When intonation becomes a deliberate color

I have one last but very important thought to add about intonation that I think rounds out this series on pitch.

Don’y come away from the prior two posts on intonation thinking that intonation is only about aiming for perfectly accurate mathematically calculated frequencies. That’s no more true than great musical time comes from hitting the metronome clicks perfectly.

But you do have to crawl before you can sprint, so my order of posts on pitch are deliberate. First, hear the pitch, then realize that good intonation is contextual not machine-accurate, now throw away rigid rules and express yourself using the freedom of intonation as you only hear it.

I could write thousands of words on this single topic, but I think the best way to communicate about the emotional power of intonation and pitch is to give you some musical examples. 

As you listen to these, consider how pitch is a lump of clay to be formed into anything you wish for deeply expressing your thoughts and emotions. In this more advanced concept of playing your instrument, you can hear your intonation and pitch so clearly that you can now start to play with it and transform pitch into an aspect of your musical personality. 

Notes no longer are absolutes of “correct” frequencies like rigid stair steps up and down musical lines. Pitch becomes the smooth flexible elevator up or down that serves your musical voice in a way that cannot be played by locking into each tonal stair step. 

Let me play you examples. I’ve selected 13 audio tracks from artists whose styles exemplify the use of pitch to tell their personal story. This is by no means an exhaustive collection of such artists, just a small sampling of some of my favorite masters to get you listening and thinking.

As I collected these tracks/artists, I realized (and it made sense) that I was choosing artists and musical pieces that have made the greatest impact on my personal style and perspective of pitch. For example, my two weeks performing with Nancy Wilson back in the day was one of the greatest periods of my early musical education. So let’s start with two tracks from Nancy. 

1. Nancy Wilson – Singers have the greatest flexibility in how they play with pitch since they’re not limited by the machinery of instruments. But Nancy exemplifies to me such a mastery of freedom with pitch. It was her style and musical identity. To Nancy, the words of the tune aren’t notes, they’re stories in themselves.

2. Lester Bowie – As the trumpet voice within the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester was one of the great unbridled voices in modern brass. Listen to the freedom with which he expresses himself with pitch along with his great sense of humor. Nobody ever did or will sound like Lester!

3. Jimi Hendrix – Hopefully, you listen to more than jazz. If not, you’re missing a lot of great music like this track from Hendrix. Something tells me Jimi didn’t waste time in front of a tuning strobe. His vocal and guitar pitch was free to express only what he could. this is a case of the instrument being one with the musical mind.

4. Dexter Gordon – Let’s move to tenor sax. Dexter is as free with pitch as he is with time. He is such a great example of the freedom jazz provides, and this case with the colors that pitch give us. You can hear that it’s Dexter just by hearing him hold a note. It’s a wave of pitch that sounds like nobody else.

5. Dave Liebman – Lieb is also a model for musical personality being colored by the use of intonation/pitch. Listen to his introduction in the tune called Colors off one of my all-time favorite albums, Home by Steve Swallow. There’s such a strong personality to the kind of dripping, lilting pitch of Lieb’s notes. Listen also to Steve Kuhn’s piano solo that ends the tune. It sounds to me like Steve is trying to wrestle pitch to the ground from within that piano!

There’s a second track featuring Lieb, this time from his group Quest with Richie Beirach. Lieb plays the melody taking unusual liberties with pitch and time over the head, and feeding off Richie for some wonderful harmonic excursions throughout.

6. Clark Terry – More traditional that Dave Liebman or Lester Bowie, Clark had such great technical facility that pitch was also just another color expressed within his great technical facility. While we’re at it, consider this an iconic example of swing. Unfortunately due to Spotify licensing, this track may not be playable for those of you outside the US. Sorry, it’s too good not to include.

7. Miles Davis – No, of course I can’t forget Miles. Every single note Miles played was a deliberate crafting of an emotion or thought from pitch. In this classic track, Miles is singing in such a unforgettable way.

8. Jan Garbarek – Another of my musical influences. Jan never sounds to me like he’s playing sax, certainly not in the traditional manner. He is singing. Listen to how perfectly crafted, yet fluid his pitch is. Also check out other great playing with long-time collaborator, Kieth Jarrett.

9. Michael and Randy Brecker – Here’s a two for one. This is a classic funky track from the Brecker Brothers showing off chops and great use of pitch from both Randy and Michael.

10. Rickie Lee Jones – I started off with a singer, now let’s end with one. I absolutely love Rickie’s relationship between pitch and emotion. In my younger days, I spent a hours playing trombone along with Rickie’s voice on various tracks trying to perfectly emulate her vocal pitch inflections.

#11. Paul Bley – Here’s a bonus track illustrating pitch flexibility from an unlikely instrument – a piano. In many ways, Paul Bley had the great skill and vision to make the piano (inside and outside) sound like a horn. It almost sounds as if he’s playing with pitch much like Steve Kuhn above. To learn more about Bley, check out the book by Richie Beirach and me, The Lineage of Modern Jazz Piano.

4 thoughts on “When intonation becomes a deliberate color”

  1. Mike, great post!! Totally on the money a very rarely spoken about element of intonation mastery. In other words, being in tune IS JUST THE BEGINNING. THE EXPRESSIVE USE OF INTONATION is at the heart of what you are saying, and you say it very WELL!! I like most of your choices as musical examples. I can think of many more but these are the ones that spoke to YOU so I will leave it at that. To me, the most telling two examples are Nancy Wilson and, of course, Miles

    Please keep them coming.

  2. I only have a vague sense of when most of these artists are ‘in tune’ or not. Do you think it is necessary for most people to do some ‘in tune’ training first in order to hear and be able to intentionally replicate these freer artistic uses of pitch?

  3. Mike, all I have to say is this mind blowing. It debunks everything we have been taught about intonation-using tuning apps, tuners, etc. This will take some time to digest and implement. I like the analogy of pitch being a lump of clay. It creates a different approach to listening/performing.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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