Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

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Learning Clifford Brown’s solos by ear

New year’s resolution: to get this diary/journal going again after quite a long period of neglect (look at the date of the previous entry).

A large part of what stopped me writing was that every time I thought of doing so I felt the time would be better spent practising the trumpet. Also I lost the sense of importance of keeping a progress record. One of the things I like to do is to teach, and it’s not inconceivable that one day I might teach jazz, perhaps specifically to people who are already “classically” trained. If I do, then a well-kept journal, of my own trials and tribulations, could be a very useful teaching resource for me. Not only that – I do think that what I’m attempting is unique; I’ve never heard of an established horn player switching not only instrument but an entire musical discipline before. I feel something of an explorer, and I suppose a good explorer makes maps as they go along. 

Apart from a period of some four months last summer during which I worked quite intensively for the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne Opera, I have been working pretty hard at my jazz. I’m still a long way from any kind of public performance but I’ve not lost any of my enthusiasm or energy for the task of learning. . 

During the period since my last writinng here my collection of playalong recordings has enlarged quite a lot and nearly all of them are Jamey Aebersold’s excellent books. Also I’ve found another absolutely great tool to help me learn. It’s a software program called The Amazing Slowdowner (available to download from www.ronimusic.com). This extremely clever software will get hold of the CD player in your PC or Mac and make it do the most amazing things. It can play a track – all of it or just a section of it – looped if you like if you like if you like if you like – at any speed without altering the pitch. This is incredibly useful in itself but there’s more – it can transpose the pitch of the track up or down by any amount you want – semitones or fractions of semitones or combinations thereof – up or down. The great thing is that pitch and tempo can be chosen independantly of eachother. It’s an incredibly easy to use, no frills, sensibly written program. Congratulations to the author – a jazz musician himself, for turning my PC into the most useful learning tool I could imagine for my jazz.

I keep finding new ways to use it but here’s one way, just to help demonstrate how useful it is: say I want to learn a solo by Clifford Brown – from one of his recordings. I’ll put the CD in (or I can rip the desired track to an MP3 file and store it in my computer for ease of access – The Amazing Slowdowner works just as well with MP3 files, or other types of audio files on hard-disk, as with a CD spinning in your drive) and find the start of the actual solo and set it to loop the first bar or two – a chunk small enough for me to learn without breaking it down still further. I’ll slow it right down so I can hear every little detail and then commence trying to play it. When I’ve got it, I’ll start to speed it up a little and move onto the next chunk. 

It’s the ability to play around with the speed of the playback and the length of the loop which is so wonderfully useful. It’s hard to imagine a more efficient way of learning something by ear. And I’m now certain that “by ear” is the way to do it. I’ve a book of Clifford Brown’s solos transcribed and printed. They certainly look nice but if you play them “from the dots” they come out sounding stilted and mechanical. I reckon the only way you’ll get it to float, fly and dance like Clifford Brown is by copying him directly. And that’s why we learn solos, isn’t it? Jazz is supposed to be an aural tradition. I want to learn Clifford Brown’s rhythms, grammar, syntnax, accent and dialect – and I can’t do that from a book. My best chance is with the great man’s recordings and the Amazinng Slowdowner. This is the way it’s always been done, incidentnally. It used to be constant repositioning of the needle on a 78 record – and I’ve heard it said that many jazz musicians used completely wear out their records learning like this!

The Amazing Slowdowner is much more efficient – and you can learn it in a differnet key from the original, if you want. A lot of the Aebersold playalongs are still too fast for me to get my head around the chord changes. With the Slowdowner I can highlight any tricky bits and run them as slowly as I like until I’ve got the hang of it, then speed it up bit by bit. 

Incidentally, I’ve been very surprised and humbled by putting Clifford Brown’s solos under the microscope in this way. One would think that the more you slow it down to disect and investigate it the more minor imperfections of rythm and intonation would show up until, at high magnifications, it would start sounding rather ragged. Wrong! What has been a most amazing ear-opener for me has been the discovery that the more I dissect and magngfy the more detail and accuracy is revealed. Hats off to the incredible Clifford Brown.

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