Things that aren’t jazz

Photo, frawemedia

Okay, first of all: what I’m talking about here is the “mainstream” jazz tradition, insofar as such a thing exists (you can make a good argument that it doesn’t, really). “Jazz” is a wide net to cast. To flip it around, if I were going to list things that aren’t “classical” music, I might say “use of the electric bass guitar” or even “microtonality.” Are those things really mutually exclusive with classical music? No. But they are not part of the tradition of the Viennese masters, not what your local community orchestra would play, not what most people think of when they think of classical music.

One misconception that many classical musicians seem to have about jazz is that since it has strong improvisatory elements, it must be very free and unstructured. I think the opposite is true: improvisation, at least in the mainstream-bebop/hard-bop-influenced style, requires fairly strict structural underpinnings. None of the following works well when someone is trying to improvise:

  • Free forms. Form in jazz is much stricter than in classical music. Most common jazz tunes have one of two forms. The first is precisely 32 bars in 4/4 time, with four eight-bar sections: AABA. The second is precisely twelve 4/4 bars, a “blues” form. Anything that doesn’t fit exactly into one of these categories is most likely very closely related to one of them.
  • Free harmony. Bebop and hard-bop jazz are extremely tonal. While improvisers may play pitches that fall “outside” the chords, it is almost always within a tonal framework: the notes function as upper extensions of the chords, or at least they are used in a sort of polychordal way that has reference to the underlying harmony and will ultimately resolve back to it. The idea that “there are no wrong notes” isn’t exactly true; notes can definitely sound very wrong if they aren’t properly contextualized with regard to the harmony.
  • Free or changing meter. Jazz makes frequent use of polymeter and syncopation, which can give the impression of shifting meter, but most jazz doesn’t actually change meters, especially in improvisatory sections. The polyrhythms and syncopations work because they are overlaid on an unchanging metric pulse, and resolve to it.
  • Rubato. Tempi also tend to quite strict in jazz playing. A musician might “lay back” in the beat or stretch a rhythm, but the underlying pulse doesn’t change. (In my experience, jazz players generally have much steadier internal metronomes than classical musicians.)
The freedom that improvisers do have is to create melodies over these fairly rigid structures. The rigidity gives the improviser a predictable framework to work with (or perhaps against). At a more detailed level, there are certain melodic characteristics that classical musicians tend to associate with jazz, that I don’t hear when I listen to jazz or play with fine jazz musicians: Continue reading “Things that aren’t jazz”

The value of a musical instrument

Photo, Fabrice ROSE

My instruments are valuable. Here’s why:

  1. Most of them cost a lot of money. Replacing any of them would be expensive, possibly even prohibitively so. (If you haven’t already, get a good insurance policy from a company that specializes in musical instruments!)
  2. I worked hard at choosing them. When I bought my oboe, I went to the IDRS conference and tried over 50, maybe 100 of them. Finding a replacement oboe that I’m really happy with could mean trying another 50 or 100. Even if you’ve got the time, opportunities to do something like that are rare.
  3. I have invested a lot of time developing personal relationships with my instruments—getting to know their intonation and response tendencies, getting comfortable with the feel of the keywork, finding out how to coax “my” sound from them. Even replacing one with another of the same make and model means starting fresh with a stranger.

Faculty piano and woodwinds recital, Sept. 13, 2012

Kumiko Shimizu, piano
Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

Faculty Recital
Delta State University Department of Music
Recital Hall, Bologna Performing Arts Center
Thursday, September 13, 2012
7:30 PM


from Suite for Flute and Piano
Claude Bolling (b. 1930)

I. Baroque and Blue
V. Irlandaise
VII. Veloce

from Four Personalities for Oboe and Piano
Alyssa Morris (b. 1984)

II. White
I. Yellow

Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)


John Coltrane (1926-1967), arranged by Bret Pimentel

Peace Piece
Bill Evans (1929-1980), transcribed by Brent Edstrom

Fuzzy Bird Sonata
Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953)

1. Run, bird
2. Sing, bird
3. Fly, bird

Keri Degg (b. 1975) Continue reading “Faculty piano and woodwinds recital, Sept. 13, 2012”

Which instrument should I learn next?

Photo, Jon Delorey

One of the questions I get most frequently from aspiring woodwind doublers is “Which instrument should I learn next?”

The short answer is “Whichever you want.” Woodwind doublers’ motivations (career, artistic, or personal) are varied, and your interests and goals should override any advice I (or anyone) can offer. If you really want to learn to play a certain instrument, then no need to read further—that’s the one you should tackle next. And if you don’t feel motivated about a certain instrument, then your chances of success aren’t good.

But many of the doublers I hear from have designs on picking up several instruments over the long term, and are just looking for advice to maximize some aspect of their current careers:


If your goal is to get as many doubling gigs as possible, then there are some relatively common combinations of instruments that are used for musical theater, jazz big bands, and other commercial-type live-performance situations. (If you play another combination, then there are probably still opportunities out there if you find them or make them yourself.) Some of the common ones are:

  • Flute, clarinet, and saxophone. For jazz situations, you need good saxophone chops coupled with a good grasp of jazz style and possibly improvisation. If doubling is required, it will almost always be C flute, B-flat clarinet, or both, and often the bar isn’t terribly high on these. For theater, you will find that the weighting depends on the show and the book; often the Reed 1 and Reed 2 books both call for flute, clarinet, and saxophone, but Reed 1 might have the lead flute parts and solos, and Reed 2 is the lead/solo clarinet part. If it’s a jazz-heavy musical, then either part might call for orchestral-type soloing on flute or clarinet, plus demand convincing lead alto saxophone playing. Theater books are also likely to call for doubling on “secondary” instruments like piccolo, E-flat clarinet, and soprano saxophone.
  • Low reeds. In a jazz big band, this means primarily baritone saxophone with some bass clarinet (and occasionally B-flat clarinet and/or flute). For theater, a more “classical” show will likely be bassoon-heavy, with bass clarinet and baritone saxophone doubles; a jazzy show will lean toward baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with less (or no) bassoon. Bass saxophone and contrabass clarinets occasionally appear as well; most smart arrangers will provide ossia lines to enable covering these on more standard instruments.
  • Oboe specialist. This surprising combination shows up in many musicals: oboe, sometimes with English horn, plus B-flat clarinet and tenor saxophone. Generally the oboe and English horn parts call for a soloist-level player, with little more than inner harmonies on the single reed instruments.