Asymmetry And Improvisation

May 20, 2021

I planned to study classical guitar, harmony and counterpoint in college, but wound up, by my junior year, in the jazz department, taking classes in "Materials And Principles Of Jazz Improvisation" from tenor saxophonist Bill Barron. Bill Barron is the only person I've ever heard refer to John Coltrane as "John," because they ran around Philadelphia together as young musicians, presumably chatting most of the time about their favorite exercises from the Nicholas Slonimsky Thesaurus Of Scales. He's also the only individual I've ever seen refer to coffee as "java" with less than one hundred percent irony and make it work. The man had gravitas, no question.

Bill got his doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts, writing his dissertation on embellishments and their applications to jazz improvisation, and his ideas on the subject were central to his curriculum. When we weren't applying four-note patterns to complex tunes like "Confirmation" or "Countdown," we were learning to add neighbor tones, escape tones and appogiaturas to Mixolydian and Dorian arpeggios. It was fearsome stuff, but the goal was obvious: know how to get around your instrument. "Nothing's gonna come out of your horn on the bandstand," Bill would remind us, "that you haven't practiced at home." Passing lightly over the fact that the only bandstands I was appearing on at the time were the cumin-scented living rooms of off-campus houses masquerading as coffeehouse venues, his point was well-taken: there's nothing about simply being at the gig that's going to make you play above the level you've worked your way up to before you got there.

So we worked on our chops, on "knowing our horns" (whether designed by Adolphe Sax or Leo Fender), with an emphasis on being able to play anything we worked on in any key. What made all this feel so alien to the guitar players in class was the premise itself: that the purpose of practicing improvisation is to triumph over the asymmetry of one's instrument. Most of us had some kind of background in blues or blues-rock guitar playing, which is often constructed from relatively intuitive tools, scales and fingerings offering the clearest path from purpose to result. That's not to say those results are either simple or easy to learn, a fact some jazz musicians are not quick to appreciate. The point is more that the language of blues tends to feel more intuitive to most guitarists than the syntax of jazz, because most blues guitar idioms embrace, even exploit, the asymmetries of the instrument, rather than attempting to transcend them.

A saxophone or a trumpet is every bit as asymmetrical as a guitar or a piano; flat keys like Bb and F lie more "naturally" on the instrument than sharp keys like E or B. But musicians like Bill Barron, coming of age in the the bebop era, needed to be able to travel through any key center, at any given moment, at whatever frightening tempo was happening on the, well, bandstand, with equal facility, quality of tone and imagination. It's not that blues is about "feeling" and bebop is a "thinking" music – that all that jazz algebra gets in the way of saying anything with emotional value. But the jazz repertoire tends to cover more harmonic ground than the blues, so most jazz musicians on any instrument are generally trying to develop their technique to the point where they can play and improvise on that repertoire as intuitively as blues guitarists improvise on a shuffle in A – so that issues of this key or that voicing present no more of an obstacle to expression than a one-chord vamp might to John Lee Hooker.

While I never achieved that kind of jazz fluency myself, I did appreciate, even at the time, the kind of rigor Bill Barron was attempting to instill in us as improvisors. Any thoughts I might currently have about improvisation being a practice and a discipline, not merely the luck of the draw, have their origins in his classroom, and it's a testament to his teaching that I've found ways to apply that rigor to everything from bluegrass dobro to jump blues to fingerstyle guitar. These weekly letters often end with some kind of wrenching pivot that only qualifies as a segue in the most remote sense of the word, but I can safely say that the disciplined pursuit of improvisational technique figures significantly in both things on offer this week. Today's new Youtube lesson is on applying jazz voicings and chord substitutions to the twelve-bar blues; you can find it at the link below:

Jazz Blues Chord Voicings