Archive for the 'General Music' Category

The Bass Guitar and Jazz (oh snap…)

One of the enduring prejudices of the jazz world has been, and likely will continue to be, that the electric bass/bass guitar has no place in jazz music. This sort of mindset likely was solidified during the 1980’s during the reactionary revolution of Wynton Marsalis and the neoclassicists, but existed long before and continues to exist long after. Now, as a bass guitarist myself, it’s fairly easy to get indignant and self-righteous hearing my chosen instrument belittled like this. How dare these people, many of whom aren’t really all that hot players to begin with, dismiss my entire career and advanced knowledge in music because of an instrument that I play? However, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that there is a fair bit of truth in why the electric bass mostly relegated to beginning college jazz ensembles and people playing jazz standards poorly in small cafes for tips and a small meal. Why is this, exactly?

Just to give a background on myself, I’m a bass guitarist first and foremost, but I double on the double bass (ha!) the same way that any working sax player would have a woodwind double (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet). Granted, in the jazz world, it’s usually upright bass players doubling on electric, but as long as you can perform at a professional level as a session player at both, it doesn’t really matter which is your main instrument.


Avishai Cohen, among the many badasses that double

As an electric player, I’ve been often asked why I didn’t switch fully to upright and keep the electric on the side. Part of the reason is because I don’t really want to play straight ahead music and music “of the tradition” – the music I write is more or less devoid from the tradition of swing, ballad and afro-cuban writing that so defines the “classical” style of jazz. I mainly enjoy playing music more along the lines of “fusion” or otherwise more diverse and disparate musical styles and grooves that leave the swing rhythmic concept behind. Another reason is that there are a lot of technical things that can be done on electric that can’t be done on upright – sixteenth notes grooves for instance are extremely difficult on upright and don’t have anywhere near the precise rhythmic quality that can be delivered on electric. Another part of the reason is that it’s far easier to handle – carrying an upright bass around everywhere is a bitch and a half, and anyway I can get around without having to deal with carrying that damn thing the better.

But that doesn’t really answer the question of why I enjoy playing music “from the tradition” on the porkchop, and why I’ve stuck with it playing at the Manhattan School of Music for the performance part of my jazz degree. A lot of actually has to do with the nature of the sound production itself on upright versus electric. Upright bass is known for it’s unique ability to be felt and not necessarily heard that clearly. If you are listening to a swing groove with a good double bass player and drummer that have really locked in to one another, there is a very physical sensation, the specifics of which can vary depending on the players involved (“bouncing,” “gliding,” “like a freight train going out of control…but in a good way…” etc) This has to do with how the upright bass produces sound – it essentially is a giant speaker about 40 inches across, and projects sound accordingly. This is far larger than any typical electric bass amplifier (the largest I’ve ever heard of was 18 inches), and anybody who knows about amplification even just a little bit (in other words, me…just a little bit…) knows that the larger the speaker, the “wider” the sound projects. Upright bass projects sound in a very “wide” way.

Electric bass/bass guitar, on the other hand, projects sound very linearly, since it almost entirely relies upon the size of the speaker that amplifies it. It, in other words, is more heard than felt, and for that very reason it’s far more difficult to get that physical sensation of locking in with a drummer to get a genuine swing groove. This is why upright bass has always been the preferred instrument in straight ahead. You will almost always get a better groove happening with the instrument that hits you with a wave of sound rather than an instrument that hits you with an “arrow” of sound. It just feels better.

