Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
Tips & Tricks Mel Bay Mandolin Sessions








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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February 23, 2006 | More Blowing

More "Blowing..."

We explored in the previous tip, the concept of communicating chord tones. The purpose of "proclaiming" these important notes accomplishes the definition of harmonic substance--melodically. This is a different approach than playing modes or scales, and takes a bit more thinking, but what it does is introduce the vertical elements of the music, horizontally. Yes, you could strum the chord, but you can also introduce the chord in the form of an arpeggio; doing this in improvisation kills two "Birds" with one stone. (No reference to Charlie Parker intended...)

Sounds great in theory, but how do I learn how to do this in the "real world?"

Start with dissecting the chords. If you are visually oriented, print the chord names out and write the 3rd, 7th, and color tone of the chord (-11, +11, etc.) on a blank staff for a whole tune or chorus. Now go back and slowly play these notes alone, develop material that arrives at them, sort of working backwards, then start to connect them, but the idea is they need to be prominent. If you are more tactile-oriented, just play the chords, doing the same by picking out the notes you want to be heard from the chord, and create melodies that set-up and prepare for these notes.

The goal is to be able to strip out the accompaniment and still be able to hear the harmonic progression. Whether you write them onto the staff as practice or swap between chord and melody real time, you want to learn to fuse both the linear and the horizontal aspects within your improvisational melody factory.

If you played a duet with a bass line, could your listeners hear the chord progression in your improvisation?... If so, mission accomplished.

Posted by Ted at 4:23 PM

February 16, 2006 | More Appropriate

Blowing notes. That's the indeterminate peril of jumping into jazz improvisation for the novice (and sometimes the self-centered jazz veteran), that self-indulgent diarrhea of sound that just fills space, but doesn't really say anything. Notes can often be "appropriate," but if they aren't assembled to "communicate," to enrapture the listener in the drama of tension and release, you just have to ask, "Why bother?"

Our unabashed loathing of improvisation base on the Pentatonic Scale is a classic example of filler sound that goes nowhere. Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 include the defining 1s t & 3rd , which mean something, but the other three notes lack color or compulsion.

That said, when you conceptualize vertical motion in melody, you can make these "extra" notes mean something if they go somewhere:

We talk of this in our gravity notes articles, but let's go vertical and embrace some harmonic motion. You can do this melodically, painting chords through arpeggios amidst your improvisation. Note, it doesn't even have to be all that rapid fire. You could fill a whole measure with the 3rd, 7th, and of the other color tones of the chord (+9, b9, +11, etc.), communicating far more harmonic "message" than machine gun peppering of notes.

We suggest learning what these notes are in the chord, strategically place them in your music and working your way backward in priority with all the auxiliary non-chord tones of the scale conceptualized as passing tones as you create your improvisation. Build the frame first, then dress and decorate it.

Another tip is to look at consecutive chords, isolate the notes that are different from chord to chord, and emphasize those distinctions in your playing. Albeit intuitively, it demonstrates to the listener you know where you are in the progression; it secures the harmonic rhythm of the song.

It's more than just playing appropriate notes. It's learning the hierarchy of which notes are most important in communicating the harmonic content of the music.

It's about being more appropriate...

Posted by Ted at 5:39 PM

February 6, 2006 | Swell

Real Swell...

We've preached and ranted about the importance of "line." Breath-like phrasing is not something that comes natural to most plectrum players, but we've encouraged not just in playing tunes, but in practicing the JazzMando exercises, you pay close attention to sustain, and a premeditated connection from note to note.

When you play with emotion, you want your trained technical expertise to back you up so you can adequately express that emotion. This means not only playing a line with sustain, but adding dynamics to it. A great stage actor will not just wait for gestures and body language to come to him/her in a performance, there's a lot of professional practice time invested in rehearsing and developing movement and enunciation.

A great painter doesn't just throw paint on a canvas, it's the trained, hard-earned attention to critical aspects of color and form, that combine and allow him her to create the ultimate masterpiece. A ballet dancer doesn't just go through the production, there are years of studying rudiments, steps and basic moves that allow the complete choreography to become the dance.

You can tackle your playing in as similar way. Don't just drone through scales, chords, and arpeggios like some mechanical drill. The goal is "music," so make them musical. For example, when rehearsing the FFcP patterns, don't just play them straight, swing them. Add some feel.

Treat these as elements of something larger by adding dynamics to them. Add some "swell" to the phrase by introducing crescendo and decrescendo. (Start soft, get louder; peak, and grow soft again.)

Like this: View image

You can't expect to play this way intuitively unless you practice it this way. Great improvisers don't think notes, they think lines. They've learned their scales so well, they've forgotten them. They speak in sentences, paragraphs, not words. Approaching the discipline of dynamics this way can give you a whole new dimension of playing, and a whole new level of musicality.

Swell, huh?

Posted by Ted at 9:28 PM

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