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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January 29, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 3, play with direction

Last time we discussed playing with harmonic intent. Defining the vertical (harmonic) structure of the song, emphasizing corresponding chord tones tells the listener even on an intuitive level you know what you're doing. The next step is to think how these chord tones are connected melodically, or linearly.

In a very early Mandolin Sessions article, we described what we like to call "Gravity Notes" (see April 2004). These are also sometimes called "Approach Tones," but the concept is the same. It differs from "Passing Tones" in that it's one notch higher on the "intent" meter. In other words, passing tones are like child riding a bike in the park. "Gravity Notes" are like a professional courier riding a bike in urban traffic; there is an aesthetic purpose to get somewhere.

A purpose to get somewhere

When you look closer at the major scale as we did in the article mentioned, there are two relationships that are heavier on melodic "pull." Inarguably, the 7th scale degree longs for the 8th (or 1st) in the tonic key. The next pull is the 4th scale degree that wants to go done to the 3rd. Don't miss the fact that these are the only half step relationships in the scale. That's significant in your ear, and it will also be on your fretboard.

Outside of the major scale you can find other similar pulls. How about the flatted 9th? Play an A minor chord and then play a single note Bb. Some tension in need of resolution? How about playing the blues, the raised 4th (b5) has some arguably angry issues to deal with, too. Between that and the play between the Major 3rd and Minor 3rd, the blues vocabulary has quite a story to tell. (And it's not just about girlfriend leaving, boss firing you, or the Cubs losing the pennant.)

Tension/Resolution is the great drama and dialogue of Western music forms. Respect these in your improvisation and use them to weave in and out of implied chord backgrounds. You'll be writing your own musical script!

Some Minor issues: Seeking Resolutions
In the Mode: Easing into Modal Jazz
Three Four Pull: Foregoing the Fourth Finger Frack

Posted by Ted at 12:13 PM

January 22, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 2, play the chords

Last week in Part 1, we looked at the "spiritual" side of playing, the muse inspiration of the lyrics. These week we want to talk more of the mechanics of playing, particularly the harmonic structure of our improvising. In a nutshell, we want to be able to express the underlying chords of the song, in a melodic way of course, but in order to do that, we need to be able to express the chord changes in a linear way. (By the way, we also devote eight pages of exercises in the "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" devoted to developing 7th chords in this manor.)

4 Meas Maj7ths Sample
Click for page with sample exercises

Skipping notes in intervals of 3rds feels funny on the mandolin because you are often alternating 1st and 3rd fingers, 2nd and 4th fingers, so improvisation can be somewhat counter-intuitive, but this is an important skill to develop. We don't want your soloing to sound like you're drilling arpeggios, but these patterns need to be in your fingers in order to express the chord.

We'll discuss the notes between the chords next week, but for now let's consider how important it is to be able to spell chords in a melody. One of the most annoying habits of a beginning jazzer is taking a key and improvising only on scale degrees of the home key. First, this completely disregards the appearance of brief and probable tonal center changes that require different scales, and second, it discounts the importance of note priority. Some notes are wrong (not part of the key), some notes are right (part of the key), and some notes are benign or somewhere in between (notes of the scale that aren't in the chord at the moment). A good improviser will avoid the first set (or intentionally use them as dissonance), emphasize the appropriate (linger on the chord tones), and use the benign ones as bridge notes between the chords. This is the true art of advanced improvisation.

For example, were you in the key of C and soloing over a Dm7 chord, all the notes of a C Major scale would be fair game, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The better notes under this chord would the chord tones themselves, D, F, A, C, and anything else from the C scale (E,G, B) should only be passing tones. Bad would be an F# because it would infer a conflicting D major or D7 chord, unless it were leading to a G7 chord, but we'll leave that topic for next session. The point being, choose notes that express and emphasize the chord as much as possible.

Because of the mandolin's lighter texture and higher soprano register, we tend to shine in thinner ensemble settings. This means fewer instruments to carry the accompaniment load and the song's harmonic content, so the burden is very much on us to carry the harmonic content vertically while soloing.

Knowing music theory is most beneficial, but just knowing the chord tones is enough to get you started. Use the notes of the chords you already know; figure out where the missing chord tones and use the "grip" as a jumping off point for your improvisation. From there, all you have to do is hunt and peck for the appropriate sounding connecting or passing tones. It also helps to drill 7th chord arpeggios into your practice regimen.

Four Finger Salute to Major Seven!
Improvisation: Pattern Based vs. Theory Based
Jazzed Pentatonics

Posted by Ted at 11:40 AM

January 15, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 1, play the lyrics

We're starting a multi-part series on "Playing Musically," hoping to stir up some playing sensitivities and sensibilities on making your mandolin performing more expressive and more aesthetically pleasing. The first installment deals with the issue of lyrics. As instrumentalists, we can easily get by without thinking the words of a song, but let's explore what lyric content can do for melodic interpretation and execution.

Bop tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon has gone on record as an advocate for understanding the words of a song and their instrumental impact. His practice was to never blow the note of a new song until he'd memorized its lyrics. Think about what the message of the words would do to the impact of the way a song is interpreted melodically:

The Days of Wine and Roses (Henry Mancini - Johnny Mercer)

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked "nevermore" that wasn't there before

The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.

