Phrasing & Rhythmic Displacement

November 9, 2008

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.

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel

November 8, 2008

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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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