Soloing “Around” a Singer: The Art of Vocal Ornamentation.



With all of the focus on extended soloing in jazz improvisation, little is written about a significant aspect of a working saxophonist’s skill set: the ability to “soloistically” support and interweave with a vocalist during stanzas and choruses of a song. In this case I am referring to jazz and pop vocalists, but the principles behind this art of vocal ornamentation remain the same in other styles such blues, rock, reggae, and so on.

There are many benefits to focusing on this kind of playing. Most importantly it teaches us to play with restraint, as overplaying immediately ruins the mood and flow of a song. It also teaches us to have “conversations” with the vocalist, which increases our ability to contextualize others’ musical ideas: a more sophisticated skill than merely mimicking the vocalist. It also creates greater clarity and economy of thought in our playing, which eliminates overplaying and conserves energy.

For example, a profound demonstration of this is the plaintive yearning of John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone as he floats through Johnny Hartman’s rendition of Lush Life, creating an unforgettable feeling of heartbreak and loneliness. Another excellent example is both saxophonist Michael Brecker and bassist Jaco Pastorius’ wistful ornamentations throughout Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, on her album “Shadows and Light”. Each help create a haunting, atmospheric mood that takes the music to a potent, seemingly divine place. As well, Sting’s Bring On The Night album is laden with some of the best individual jazz/rock saxophone accompaniment ever (I Burn For You, or We Work The Black Seam being thoroughly inimitable examples), performed by Branford Marsalis.

So what is the secret to creating such amazing, supportive saxophone playing? The answer lies in what we might call the flow of “melodic energy”, and to understand this flow it is important to know three key terms. These terms essentially refer to a tripartite set of actions within continuous flow, like how one inhales, pauses for a split second, then exhales, or a golfer’s backswing, forward motion, and follow through after striking the ball.

The first term, anacrusis, refers to a brief set of notes, a “pickup” that sets up the flow and feeling of the main melody. In vocal ornamentation, the anacrusis is the energy set up by the vocalist, the feeling that sets up how you will respond. Thus, the vocalist’s “energy anacrusis” prepares you for your own phraseology to follow. It is like the vocalist’s singing is an in-breath and your playing is the out-breath, the crusis, the feeling of the phrase and beat that you continue the vocalist’s energy with. The momentary space between the vocalist’s cessation and the beginning of your playing is the metacrusis, the (empty or energized) space between beats and phrases, which creates anticipation and interest when properly considered before playing the crusis. Another metacrusis comes into play before the vocalist returns, and thus you leave a space for a new vocal anacrusis to set up the next crusis of your own. It is this process (and feeling) of forward flow that is makes the interaction between vocalist and woodwind so powerful when done properly. Rather than vocal phrase mixed with or followed by a little solo, this crusic approach is more sophisticated and artistic.

The reason this happens is because crusic ornamentations create what are known as agogic (melody-based) accents, rather than strictly rhythmic ones. This means that your improvisation is dictated more by the flow of the melody than the strict meter of the song. Thus, when considering the flow of melody you begin to stretch out single notes longer or shorter than usual, or delay anticipated notes in a phrase. This not only gives you greater creative freedom, but also creates unexpected twists and turns around the vocalist’s singing, giving them reciprocal inspiration in kind. Knowing this then, one can continue to develop a better sense of agogic flow by learning how to properly scat sing.

Charlie Parker once said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”. This is very true with being able to scat sing in the manner it is meant to be done, as a true art form: the vocal expression of the sound of an instrument. Rather than the often fatuous and unmusical “skooby-du-wahs” that make scatting look like a cheap novelty, the great vocalists always emulated a saxophone or trumpet, and chose vocal sounds that flowed like the trumpet of Miles Davis or the ebullient alto of Charlie Parker. This is because these artists understood that great scat singing is sounds and not words, ergo not trying to make various syllables “fit” into music. The former is art, the latter ends up being insipid. Once learning to properly emulate an instrument with your voice then, you can phrase your improvisations more musically and “humanly”, similar to how blues guitarists strive to make their instrument “talk.”

Thus, it is essential to sit down with albums such as Davis’ Kind Of Blue, or Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and literally learn to sound like Davis or saxophonist Paul Desmond with your voice, however you can achieve that goal. In doing so, you will not only be much better prepared to work around a vocalist, your musical and economic options expand if you happen to be considering a side career as a jazz vocalist. The study of vocal ornamentation is unique and fulfilling, so good luck!



2 thoughts on “Soloing “Around” a Singer: The Art of Vocal Ornamentation.

  1. Anacrusis, metacrusis, crusis . . . superb theorizing; we need that approach to appreciate what JS Bach does, too, both with real counterpoint and single melodies that compress multiple voices. Also deeply complementary to what Alexandra Pierce does with movement phrasing in her “Deepening Musical Performance . . .”

    1. Thank you VERY much! After working with vocalists for nearly 40 years, I truly believe it comes down to this approach for the most profound expressions. And as for J.S. Bach… my love for his music is immeasurable!!

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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