A lesson with Maarten van der Grinten

I felt I wanted some fresh ideas for playing and called dutch guitarist Maarten van der Grinten for a lesson. Today I met him at his place.

With a nice cappuccino in hand, I explain to Maarten that I think I get into the same patterns too much, and would like some nice fresh new input. Since he suggested I’d bring a tune that I am struggling with this very moment, I brought Punjab, by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. As it has been quite some time since Maarten had heard the tune we start with listening to it together.

Although it might be obvious to look at the tune chord by chord, it really can help to think from a certain key. There may be several options for some tunes and there isn’t always such thing as a “right”or “wrong”. For instance: when Paul Desmond wrote “In Your Own Sweet Way” he thought of it as in Eb whereas many people – including Miles – would see Bb as the tonic.

Looking at Pubjab, you might see Eb as tonic, but other keys might work as well. Probably B is even better.

Punjab Chord progression

Punjab Chord Progression

We play through the scheme a few times and listen again to the recording. We hope to find more clearness in the functions of the chords while listening. Then I ask Maarten about his opinion on rhythm in jazz. I remember him telling some interesting stuff on Tristano-subjects ten years ago.

The Rhythm of Tristano is very nice and interesting to experiment with. Back in the days I did a lot of research on this subject. Groups of three / five / six… it’s a vocabulary that you are not naturally trained to hear, so you have to practise it and calculate before it gets into your system.

The fact that we musicians don’t naturally hear it, means for the audience it’s even harder to understand and value the music. Also, to the audience all antimetric figures sound the same.
One thing I like to use in improvisation is a thematic approach. Not in the way some people would be repeating the same pattern over and over after having heard Sonny Rollins’ St Thomas Blues, but more in a sonataform-like way. If – for instance – you would take a rhythm change, you would expose your first theme in the first A. Meaning: you would start with some statement. Might be anything: a chord, a dissonant, a sound effect, a lick… as long as it’s recognisable. You start building from there. Second A you quote your first statement. In the bridge you step away from it maybe you give a hint about the next chorus or you just lay off. Then the last A again you refer to your first statement. Next chorus you force yourself to have a new theme to work from. This way a pattern gets a function, namely of pointing out the structure. Moreover, the thematical thinking makes you less of a chord-slave.

We play Punjab anew and I try to expose a new theme every chorus and let it come back after 8 bars. After this we get into a conversation about how jazz students are being pressed into a chords-only approach to jazz.

Generally speaking, you may say that values as “dynamics” and “melody” are under-exposed in jazz education. Whereas those are among the first things to be noticed by a listening audience. It would make sense to be more conscious of those things. Let’s start by putting the volume down in the first place and see where it goes from there.

A great way to train interaction is by playing a tune and deliberately going up and down in tempo, alternating the role of leader and follower. Or by playing “no song”, without establishing which chords there are to be played.

When you expect the other to follow you, make sure you do evaluate if he does. For instance: when you play an extra turnaround-tag at the end of a song, but the bassplayer continues the next chorus, you should notice before the bridge :) No one-way traffic allowed!

Maarten and I play “no song”, switching from minor to major, from swing to straight and back and modulating every once in a while.

You can see we have the natural tendency to think in 8-bar phrases. It is nice to play with this. Mozart for instance could go to the dominant and stay there for ages. There is even a book on the asymmetric structures in Mozart tunes.

Over all it is never a good idea to do something, just because you’re used to doing it that way. Step away from your habits!

Dublin part one

I promised to write a daily update about my whereabouts in Ireland. The reason for me being here is a grand Noel Kelehan memorial in National Concert Hall tomorrow. Yesterday was my first day in Dublin, but – apart from the taxi driver having good memories of the club dates Kelehan would be playing fourty years ago – there isn’t that much of relevance to write about.

For that reason I’ll immediately skip to today, which was originally planned to be the big rehearsal day. In Ireland things never go as planned, so I was off all day, giving me time for a good workout and some socialising.

After that bass player and jazz educator Cormac O’Brian was as kind as to invite me to a Kenny Werner workshop. There were a few views that appealed to me very much. A lot of his ideas can also be found in his famous book ‘effortless mastery‘.

Kenny states it’s the thing to focus at one thing at a time and stay with that until you really master that. Don’t aim for the mediocre, but for real quality, even when it’s about only two bars to start with.

Also, teach yourself to practice with focus. In other words: quit as soon as your concentration is lacking so you won’t get used to an unconcentrated practise routine, but instead will learn to stretch the amount of time being focused.

Any chord with any bass note can resolve to any other chord with any other bass note. As long as the voice leading is right. It helps broadening your creativity to get some random elements into your improvisation. If you would practise just two of those chord progressions every week..

About patience: don’t expect anything to happen within a week, think months and persevere! It would be a terrible shame to quit only one day before breakthrough ;)

And finally: you can think of practising as a square turned on it’s side. At the top stands effortless (read the book) then the other corners are perfect, right tempo and the whole thing. Effortless is always there, and from the others you can drop one for practising purposes. So you play the whole two bars you are working on perfectly but slow. Or perfectly and in the right tempo, but only the amount of notes that you can play effortlessly. Maybe that’s just two notes! Or you play all in the right tempo, but allow yourself to be sloppy.

Good ideas to work with! So now for a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s rehearsals and concert. Looking forward!