1 May 2015

Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 20

Terry Seabrook’s Jazz tip of the month No. 20


Make sure you listen (and interact)



Most aspiring jazz musicians learn to play by using play-along records (or more frequently now by using an app such as iReal Pro) and thus spend most of their musical activity playing alone. To be sure, the play-along tool is a very useful and important tool for the developing jazz musician. But the play-along hasn’t been around forever and many musicians in the past managed to develop their craft very well without them.  


    One danger of over reliance on the play-along is that it produces a mode of playing where the player hasn’t learnt to listen very well. The records or apps you play with don’t interact with you and so you tend not to listen closely, especially when you play with them repeatedly and get used to them. This is all well and good but it is important to make a real effort to play differently when you actually play in a real context with other musicians: you must learn how to listen to others at the same time as you are playing, whether you are comping or soloing. That is why it is very important to join workshops, attend courses, visit jam sessions and setup your own practise groups – so you can play with other real musicians. 


    Pay attention to and listen out for the following things, not only when playing with others but also when using play alongs or even when listening to recorded music (such as your favourite albums):


  • TIME FEEL: Where are the notes being placed? What sort of swing feel is coming across? In particular how does the drummer play the ride cymbal? A really grooving band begins to sound and feel almost like one instrument.


  • VIBE: Is there a feeling or atmosphere in the band and are you mixing in with it successfully?


  • RESPONSE:  Can you interact? Are you able to bounce ideas off each other, pick up on rhythms or motives, especially repeated figures and cross rhythms? And are you contributing to and responding to dynamic shading?


  • LOOK as well as listen. Visual communication can enhance the direction of the music. Give and accept visual cues.


  • MEMORISE the music so you can watch the other musicians (and the audience)


  • HARMONIC VARIATION: Listen out for alterations and substitutions to the chords and try and go with them


TALK to the musicians you are playing with about what you are all doing – you can’t get right inside the heads of the other musicians (and they in yours) by guesswork and intuition alone. It is much better to ask questions about what you play and the way you play if you want to improve your own playing as well as the collective sound.


The use of iReal Pro in particular has enabled musicians to all have the exact same version of a chord sequence so that at a jam session for instance, everyone is reading form the same “hymn sheet” so to speak. This is OK except that there are many songs where there are various ways that they can be harmonised. Although the iReal Pro has some subs they are by no means exhaustive. So what is happening is a sort of streamlining of jazz harmony into a narrow uniformity of chord progressions and this tends to detract from one of the great achievements of jazz music historically i.e. the exploration of new harmonic possibilities on standard songs. For example, one of the great milestones in harmonic substitution in jazz was Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 recording of Body and Soul where he repeatedly implies a tritone substitution  of V7 by  bII 7 in bar 2 of the A section. Other players substitute further with a m7-dom7 (bVIm7- bII7) at the same place. Neither of these is given in iReal Pro and this is just one example.


So when you play with others and you are following a chart (music sheet) or chord sequence or music on an app, make sure you are still listening for where other players may imply a variation on what is written. Admittedly this is an advanced scenario and requires advanced listening skills but it is an important part of what jazz improvisation is all about:  listening and interaction.


Terry Seabrook

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