Last weekend I attended a Jazz combo workshop with two of my favorite players, pianist Randy Porter and drummer Alan Jones. The class consisted of two sets of rhythm section players and me. I've played many gigs with these two guys over the years and have always wanted to get a better idea about what they're thinking about when they play. Both these guys are true masters of their instruments and they both are able to weave in and out of the rhythmic structure in a way that is smooth yet complex. Randy has an incredible ability to create new harmony that doesn't interfere with the soloist or the spirit of the tune. When we play duo gigs together I always want to stop him say,"What was that right there?!" This was my chance to do just that.
They talked about their ideas of rhythmic feel and harmony and had us play as we thought about different ideas. As I soloed Randy comped for me and really started to take it out there with different time feels. He asked me to try to lock up with him in the different time feels that he was superimposing. Usually when we play together and he starts to take it out there like that I tend to emphasize the original time feel over what he's doing, otherwise I usually get turned around rhythmically. I was a little easier following him out into the rhythmic wilderness with Alan Jones locking the time down with his relentless swing. It also helped that we weren't on the bandstand. We also focused on creating extended harmonies while soloing. I had a tendency to play and think modally as I navigated harmonically. I think this is natural for post-Trane saxophonists. Randy asked me to think chordally (like Bird) rather than modally (like Trane). He asked me think about the exact individual chords that I was superimposing. When I tried playing this way everything seemed to open up. Even if the chord structures I was using were far from the changes of the tune it much easier to fit them over what was happening. Using scales to move outside created a much denser dissonant sound than thinking chordally. I found that I could get away with some pretty outside chords have them sound acceptable because they had a more distinct yet less dense structure than their scale modes did. It was a revelation.
One exercise that Randy had us do made us think about playing lyrically. Everyone has a tendency to play too many notes and that it clutters our playing and makes us less lyrical. He brought out a story that his kids had written and told us that since lyrically really meant 'with lyrics' we would play as if we were playing lyrics. He had us play over the tune Confirmation at a fairly fast tempo. The idea was to play a solos while we were reading the story, every note we played was to be a syllable in the story and every phrase was a sentence. We were suppose to create solos that made sense while playing every word of the story. Of course Randy was the only one who could do this for more than a couple of words.
It was an entirely different mode of thinking and it has the effect of making you play very simple and concise musical statements. The melodies that we were forced to create were just complex enough to tell the story. Not an unnecessary syllable/note. We all realized just how much we tended to overplay. It made me think of the old adage that first twenty years is spent learning to play notes and the next twenty years is spent trying to play less of them. Being lyrical cannot be done with too many notes, that is a hard fact. Try to make every single note really count and eliminate every unnecessary notes. To do this we need a radical exercise like Randy's because we are so conditioned to playing too much. Especially when we don't really know what to play. We tend to play more notes when we get a unsure.
Randy and Alan had a few more tricks up their sleeves and had us do some pretty interesting exercises with odd time signatures. I won't reveal any more of their methods for now, you'll have to study with them or listen to them yourself. Randy presents these combo workshops every couple of months and they cost $80 for a four hour session (well worth the price). Alan is also a great bass teacher. If you are lucky enough to study with these guys then you'll have to settle for listening to their music. I'm going to keep up my private studies with Randy.