A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’

In response to Zack’s previous post, ‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick: Anyone can do it…’ I’ve decided that I’m going to come clean, and do an autoethnographic analysis of my OWN soloing strategies; this means coming clean and I admitting to what I was really doing in the course of a so-called improvised solo for a paying session.  Also, I just noticed that in Gareth Dylan Smith’s recent post he also used the autoethnographic tag, and I think it’s the best way to look at a musical situation from the viewpoint of the main protagonist-ME. No one else is better qualified to say what is really going on here….

Now firstly I don’t think I have an enormous ego and I fully accept that you have probably never heard of me, and certainly not in the context of a jazz soloist!  After doing a degree in economics, 1988 saw me wandering around London, in the post Wynton Marsalis/Courtney Pine revitalised jazz scene, trying to find out what ‘rhythm changes’ were.  A few sympathetic souls explained Gershwin’s ‘I got rhythm’ and directed me towards Jamey Aebersold playalongs[1], where I could find all the chords, and which scales I should ‘use’. It seemed that all I had to do was get it down in all twelve keys.  A year of 5 to 8 hours practice a day (while working as a bike messenger) and I moved to New York and through some incredible luck ended up with a band called Groove Collective, which was full of real jazz musicians. Another year later, and more incredible luck and we had a record deal with a major label!

Through all this I had to continue working on being a musician who could play jazz solos.  Those Aebersold records, and that influence of Wynton Marsalis meant that though my heart was into the funk, I couldn’t look myself in the mirror without having the ability to at least be able to survive the rigours of a bebop solo. Also, in terms of idiom and aesthetics when playing my own music, I wanted the kind of solo approach to the funk of Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, for example.  To get towards such high goals I followed tradition, and mercilessly studied and copied records and transcriptions (shedding)- especially the mainstays of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and a host of ‘musician’s musicians’ (i.e. great players but not so famous- like saxophonists Sonny Stitt and George Coleman- players who ‘make all the [chord] changes’).

After transcribing and copying solos (mainly by ear), much of the mechanism for working this into a style is to take great licks, especially those that elegantly negotiate chord changes, and remorselessly transpose them into all twelve keys, internalise them, vary them, and eventually be able to use the essence of these licks almost automatically. It’s always been a truism that any new idea (a new lick) takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can actually use it in a true playing situation. That means being in a jam session or rehearsal, or worst of all a gig, trying out the new ‘thing’, miserably failing to integrate it into a solo, and instead succeed in sounding at best, contrived, at worst, just bad because you f%#*ed it up!

I’ve chosen a session I played for Nuyorican Soul an album by Lil’ Louie Vega and Kenny Dope, two very successful house/garage Dj’s who coyly named themselves Masters at Work. These guys also had strong links to New York salsa; this album was their nod to that link between NYC underground dance music, soul and the worlds of salsa and jazz; I also knew that George Benson was already playing on the record!  I had worked with Louie and Kenny several times and I knew the kind of thing they liked and how it would work: I take several solos, watching through the recording room window to see their response in the control room- they start dancing around and waving their arms in the air, I keep doing what I’m doing. They then pick and choose their favourites and later I hear the track, usually with an awful lot of my solo left high in the mix (unlike many sessions where you hear yourself cut down to nearly nothing).  Consequently these sessions were always fun to do, and I got paid.

A word on idiomatic considerations- you might expect on a garage/house music session in the 90’s, it would be best to use lots of pentatonic blues licks- along the lines of many of the pseudo- gospel vocals that had adorned those tracks since the late 80’s.  When I had first started playing over funk and soul tracks in my bedroom, a minor pentatonic blues scale was all that I could manage to make work. In comments on Zack’s article last week, one of the commenters (John Ball) said something similar when looking into rock guitar solos. On many blogs and youtube comments you’ll see disparaging remarks about guitarists being ‘basically pentatonic players’, usually from the perspective of jazz or fusion or metal loving commentators who want more….? well, notes. It took me a lot of practice to work out how to create more melodic variety over basically one key or one-chord grooves. (I do not mean to sound disparaging of pentatonic scales myself, and particularly I do not intend to underestimate the complexity of blues performances).  Anyway, Louie’s father was a jazz saxophone player, and his uncle had been in the Fania All-Stars: he and Kenny usually wanted a ‘lot of notes.’ This would make the sessions very different form a couple of soul recordings I had worked on, where any jazziness was immediately quashed.

