Review of George Garzone's Triadic Chromatic Approach DVD

In the world of Jazz education there are few teachers who have been as influential as George Garzone over the past few decades. He is the quintessential musician’s musician. Most serious players are aware of his playing; yet few outside of Boston, MA know his music. . The list of his students reads like a who’s who of major modern Jazz saxophonists. Just a few of the students he taught when I was studying with him in the 80’s were Donny McCaslin, Josh Redman, Douglas Yates, Kenny Brooks, Chris Speed, Seamus Blake, Mark Turner, Matt Otto, Chris Cheek, and Teadross Avery. Rest assured there will be more major artists emerging from the Garzone School in years to come.

George has been promising an method book for as long as I can remember and some of his signature lines have been circulated by his students, but up 'till now there has been no way to learn his method
without attending an East Coast Jazz conservatory and shelling out $100 an hour to study with him privately.

I had posted a few pages of George’s lines and an explanation of his triadic concept by one of his former students over a year ago and George contacted me to ask me to take down the post. He told me that his book was in the works and that when it was finished I would be one of the first people to get a copy. I was skeptical because he had been working on this fabled book for over a decade. I was surprised and more than a little excited to learn that Jody Espina (also a former student of Garzone) of JodyJazz mouthpieces (which Garzone endorses), had produced a Jazz improvisation instructional two DVD set called The Music of George Garzone & the Triadic Chromatic Approach.

When I studied with George twenty years ago his teaching concept seemed fairly abstract and esoteric. He was known for turning all the lights out during his Avant-Garde ensemble and telling his students to play a tree or play a sweep. It was hard to define his concept and
it seemed there was a certain amount of osmosis involved in his teaching style. George didn’t teach the nuts and bolts of Jazz improvisation. He was more like a Zen master you went to after you had all your fundamentals together and were ready to have your concept expanded. Back then it seemed to me that the way he skated on the jagged edge of the chord changes was something so abstract that it couldn’t be talked about directly. Twenty years of teaching has crystallized George’s concepts to the point that he is able to convey them simply and clearly- in a way that can be widely understood.

George’s deceptively simple yet devastatingly profound triadic chromatic concept can be explained in a just few minutes - although he stresses that the concept takes many years to truly master. He also emphasizes that a player first needs a strong foundation of Jazz harmony and the language of bebop in order to apply this triadic concept effectively- otherwise when you take it out using the concept you’ll have nothing to come back inside with.

Without going into full detail, the idea of the triadic chromatic concept is to take either major, minor, diminished or augmented triads and move them around chromatically and in random inversions. If you don’t repeat the same inversion twice in a row and move chromatically on each successive triad you will be borrowing from the twelve-tone row. Triadic lines created in this way have a strong forward motion and resolve themselves often. George argues that lines created using this concept are even more likely to resolve than lines created using chord-scales. He notes that scales cover and obscure the underlying chords, but that triads played in this particular way allow you to explore all of the different available tonalities.

When watching George demonstrate his concept on the piano, playing a root/fifth drone, I was surprised at how logical and melodic the triadic lines sounded. Structures are created with the CTC that are harmonically ambiguous, but they support the underlying harmony. This concept is much more than, as one of my students recently remarked, just a fancy way of skating over changes. The significant innovation here is the application of the 12-tone system in a way that allows the player to create these lines in a spontaneous and flexible way while improvising over changes. Many players have experimented with incorporating 12-tone lines in jazz improvisation, but all too often the 12-tone lines are taken note for note from sources like Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Probably because 12-tone lines are almost impossible to improvise on the fly.

It is clear that, as George says in the DVD, to fully apply this concept takes many years of practice. It’s quite a simple concept to understand, but in order to pull it off you need to be able to think very, very fast and woodshed it for a while. The thing I wonder about is: did Garzone develop this concept as a rationalization/explanation for the way he naturally hears things, or does he have this concept in mind clearly when he plays his crazy lines? It is hard to imagine someone of George’s caliber thinking so intensely when he’s playing free music with the Fringe.

I must say that this DVD did give me a totally new understanding of why Garzone’s lines sound so unique, and for that alone it is worth the price of the admission ticket.

The other piece the Garzone’s formula is his Random Chromatic Approach, which consists of two basic principles:
  1. The constructed melodic lines MUST stay within an interval of a Major 3rd.
  2. The same intervals CANNOT be repeated consecutively in the same direction within the chosen Major 3rd.
The idea here is avoid repeated patterns, which seems to one of George’s major guiding principles in life and music. George once told me that the finest example of the CTA is his line on Have You Met Miss Jones. When I first heard this line on his Four’s and Two’s CD I was floored. This line moves so unpredictably in the direction it takes as it weaves in and out of the changes that you almost lose track of which way is up and which way is down. The line is pretty dissonant if you take the time to analyze it, but it never seems to stray too far from the changes as to not sound good when played with the standard head.

