Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Current Practice...

In September I'll be going into the studio and recording with my 1927 Conn tenor for the first time since I got it last December. Given that the sound and response is so different as compared to more modern instruments I've been provided with a wonderful opportunity to reassess everything from the ground up. Thought I might share my practicing / thinking process as of late…

Take a tune, something standard, like Cherokee for example. Figure out what key seems the hardest or least natural and practice improvising choruses in that key only, every day for at least an hour. Play very slowly, trying to find the strongest and clearest melodies you can think of. Make sure that each and every note you play is the note that you intended to play. While it is possible to play acceptable sounding notes utilizing musical phrases you've memorized or by relying on muscle memory go even slower, being obsessive about whether the note you played was really the note you heard in your head, stopping and correcting yourself as you go. You'll see that the process becomes more like composing than improvising. When we improvise we must sometimes make the best out of having played something that we may not have actually intended to play. Even accidents can work. You have myriad options from any one note to any other and if you're quick and imaginative enough you can recover and redirect from any situation. Of course you have to be able to "hear" well in order to do that. But being able to hear "really well" means having even greater accuracy so that what you intend to play is more often what actually comes out of your instrument. That's what this process is about. Try it. It's not nearly as easy as it sounds. Sometimes I'm playing so slowly I feel as if I am doing Tai Chi on the horn. But after some time practicing a tune like this I notice that I am able to "say" a whole lot more when it comes time to improvise freely. The thing is, I'm not practicing to be able to play Cherokee on a gig nor am I trying to emulate a style. It's just that this kind of material makes it abundantly clear as to whether I'm really playing what I hear. In freely improvised music with no predetermined harmonic form the difference between one note choice and another may not seem as crucial as when playing on a set of chord changes. So I need to increase my accuracy in terms of playing the note I intend to play at any given time so that I am able to say exactly what I mean to say at the precise moment I mean to say it. Just like when playing on changes. In fact, when improvising, there really is no distinction between playing on changes or playing free. The goal is to be able to play anything you can hear in your head. That's true freedom. And acquiring that type of freedom is a life long process. The entire time you are doing this stay completely committed to your sound and delivery. Rhythm is first. This can mean harmonic rhythm (if you're playing eighth notes, for example), variations in your phrasing or the use of more clearly defined rhythms. The rhythmic impulse will lead to a melodic idea which will lead to harmonic motion (either according to the harmonic form of the chord changes or leading to the possibility of implied harmonic motion when playing freely).

Observation: Personally, I don't use a lot of patterns when I improvise but I'm not against the idea either. After all, most music relies on patterns of some type. In jazz, patterns have become pretty much the bread and butter of the vocabulary. Seems that most younger players I hear have a fairly strong command over this type of vocabulary being (I assume) that it's easily teachable (and measurable) in university programs. Yet the players who inspire me the most in this area are the ones who are able to connect their patterns in the most melodic ways. The great players who developed this language all had a talent for melody. No matter how far afield they went they sounded like they were improvising in the moment even if we can see in retrospect just how much of their vocabulary was memorized. For them, melody was the starting point while I sense that the starting point for most current players are the extended lines and patterns as extracted from these past master's solos. Personally I think it pays to go as far back to basic fundamentals as possible and apply one's creativity from that point onwards, one note at a time. The acquisition of musical vocabulary through the analyzation of recorded solos and books would only be enhanced and enlivened by such an approach, in my opinion.

Again, this is not an exercise in style. I'm simply strengthening skills that need constant maintenance if I am to feel that I can truly improvise from day to day. This is simply an exercise that works well for me. I'm not one to subscribe to the notion that playing a standard is prerequisite for playing free. There are a lot of great improvisors who do not utilize this language. However, I am experiencing a renewed interest in the early players (such as Lester Young and Ben Webster) as part of the ongoing process of learning how to play the saxophone. There is much about tone quality and sound production that has collectively been lost over the years. I want to unlock a few of the more elusive aspects of the sound that have been calling out to me ever more strongly. Even as melody and harmony were for years deemphasized in free music (with some exceptions of course), by now, everything is on the table. The goal is not to be able to play everything that could be played. Just to be able to play whatever you choose to play in the moment and be able to connect to the essence of whatever musical impulse is in the air when it happens…


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    You say, "It's not nearly as easy as it sounds..." Ha! This doesn't sound easy at all!

    By the way, it looks like you're wearing a sweater. I'm jealous. It's 90 degrees here in Florida with 100 percent humidity.


  2. Hi Patrick,
    Well…I assumed folks might think that playing slower would be easier than playing faster. Just wanted to warn them! And I seem to be practicing slower and slower…but the benefits do come with time.

    The photo was from earlier in the season. I sometimes record myself practicing (using the camera on the computer). It's warm in NYC (but not THAT warm!)…long as I can get a breeze through the window I'm fine though…

    Today I practiced a tune called "Tickle Toe". Old tune but new to me...


  3. great.
    i am looking forward to hear it.

  4. Glad to hear you're still reflecting so much on your sound after playing for so long (<-- I say this in a good way).

  5. Thanks for sharing all this good "food" for thinking and practicing.
    It's a so long time that i work slowly and encourage people to play slowly to hear and sound better. It's a long way process as saying but it pays. How is it when playing chromatic and trying to fit together two or more scales ?
    Maybe someone found ideas ? i have none yet, i play in scales, so said : inside.
    Thanks for all.
    All the best.

  6. Hi Claude,
    Thanks for your comments.

    Try thinking about intervals...

  7. Okay, thanks, i'll try...All the best...

  8. You mean : Intervals and transposition, hear it and play it ?

  9. Become familiar with the sound of each interval type. Then you can create melodies from intervals rather than from scales.

  10. Ellery, Thank you so much for this post. Clearly presented and very inspiring.

  11. Nice post, just bumped into your blog when checking over Belgium dates, also seeing any mentions of the JIMS course, and will be happening this year.

    Anyhow, I like that exercise also, very good way to liberate musical thinking or in other words control over playing and thinking/hearing. I seem to remember coming across it via an ex Warne Marsh student, he called it 'Slow Improvising'. It seems that he spent a good 80% of his time practicing exactly that ...... and we know how great he sounded!

    Thanks, I'll be checking back here to read some more interesting thoughts and ideas.

  12. Hi Ellery,

    Warne Marsh said that every day he started with "slow improvising" and only play "single time", or playing a Lester solo at any tempo.
    Do you use a metronome while slow improvising?

    All my best, Simon

  13. Simon, I don't usually use the metronome for this as I am allowing myself to stop and work with ideas and phrases along the way, trying to get each phrase just right.