A Universal Chromatic Lick

Universal Chromatic LickThe lick shown here will fit in pretty much any harmonic situation (click on it to enlarge it). You can work it as you please, then resolve it on a chord tone and move on.

I like to start it on the flat five of a dominant chord, particularly an altered dominant or a V7b9. The first measure here, for instance, could pair with an F#7b9, and the next measure with an E7b9, and so on, moving downward by whole step with each measure and resolving finally to an F# major chord in the last bar.

You could just as easily maintain an F#7 throughout the entire lick. It will work fine, with dissonances justifying themselves as either leading or passing tones.

The lick also works well with a minor chord, though instead of starting on the flat five, you might try starting on the fourth or fifth. Really, just experiment and decide what you like.

The nice thing about a lick like this is that you can use just fragments of it--a single bar is nice--or you can coast on it for a bit till your brain finds a jump-off point, then launch into a new creative direction.

Have fun with this little device. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my many other articles on jazz theory, exercises, and solo transcriptions.

Presenting Big Band Nouveaux

Beginning with the new year, I've spent a number of Monday nights practicing with West Michigan's newest (that I'm aware of) jazz venture: Big Band Nouveaux. Under the leadership of Grand Rapids tenor saxophonist Michael Doyle, this band is a collective of top-drawer jazz musicians that absolutely kicks butt. Some months ago, Mike contacted me about a project he had up his sleeve. Would I be interested in participating? Mike is a great musician, so naturally he immediately got my attention, but I have to confess that when he mentioned big band music, I felt lukewarm. The big band format has never been my passion. Nothing against it, but I've always leaned toward smaller combos: more freedom, more flexibility, more interplay between musicians. That's just my preference. But Big Band Nouveaux is a different breed. It is unquestionably the most incendiary big band I've ever played in, with great charts that offer plenty of room for soloists to stretch and with some tremendously talented musicians in the lineup: Paul Lesinski, Fred Knapp, Isaac Norris, Louis Rudner, Mark Wells, and Arnaldo Alcevedo, just to name a few. Veteran Blue Lake Radio jazz announcer Lazaro Vega is honing his trumpet chops with the brass section; our fearless leader, the man in the pork pie hat, Mike, is playing first tenor; and Tyler Beer and I are making the alto sax charts happen. The arrangements are uber-hip, and playing with this ensemble has been more fun than I ever imagined. Last Monday we recorded some demo tracks for the band. (Big thanks to Paul Lesinski for bringing in his recording equipment and then doing the mixdowns during the course of this week. Great job, Paul!) And I know that Mike is doing his best to hustle up some gigs for the band. We've still got our work cut out for us in terms of building our repertoire, but keep your eyes out for this molten-hot outfit. It will be making the scene in the coming months, and you definitely want to catch it when it hits the clubs.

Ornithology: A Charlie Parker Alto Sax Solo Transcription

OrnithologyThe beboppers of the 1940s and 1950s advanced the use of contrafacts,* and the godfather of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, used them liberally. After the many tunes he wrote over the chord changes to "I Got Rhythm," the contrafact he probably recorded most was the tune "Ornithology," which utilizes the changes to the old standard, "How High the Moon."

I have no idea exactly how many recordings exist of Bird holding forth on "Ornithology." I only know that there are lots. The tune was clearly a favorite vehicle for Parker, and the transcription shown here captures his first 32 bars of an extended flight. I hope to transcribe the rest of it in time, but the process keeps getting interrupted by other priorities, so for now at least, I thought I'd share this much of Bird's solo with you. It's plenty 'nuff to whet your chops on.

Charlie Parker not only had a phenomenal technique, but an equally amazing melodic concept. Both are on display here. Just click on the image and enjoy soaring with Bird.

If you enjoyed this post, visit my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions for many more transcriptions, licks and technical exercises, and educational articles on jazz.


* Contrafacts are new melodies set to the harmonies of preexisting tunes.

Building a Baseline of Ability: Revisiting an Oldie-But-Goodie Music Post

The problem with blogging is that old material tends to get buried beneath new posts. Jewels are lurking down there in the sedimentary layers, and they deserve to be brought back to the surface from time to time. Some of them surprise me. I think, Did I write that? It seems like someone else sharing wisdom and encouragement with me that I can benefit from today. Such is a post from back in May 2010, two-and-a-half years ago, which I titled "Mastering the Sax: Building a Baseline of Ability." I hope you will find it helpful and encouraging, as did I in rereading it.

