As a classical violinist, I find it a little overwhelming to read a jazz chart and improvise over the chords.
Yet that's what I'm doing all week at Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus, Ohio. I'm surrounded with true experts, who are well-versed in this medium. Besides having classes about improv, we've been placed in small ensembles, in which we read through jazz charts and then improvise over the chords. Each small ensemble of about five people sees two coaches a day. My coaches are violinist Nicole Yarling and guitarist Paul Brown.
This is really learning by immersion and by "doing," which is great fun. But I have to say, every time things come around to me and the coach says "GO!" I struggle. I've been searching for things to hang on to -- and there are many, but it is a process of discovery.
On Tuesday I did have one such revelation, when it comes to comprehending a written page of jazz music. Take for example, this chart that Paul gave us for Coltrane's Central Park West.
Generally, I see a chart like this and I panic, for several reasons: First of all, it has five sharps. ("Paul, do you have capos for us?"). But second of all, I just see a bunch of chords, and I'm overwhelmed. How can I keep track, jump from one to the next? For me it's like reading Chinese characters, it just doesn't compute. However, my perception changed, once Paul pointed out the fact that there are patterns: these are really series of chords, and this is what I need to start trying to discern. My music theory has never been exceptional, but I do know that the dominant generally tries to resolve to the tonic. This harmonic tension is present in just about any kind of music, from pop to jazz to classical. A lot of these chords are actually a series of fairly simple dominant-tonic resolutions.
For example, in "Central Park West," the first three chords are simply trying to get to B major: the chords are built on two, five and then resolving to one; or put another way, ii-V-I; or put another way, chords built on the supertonic, dominant, and tonic. Suddenly a lot of patterns emerged, I started seeing ii-V-I everywhere! He encouraged us to bracket those series on our sheet music: the next one led to D major, the next to Ab major etc. Suddenly, the idea of improvising over this series of chords seemed a lot easier to understand:
We tried improvising to a number of tunes: Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz; as well as Pat Metheny's Minuano. I realized later in the day, that "Minuano" was a song I knew -- knew well! I listened to a lot of Pat Metheny in college and even went to see his band live, when they were touring with this music. I caught Paul on video, laying down the chords for us for that tune. After that, he goes one round with his own improvising, brilliant stuff. The more I try to do this, the more my appreciation grows for this kind of ability, check it out:
And if you'd like to try improvising along to the above music, here is the chart:
Later in the day I returned to fiddle class, where I'd enjoyed learning yesterday about Celtic fiddle from violinist Andy Reiner. Today he was exploring Scandanavian music, particularly from Sweden and Finland.
We started by looking at a Swedish fiddle form called the Polska, which as he explained, is in two. But not really! If I heard just the fiddle part of this tune, no context, I think I would hear it in two beats. It's actually in three, but for this form of Swedish fiddle music, it is counted in a very unique way: One long beat, followed by a short beat. Undoubtedly this has to do with the dance for which it is composed. In order to keep this feel, we tapped our feet throughout the song. You can try it, too, it really changes one's perception of the music:
The above piece is called "Fluddën's Död," (apparently about the death of Ms. Fludden!) and it is a traditional Swedish fiddle tune. He taught us how to play the main part of the piece, and I actually just relished the opportunity to learn music this way: completely by ear, by rote. He played a small portions, and we played it back, repeating sections and putting them together until we'd learned the whole tune. I teach my smallest Suzuki students this way, but no one ever teaches ME this way! Everyone in the whole room was so quick to catch on, too; there were no hang-ups about playing by ear, everyone just did it. For someone who primarily learns by looking at the music, this was a real treat.
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