Posted: Jan 06, 2016 1:16 am
John Platko wrote:
THWOTH wrote:This is all good for generating practice material, but that only offers a hint to the true heuristic for working in an improvised medium: practice, with the aim of developing a personal musical language that can be drawn on in context.

Very true. At this point I find what I've generated to be most useful for practice material. It helps me see variations, both in note order and places to put rests in ways that help me out of the ruts that I somehow find myself getting stuck in playing over and over again. It also helps me understand and get a better feel for subtle timing differences.

But beyond that, I find the process also helpful in bringing consciousness to what I'm going about doing when I make my attempts at playing the blues. It makes me think about what is a lick, and what is not, and if such a counterfactual actually is real. For example, I've come to the conclusion that a lick must be resolved enough, it must have a "period' on it of sorts to be a lick. And when I did some checking, all the licks I looked at did just that. There's a long list of things that an exercise like this forces me to think about in quantitative ways which give added insight to the metaphors that are more commonly used to help communicate about what is going on. For example, people often say that the blues is a mixture of sweet and sour, i.e. major and minor and that mixture in various combinations helps communicate feelings. But, what does that really mean? Is that even true? What is the difference between major and minor? Can we model that and quantify that? Which brings up other questions like: is that model just another mythology added on top of the sweet-sour metaphor or is it solidly based in physical reality and human physiology - not that I hope to resolve that question in this thread but diving deep into nuts and bolts of licks makes me more aware of questions like that. So beyond practice material- I'm developing a more detailed understanding of the nuts and bolts of licks in a way that is effective for me.

And as you say, I've only hinted at a heuristic so far - very true. This is a bottom up development approach and so far I've just been laying the ground work which I need as building blocks for a heuristic to develop a dictionary of blues licks. And I envision that dictionary itself, as just a set of building blocks, a vocabulary, for actual blues music. Now when I started the thread, creating dictionary of licks and showing the relationships of various licks to each other was the extent of my project but now that I'm getting close to being able to start working on heuristic for the dictionary I'm thinking the next step after that would be to pick licks from the dictionary to create blues solos. Which brings us to:

A improvisatory tradition like the blues cannot be naturalised into equations and quantities because it's not about the notes but about the in-the-moment choices of the musician, and how that makes them, and you, feel about the music.

I agree. I think that's what it is ultimately all about. At some point in my musical struggle I got that. But I'm hoping to shed some light on what's involved in those choices, or at least present another way of looking at those choices that may be helpful to someone like me who is a bit musically challenged and needs to use other skills to help overcome those deficiencies.

I find it helpful to think of a lick as a fragment: a brick in a wall, a sentence fragment in broader narrative, a colour on a palette ready to be mixed with others and applied to the musical canvas - on it's own it means nothing, but it can form part of a larger structure and gain meaning from that context. Of course, in an improvised tradition that larger structure is built on-the-fly, in-the-moment - the lick is not like a motif in a more formal structure that has been deliberated over and tested outside of the bounds and immediate pressures of musical time.

As a lick is a base unit of musical information it can be manipulated in two significant ways: by time and by pitch. The possibilities here are virtually limitless, but as I said, the goal of working on licks in an improvised tradition is to build and integrate musical components into a language schema that can be deployed on the hoof, and so the routines that we develop to manipulate musical information also have to be integrated into our musical lexicons - not just the base units to which those manipulations have been applied beforehand.

What I'm saying is that I think this formal cataloguing project of yours, though interesting in itself, is basically a distraction which displaces you from what you really need to focus on: generating a lexicon of coherent musical information that can be drawn on in performance. That can only be achieved through practising musical performance, which is to say, by 'practising' - because if you're not practising the performance of music you're not really practising at all, you're just don't the musical equivalent of housework or weightlifting.

I used to flatshare with an alto sax player who was obsessed with Cannonball Adderly - I mean like totally obsessed. Not only did he have pretty much every recording Adderly appeared on, but he even had a copy of one of his suits made from an album cover, so that he looked like Adderly (in his own mind) on gigs. He held the instrument like Adderly, used the same mouthpiece as Adderly, the same make of reeds in the same strength, and he obsessively transcribed as many Adderly solos and lick as he could muster - which was a doomed project imo because it would take a lifetime to write all that shit down.

He felt that if he could collate all of Adderly's solos he could get at the very essence of what made Adderly such an incredible improviser, but in this he spent far more time listening to Adderly and and transcribing his solos, and writing them out neatly, and cataloguing them by recording session, by tune title, by band members, by tempo, and by key, that he didn't have much time left for practising - and I mean really practising. Not that he didn't play the alto a lot, he did, every day, and for quite a few hours - going over Adderly solos and playing along with the records and get that material 'just right'. He certainly put in the hourse with his hands on the horn, and In fact as a result he was an excellent and accomplished alto player. He could read anything you put in front of him, he knew all his chords and all the modes, and he could play really fast and really loud - which all sax players secretly admire and aspire to.

I asked him once what it was about Adderly's playing that got him so excited, and his reply went something like this: "He's just so good. I mean, in this solo I'm working on at the moment he does this thing where he pops out a low B from nowhere, and then does this quick arpeggio in fourths up to G and then, get this, he does this five-note repeated figure all the way down the wholetone scale until he's back on that B again. It's amazing!" Now this was obviously a keen observation and a pretty good musical description of a particular phrase, but it said nothing to me about how he responded to Adderly's playing beyond his capacity to combine notes in a musical phrase in a way my friend found musically satisfying. Of course, what he really responded to was the way Adderly's solos started, and developed, where they came from and where they went to and how they integrated with what the rest of the ensemble was doing; the musical journey Adderly took him on and the way that made him feel about the music, about Adderly the man, Adderly the musician, Adderly the amazing sax player, and about himself in relation to all that. Without incite into this aspect of the ultimate spontaneous musical form my friend was content (and as I put it to a mutual friend 'condemned') to reproduce material he'd collected from Cannonball Adderly, and so his own improvising, although far more technically accomplished than many others, was essentially lifeless. It lacked spontaneity. It lacked certain and necessary spirit and dynamic energy. It lacked personality, and without that it said next to nothing. It sounded like jazz but it wasn't Jazz, it was a musical jigsaw where the pieces had been put together from different boxes without reference to the lids. In effect, without the aforethought to develop his own personal musical lexicon my intense and sincerely obsessed friend mostly sounded like a mechanical pastiche of someone else.