s no music there yet.

Harmony has its place, and if you like your instruction in digestible PDF’s or online tutorials, it’s a perfect and inspiring way into the music. But for others it can be a prison with no windows and no chance of parole.

So I thought I’d offer some hard advice rather than getting bitchy, if it’s not too late for that.

Think of melodies you love, memories, shapes in time. Not the patterns derived from chords known as “vocabulary”, but tunes. Tunes define you, your memories of music and what it is, and so when you want to be more “yourself” as a musician, for me this has been the place to find it, to find the “you”.

“Naima” by John Coltrane springs to mind today. Take the chords away; look at the way the line dips and turns. Take that as your starting point, bend it, extend it, slow it down and speed it up, stretch it so the high note is even higher….then see how that fits with the chords. It’s not the only way to do things, just one other way.

My advice is to spend as much time as you can making things up, playing, imitating without checking your accuracy, but keep an eye on how it makes you feel. I didn’t sort my chords out properly until a long time after I started doing gigs. Hearing the wrong chords allowed me to progress at my own speed…later, when my ears were more developed, I corrected things. Because I had to. Because finally it annoyed the crap out of me that I hadn’t. It happened at the right time.

How many ways can you colour in a picture? Green dragon, blue dragon, the subtleties of variation in tone are a beautiful thing, but they are applied to something. That’s the picture: the tunes, melodies, gestures. Sound.

The right notes will come as part of the process of learning how to improvise. Hold on to your enthusiasm, your urge to play, then the subtle transformative powers of harmony (in all its forms) will emerge out of necessity. You just don’t need them yet.

Draw yourself a few dragons first.

Advice For Jazz Students #2: B is for Bars and Both.

Bars are the vertical lines that separate music into readable chunks, but it doesn’t sound like that. People don’t talk in proper sentences, whether you think they should or not. Phrases start and peter out, or explode out of a mumbling start. We do not speak the way a speech writer would like us to.

Between these vertical lines, chord symbols (which in turn aurally mark our larger scale structures) we are essentially presented with a series of boxes upon which to improvise on. This is ok. They are like the lines of perspective in a Renaissance painting, but they should be felt rather than seen or heard. Some people dispense with them completely, and these represent roughly a quarter of the music I have listened to in my life (I cannot fact check this number, but since you are reading this online, it should not be a shock to discover this).

Jazz largely adopted western notational systems but it’s always been an awkward relationship. Yes, a lot of it divides into bars of equal length, but jazz works best when those boxed-in lines are obscured. The dancing around the pulse, around the bars, around the boxy structures of standard tunes, this is when it takes off. This is one of the many things that jazz gets from African music, and that separates it from most Western Classical music, a topic that people more studious than I have addressed elsewhere. The value of rhythmic counterpoint cannot be over estimated. Get into it from the start. We are all drummers. Rhythmic lines that cut and blend can be every bit as complex and transporting as Bach and Palestrina, but rarely written down, and so the evidence is continually being lost. You just, as a jazz musician, have to live with that.

B is also for Both. Hold two things in the mind. When at college, accept what you are told as well as what you like already or have discovered yourself, just in case. You are merely being shown another way to do things.

Look at it. Consider it, don’t reject or accept it just because it’s on a syllabus. If you have to, figure out how to do it, pass the exam and then you might find it rubs off or not. Learning is not a straight line, and it’s the bends in it, the diversions and discoveries, that give you your character.

Characters are what we need in this music. When you start a band you are casting for a film where the story itself unfolds differently every time the camera rolls. A story needs friction, tension, release, drama, not perpetual agreement. In improvisation, you are not an instrument, you are a person. So talk like one, swerve round the bars, and bear in mind that this advice is both useless and essential. At the moment I’m taking it, let’s see what happens tomorrow.