Arabian Concepts For Jazz Improvisation.


As the 21st century progresses, jazz musicians still find themselves looking outside of the genre for material and inspiration as artists such as John Coltrane or Dewey Redman had in the past. Most often this exploration was focused on Africa and India, with many philosophical concepts taken on from East Asian (Japan and China). Thankfully, the Internet and Canada’s multicultural population have led to any number of flourishing ethnic communities off or online, both of which have upheld ancient traditions and created hybrid forms. This also means that many of the hybrids are old enough to have created their own traditions. Thus, jazz (or indeed any) musicians have the golden opportunity to study and create like no other generation before them.

Traditional music from the Middle East, though, has not been studied and/or discussed as much, although now with more academic focus on such music, there are ever increasing amounts of information and study materials available to the general public. Music from Arabian countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan is still relatively unknown to the majority of Western musicians, so I thought I would introduce you all to it and hopefully inspire you to listen to and be influenced by these amazing styles and forms. Of course, we should always be sure that we are being respectful of such cultural materials, used with the knowledge that such music comes with social as much as musical norms. A very valid criticism of some artists in the world music category is that they just get a drummer from India and play what they think sound like Indian scales, merely using an Indian musician to make themselves look cool or intellectual without interacting with or respecting the artist/culture they are using for their own gain. But, by adapting a few concepts and ideas from Arabian musical styles, we can expand our musical borders, and gain a new appreciation of the musical and artistic thoughts of others in our community.

When playing Arabian music one is instantly struck by the primacy of melody, its ornamentation and development being vital to a good performance (and reception) of a song. Arabian melody is highly “modal,” it moves up and down on a scale rather than through a set of chords. The system of scales (modes) used is organized into note/scale sets known as maqamaat (singular: maqam). Each maqam is not only a scale but is related to certain melodies and notes that must be emphasized in order to distinguish it from other maqamaat/melodies, in a manner (slightly) similar to the ragas (scales/melodies) of India. The maqamaat are organized around groups of three to five note sets, usually two main sets joined on an axial or “shared” note between the two. As well, secondary sets can be modally formed from the primary maqam, much like one can find jazz scales like Dorian or Mixolydian “hidden” within the Western major scale. While improvising then, one can move through the sets (modulation), pivoting and turning through each related melody and maqam. Using this concept of note sets, one can begin exploring the sound and melody possibilities of Arabian music as well as applying the maqam/modulation idea to Western scales and melodies. Exploring scales in this manner also leads one to form odd and even note groupings in a melody or scale, which greatly assists in not playing repetitive clichéd runs and habitual patterns that we jazz musicians often inadvertently fall into.

The development of a good improvisation (known in Arabic as a “taqsim” – tak-seem) which moves through the notes of a maqam looks similar how jazz moves through related scales, but the structure is vastly different. Actually, a taqsim is organised on the inverse concept. Unlike most standard forms of jazz there is no fixed rhythmic form or bar scheme for maqam improvisation, apart from the rhythm the drummer might play underneath. Even then, a solo accompanied by a drummer still does not dictate that the soloist must follow the beat. Soloists will most often play with no set beat within their playing while the drummer plays, which helps the soloist weave in and out of the drum pattern in colorful, and often very moving, ways. Because of this seemingly free form style in the solo, many people new to Arabian music think that the taqsim is just random notes, formless, what we in the West might call ‘directionless.” But in actuality a good taqsim is always defined and shaped by musical “levels” or phases: three or four set notes one must improvise with before playing the appropriate, pre-studied ending phrase (cadence). This is what makes Arabian music so incredibly hard yet so ethereal and beautiful. There are so many rules on how/when to move from one tetrachord (group of four notes) to another, and which well-known cadence is the right one to finish that section of your improvisation with. One is always exploring an evolving, rising/descending series of fixed sets, cadences, and patterns, etc. Using this idea of Arabian maqamaat and taqasim (pl) we can then begin to develop a more modal type of thinking in our improvising, whether it be jazz or rock or country… anything. So, as a way to expand one’s modal “consciousness,” experiment with the following exercise(s).

