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christian howes

All that Jazz-Practice With A Purpose, Practice With A Friend

June 7, 2013 at 3:55 PM

Practice with a friend; Jam with a purpose


"Crepe making/Giant Steps party" was the theme this afternoon, as I look for sneaky ways to bribe my daughter Camille into practicing. Ten minutes making crepes followed by ten minutes trading solos over John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", with each of us alternating between walking bass lines on fiddle and soloing. Rinse and repeat.

As simple as it sounds, I can't get over how much more fun it is to practice with someone else. It makes me want to practice, and no matter the disparity in abilities (within reason) I think just about anyone can really grow through this kind of purposeful jamming.

I've been practicing "Giant Steps" since I was 20. I'm 41, and just now feeling like I can get through the chord progression. Camille, at 16, almost has them down. It's helped us both to have a jamming partner. Even if all you can do is play the root notes of the bass line through the form, this can be incredibly useful.

Where many drop the ball practicing jazz, in my opinion, is in neglecting to practice bass lines and accompaniment parts, i.e., playing a song as a member of the rhythm section, and thus internalizing it from every point of view. Jazz violinists, or any single line instrumentalists, tend to be more susceptible to this neglect. Ever since I made it a regular habit to play bass lines and comping parts through the entire form of any song, my confidence has increased as I begin to truly comprehend the songs I'm playing.

I've created some free resources with this in mind for classical violinists and teachers who would like to pursue this direction. Check out the Creative Strings Academy - click here.


Billy Contreras, who started playing jazz very early, sets the bar quite high, with a seemingly limitless technical facility, harmonic comprehension, and melodic inventiveness, as seen below.

Camille, aka "Crepemeister" , was also brainwashed from an early age to accept playing off the cuff violin duos as a normal thing:)


From Paul Deck
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 6:33 PM
I get what you're saying about learning to play the accompaniment part. Very useful. For another experience, get your Android tablet, download the iRealb app, plug the tablet into an amp, and you can have keyboard comping, bass, and drums with your Giant Steps -- or 1100 other tunes -- at any tempo you please and in any key. Trade choruses or fours, your choice.

Your Groove Merchant track -- nice stuff, very fresh, tasty.

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 6:48 PM
I have a thought about jazz not "lying well" on the violin. It lies just fine on the guitar and the bass. Is it educational culture? Or is it the instrument? We could argue about that all day, but the fact is, there are a hell of a lot of technically capable violinists out there and not that many jazz violinist who play actual idiomatic jazz (NOT "gypsy" jazz which is mostly canned licks that "fit" on the fiddle). Also I can play jazz just fine on the piano (in fact I have a gig tonight) but I cannot play jazz on the violin to save my soul.

Well, one test that I think is reasonable would be to make the violin more like the guitar and the bass. In other words, tune it in fourths. I have done this with one of my violins but I have not had time to really explore it -- I'd have to learn the scales and such afresh. But I think the idea has possibilities.

I took an old violin that I don't play much because it is not a very good violin, and I tuned the G string down to F, the D string down to B-flat (not great, I know), the A string is a D string that is tuned up to E-flat, and the E string is an A string that is tuned down to A flat. Most of the jazz and blues charts are written in flat keys so I figured I would start there. I had to regroove the nut a little but that's a minor operation, the local luthier did all the setup for me for a reasonable price. Yes I lost a bit of range but my experience as a jazz pianist is that you can do quite a bit of blowing with two octaves worth of notes.

From christian howes
Posted on June 7, 2013 at 7:29 PM
thanks for these excellent comments.
I agree that play along tracks are excellent resources. However I also believe that they can become a "crutch" allowing players to ignore the harmony, groove, and form of a song. The rhythm section is forced to express the rhythm/harmony throughout the entirety of every song, which is part of why rhythm section players internalize songs so well, and often much more than melody line players. Melodic players often develop a laziness and go for years playing a song without learning the chord changes, for example... (I confess having been guilty of this many times!)

Re whether or not jazz "lies" on the violin, I firmly believe this is an issue of education. (Refer to Billy's playing in the video above.) While granted, it is easier to play some lines on the piano than the violin, the things we accept as "easy" or "hard" on the violin often have as much to do with habit/exposure as they do with inherent difficulty. I can't imagine any reason why not to tune the fiddle in 4ths if that's what someone wants to do, but don't think the pros would necesssarily outweigh the cons. IMHO, the reason gypsy jazz is more well-known within this community than modern jazz is due to of exposure/culture/education. Possibly the same reason most people didn't want to hear Stravinsky's music 100 years ago (and many still don't, but those with the proper exposure and education mostly agree that it's beautiful:)
I don't expect to convert every classical violinist into a modern jazz enthusiast for a few decades still...:) But I believe that every classical violinist can enjoy (any) music more by approaching songs from the standpoint of the "rhythm section", i.e., especially internalizing the harmony.

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 8, 2013 at 2:52 AM
The first time I bought the Bach S&P was just a few years ago when my teacher assigned me the D-minor Allemande. My first inclination was to analyze the harmonic structure in the same way that I was taught by my piano teacher back in high school, except that the source material then was a book of Charlie Parker solo transcriptions!

The thinking behind tuning in fourths was twofold. First, I surmised that it might give me more options for how to finger scales and patterns. Second, the main idea actually was to "break the mold" by having an instrument that would not be influenced as much by the prejudices of my classical training. That is actually the main reason why I set it up with no string pitches in common with a regular violin. I gave some thought to buying a Bb fake book for it.

From christian howes
Posted on June 8, 2013 at 7:22 AM
right on Paul. I think tuning violin in fourths would actually limit the range and make playing harder, because the fifths tuning allows the hand to access a wide range of notes easily in first position with minimal string crossings. However, I appreciate your reasoning and agree with the premise of undoing the physical habits associated w the instrument from your training.

If this in any way helps: after years of playing jazz, I can honestly promise you that it is easier for me to play in flat keys than sharp keys- all about the habits we foster I guess...

From Paul Deck
Posted on June 9, 2013 at 12:42 AM
I think we more or less agree. I wish I had the time and inclination to give my fourths-violin the ol' college try.

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