1.1. The subject of this study
This study discusses the application of advanced compositional and improvisational techniques in the domain of contemporary jazz in order to help (composing) improvisers to extend their musical practices beyond functional harmony and beyond the conventional chord-scale approach. The first part contains comparative analyses of educational publications by five leading jazz artists on this subject: David Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone, Walt Weiskopf, and John O’Gallagher. In the second part, compositional techniques by two twentieth century composers are discussed: Peter Schat’s Tone Clock and Olivier Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition.
This exposition displays a variety of research methods. Firstly, for all authors and composers, the content of their theories and techniques is summarized and illustrated with written parts and audio examples. Secondly, practical examples of applications by professional (composing) performers, including myself, are displayed and analyzed. Thirdly, all models are evaluated, individually and in conjunction with one another. Finally, compendia of patterns constructed with the discussed models are presented to demonstrate how they add to the improviser’s artistic palette.
The emphasis in this study is predominantly on issues of pitch content. Although I am aware of the relevance of rhythmic phrasing, dynamics, texture, register, and form in creating the effects of playing “outside the chords”, I do not elaborate on these parameters. Yet, the practical applications of the actual techniques discussed throughout this study display adequate examples of operations exceeding the mere pitch content.
The techniques discussed in this study are none of them new, and not even all of them recent. What is new is their being connected as important bodies of knowledge that, among jazz practitioners, are generally known by hearsay, but that are often overlooked during the learning process that is so principally marked by its oral character. After all, jazz music is generally about playing on the ears, about allegedly spontaneous responding to musical impulses, and not so much about sitting down and working one’s way through weighty written bodies of knowledge, as I can attest from my personal experience as a longtime teacher of jazz improvisation and as an eternal student.
For the impatient musician who quickly wants to experience the musical space that can be created by the techniques discussed in this study, it will possibly suffice to stroll through the large collection of examples that are displayed throughout this exposition. He should feel free to approach these examples as a compendium of melodic lines, repeatedly playing and adding variations to adapt them to his musical ends.
The reader who wants to gain insight into the coherence between the distinct techniques is advised to join my journey through blending these new elements with his existing playing techniques. He will, like me, experience the sensation of arriving at places that were undiscovered before undertaking this effort.
1.2 My motivation for this study
Jazz musicians are usually esteemed for their spontaneity and expressive qualities, by which their music is appealing to general public and has a substantial influence on other music styles. This appreciation is witnessed by the large number of jazz festivals and jazz clubs, and by the large number of students in professional jazz programs at universities and conservatoires around the world.
The motivation to undertake this study is a consequence of my longtime experience as a jazz artist and educator. If I were asked to describe my ideal jazz band on the imaginary ‘Music TripAdvisor’, I would describe it as the ultimate ‘all-inclusive’. In my opinion, jazz is supposed to act as a guesthouse in which elements from the surrounding musical world are welcomed with curiosity. For instance, as a sequel to my projects with musicians from Mali, Turkey, India and Lapland, in my recent works I rearranged sources of western classical music. The subject of the present study resulted from the latter and, more specifically, from the need I felt to re-examine musical sources that tended to be overlooked.
The focus of this study is upon the development of jazz as art music in which, rather than to please the audience, “the major challenge is to express oneself through sincerely felt musical means” (Liebman 2013, 78). The relationship between improvised lines and the underlying harmonic structures is considered a substantial part of these musical means. As a consequence of its aforementioned all-inclusive character, with the blending of traditional jazz forms with many other musical styles, the chord-scale approach needs reconsideration. More specifically, this study is based on the problem I share with colleagues and students that we tend to reach the limits of the traditional chord-scale approach and that, in order to develop jazz improvisation to keep track with recent developments, we need to exploit the alternative techniques discussed here.
