There is a common trap that many guitarists, including myself, fall into as they advance in their musical development and learn to play jazz guitar.
The more techniques, scales, chords, riffs, arpeggios, concepts etc we learn, the more we try to cram these ideas into our solos, every solo. We run from one idea to the next, barely giving ourselves time to digest what we are playing, let alone our band mates and audience.
Sure, playing long lines with lots of subs and chromatic notes is fun for us as a guitarist, but is it really the best way to connect with an audience and develop our musicianship in the long run?
This week I’m teaching a workshop titled “History and Analysis of Kind of Blue: The Story and Music of Jazz’s Most Iconic Album.”
It’s a fun course. We spend the first hour each night, it’s a five-night workshop, talking about the history of the album, analyzing the different melodies, changes and solos, before diving in and learning to play each tune with different harmonic and melodic approaches in the second half of each class.
Last night we started off studying “So What,” analyzing each solo and then trying to improvise in the style of each player, Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball and Bill Evans.
During our time spent imitating Miles, the students had a group revelation about two of the most important tools in any improvisors bag, context and contrast.
Miles was a master of these two ideas. He could take the simplest idea, his Root-Fourth-Fifth motive at the start of his solo on “So What” for example, and build an amazing solo from a very simple starting point.
We observed this as a class in the opening bars of this solo, where Miles focuses on three “boring” notes, the Root, 4th and 5th of Dm7, before he hits us with what is normally a fairly conventional 6th and 7th (B and C) over that same Dm7 chord. But, because we haven’t heard those notes before, and Miles has firmly grounded us in that Root, 4th, 5th sound, these two simple notes have an enormous impact on the listener.
This is the power of context and contrast.
Have a question or comment about this lesson? Visit the Miles Contrasting Solo Ideas thread in the MWG Forum.
I then asked the students to each blow a chorus of “So What,” using only the Root, 4th and 5th for an extended period of time.
When they felt ready they could add one note to their lines, then one more and so on, until they were using a handful of notes in their solo. As each student played, I noticed how much better they sounded right away. It was night and day.
The “simple” solos forced them to be more creative with rhythm, motivic ideas, dynamics, emotions, diversity of range, all the ideas that they were ignoring when they were focusing on running long lines and having more complexity in their note choices.
When it came to my chorus, I stuck to those three notes right up until the very last four bars. Then, I just ran down a two and a half octave D Dorian Scale with a few rhythmic twists, the students were stunned.
They all asked me, “What the hell was that? That line was so cool!”
When I told them it was just a plain old Dorian Scale, they were shocked.
They thought for sure I had played all sorts of outside notes, or used an exotic scale, but I didn’t. I created this high-level of interest not with a complex melodic idea, but by playing something simple that seemed complex in contrast to what I had already played up to that point, the context of my solo.
This is a lesson that I try and impart on my students, and in my own practicing and playing, 99.9% of the time, simpler is better.
If we are trying to run long, complex lines, we don’t give ourselves time to think. Time to develop an idea that we as a musician and our audience can grab a hold of and follow. But, most of the time it isn’t easy to hold back and not play everything we know in the course of one solo.
There is this unwarranted pressure that all jazz guitarists have, that tells us to play faster, more notes and more complex changes. As someone who has studied jazz for almost two decades, I can do this. I can run fast changes and play double-time on my double-time when I want.
But, as I told my students last night, every gig I play where I hold back, where I allow myself space to breath and focus on simple motives that are full of rhythmic interest, emotion and dynamics, are the best gigs I ever play.
This is a lesson that I’ve learned from Miles over the years, but that I have to keep reminding myself about because of the pressure that I put on myself to play faster, more complex ideas.
So, how do we practice using Miles’ approach to context and contrast in our improvisation?
Here is some of the ways that I like to “handcuff” myself so that I am forced to play less notes and focus more on rhythm, dynamics, emotion and other musical concepts.
After doing any/all of these ideas in your playing, start to open things up a bit. Expand to the next half octave, then full octave. Add another string or finger to the mix. Use these new approaches to build intensity in your solos by contrasting them to the simpler ideas that you have already played.
You might be surprised how well this works and how intense a 7th can sound if you’ve been playing only triads for several choruses.
These are also all great ways to slow you down, forcing yourself to focus on more motivic playing, as opposed to line playing.
Miles turned the world on its head when he released “Kind of Blue.” At a time when Hardbop was King. When players were playing fast tunes with tons of changes and running complex subs over them, Miles took a step back.
Rather than try to compete with these players, he went in the exact opposite direction and invented Modal Jazz. The result was not only a new genre, but the best-selling jazz album of all time.
As jazz guitarists, we love to play long, complex lines, we really do. But, if we take a page from the Miles’ playbook once in a while, we might find that less is more, and that a simple 6th or 7th can have a big effect on our audience if we place it in the right context, in contrast to a much simpler idea we have already played.
Do you have a favorite Miles technique or way of adding space and contrast to your solos? Share it in the comment section below.
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