Unusually, in this session the bass player, Gene Perez came in at the same time and we may have tracked some of it together. What that did mean was that we agreed an a tonic of F minor with a strong pull between C and F. Gene then went onto produce a bass line that slightly implied a C7 to F minor movement, which helped produce a bit of the ‘Latin feel’ that Louie and Kenny wanted. Note that the track is basically unchanging for most of the way, except for me. It’s very much an example of what Phil Tagg would call “a place to be”- there are no real harmonic changes, the drums are looped, and consequently my solo makes no attempt to aim for harmonic tension and release in terms of the overall structure. What I did do, something I often did in this kind of situation, was to imagine a fictional set of changes – G minor7, C7, F minor 7- and impose them over the track in anyway I felt like. Also, being in F minor in jazz meant that I would also think Bb7 as a relative repository of licks, because that makes a ii V7 I in Eb major.

So what follows is a breakdown of the solo, which on the way will stop off and have a look at key influences.  Here’s the track:

To begin with it’s root/tonic long notes and noodling in the mode. This is like a sound check for me, hearing my flute within the track, and a chance to get in a few nice low notes – timbrel considerations which give me a chance to show I have a good ‘classical’ sound! (Salsa players always seemed to prize a clean classical flute sound).  Then at 00:41 a bit of ascending melodic minor i.e. F minor with a strong emphasis on E natural; more on that soon.  At 00:47 I imply my imagined chord progression: ii7 V7 i7 riff (G- C7 F-).

This is really pillaging from bebop – when I first moved to New York, Vibraphonist Bill Ware, who had just joined the Groove Collective, gave me some handwritten sheets of licks/harmonic exercises that he had received from Frank Foster. Foster had played with Basie and Thelonious Monk among many, and was very much one of those ‘musician’s musicians’. One of the exercises I loved was this:

1) iii vi ii V first
This is a useful pattern and the basis of what I played here (00:47). This is probably a case of my having successfully internalised the idea, since by now it was second nature. On studying Parker solos I also found this very similar sequence, which I also practiced in every key:

2) iii vi ii V second

At 01:00 I do some glissandos up to F, utilising a technical bonus that comes with playing an open hole flute, because the E and D keys below F are open hole, so your fingers can slide over them (a favourite trick of mine). I think this type of thing falls even more into a Parlour trick category, because it’s just a technical trick.  Another technical trick that I would use a lot was singing while playing, a la Roland Kirk (think of the famous ‘yazz flute’ scene in the film Anchorman). I would use this a lot, especially on gigs because it’s loud, so could help me climb above the stage volume of drums and electric instruments, and it would always get a good audience response. [2]

More Charlie Parker derived lines, at 01:09 and then at 01:17 a snippet of a very simple lick I had copied from Hubert Laws solo on a Ron Carter CTI album; it’s completely ‘in’, basically modal- I don’t even play the whole thing, and it was so part of my oeuvre I wouldn’t have noticed it when doing it- only now as I pull this thing to pieces do I recognise and remember it. (I also used the riff as part of a composition for a Groove Collective tune.)  I carry on with very modal ‘inside’ stuff (in the key), until at 01:29, I decide to again use the melodic minor to create a bit of a ‘Latin’ feel, bouncing between F and C and the E natural. To explain this, let’s take a classic Latin jazz line something like:

3) montuno
and also the opening of Dizzy Gillespie’s tune ‘Bebop’:
4) Bebop1

And my favourite line to practice from that same tune:

5) Bebop 2

Note how all these lines satisfyingly (to my ears anyway) incorporate the leading tone (E) of the F minor mode. That is the kind of thing I am channeling at this point, and at several other places in the solo. Even the though the Dizzy Gillespie examples are not Latin jazz, his subsequent influence on the genre was massive, and those lies feel very salsa to me.

