Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of jazz musician bloggers opining about the evils of memorizing patterns and “licks,” and calling for original and creative improvisation. While I don’t think anybody will argue about the importance of individuality and creativity, I do think it’s a big mistake to ignore the value of memorizing, practicing, and internalizing established jazz vocabulary.
When a person learns a foreign language, they learn first to repeat some standard useful phrases. Then they learn to rearrange the vocabulary and syntax of those phrases to create new ones. Over a lifetime of study and practice, they may learn the language well enough to speak or write with their own distinctive creative voice. But if a student tries on the first day of French class to be creative and original, they aren’t likely to make much sense. To speak the language, you need to hear it, imitate it, and then repeat over and over. Genuine individual originality comes much, much later.
So I was pleased to read an excellent blog post by saxophonist Bob Hartig:
If you listen to a lot of Kenny Garrett, and if you take it upon yourself to transcribe a bunch of Kenny Garrett solos, and if you steep yourself in those Kenny Garrett solos, then chances are you will come out sounding an awful lot like Kenny Garrett.
Now, if that’s all you aspire to, then that’s where you’ll end up: as a Kenny Garrett clone. But if you desire to forge your own voice, then Kenny will simply become a part of your vocabulary, a vocabulary that includes other influences besides Kenny and increasingly reflects your personal explorations with melody, harmony, timbre, and nuance. You are an individual, after all, and the sheer force of your individuality will direct you toward your own sound and approach.
Bob expands on this in the comments section:
A good writer doesn’t become one by attempting to create a different dictionary. He or she develops expertise by becoming conversant with the existing language, and that happens largely through reading the works of great writers who have gone before. Through careful scrutiny and application of how others have handled the English language, the individual’s personal writing style emerges.
Shakespeare is noted for adding a huge number of words and phrases to the English language—undoubtedly one of the most creative minds working in that medium. But how many of the words and phrases in his works were really brand new inventions? Surely less than 1%. And how much did Charlie Parker or John Coltrane add to the jazz language, that wasn’t already there? Their contributions are staggeringly significant, but what they actually created out of thin air was a drop in the bucket among all the notes they played in their careers. For most of us mortals, our truly original contributions to the language (be it English or jazz) are few and far between; most of our creativity happens when we shuffle and remix the materials that are already before us.
Bob backs up his ideas about the importance of jazz vocabulary with his Giant Steps Scratch Pad project. The Scratch Pad provides a wealth of tasty and useful vocabulary for playing over the chord changes to John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps,” a tune that has challenged the best of jazz players for decades because of its unusual and elegantly symmetrical chord progression. Bob was kind enough to send me a review copy of the Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete, a new PDF-only (at least for now) edition that contains the same material as the Scratch Pad, transposed into all twelve keys. The transposed material makes this especially good for those who aspire to play Giant Steps in all twelve keys, or who double on instruments of different transpositions.
I took the Scratch Pad Complete for a test drive today. Continue reading “Review: Bob Hartig’s Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete”