I’ve been practising pretty regularly and, I feel, steadily improving but increasingly feeling myself to be in a musical vacuum. What I need now is fresh air, not my own stale stuff to breathe; so with that in mind I’ve arranged to have a lesson with Martin Shaw, who has been enthusiastically recommended by both John Barclay and Derek Watkins.
I’m taking a trumpet and a flugelhorn but no books or printed stuff of any kind – jazz is supposed to improvised – plus I don’t want to be telling Martin the way I want the lesson to go.
What do I want? Not sure, but I’d like him to get me to loosen up my playing and then guide me towards better ways of doing it. The fact is I don’t know if I’m any good at any aspect of it. John Barclay has been vey encouraging, even flattering, as have Valentin and Dan Newall, but I don’t really know if I’m heading in the right direction, hence the need for a lesson …or several.
Well, that was amazing. Martin Shaw is a terrific teacher, and very generous with his time. He gave me two hours! It felt like half an hour. It seems that I’m basically on the right track and he was very encouraging about my attempts – after hearing me struggling through All The Things You Are, although several things came up which I’m writing down now to remind myself about.
1. General articulation: I’m doing it too softly! My tonguing needs to be more positive, or harder, less “classical” – this surprised me but he demonstrated the difference and convinced me. It’s part of coming from my highly classical horn technique and rounding the starts of the notes. “It’s a beautiful sound but not right for jazz trumpet”, I think he said… So I must try to remember that.
2. Learning the modal flavours: Up and down scales thinking in terms of raised and lowered 2nds, 3rds, 6ths etc.. Make cards or use Psion… Go to the ninth and back down each time. Then learn them from the ninth down then up. Then in broken thirds, fourths etc…
3. Playing Aebersolds using only the chord notes. Up, then up and down the scale notes.
4. Playing Aebersolds up and down the straight simple scales notes – so, for example, when encountering the altered scale Calt, just stick to C7 (for now).
5. Same as above but improvising using only the scale notes first in minims, then in triplet minims, then crotchets, then triplet crotchets then quavers, then, triplet quevers etc…
6. Don’t use double tonguing in the fast stuff – it’s almost never done in jazz. The fast licks seem to all be slurred pairs or threes, across the main beats.
7. Learn the closed-tongue Clifford Brown thingy sound. Like muting the sound by putting the toungue against the teeth so the air has to squeeze around the teeth to get through. This is a new departure – something unheard of in classical technique and I don’t think it’s been analyzed much by jazz trumpet players. They just seem do it. I don’t know what it’s called, even.
8. The timbre can be less bright – Martin’s was considerably smokier, or more lush than mine. No idea how to do this.
9. Chromatic scales: very useful and need to be clean and accurate and fast. Good for warming up. Use a more postive finger action – slam the valves down a bit more !
Still practising! I’ve been working on John Coltrane’s essential standard, Giant Steps. It’s a real earbender, but I think I’ve found a way in – an initial way of taking the fear out of it.
It’s a colour coded grid of the chord changes. Pretty self explanatory. It shows that the whole piece can be done, as if by magic, using only the notes of three major scales – in this case Db major, A major and F major. The three colours correspond to the three chords so you get visual cue to change chord. Please take a look.
Please note it’s for Bb trumpet. I use it with the excellent slow Aebersold playalongs to Giant Steps found in volume 65, “Four and More”.
Valentin Garvie came around this evening. He had phoned up to say he was in London for four days between a tour around Sweden and a pile of work with Ensemble Moderm in Germany, so I invited him around straight away. We played through a few blues pieces and one or two standards, all with the Aebersold playalongs.
To summarise what came out of the evening:
1. I’ve improved a bit since the last time we tried this together, which is encouraging in itself, but in addition Valentin was particularly encouraging. He’s very good at delivering praise and encouragement wrapped up neatly with some constructive criticism.
2. My polycarbonate mouthpiece is really not bad – we did a sound test and the differences were not quite so obvious as they had seemed last time we compared it with his Bach 1.5C
3. Valentin is a really good jazzer! I don’t know why he hasn’t been doing more of it. As we got warmed up he got much better, very rapidly, indicating that he has been very good at jazz improvisation in the past but has let it get a bit rusty. After half an hour or so he was producing some amazingly impressive stuff and by comparison I felt I was sounding worse and worse. The most noticable thing for me was that I don’t seem to have any sort of style, rather I play in what might be called the “Blandissimo” style. Some gin didn’t help. For a moment or two I felt like giving up but then Valentin managed to find yet more encouragement, somehow.