At 01:37 there is a sort of appoggiatura/passing tone riff something like this:6) passing tone (similar phrases happen several times in the solo)

This is something I used to practice endlessly, in all twelve key signatures, from the bottom of the flute to the top and back down, so that I could start and finish it on any note, depending on the underlying harmony. I’m not quite sure where it came from- it may be from Oliver Nelson’s patterns for saxophone players, or I might have derived it from a passage in Gabriel Faure’s Fantasie (opus 79 for flute and piano). I need to explain all this a bit:

Consider ‘non chord tones’ (as in Common Practice theory): appoggiaturas, suspensions, anticipations, passing tones, echappes– these are all examples of how, in terms of their rhythmic placement, non chord tones can be deployed to move between the chord tones. They may occur on upbeats between chord tones (passing tones), or may be accented, and then resolved in all kind of formulaic ways. Now when I first moved to New York, one of my early experiences was to visit Jay Rodriguez, the new saxophone player for our fledgling Groove Collective. I was expecting to play jazz, but he caught me out by breaking out some Bach transcriptions and suggesting we play through those – there I was in the East Village NYC, playing Bach. I was to come to realise that many jazz players were into Bach, and I think that has to do with those elegant melodic lines that come from all that carefully conceived common practice technique. Of course the definitions of upbeat and down beat become less relevant in jazz, with strong accents often being placed on upbeats, and similarly, the concept of a non chord tone has to be expanded to include chromatic notes from outside of the key/scale relationship to the chord. Still that overall relationship between rhythm/pulse, and where you’re trying to land in terms of the harmony carries right through bebop.

Oliver Nelson was a film composer (six million dollar man), but he had also been a jazz composer and tenor player, and he made a very influential album Blues and the Abstract truth. He also self published a book of patterns for saxophone players (but of course they worked well for flute), which was full of just the kind of exercises I’ve been talking about- ones designed to help you negotiate all the tricky harmonic territory of modern jazz. That passing tone lick may have come from this book. Of course I extracted other typical bebop passing tone patterns directly from the Charlie Parker Omnibook (a collection of transcribed solos); like this one which falls so naturally into my playing that I barely know when I’m doing it:

7) omnibook

Note how the B natural (dissonant against a C7 chord), acts as a passing tone between the chord tones of C and Bb. (I always feel that Parker’s solos can display a kindred spirit with Bach’s melodic lines).  After this, I do some ‘bluesy’ minor pentatonic stuff around 01:57 (that term used advisedly, there’s not much blues tonality going on here), then at 02:05 it was obviously time for me to start using the octatonic (diminished) scale. For F minor, this means using this one:

8) octatonic

This came to me from the Slonimsky/Coltrane bag, (rather than the Rimsky Korsakov/Stravinsky Messiaen bag I was to delve into later) Again this needs explaining. Nicolas Slonimsky was a Russian-born American conductor and composer who wrote a Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns that was popularized by John Coltrane, and has thus been part of jazz lore ever since. There were lots of great Octatonic patterns in it. I remember when I was working in a flea market in New York, and of course I had my flute with me; some guy passing by asked me if I played jazz, and then showed me this famous Coltrane riff which for awhile changed my life. :

9) coltrane octatonic

Any way in this solo I don’t use that riff, because it’s so famous to jazz players that it is like using a quote. But I do several times extract little sections of the octatonic scale- however too much of that and I would have started to sound a little too ‘out’ for Louie and Kenny. At 02:30 a little harmonised melody comes in; in my first take I had played the line and Louie had immediately jumped on it. He played it back to me and then had me harmonise it- so it became a fixed part that is repeated at the end. Later I kicked myself for not trying to get a small percentage of a writing credit for that…but anyway!