Ironically, what makes the upright bass so great for jazz is what makes me not like playing it all that much. If I’m playing a purely supportive role 100 percent of the time then double bass is my go-to instrument, for sure. However, the contemporary performance standard in all of it’s forms, including the tradition, treats all instruments of the ensemble as equals, and there are a number of circumstances where the bass needs to be at the foreground, or at least heard more than felt, whether it be part of a solo, or just outlining something very important which isn’t doubled or implied by any other instrument. As any person who has ever heard an upright bass solo knows, it is at these times where the energy of the piece is immediately killed, and it becomes a desperate struggle to get back to the level of intensity that came before. Instead of the bass being the best feeling part of the ensemble, it becomes this struggle to be heard and understood. Nuances of articulation are extremely hard to project, and unless the room has perfect acoustics and the drummer is playing incredibly soft (not to mention, if people aren’t talking….cafe gigs…grumble grumble…) nothing of any particular substance will ever be heard by the audience. The upper register of the instrument is difficult to make sing and project at the same time. It could be an absolutely brilliant solo, but nobody will ever hear it.

Granted, if you have really low tension strings and low action, you can amplify the upright bass so it does sing and does project during solos. This sort of thing can sound amazing. However, when upright players do this, they are imitating things that sound and work a lot better on electric. With electric bass, there is a lot more higher harmonic content in the sound, so there never needs to be any sort of struggle during a bass solo – electric players can exist very comfortably in all registers and not need to worry about projecting or dealing with the epic, Herculean fight against the instrument and the crowd to be heard (although, to be fair, a lot of players enjoy this struggle, I don’t). It, in my opinion, is a lot easier to sing lyrically on an electric because of the much longer sustain and control over articulation, and even, in certain circumstances, scream, which is something that upright basses aren’t really equipped to do (unless you happen to be particularly well-trained with a bow). When playing a supportive role, electric bass can assume a much bolder position in outlining harmony and bass notes since the members of the ensemble can actually hear the definite pitches a lot easier and not be overwhelmed by the physical thump. Counterlines and melodies are a lot more effective, and don’t require the piano or anybody else to be doubling them in order to get the point across.

Going back to the original question, however, on why exactly electric is so maligned, I feel it has to do with two separate problems, if you want to call them that. First, electric bass is a physically less demanding instrument than upright, and so more people start on the instrument in jazz than on upright bass. For this reason, there is the more-or-less correct perception that the majority of electric bass players are beginners to jazz or otherwise have a (non-pejoratively) amateurish approach to jazz music. The market is flooded with less than stellar electric bass players playing it poorly, so a lot of people make the very easy to assume conclusion that electric bass should be anathema to jazz. I don’t really blame them too much, unswinging electric bass is tough to listen to (which is why I rarely listen back to myself….ha, just kidding. Kind of.) . Because its heard at lot more than upright bass, it tends to intrude upon virtually everything and leaves a foul taste in a lot of people’s listening palates.

Second, although electric bass is a physically easy instrument in comparison, it is very difficult to play convincingly within the jazz tradition or otherwise and lock into that physical groove. Upright is significantly easier in that regard. At the point when aspiring, serious electric bass players realize this in their musical development, they almost always abandon ship with the electric to dedicate themselves to the upright. Almost none keep at the electric exclusively within their jazz playing. The result of this is a stunning lack of really good electric players within the jazz tradition, and reinforces the whole notion that bass guitar is not for jazz.

To give you an idea of what I’m shooting for with my straight-ahead playing on electric (in addition to all the other styles I enjoy/get paid to play), here’s a collection of killer electric bass players playing some straight ahead stuff convincingly.

This first one is of Bob Cranshaw playing with Dexter Gordon. Bob Cranshaw often gets a bad rap because of his electric playing with Sonny Rollins, but it certainly isn’t because he isn’t a fine musician. Often the complaints come from the very reason why Sonny likes playing with electric bass over upright – you can hear it and don’t necessarily feel it as much. Check out the JazzTimes interview with Bob Cranshaw if you ever have the chance, it provided some of the inspiration for this blog. His tone on this is what a lot of people don’t like about the electric in jazz (the fact that his G string is slightly out of tune doesn’t help), but you certainly can’t deny the man can swing.

