Monday, October 22, 2012

Follow Your Spine

Sheryl Bailey jazz guitar workshop sessions, North Wales International Jazz Guitar Weekend, Wrexham. Friday 19th to Sunday 21st October 2012

I'm just back from a really excellent weekend workshop co-tutored by New York based jazz guitarist Sheryl Bailey as part of the North Wales Jazz Guitar Weekend held at the Glyndwr University in Wrexham. Sheryl teaches at Berklee amongst many other places, and it was clear from the off that (not surprisingly) she really knows her stuff both about jazz theory and jazz history. I picked up some really useful things that I'll try to explain here. I should probably give a muso warning at this point that the post does get quite technical and assumes some knowledge of jazz theory and harmony.

First off I was really pleased to find that I'm not the only one puzzled why so many jazz guitarists roll their tone right back, in some cases completely off. Sheryl said many students at Berklee do this, but she doesn't think it sounds at all good and mutes all the higher end harmonics that give richness to guitar tone. I wholeheartedly agree! She also suggested that because the subtlety of tone is removed, mistakes are more easily covered up, so it's not a good way to go technique wise either.

Bop Improvising

The Saturday session was about approaches to bop playing. Sheryl emphasised that she isn't thinking about scales at all for this style of playing. It's all about knowing and being able to follow the chord changes or the "spine of the tune" as she referred to it many times. Improvised lines are based on using the arpeggio chord tones along with diatonic and chromatic approach notes. She outlined a good step-by-step way to get into this, which is first to play through the changes using voice led arpeggio notes, next bringing in approach notes to the arpeggio notes.  Voice leading here simply means playing the nearest note of the next arpeggio when the chords change rather than going back to the root note each time.

This principles were explained in application to a Bb blues. I wish I'd taken a photo of the board here, but as I didn't I've typed it out. The formatting was fiddly on the blog, so I ended up taking the photo below.  She said that when she sees a dominant chord she will think of its II minor chord as well as the dominant chord itself, and will use the arpeggio notes for both as the basis for the improvised lines. These would be the F-7 and Bb7 arpeggios over the first Bb7 chord of a blues. She also mentioned that it's good to set up the Eb7 IV chord in bar 5 with an altered sound over the previous bar 4, the same idea being used on the G7 in bar 8. There's also the possibility of using the arpeggios of the sub V chord and its associated II chord in all cases, such as shown in bars 6, 9 (not labelled), 10 and 12 (also not labelled). In the first instance, it's important for the chord tones to be played on the downbeat to give strength to the sound of the chord and the changes, but when you start to have a good handle on what you're doing, you can relax and play around with this to a certain extent.

Click photo to enlarge

Sheryl then outlined some next steps to add boppy melodic embellishments:

1) Add the chromatic note below each chord tone
2) Add the diatonic note above the chord tone
3) Combine (1) and (3)
4) 3 note chromaticism: 1 chromatic below and 2 above
5) 3 note chromaticism: 2 chromatic below and 1 above
6) 4 note chromaticism: 2 chromatic below and 2 above
7) 4 note chromaticism: 2 chromatic above and 2 below

By doing this you're not only adding more colour to a standard blues scale approach, but you're outlining the changes very clearly and sounding much more authentically boppy. Improvising in this manner can be done more or less unaccompanied when done effectively, the changes being clearly outlined. She mentioned that this approach was heavily used by people like John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt.

Additional to the II and V7 arpeggios, the VII and IV arpeggios can also be used. On the Bb7 for example, these would be D-7b5 and AbMaj7. This gives what she called the "family of four" substitution possibilities.

A further possible step is to bring in some melodic minor harmony, using for example FmMaj7, Bb7#11 and AbMaj7#5 arpeggios on the Bb7 chord of the blues progression. Another fairly out idea used by Pat Martino is to play the whole blues sequence a tritone above. She mentioned you may be pushing your luck to do this for more than a chorus though :).

We also got into the idea of playing dotted quarter notes over a 4:4 rhythm to give anticipation to chord movement. Sheryl mentioned that Berklee tutor Ben Wilmott teaches this stuff, his 'Time for the Future: Polyrythm in Harmony' book being a good reference for further study.

Drop Voicings

On Sunday we covered 'drop 2' and 'drop 3' voicings, much used by players like Wes Montgomery. A good exemplar of the use of drop 2 voicings is Wes Montgomery's 'Cariba' where the opening is played on a drop 2 F-7 and its inversions.

