by Mel Martin
Sonny Rollins once said "the answers are
in the piano." Dizzy Gillespie worked from the piano and had gotten much
of his harmonic theory from Thelonious Monk. Tom Harrell can play fine piano
as can many other well known instrumentalists. I have always been heavily
influenced and even a little envious of pianists because they could always
harmonize their lines and make sense out of mine. I have done more transcribing
of pianists than saxophonists. The study of harmony needs to be done at the
keyboard and then transferred to the primary instrument. I have spoken in
previous columns about the importance of ear training, transcription, dictation
and the general concepts of hearing. The single largest question I get from
students is "how do I play 'over' the chord changes?" The answer
includes all of the above disciplines. Most importantly, the player needs
to understand that music is not necessarily about superimposing one concept
over another but that it is a singular concept, particularly for the listener,
that requires total integration of all elements. Harmonic structures are
constantly being improvised just as rhythmic and melodic structures are in
any given solo. The area where many players seem to not grasp this concept
is in the area of voicings. This is also a study in arranging and orchestration.
The player needs to understand just how his instrument fits in with other
instruments and how approaching harmonic detail will affect his overall sound.
This is not just a fortuitous occurrence. It must be thoroughly studied and
understood. To study the music of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans,
Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chic Corea and so many others is to gain insight
into their harmonic processes. This is why they sound the way they sound.
To study the scores of Gil Evans, Bartok, Benny Carter, Beethoven, Mozart
and all other great composer/orchestrators is to gain even further insight
into deep musical thought. This is what separates great musicians from merely
Since keyboardists have already covered a lot of this information to simply learn their instrument, I will direct this to all other instruments. The first thing that players need to address is the use of triads. The triad is the building block of all harmony. When studying an instrument, working with arpeggios is standard practice. This involves running triads, dominant and minor seventh chords, diminished and augmented and, eventually, extended chords. As instrumental practice, this is usually done mechanically, without absorbing the structure. In order to improvise, the mind and the fingers require constant communication with each other. The best approach is to not read out of practice books but to improvise different inversions. Inversions take place in all chords but starting on different notes of the chord. If I'm working on simple triads, I would practice them, major and minor, as arpeggios (up and down the instrument using all inversions in all keys) and as separate inversions (using the same inversion for each chord in all keys.) It is necessary to thoroughly understand this approach as you are doing it. There are ways of utilizing triads in extended harmony that involve slash chords which are shortcuts to playing extended intervals such as a triad over a bass tone or triad over a seventh chord. Whole systems of harmonic navigation can be developed this way. What the player is dealing with are sounds. A triad is a basic voicing. The only other voicing that is more basic is sounding two notes together or basic intervals. A triad can be voiced in it's basic inversions; root, third, fifth - third, fifth, root - fifth -root - third. Or it can be opened to a wider voicing; root, tenth (third), fifth - third, root, fifth, third, root. All of these sounds need to be practiced on the instrument in an arpeggiated fashion until the fingers and mind are well co-ordinated with the sounds. This same process needs to take place with seventh, ninth, eleventh and thirteenth chords in all of their permutations.
A great source for further understanding the significance of voicings is to study books on arranging and jazz piano. Arranging books by Russ Garcia and Nelson Riddle are enormously helpful in stimulating the mind to understand how voicings can make instruments sound good together. They require that the aspiring arranger use his imagination to hear in advance what instruments will sound like when assigned the notes of a specific voicing. This can only come with dedicated practice and listening experience. This type of approach can open the mind of the improviser to utilize more than just licks and scales in their solos. It also helps the soloist to recognize more quickly what the piano player is doing in terms of voicing. The operative word here is quickly. While improvising, there isn't time to stop and try and figure these things out on the spot. That is for study and practice. I always used to hang out with good piano players because they could show me the way they approached their voicings which gave me the kind of information I needed in order to construct a harmonically informed solo. Two excellent books for this type of study are The Jazz Piano Book and The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine published by Sher Music. Mark is a
fine, modern, thinking player and has been able to codify his approach very well for others to work with. Of course, there are more ways to skin a cat, so to speak, so it's wise to study the transcriptions of the great piano players. Even better is to do some transcribing yourself.
Once you have opened this door, you will be able to advance to transferring these concepts to your individual instrument. Learn to explore the music that you are going to deal with. Find out what sounds and voicings are attractive and learn to incorporate these into your soloing on a particular tune. Take a specific voicing and turn it into an arpeggiated exercise. (See examples) If for no other reason, to get the sound of the voicing under your fingers and hear what it sounds like on your instrument. In no way am I suggesting that you should mindlessly run these arpeggios as you might run a lick. They have to be incorporated into your playing in appropriate places and at appropriate times. Joe Henderson utilizes these arpeggios to underline his harmonic points of interest. Coleman Hawkins used arpeggios of all colors and stripes as an essential fabric of his improvisations.
The next step is to learn to go from one voicing to another in real time. This takes a true understanding of how a progression functions. Harmony is functional. It is not static. This is how a players like Sonny Rollins and George Coleman can improvise lines that are constantly setting up cues that the harmony is in flux. This is usually done with the different configurations of the dominant seventh chord but applies to any chord as well. These players are also very adept in implying alternate or substitute progressions such as chromatic II-V's and deceptive cadences. These types of things can be incorporated and involve a clear idea of where one is heading as well as coming from. These things can be practiced on any instrument. I've always had a desire to play the saxophone, flute or clarinet with the clarity and accuracy of a fine jazz pianist where notes are played with a clear attack and in a way that "spells" the chords audibly. Of course, a wind instrument can do expressive things that a pianist cannot do so I've always looked for the best of both worlds. With dedicated study and practice, you can develop a myriad of approaches that are not rooted in your particular instrument but come directly from your mind and ear.
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