Just a few thoughts on learning tunes

I’d like to speak now on the importance of learning as many tunes as possible when in your formative years as a jazz musician.  Learning and performing tunes will allow you to perform with a bigger pool of musicians when you are out at sessions or in a lot of cases corporate gigs where you are considered “background” music.   It’s been my experience to treat these gigs as practice gigs.  Many times I’ll play the entire gig with a cup mute and bring in new songs that I need to present to my group in order to present the feel of the tune into their conscience.  Of course I always thought about the programming of the tunes ahead of time.  You always want to be conscience of who you are playing for.  We are there to entertain.  That’s another blog in itself.   I’ll talk about that later.  Incidentally I learned a lot of Monk,  Joe Henderson, and Kenny Dorham compositions during a time when I was playing a lot of wedding rehearsals, cocktail hours, and dinner parties in the New England area.  I found that most if not all of their tunes had that built-in groove, that very distinct style of swing within the arrangement.  That sensibility doesn’t need to be altered in any way when playing these tunes in public.  I found that I could play these tunes in public just the way they were recorded and still win the crowds over for the most part.  So in the end the band and I was all the better for it (we had a few new tunes in our repertoire) and the clients went away happy. 

Musically speaking, one of the most important advantages of learning a lot of tunes is that your capacity to improvise increases.  As one of my teachers Darren Barrett once said to me, “composing is simply putting your musical vocabulary down on paper.”  So when you learn a new tune we are essentially adding the vocabulary of the composer to what you already have.  I think that there is so much to be gained from having the ability to truly improvise off of a melody.  There are several ways of going about this.  One method involves taking a phrase of the melody itself and manipulating it rhythmically and harmonically to fit your taste.  Many competent players also choose to rework the notes of the melody to fit the chords as they progress, keeping the rhythm intact.  One player that I consider to be a master at this is tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.  He has mastered the concept of using motivics throughout an entire solo, at the same time keeping everyone’s ear close to what he’s playing.  I’ve noticed throughout the years that whenever I play in this manner it somehow engages the audience (that is of course depending on where I am playing) at a higher level.  I think that this is because it’s easier to convey tension and release when you are using rhythm as a motive and allowing the melody to remain central to your improvisation.  When the melody’s there, everyone’s going to be on the same page, including the audience.  It’s almost like saying that you have the audience “in the palm of your hands”. 


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