You’ll probably be glad to hear that I’m not going to do anymore commentary, because that pretty much covers everything I was doing- it’s just more of the same from here on out. I do a couple of flutter tongues (going rrrrrrr while blowing a note), which again, like the note bending, falls under the technical tricks bag. In fact with no harmonic or structural changes it becomes pretty repetitive, but then it is still basically dance music.  Rhythmically there’s not much to say- no clever displacement and I wasn’t digging into my funk bag much. In fact the feel is double time-it’s like I’m imagining a walking bass line throughout the whole track.

So there you have it. This may seem horrifying to those who believe that improvisation should be free and completely instantaneous,(even a spiritual mystical act of creativity) and if your yardstick is ‘free improv’, then you could well argue that what I am describing is not improvisation. I am pretty sure I have heard Fred Frith say that mainstream jazz solos and rock guitar solos are not improvisation.  If what I have been doing is not improvisation, then I’m not sure what it is. It is certainly very different from the process of performing a written classical piece (I usually prefer to take a solo anytime), and it is different from composition – although I nearly always use improvisation to assist in the composition process.

Of course there were many times in the right kind of gig, such as when the Groove Collective played a real jazz club, when I would explore more. But you know what: much of my time playing music has been in front of paying audiences, or producers watching me through the glass from the control room in studios that cost hundreds of dollars a day; I wanted to sound good- quickly!  Certainly in New York lots of jazz musicians I knew seemed to work in this kind of way. In fact when playing real ‘changes’, especially complex sequences at fast tempos, this kind of thing becomes more natural. It’s one of the things that in the late 1950’s came to be criticised a lot by musicians and jazz critics. Much of Ornette Coleman’s justification for his new jazz (Free jazz is not a term he used) was that everyone was playing the same licks on all the same changes. Top level players such as Sonny Rollins began to be praised for being exploratory in their solos. As the 60’s progressed, tension soon developed between the between bebop/hardbop players and the new freer protagonists. (it in some ways continues). Some, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Rollins could straddle the idioms and move things along, still playing some form of changes, but acknowledging the new freer structures that were changing jazz in the 1960’s. Most of today’s players seem to continue that.

Once I was back stage at a big show (Red Hot and Jazz aids awareness) when trumpeter Donald Byrd gave an impromptu workshop to group of musicians; it was all patterns and riffs of the kind I’ve been describing.  And it wasn’t unusual for me to come home to my apartment and find musical messages on the answering machine (before cell phones), where a friend had played some snippet down the phone of Coltrane’s Chasin’ the trane or Giant Steps or some other fiendish piece of post bob virtuosity.

Writing this has been quite strange for me.  Firstly I had completely forgotten about this track, only a friend posting it on Facebook reminded me of it, and I had to download it to have a copy! The unnerving part was how easy it was for me to recognise everything I was doing 15 years after the session!


[1] Initiated by jazz teacher Aebersold, records that had a rhythm section playing standards for you to play the ‘head’ and solo over. in the privacy of your own home.

[2] The problem is I would then have some guy coming up to me after the gig and saying “…yo dude you sound just like that guy Jethro Tull…” then I’d have to explain the Agrarian revolution and the fact that Ian Anderson got it all from Roland Kirk.

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

10 thoughts on “A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’”

  1. I thank you for being so honest. You have confirmed my long held certainty that jazz uses a thorough understanding of complicated theory and a humongous amount of dedication and practice. I am in awe.