Here is Ronan Guilfoyle with Dave Liebman burning it up at the 55 bar in the Village. Ronan plays an acoustic fretless bass guitar and his playing here sounds very similar in timbre to an amplified upright bass. There is a lot of small idiomatic gestures that he does, however, that are very (bass) guitaristic that distinguish his playing from upright playing, and its very clear that he’s approaching the bass guitar as its own instrument rather than an imitation of an upright. Great stuff. It’s interesting that he he makes sure to call himself an “acoustic bass guitarist” on his website to be specific, and I think there is something to be said about how the acoustic sound of the amplified acoustic bass guitar gels with the sound of the jazz tradition a lot easier than, say, a Fender bass does. I myself recently switched to one.

Incidentally, Ronan writes a ridiculously insightful and well-written music blog (so does Lieb, for that matter). Check them both out.

Here Lawrence Cottle rips it on Cherokee. Killer swing that holds its own with a very “electric” tone – this is most certainly not an electric bass player trying to sound like an upright.  Also, check out the insane unison that comes out of nowhere from the blowing at 2:50. What a cool small group arranging technique!

Finally, no discussion on electric in jazz would be complete without mention of Steve Swallow. There are a lot of “eh” clips of him on youtube, but there’s a series of them with him playing with Adam Nussbaum that are pretty decent. I really dig his straight-ahead playing (and writing!) on his album “Real Book,” so check it out if you have the chance. He gets a really nice sound out of his semi-acoustic bass that’s both guitaristic (playing with a copper pick will do that) and full and bass-like at the same time with that nice and wide envelope to the sound. He really is the master of that style of playing. Besides, walking 7/4 swing isn’t easy to make groove on any instrument, and it he manages pretty well here.

Now, I know Jaco wasn’t a card-carrying member of “the tradition” by any means, but just like Steve Swallow, he is impossible to leave out of a discussion on swinging the electric bass. The story goes that when Joe Zawinul first heard that Jaco had died, he let out a long, slow sigh and said solemnly, “Man, that guy could swing.” Yes, in this clip he might be overplaying and he might be way too high in the mix. But man, that guy could swing. This style of bass playing I really dig, by the way, that sort of flirtation in between funk and walking a bassline – Jaco pioneered this, and nobody really ran with it, unfortunately.

And Joni! Holy smokes…

Sorry, I just have to post the live version of this, because this is some f*cking ballsy electric playing, and Michael Brecker blows his ass off. Notice the sixteenth/eighth thing too in the walking section that he does to build tension, that’s something that I like to do. Upright/double bass really can’t replicate that effect at all. And the harmonics too, forget about those on upright.

There’s a couple of interesting points that can be made from watching the above videos. One, notice how electric bass really seems to hold its own in contexts where there are no comping instruments. I think this is largely because, like I was alluding to before, that the electric bass takes up far more of the upper sonic spectrum in terms of harmonic content, and with comping instruments out of the way, it can really full up space by itself.  Normally in trios or in groups that don’t have comping instruments you have this gaping hole that goes on forever in the harmonic spectrum that can feel very empty evening in contemporary playing (which is an aesthetic unto itself, of course), but with electric you fill that a lot more convincingly, and as an electric player, you feel like your sound isn’t ever intruding on anybody else. In playing with a piano, or even worse, a comping guitar player, you’re sharing a huge range of the harmonic spectrum with them and you end up sounding like you’re encroaching on their sonic turf, no matter how sensitive you are to their playing and vice versa. I’ve found that the comping instruments that give the most sonic room for electric bass are vibes and electric piano, specifically rhodes. Their sounds are very transparent and emphasize the upper spectrum, rather than the mid spectrum like guitar or the entire freaking harmonic spectrum like piano.

