Now that I think about it a bit, I realise I’m rather scared of going to Kenny’s house and playing jazz with him – him on the piano and me on the cornet. He’s probably brilliant on the piano – I mean, he’s the most modest and self effacing man on the planet, and he says he can “play the piano a little bit”. This probably means he’s brilliant.
Ho-ho! Just bought a new toy on an impulse, while shopping in Chappells for music stands and an Aulos sopranino recorder for Zak (3). It’s a Yamaha QY70 “music sequencer”. A fabulous portable (tiny) box of tricks with which I can (when I’ve read he manual a few times) program accompaniments for my jazz practice. It was reduced in price by £150 with a “find it cheaper anywhere else and we’ll kill you” pledge attached to it.
I also bought a very usful-looking book called “1001 Jazz Licks”. I’m spending a lot on all this jazz stuff. Thank goodness the cornet didn’t cost me anything!
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.
But where has this urge to learn jazz come from? I think it’s been there, just below the surface, for a very long time. It’s come to the surface now partly because it’s now or never – I’m 43. I have a slight sense of urgency and a feeling that at last I’m doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.
It’s also a fascinating learning process and to a large extent it’s uncharted territory for someone like me, already possessing a certain amount of technique from a parallel discipline but not the language itself.
Another aspect of this is that I’m finding the study extremely satisfying, musically. The way I’m practicing the cornet is completely different from any way I’ve ever practiced the horn. Yesterday, for example, I spent part of the evening going through all the modes in all keys, first saying the name (i.e. Db Mixolydian) then trying to play them by ear but also picturing the geography, as if written down, so that I’m aware of which notes I’m playing, this being the hardest part because I’m not used to holding the visual map in my mind while playing.
I’ve noticed a fingering difficulty emerging: during the modes practice it happened quite a lot that when going from 2+3 to 1 the 2nd finger would come up slightly later that the 3rd making quite a messy transition. I need to isolate this problem and work out some specific finger exercises to clear problem. I wonder why I find this compelling – exciting even.
The cornet is going well. I think I have a useful range – fairly comfortable up to about top C – and the fingering is mostly sorted, although there’s usually a glitch around high E (same as top A on the horn) where I’m trying very hard to remember to play it with no valves pressed down, whereas it’s best on the horn with 1st and 2nd down.
I’m also gradually getting the register shift sorted in my mind. Although the fingering almost exactly matches that of the horn, if I think in horn pitch, I have decided to make the shift into thinking and reading in Bb as this will make reading music much easier in the long term. Thus I have to re-educate my pitch sense, when I am in cornet mode, to one fourth higher. I get lost sometimes – sort of a pitch whiteout where I have no idea what notes I am playing. My fingers and lips know but my conscious mind is nowhere. Granted, this has always happened when playing the horn, but now that I am formally learning jazz I really need always to know what notes I am playing, what chords, scales, etc… This is new for me. My previous improvisations have always been instinctive, with almost no role for the conscious mind. Jazz, however, needs the guiding keel of definite harmonic navigation. It’s a discipline I’m trying to learn – determined to learn.
Oren Marshall is a brilliant and unconventional tuba player with at least one leg in the world of jazz, although I don’t know how well versed he is in actual jazz improvisation and, for that matter, I don’t really know what it is to be a jazz tubist. He visited me today, partly for a jog over at the Hollow Ponds and partly to “do some playing” together. It was an interesting lesson for me. It made me realise that I was actually quite embarrassed to let go and play “jazzilly” in front of him. When I eventually did – on some blues in concert F – Oren said, in his usually flattering way, that I was loaded with all the right tools but that I didn’t have the feel. Nice of him – and I suppose I kind of knew that. He also said a lot of interesting, thoughtful stuff about how it can be refreshing to hear someone new to jazz playing their own unique stuff and that the “novice” can have a certain amount of freedom that perhaps would be difficult for an experienced jazzer to express. A difficult concept to argue, I think, but it was very nice of him to be so encouraging. We played a few rounds of blues but I don’t think I achieved much.
We talked about Derek Bailey a bit – I’ve done a fair bit of improvising (free, non-jazz) with Derek, donkey’s years ago, and so has Oren only much more recently. It seems Oren was able to make much more sense of Derek’s style of improvisation, which always had me confused. I told him about my general frustration with performing free improvisation to which he had some interesting responses.