Ponder the above lyrics, and consider how Gordon's tenor sax would blow through the intellectual content, musically. How can you put into Fs As, and Cs, articulations, dotted quarter notes, eighths, all the mechanics of delivery? Thoughts of lonely nights, days running away, laughing like playing children, these call for a completely different approach to the mechanics than if we were "blowing" a song like Rocky Top on the mandolin:

Rocky Top (Boudleaux Bryant - Felice Bryant)

Wish that I was on old Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain't no telephone bills.

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear the other half cat
Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that.

Rocky Top you'll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee.

Both songs communicate a "pondering," but you have a different geography, culture, (arguably) sophistication, and attitude. One might call for differences in sustain, melodic punctuation, even the harmonic implications themselves in order to be more consistent with the song's integrity requires a different delivery, but if you never saw the lyrics and only notes or TAB on the page, you couldn't communicate the aesthetics of the song, the deeper meaning.

Check out the lyrics of the next song you play on the mandolin. What kind of musical pictures can you paint with your phrasing, your intensity of energy, the manner in which you plunge your pick into the strings and grip the frets, the overall "busy-ness" of the music? You'd be surprised at what you can do when you just put your mind to it.

The real beauty in the art of making music--there is no one single interpretation. No "right" answer.

Still it remains, knowing the lyrics will take you into a much deeper aesthetic level of playing and enjoyment of the song for you and your audience.

Posted by Ted at 06:08 AM

January 08, 2009 | January Fitness

It's as predictable as the yearly Spring Thaw, only about 3 months earlier. The increased lines at the machines at the gym for the newly "committed," the barrage of diet plan commercials, those seeking restoration and restitution after a month-long holiday hiatus from healthy eating and exercise, it's all a part of the ritual cleansing associated with well-intentioned New Year's resolutions.

Our playing can be like this. Don Stiernberg tells us he's going to dig into his 5-string for 2009, others have sworn allegiance to a regimen of FFcP, some register the intent to learn a new Choro every week. It's always good to set new goals; even when we fail to complete them, at least some degree of forward motion is healthy. The key to endurance and perserverance of course is to be realistic, and create lifestyle patterns and acquire the proper tools to get the job done.

Long term.

Realistic? Is your newfound goal something you can strategically map out over time? It's one thing to commit to strengthening your pinky, and another to commit to 10 minutes of FFcP five days a week for the next two months. One is merely a wish, the other a plan. The first is a dream, the second actually creates change.

Do you have a designated playing area where you can spend time free of potential distractions or disruption? This geography may be a luxury for some, but you have to admit if you're in someone else's way, you've got a chronic barrier. How about time of day or week? Are you a morning person or evening; you'll want to practice when mind and body are in peak efficiency.

Tools? Hopefully, you've uncovered the vast resources here on the JazzMando site, but consider a hale and hearty balance of literature and exercises, songs and chopbusters. You do well to work patterns that are incorporated in the songs you play, work the key of F# when the song is in F#, work up-the-neck drills when you want to improvise up the fretboard. Application makes things stick in your brain.

A quick plug for our book, of course (you'd expect nothing less...) . Getting Into Jazz Mandolin has many tools, but there is a big picture strategy to the whole thing. Sure you can dabble with the drills, but if you can commit to the structure of the book, you'll learn finger positions and patterns that enable your ears and intellect to uncover a lot more higher level thinking and playing. It's not just a nifty chest of tools, it's an entire workshop.

Another good resource if you haven't purchased it already is Craig Schmoller's "Mando ModeExplorer" Windows-based software program. We've written a review on it here, and all his supplementary materials are pure gold.

Check out Free ModeExplorer Expedition Outfitters. Great stuff!

Buy the software: Mando ModeExplorer

Posted by Ted at 11:02 AM

January 01, 2009 | Chord Melody "Moonlight in Vermont" from Shelby Eicher

A couple weeks ago, we introduced you to National Fiddler Hall of Famer, Shelby Eicher in our Tips and Tricks column. He offered us a brilliant and timely example of chord melody playing of the seasonal "Christmas Time is Here." The holiday season now behind us, we thought it would be great to start off the New Year with another of Shelby's timeless audio gems, a clever Johnny Smith-like rendition of "Moonlight in Vermont," recorded on Eicher's terrific custom jazz mandola.

Shelby shared with us in an earlier correspondence, "I've been fascinated with substitutions for dominant chords. The common ones are: 5minor, augmented, 9th--more outside thinking: b9 #9, whole tone scales, b5 subs, go up a half step and play a minor scale (this makes a b9 #9 Aug). These are all used in soloing." Remaining the perpetual student, the accomplished musician confesses, "Playing electric is new territory for me. I've always been a acoustic player but I dig the possibilities that this lends me that the acoustic does not and vice versa."

The Western Swing specialist has slowed this ballad down to something you can learn yourself; he's even scratched a helpful TAB chart to give you some fingering tips. We're looking forward to hearing more of Shelby's thoughts and tips the rest of 2009!

Enjoy audio: "Moonlight in Vermont" arr. Shelby Eicher

Download TAB PDF.

Posted by Ted at 05:58 AM

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