Coffee and Fireworks

May 07, 2020
I used to play with this drummer and songwriter named Dave Bush in New York, and to keep things clear, our mutual musician friends referred to us as Dave H. and Dave B. Over time, this became shortened to our respective last initials, which saved time when taking care of something essential, like phoning with breakfast plans: "H! New Purity Diner in twenty minutes – are you in?" One day at B's place in Fort Green, we were talking about songwriting, and he said "I used to get up, and I'd make some coffee, and I'd sit down here at my desk, with my guitar, and a notebook, and I'd light a cigarette, and I'd think, 'yeah, now I'm writing!' And then one day I realized, ' you're smoking.'"

Sometimes I sit down to write one of these letters, and I make an espresso, and put on some music, and open a new document, and think, "now I'm writing!" And then I realize..." I'm listening..." Which probably explains why so many weekly messages devolve into appreciations of whatever I've been into lately. This week it was was going to be Henry "Red" Allen, whose early recordings were supposedly made in response to Louis Armstrong's successful Hot Five and Hot Seven records. But as I got started I realized I hadn't absorbed nearly enough Armstrong yet to put something like that in the proper context. Meanwhile, I had also been reading in Martin Williams' book Jazz In Its Time about a Milt Jackson and Miles Davis album made with one of my favorite musicians, pianist Ray Bryant. In particular, this record includes Bryant's tune "Changes," also known as "Blues Changes" and not to be confused with the David Bowie song of the same name (not that you were going to do so). "Changes" isn't a tune per se, in the sense that it has no composed melody. But it is a particularly clever and beautiful set of chord substitutions on the blues, and I'm a sucker for both Milt Jackson's vibes and, like everyone else with a pulse, mid-fifties Introspective Miles.

As Martin Williams points out, Bryant's chords give the musicians room to simultaneously blow on the blues and to access a kind of emotional tone more typically associated with 32-bar ballads. Which is yet another example of how amazingly flexible the blues form is. The idea that you can actually improvise with the depth, color and complexity of the progression itself seems like a kind of magic trick to me. Adding and substituting chords can make things more ornate, colorful and elliptical; stripping them away can bring things back to the grittiest basics. Fold in the notion that your improvisation can go through similar shifts simply by paying attention to and reflecting those underlying changes, and that simplest and most familiar of progressions suddenly explodes into a four-dimensional Catherine wheel of creativity, firing off sparks of possibility in all directions.

But maybe that's just the caffeine talking. In other news, my latest six-part Youtube series wraps up this week with a lesson on improvising with target notes. "Targeting notes" is the idea that you can bring some of the effectiveness of "playing the changes" to your playing, even when sticking to the major and minor pentatonic scales, just by paying attention to what notes you land on and how they relate to the underlying chords. You can check it out here:

Improvising With Target Notes

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