  2. Thank you for a fascinating piece which I have read twice already.
    If I appeared to disparage musicians who rely heavily on the pentatonic I have the wrong impression! And I fully agree that such musicians use what I think of as ‘accidentals’ to flesh out their work. Simple example is using major seventh as well as the minor seventh in run starting on the tonic and working down (Now I have done the brilliant Edinburgh theory MOOC taught by Dr Worth and his colleague Zack Moir and others I can put terms to these finger movements!)
    Just a quick word about the methods of improvisation taught so far on another MOOC I undertook.
    More or less the first thing we were taught was a set of ‘chord scales’ comprising the church modes plus three more scales, a lydian flat 7, an altered scale, and a symmetrical diminished scale. These are taught in relation to the parent key of C major and in an order from ‘light to dark’ starting with Lydian (bright) and working through Ionian round the circle of fifths to the darkest (Lochrian) which has the largest number of flattened notes of any mode.
    We are then taught a method said to work about 85% of the time of assigning a chord scale to a chord on the lead sheet. Failure to do this instantly is said to result in the awkwardness either of playing nothing on that bit of music or ‘guessing’ which results in the playing of incorrect notes.
    The method has a range of decision paths. Is the chord major, minor or dominant? If minor, there is a further decision based on whether the sixth is ‘natural’ or flat. If it is flat there is a further choice depending on whether the 2nd is natural or lowered. For half diminished chords, the choice is simple: play Lochrian. This is the ‘vocabulary’ of improvisation, in the metaphors applied on this course.

    I found myself wondering where the original melody was in all this, as my conception of an improvisation was that it started out from – and probably returned to and reflected to some extent in its course – the ‘tune’ which the composer devised.

    For the assignment due in tomorrow, we have had to work out which ten chord scales are appropriate for Chick Corea’s 500 Miles High and to learn these scales sufficiently well (in the 6 -9 hours allocated each week) to play over a backing track.

    This is a very big step up for a person who had barely heard the term ‘modes’ until the Edinburgh MOOC!

    We then move on to the ‘grammar’ ie what are being termed ‘guide tone lines’. These has has been likened to ‘voice leading’ in classical music, a reference which did not leave me a great deal the wiser. It’s about making sure you are playing the right notes at the chord changes to outline the underlying chord structure to the listener.

    Thinking about what Zack said about improvisation being something which varied according to context, we are I suppose being inducted into a specific culture of improvisation and have the privilege of gaining insight into the thought processes of a virtuoso performer of ‘modal jazz’.

    I have certainly learned a great deal on this course, and I am glad I enrolled on it, but I shall most definitely not be a competent improviser or anything like it at the end of it!

    1. Thanks for commenting- may I ask is that a Berklee course?
      what you describe is very much the process I used to teach myself way back in 1988 with those Jamey Aebersold books- it runs very counter to current contemporary classical music ideas on improvising. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you on some of this? As far as being a competent improviser at the end of the course, as I said it takes along time for the things your working on to actually become part of your language- and you are doing it crash ours style- lots all at once so yes, quite a bit of work is needed to make all that work

      1. Hello Dr Worth

        Yes, this is a Berkley course.

        You are free to quote me as much as you like, as this is the least I can do in return for what I learned on the Edinburgh MOOC.

        On that course, when people express confusion about some point of theory I tell them they should do the Edinburgh Theory MOOC, and I notice that others have given the same advice.

        I was thinking about posting something on the assessment criteria/methodology on that course under Zack’s article raising the issue in the context of improvisation.

    2. Firstly, thanks to Richard for contributing this post. When he mentioned that this is what he would like to write about I was delighted to include it in the blog as I think that this type of approach is very important. I went through a phase of transcribing my own solos for a while (to work out why some bits sounded good and some, ahem, less so…) and I found this very instructive. However, this was largely because I had an understanding of what was expected in the style and I was able to assess how ‘successfully’ I was performing – incidentally, this was also very useful in as a way of developing composition skills.

