by John Kuzmich, Jr., Ph.D.
Computers, tablets, smartphones, DVDs. CDs are all great learning tools. Let’s look at how our students can maximize learning and fun in their jazz playing experience. Perhaps the most user-friendly, interactive practice experience is with new and improved play-along recordings. Digital innovations have lifted old drill-n-practice play-alongs into great improvisation and performance partners. And at the same time, students meet national standards achieve jazz language fluency with authentic results!
A sure-fire method for improving your improvisation in both big-band and combo classes or in a private studio is Mike Sweeney and Mike Steinel’s Creative Essential Elements Jazz Play-Along series a major contribution to the jazz improvisation market. The two outstanding books in this series light up the play-along market. The Blues edition contains 10 contrasting tracks in a variety of blue styles featuring legendary jazz artists such as W. C. Handy, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Eddie Harris, and Miles Davis. The Jazz Standards edition features nine jazz original tunes written by a variety of jazz luminaries such as Benny Gholson, Charlie Parker, Kenny Dorham, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, and Horace Silver. Each book includes a companion play-along CD with built-in tempo adjustment software to be used on a computer with the CD. You have a choice of full recording or rhythm section-only with both sample written and recorded solos, plus multiple choruses with improvising hints. The instrumentation includes alto, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone and full rhythm section. In addition, additional solos are included on the CD beyond in the original full recording track in MP3 file format. A great feature is the CD-ROM’s split track/melody. This lets piano players play with the recorded track by just turning down the volume on the right channel; and bass players can eliminate the recorded bass track by turning down the volume on the left track. The recorded drum track appears on both channels.
What lifts this series is its emphasis on jazz articulations with masterful legato and staccato phrasing mixed with appropriate articulations like house top and horizontal accents, back tonguing authentic phrasing.
Brass instruments often struggle to phrase unless the air and the tongue are well coordinated and wind players can encounter choppy, un-musical phrasing. But these recordings and notation solidify a clearly conceived style of phrasing which is absolutely important in jazz education in improvisation and/big-band. The crisp, clear audio recordings help students hear and emulate the exquisite musical phrases for better interpretation accuracy; elevating this methodology to a highly recommended level.
Each track includes a brief history of the composer/composer plus tips. In the introduction, four components covered: the language of jazz, starting to improvise, blues scale and chord and scale review. This sets the stage for implementing the well-designed improvisational purposes because every tune also provides solo practice choruses with simplified chords and scales identified for initial solo practice
What you have here in each book is not only a repertory of outstanding tunes but also an instant combo arrangement right out of the box. Each series has all the concert ready parts. This is particularly helpful when instrumentation is not always available for big-band. Within each series there are three different books for all the instruments found in a jazz ensemble; one for B-flat, E flat and C treble such as vibes; a second book for flute, french horn and tuba, and a third book for rhythm section that includes piano voicings , guitar voicings, bass lines and drums patterns.
Personally I prefer the combo/improvisation platform for teaching improvisation as the essential way to promote and teach jazz improvisation. I can break my big-band into several combos and simultaneously give more students the opportunity to actively improvise plus develop multiple rhythm sections in the big-band program; adding to the stable of experienced soloists and confident rhythm section players. Creativity in jazz occurs in the combos before transferring into the big-band, giving students a personalized approach to participating in jazz improvisation plus developing their music phrasing in their performance skills. In my private studio, jazz improvisation instruction is easy when I have the play along recording with sample solos. Changing tempo software is a natural learning tool that gives students confidence to play with the recordings.
One creative idea for more advance improvisation instruction is to not pass out the books. Rather only use the recordings and instruct students to listen to the sample solos and either transcribe them, sing the solos, and/or play-along with the solos without notation aids. And with The Amazing Slow Down software included on the CD, students can adjust the tempo to do this challenging feat more realistically. The magic of this creative, unorthodox process is that the students are more fully engaged in listening and analyzing what they hear and transfer it to their instruments, reproducing the solos internally either through voice or instrument. Traditionally most methodologies deal with student transcribing the solos first into notation. But I prefer this action-oriented process of listening and playing/singing and internalizing first because their musical abilities are applied more dramatically; imitating jazz licks for more immediate gratification. It is amazing to see how much more students are motivated to “transcribing” solos directly with their voice or instrument. Asking students to transcribe a solo may seem like an impossible task, but only with the play-alongs, later students come back with magic coming out of their instruments. This is when the outstanding quality of the sample solos is evident. When you actively listen to the full track recording, the solos really contain hip licks with abundant sequential imitations well oriented for students developing their own initial solos in real time.
Fast and easy, 5 -10 minute play-along warmup in a big-band is a natural, effective way to infuse rhythm and chord confidence. Private teachers using Hal Leonard’s Essential Elements Jazz Play-Along series, bolster student’s chops. Good luck with your play-along improvisational instruction adventure.