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Independence

While I was pondering what I should write about this week I was reminded of a post that was made two years ago around this time and is also written about in more detail in my book, Breaking the Monotony. In the U.S. we celebrate our Independence Day on July 4th which is later this week. I thought this week a re-post was in order. I hope you enjoy!

“Hey Everyone! Welcome to Week #5’s tip-Independence in Improvisation. Today (July 4th, 2011) in the U.S., we celebrate our Independence Day and what better day to talk about independence in improvisation than today? This is a topic that I don’t hear talked about enough in jazz education when discussing improvisation. This week’s tip is something that I try to work on at least once a week and encourage everyone to do the same.

Independence in improvisation could have a few different definitions, but the one that I’m applying refers to the ability to improvise effectively with no accompaniment. A few years ago I had the honor to take a lesson with jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles. We talked a lot about melodic considerations while improvising, but the topic that dominated the majority of our discussion was the ability to improvise when no one else is around (or when the rhythm section drops out for a chorus). This not only works on your time, but makes you focus on the melody and chord changes on a deeper level.

In our modern age of technology, we have become very dependent on our digital “rhythm sections.” Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE using Aebersold’s, Band-in-A-Box and my current favorite…iReal Book for the iPhone. As a matter of fact, I use them on a regular basis. However, we become dependent on having something else feed us the changes and dependent on it keeping time for us. It can cause our improvisations to become reactive instead of proactive. When we’re playing on the bandstand, we’re playing with other musicians who are making music with us. If we’ve spent all of our time with a digital rhythm section, it becomes more difficult to interact with the REAL musicians on stage. The more time we spend working on a song independently, the more freedom we have with that song. It’s become so ingrained that we don’t have to think about it on the bandstand and our focus can move from what I’m playing to what we’re playing.

For this week, take the song(s) that you’re learning and improvise with no backing track of any kind. If this is your first time utilizing this concept, it will probably be a little difficult for the first couple of times. However, after a short time of working on it, when you play it with a rhythm section you will feel a new level of confidence and a sense of freedom to interact with those around you.”

I hope this week’s tip has been as helpful to you as it has been to me! Be sure to go to Jason Klobnak Music to grab your copy of Breaking the Monotony or Targeting: Improvisation with Purpose. Every book sale and donation helps the JKQ with our Midwest tour expenses coming up in August. More details on the tour will be coming soon!

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Sequences

The Jazz community recently lost another great musician in pianist Mulgrew Miller. I have been a fan of his playing for years-especially his time with Woody Shaw. While thinking about his playing and some of his characteristics (and there are many) I loved the way he played sequences. In honoring Mr. Miller I thought this week’s post should be on using sequences in your improvisation.

What are sequences? There are two types of sequences you will find in jazz: melodic and rhythmic.

  • A melodic sequence is the repetition of a line at a different pitch.
  • A rhythmic sequence is simply the repetition of a rhythmic line.

Both types of sequences are not hard and fast rules. A melodic sequence can be exact interval repeats (digital patterns) or different notes entirely. The general outline or shape of the line is what is repeated. It can have a different rhythmic pattern or the exact rhythm pattern repeated (but with the notes changing).

We are going to look at an example and how we can sequence a pattern. Below is our basic pattern that we are going to use throughout this post.

 

The next example takes our pattern above and uses a sequence over the first part of a 4-bar progression. This example takes the exact pattern and modulates it to the next chord. In this example we keep the same rhythm as the original:

 

You do not have to keep the exact rhythm to create a sequence. The next example takes the idea from above and rhythmically anticipates the F# going to the D7:

 

Another way you can continue the sequence is by keeping the rhythm and shape of the original pattern, but changing the notes so they fit the next chord:

 

That same idea could be repeated over the entire progression, but you may want to add other elements to the idea to keep it from going stale. A few ways to do that is to compress the rhythm down or expand the rhythm out:

 

 

In the final example below we take some of the different elements of sequencing above and put them into the 4-bar progression (I-VI7-ii7-V7):

 

I hope this post has added value to you and your playing in some way and that you can start adding sequencing to your improvisational tools. For more information on how you can use digital patterns for sequencing, check out my book Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose. For more information on how you can rhythmically energize your improvisation check out Breaking the Monotony at my Digital Store

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The Jam

It is becoming a rarity to find open jazz jam sessions in cities across the world. I am not saying that there are not jam sessions ocurring…quite the opposite. Actually, in the Denver area there are a number of great ones that happen on a weekly basis. However, I have talked with people from a number of large metro areas across the world that do not have any sort of jam session. Jam sessions are an important aspect of continuing the jazz tradition and I highly encourage people to go to them (whether you play or not).

Why is going to a jam session important if you are learning to improvise?

