Archive for October, 2008

Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Basin Street Blues’

October 26, 2008

Had fantastic trumpet lesson with Chris Batchelor on Friday. We’ve been working a lot on the rhythmic side of my improvising, something I’ve definitely neglected at the expense of harmony. He’s been getting me to practise a few different things to improve this such as starting/ending phrases at different points in the bar, or using different rhythmic ‘gears’ as a way of building through a solo or a phrase (for example, quavers into quaver triplets into double time). Feels like a bit of a slog at the moment, altough I suspect this means that it’s starting to work. I’ve often had the experience of feeling that something I’m practising is completely recalcitrant and that usually means that I’m about to make a break through with it. Julian Siegel has an interesting take on this, which is that the perception that something is difficult means that your ears have improved-you’re at the point where you can hear what the new concept should sound like, even if you can’t yet do it. Beforehand, you weren’t even aware of it’s possibility.

For my lesson on Friday, I transcribed Louis Armstrong’s amazing solo on Basin St. Blues. Analysing it in my lesson was a fairly humbling experience. This guy had it all going on and this was 1928! It really struck me that a lot of what are often described as the innovations of ‘modern’ jazz are already fully articulated by Louis here. Harmonically, for instance, he’s frequently using 9th’s and 11ths of the chords to build his lines. something that often gets described as a bebop innovation.

But it’s the rhythmic complexity and daring that is the real knockout. Glancing at the transcription of the solo I’ve written down, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Charlie Parker playing. The basic rhythmic unit he’s using is the quaver triplet, as you’d expect from this period when swing tended to have more of a 12/8 feel. However, most bars include double time passages, which he implies, intriguingly,  by using straight quavers as much as the semiquavers you’d expect. He also moves between these different ‘gears’  within a single phrase with extraordinary ease, meaning that his lines have real independence from the basic pulse. Listen to the solo here:


Chris is particularly insightful about this last point. He suggests that you could trace a line of development in improvisation form Louis to Bird to Wayne Shorter (on something like the Miles Plugged Nickel recordings)and say that all of these guys are successful in their improvising by making the coherence of the phrase or ‘gesture’ the most important thing, as opposed to outlining the form and changes as strongly as possible. That is to say that note choices or rhythmic placement that might be pretty obscure (seen in relation to the changes, form or pulse) sound really elegant because of the coherence and strength of the whole phrase or gesture. (You could also add Lester Young, Paul Bley, Scott Lafaro to this list.  This way of playing is the norm in free jazz and Ornette and Don Cherry do/did it brilliantly. I also hear this in improvisors like Tim Berne, Greg Osby and Steve Coleman.)

You might go further and suggest two types of improvising over a changes based form. The first would be where the sucess of your lines depended on how well they spelt out the changes and form. This can sound totally burning, and Clifford Brown (at fast tempos) is the supreme example for me. The second would be what I’ve been describing. The extent to which your ideas clearly relate to the given harmonic and formal information of the tune is secondary to the independent strength of your ideas. Anything is up for grabs as long as the gesture itself is strong enough.

(This does of course lack a bit of nuance. Bird, for instance, was a supreme changes player able to tell you everything about a song’s form and harmony through his improvisation, as well as being a master at playing independently of them.)


Nick Malcolm

October 25, 2008

Photograph by Peter Fay

Image by Peter Fay


Hello and thanks for visiting. This blog has a few pieces of writing I’ve done on jazz and improvisation related topics. It started life as my dissertation for a postgraduate course I did at Trinity College of Music and the articles are mainly from that project.

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