      I am Really interested to read John’s comments on the other MOOC. I have a private sax pupil who is also taking this course and, this week, I was helping her think about her approaches to ‘500 Miles High’. I have to admit that this, to me, is a perfect example of how idiom can dictate approach and, indeed, expectation – which I think inevitably impacts on assessment. I will be very interested to see what else is presented in this course and how it is approached. As Richard alluded to – this is similar to Aebersold’s chord/scale relationship approach to jazz improvisation education.


      Thanks also to those of you who are reading and commenting on this blog. It is becoming a nice wee hub of interesting pieces and I have had a number of nice emails from people who enjoy reading it and who want to contribute.

      1. The highlight of that course for me was, perhaps, encountering the phrase ‘counter punctual harmony’ on one of the quizzes. As a person who tends to arrive just as or just after events start, I felt this, at last, was an area of the course where I might shine!

  3. Though this Blog is by (and presumably mainly for) academics, it has given me what now seem simple and obvious but exciting ideas about my own very rudimentary playing.

    1. My textbook for pentatonic has always been the Layla version of Key to the Highway (not least because being long it gives you a lot of playing along time). I suppose that I could write down some of my favourite parts in music (reading tab drives me nuts, though I can do it slowly).

    2 I should record my own attempts and look at these to see what I liked and didn’t like, again transcribing to support me in thinking about it.

    I messed up 500 Miles High because I forgot to apply the rules about looking for flat 6th and sharp 4ths in the melody, chord tones and chord scales in the bar before, and therefore played Dorian and Ionian when Aeolian and Lydian were the ‘right answers’.

    As MOOC courses often rely on peer assessment, I now face the task – as a more or less complete novice – of listening to the work of several other people and making constructive comments on whether ‘the criteria was (SIC) met’. To do this properly I guess I should at least go back and relearn it with the correct chord scales. I do not have time to transcribe the pieces.

    Using concepts from the field of assessment, how much ‘construct’ or ‘content validity’ my comments will have, and their ‘utility’ to the peers in question are open questions.

    1. On 500 Miles High and the Berley MOOC:

      I am afraid that I more or less gave up trying to do the practical at this point in the course!

      I could make excuses, but having spent some time laboriously thinking which chord scales would fit various bars in this tune, I decided that I should not have time to learn these scales to the extent of being able to apply them as we had been taught, even without having to think about the principles of voice leading thrown in for good measure this week. I also decided that given my slowness in speed, whatever I produced was likely in any case to be something that had been largely ‘composed and practised’, not something improvised.

      I also faced more subjective barriers which made me think that in many ways I must be something of a conservative, and which may to some extent reflect a lack of musicality:
      1 I simply did not like the melody. I found it difficult to sing (and am full of admiration for any singer who can do this). This is about the jumps between notes and the underlying chord changes I think.
      2 I did not like (and could not really feel) the overall structure. It seemed to me that each chord was linked with the last by having a few notes in common. And that this resulted in a need to add two bars at the end simply for the purpose of getting back to the beginning (was there a dominant here leading back to the opening chord or am I mis-remembering?)

      I would have preferred to be given a simpler piece for a first attempt at practising the techniques we had been taught. I felt thrown in at the deep end and this was discouraging. Some other students expressed similar feelings.

      The course, for me, should ideally have been longer, with smaller steps and, perhaps, a little more on rhythm and also on dynamics and tone (as many instruments can make very different sorts of noise depending on how they are played). I know it would be difficult to know where to stop but I think that rhythm is very important and wasn’t addressed as much as I would have liked, especially since it was mentioned in the assessment schedules from the outset. Again, other students also picked up on this.

      I am glad I did the course, as I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed playing around with the various modes we had to learn early in the course. I especially enjoyed realising that ‘Feel Good Inc’ could be played in Eb Aeolian!

      One of my peers commented that the pieces I submitted for the exercise in modes sounded like ‘Prog Rock’. So I guess you play what you are steeped in at the end of the day.

      I hope that Zack’s student had as much fun with the course as I did and that he or she persevered where I gave up!

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