San Diego Saxophone Lessons

San Diego Saxophone Lessons
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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Going To The Source part I

A large part of playing jazz is learning "standards" or tunes from what's called The Great American Songbook. This group of thousands of tunes (from the Tin Pan Alley era through the 60s and beyond) is the foundation of jazz and bebop, and these melodies can also be a wellspring of ideas for new tunes and for our improvisations.

When learning a new song, rather than trying to memorize the melody note-for-note from the sheet music, I recommend doing it the old-fashioned way: learn the words! Imagine knowing the song "Happy Birthday" as only a group of notes and intervals that you learned from a piece of music. This is utterly ridiculous! You would have no idea of the intent of the song (other than the title), or the phrasing, mood, etc. When you play Happy Birthday, you can't help but hear and know the words in your head and in your ear as you are playing! On the flip-side of this equation, would a singer ever think of the notes and leaps when he/she sings Happy Birthday? While you sing do you think in you head: up-M2, down-M2, up-P4, down-m2? 

Unfortunately, many jazz players (likely including some of the current big-names) slip by with this superficial "note/interval" type of relationship with standards. Certainly, I myself am guilty of this - many of the tunes I play on gigs I still have no idea of the words. To have a close relationship with the song (and this is especially crucial on ballads) you must have a good grip on the words and the feeling of the song! When we play a wind instrument, we should strive to get the melody as close to the feeling of singing as possible. Many of the tenor saxophone greats loved the classic vocalists and probably knew more words to more songs than your average professional singer. I'm especially thinking of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster here.



In the era of YouTube it is incredibly easy to Go To The Source and hear singers interpreting the original melody as the composer intended. It's as simple as a 5 second search. Young musicians really have no excuse these days. Way back in the 20th century, we'd actually have to go to a music library or to a friend with a large record collection to discover music!

In my experience, I've found that the much older recordings will have the most literal interpretations of the melodies. For example, Sarah Vaughan may have sang the daylights out of "All of Me" in the 80s, but you may have better luck learning the actual melody from the Ruth Etting or Billie Holiday version. Early Frank Sinatra can also be a great resource for learning tunes accurately (Fletcher Henderson era Frank).


Here are some practice ideas for standards that I've tried in the past:
  • Research the history of the song to find out if it was first premiered in a movie or musical, and find out which singers first popularized the song.
  • Listen to the ORIGINAL version (if possible) on YouTube.
  • Find a dozen or so vocal versions on YouTube and then zero-in on two or three interpretations that really resonate with you. Listen to these until they are burned into your brain.
  • Play along with the actual recordings, and imagine singing the words in your head as you play. It's very important to play with the real recordings - do not use "play-along" records or Aebersolds (but these can come in handy later on when working on soloing and chord-changes).
  • Once you memorize the song and all the words, try playing the tune a capella in a few different keys. As you explore new keys, focus on thinking/singing each word or syllable in your head as you play. Use your ear and just go for it. Resist the temptation to think in terms of note-names or intervals.
  • You'll find that learning the words to tunes will actually speed up the processes of memorization and transposition.
You don't have to know the words to every song. This would be an impossible task! Some standards I know thoroughly and others I just have a general idea of some words and the overall vibe. As you learn more and more songs on an intimate level, it will improve your phrasing, interpretation, and overall execution.

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You can read part II of this post here.

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