“This was fixing two of the things that I wanted to improve in my playing, and I also discovered two new things that I could learn from it!”
Some years ago I had a period where whenever I sat down to practice in my room, I felt stuck with my playing. I could improvise through the changes and make lines but it didn’t really sound the way I felt it should, it was just a lot of notes and something was missing.
I had started to realize that, while longer 8th note lines work pretty well in a higher tempo, they don’t sound nearly as interesting in a medium tempo and I had mostly been focusing on getting better 8th note lines by checking out Pat Martino and Joe Pass. When I was playing a slower tempo, I wanted a different sound. It felt like the 8th note lines lacked dynamics and it sound like too much thinking in a tempo when you want to hear more groove and rhythm.
When you are trying to improve something then most of the work you need to do is to really understand what needs to be fixed. There is a famous Einstein quote where he says that “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” And this certainly applies to Music as well. The better you understand what is wrong the easier it is to fix it. What I hadn’t realized at that point was that I actually had a solution right in front of me.
I wanted to get a better idea about what should change. I knew that I wanted to get better at playing phrases that were not Bebop lines. But I was stuck with only knowing what I did not want, and I needed to figure out what I did want because doesn’t make sense to practice not doing something, you need to practice doing something else that works. So I needed examples of what I wanted the phrases to sound like. Examples that I could emulate and get some inspiration from. This meant diving into my cd collection (this was before the internet and Spotify).
Here I ran into a problem, I was looking for people who played fewer notes, and still had that sound I wanted. And I realized that I did not really have a lot of music from people who play like that, it was much more Pass, Martino, and Metheny, and not as much Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, and Charlie Christian. In hindsight, that of course explains a lot….
I did have a lot of Wes and that came pretty close. On a lot of the albums that I really liked he was playing a lot more short statements. So I started to listen and learn solos from Wes, trying to find things I could make my own, but I also wanted exercises that were more open open-ended and could help me develop this. And there was one really solid exercise right in front of me.
I was teaching a lesson when I realized that I had an exercise that would help. We were working on improvising over a Jazz Blues with a student and building it up from soloing with chord tones.
For a beginner in Jazz then improvising with chord tones have a lot of advantages:
There are only a few notes
They all work great on the chord
It is pretty easy to make melodies with an arpeggio
You learn to hear the chords in your solo.
But While I was demonstrating to the student by improvising a solo, I realized that this really connected to what I was trying to learn myself:
Because. when you have only 4 notes then you are not going to play a lot of notes simply because that doesn’t really sound great
If you are playing the arpeggio you are not going to get lost trying to add the material that you usually use with extensions, chromatic enclosures, etc
After I was done teaching that day, I immediately sat down to try this out. It was in many ways a perfect exercise, and I could work with it in a few different ways to really improve my playing like this. And this is an exercise that I find myself returning to fairly often.
Getting this exercise to develop your playing, especially when it comes to rhythm and phrasing can be seen as a 3 step process:
Step #1: The Raw Material
The first thing to do is to choose a song or progression, and then make sure you have all the arpeggios in one place like I am doing here with the first part of Days Of Wine And Roses.
This is just to make sure that you have all the arpeggios in one place and to make it easier to go from one chord to the next without having to jump around the neck.
But you need to do more than just know where the notes are, they still need to become music.
Full position arpeggios
For this exercise, it is useful to have the full position of the arpeggio because that gives you more freedom to be melodic once you start improvising, and I am sure that you also already worked on this at some point, so now you get to use it!
Step #2: Refining It
I worked with this exercise in two ways. The first is to build vocabulary, so compose licks or improvise slowly:
So you can hear that I try to use small 2-3 note fragments and then either use them as a motif to go from one chord to the next, or use call response so that one phrase is a call(b-roll)and the next is a response(b-roll)
When you work like this you focus more on making melodies, seeing the connections, and how the notes move from one chord to the next. Because that will help you make much more interesting solos
There are easy ways to work with this. Take this motivic line on Fmaj7 Eb7
Here I am using that A and C can move up to Bb and Db and then I can make that into a nice repeated riff tying together these two chords.
But of course, this is mostly about the notes and becoming better at making sense with short 2 or 3-note phrases, so you need to work on the next step as well to get the final ingredient:
Step #3: The Finishing Touch
Now you can take a medium tempo and start to solo using just arpeggios. If you have the first two steps down then this becomes the place where you really start to develop your solos and integrate them into your playing.
And this is where the limitation part of the exercise really starts to pay off.
A limitation exercise is an exercise where you limit yourself to focus on improving something specific. With music, you do this all the time and it can be a great way to develop many skills. Think of exercises like a chromatic exercise where you play something really simple to focus on your right hand.
In this case, the limitation is that you play the song and improvise over it, but you only use the arpeggio or the chord tones.
The advantage is that you play fewer notes and you don’t have to think too much about the notes, so you can really focus on the rhythm and how you play those notes, making your solo more dynamic and more interesting when it comes to rhythm.
I guess, I had an extra bonus because I was doing this exercise for myself, but also using it with my students, so I could actually practice while I was teaching.
And this was fixing two of the things that I wanted to improve in my playing, and I also discovered two new things that I could learn from it! Playing shorter phrases and more statements than long lines was already getting better, but I also discovered two other things that I had never thought about with Jazz melodies and Bebop lines.
And this was fixing two of the things in my playing that I really wanted to improve by letting me play shorter phrases and use more interesting rhythms. But I also discovered two other things that I had never thought about with Jazz melodies and Bebop lines.
The Sacred Quarter-note
The first thing was about rhythm: When it comes to rhythms then often we think that everything has to be complicated, odd note groupings and syncopations
but one thing that I found to be incredibly effective and overlooked was phrasing using quarter notes.
Quarter notes are very useful and if you go back to people that are closer to the swing era like Charlie Christian and early Jim Hall, then you will hear a lot of quarter note rhythms as well.
The quarter notes often get to work as a resolution so that your off beats sound more interesting as a sort of tension. They are also just a great way to sound more grounded and connect to the groove and the tempo.
Less Notes More Times
The other thing that I discovered improvising like this was that when you improvise 8th note lines then you rarely repeat notes. Mainly because that doesn’t sound great in an 8th note line:
but if you are improvising with shorter phrases and trying to make melodies that are focused on rhythm and locking in with the groove then repeating notes is a great thing to do, actually also something you will hear Wes do as well.
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