Saying Good-Bye to July

Looks like I almost let July slip by without making a single post. Almost. I just haven't felt inspired to write in this blog lately. Weatherwise, what's to say? Right--the drought. Frankly, I haven't felt like writing about the drought. We all know how horrible it has been: day after day and week after week of relentless, rainless heat. No doubt that's newsworthy, but I'll let the news media tackle it. From my perspective, it discomforts me, it annoys me, it inconveniences me, and certainly it concerns me, as it should anyone living in the continental United States. To say it has been disastrous is putting it accurately. But while I suppose this drought is severe weather in its own way, it doesn't interest me the way that a thunderstorm does. Mostly, it's something I wish would go away, a sentiment shared by millions of Americans roasting in the Midwestern heat. Fortunately, it won't be here forever, and lately the pattern around the Great Lakes has seemed to be nudging slowly but progressively toward a stormier one. As I write, the radar screen for Michigan looks like this (click on image to enlarge it). I like that: a cold front dropping out of the northwest bringing a nice line of storms and a good dousing of much-needed rain. Shifting gears to music, there's not much to say on that topic either. Of course I've been staying on top of my instrument, but that's par for the course. My woodshedding on "Giant Steps" and "Confirmation" continues, along with "Ornithology," and I'm getting to where I'm starting to shred the bejeebers out of those tunes. But, mmm, yeah, okay, so what. Where do I go from here? The studio, I think. It's about time I finally recorded my efforts, put something down for ears besides mine to listen to. Otherwise, why am I bothering with all this practicing of tunes that no one is ever going to call for on a gig? Folks want "Satin Doll," not Coltrane changes. Still, somewhere out there I think there are people who will take an interest. So I need to get with my buddy Ed Englerth in his Blueside Down Studios and make some noise. 'Scuze me if I sound a bit cranky. At 56 years of age, I'm rapidly approaching full curmudgeonhood and I am getting in practice for it. The lack of heavy convection and lack of gigs combined is assisting the effort. But a shift in either aspect of that equation will restore my humor and give me something to write about. No, that's not right--there's always something to write about. What I need is something I feel like writing about. Maybe later tonight will do the trick, when that storm line which is presently 50 miles to my north moves in. Hmmm ... the cell that is just making landfall near Pentwater is packing straighline winds of nearly 70 knots. That'll create some interest for folks south of town. Now to close up shop and see what kind of action we get around here a few hours hence. If it's nothing more than a good dumping of rain, I'll be more than happy. But I'm betting it'll come with a spark and a growl.

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.

