This article is to clarify the process of internalizing song forms and dealing with the process that makes your interpretation a personal statement. Internalizing a composition, whether a standard or original work, means to make it a part of your being, to make so much a part of yourself that you literally "own" it. All of the greatest jazz players do this in order to make a personal statement. When performing, it is imperative to be able to reach this level as soon as possible as opposed to someone who is literally sight reading a piece of music. There are so many functions involved in improvising music that truly knowing a composition is a necessity. This also allows the performer to focus better on what the other musicians are playing, the overall sound and your personal expression.
When I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to study with the great Lee Konitz who I consider to be one of the premier improvisers in jazz. Lee's methods were centered on improvising from the melody of a song as opposed to simply running the changes. He calls this method the Ten Step Method to an
Act of Pure Inspiration. Essentially, this approach involves playing a song (preferably one you like) acappella at a metronome marking of about 60. The first chorus is played straight with the basic melodic notes and as much feeling as one can come up with at that tempo. The second chorus may feature some minor variations on the melody, perhaps a register change. The third chorus involves more variations and so forth until the tenth chorus which will, hopefully, be an act of pure inspiration. This involves an extraordinary investment of time and resources and is a real discipline. It could take as much as an hour for a single try. I guarantee that once you have tried this, you will remember that song forever. Players at all levels on any instrument can benefit from this and it doesn't take an advanced knowledge of the harmonies of a piece which can be studied later. The idea is to focus your concentration on the melody so that whatever you play, the melody is firmly entrenched in your mind.This works well with both standards and more complex bebop lines as it forces you to deal with every note.
Another aspect that Lee emphasized was to learn the lyrics to a song by finding a great vocal rendition by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald and learn their phrasing while thinking about the lyrics. The lyrics also tell you what the song is about. Instrumentalists should even attempt to sing the song and vocalists should attempt to play it on an instrument. Many great players such as Lester Young, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins and others would never perform a song without knowing the lyrics. Dexter Gordon often recited the opening lyrics to a song he was about to play. This added much to the drama of the moment which is key to any great performance and added a true vocal quality to their performances.
Other practice techniques are to play songs in different keys which often helps the player to find the right key for their instrument much as vocalists find the right key for their vocal range. Try different tempos and styles such as latin, swing, waltz and so forth. At some point, you might even try to play songs in odd meters such as 5/4 or 7/4 or triple meters such as 6/8, 9/8 or 12/8.
Other useful techniques are doing transcriptions of songs and keeping them in a personal fakebook to perform when the opportunity arises. This is what we did before the advent of commercial fakebooks. Again, it is the investment of time that brings you to a point of really owning a song. This is generally more useful than transcribing solos. Also, it is better to learn a song from an original recording than from a fakebook which maybe incorrect. It would be better to learn a solo by ear which would get you dealing with the phrasing and inflections rather than just the notes. Lee Konitz told me that at one point in his development, he learned many of Lester Young's solos by ear as did Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson and many others.
I often ask students to write out a solo of their own. Sometimes it helps to do an uptempo tune at a ballad tempo or the opposite. This puts the player in a position of having to think compositionally and deal directly with their own limitations. This technique has also helped students to see their repetitive phrases. Wayne Shorter once told me that he felt soloing was just composition speeded up.
After all this work has been done, it is time to investigate the harmonies. Keep in mind that I'm not talking about memorizing changes out of the context of hearing them. That is a necessity as you can't remember something you can't hear. Investigating the harmonies involves checking out the voicings as well as the harmonic motion. Even those without great pianistic abilities should begin to work out these things as it is what the vast majority of great jazz players have done and it gives you a true orchestral concept in order to choose significant notes and colors in your solos. This also helps to gain an understanding of substitutions and the function of the harmonies. Although, there are players that do not play piano, most do and it gives you the advantage of thinking from a more musical perspective rather than only from your instrument. One technique for horn players is to use the sustain pedal on the piano to hold chords while getting the sound of them on their respective instruments.
Once you have developed a reasonable repertoire, try to perform these songs as often as possible because you will find that you never truly know a piece until you have performed it. Many jazz groups and artists will perform the same basic repertoire over a period of time and then move on to other music as this allowing the players to get very familiar with the material and the audiences as well.Try to perform this music at different tempos, keys and styles. Attempt an original arrangement, both big band and small group with an introduction, backgrounds, perhaps an interlude, breaks, thematic development, a shout chorus, key changes and an ending. Once again, this involves an investment of time and adds substance to any performance. I recently reviewed The Sound of Sonny by Sonny Rollins and was knocked out by his eclectic choice of tunes such as Toot, Toot, Tootsie,tight and brief arrangements including breaks, modulations and to the point solos. All this in the context of trio and quartet. The material was so well presented with such a depth of understanding that Sonny didn't feel the need to go on and on in order to make the music more pertinent. Thelonious Monk also could get far into either standards or his own compositions and turn them into extremely personal statements.
As you can see, developing a repertoire for performance is one of your main jobs as a musician. Every practice session should include some amount of time doing this aside from your technical practice. I've found that play along recordings can be a very valuable tool in this regard as they simulate actual playing conditions utilizing a good rhythm section so the player can try the song as many times as necessary to get to a performance level. Many well known players use these such as J.J. Johnson and others. Sometimes, it is fun to put on a new play along and try to figure out the tunes and changes without opening the book. In any event, try to get off of the written music as soon as possible as this is what is required in professional situations. Many students and professionals use written music as a crutch and constantly read through things so many times that they actually know it but are afraid to drop the crutch. It is really an attitude about absorbing music that we are talking about. Art Blakey would never allow his players to use written music onstage, even with some complex horn arrangements. This puts the player in the position of constantly relying on all of his musical resources.There are no shortcuts, but the process becomes faster and easier with much practice. It starts from the basic attitude that it is important to immediately work to learn, internalize and develop any given repertoire. This can be done at home during practice sessions or on the bandstand. In my next article, I will talk about the concept of Bebop and Beyond. (Not the band)
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