The Secret of Jazz? Mathematics

Subtract the square root of the tritone substitution… It’s not this complicated, honest.

Forget technical studies, listening to the greats, learning licks, advanced harmony, playing out, networking and “living the life”. Well, don’t forget them at all, actually.

But those are the obvious bits, and there’s a very simple principle that most learners completely overlook as they strive to progress in jazz. They’re usually too busy with the high-flown stuff to attend to the basics.

Shall we do the maths?

Let’s assume you’ll be playing a real jazzy blowing number with a quartet. It’s a brisk medium-up tempo and will last (for sake of easy calculation) for ten minutes.

So you’ve got the head in (say 30 seconds) and out (another 30 seconds) – total 1 minute. The sax plays the head, then takes maybe 6 choruses (I know, if only – but for sake of argument let’s call it 3 minutes). The pianist then maybe takes another 6 choruses (3 minutes). Say the bass and drums take the remaining 3 minutes between them, whether as solos or fours, or whatever, with some slack for intros/outros etc.

The sax player will be typically be playing the head for 1 minute and soloing for 3 minutes. The pianist will typically be comping for, let’s say 5 mins (the head, the sax solo and the bass solo as well, sometimes) and soloing for 3 minutes.

  • Do you know any sax players who spend 25% of their practice time on heads?
  • Do you know any pianists who spend 60% of their practice time on comping?

Now sure, jazz is about improvising, doing your thing and all, and that’s where people devote their attention, but why treat heads or comping as “yeah whatever”? Too many people just idly toss off the heads or mash through the comping, in their desperate fixation on getting to “the good stuff”.

In what other profession would someone be so blasé about anything between a quarter and two-thirds of their job?

The great players that you admire played beautifully over heads…

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping, c) Musicianship

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