Recipes For Soloing Over Jazz Standards is the title of my newest publication. This book is a unique, challenging, and fun way to learn how to improvise over the chord progressions. In Volume 1, I have selected ten well-known standard songs selected from the Great American Songbook. Recipes is a harmonic approach to improvisation but different from traditional pedagogies typically used in academia. It’s about harmonic analysis and solo development strategies with a more contemporary, stress-less approach that doesn’t necessarily require previous musical training or reading skills. In fact, all the exercises in Recipes can be learned entirely by ear! Additionally, vocalists interested in improving their reading skills and knowledge about chords and scales will find this book a very palatable introduction to the world of visual notation and a few “nuts & bolts” about theory and harmony. Recipes is a culmination of 3 decades of teaching musicians how to improvise and I consider it my best and most comprehensive work to date.
I began teaching scat singing in 1983 at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It quickly became apparent to me that rhythm was the singer’s Achilles’ Heel.
Easy fix! I had a full repertoire of rhythmic figures to share from many years of experience as a professional studio and live drummer. Since I was teaching a multicultural pool of students from all over the world, the popular question from vocal improvisers at that time was, “What syllables should I use?” To answer this, I decided to convert standard exercises from various percussion books to scat phrases, fully loaded with my own syllable applications and stylistic accents. Eventually I began to publish books that offered my students a potpourri of rhythmic patterns to practice and they certainly prospered! But another relevant and more challenging inquiry persisted: “When I improvise, how do I choose the right notes?”
While the answer to this lies within a myriad of available music books on jazz theory and harmony, most methodologies, in my opinion, remain very labor-intensive. I prefer teaching these concepts in a musical context with audio support. Many musicians learn more easily by listening and with current technology, rote teaching is becoming easier and more acceptable, even at the university level. Recipes is a user-friendly learning tool for musicians that have technical training, intuition or both.
There is another important reason why learning-by-ear is more effective, even preferable, especially for singers. The rote approach has prevailed for many reasons but mostly because vocalists are not forced to deal with the arduous task of learning how to produce music externally via metal, plastic or cane mouthpieces. They don’t need to train their fingers to execute notes and chords in 12 different keys, articulate music by dragging horsehairs across cat-gut strings (what a concept!) or beat drums with rhythmic precision by flailing synthetic strikers with their extremities. The world of embouchures, keys, valves, sticks, mallets, brushes, bows & frets is quite different from the physical immediacy of the human voice.
The voice as a musical instrument is a unique, more corporeal and mostly intuitive experience. Everyone is born with an inherent vocal tone quality and timbre. Since vocal cords do not come with any external controllers, producing tone and executing rudimentary scales, arpeggios, playing intervals and chords, etc. is an internal process requiring much less associative muscle-memory trigger-training (say that 5 times real fast!) But for all musicians, learning how to improvise requires both a seasoned “ear” and a diverse palette of pedagogical musicianship skills that requires hours of dedicated training and practice. Vocalists who study with me know this and come to my workshops wide-eyed & bushy-tailed, wanting to learn the “nuts & bolts” of what many of them can already do intuitively.
Because most of my students are more computer literate than me, I decided to use the recording studio format as a convenient learning platform. Having control over individual tracks and being able to alter tempos and pulse feels allow each student to learn at his/her own pace. Each song is presented with a 7-stave score that delineates important melodic lines, or “ingredients,” that represent the harmonic structure of the song in several important and interesting ways.
Roots of chords, for example, are important to hear as primary reference tones when improvising music. Carefully constructed bass lines connect the fundamental pitches (or bottom of each chord) sequentially using notes derived from related scales. The bass line is the foundation of any harmonic chord progression. So, we begin by learning what the root of each chord sounds like and then how to connect them harmonically with a vocal bass line weave.
Above the bass line, within each chord structure, there are important pitches that give each chord a unique color. The 3rd of a chord, for example, will indicate whether it is major or minor and both of these harmonic colors have distinctive vibrations when played simultaneously with the root and/or other relative chord tones. When we add a 7th above the root, we get an additional color that distinguishes one chord type from another in a different way. Played sequentially, the roots and primary color tones (aka “guide tones”) provide the “meat and potatoes” of each chord. In fact, you can improvise solos using only these three reference pitches throughout an entire song.
Jazz harmony offers additional spices that can contribute more flavors to an improvised solo. There are certain notes available above the root, third and seventh, for example, that give chords even more zest! Commonly called “tensions” or “extensions,” these colorful pitches can sound absolutely magical! When I began writing Recipes, I decided to create melodies using almost exclusively chord tensions as an experiment. I quickly discovered that a carefully constructed sequence of these color tones produces an independent solo-like line, so I added one to each song for the purpose of studying harmonic hues as melodies.
As I remember, the most labor-intensive portion of my former daily practice regimen on trumpet & flute included the execution of numerous scales and arpeggios. On drums it was endless hours of articulating rudimentary rhythm patterns including rolls, paradiddles, flams and things called “ratamacues.” Pretty tedious stuff! But for melodic instruments like the voice, scales and arpeggios are essential learning tools for both developing technique and building a vocabulary of phrases that will successfully navigate harmonic chord progressions.
The fundamental structures of scales and arpeggios were intended to be calisthenic round-trip note sequences traditionally practiced by starting from and returning to the same pitch via steps or intervallic leaps. Instead of adopting this conservative and rather tedious practice regimen, however, I decided to write less rigid, more flowing lines that remain equally solvent with the song’s harmony. In Recipes, all the scale, arpeggio and extension solo lines can be practiced as independent etudes by simply muting the other tracks.
Etudes are short compositions that integrate a variety of technical skills but in a musically aesthetic way. As a student, I learned a lot about melodic phrasing by practicing hundreds of etudes written for all the instruments I enjoyed playing. The scales and arpeggios in Recipes are disguised as etudes to make them more enjoyable to learn and to introduce the concept of line contour (ascending and descending sequences). I chose not to identify each but rather organize them in aesthetic musical sequences without attaching any labels.
Last but not least, the phrase solos in Recipes demonstrate a cohesive application of roots, color tones, extensions and scale/ arpeggio approaches in a prescribed solo, brimming with musical punctuation I like to call “phraseology.” These solos can be learned entirely by ear and those who are interested can review a comprehensive analysis of the compositional devices I used to create them, including line contour, phrase modulation, echo-motifs, rhythmic displacement, anticipations, theme quotation, contrary motion, and lots of other cool stuff like cliché lines, modes and upper structure triads. But these “nuts & bolts” are purely optional!
There’s a lot of pith in Recipes and musicians can dig in as far as they want to or simply listen to the tracks repeatedly, or both! I included a practice regimen for each song dedicated to those who want to hone particular musicianship skills but need some organizational guidance.
I would like to close by saying how much I enjoyed writing Recipes and hope my students and adjunct readers appreciate this treatise and benefit from the tidbits of musical wisdom I have duly imparted from within.