Video Tutorial #3: Circular Breathing

Circular breathing has something of a sensationalist aura about it, but its mystique exceeds its mystery. There's no secret to acquiring the skill other than to learn how it's done and then work at it till you own it. And it's worth the effort, because circular breathing is a useful tool to have. When you find yourself playing an extended passage and need to come up for air, circular breathing will let you replenish your lungs without having to break up the flow of music. This video tutorial piggybacks on a post I wrote a couple years ago on how to circular breathe. I highly recommend that in addition to watching this video, you read that post as well. Either may provide that flash of insight that you might not get with the other. By the way, contrary to what all my fidgeting may lead you to believe, I do not suffer from Tourette's syndrome. I shot the video at a nearby park in the evening, and mosquitoes as big as fruit bats kept trying to establish fracking operations on my skin. Between swatting constantly at the little blighters and puffing my cheeks out like a blowfish and then thrusting my face into the camera, I will probably not secure my reputation as a suave, cool kinda dude. But that's okay as long as this video achieves my goal of helping you to learn circular breathing. If you find the tutorial helpful, drop me a note and let me know. It helps to know that my efforts are making a difference, and supportive comments are like bars of gold in my emotional Fort Knox.

Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

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.

Tonight by the Tracks: The Foibles of Practicing the Saxophone When You’re Me

I've found a new place to practice my saxophone along my beloved railroad tracks. If you've followed the musical side of this blog for any length of time, you know that I do most of my practicing in my car, parked by a CSX line that threads the countryside from Grand Rapids to Lansing. Living in an apartment has forced me to find a suitable "studio" away from my living quarters, and since I've loved trains since I was a kid, the tracks are it. I don't mind this arrangement at all. I've been getting in my practice this way for years, even a couple decades, and I like it so well that even if I owned a house, I would probably still venture out to the tracks frequently. Anyway, these past couple of months I've begun parking in a little turn-in next to the tracks between Alto and Elmdale, which is like hanging out halfway between Huh? and Nowhere. I love this spot. Parking parallel to the tracks, I can see the distant signal lights both behind me in the mirror and in front of me through the windshield and can spot the headlamps of approaching trains from far off. It's great. Of course, the sight of a car parked off to the side with its lights out and the dim outline of a person sitting inside it looks a bit suspicious, and once in a while, the cops stop and check me out. I don't mind--they're doing exactly what they should be doing, and usually they're pretty nice about it. The guy who investigated me tonight was a good example. I was sitting there ripping through "Ornithology" with my Aebersold CD when a patrol car pulled up and melted both of my retinas with its spotlight. Okay, no sweat. I kept on playing, figuring that doing so would provide the quickest explanation for what I was about. I figured right. When the policeman walked up to my window, he was laughing. "What's the matter? Wife won't let you practice at home?" he said. I explained my living situation and how I had been parking by this stretch of tracks for many years. "Yeah, I think I've seen you out here before," he said. "You know, my father-in-law plays trombone, and my mother-in-law gave him crap for playing it last Thanksgiving." "Hey," I said, "someone understands!" I handed him my license and let him run his routine. Then we wished each other well, he took off, and I returned to my practicing. It was a clear January night with a new moon, not very cold, and through my side window I could see Orion the Hunter striding through a riot of stars in the southern sky. In my rearview mirror, a green signal light announced the approach of a train still miles down the line. Such are the perks of practicing by the railroad tracks. Why would I ever trade them for playing indoors?

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.

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.

Bob Hartig Plays “Giant Steps”

At long last, I've gotten my chops for Giant Steps changes up to speed enough that I'm ready to share a recording with you. It has taken me months of practicing to get to where I'm beginning to convert licks and patterns into original statements. That's not an easy thing to do with this tune, and I freely admit that there are a few rough spots here. But there are also some ones that I'm quite proud of. I particularly like the opening statement--I don't know where it came from, but I'm glad it found its way into and out of my horn. In another few months, I hope to have advanced to where I'm playing still more freely and inventively and am ready to do another recording. For now, though, this one will serve as a mile marker to document my progress. Without further ado, here is me playing Giant Steps The background, by the way, is Band-in-a-Box, which served fine for this purpose. Big thanks to my good friend Ed Englerth for gifting me with his sound engineering wizardry in his Blueside Down recording studio. You make me sound good, amigo!

Two Giant Steps Licks

Lately, my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad has enjoyed a modest spate of sales. I appreciate that musicians take an interest in it. On my part, it was a labor of love, and it's gratifying when you, my readers, find it worthwhile enough to shell out your hard-earned cash to obtain a copy. Every purchase is a shot of morale for me, not to mention a nice dent in my electric bill. As a way of saying thanks, I thought I'd share with you a couple of favorite new Giant Steps licks that I've been practicing. They correspond to the A section of Giant Steps' A-B form and have a bebop flavor to them. Since I'm an Eb alto saxophonist, I've written the licks out for my instrument. C, Bb, F, and bass clef instruments will need to transpose accordingly. 'Nuff said. Without further ado, here are the licks. Click on the image to open and enlarge it.