The second thing you can notice from these videos how electric swings a lot more (in general) on uptempo tunes than it might in slower contexts. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but the chief among them is that electric bass sustains a lot longer than upright bass. Significantly so. A big part of what makes upright bass felt more so than heard is the fact that there is such a solid and defined attack to the initial tone, and a relatively quick decay, at least as compared with the electric bass. When you’re playing at a quick tempo, there is less a distinction between the initial attack and the decay that follows it, so there is less of a problem of the longer sustain, but as soon as you start slowing down the tempo, the sense of initial attack and decay is lost on electric. I think this is one of the reasons why Steve Swallow has chosen to play with a pick. It puts a lot more attack on the sound, so he can get that quicker initial envelope that playing pizzicato can’t give you. Interesting that his clip is the only clip can could be considered “medium” tempo…

Anyway, all of this is just food for thought for those interested in what I think about as a working bass playing in jazz and other musics. Hopefully it can give some perspective on why I’m sticking to the ol’ porkchop for my own artistic pursuits, and why the instrument has had such a hard time being accepted as a “real” jazz instrument when the electric guitar, it’s close cousin, is such a mainstay.

On a side note…if you search “bass solo” on google images, I come up on the 4th page. Bitchin!


I know that a lot of people have been holding their breath for my latest blog post – waiting to devour every word I write just to rebroadcast it and retweet it with the voracious intensity of the contemporary information consumer. Fear not! For it has come.

The past two months have been an intense study in me living in New York City and how to balance work, school, teaching, music and the combination of all three directions moving together in synergy.

Or something like that.

Like a boss.

I’ve been going to Manhattan School of Music getting my Masters Degree in Jazz Composition, starting again in academia where I left off with my degree from Berklee in Jazz Composition in 2009. Who knows, maybe if I get enough post secondary degrees in Jazz Composition I might be worth something to somebody at some point in some capacity. Likely not, however. At least I’ll have a piece of paper by the end of it.

Study at MSM has been intense for reasons that I didn’t quite expect. I went into the whole experience thinking that it would be like my Berklee training in Jazz Comp was – utterly intense in writing, non-stop sessions late into the night with Sibelius, insane compositional techniques flying everywhere, weekly project band sessions, Greg Hopkins excitedly showing us the Bartok string quartets and every week reminding us that his roommate in college wrote drum parts to all of them. Instead, the compositional element has been rather, well, tame in comparison, or at least tame compared to how I remembered it being at Berklee. One afternoon a week I chill with Jim McNeely in a couple classes and a lesson, and then go over various noodlings of mine. Awesome stuff, just not intense.

What is intense, however (to me at least), is the performance aspect. I didn’t really realize it when I was applying for the program, but the whole thing is set up to create a “jazz triple threat”. Arranger/composer, performer and teacher. This is actually a great model, because it prepares students for the real world of jazz in ways that Berklee doesn’t even bother with, but it certainly kicks my ass in gear when it comes to the jazz chops. Dave Liebman’s 2-year lecture seminar with Phil Markowitz on his chromatic concept for improvisation (chromatic adventures with Dave Liebman, as we say) is probably the most advanced improvisation course taught in the world, and represents the compendium on how to play “out”. Gary Dial’s Improv class, on the other hand, represents the compendium on how to play “in,” taking the curriculum from Charlie Banacos’ legendary notes and courses and giving it to us in a weekly dose of “oh my God this is a crap ton of ridiculousness to practice.”

On top of this I’ve been starting to do all of the necessary fieldwork to “pay my dues” on the scene in terms of going to shows, clubs, jams, etc to build an actual performance career, the same way that I tried to do in DC and Boston (but was cut short both times because of leaving). Interestingly, however, this all has not been in jazz, but rather in pop/rock/singer songwriter circles. Having done the jazz circles in DC and going to school uptown during the day for jazz, I felt I needed a change of pace from working my way up playing crappy standards with crappy musicians in crappy cafe restaurants for a while before I got to the point where I paid enough dues to hang with people who could play only to realize that those gigs don’t pay at all.

Fortunately, there is a very strong Berklee alumni network in the city of New York, and it’s been relatively easy to insinuate oneself into an alumni network when you yourself are an alumni. Imagine that! A lot of people from Berklee move to New York after graduation (myself included), and a lot of them are singer songwriters or otherwise aspiring pop/rock acts. I’ve been slowly developing a calendar for the rest of the year and into next spring of dates with a couple of these acts and others. As an electric bass player, it’s far more musically rewarding to play in these circumstances 98 percents of the time anyway, since you’re not sounding like crap playing walking basslines when an upright bass would sound 5000 times better. More importantly, this sort of thing could conceivably end up paying the bills (how nice that would be!) without having to resort to a job at Starbucks on the side.