Diminished Whole-Tone Lick around the Cycle of Fifths

Tonight's post is low on text but high in content. Click on the image to enlarge it, then print it out and take it with you to your next practice session and start adding a nice new lick to your diminished whole-tone collection. Not much to say about this little gem that you can't figure out for yourself, but here are a few points of interest:
    ♦  The lick begins and ends on the flat seventh of the V+7(#9) chord.
    ♦  Beats two and three highlight the major triad that's formed off of the raised fifth of the parent chord. For example, if you're playing a D+7(#9), the raised fifth is A#--or Bb, enharmonically--and beats two and three will accentuate an A# (Bb) major triad. You can look at it as chord superimposition. ♦  The last beat emphasizes the two "identity tones" of the dominant chord, leaping a tritone from its third to its lowered seventh.
That's all. Have fun with it! And if you enjoyed this post, check out my large and ever-growing library of jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions.

How to Play Chord Changes: Melodicism Versus Change-Running

It was back in my college jazz band days that I first became concerned with "playing the changes"--that is, improvising in a way that insinuated the harmonies of a tune. Prior to that, I didn't know what changes were. My inner ear had been informed by the blues and the psychedelic, proto-metal, and progressive rock of the seventies--wonderful styles of music, but they didn't prepare me for the logic and complexities of more traditional harmony or the notations used in jazz charts. So when our band director, the brilliant Dr. Bruce Early, handed out the first round of charts in my first semester, my freshman mind was fascinated by the lineup of symbols strung across the blowing section of a tune titled "Pygmy Dance." What did all that mumbo-jumbo mean? An F# followed by a circle with a line slanting through it--what was that? And a B7b9? I recognized B7, but what did b9 mean? It seemed like that might be important for me to know. Not that I needed to at the time, because I wasn't playing lead alto. Good thing, too, because the tune was written in 11/8, and I was in no position to do anything with it but follow the rest of the band. When we got to the solo section, the lead guy, Dan Bryska, stood up and blew the balls off of those changes, as he did with pretty much anything I ever heard him play. What the ... how did he do that? Amazingly, Dan didn't even appear to be paying attention to those arcane scratchings on the chart. I'd have been glued to them, but he evidently had internalized them to the point where they appeared to be part of his genetic makeup. Knowing the Mile Markers Had I known then what Dan knew, life would have been easier. I'd have instantly recognized the tune as a blues--a long-form blues, as I recall, but still in essence just a blues--and done what Dan did: just stood up and blown. Dan saw the overall form and signposts of the tune while I was trying to figure out its hieroglyphs; Dan saw the tree while I was scrutinizing the leaves. And that knowledge (not to mention Dan's fantastic technique and musical experience) allowed him to create where I'd have struggled simply to survive. I soon came to understand the runes of jazz harmony and the scales attached to them. But translating that knowledge into inventive and expressive music was another story. I viewed the written changes as an accountant might, as hard figures which demanded that I justify every note spent, rather than realizing that they were simply guides that suggested certain melodic directions. I still wasn't ready to do what Dan and other great soloists do: just stand up and blow. Which brings me to the point of this post: how does one move from the constraints of jazz harmony to freedom and spontaneity? The question is more relevant for some tunes than others. There's a big difference between, say, "Cantaloupe Island" and "Confirmation." The latter, a bebop tune, is far more complex harmonically, and its dense, fast-paced changes are exactly the kind that can hang a player up. But they don't have to. Here's why. Two Approaches to Improvisation There are two broad approaches to improvising on tunes: change-running and melodicism. In running the changes, a player seeks to outline or imply every chord in every bar, or at least, most of the chords. With a seasoned player, the results can be stunning. But by itself, change-running ultimately is limiting. There's more to music than glorifying chord tones, and that's where the melodic approach steps in. Melodic playing concerns itself with creating a pretty or an interesting melody rather than making all the changes. Not that this more scalar approach ignores or disdains a tune's harmony; it just deals with that harmony more flexibly. As the name implies, it works with scales and melodic lines rather than chord tones. Most good jazz soloists know how to utilize both approaches. It's the blend of the two that can take a seemingly tight, demanding harmonic structure and make real music with it. So here's the deal: learn the changes to a tune. Work them into your fingers during practice by running arpeggios, patterns, and licks over them. And as you do so, consider whether there are any particular tones that define distinctive measures in the tune, then earmark those pitches mentally. In other words, look for harmonic signposts that you can refer to. You don't need many of them, just a few, ones that to your ear are the most significant. These will help you get a feel for the broad shape of the tune. The more you work with the tune, the better you'll get at filling in the areas between those signposts with cool stuff. The process I've just described, which seeks to cultivate both change-running and a broader melodic perspective, requires a good deal of mental effort at the front end, but your playing will become increasingly intuitive as you stick with it. By degrees, the tune will become yours, and you'll find yourself stepping out of rigidity into exploration and inventiveness. This holistic approach seeks to balance the extremes at either end. If you've been locked into the changes to the point where you're a change-running machine, maybe you need to lighten up and think more melodically. If you've been lax in dealing with the rigors of harmony, think about adding a few more leaves to your tree. The discipline comes first, then the freedom. Learn how to play the changes, but also know that you're not enslaved to them. They're consultants, not employers; guides, not dictators. The better you and your fingers know your way around a tune's harmonic structure, the more you'll be able to make judicious choices as an improviser--but don't get stuck on the chords. The point of learning to serve the harmony is to make it serve you, and you don't need to be a master change-runner for that to happen. The goal, after all, is simply to play pretty. So practice hard and practice smart. Then do like Dan: just stand up and blow.

