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."

« From John McGann: Jazz Improvisation | Main | Lesson Hub from Mandoberlin »

December 6, 2012 | Mandolin considerations. Jazz vs. Bluegrass

The similarities between playing bluegrass and jazz are plentiful. You state the melody of the tune, the rest of the ensemble takes turns making melodies over the chord structure, and end with a restatement of the tune. You have musicians trading and sharing duties of accompaniment, and there's a ying and yang of experimentation but keeping the group together in a collective whole.

That said, there are significant variations in character in jazz that though nuanced, are important considerations for a mandolinist sitting in with the more traditional jazz settings, especially if you intended to hang with drum set, piano, bass, and guitar, let alone the jazz signature wind instruments like sax, trumpet, and trombone. You need to know these to adjust and adapt your playing to blend in with these environments.


Comping (register & percussiveness). The mandolin is high in register and typically percussive. This works great in the bluegrass world where the mandolin is the backbeat "time keeper." Beats 2 and 4, it punctuates the music like a hihat cymbal, and that's great, unless you're playing with a hihat cymbal. Be sensitive to the percussiveness of your pick, and if all you're playing is just chords, it's a good idea to slow your rhythms down, simplify rather than compete, and stick to your lower strings. If you keep it in this register, you're not fighting the chord extensions of the rhythm section. Less is more.

Articulations (upstroke vs. downstroke). Bluegrass picking is all about power downstrokes, and there's a legitimate reason why. Folk music unamplified called for heavy articulation in order to be heard above all the other players. In the more subtle world of jazz, there's more need for nuance, and a healthy upstroke can give you more swing. Think Sinatra "Doo BEE Doo BEE" swing when you pick and pull more meat out of your upstroke with these rhythms and you make significant progress in sounding like a true jazzer. (Gypsy jazz might be an exception to this, but that's a topic for another time)

Tone (emphasis on line and phrasing over speed). Lightning picking speed is a hallmark of a good bluegrass mandolinist, but in jazz you need to trade this for tonal character. The motorboat picking style is nails on a chalkboard in the jazz circle. You want rich, intentional tone, vibrant string tone to communicate line. You also need to think in phrases rather than licks. Make sentences with your music, not spew giberish.

Language (pentatonic vs. harmonic direction). Of course the jazz language is infinitely more complex. Rarely straying from a 'I IV V' progression, let alone more than a couple keys, the jazzer must be adept at all 12 keys, and a harmonic cafeteria filled with 'ii V7 I' and 'ii7b5 V7 i' progression--sometimes all in the same phrase! The richness in harmonic extensions, b9, +4, 13th, call for tones that go well outside the pentatonic scale. Nothing more irritating than a mandolinist that blurts nothing but pentatonic riffs in a harmonically fluid jazz standard.

These are all important to keep in mind as you make the journey to jazz purity. The mandolin is wide open to traveling a new frontier, but you need the right approach and the equipment to travel it well.

Approaching Improvisation
Advanced Pentatonic
4 and 7. The Committal Notes.
Playing musically: Part 4, play with maximum tone

Posted by Ted at December 6, 2012 2:10 PM

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