Hooray for being part of a corporate machine!

Its interesting to be thinking along these lines, however, because it reminds me of one of the many fascinating posts on composer/bassist Ronan Guilfoyle’s music blog about the composer/pianist Danny Zietlin, a phenomenal musician who plays and has played on the highest level possible, but maintains a psychiatry practice full time and does music “as a hobby.” The traditional thinking in music is that if you are to be a musician who plays at the highest level, you have to do that and only that as your career and as your life. That’s my thinking as well. Why would I be spending my time making 9 dollars an hour at a Starbucks for 15 hours a week in addition to the 17 graduate school credits, exhausting myself and not giving me enough time/energy to network, attend concerts, write music, practice, rehearse etc? In other words, do the things that I need to do in order to “pay my dues.”

Danny Zietlin made an interesting comment to Ronan after reading Ronan’s post about him. He suggested that his psychiatry practice and music feed off one another, and the fact that he does both doesn’t detract at all from each discipline. That’s great! If I had a particular desire/aptitude/training/years of medical school for psychiatry, I’d totally do both. In fact, any other thing that I could put my heart and soul into that could pay the bills and help support my terrible music addiction I would pounce on and do right now. The problem is, of course, for anything like that, you’d have to do at an extraordinarly high intellectual, technical and emotion level, just like music (this, I suspect, is why Zietlan considers his two specialities symbiotic). For some reason, I just don’t see serving mocha latté’s as fulfilling a particularly spiritual niche in my psyche right now. Maybe I need to read more new age books on Zen in order for that to kick in.

I’ll stick with music for the time being.

The Value of Reading…

Yeah, jazz is fun and all, but it sure doesn’t bring in that much a) steady work and more importantly b) money. It’s hard to call music a “real job” if you’re totally reliant on playing irregular gigs in restaurants and clubs where the owner is concerned solely about how many people he can get playing for how little money and the tipsy audience is more concerned about yelling loudly above the music about how much they dislike the taste of asparagus than listening to the blood and sweat of musicians who have spent the majority of their lives reaching into themselves to express the great American art form.

Am I jaded? Rather so.

Instead, I’ve been able to get into the wild woolly world of musical theater, and recently I’ve had a few high profile gigs with a local regional theater. I’ve been doing community theater type gigs since high school, and it’s been a great deal of fun (and convenient) having a semi-regular gig schedule for a month or two at a time, and the skills one uses in the pit are eminently useful in all situations. Professionalism, accompaniment skills, following conductors, playing at a manageable volume, etc, but clearly the best skill and the one that is the most useful for all situations is the one that most contemporary music musicians are painfully negligent in developing – reading the damn music.

Plenty of aspiring professionals and committed amateur bass players have opined their thoughts both on the merits of reading and their own prowess within the art on the wonderful wide world of the interwebs (ahem… And I can personally guarantee that if you, as one of these bass players, think that you can “read music” in the generic sense of the word actually cannot at any sort of level that is really worth much in a professional situation. Perhaps I’m generalizing, and perhaps I’m hyperbol…

…izing? Hyperbolizing? Ahem…

…..hyperbolizing, but what I’ve seen from my own students and others who lay claim to being able to read doesn’t fall anywhere close to the level that could be required at the professional level, and is indeed light years behind what our classically trained colleagues are capable of on their instruments. Perhaps it comes from the “oral” tradition or the DIY tradition of popular styles and the lack of classical tradition on the electric bass specifically, but there really isn’t a “culture of reading” I’ve found with people studying the bass guitar, making a lot of chance situations very awkward and unfortunate. The worst thing an aspiring musician can go through is not getting a gig because of lack of a useful skill and chances are that skill will be able to sight read fluently and proficiently. There are very, very few gigs that you will ever get being able to take a nasty ass solo over some II-V’s, but the gigs that you stand to gain being able to play a chart down on the first read through without thought or concern are numerous and plentiful.

