The Art Of The Jazz Set: Part Two

As I mentioned in Part One, being a professional musician these days is a challenge, especially if you are a woodwind specialist. We study the finest details of theory, composition, improvisation, and so on, but there is little discussion of the art of creating an interesting series of songs for a jazz concert, divided into two sets of 7 or 8 songs. Thus, I discussed the overarching structure of how a jazz set should be approached. Now, in Part Two of this series, I want to share with you my thoughts on which individual songs to choose, or at least which songs might to help make the set as much of a representative “jazz” set as possible.

Jazz music truly is the art of bringing out the flavor of a song as much as it is improvising with it, so it is important to fill your set with songs that have and possible will stand the test of time: harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically pleasing music your audience will be edified as much as entertained by. Thus, there are certain song types that will guarantee this, all of them sharing a common feature: they will surprise your audience due to their uncommonness.

Royal Garden Blues, written by Clarence Williams in 1919, is a jaunty two-part blues with an irresistibly entertaining melody. Though many versions of the melody and form have been recorded, it is saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ (LP) version that will have the maximum impact on your audience, especially if played on soprano saxophone. Marsalis both captures the original flavor of the song and adds a modern, chromatic twist in his improvisations the lift the song into the modern era.

Two excellent songs from the mid twentieth century, Chronology by saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Passion Dance by pianist McCoy Tyner, are always a wise choice for inclusion in any jazz set. Chronology for example is not only a joy to listen to but extremely fun to play as well. With a wonderfully careening melody and no set chords to solo over, it is both an easy and challenging song to perform: easy to learn the melody and rhythmic feel, but rather difficult to improvise on. So to avoid any complications or harmonic mishaps a common solution is to improvise around a single center: a note or a chord that the band can agree on beforehand which provides context and unity.

Passion Dance too is a minimalistic in its solo section, a single suspended dominant chord over which you can create a wide variety of musical colours. It is also an excellent choice for your sets in that it is not played as often as similar works by saxophonist John Coltrane (Impressions, Afro Blue, etc.) which your audience(s) may have grown tired of through overexposure at jam sessions and concerts wherein musicians take exhaustively long solos that lack the musical cohesion of Coltrane’s own extended improvisations. Thus, including a medium length version of Passion Dance in your set could be just the right way to distinguish your self from the average jazz musician.

Another way to (greatly) distinguish your set is to perform either the original or your own arrangement of the song Tutu by Miles Davis. It is extremely rare to hear this song performed in a jazz group lacking synthesizers and electric bass, let alone one that includes them, so finding a way to arrange it will definitely get the attention of jazz connoisseurs. It also provides an excellent opportunity to use any electronics you run your woodwind instruments through, especially ones that contain some kind of harmonizer or envelope filter. Done tastefully and timed properly, the addition of these effects is a wonderful and entertaining surprise, thus I have an old vocal processor on hand, set and ready to go in case I feel inspired. Using a harmonizer, which is set to create the interval of a fifth above whatever you play, adds a “medieval” quality to the sound, which creates a very stark and dramatic quality. Such a digital enhancement can also provide an interesting option on another 80s jazz standard, Nothing Personal by Don Grolnick, made famous by its various live performances by saxophonist Michael Brecker. Usually played between medium to high speed, this twisting minor blues is an excellent song through which a performer can demonstrate how comfortable they are with using space in their improvisation; a mark of their musical maturity as a jazz musician. It is tempting to fill up all the “silence” that is possible in the song, so using this opportunity to play with reticence and grace is to your advantage.

Moving your set into the 21st century is a fun way to be both relevant and innovative at the same time. For my generation it was jazz versions of songs by Bjork, RUSH, Pink Floyd, the relatively unknown B-side I Burn For You by The Police, or especially, Yothu Yindi’s transcendental Gapu. Now, Pyramid Song by Radiohead for example has an overall feel and melody that would make for a great jazz waltz. Grip by Tessa Thompson is also an excellent example of a song that could be translated into jazz, and even something as musically extreme as Rational Gaze or Born Into Dissonance by Meshuggah has the potential to be converted into a fascinating odd time signature jazz song, if done carefully. Currently there are many artists in styles such as dark dubstep, etc. creating bass and drum rhythms that would be very interesting constructs for jazz songs.

Wisely choosing songs for a jazz set is a practiced, learn as you go process. But with a little thought and work, you will be able to entertain and inspire your audiences wherever you go. So work hard and good luck!

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