Double-Time Solos: Tips on Playing Fast

Last Saturday's gig at the Cobblestone was once again a blast. The lineup was different, as Dave DeVos and Paul Lesinski both have previous commitments through February. But  bringing in new players livens things up with fresh approaches, and with Steve Talaga playing keyboard and Charlie Hoats supplying the bass, I had no concerns about the quality of musicianship for the evening. It was my first time playing with Charlie, and he was every bit as superb a player as I'd been told. As for Steve, he's always been nothing short of fabulous. I am so blessed to get to make music with the kind of guys I've been working with lately--not just great musicians, but really decent, down-to-earth people.

But enough about the gig. Let's talk about playing in double-time.

I don't know why it has taken me till now to think of writing about this topic. There was a time in my musical development when it consumed me. My introduction to it began when I got my first earful of Bird back in my college days and found myself thinking, "How the heck did he do that?" A lot of people over the years have wondered the same thing about Bird, but I quickly came to realize that he wasn't the only jazz musician capable of playing really fast and sounding really good. Starting with the boppers, there was Dizzy. There was Dexter. There was Bud Powell. There was Sonny Criss, and Sonny Rollins, and of course Sonny Stitt, who seemed to have built his home in Double-Time Town. Then along came Trane, who progressed from ridiculously fast to...well, what would you call it? In 1958, "Downbeat" jazz critic Ira Gitler described Coltrane's approach as "sheets of sound," and the term has been used ever since. The speed, creativity, and beauty with which skilled jazz improvisers incorporate double-time passages into their solos can seem daunting to beginning players, not to mention flat-out bewildering. I mean, you've heard it played, so you know it can be done, but how do you even begin? As is true with a lot of things musical, the answer is quick but the implementation takes considerable time. Really, the answer is plain old musical common sense that applies to learning how to do anything as a jazz musician: Listen analytically and practice carefully, ad infinitum. And, I should add, transcribe solos or at least memorize a few solo transcriptions. That being said, let me expand on that wisdom with a few suggestions. 1. Identify a double-time passage that you like and then memorize it. By memorize, I mean work it over faithfully every practice session for a while until it sails effortlessly out of your fingers. If you really want to get something out of it, memorize it in every key, or at least a few other keys besides the one it was originally played in. Doing so will not only develop your dexterity, but also your ability to think quickly in different keys. 2. Start slow! Yes, it's double-time, but you won't play it well fast unless you can first play it well slowly. Once you've nailed down your passage at that slower speed, then increase your tempo a bit, and keep increasing it incrementally until you're playing the lick at the same speed as it was originally performed--or, if it's an idea of your own creation, at a speed as fast as you'd like to be able to pull it off on the bandstand. 3. Use a metronome. It's easy to race with double-time, and trust me, it doesn't sound at all impressive when you end up two beats ahead of the rhythm section. 4. Once you've got the passage drilled into your fingers fairly well, play with the artist's recording or with some kind of accompaniment that lets your ears hear a harmonic and rhythmic context for what you're playing. 5. Note any distinctive features of the passage. Does it involve one or more grupettos (a favorite device of Sonny Stitt's)? Where do passing tones occur? Are there any alterations to a dominant chord such as an augmented fifth or a flatted ninth? 6. Be aware of how the scales, intervals, and arpeggios you've been practicing relate to your double-time passage. They do, and seeing how will add inspiration and direction for your ongoing work on the fundamentals and suggest new ways of approaching them. 7. Be patient and be persistent. This stuff doesn't come overnight. But it will come provided you stick with it. 8. Realize that you're striving for the snowball effect. You know: You start with a small snowball, and as you roll it along, it collects more snow and becomes larger and larger--and the bigger it gets, the greater quantities of snow it is able to pick up as you continue to roll it. As you build your musical vocabulary and the technique to execute it skillfully, you'll find yourself adding material to material, expanding your musical inventory in increasingly creative ways, and ultimately, spontaneously generating brand new ideas. Your thinking will speed up, your capacity to respond intuitively to the music will increase, and so will your dexterity to play on your horn what you hear in your head. I'll conclude with a bit of cautionary advice: Just because you can play fast doesn't mean you should. Let taste, not technique, be your guide. As a jazz musician develops speed and discovers that he or she can play swift passages with increasing effectiveness, a temptation enters to "prove" oneself by playing lots of double-time. But playing fast isn't the same thing as playing well. A good jazz soloist knows how to build a solo using slower passages, longer tones, and space as well as the really fast stuff. Double-time is just one device to use along with other devices in the larger context of telling a musical story. The story's the thing, and a good story is about pace, contrast, and development, not perpetual fast action. I'm preaching to myself as I say this, because I'm prone to overplay, and one of the things I'm working at is to hold that tendency in check--to lay back more and play in ways that are stylistically appropriate. Strangely, I have a hard time playing with blues bands, and one of the reasons is because in that style, simpler is usually better. Once you develop speed and complexity, it can be hard to trust simplicity. But it's important to do so. Enough on this subject. I hope you'll find this article to be helpful and encouraging. The big thing, again, is  to practice hard and stick with it. Do that and you'll do fine. Like everything else in music, you'll master the art of playing double-time in due time as long as you keep working at it.
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

Speak Your Mind