So next time you sit down with some Jamey Aebersold and plan on shedding them II-V’s, consider whipping out some Bach Cello suites or something to that effect and reading them down instead.

It’s Gonna Rain

Contrary to my apparently no-so-deeply-held convictions against chord scales, I’ve started a YouTube lessons series on the very subject. I felt that I should at least explain some of the better ideas of chord scales, and preface the entire series with a massive disclaimer – no, they won’t make you t3h awesome shredlord. I also invented some handy jargon – “Heirarchy of Chord Sounds” – which I think I’ll be using a lot in the future as a theoretical tool and a teaching device. We’ll see how it goes over.

Chord Scale Series

Oh, this reminds me, I revamped the Lessons section on the website so it’s a little more streamlined and includes all of my YouTube lessons. Looking through it, I realized I have very little content for people with less experience, so I’ll try and get some more beginner type stuff up on the youtubez shortly. It’s hard, though, since there are so many great resources out there for beginning theory and performance out there. I quite frankly don’t know what else I would have to add! I’ll think of something, though.

On a related note…

Oh Berklee, How We Love to Hate You

For about a year and a half in my later semesters at Berklee I worked as a music tutor in subjects such as theory, ear training, common practice composition/counterpoint, etc.  I was also a “music tutoring supervisor” for while, leading training sessions on various topics within the Berklee curriculum. I was well versed in the entire Method, having talked at length with the Harmony department head Joe Mulholland and others about various minor details within the curriculum, and how they might be best taught to students struggling with the vast body of theoretical information being thrown at them. Usually, this boiled down to a discussion of what Berklee is known for within the Jazz education community – that infamous musical concept that everybody loves to hate, nobody seems to fully understand, and is misunderstood by most of the people teaching it.

I’m talking, of course, about chord scales.

The whole concept of chord scales came about in the 1950’s when George Russell was first trying to come up with a theoretical model for all of the advances within Jazz at the time. The idea that a 7-note vertical structure (a 13th chord) could be “flattened out” into a linear scale was revolutionary to the bebop mentality, and provided the basis for the Lydian Chromatic Concept. Russell’s specific approach has fallen out of favor pretty much everywhere except the New England Conservatory, but the idea of a separate scale being associated with every chord is now more a less a norm in music education, especially when discussing the diatonic modes. More often than not, figuring out the individual nuances of a tonal system of scales is thrown out the window for a more crude approach, simply suggesting “D-7 = D dorian, G7 = G mixolydian,” with little about how the notes of the specific scale relate to the chord, to the key and to each other.

Berklee has been ground zero for this approach since the 1970’s, and is often called “the scale factory” for this reason. Originally, Berklee’s chord scale method was an arranging device that gave a very sturdy platform for new arrangers and composers to use “mechanical voicings” such as drop 2, drop 2+4, etc. The corpus of information qualifying all of the scale choices soon was adopted in the Harmony department (theory department), and instead of just being taught to arrangers as a specific technique, it was soon being taught to everybody for the purpose of…I’m not quite sure. Why the complicated system of associating specific scales with diatonic chords, secondary dominants, extended dominants, substitute dominants, modal interchange chord, diminished chords and other miscellaneous tonal harmonic structures, and then identifying tensions, avoid notes and chord tones on each scale was never explained to me as a student, and as a student tutor, and I never could quite explain it to my students. Yes, by doing so, we could amass a list of ALL POSSIBLE NOTES on EVERY CHORD, but that’s kind of like expecting to come up with a list of all possible words you’re going to use in a book before you write it. As a consequence, a lot of improvisers come away from Berklee thinking that mastery of chord/scales is the holy grail in improvisation, which is somewhat akin to a writer thinking that memorizing the dictionary is how you get better at writing.

