I've been slacking off on my Blog for the past week. My arms and hands were starting to bother me from Blogging too much. I've also been formulating a new trajectory for this blog. It is easier to write about the more concrete components of music than the abstract elements. People tend to write more about the 'rules' of theory than about breaking out of the box. I'm going to focus more on the intangible elements of playing jazz.
If you learn all the 'rules' and study what you're told to study, you will end up sounding like someone else. The thing to do is start developing a personal way of playing from the start. This is true innovation. You don't need to develop a new system of reharmonizing two-fives or break out free of time signatures to be an innovator.
When I was young, my drean was to become the next major innovator. I wanted my contributions to reorganize the world of Jazz. My name would be spoken along with Bird, Trane, and Ornette. I wanted to be recognized by musicians hundreds of years from now as a pivotal figure. It's amusing for me to look back on that young aspiring Jazz musician. I still do want to innovate, but that has a different meaning to me now.
Innovation is playing music in a unique way. It's having your own individual voice. You can incorporate elements from other musicians and still be innovative. I think you're an innovator when listeners can tell it's you after hearing just a few notes.
There are many young players today coming out of music institutions with high levels of musicianship and technique. They rarely come out as unique stylists. They usually sound like several of the Jazz greats. Their influences can even be counted on one hand. Sometimes a style can even be traced to a single record by a favorite musician (I heard a tenor player once who had based his entire style on Brecker's 'Cityscapes' album). One of the reasons this happens is that students are encouraged to transcribe and learn licks. This is positively reinforced when they are praised for sounding like Trane, Benson, or Brecker. Audiences usually respond well to this type of playing because it's already familiar to them. Some people say that lick playing is just crowd pleasing and some think that it's respecting our rich Jazz heritage.
American audiences, in general, are focused on the final result rather than the creative process. To me, the creative process is much more important. I would rather listen to sloppy exploration that contains a few gems than to a clean, but derivative, performance. I can accept a fair amount scuffling and kacking if I think the player is trying to go somewhere new. Unfortunately the masses aren't really conditioned to accept this type of musician.
The new crop of younger Jazz players are clean to a fault. They don't usually push for the impossible and they remain content with the possible.
When I was younger I often played out of Joe Pass's Guitar Styles book. Joe's lines were woven through the changes like a fine oriental silk rug. This book got me thinking about longer lines, but I didn't want to play the exact same lines as Joe. My solution was to take a pencil and write crazy alterations right in the book. The original lines were straight-ahead vanilla bop lines. By the time I was done with them no one would ever suspect they came from Joe Pass.
Don't be afraid to learn from musicians who play different instruments than you. This will broaden your style and your sources will be harder to trace. Keep your influences broad. Don't focus too much on any one player.
One of the topics I have written about in this blog is chord/scale theory. This is about finding the correct scale to fit any given chord. If you take this theory as fact you will find yourself limited to a linear and 'un-chunky' way of playing. You will end up sounding clean, but not very personal. One of the 'theories' that we accept in school is that scales can all be defined in one octave and that every octave is the same as every other octave. Music theory is taught this way because it's convenient and simple. In actuality, scales don't have to be limited to one octave at all. They may have a range of five octaves or just a tritone. A flat nine sounds very different when played in another octave and an A=440 is not really an A=880 at all. It's just the note that sounds the most similar out of all the other notes. It has a completely different personality and resonant quality.
Jazz improvisation theory needs to be adjusted for the range of the individual instruments. A baritone saxophone playing upper extensions over chord changes will be dealing with a totally different harmonic environment than a piccolo. Consider the fact that an altered dominant scale may be played differently in different octaves. You might want to try using a Lydian dominant scale in a lower octave and a altered dominant in a higher octave. It also depends on the range of the comping instrument.
Slonimky's book deals with symmetrical scales. The first of these is a tri-tone scale (C-F#-C2-F#2-ect). Eventually he gets into symmetrical scales that span several octaves. The symmetrical scale of 2:3 is a two octave scale that is divided equally into three parts, by minor sixths (C-Ab-E-C2). This is related to the 1:3 scale (c-E-Ab-C2) but it is also very different. Try writing some of your own scales that are not limited to just one octave. Try composing some of your own licks. Playing your own licks is always better than playing someone else's.
The chord/scale approach has a tendency to lock you into playing only the scale notes over a chord. The scale should only be thought of as consonant notes. All twelve notes should be available to you over any given chord. The non-scale notes each have their own 'tonal-gravity'.
They only sound wrong if you don't know where they want to resolve to and you don't deal with them correctly. It's a good exercise to sit down at a piano and play chords while experimenting with every note over each chord. Listen to where each 'avoid' note wants to resolve. Try things like a major third over a minor seventh, a natural 11th over an altered dominant chord, a natural fifth over a half-diminished chord. Be thorough about this process and take notes as you go. Once you realize that you can play anything over anything you will be able to relax a little. You won't be so worried about playing wrong notes because you will have the skills to adapt to any possibility.
Remember that you make the decision to innovate or emulate every single time you sit down to practice.