Drop voicings are where you drop the 2nd or 3rd note (voice) from the top of a voicing down one octave.  The left part of the photo below shows an example using a G minor chord and its inversions. You can (hopefully) see the first chord on the left is a standard R 3 5 7 voicing. Next to it is the drop 2 voicing where the second voice down from the top, i.e. the D note is dropped an octave down to the bottom of the voicing.

Click photo to enlarge

The high, middle and low string tab chord shapes are given below the voicings on the photo along with all the three inversions.  These should be learnt for maj 7, minor 7, dominant 7 and minor 7b5 chords at first, then extending the principle to chords with added tensions later. This should be practiced on all three string groups.

She then explained how these voicings can be used to harmonise a melody line or solo (if you've got the chops ;) on the top string, with diminished chords being used to fill in any passing notes of the line. This isn't easy to do live in the moment of improvising, Sheryl reminding us how Wes was a monster player to be able to do this so well. This took us into a little work on melody notes over diminished chords whilst moving them up the fretboard in minor thirds (on the right of the photo).

Someone asked a question about tasty final chords for tunes, which got us into the idea of using the open strings of the guitar for tension notes to get some striking and strong sounds. Wayne Shorter's 'JuJu' is in a useful key for voicings using open strings, as well as being a good tune for practising whole tone scales.


The final part of the workshop covered what Sheryl referred to as 'Pluralities'. This is the idea that you have families of 'like chords' varied by the use of different notes in the bass. For example if you take a standard Cmaj7 chord and place an A in the bass you get an Amin7 add 9 chord. If you take the same Cmaj7 chord and add a D in the bass you get a D7sus9 13 chord. To get into the sounds of modes such as melodic minor, the same principle can be applied to Cmaj7b5 and Cmaj7#5 chords, a notable example being when an F bass note is added to a Cmaj7#5 chord to give the strange sounding F diminished major 7 chord (dimMaj7).  This sound is coming from the harmonic major scale and its modes.  I was interested to hear Sheryl say that the dimMaj7 chord is very popular with contemporary players in New York such as Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder and Adam Rogers. These players will typically use the dimMaj7 chord as a default I chord in both major and minor tonalities, it having an ambiguity that allows for its use in both situations.

So that was about it for Sheryl's sessions. Course leader Trefor Owen covered many useful pragmatic tips for the working jazz guitarist in his sessions, including things like bass line comping and Maj7 arpeggio lines for getting through the fast changes on tunes like 'Cherokee'. It was also great to hear Sheryl in concert on the Saturday evening. The jams as ever, were very useful, giving us the chance to play with the legendary Bill Coleman on bass along with Andy on drums.

A big thanks from me to Trefor, Maureen, Joe and everybody else involved in organising the weekend. They've been running for an amazing 12 years now. This one was the 18th weekend so far. Jack Wilkins is the plan for the next weekend, so all being well I'll pop along to that too. For now, there's plenty been added to the practice list.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tea for Two

Mike Walker & Stuart McCallum, Freedom Principle at the Sand Bar, Manchester. Tuesday 16th October 2012

I finally made it down to one of the Freedom Principle jazz sessions at the Sandbar a few days ago for the first time in too long. The focus of this return was the unusual duo pairing of two local guitar aces, Mike Walker and Stuart McCallum.  Both players using only acoustic guitars added to the unusualness, albeit amplified and through various effects units. Walker generally played 'uneffected' but for a bit of reverb, McCallum taking on the job of producing soundscape echo loop backdrops for most pieces.

The first track set the tone, a Frisell interpretation that immediately reminded me of lush Nick Drake textures.  Dreamy open sounding chord arpeggios were the order of the day for many pieces, the players generally swapping arpeggio duties whilst the other improvised. There were a few more or less set pieces such as Walker's 'Wallenda's Last Stand', McCallum taking on the melody line here. An in-context take on 'All the Things You Are' late on in the set was one of the highlights, the familiar swung melody played straight over some idiosyncratic harmonic twists and turns.

Many elements worked really well here, and there were not a few quite beautiful moments. Overall the folky drone approach did feel a little mono-thematic however, and at times the interplay between the players seemed a little confused and out of sync to my ear. I noticed some people's attention re-focussing when Walker played snippets of funk groove here and there to check his sound. Perhaps the addition of a few pieces like this would help diversify the set.