4. He agreed wholeheartedly with “Really, the best way to learn is to take tunes off records..”. (see previous post, here).
5. He thinks that rather than trying to learn all the turnarounds, all the two-five-ones, all the blues progressions in every key etc. (not that I have been, entirely…) I should I should stick to the simpler more common keys only and concentrate my efforts more on learning a big repertoire of patterns, licks, riffs, whatever they are called, extracted from recorded solos. I must find a ways of chaining chunks of this sort of remembered material together in my improvisation. Hopefully, this should to prevent me meandering around aimlessly, which is what I tend to do when I’m reading chord symbols.
Now, that’s a lot of learning in one evening – and all it cost me was the preparation of a bowl of stif-fried vegetables with rice and a gin&tonic!
(6. I must persuade Valentin to come over more often.)
Right now I’m well stuck into some “turnaround” exercises.
The one I’m currently chopping away at is one of the simplest from Aebersold’s book of turnarounds (Volume 16, Ex. 3). Basically, this is a four chord repeating sequence, for example F#M, A7, D7, G7, which needs transposing into all keys. It’s making me do what Ken Bartells told me to do a year ago, which is to try to be conscious of which notes and what chord I’m playing. I still find this really difficult but I’m confident that I’m going to crack it eventually.
Another landmark I’ve passed recently, I now realise, is what might be called the acquisition of “trumpet finger pitch”. Ever since I can remember I’ve had “horn finger pitch” meaning that I only have to imagine I’m holding a horn and make a certain valve combination for the note I’m wanting to hear to pop conveniently into my mind. This is an extremely useful thing, particularly for playing atonal music – in fact I don’t know how anyone could play the stuff without that having this facility.
Although the trumpet is in Bb, just like the French horn, the hornplayer reads and thinks in F. Thus, while the trumpet fingerings are quite similar between horn and trumpet (although one octave apart) the notes have completely different names. On one level, then, trumpet fingering is completely different to horn fingering – which is, I think, why hornplayers and trumpet players are now an entirely different species and generally do not interbreed. I must be quite a rare “sport”, hybrid or mulatto.
Now that I can “activate” my right hand and imagine certain trumpet valve combinations to get any pitches I want in my head I think I can say I have got “trumpet finger pitch”. It’s taken longer than a year to acquire this, and I wasn’t sure it would come – in fact I was actually slightly worried that if it did come it would mess up my horn pitch. Luckily, trumpet fingers and horn fingers, being on different hands, don’t seem to conflict at all. Phew!
Hmmm… It’s been 7 months since I entered anything here. What happened? I think I got a bit bogged down and lost my momentum. I had my third keyboard lesson with Ken, in October, and we decided I would come back for another one when I felt needed to rather than book up the next lesson there and then Kenny phoned up and left a message with Carrie asking how I was getting on and if I still wanted to go and have a blow with him. I was finding it a bit difficult to pluck up the courage to call him so it was great he called or perhaps nothing would have happened.
I went around to his place on 18th December. I was quite nervous and worried about having to play something to him. Would he laugh at me? I felt a bit silly with my cornet and unable to ask him the right sort of question. He’s a bit of an awkward fellow too, which didn’t help much. Eventually I found myself asking him what goes on in his head when he’s reading chord symbols, improvising over them. He really wasn’t able to tell me but something useful did come out of our meeting: I discovered what for me was THE crucial thing, which was that he always knows what note he’s on and what the “flavour” of the chord is. I had already come to this realisation for myself but Kenny kind of hammered it home and a result of this was that I set my resolve to light up the part of my mind which monitors what notes I am playing, the actual names of them and/or their positions on the stave. A consciously visual, non-aural analogue of the pitches I am playing.