I consider the advanced compositional and improvisational techniques elaborated upon in this study as crucial elements for the development of today’s jazz. At first sight they seem to operate in opposition to the conventional functional harmony on which the majority of jazz music is still based, but a closer look reveals that they can be applied alongside, or as an extension to conventional jazz languages. Needless to say, applying any of these techniques does not mean that important characteristics of straight ahead jazz such as swing, syncopated rhythms, and traditional melodic and harmonic embellishments are to be disqualified: on the contrary, they could become more worthy when considered from new perspectives.
Why does jazz,often characterized by its celebration of the moment, need these technical models to innovate? Firstly, through the years of its existence, jazz has always been based on models. Most obvious is the model of functional harmony that is largely based on the western European music tradition and translated to jazz improvisation as the chord-scale method of linear improvisation. Over the years, numerous variations and modifications of this model have been applied. When it was left behind, partially or totally, by some protagonists of the free form jazz in the 1960s, other musical parameters and game rules took its place. Once these parameters started serving as shared points of reference, they could be considered models alike.
Secondly, I address the innovation issue. Just like composers of symphonic and chamber music, jazz practitioners are continuously in search of ways to surprise their listeners with new tone colors, textures, and ways of manipulating tension and relaxation, to shed a different light on existing practices or to combine these with new musical elements. Besides, they share the experience that innovative techniques generally arise from processes of trial and error. Considered from this viewpoint, I dare to ask why jazz would not give these alternative models a try.
Thirdly is the educational subject. Through the years of its existence, professional jazz education has been criticized for its excessive focus on functional harmony and the related chord-scale approach. Models containing intervallic and serial techniques could offer a strategy to extend the improvisations beyond this traditional approach. By importing elements that are developed outside the functional harmonic fabric, jazz musicians can enrich their creative palette with new harmonic colors. However, an interesting paradox evolves here. Meaningful application of these alternative techniques demands a thorough knowledge of functional harmony and a broad expertise in chord-scale improvisation. From the perspective of the performer who started his journey with the acquisition of the conventional functional harmonic skills, the techniques discussed in this study should be considered an addition, alongside or on top of his existing skills, rather than replacing them.
1.3 The utility of this study
This study addresses in the first place those readers who endorse the need to move forward by continuously enriching their artistic palette. After studying this exposition, they hopefully agree that in order to keep the jazz practice alive, these skills open new doors to enhancing the practice of (composing) improvisers and jazz educators.
Those who question the utility of compositional techniques such as those of Schat and Messiaen that were originally introduced more than 70 years ago, should realize that the development of western art music over a period of roughly three centuries can be traced back in the first fifty years of the development of jazz music. Until the rise of free form jazz in the 1960s, the development of jazz harmony followed that of the European music tradition, roughly the Baroque, the Classical period, Romanticism and Impressionism. During the jazz-rock fusions of the 1970s, the renaissance of be-bop in the 1980s, and the crossovers with world music in the 1990s, functional and modal harmony remained the leading issue in terms of improvising on chords. The jazz of the twenty-first century roughly shows an ongoing hybridization by boundlessly merging improvisations in a wide range of jazz styles, non-western music, odd meters, and the rediscovered sounds of analogue electronic equipment from the sixties and seventies.
As an experienced composer and improviser, I embedded a number of these ingredients in my music, but through the years I felt the need to reassert an intellectual power in the field of jazz harmony. Considering the fact that, together with the blues and the work songs, the European music tradition was one of the fundaments of jazz as a crossover music avant la lettre, I decided to refocus on harmonic issues in line with the historic development of classical music. The adaptation of twelve-tone and modal techniques by composers of twentieth-century music could provide a fruitful addition to the harmonic jazz toolkit.
Of course, it would be naive to assume that just offering new toolkits would be sufficient to innovate jazz music. Therefore I decided also to discuss five exemplary publications by leading jazz educators on playing beyond conventional functional harmony. I undertook this part of my research not only to provide a decent context of already existing advanced models: I was also curious how they would relate to the twelve-tone and modal techniques in the models of Schat and Messiaen.
