During the last several weeks I have been traveling quite a lot. Long plane rides are a good time to review music, either new pieces that you need to learn for up-coming situations, or tunes that you might not have played for a while. You might even take a chord or series of chords and try to hear various things to play over this harmonic setting.
There are a couple of different ways to approach this scenario. The most obvious one is to listen to a recording of the music and either learn the music by ear or follow along with a lead sheet. In either case, one might listen for form (how long is the form, (are there 4 and 8 bar phrases, or something less symmetrical)), relationships between 2,4, or 8 bar phrases in terms of key centers and possible repetition of phrases that may be transposed in some way, or rhythmical motifs that relate to one another in a specific way. You are essentially considering all the detail in the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the piece.
In some instances I would sing along quietly with the recording, either reading the music, or better yet, trying to sing without the music. Going over 8 bar phrases several times in a row generally makes this possible. My good friend Greg Johnson strongly advocates singing as a means towards internalizing melodies, both in terms of playing tunes and improvising. He actually fingers notes on his saxophone while singing the pitches. Interesting idea!
I often work on blowing changes by first singing the roots of the chords. Russ Ferrante, another close colleague, has his students sing 7th chords for each chord change. You can expand upon this way of thinking in many ways. Try singing the 3rds, 7ths, 9ths, or 11ths of each chord change. Next take a melodic shape such as 3-7-5 and sing these three notes on each chord change. Lots of different ways to do this. I think the end result winds up being that you become closer to hearing/feeling the good notes on your instrument without having to do too much thinking while you are playing.
I find that you can take this approach a step further by leaving out the singing, and go right to “hearing” the music in your head. You can imagine you are playing your instrument while hearing the music. After doing this for a while it is amazing how much you can actually hear, and how it feels very much like you are playing.
Today I was looking over a new tune composed for the new Yellowjackets project. While looking at the solo changes I began to construct a solo in my head that seemed to move through the changes with some level of ease and connection. I was actually seeing/ hearing the big picture, and it felt like I was playing my saxophone with a rhythm section! I realized I could play with Elvin. McCoy, and Jimmy Garrison right on this airplane! Lord knows I’ve listened to enough Trane recordings to know the sound and feel of that band. It was a wild feeling, one of clarity and connection with some greater power, very much like the feeling I sometimes get when playing live in an inspired setting.
I had to stop and ask myself why suddenly was I able to connect with the music in this fashion. I think the main reason was that I thought enough to try and experience the music in a way where it was totally in my head. The other critical points
that may have facilitated the ability to do this are: 1. A high level of familiarity with the jazz language through repertoire, stylistic knowledge, and having played a lot. 2. A good understanding of the “big picture” as in what all the instruments of a jazz quartet do and sound like, and where does the saxophone go in this context. I can actually play with the “band in my head” at times. 3. Having given some thought to form and the relationships within the form that allow you to quickly see what goes where.
So cats and kittens, this 62 year old is still discovering new things every day. It is a good feeling to stumble onto something new and have a realization of sorts.
As I tell my students (and myself), the three steps to implementing a new way of doing things are: 1. Think of it. 2. Practice whatever it is in a variety of ways, which generally leads to other “its”. and 3. Figure out how and where to plug the new thing in.
And so we keep working on it.