He put on one of the tracks from the Bill Evans book in the Aebersold series and got me to play along with it. He seemed pretty impressed with my “ear”, and somewhat mystified when I told him I had no idea what notes I was playing. We both came to the conclusion that I had to find a way of knowing what notes I am playing. So from that moment – an important one, which got me working at the jazz again – I put a lot of energy into that.
Kenny Wheeler very kindly lent me one of his flugel horns. It’s a beauty with a gorgeous copper bell section and an absolute delight to play – made by Kanstul. It’s incredibly well in tune. Here’s a photo:
My second lesson with Ken Bartels.
Unsurprisingly, we started where we had left off and this felt like me showing him my homework – a strange feeling as it’s some 25 years since I left school. The homework was playing through the Aebersold book, “Blues in all keys”, firstly sticking exclusively to the blues scale of each key, secondly using only the given chord notes to build the tunes.
I told him I had worked on it for quite hard for a couple of weeks but then had got “sidetracked” by such exotic things as Locrian modes and diminished whole-tone scales. I was crap at my homework – which was a bit embarrassing – and the end result was that the same homework still stands for the next lesson. Groan.
For the second half of the lesson we did some keyboard work which was very interesting and my keyboard homework is to learn my 11-V-1 progressions, in all keys and in both hands. It’s a lot of work. He also recommended a couple of books, which I have ordered – John Mehegan’s “Contemporary Styles for the Jazz Pianist”, and Mark Levine’s “The Jazz Piano Book”.
Here’s another useful exercise I just arrived at after some work on Aebersold, Volume 42 – “Blues in all keys”.
Having learned what the the chord notes and scale notes are (track 11, Blues in Ab -for trumpet) because Aebersold writes them all in for you, I found it hard to ignore them and that I couldn’t avoid playing simply chords and scales. So I wrote just the chord symbols on a post-it and stuck it in the page – effectively taking away one of the crutches. Then I found that because I still kept drifting away from knowing what notes I was playing I needed a way of making me focus this in relation to the given chords, so I went through the sequence playing just the thirds of every chord.
This is a great exercise for me. I must go through the entire book(s) doing this. It will be a great help.
I’ve discovered a useful way forward, for myself involving the use of the Aebersold books and both cornet and keyboard. I arrived at this idea by playing with some of the Aebersold “dominant seventh workout” tracks sitting at the piano, cornet in hand, playing alternately on each instrument and wondering if the constant transpositions from C to Bb and back again was going to help my “feel” of cornet pitch or just confuse me. I could see that this alternation of instruments was going to be very good for me, for a couple of reasons. One of the issues Hal Crook is very hot on, in A New Approach to Practising Improvisation, is learning how to leave spaces, i.e. not to keep playing all the time – a huge problem in improvisation. He devotes a large chunk of the book to saying over and over again how important this is and giving technical exercises to get used to leaving gaps in solos. At first I thought it was going to be easy, but now I can see why he attaches such importance to it – it’s so bloody difficult to do it! I keep finding myself playing continuously, which doesn’t give me time to think much about what I’m going to play and tires out my lip in no time. Alternating keyboard and cornet solves this problem easily, for both instruments, so that’s two solutions for the price of one.
While alternating between piano and cornet I had the idea that it would be a lot easier if the keyboard was in Bb. Thus I rigged up the the little Yamaha DJX synth I bought last year (for the kids, ostensibly, but so far they only play the preset, which I always turn off) to transpose two semitones down and soon discovered what a useful tool this was going to be.
One of the problems I still have is that my fingers and chops keep playing away but my mind loses track of at notes I’m playing. Alternating with the keyboard, with its visual reminder of exactly where I am all the time is going to be a brilliant trainer for me – I think. So, I feel this is a really positive step.
I’m on holiday in a quiet cottage in Essex. I did a lot of cornet practice today. Must have been at least three hours. I went from book to book (of which I now have many) fiddling around trying to find useful things to practice. Played through all the major blues in Aebersold Vol (?) using only notes in the tonic blues scale each time. Also I tried some of these using just the chord notes indicated in black by the Aebersold texts, as set by Ken for my homework. Later on I went through all the major pentatonics which seem to be coming surprisingly easily. I remember whoever it was playing sax in the Aebersold book sounding so fluent and easy and wondering how he kept track of which notes out of the major scales to leave out. Now that it’s coming quickly I find it’s, as much as anything, getting the sound of the pentatonic firmly established in the mind. Also it helped to discover that it’s the fourth and the seventh which are missed out of the major pentatonics. I suppose these are the ones which hint in directions of modulation, sort of destabilising influences, and without them both the scale seems very well defined in its tonality. Having got this in mind it has got rapidly easier.