My Father’s Horn, Part 3

(Continued from part 2.) For a couple of years after I graduated from high school, I cast about with no certain direction. I worked a series of odds-and-ends jobs, none with any promise, and lived alternately with my parents, in a tiny shotgun house in Eastown, and in a former chicken coop converted into a rental home out in the countryside of Cascade. (Don't knock it till you've tried it! The place was really nice for that time in my life.) The one constant in my life was music. But in those days, I had largely set aside my horn in favor of my acoustic guitar, which I had taught myself to play. I was hugely into Jethro Tull and wanted nothing more than to be another Ian Anderson. So I was doing my best to develop as a singer/songwriter. It was the sax, though, that opened the door to some key musical friendships. In those days, I was hanging with my buddies Perry Werchowsky and Scott Smith. It was these guys who in different ways spurred me on to learn more about what I was doing. The three of us used to get together frequently at Perry's house and jam, with Perry playing piano, Scott on the guitar, and, of course, me on the alto sax. Perry was studying with veteran jazz keyboardist Eddie Russ, and Scott had begun to take music classes at Grand Rapids Junior College. Scott was constantly talking about the latest musical concepts he was learning in music theory class. Triads, inversions, augmented chords, secondary dominants, cadences ... all fascinating to hear about, and frankly, I was starting to feel a bit jealous. I wanted to know about that stuff! When I told my parents that I thought I might like to study music, they leaped at my mere mention of the idea. A whirlwind of college visits, applications, and financial aid forms ensued, and when the dust finally settled, I found myself sitting in the afternoon jazz band at Aquinas College under the directorship of Dr. Bruce Early. Bruce put me in the lead alto chair, but he made it plain to me that the arrangement was only temporary. Someone else would be playing first chair, and once that person arrived in a week or two, I would be demoted. "Right," I thought. "Just wait till you hear what I can do!" Rehearsals got underway, me playing with all the gusto and confidence that comes from either great talent or monumental ignorance. From the impression Bruce was doing of being utterly unimpressed, I knew I was secretly blowing him away. He just wasn't letting on. Then one afternoon as I was assembling my horn for rehearsal, into the room walked another saxophonist named Dan Bryska. I had heard Dan play before; he had sat in on a few Formal Aires gigs in months past. I felt a bit nervous. Here was my replacement, apparently, and I knew he was good. Dan put together his horn and began to warm up with a series of bebop licks. In fifteen seconds, the guy blew lines through his sax that I had never dreamed of. And like that, my cocky attitude evaporated. Geeze, Dan wasn't just better than me, he was a lot better. There weren't even grounds for comparison. Until now I had been a small fish in a smaller pond, and I had made the mistake of believing the people who told me what a great player I was. Now here was the truth, staring me in the face. I was a novice, so green that I didn't even know how badly I sucked. But Dan had just given me a clue. It was a humbling experience, but it was good for me. It suggested that if I wanted to become anywhere near as good a player as Dan and some of the other guys in the band, I was going to have to work at it. In other words, practice. What a novel concept! But practice what? I wasn't sure. I had begun to take jazz improvisation lessons with Bruce Early, but my ears just couldn't wrap themselves around the complexities of even the simplest jazz harmony. A ninth slapped on top of a minor seventh chord didn't sound pretty to me; it sounded wrong. I forget how I stumbled upon Jerry Coker's renowned book Patterns for Jazz, but I'll never forget the impact it had on me. By then I was two years into music school, and I was slowly developing, but I think I was mostly just a source of frustration for my saxophone instructor. Then along came Coker's book. I took it to school with me, hit a practice room, and began to work on a pattern that consisted of major triads ascending and descending chromatically. "Hmmm," I thought, "I wonder if I can memorize this." I took up the challenge, persevered at it, and succeeded. And light began to dawn for me. I could do this stuff! If I practiced, I could become good. Maybe even really good. I was hammering away on my triads one afternoon when the door to my practice room suddenly flung open and my sax instructor, Fred Bunch, rushed in. "YES!" he yelled. "That's it! That's it! Keep doing it!!!" The man had a wild look in his eyes, and I had left my pepper spray at home. But I felt more inspired than nervous. After all those years of misfiring, it looked like I was finally on the right track. (To be continued.)