Begin by playing, for example, a C major scale. Now, begin playing little melodies/ideas around the first note C, for example: [CDE, ECD, DEF, EFE, DCD, C]. The idea is to always return to C as your last note after each little improvisation. C is your anchor note, thus you can always move above and below it [CDE, DEC, BCD, DCB, C]. The idea is that you return to C to finish your ideas. After doing this for a couple of minutes, now make your anchor note E, so your next bit of improvisation looks more like this: [CDE, EFE, DEF, ECED, EFG] and so on. Your anchor note is always the last note you play before moving. Also, do not move more than three or four notes above your anchor note. This restraint builds the ability to make the most music out of the least amount of materials. Arabian music, at its best, is a subtle art, and connoisseur audiences appreciate the most subtle and clever variations. This is why the great Arabian artists can spend a long time developing a solo, each layer and set is used to its utmost, and only then will the artist move to the next level. This modal restraint – when applied to jazz – makes such a huge difference; creates great beauty and sophistication. In the case of the anchor notes, each work as a pivot, and keeping yourself to each pivotal area will greatly improve your improvising in terms of idea development and ability to create musical nuance, color, and depth.

Expanding the anchor note’s role as a pivot, we then can create little micro solos within a bigger solo. For example, if we are playing a D minor scale [DEFGABCD] we can then play little phrase around D as an axis, anywhere from the G below it to the G above, moving a little bit at a time as we go. Then we can make F the new axis and play our ideas from the C below it to the B above it, using only the notes allowed by the scale (no C#, or Bb, etc). Then, make A the axis before moving back down to D by making G, then F the new axes before finishing on D as your final note. All of this should be done without a metronome or accompaniment at first so you can fully focus on the development of your improvisation.

Another interesting aspect of traditional Arabian vocal and instrumental music is its “syntactical” qualities – how much the music sounds like the pacing and “rhythm” of the Arabic language itself. Gaining an appreciation or understanding of the Arabic (or indeed any) language, however basic, will help you shape your music accordingly. Even knowing a few words of Japanese will help you write music more conducive to being sung in Japanese, or have Japanese lyrics added to it. But ultimately, shaping music in a syntactically, always seems to make it more effective in relaying emotion. This is shown by how people will say that a blues artist such as Stevie Ray Vaughn could make his guitar “talk,” how he and many other artists had/have that amazing talking quality on their instrument: saxophone, guitar… even drums. Thus, I always encourage anyone trying to make the music more emotive to learn a second language, and try to connect their improvising to this new grammar. It is also a fun way to be inspired by new ideas, and new cultural experiences. Many performing musicians become ethnomusicologists because, the process of learning a new, “foreign” instrument they fall in love with the country/culture and go on to do extensive research on it. In my own case, I went to Japan to work and perform, and in the process fell so deeply in love with Japanese Noh theater, gagaku, Buddhist chant, and the avant-garde/free-form music scene in/around Osaka, that I have been writing/thinking about it ever since (twenty years)! I even wrote a 300-page book (PhD dissertation) about it.

So, to start working with this idea, learn a few Arabic phrases for example, and try and use the rhythm of the words as a rhythm. Most often, I will assign a particular note value to each syllable, so one syllable is a quarter note, and two syllables are two eighth notes, and so one. The phrase “Mary had a little lamb” feels like a seven beat phrase, so I could play a note on each syllable or each syllable-like pulse, “Ma-ry-ha-da-lit-tle-lamb…” You can then start playing around the word order, which will change how you tongue your wind instrument, pick your guitar, or play your piano (changing finger pressure/pedal choice). Experimenting with this idea leads to an expanding sense of rhythm, as well as build greater creative flexibility in discovering new ways to express oneself in whatever style you choose to improvise or compose in.

Of course, all this is a very, very basic introduction to Arab music, and as such cannot even begin to cover the extensive issues related to each idea. But, by playing around with the maqamaat idea and modal phases, you will discover something new within your own style and learn to appreciate the multitude of amazing traditional Arab musicians, songs, and styles that have been with us for many centuries.

* for information on Arab/Persian micro-tones (and the saxophone), see my Quarter Tone Charts (四分音の図表) page at the top of the blog.



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