  • Even though in today’s technological society we are the most connected we ever have been…we are also the most isolated ever. Notice how in public spaces people are more engaged with their electronic devices then those around them. Younger jazz musicians are spending more time by themselves in a practice room with technology then they are out playing with others. This in-person interaction is essential to growing as a jazz musician. The jam session becomes that place of personal interaction.
  • When you go to a jam session, many times you will run into someone you have never played with before. This gives you an opportunity to hear how they approach improvising. You never know what you might learn from others. If you go and open your ears you can learn from everyone at the jam session.
  • Jam sessions give you a real-time evaluation of what you are good at and what you need to improve. In the practice room, unless we stay on task, have a tendency to let things slide or work on what we can already do well instead of what we need to fix. The practice room can give you a distorted view of where you are really at. It is very humbling to public realize what you need to go back and woodshed.
  • Jam sessions also can be places where new opportunities are birthed.  You never know who you might bump into that you work with later on down the road. This is where the term the art of the hang is put into action. I may talk more about this in a future post.

There are a number of great resources online about what you should do to prepare for a jam session (i.e. what songs should I learn to be able to play in a jam, dress code, sitting-in, etc.). I would encourage you to read through those if you have never been. If you have, I highly encourage you to go to one at least once a month if your schedule permits. Get out there and jam!

I want to leave you with a humorous story about comedian Bill Cosby and his jam session experience. I could write about it, but instead thought it would be better if he told you. Check out his video below!

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Let It Go

Maybe you have been there…maybe not. It is frustrating. Especially when you are in the moment and things have been going well up until that point. For whatever reason (and it could be a number of them) you have painted yourself into a corner with your improvisation. You realize the line that you are playing will not work. It could be the line wont fit the changes or it could be that you have started to wander.

At this point in time you have a critical choice to make as an improviser. There are two roads you can choose, but you have to make the decision quick because you are in the moment. Here are your options:

  1. The first is to try and play yourself out of the jam you have put yourself in. I will be honest, this can be fun and it can make an improvisation more exciting…when it works. The problem is that it does not work that often. This can actually increase the wandering effect. It is a vicious cycle. You wander to find something that works and you go further down the rabbit hole and wander some more. An effective improvisation is a conversation with the soloist,the rhythm section and the audience. Wandering is like the soloist speaking run-on sentences or constantly going on tangents that have nothing to do with the subject.
  2. In my opinion, the best option is to Let It Go. Stop playing the line as soon as you get to that point. End the statement at a logical point (sooner then later). Take a second to step back, breathe and start a new statement. Repeat this step as soon as you notice that you are going there again. If it happens too many times then you need more time with this chord progression.

I am not a psychologist, but there is something about our human wiring that wants to feel justified about a line we are playing. If it is not working out, we tend to feel like we need to work it out to protect our ego. If you had a chance to hear yourself in this process it does not sound good. However, when we drop our ego and let the line go you position yourself for a greater chance of success.

I hope you have enjoyed this tip and that it has added some value and benefit to your playing in some way! The JKQ is slowly making our way to getting our album Mountain, Move completed. We could still use your help, though. Stop by our Digital Store today and make a donation, purchase a book, schedule a clinic or Skype lesson. Every dollar gets us closer to our album release!

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Break It Down

It happens to all of us at one point or another. We get excited on the bandstand and get caught up in the moment. We have a tendency to overplay and force the swing feel instead of allowing it to happen. Our articulations become harsh and our lines either fall apart or they wander aimlessly. Honestly, this is normal. We allow our heart rate to dictate what we play instead of the music. The good news is that there is a simple tip that will help you calm down and swing harder.

A number of great jazz educators talk about this, but the first person to hip me to it was Greg Gisbert. Instead of feeling quarter notes (or even tapping on 2 & 4) while playing, break down how you feel the time to a lower denominator. For instance, instead of feeling the time in 4/4, feel the time in 2/4  (in a sense you are playing as if it were in half-time).  You could even break it down to 1/4 (every measure is felt as 1 beat). Essentially you are breaking down how you feel the tempo.

There are a number of benefits for feeling the tempo this way:

  • The tempo feels slower which has a calming effect on your heart rate. This allows you to think in larger phrases which will also cause you to not overplay.
  • Faster tempo songs become more manageable.
  • Your articulations even out and you’re more likely to lock in with the rhythm section. This actually helps you swing in faster tempos. It does not sound forced.
  • Slowing things down allows you to look ahead, notice what is happening around you and react with the rhythm section (instead of having a one-way conversation).

This simple tip will have an immediate calming effect on the bandstand. However, it is also good to use when practicing. Getting used to playing in a half-time (or less) feel will only benefit your playing.

I hope you have enjoyed this tip and that it adds value and benefit to your playing in some way. The JKQ could still use your help in getting our album mixed/mastered. If you would like to help finish this project you can donate, buy a book or schedule a Skype lesson at my Digital Store today!

Big Phrases

I was listening to a recording this past week of a lesson I had years ago with jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles. I’ve always admired Ron’s melodic style and how the phrasing of his lines floated over the top of the chord changes in a unique way. During my lesson I asked him about what he was doing/thinking about to accomplish this style of phrasing. He said that you can view playing changes a number of different ways. We can look at things from a micro point of view (chord change to chord change) to a very macro point of view which is what we’re going to talk about in this week’s tip.

