For many years I have been using my own ‘secret’ technique for developing more variety and surprising twists and turns in my jazz solos. Though it is not really secret, it is not known by many, and thus I like to think of it as my “secret” weapon, the way I can surprise (and hopefully) delight my audiences with music they were not expecting.
This (chromatic) approach to my playing is based on pivot notes, and a certain degree of indeterminacy. It can be used to make music or as a practice aide to help one find new possibilities and tonal directions for themselves. I nickname it the Chromatic Axis Concept, but I didn’t “invent” it per se: they are simple variations on old Serial techniques from the early twentieth century. No matter what kind of music you play though, these (two) techniques may help you discover new ways of expressing yourself.
Chromatic Metronome Training
The fundamental exercise is what I call Chromatic Metronome Training. Though it is simple in theory, it can be a quite demanding exercise in praxis. Setting one’s metronome between 60 and 70 to the quarter note, one plays random pitches on the beat, and continues to do so for extended periods of time. As the exercise continues the idea is to avoid any repetition of note or scale types, including the chromatic scale. Though it is mathematically impossible to avoid eventually repeating oneself, the idea is to consciously avoid it as much as possible. Staying within an octave then moving to larger and larger intervallic leaps over time, the student can then practice such intellectual games as avoiding certain notes to alleviate any possible fatigue or boredom if it sets in. I recommend practicing this exercise in two minute sessions only with a brief break in between each, working up to extended sessions of an hour or more so as not to risk a repetitive stress injury, or mental fatigue especially. A recorded example of this technique in the process of improvising can be heard on my recording of Giant Steps from 2:12 – 2:18 in a series of eighth notes, and at both 6: 17 – 6:26 and 6:31 – 6:42 in quarter notes.
The benefits of doing this exercise are: (1) one’s sense of mode, harmony, and melody are shifted away from the standard diatonic training systems to a more acute sensitivity of chromatic tonality, thus expanding or deepening one’s understanding of the relationship between the two, (2) it effectively breaks down old diatonic habits, clichéd patterns and phrases as the student becomes more familiar with the playing of linear non- diatonic pitches, (3) it helps the student develop a superior time feel as they spend hours with the metronome, (4) the exercise will help the student develop a harmonically advanced ear as they begin to hear comprehend the complex intervallic relationships occurring spontaneously, and (5) becoming more acutely aware of the intervallic or micro-intervallic levels of music, rather than contemplating whole modes during improvisation. The improviser can thus create music that is more subtly constructed and expertly improvised, improvising note by note rather than modally or “motifically,” which I believe is a distinct advantage chromatic thinking has over diatonic or harmonic thinking in many instances.
The use of an axis to create melodies is a Serial technique, as well as a way of creating set forms like in John Coltrane’s use of a perfect fourth and a minor third interval-set to create a harmonic system called the Coltrane Matrix. My particular usage consists of spontaneously creating modes from a strict set of two intervals while improvising, either over traditional jazz songs or when creating my own graph score improvisations. Most scales have a fixed interval set usually consisting of whole and half steps. In using such a scale, the form of the scale is fairly static melodically and intervallically in relation to the set harmony for a standard jazz piece. By applying this logic to scale formation, one can create semi-structured intervallic modes involving a more open harmonic form. Instead of playing an intervallically fixed scale, one can decide on two intervals and make one’s melodic inventions follow steps of only those intervals. For example, if one chose the intervals of a fourth and a half step, and started on the note ‘C’, they automatically have two options: move to the note F above, or move to the note G below. Moving to G then would create the option of moving a half step now to G# or F#. From either pitch they would move a fourth, and so on. There is no apparent tonal centre to these modes, but because they follow a repeating interval set, the modes contain an intriguing “inner” logic that makes the mode make tonal “sense,” no matter what kind of chord is present underneath. Taking this concept further, I occasionally break the pattern and restart from another note, creating an intervallic irregularity that to me has a wonderful, evolving ‘asymmetry’ to it. The system of creating axial modes can also be used as a practical performance method or a training device, depending on the needs of the musician studying it. In this way, “free improvisation” knowledge does not become genre-specific, but something everyone can use to expand their understanding of the variety of ways one can come to understand music. By focusing on the qualities of a single note or interval system, one is aware of more options for expression that can lead to individual statements without losing group cohesion.
Wynton Marsalis is right when he says “abstraction is not the only form of progress,” so feel free to use as much or as little as you like!