The thing that’s aggravating to me is that the whole Berklee chord scale system is sound from a theoretical perspective (when taught correctly). It does what it seeks to do – provide a categorization of all the notes that might define a given functional harmony on a chordal instrument. Avoid notes are notes that, for whatever reason, can obscure the harmony when used in a voicing. A voicing for II-7 can contain some or all the notes of the Dorian scale, with the exception of the 6th tone*. V7/III can contain some or all of the notes of the Mixolydian b9, #9, b13 scale, with the exception of the 4th tone. Etc. The problem is that it’s never contextualized in this manner, and instead is just offered as “theory” that needs to be learned. There’s this massive amount of information that just isn’t put in any relevant context outside of the arranging classroom. Joe Mulholland actually feels the same way about the curriculum, and there’s a big push to de-emphasize chord scales and instead emphasize composition and practice in the Harmony deparment. Still, without a “bigger picture” being attached to chord scales both at Berklee and elsewhere, there runs a huge risk in academia and elsewhere that aspiring musicians will come away with a very stilted improvisational and compositional approach that relies entirely on a memorized system of scales.

A good example of the danger of chord scale lies in how one person completely misinterpreted my video lesson on improvising in a diatonic context. Here’s an excerpt from a message they sent me…

You mentioned in a previous video that by mapping out the 3rds and 7ths of the diatonic/relative chords to the key, you’re providing a solid foundation to represent that key. As an example, if we’re in Cmaj7 and the tune starts on Dmin7 (D dorian) to G7 (G mixolydian) resolving to Cmaj7 (C Ionian)…are you saying that we should first consider what D dorian’s 3rd and 7th are and then determine how that relates to Cmaj7…yielding, in this case, C’s 4th and 1? In other words, would we play F lydian and C ionian OVER D dorian?

If that’s the case, do we run that mind-processing for every diatonic chord? Like…when the G7 comes, do we play the B Locrian and F lydian? Would we play B locrian and E Phrygian over that Cmaj7 resolve [if you don’t want to just simply play a Cmaj7]?

Wow! This takes the whole thinking to a new level of obscurity. Not only thinking of one scale per chord, but MULTIPLE scales per chord, all of which contain the same notes. This of course, is not what I meant at all, and is a direct reflection of a lot of the misinformation and misunderstanding that is propagated when teaching chord scale theory, especially in the age of the internet. Berklee’s chord scale ideas are translated out into increasingly more and more irrelevant and confusing educational concepts, so much so that even in a book as well respected as the Jazz Theory book by Mark Levine, Levine suggests that over a simple minor II-V-I, the easiest possible improvisational method is thinking in terms of three melodic minor scales, two of which are unrelated to the tonic (F melodic minor, Ab melodic minor and C melodic minor in the key of C). This is supposed to be the best way to tackle a minor II-V!

I think the main problem with chord scale theory is that it takes away all focus from the key and the tonic of the harmony. Melodic development makes a extraordinary amount of sense when you’re focused on a single key center. Not so much when you’re thinking about a different tonic on every chord. Yes, it’s possible of course, but as an educational tool it’s just about worthless in creating a coherant melodic statement. It gives too much too quickly to the student, and the whole line of thinking is distilled into a worthless heap of information without context.

As a theoretical tool, I’ve completely embraced the Berklee chord/scale thinking. It makes sense. But so does lexicography. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be particularly informative in devising narrative structure.

*The tritone formed between the 6th tone and the 3rd tone of the Dorian scale on a II-7 is the diatonic tritone of its related key. When contextualized in a II-V-I chord progression, this tritone obscures the subdominant function of the II, and instead makes the chord progression sound more like a V-V-I.

AHM – Music!

So if you were among the two people who have kept up with my blogging here, you would have read all about my attempts at creating a nifty new system of harmony (I, II, III, IV, etc). I ran out of steam when I realized a couple things. One, the kind of harmonic techniques I was using created way too dense a texture to really be useful except in small doses. At some point it all just “sounds like harmony.” Two, and more importantly, although the harmonies and harmonic techniques I was coming up with sounded cool, I couldn’t really connect with the music I was making with them. Perhaps I was approaching the theoretical concepts from too academic an angle, or maybe I was focused too much on the harmonic applications of the modes to see some of the other aspects. Basically, I got bored with it, and moved on to other things.