My Father’s Horn: A Grown Son Reflects on a Priceless Musical Legacy

Most of my music posts share technical exercises or theoretical information. This post is different. I want to share with you something very personal. It is the story of the saxophone that I play: my beloved Conn 6M Ladyface. When I was a small boy living with my family in Niles, Michigan, my dad kept his alto sax in its original black case up against the wall by his bed. He had bought the horn back when he was a young man, and was learning to play it until service in WWII interrupted his musical aspirations and a bout of tuberculosis finished them off entirely. He met my mother in the TB sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse. Dates followed, letters, a ring, marriage, and then me. My parents moved from Chicago to Niles when I was a year old. The sax sat quietly in its case, all but forgotten. Once in a great while, though, Dad would take that case and open it up, and it was on one such occasion that I got my first glimpse of the horn. There it lay, cradled in the case's rich, purple velvet lining: a shining complexity of rods, springs, pearl buttons, pads, and palm keys, all neatly arranged on that deeply golden, sensuously curving body. It was beautiful, fascinating, and to me, impossibly complicated. How could anybody take something so bewilderingly engineered and make music with it? Ever after that first glimpse of my father's horn, I wanted to see more of it. From its aureate luster, to the resonant sound of its bell pads thumping against the tone holes, to its mysterious, brittle reeds, that saxophone captivated me. I was far too young to play it, but it was already beginning to play me. In the summer after my sixth grade year, my family--which had grown to include my brothers Pat, Terry, and Brian, and my sister, Diane--moved to Grand Rapids. Junior high school loomed on the horizon. No longer would I be attending a private Catholic school; the Forest Hills public school system awaited me in the fall, including its band program. Band? I was going to be in band? Yes, that was the plan. In September, when I climbed aboard the school bus for the first day of school, that black case containing my father's horn was in my hands. Private lessons with my band director, Richard Streng, commenced soon after. And I took to my dad's alto sax as naturally as if I had been born for it--which, of course, was the case. The first note I learned to play was A. The second was D. After that came G, and then, I think, C; after that, I don't recall the order. What I do remember is stopping between each note and carefully inspecting my fingers to make sure they were positioned properly. It seems amazing that the fluidity with which I get around on my instrument today got its start with such painstaking deliberateness. But I didn't mind. I was learning to play music, learning to play my dad's saxophone, and I was absolutely thrilled. I could do this! No one needed to tell me to practice; I couldn't wait to get in my daily time on the sax. Mr. Streng seemed to enjoy my private lessons with him as much as I did. He recognized in me a genuine desire to excel. I came to my lessons prepared and ready to play, so he consistently had something he could work with. I still remember his baritone voice after every lesson: "Bob, as always, it has been a pleasure." From Mr. Streng, I learned a life lesson every bit as important as those first music lessons, and that was the power of praise. Never underestimate what a good word can accomplish in a person's heart. A child's heart, a young adult's heart, a heart of many years' experience ... it doesn't matter. Praise empowers; praise instills vision; praise nurtures an inner voice that says, "Yes, I can!" (To be continued)

Gigs: One Trick Pony Tonight; Seasonal Grille Tomorrow

A quick reminder to my West Michigan friends that I'm playing with Francesca Amari and band tonight and tomorrow night. Tonight's gig is from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. at One Trick Pony in downtown Grand Rapids. If you're from around here, you know where it is. Tomorrow's gig runs from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Seasonal Grille in Hastings, right across from the courthouse square. Address is 152 West State Street. Besides Francesca and me, the lineup consists of Dave DeVos on bass, Bobby Thompson on drums, Wright McCargar on keyboards tonight at the Pony, and Mark Kahny on keys tomorrow night at the Grille. You can count on good food and a good time. Make it if you can.

Video Tutorial #2: The Tritone Scale

A while back, I wrote a post on the tritone scale. For my second video tutorial, I thought I'd supplement that article with a brief audio-visual clip. Supplement is the operative word. Besides describing the theory of the tritone scale in somewhat greater detail and probably a bit more lucidly than the video, the writeup provides written examples for you to work with. But the video helps you hear the sound of the tritone scale, and in so doing, allows you to come at the scale from every angle. People's learning styles differ, so maybe this tutorial will be more your cup of tea. Regardless, if you haven't read my written article, make sure to do so after you've watched the clip. On a side note, the video was shot out at the Maher Audubon Sanctuary in rural southeastern Kent County, Michigan. I'm discovering a fondness for producing these tutorials in outdoor settings when I can. With winter closing in, my future productions will soon be relegated to the indoors; right now, though, nature is singing "Autumn Leaves," and it has pleased me to capture a bit of her performance. If you enjoy this tutorial, check out my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions page. And with that said, enjoy the video.

Video Tutorial #1: The Augmented Scale

The time has come for me to kick it up a notch on with my first video tutorial on jazz. This one is on the augmented scale, a favorite of mine. I feel a bit presumptuous taking this step, since I'm putting myself out in front of you, my musical readers, in a new way that suggests a high degree of expertise. The reality is, I'm a mostly self-taught saxophonist who lives in a rural, bedroom community of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where you can still drive just a few blocks to find plenty of corn and cows. That said, I know what I know. More important, I'm a perpetual learner, and I like to share what I've learned, often as I'm still in the process of learning it. This video tutorial represents my effort to offer you more value by, er, augmenting your learning experience. (Pun intended. Rimshot, please.) In the Jazz Theory, Technique, and Solo Transcriptions section of my Jazz page, you'll find a good number of written articles on the augmented scale, complete with exercises, to supplement this video. One thing they can't do, though, is familiarize you with the sound of the scale. That's where this tutorial comes in handy. I hope you'll enjoy it.

