1 December 2015

Improv Column: Wayne McConnell – Jazz Theory?

Wayne McConnell on Jazz Theory?


    I don’t usually do this but this article might seem like a plug for something I’ve been working on over the summer and well, I guess it is.  But it will benefit any budding beginner jazz improviser. 

    I spent most of the summer writing a book to help beginners start the long and complex process of becoming a good jazz improviser.  By good I mean authentic.  As the Director of Brighton Jazz School and Lecturer in Music at the University of Chichester, I’m constantly trying to think up ways of making the process more intuitive and creative.  That got me thinking about how the masters of the music learnt how to play.  Almost all of the players I admire learnt in the same way: through listening.  This is of course what draws us to the music in the first place.  So, I backtracked on my own, initial learning period and compared it to what I do now and I learnt that nothing had changed with my own development habits.  I was still learning stuff based on what I was listening to.  

    For me, learning how to play jazz has never been or will never be a ‘difficult’ or labouring process.  Frustrating yes, but that’s another matter.  Because I’ve learnt everything I can currently ‘do’ through things I love, it has been a joyful journey for the most part.  This is really fundamental to your current learning but also to your drive to learn over an entire lifespan.  I was having a clear-out of books and I noticed that I have amassed a large quantity of music theory books.  A very small percentage have actually been useful.  The jazz theory books tend to be the worst offenders and offer up information such as ‘play this scale on this chord’.  The more I read, the more I realised that this is not an authentic approach to improvisation.  I have plenty of students who can tell me that you can play a ‘locrian #2 scale’ on half diminished chords or a ‘dominant bebop’ scale on an F7 and yet can’t play a convincing jazz line over a simple chord progression.  The trouble is, how do you turn that information into meaningful, authentic jazz?  

    I came to the conclusion that books are written in this way because it is easy to teach.  It is very mathematical and can be passed along in the written form effectively.  The problem is, the material is not sufficient enough to turn the reader into a decent improviser.  When I hear the jazz masters play, I don’t hear scales, I don’t hear symmetrical perfection correlating to describable music theory, I hear melody and the development of ideas.  It is not very useful to tell the budding jazz student to ‘just play melody and develop them’.  It struck me that it is the way in which melodies are constructed that is missing from a lot of students.  That got me thinking about how simple lines are constructed in the bebop language.  After all, bebop is the base-language for all modern jazz.  I started to pay more analytical attention to the architecture of lines in the playing of the great masters. It was apparent that they all had key components: arpeggios, scale fragments and chromatic notes.  

    When we hear the great players improvise, we hear a combination of the uniqueness of their sound and their inner musical world.  How they construct melody is a result of what music they have been influenced by.  One player might be more bluesy and soulful like Stanley Turrentine and another might be more lyrical and spacious like Paul Desmond.  What can be said though is that the majority of musical ideas in Bebop contain arpeggios, fragments of scales and chromatic notes.  

    Scales are important for technical development but they really should not be used as the sole solution to improvisation, especially as the alternative offers a quicker and more natural method to improvising.  Rather than using musical theory as a basis of improvisation, we must use the vocabulary that the great players left behind as the basis of our own creativity.  The truth is, musicians and audiences can tell the difference between someone who uses scales to improvise vs someone using key historical components. The latter will sound more authentic. 

    To conclude, it is more important for you to be able to first hear that part of the line as an arpeggio or a scale fragment or a chromatic note than understanding scale theory.  When I hear a line for the first time, I’m listening for the architecture or how the line builds in tension and resolves.  You can get to the point when you can recognise chord extensions and alterations with ease.  I remember being 17 and visiting the pianist James Williams in New York and he was listening to the vocal group Take 6.  As the song was playing he was essentially transcribing the sounds; ‘did you hear that #11, moving to a Dom7 #9 landing on a minor 11th chord etc.  I thought he was super-human at the time.  Now I can do some of those things not because I’m especially talented but because I’m learning the music in this way.  The scales and theory can help much later on but if you are new to jazz, work on hearing things first.  It will pay off in the long run.  

    I’ll be doing a series of talks about my book ‘iSpeakJazz’ in the new year and running some workshops using this method.  The book is based on material that I’ve developed over the last 8 years of teaching at the University and 4 years at Brighton Jazz School.  It's not a new method particularly but it breaks down hearing architectural components that will give you the freedom to construct authentic, convincing jazz lines. In the words of the highly regarded toilet cleaning product FLASH – ‘It does the hard work, so you don’t have to’.  Not strictly true but it gives you a no-nonsense, creative and fun way to learn how to sound like an authentic improviser.   


Wayne McConnell 


Post Xmas Jazz Improvisation Weekend

2nd and 3rd of January 2016 

@ The Brunswick, 1 Holland Road Hove.  11am-5pm both days.

£99 per person or £170 for two tickets.

Book your place here: http://brightonjazzschool.com/post-xmas-weekend/

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