Don’t read this until you’ve looked through part 1.
In Part 1, I used a piano lesson as an example of discovering the deeper cause of some aspect of your playing you don’t like. Once you find that deeper cause, strip away other aspects of your playing so that you can work exclusively on that deeper cause.
If that’s confusing, I’ve created another example. Part one talked about simplifying piano improvisation by simplifying and focusing on single elements instead of the whole complicated playing process. In this part, I’ll use a classic solo from J.J. Johnson (a legendary trombone player) and demonstrate the simplification process to help learn this difficult solo quicker (and build your chops in the process).
The J.J. Johnson solo I’ll use is from the tune “Old Devil Moon” from his album, The Eminent J.J. Johnson. I think it’s an example of a classic solo that jazz trombone players should all play. To think that J.J. improvised this blows my mind.
The goal is for me to play the solo at the speed on the recording:
Most players would slow it down and play through it a bunch of times, gradually increasing the speed until they can play it at tempo. That process is tried and true, but I think there’s a better way.
There are so many activities demanded of us when playing jazz on any instrument. Fingers, arms, feet, lungs, facial muscles, tongue, etc. What would happen if you stripped away a bunch of those things in order to concentrate on just one or two at a time? I think you’ll pay better quicker but I also think that you’ll strengthen certain aspects of your playing for everything else.
How often do you work on just one aspect of your playing like breathing, tonguing, or fingers? Let me show you what I’m talking about using the J.J. Solo.
Some steps toward playing the solo well
I want to first make sure I can play the notes of the solo. There are a lot of them. I’ll play them without a tempo just to get the notes and pitch in my ear. Again, just the first few phrases.
Next, let’s see how close to the original tempo I can play it right off the bat. Let’s say I start to stumble around 150 compared to the original tempo of 184bpm. So I have a way to go until I’m at J.J.’s tempo.
I want to do something beside gradually turning up the tempo.
Let’s start at the beginning. I want to write out the solo, but if you don’t yet have those notation skills, at least listen to the tune and discover the form. You’ve got to know the roadmap of the tune. You should also be able to play the melody by ear.
The form of this tune, “Old Devil Moon”, is a 48 bar what I would call A-A alt. The first 16 bars of each 24-bar section is identical. It’s an interesting tune, which is part of why I like playing J.J.’s solo.
Next, I want to make sure I know the solo so I’ll listen to it a few times and start to sing parts of it. For singing, the pitch of the notes don’t matter as much as the rhythms and phrasing. Don’t resist singing as a way to develop your ear for the music you are learning. You don’t have to be a scat singer. Leave finding the pitch of the notes to the trombone. Singing the solo with the recording is a great first step. And I’ll spare you a recording of my singing!
Next I’ll play the solo on my instrument. Say the fastest I can play it well is 150bpm. What is getting in the way of playing it closer to the original tempo? Maybe my tongue.
So I’ll set aside the trombone for a moment. I’ll tongue the articulations of the solo by just tonguing the air. I should be able to tongue it faster than I can play it, after all I got rid of the friction of the trombone.
I’ll record myself tonguing the phrases like this:
I know that sounded weird, but wind players can tell a lot about the mechanics of their playing by listening to their tongue when it’s not covered up by sound. How fast can you accurately tongue a difficult passage without your instrument? By doing this, you’re putting one important aspect of your mechanics under the microscope, so to speak.
Record this and listen back for any places you stumbled. Slow down and tongue those harder phrases to strengthen them. Listen for more than just note accuracy. Listen also to your swing feel, and refer back to my recent post on developing a better swing feel. Do you hear swing in the emphasis?
Try recording this tonguing exercise the more challenging music you are working on and see if your accuracy improves on the musical lines. This should improving your overall agility and feel on your horn in the process!
If I’m still struggling, there may be other impediments such as my breathing. Am I breathing in the best places in order to carry the phrases?
Let me give you another weird exercise. Play the recording of J.J.’s solo and without playing or even scatting, just take quick deep breaths between the phases. This is will reinforce your habit of taking in plenty of air. Yes, playing an instrument is very complicated. Lots to think about and coordinate. Lots of spinning plates in the air!
After all that, I’ll record myself playing these first few phrases at the final tempo of 184:
Let me leave you with a video I created on this very topic for my course, Improvisation Savvy. I call it, “Finding the root cause of a problem.”