How to Solo on “Confirmation”: Guide Tones

In recent months I set myself to tackling a project that I had put off far, far too long: getting my arms around Bird changes. In one way or another, the Charlie Parker tune "Confirmation" has been a regular part of my practice sessions these days. Recently I finished transcribing a Richie Cole solo on "Confirmation," and of course that was enlightening. I'm currently in the process of memorizing both it and a Parker solo on the changes. It has all been profitable in unlocking the logical but nevertheless challenging harmonies. Developing a set of guide tones is immensely helpful in mastering Bird changes, particularly in the first four bars. The exercises on this page will help you do so. Click on the image to enlarge it. Note that the exercises are written for Eb instruments. If your instrument is pitched differently--eg. Bb tenor sax or C flute--you'll need to transpose accordingly. In exercises one and two, I've stripped the guide tones down to a whole note for every bar. You can modify them as you wish, but I find it helpful to start by keeping things as simple as possible. Exercises three and four take the form of boppish etudes that utilize the guide tones. I highly recommend that you practice these exercises with some form of harmonic accompaniment so you can hear how the pitches sound in context with the actual chord progression. That's it--gotta scoot. I hope you find these little nuggets profitable. If you enjoy them, you'll find plenty more on my jazz improv page.

Confirmation: A Richie Cole Alto Sax Solo Transcription

I am not the world's most accomplished jazz solo transcriber, but every time I tackle a project, I discover anew just how beneficial the discipline of transcribing jazz solos is. This latest transcription has kicked my butt. Richie Cole is--to put it in words you'll rarely hear from a sedate, late-middle-aged Germanic male--one bad mofo on the alto sax. He has carved his niche as a bastion of bebop, and as such, his language is largely accessible. However, Richie has a way of interpolating material that requires serious effort to figure out exactly what the heck he's doing.

So it is with his rendition here of the Charlie Parker standard "Confirmation." Some of Richie's rhythms and trills caused me to sweat blood for hours trying to at least approximate in a measure or two ideas that flew glibly from the man's horn in the matter of a second.

The solo is transcribed from Richie's 2007 CD The Man with the Horn. A quintessential bebop tune, "Confirmation" rips along at 246 beats per minute, providing Richie with a perfect vehicle to demonstrate his formidable chops and his broad bop vocabulary. Anyone who wants to gain mastery of Bird changes will profit from working on this one.

Note: I transcribed Richie's solo for Eb instruments, specifically the alto sax. I haven't attempted to show all of Richie's slurs and nuances, just a few that I felt needed to be indicated. To get a real feel for his articulation, you'll need to listen to the recording.