“Round About” Jazz Etude for Bb and C Instruments

Yesterday I published an etude that I wrote based on the chord changes to the Jamey Aebersold tune "Round About." The tune is included in the second CD of the 2-CD set Dominant Seventh Workout (number 84 ins the Aebersold jazz improvisation CD series). Since my instrument is the alto saxophone, it was natural for me to write the etude using the Eb transposition. But of course, the whole world doesn't play Eb instruments. So I promised those of you who play tenor sax, trumpet, flute, and other Bb and concert pitch instruments that I would provide transposed charts for you. Here they are. The top chart is for C instruments and the bottom one is for Bb instruments. Click on the images to enlarge them. If possible, use the Aebersold accompaniment for "Round About" or have a pianist comp for you as you play the etude so you can hear how the lines work with the harmony. If you enjoy these exercises, look here for more, along with insightful articles, transcribed solos, and tips on jazz improv. CORRECTION: Now that this article has been posted for a while, naturally I've noticed a transcription error in the C and Bb charts. (The original Eb chart is fine.) Since you can easily make the correction mentally, I'm going to simply tell you what it is. In measures 3-4 and 19-20, the chord symbol should not contain a sharp sign. The correct chord in both locations is as follows: for the C chart, A7+4; for the Bb chart, B7+4.

Saxopedia: Introducing a New Saxophone Website

A few days ago I received a note from Italian saxophonist Gianfranco Balena informing me of his new website, Saxopedia. Having checked it out, I'm taking a moment to recommend that you do the same if you're a saxophonist--or, for that matter, if you're a jazz instrumentalist of any denomination. Saxopedia is clearly a labor of love on the part of Mr. Balena, and it looks to be a site that will be regularly updated. Of particular interest is the index of jazz solos. Featuring links to over 1,000 free solo transcriptions that cover a huge array of well-known saxophonists, this is as exhaustive a compendium of solos for memorization and study as you'll ever find. It's a terrific resource, and you owe yourself a visit. Once you've been there, I'm betting you'll return for more. I will, that's certain.

Altered Dominant with Pentatonic b6 Scale

Lately my practice sessions have involved both the diminished whole tone scale and the pentatonic scale. There's a reason for this: the two are related, and both scales go well with the V+7#9 chord. My previous post explored how this plays out with a basic major pentatonic scale. I worked with mode 4 of that scale, starting on the b9 of the V+7#9 chord. In root position, the scale would actually begin on the +4 of the chord. Today during my practice session I focused on another pentatonic scale rooted on the +5 of the V+7#9. It's a wonderful sound that really brings out both the major third and #9 of the chord as well as the evocative color of the raised fifth. This scale is not your standard-issue pentatonic; its flatted sixth gives it a mysterious augmented quality. Click on the image to your right to enlarge it. The first thing you'll see is a D+7#9 chord outlined in whole notes. To its right is an ascending Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth. You'll see how the scale is entirely consonant with the chord. Moreover, further analysis will reveal that the Bb pent b6 is actually an abbreviated form of the D diminished whole tone scale. Still more interesting is the fact that the Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth actually is the D+7#9! It's what you get when you scrunch all the chord tones together linearly (or as near linearly as possible). While I'd love to make myself sound like a master theoretician who has known this fact for most of his musical life, the truth is, I just made the discovery a little while ago. Now I know why this scale sounds so great when played with the altered dominant chord. It is the chord. Of course the scale has other applications besides the V+7#9, the most obvious being major and dominant chords that share the same root as the scale. I'll let you work out the various other harmonic possibilities for yourself as they're not the focus of this post. Back to the image: The second and third lines introduce you to a basic exercise that will help you start getting your fingers around the pentatonic b6 scale. It would be most helpful if you had some kind of accompaniment sounding the chord when you work on this pattern. You want to internalize the sound of the chord-scale relationship, not just the technique. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Take this exercise through the full range of your instrument and learn it in all twelve keys. And that's that. For lots more chops-building exercises, solo transcriptions, and information-packed articles, visit my jazz page.