But like getting acquainted with the chord-scale approach that underlies the conventional way of linear improvisation, mastering the applications of any new toolkit will result from a creative process of learning by trial and error. By going through this process, any (composing) performer, however experienced, simply cannot avoid reconsidering his overall potential as a music practitioner. Important aspects of form, texture, instrumental line-ups, and repertoire alike will have to be adapted, leading to a close relationship between composition and improvisation. The more mature the musician, the more effectively the model and its operations will be embodied and the better the meta-goal of this study will be achieved—to show how elements from outside one’s musical space can be integrated to enhance one’s personal sound.
But what about the next paradox that evolves, of working according to a model on the one hand and developing a personal sound on the other? Throughout this research, I provide insight into my own development as a composing performer. The examples of my personal applications of the techniques discussed in this study, such as the suggested embellishments of rows, scales, and modes, and improvisational patterns, are an essential quality of it. Together with the recordings of my compositions and improvisations, they are meant to motivate and help the interested reader to adapt these examples to his personal practice.
It should be noted that, compared to traditional jazz education, this study takes the opposite direction. Nowadays it is still common practice that jazz freshmen scrutinize the canon of exemplary jazz solos in the process of building their improvisational idioms. Derek Bailey already concluded that in the learning method “the three stages —choosing a master, absorbing his skills through practical imitation, developing an individual style and attitude from that foundation—have a tendency, very often, to be reduced to two stages with the hardest step, the last one, omitted” (Bailey 1993, 53). Imitating the style of a famous virtuoso is hard work and the result affords the musician satisfaction and the admiration of his peers. From the early years during which I performed as a jazz soloist, I remember peers, bandleaders, and journalists asking me who was my absolute favorite artist, because they found it hard to identify ‘whom I was sounding like’. This was how I experienced Bailey’s observation that “in jazz, to say that someone ‘sounds just like’ a well-known somebody is usually meant as a compliment” (Bailey 1993, 53). Even today some young musicians tend to find themselves in a vicious circle in which their personal development is only possible by copying examples of the fashionable jazz artists of the moment.
In my opinion, the integration of extra muros materials—with few exemplary solos yet available—as done in this study, might stimulate students to find alternative ways to build their personal jazz idioms. Therefore, rather than just presenting a compendium of ready-made melodic patterns, this study demonstrates various operations that might help musicians to generate those patterns themselves. How to apply these to either a conventional or an innovative jazz repertoire is up to the individual’s learning attitude, artistic taste, and technical abilities.
From my experience as a jazz educator, I know that the stronger the motivation of a student to be inspired by any information offered during his studies, the more effectively he can develop a personal sound. This observation is in line with recent developments in professional music education to relate directly to the interest of the individual student by motivating him, even during the early stages of his development, to actively consider and discuss his artistic choices. This imposes an obligation on the jazz educator to emphasize reflective processes rather than offering mere historical examples in the form of ready-made models, patterns, or sequences.
Just as in (foreign) language acquisition, enriching one’s jazz idioms results from being overwhelmed by live concerts, recordings, videos, and talks from inspiring artists. Part of the new information is distilled intuitively ‘at first sight’. Another part results from repeated listening and analysis, and hopefully results in an individual interpretation of how it was achieved and in storing this in a continuously extending personal backpack.
The utility of the methods and techniques discussed here largely depends on the attitude of the student. He should agree to consider these alternative techniques as an appropriate extension, or as a useful addition alongside his already existing skills. Referring to Liebman’s characteristics of a musician’s individual qualities, a good ear is required to distinguish intervals, rhythmic and harmonic aspects, and to recognize the form of a piece and the entire sequence of actual events taking place during a performance (Liebman 2013, 77). I agree with his image of improvising in a band as an informal conversation among a small number of people, where the attention may shift momentarily from one person to another, or from one topic to another. The richer the collection of skills in his backpack, the better the individual musician will be able to discern all these threads of communication and to participate at any time with his own, personal sound.