In Tribute to The Beatles

One of the marvels of YouTube is its videos of classic rock bands performing in the studio or in concert. Hendrix, Janis, The Who, Mountain, Jethro Tull ... you can find them all, alive and kicking, in the prime of their youth and at the peak of their creative spark. But among the icons of rock, one band towers above all the rest. In my estimation and that of many others, The Beatles were the progenitors of modern rock music, the importers of a British influence that took R & B in a different, electrifying direction. They were the watershed from which many streams have flowed. There may have been better instrumentalists in their day, but collectively the Fab Four were sheer genius. Fortunately, The Beatles are well represented on YouTube. If I've seemed a bit effusive in my praises of them here, it's because I just finished watching clips of the Beatles featuring two very different songs. The first is an odd, artsy, vaguely disturbing video of the band members set in a dreamlike scenario filled with strange imagery. It's an appropriate visual counterpart for the dark, richly textured John Lennon tune "Strawberry Fields Forever," whose quirky, impressionistic lyrics, colorful orchestration, and shifting moods practically defined the psychedelic sound of the late 1960s. Whatever you consider "Strawberry Fields Forever," it's not rock and roll. It's far too sophisticated for dance music. It is, in the parlance of those times, "a vibration," something to be listened to, felt, and experienced. On the other end of the spectrum is the video of the Beatles in the studio recording the visceral "Helter Skelter." The tune is sheer, relentless energy. If "Strawberry Fields Forever" set the tone for psychedelia, "Helter Skelter" lit the fuse of heavy metal. I'd never have thought it of Paul, but seeing and hearing is believing. The man was a metal head before the term ever got coined. Small wonder that bands such as Aerosmith and Motley Crue covered the tune in their live concerts. Speaking of which, I watched a number of other YouTube clips of various bands performing "Helter Skelter": Aerosmith, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, U2, even an older Paul McCartney. All of these groups offered some truly high-power performances. But the original Beatles version electrifies like nothing else. Maybe part of its impact lies in the simply seeing the guys playing together on the video and realizing just how much energy they generated. Whatever the case, the effect is incendiary. The band's impact continues to reverberate decades after their breakup in late 1969. While some of the commentary that attends the YouTube clips is what you would expect, I nevertheless find it gratifying to see how much reverence, if not outright adoration, is accorded the Beatles by so many listeners who weren't even born until twenty and even thirty years after the recordings. My apologies, by the way, for not including links to the YouTube videos mentioned in this post. Regrettably, such videos have a poor shelf life, and I consider it pointless to include links that are almost certain to wind up broken within a year or so. I have no more to say about The Beatles tonight, largely because there is so much to say about them that it's best to stop here and, um, let it be. It is late and I'm tired. Good night.

Practicing “Giant Steps”: Static and Chord Tone Sequences

Here are some more exercises on the Giant Steps cycle. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) While it might not be immediately apparent, the linear patterns shown here are actually a continuation from my previous post on isolating V7s in the cycle. Note that the V7 chords are still spotlighted by emphasizing them with quarter notes, which are led into by the preceding grouping of eighth notes. Think of the dominant harmonies as target tones preceded by a walk-up. In these exercises, I've elected to focus on the treadmill-like cycle of Coltrane changes rather than the full eight-bar A section of "Giant Steps." As is typical of so much of the practice material in my posts, what you're getting here comes straight from my own current explorations and discoveries in the woodshed Don't be cowed by this post's heady subtitle, "Static and Chord Tone Sequences." I'm just not sure how else to describe this material. The goal I'm after is to work with linear sequences that will drill the shifting tone centers of Coltrane changes into my fingers. (Geeze, that still sounds murky as all get-out. Oh, well. Deal with it.) Since I'm an alto sax player, I've written these exercises in the Eb transposition. If you play a Bb or a C instrument, you'll need to transpose accordingly. Exercise one proceeds through the entire Giant Steps cycle in three bars. The first three-bar cycle starts on Ab; the second, on E; and the third, on C. In each series, I've kept the first note of each measure as static as possible, shifting it by just a half-step in the third measure to accommodate the change in key. In exercise two, the harmony continues to repeat itself (i.e. AbM7 to B7, back and forth) while the starting tone for the eighth-note groupings shifts, progressively, from the root to the third to the fifth. In both exercises, pay attention to which target tones you arrive at in the dominant seventh chords. And that's enough of me talking. Dig in, engage your analytical thinking along with your fingers--and, as always, have fun! Oh, yeah--if you enjoyed this post, please check out my many other articles, practice exercises, solo transcriptions, and video tutorials for improvising musicians.