Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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August 16, 2007 | Learning from other instruments

A comment was published by a very prominent mandolinist about the best way to learn the instrument. The claim was that the only way to really understand the mandolin was to listen to Bill Monroe. The context of the discussion was a response to the idea of NOT approaching mandolin the same as one would a guitar. We know the player's emphasis on the music and playing of Bill Monroe was not meant to completely exclde other high profile mandolinists, nor likely completely overlooking other instruments. As much as we appreciate Big Mon's influence on the re-emergence and prestige of the instrument in the mid 20th century, we like to think there is much to playing beautiful music on our instrument that can come from other instrumentalists.

Site author Ted Eschliman has always weighed in on the significant impact of years of playing trombone in developing a lyrical voice on wood and string. Though air isn't vibrated the same way in a brass instrument, the mental concept of line and sustain is very much desired in pleasing tone. The same could be said of singing; the rise and fall of phrasing because of breath intensity is well worth imitating on the mandolin.

Guitar offers us basic concepts of melody and strumming, but ponder what the influence of Stephane Grappelli's sweet gypsy violining must have had developing the lyric voice of guitar innovator Django Rheinhardt. Arguably, some of the best jazz mandolin recording of recent has been Don Stiernberg's collaborations with guitarist John Carlini, the rich extended chord complexities not completely matured in Don's earlier recordings. Certainly this partnership helped broaden the jazz veteran's mandolin vocabulary in recent years.

Vibes players such as Gary Burton and Joe Locke offer a similar glimpse into mandolin chord potential. Consider the four-mallet technique of these phenoms; this is not unlike the four-voice capability of our fretboard. We could learn a lot listening to the magic harmonies they accomplish on their keyboards.

Speaking of keyboards, though we don't have the ten-finger voicing of great pianists like Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson, surely we could glean some insight into their harmonic creativity, albeit at some condensed level. The blistering light-speed notes of Bebop musicians like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker seem to elude the mandolin, until you listen to Paul Glasse. Granted, not all of us are capable of his fretboard pyrotechnics, but some attempt to emulate can climb us to higher musical ground.

A good jazz drummer knows how to appropriately "fill" and support. How much fun to listen to a big band and see how the drummer sets up band hits and climaxes. The art is not in being the "star," it's in how the rest of the band is made to sound good. Is this our approach to playing accompanying roles?

It's all music. We should let our eyes and ears gain insight into playing form as many musicians as we can.

We're going to go listen to some clarinet, now...

Posted by Ted at August 16, 2007 1:55 PM

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