However, I did compose an etude on gradational modulation, and got the lovely Emma Boroson to read it down for me (she wants me to let everybody know that its just a rough read down, although it sounds pretty darn good for a reading recording) Here it is.

Meditation (Recording)

Meditation (Score)

It’s…interesting I guess? I took a rather liberal interpretation of the technical guidelines I established on what exactly constitutes gradational modulation. With four voices, it’s pretty impossible to create fully-fledged modal voicings, and so often the individual harmonies have to “represent” modes within the framework of the system. I personally like how this sounds far better than a constant barrage of thick harmony, and lets the harmonies “melt” into one another far more easily. You still get the impression of a lot of “harmony,” but its tempered, and other aspects of the composition can come through a lot more.

I was considering doing a full on analysis of all of the changes of chord/modes and the specifics with the voicings I chose, but I think that there’s enough actual music in this composition that I don’t need to go through all of that. Plus, I’m lazy, so there we go.

Anyway, hope you all enjoyed.



Jazz Composition of the Future!

“Dude, I figured out what’s wrong with the Jazz Composition department at Berklee,” alto sax player/composer Callum MacKenzie recently said to me while the two of us walked to a midnight jam session at the 150 building. I’ve spent the past weekend back in Boston playing for guitarist Mark Kilianski’s senior jazz composition portfolio recital at Berklee, and playing music far out on the left side of what any purist might call “jazz.” Loud, obnoxious, difficult, and ultimately hilarious, the music just “has to have a lot of ballsack,” Mark emphasized during the rehearsals. Sweet.

“Maria Schneider is what they consider modern music,” Callum continued, as we walked down Petersborough to the Fens. “Maria Schneider is great, dude, but she’s just doing the same thing Gil Evans did.”

It’s in the very nature of music academia to be behind the current trends and styles of the day, and that sort of thing is prevalent even at a place that pretends to be hip and contemporary as Berklee. In fact, most undergraduate programs in Jazz Composition at any other school in the county besides Berklee are centered around orchestration, arranging and composition for swing-era big band. It’s like if a “straight” Composition program focusing exclusively on Baroque and Classical era music. There has, in fact, been jazz since 1970, and contrary to Wynton Marsalis’ dictums on style, a lot of it has been really good.

My desire to study Jazz Composition at the graduate level largely is derived from a potentially unhealthy obsession with learning and knowledge. The question is, of course, whether or not the next Ivory Tower I starting paying tuition to share’s that same sentiment. Part of learning is understanding where music has come from, but equally if not more important is understanding where it’s going. I’ll give Berklee credit, they’re better than most places (jazz for them stops around 1990 instead of 1960), but that’s not quite enough for me. I need to study music that’s never stopped and that has no stylistic or chronological restrictions.

It seems then rather strange that I would want to go on and study within an institution who’s entire job is to restrict oneself to the study of previously codefied systems in music, or knowledge in general. I haven’t quite reconciled my love of studying and my distaste for stagnant knowledge devoid of passion or context. That might come once I’m back there again, in the throes of study and manic composition. I hope.

Until then, however, its pretty obvious that the composition and performance of new and truly unique forms of whatever that music “jazz” has become can’t come from people too instilled in the old method of writing, like those in academia. I don’t pretend to be able to write or play “truly unique forms of jazz” by any stretch, but that’s what I’m shooting for, and that’s what I hope to get at sometime in my life. There’s so much left to do and so much left to study. “Music is enough for a lifetime,” Rachmaninoff wrote, “but a lifetime isn’t enough for Music.”

Especially when you’re stuck writing swing arrangements.


Welcome to Adam Neely's blog/website. Check out his compositions, links, and information about lessons on the top bar, and enjoy the music!

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