stephen godsall

Improvisation workshop 2



Today we will work on three pieces. I got rhythm, which we tried out last time, illustrates the 16 or 32 bar song form common to many jazz standards. We will learn more about "playing the changes" on this - following the chords and harmony as they change. Cloud Drama is a new piece which introduces jazz improvisation in free time, interaction between two soloists and sensitive accompaniment. Finally, Blue Monk develops our work on the 12 bar blues form. It introduces the wonderful music of Thelonious Monk with its chromatic passages and whole tone scales. We will also work generally on swing rhythms by giving everyone a chance to try out percussion!


I got rhythm

This consists of 4 sections, each 4 bars long. The first, second and fourth sections are largely the same - they stick within the key of F major and, as we found last time, they're quite easy to improvise over. The challenge comes with the third 4 bar section, often called the "bridge" or "middle section". This moves to the key of A major and then goes through a "cycle of 5ths" to the home key. I'll explain these concepts in more detail as we go along. The main thing to remember is that you need to follow the chord harmonies in this section rather than staying in the F major scale or F blues scale, both of which work well for the rest of the tune.


This 4 part form is called AABA form and it helps a lot if know which section you are in at any given time! You should learn to feel this rather than just counting. First we will try improvising again over just the A section; as many times through as you like!


Now let's look at that middle section. Each chord lasts one bar, and they're all dominant seventh chords. That works well because the dominant 7th chord sounds as if it needs to resolve to a new chord so the sequence has a sense of propulsion. So the flattened 7th note is important in the harmony and can be useful in your improvisation. The major third of each chord is also important because it distinguishes that chord from the "home" key, so that is also a strong note to improvise with - it gives listeners the idea that you are "playing the changes", taking them on a harmonic detour then back to the home key. Why not add those notes to your parts? As we discussed last time, the notes of the tune (or harmony) written in your parts also makes an ideal basis for improvisation. Note that even though the chords on this bridge are quite distant from the key of F, the melody does not change key - there is just one accidental.  So without worrying about chords or scales, we already have 4 or 5 notes that will fit in each bar. Now let's try a solo each which improvises on the whole "head" of "I got rhythm"


Cloud Drama

This is a new piece which some of us used to open a gig on Saturday. It stays on one chord throughout so improvisation should be easy! Everyone takes turns to play accompaniment and melody. The "cloud" is a texture of notes played by the accompanying instruments (and/or vocalists). Everyone chooses a note from the drone notes listed at the start of the piece - you then play them in free time, fading each note in and out to create a shifting chord. One person is responsible for the bass part - the lowest notes. They can alternate between the three bass notes listed, changing the "root" of the chord which gives a feeling of the piece developing.


Over the "cloud" we take it in turns for two players to create the "drama". You do this by playing melodic phrases which answer each other; you literally have a conversation with your improvisation. The closer you can make your sounds to talking, the better. The phrases you play can be one of the six phrases which make up the "theme" of the piece - you can play these phrases in any order. Alternatively, you can improvise your own phrases based on the drone notes or on the major scale of the piece; F major for concert instruments. You play phrases in "free rhythm" or "out of tempo" - that gives a lot of freedom for improvising. Even so, the melodic and harmonic structure mean that this piece should stay recognisable whoever plays it.


In your melodic drama, try to play some slow phrases and some fast ones. Try also to use the full range of your instrument - extremes of pitch, tone and volume are good to practice here.


Blue Monk

Thelonious is sometimes regarded as a difficult composer but this piece is quite easy, fun and illustrates a lot about the blues in jazz.


You have a part with the tune or a harmony part a third below for the Bb instruments. You also have the chords, guide notes for improvisation over each chord and examples of a blues scale, a pentatonic scale and a whole tone scale, which is a particular favourite of Monk - also popular with Duke Ellington and Debussy. As well as sounding "modern" (in an early C20 sort of way) this scale is what I like to call a "snakes and ladders" scale - you can slide up it or down it and jump off at any convenient point. The same applies to chromatic scales, which are prominent in this tune.


The pentatonic scale also has a useful properties - it will fit over all the chords in this piece and there is little tension between any notes in the scale. So two soloists can happily duet and improvise on this scale without ever clashing! Let's try that first. The rhythm section will play the 12 bar sequence while pairs of soloists improvise together on the pentatonic..........


Then we will all try putting together solos using any of the scales above; remember to leave space between phrases and you can pause while you think of what to play next - less is more. Use your ear to guide you at all times and feel free to "swing" with accents and syncopated phrases. Monk also liked to use note clusters and "outside" notes so it's hard to go wrong provided you play rhythmically and with confidence.


Finally, we will work on some "riffs" for the band to play quietly behind soloists as accompaniment. A good place to start is with fragments of the melody. We'll take it in turns to suggest a riff and other band members will try to imitate it by ear. Riffs can be as simple as you like - anything from one note repeated to a pattern on five notes; any more and we'll struggle to imitate you. Riffs can either stay at the same pitch or be transposed to follow the chords - not as hard as it sounds but I'll leave it up to you.