Writing Solos

Obviously several weeks have passed since my last post. The explanation: I decided to switch my major to biochemistry in the fall. I've been inspired by the amazing science behind nutrition, and am hoping to gain a great foundation in biology and chemistry to improve human health after graduation. Music will always be a part of my life, and I am most likely going to continue playing in Roosevelt's Large Jazz Ensemble, as well as bands outside of school. I intend to keep this site going for as long as I can. One thing that will likely change is the amount of hours I spend practicing; some days I will be studying science in preparation for the fall instead of practicing.

I also want to summarize what I've been practicing the past several weeks. Foremost has been experimentation in tone. My last few gigs have been with funk bands, so I am working on developing a set of gear (mouthpiece, reeds) that work well for funk and a different set for jazz. I have been taking influence from more funk saxophonists, as well as listening to more authentic jazz players such as Stan Getz and Wayne Shorter. My goal is to be more distinct; at times very "jazzy" and at times very "funky", and avoid the middle ground. To that end, I have been soaking thick reeds in vodka, which has been great for giving me a smooth, rich sound in jazz. Thick reeds are harder to play and a bit darker in sound, but the alcohol breaks them down so they are easier to blow on while retaining their sound quality.

I've also been keeping up with scales and tunes, as well as things like triad pairing on diminished scales.

Let's talk about today now.

The short version:

1 hour Cherokee

30 Minutes flute

1 hour Nica's Dream

Yesterday, I wrote out a solo to the "A" section on Cherokee. It was immensely useful in answering questions like, "what do I know will work over a major chord?" "How long should I play before adding a rest?" "How can I add rhythmic variety?" "When should I play 'out'?" And a lot more subtle ones as well.

Today, I began by writing out a new solo, with a more targeted strategy based on the results of the last one. I aimed to go for simple ideas that highlight chord tones on downbeats. I tried to use a fairly large range on the horn, and adjust phrasing occasionally. But for today, the main focus was simple licks, since the solo I wrote yesterday was a bit overcomplicated.

After playing through it several times, I wrote out a solo to the "B" section. It is comprised almost exclusively of ii-V-I's, so I tried to err on the side of cliche for the ii-V and make things a little more interesting with chromaticism and pentatonics on the I's.

Overall, writing helped me focus my ideas and think more about connecting ideas. I played freely after a while to see what impact it made, and the result was improvement was both immediate and satisfying. While I don't intend to spend my life playing simple, borderline cliche ideas, it's great to have the basics mastered, and what I keep noticing is that amazing things are often rooted in simple concepts.

Later, I did long tones and overtones on the flute. My teacher noticed a slight quavering in my sound, and recommended I push the flute against my lips slightly harder (with my hands). This took some strain off my bottom lip, which allowed me to focus more on the shape of my embouchure, and ultimately more efficient use of air.

I used a tuner and continue to explore the ways that embouchure, angle of air, and outright adjusting the flute change tuning. It's fascinating how many things contribute, and how minute muscle movements can have significant effects.

Overtones are improving rapidly. I can now hit the 4th overtone fairly easily. What I've been focusing intently on lately is the exact minimum amount I have to change my embouchure to reach each successive overtone. This helps me learn to control my muscles better, as well as prevent unnecessary strain.

In the afternoon, my friend asked me to sub on his senior recital this Sunday, so I replaced what would have been scale practice with Nica's Dream.

I pulled up the Horace Silver version (with Junior Cook on sax) and played along with the melody to get a feel for the groove and overall vibe of the piece.

Next, I played through all the chord tones of the changes in rhythm. First starting on the lower end of my horn, then starting on the upper end. After that, I tried to permutate small ideas across all the changes (such as 1-2-3-5, or neighbor figures), but found it difficult to come up with things that really sounded good. So I began transcribing Junior Cook's great solo.

Surprise surprise, almost his entire two "A" sections are comprised of cliche ideas that he knew would sound just fine at such a fast tempo. The "B" section is quite unusual, and transciribing that part was quite illuminating. He found ways of playing simple things there as well. Always simple ideas, just a bit dressed up. It only took me about half an hour to have the whole solo down.

After absorbing his language, I improvised for a while. Things flowed much better now that I had a foundational understanding of the tune and harmony.


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