Ron and I talked about a lot of different subjects in that lesson, but I wanted to talk about thinking in Big Phrases. To be clear, playing from chord change to chord change or playing in big phrases is not a one or the other issue. It’s important to be able to both so you can effectively express yourself in your improvisation. How can we think in big phrases? Whether you have chord changes flying by every downbeat or you have one change for every couple of bars…there is one more form of organizing those changes in a macro point of view. That is the form. Songs have form (ABA, AABA, ABC, etc) that organize different sets of chord changes to complete the harmonic skeleton of that song.

One way to think/play in big phrases is to think of each section of a form as one phrase. For instance, if the “A” section is 8 bars…those 8 bars become one phrase. That doesn’t mean you have to play one continuous line for those 8 bars, but it does get you to think beyond improvising from measure to measure.

An exercise Ron had me do during our lesson was to take a form, in this case AABA, and make each “A” section the exact same. Whatever I played on the first “A” had to be repeated on the second “A.” The “B” section was its own phrase, but the third “A” section had to be an exact replica of the first. This exercise causes you to not overplay (it’s much harder to remember 8 bars of nothing but eighth-notes), it increaes mental awareness and gets you to think about making phrases on the macro level (not chord change to chord change).

Let’s take a look at, in my opinion, one of the most recognizable AABA forms in jazz: Rhythm Changes.

Bb Rhythm Changes

We’re going to take this relatively simple “A” section phrase below and make sure it’s the same thing over each “A” section.

BigAPhrase

Below is what this exercise might look like if it were all put together into one chorus of rhythm changes:

BigPhraseExample

I hope you find this exercise not only challenging, but fun and valuable to your playing. For more information on the importance of space in your improvisations and thinking on the macro level I would invite you to check out my book, Breaking the Monotony, which you can find at my Digital Store. All proceeds go towards the JKQ’s recording Mountain, Move.

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Influences

Today’s post is simple, but one that might take a few moments of reflection if you haven’t thought about it in a while. Who has influenced the way you improvise? Who do you listen to the most? Who, when you listen to them, inspires you to grab your instrument and shut out the rest of the world so you can practice?

Maybe you already do this, but if you don’t-check out musicians that don’t play the same instrument as you. Not everything they play will translate over to your instrument, but you never know what might influence you. If you are a trumpet player…listen to some sax, piano or guitar players, etc.

Let’s take this a step deeper. When was the last time you listened to music that WASN’T jazz for the purpose of finding new influence? Exploring other styles is OK and might give you another perspective rhythmically, melodically or harmonically. Granted, not everything out there will inspire or influence the way you play. However, you won’t know unless you are exposed to some degree.

Go beyond music for influence too. Listen and watch great orators and public speakers. Great ones have a good sense of timing and rhythm in their delivery. If we connect what we do in improvisation to communication-then why don’t we let great communicators influence how we improvise?

I won’t give a full list of who influences me, but here are a few that have recently:

Tom Harrell (trumpet), Alex Sipiagin (trumpet), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Pat Martino (guitar), Lionel Loueke (guitar), Brice Winston (sax), Tim Warfield (sax), Bobby Sparks (organ), Michael Gungor (guitar/vocals), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, etc.

Again, that’s not a full list so please don’t be offended if you’re not in the one above 🙂 However, maybe there’s a name in there you don’t recognize or is not in your “style.” That’s OK, but let me challenge you to go beyond your regulars and explore a little bit.

Let me here from you. Who influences and/or inspires you? Finally, please don’t forget to check out the Lick of the Day and my Digital Store. All purchases help go to funding my recording project that I’m starting in March called “Mountain, Move.”

Improv for Kids-Part 3 Feeling Rhythm

Part 3. Last week we talked about keeping things simple. Simplifying the amount of information that the children have to pick from while improvising. In this part I want to talk about the importance of having children learning to feel rhythm. This is just as important (if not more) then the notes themselves.

When children are young is the best time to work on ingraining proper syncopated and swing-type rhythms to where they become second nature as they continue to progress. Every student I’ve met that grew up around syncopated rhythm (either in the home, churches, community organizations, etc) always have a better feel and pickup on improvisation better than those that don’t.

Have the children clap along with you to some second line and clave rhythms. (On the second line example, have them clap along with the bass drum).

Then have them clap some of those same lines while listening to you play a chord progression on the piano or a play-along. Be sure to make it swing. This helps them understand that the clave pattern CAN be used in more than just Latin-type music.

Finally, have them play the 3 to 4 note grouping you gave them from last week’s post and use the second line and clave rhythm. This gets them thinking about rhythm and note choices. To me, the rhythm should be thought of first…then the note choices.

I talk about this in more detail for adults in my book, Breaking the Monotony. You can check it out by going to my Digital Store for more information. There are also a few reviews listed above in the tabs at the top of the page. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tip and that it has added value and benefit to you and your students!

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