I think that if you really want to get inside this concept then some time spent with this line would be a good place to start. With George’s permission I have included a link to a PDF chart of this line.

The two DVDs in the set are packed with over three hours of footage, plus 32 pages of supplemental material in PDF format. The first DVD has six performances by the Fringe + saxophonist Frank Tiberi (a major inspiration and influence for Garzone), vibraphonist Mike Manieri, and guitarist Chris Crocco. One of these tracks is of George doing a solo version of "I Want to Talk About You" with a nod to Trane. George’s sound is amazing on these DVDs. As a television and DVD producer myself I really appreciated the production quality of every aspect of this project.

The Jody Jazz mouthpiece George plays is, to my ears at least, more focused, centered and maybe even cleaner sounding than the Otto Links that he used to favor. It’s hard to imagine how a tenor sound could be any better; it's rich, warm, sweet, fat, and complex. I must say that this recording made me want to try a hard rubber Jody Jazz piece. There’s also a duo version of Soul Eyes with Mike Manieri that is stunningly beautiful. George’s sound here is something like a perfect marriage of Getz and Trane.

There are examples on the first DVD of the CTC played on piano, soprano, tenor and guitar, all over a root/fifth pedal. The last two are play along tracks, one in 3/4 and the other in 3 over 4, so the student can practice the concept over a drone. After watching the first DVD the student should have a clear understanding of how to apply the concept and be able to start the process of applying it.

The second DVD in the set starts off with a great exposition by George on sound. After all, George is like the Louis Armstrong of the saxophone and a Garzone DVD wouldn’t be complete without this lesson. George stresses the importance of a loose lower lip and gives an airstream development exercise that Joe Viola (who also taught George) used to have me do. He also talks about focusing the airstream down into the instrument. George plays a 10* tip opening, but I wouldn't recommend such an extreme tip opening to just anyone. He guarantees a hernia within two weeks to anyone who isn’t prepared for such a monster piece.

I hear that George runs ten miles each morning, which has to be a big factor in his ability to get such a massive sound. George goes on to talk about how his sound concept was influenced by his uncles and cousins, who all had the spectacular Garzone family sound. George learned the saxophone in the back of his uncle Rocco’s pizza shop and would come home from his lessons with flour all over his clothes from the flying spinning pizza dough. This chapter is as entertaining as it is educational.

There are twelve play along tracks on the second DVD, some are the usual Aebersold style play-along and some have George trading choruses with you. These tracks are like sitting in with the Fringe (but without the intense stress that comes from the real experience.) No other play-a-long will ever seem satisfying again after a few hours with this multi-media Fringe play along DVD. Here again the production quality shines. The second DVD is rounded out by extended interviews with all the musicians on the project.

The price tag of close to a hundred dollars may seem high compared to other instructional videos,DVDs or books, but when you see just how much great content is here you’ll realize that it really is a bargain. You’d have to spend many hundreds of dollars to obtain this material in private lessons with Garzone (if you could even get accepted to the colleges where he teaches).

George, Jody Espina, and everyone else involved obviously have put a lot of love of hard work into the production of this project. I must say that it was well worth the long wait. This DVD is a must have for any serious student looking to expand their harmonic horizons and I have no doubt that it will be an important and influential piece of work in the years to come.

The Chromatic Triad Approach has been unveiled!

Link to buy The Music of George Garzone & the Chromatic Triad Approach

George Garzone's web page
Video trailer for the DVD
Garzone's line on Have You Met Miss Jones

[Special thanks to Monk's Dream, Carlitos and Chicken Little]


ericdano said...

So, how does this compare to say Walt Weiskopf's "Intervalic Improvisation" book? I mean, two DVDs are nice, but a scant 35 page PDF? That is all?

I was really expecting like a TON of exercises and what not.

I would be interested to hear what exactly is different about Garzone's DVD and approach and Walt's book.

David Carlos Valdez said...

The use of Triad-pairs or Hexatonic scales (which are basically the same thing) has been a recent popular trend in Jazz improvisation. There have been some excellent books written in the last few years (Triad pairs in Jazz- Campbell, Around the Horn- Weiskopf, Hexatonics- Bergonzi) that have helped to popularize this technique with mostly younger players. The lines that are created using this technique have interesting bi-tonal qualities and are sound neither linear nor purely vertical. These hexatonics/triad-pairs are modern sounding and are easy to apply, but they can easily sound repetitive and inorganic. When I hear players (and myself included) using them it sounds contrived.

