More and more I’m realising how fundamentally important the ability to control where you resolve your lines is. I’d assumed that choosing which quaver in a 4/4 bar you start and finish on would be easy. Yet when I come to practise it, I seem locked into resolving things in the same point each time. This is obviously something that’s conceptually very simple, yet practically pretty difficult.
Control over points of resolution is a prerequisite for making ‘hip’ harmonic devices and outside playing work. Ever notice how a lot of players have a lot of stuff going on yet after a few choruses it seems repetitive and loses its impact? By the end of the gig you pretty much know what they’re going to do next. This is a trap I’ve fallen into. One ‘hip’ device that I’ve spent a fair bit of time on is going outside with fourths based pentatonic lines (thank you Woody Shaw). I remember how exciting these felt to play initially and how burning I thought I sounded. After about three gigs though, I started to sense I was doing the same stuff at the same points in a phrase. After a few more gigs I was getting seriously bored with my shit (goodness knows what the audience were thinking). I’d then move on to the next ‘hip’ device I could find, maybe diminished patterns or phrasing in fives. Cool. So I’d go through the same process-excitement, repetition and then boredom.
The reason this stuff wasn’t sounding good was that I hadn’t got the ability to move the devices around in the phrase sorted out. What I’ve only recently realised (shamefully) about the best players who use advanced harmonic or rhythmic devices in their improvising is that it’s their ability to manipulate placement that makes them sound so killing. This is particularly true of players who use a lot of exact, licks based language, Bird and Woody Shaw being two good examples. How many times do you hear Bird create real musical drama by starting or resolving one of his stock licks at an unexpected point in the bar? Somebody remarked the other day that they felt Bird didn’t relly improvise, just played licks based language. What they don’t get is that the language is just the starting point for him. Where the real intellectual and emotional work gets done (and where the real improvising happens) is in his fantastic ability to manipulate that language through all the possible points in the bar or phrase.
Initially, Monk might be a better improviser to listen to to understand manipulation. With Bird, the language can be so dazzling in itself that you don’t realise the subtleties of phrasing that support it. Monk tends to use simpler materials and is a bit more didactic in the way he manipulates them.