I still sometimes lose where I am, pitchwise, sometimes reverting to horn equivalents, though it’s happening less often than it did at first.
I had a jazz lesson with Ken Bartels of Loughton.
I got his name from Bernard O’Neill, the bass player from down the road, who said that Ken would be a very good teacher. He plays flute, single reeds and keyboards. I think Bernard was right. I came away from the lesson with, for the first time, a clear route into jazz.
Ken’s got me playing from the Aebersold jazz book Vol. 42, Blues in All Keys. I had a minor breakthrough when he told me that the blues scale works, more or less, all the way through the blues so that, for example, if you are playing the blues in C, then you can get through the whole sequence using only the notes C, Eb, F, Gb, G, and Bb without having to change scale at each chord change. He explained that it is quite a good discipline to go through the whole book playing each blues song using only the blues-scale notes of that particular key. I feel sure this is exactly what I need.
I learned from Oren that I have a tendency to overcomplicate things and try to play everything all at once, and Ken reinforced this. When I have got the hang of sticking exclusively to the blues scales I have to go through the book again this time using only Aebersold’s written black notes, that is to say, the simple chord notes for every chord as they change through the piece. I have to try to make it interesting, musical but without straying from the simple clusters of chord notes. He demonstrated this, on his clarinet, and was able to play really attractive, interesting stuff using the simplest of notes. It was amazing to hear how rich and complex it sounded given that he was using so few notes. He’s good.
So, at last I have proper homework to do! Things should now move in a better, more methodical and systematic direction. No more groping in the dark. And I won’t need another lesson for a couple of months because it will take me that long, I think, to get through everything we covered today.
This jazz thing has been going on for some time already but I’m still at the beginning so I thought I’d better get writing before it became really too late to do it.
So, the background. Back in 1977 I borrowed an alto sax and started learning some scales. I wanted to play jazz but I didn’t think it would sound right on the horn. The sax only lasted a week or two because the embouchure didn’t come right away. I suppose I should have had a lesson. That was that. Over the years I did other bits of improvising, including a few albums involving four horns (all me), then two (with another player) horns, then three horns (with two others). None of this was jazz.
Then, 1988, or thereabouts, I had a jazz piano lesson with some bloke in Hampstead. He went on about learning all the 2-5-1 chord changes. I did it for a while but didn’t get the point. I suppose it was my failure, but I don’t think this person had any teaching skills – nothing he said seemed very stimulating.
Then, last year, Jim Rattigan, horn (French) player and friend got a CD out called “Unfamiliar Guise”. Very nice, it was, and I interviewed him for the horn magazine, and gave him a really good review to help him shift CDs. It’s a good recording but not what I would want to play. In fact, I don’t know what I’m looking for, really. I just want to be able to play jazz. Simple.
Jim’s album got me thinking about jazz, and the horn, and I talked with him quite a lot about how you learn it. He gave me some photocopied sheets of “all” the jazz scales and I spent hours during the summer of 2000 learning some of them. I also ordered an instrument from Yamaha – the “Marching French Horn” in Bb, on a hunch that this would make the perfect forward facing jazz horn for horn players. I have named it the “Frunting Horn” even though 18 months have passed and there’s still no sign of it. The scales dried up and stopped flowing.
The next wave came during May of 2001 when I was on a short tour with Peter Erskine and the Creative Jazz Orchestra. I was one of three horns (French) playing written out parts of Peter’s music. I heard Kenny Wheeler live for the first time and spoke to him a bit (he only lives a couple of minutes walk from our house). What he said was encouraging – for example, he uses the Aebersold books, still! He’s 72 and still practicing and developing his playing. Incredible.
At last, I stopped waiting for the Frunting Horn to arrive and got out, instead, the beautiful little Besson cornet that Mum and Dad gave me for my 40th birthday and ordered a pile of Aebersold playalong books.
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.