Garzone’s Chromatic Triadic Concept on the other hand sounds much more organic and harmonically freer than hexatonics/pairs do.

It would seem that the logical next step for progressive thinking improvisers would be to creatively combine these two concepts. The hexatonic sound would be a nice transition point between the chord-scale approach and the CTC, as the CTC is a good transition between inside and totally free playing. Of course any type of harmonic device should be thought of as a color shade or flavoring. Use too much of any one of them and the color/taste palette can easily be overpowered.

The PDF supplement contains examples and instructions on how to use the CTA. The CTA is not a complex method and it doesn't take many pages to fully explain how to to it. This doesn't mean that it's not deep. You can't really compare the value of this DVD set to a book by Weiskopf based on the number of pages and exercises.

As I wrote in the post, this material is not available anywhere else other than from this DVD set and directly from George. In the past only the top saxophone students at the top Jazz schools on the east coast were able to learn about this approach.

This DVD set is a full video performance, several video lessons on the CTA, a lesson on sound, interviews and a freakin FRINGE PLAYALONG! Talk about value added.

The best way to really understand how to apply this seemingly simple concept is to actually play along with Garzone, so you can hear the fully realized expression of it. Just having a book of exercises to play through would not be nearly enough to digest the CTA. The whole idea here is NOT to play exercise and patterns. These DVDs will give you an opportunity to really absorb and apply this concept.

In my opinion the more you practice the exercises in the Weiskopf book the more intellectual, repetitive, and derivative your playing will sound. The sound of two triads a whole step apart gets old after all of two seconds, why write an entire book of exercises on it? (sorry Walt)

If you want to sound like you're playing patterns based on a simple harmonic formula, then practice the Weiskopf book to your heart's content. You'll end up sounding like a bad version of Walt.

On the other hand if you want to introduce a freer, organic and unpredictable element into your playing then you might consider giving Garzone's DVD a try. Trying to compare the sounds of Walt's Triad Pair Approach and Garzone's Chromatic Triadic Approach is like comparing the relative merits of a pickle and a Calico cat. A 12-tone sound is a different universe from a Hexatonic sound.

I should say here that Garzone's music and approach is not for everyone. If you take a listen to his playing and don't find it appealing at all then these DVDs may not be for you.

The Fringe is my all-time favorite band, which makes me a true Fringehead. Not everybody loves the Fringe like I do, but even if you don't you may find these DVDs enlightening and ear expanding.

Look, if you don't really know your fundamentals and don't yet have a grasp on the Bebop language, then you're probably better off working from books by people like Weiskopf, David Baker, or Lennie Niehaus.

When you're ready the Chromatic Triadic Approach will be here waiting for you. :-)

ericdano said...

"Trying to compare the sounds of Walt's Triad Pair Approach and Garzone's Chromatic Triadic Approach is like comparing the relative merits of a pickle and a Calico cat."

Where the heck did you get that? Whoa.......too funny.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Yes, a bit Dada-esque I suppose.

Hexatonics/Triad Pairs would be like Realism compared to the Abstract Expressionism of Garzone's CTA, speaking in terms of painting styles.

ericdano said...

Oh come on, that is the best you can do after the pickle and the cat?

David Carlos Valdez said...

How could I top that one?

MonksDream said...

All I can say is "Book 'em Dano!" and put him in the car, Valdez.

ericdano said...

Seriously. We should come and take away all his reeds or something for not being able to make another witty comparison.

David Carlos Valdez said...

You'd better bring a pickup truck when you come over to haul my reeds away.

I'd have a down payment for a house if I could return all the bad ones I have sitting in boxes over here.

David Carlos Valdez said...

You'd better bring a pickup truck when you come over to haul my reeds away.

I'd have a down payment for a house if I could return all the bad ones I have sitting in boxes over here.

tobias said...

I don't have my bebop chops together (probably never will have) so I won't dare to practice that chromatic triadic stuff. But Garzone is such a monster player and just the performances and the interviews on the DVD a worth the buy!

btw, thanks for your review, it gave me some more stuff to think about.

Greg Sinibaldi said...

Thanks for the review...

You asked: "I wonder about is: did Garzone developed this concept as a rationalization/explanation for the way he naturally hears things, or does he have this concept in mind clearly when he plays his crazy lines?"

As a former student of George's I think after 20-30 years of playing hes figured out a way to explain what he does naturally. I dont think when hes playing he's thinking "up a major 3rd here, play a diminished triad, down a minor second, play a major triad up, etc.

Hes just doin his thing... I'm really diggin his sound these days too.


Anonymous said...

This summer I will begin a dissertation on CTC, any advice or resources you could send my way.