Over the past ten years the karaoke has become a standard weekly feature at many pubs in Britain. People get up and sing a favourite song to a backing tape uncannily like the version that they have heard on Radio One (but, of course, without the lead singer). The same thing seems to be happening in jazz. Too often younger players sound as though they are playing along to a karaoke backing tape, even when there is a good rhythm section. There is little interaction between the players, and I get the feeling that the frontline would play the same way no matter who else was in the band. It is Karaoke Jazz.
The cause seems obvious: musicians are learning jazz by playing along with playalong tapes. They then regard the rhythm section as their backing track even at live gigs, playing as though the rest of the band is there just to accompany their soloing. If the piano should do something unrehearsed or unexpected, the soloist may get thrown off track. The idea that there should be some creative input from the musicians seems to have been overtaken by the pressure to conform to a prescribed ideal of what jazz should be.
It is even worse when the rhythm section itself plays as though it is a 'backing track.' Rather than suggesting new and interesting harmonies for the frontline to play with they become a karaoke machine, reeling off chords they have learnt from backing tapes, records or fake books. People are not prepared to learn tunes and sequences off by heart so they always need a chord chart to show them the way. Unfamiliarity with the changes makes them focus on reading the written part instead of listening to the music as it is being played. This over-reliance on charts actively hinders the interactive and creative aspect of playing jazz. There is no opportunity for the players to interpret a tune, choosing their own substitutions and bass notes. They think they must recreate the backing tapes, and they have difficulty responding to what the others are doing if it moves away from those written parts.
How has jazz come to this neo-classical approach? I think one reason is the fear of making mistakes. As jazz becomes more formal and academic we place more emphasis on how scales relate to chords, and how those chords are derived from the scales. The idea that certain combinations of notes are the only 'correct' ones is a consequence of such formalisation. This inevitably makes would-be improvisers more concerned about playing the 'right' notes for the chords than discovering how individual notes sound in a harmonic context.
Furthermore, players no longer seem to develop the melody as a source for improvisational material. Improvisation could be about exploring tonality, both harmonically and melodically, as well as experimenting with rhythmic patterns, but it has become a matter of regurgitating ideas gleaned from analysing the work of great players. What once was description has become prescription. Phrases and harmonic extensions are taught relative to the chord changes rather than the tune, and we end up with a 'painting by numbers' way of improvising.
After all this fault finding, can I suggest ways to improve things? Well, there are a few simple approaches that can be helpful. Of course, shared vocabularies determine the style of the music, so I am not suggesting that we drop such conventions altogether. We must learn them in order to reach mutual understanding, if we are to play with others. However, there is also room for some healthy risk-taking, which is surely where one of the sparks of creativity lies. What allows the improviser to play fearlessly is faith in the ability to recover, to put right quickly what has gone wrong. So improvisers have to develop strategies to get out of trouble, trusting that they will detect a goof in time to repair the line or harmony. Sometimes a mistake can trigger a new idea. We have to distinguish between notes we intend which sound good, notes we intend which don't work, notes we do not intend which sound bad, and those rare unintentional gems which sound great! We have to learn to discriminate, to sort out the clunkers and leave the gems alone! I believe the best way to acquire such discrimination is to make mistakes on a regular basis!
In fact, such risk-taking is the best use of playalong tapes. They provide a great context for making mistakes without getting embarrassed in front of other players or an audience! What they can't do is change a harmony to make sense of a note you choose. They cannot respond to your lines, so you cannot learn about interaction from playalongs. But the interaction between the musicians in a jazz group is the essence of the music they make. Group improvisation depends on players relating to each other musically, so it is essential that musicians listen to each other, not themselves.
Of course, the use of playalongs as vehicles for experimentation only works if you play along without using a chord chart for soloing. The whole point of the exercise is to develop the ear. Reading charts is very useful when you need to play something that fits quickly, e.g. for a session. Dots and chord charts also help if there is a passage that you find difficult to hear. However relying on them will not teach you how to interact with other players. In jazz you must trust your ears to guide you. Players spend many hours working on their instruments, practising scales, arpeggios, chord changes, and other aspects of technique. It has been suggested (by Professor John Sloboda) that to become a virtuoso player, one needs to have 10,000 'flying hours' on one's instrument! All this work should allow the player to internalise the skills needed to find any note or phrase on the instrument. In other words, the brain is trained so that the player does not have to think consciously about what they play. The player must learn to trust the subconscious body of theory and practice that they have built up over the years. I call this 'the system'. You have to learn to trust the system, that is, to allow yourself to play without interference from the conscious mind. Although your conscious attention takes note of what the other players are doing it is not fast enough to produce music to fit. That is the job of the system.
Having faith in the system does not guarantee musicality, or aesthetic taste! Neither is it an excuse not to work on understanding the structure of music. You need the in-depth study of your instrument, and the music that you want to play, to build this body of subconscious knowledge. Part of that 'system-building' is the development of one's own taste and sense of aesthetics. That can only come through conscious discriminatory listening. By analysing a piece or solo, deciding what works for us or otherwise, we train the system to make similar judgements as we play. In real-time playing our unconscious music-generating system decides what will work and what will not work, according to our own aesthetic judgement. This has to function at the unconscious system level, because conscious attention just isn't fast enough to enable us to make simultaneous judgements while playing.
I think internalisation, or getting the music inside you, is the key to playing jazz at a more interesting level. You must be able to memorise a tune's structure, to imagine a bass line and to reconstruct consciously the tune you are playing. This does not mean merely naming the chords of a sequence. It means being able to hear the chords in your head, where go, how they change, and what the bass line is doing. The way to do this is to memorise tunes and their structures as sounds, not dots on a page. Learn to sing melodies and bass lines. Try out different notes and scales with the same bit of a tune, exploring its potential. Listening to how different the melody sounds with alternative bass notes to the written chords helps you understand why the composer chose those particular chords. Or you might find a nice substitution. You could find where a pedal tone might go through several bars. Try it at the piano or even without an instrument, miming the fingering while hearing it in your head.
When you listen to others playing, sing or imagine what you would play if you were in the band. Listen to how great players respond to each other, using fresh harmonies to provide a setting that makes the most of what the other guy does. Notice how drummers play the phrasing of the tune, or how they emphasise interesting phrases from other band members. Ultimately, look for what makes a band sound like it is playing together as a whole, and not just as a soloist and rhythm section. Look for the interaction. Listening to the great players can reveal just how much of their greatness came from the way the rest of their band played with them, the setting that best showed off their creative talents. A 'karaoke' rhythm section can make anyone sound pedestrian.
© Graham Clark 14/07/98