Tooning Note (and Laser Elephants)

Tooning note… ah, the classic Aebersold call to arms… Actually the Aebersold playalongs are very good and I wish they’d been around when I was starting out. But this post isn’t about that – yet again, I’ve opted for a cheap gag headline. This one’s a tip for singers (and accompanists).

In this day and age, a jazz accompanist rarely gets a full chart from a singer – it’s usually “just the changes, ma’am”. The question facing us today is “how to put the singer in with full confidence in the right key?”

A gifted accompanist in action.

A gifted young accompanist in action.

Now an accompanist with ears like lasers and/or the memory of an elephant could probably just instantly find you the opening phrase of any tune. But laser elephants are fairly rare beasts.

Some tunes just naturally suggest the start from a vamp or turnaround. But quite a few tunes do present some problems. Most people can do a pretty decent job, but what they’re often doing is artfully disguising the fumbling and finding.

It’s true that often you don’t want to blow the power of the tune by having an accompanist play part of it as an intro. Sometimes it’s a good idea, to integrate the intro into the whole.

Here’s what singers can do. Once you’re clear on your keys, go through your entire pad and mark in the first note (either on a staff or just as a letter). That’s all there is to it, although sometimes it can be extra helpful to mark in a few notes of the first phrase, particularly where there’s a pickup.

Then your accompanist can either give you the note and you can hit straight in for maximum impact or they can subtly feed you the note during their intro. Easy, eh?

I was once involved when a singer wanted a bass intro to lead into the first A with just bass. The problem was that the tune was one of those awkward ones and the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the intro the bassist played wasn’t very clear harmonically (or to be more charitable, he was being rather artistic) so she began a fourth up. And as a singer, it’s very difficult to change keys in an instant even when you realise something’s wrong and you might be running out of range…

As I said, it’s possible to get it 90% of the time without these hints. But why diminish the professional polish of your performance by risking turning the start of a tune into a public mini singing lesson? And even those laser elephants who don’t need the hint won’t take it as an insult that you’ve marked it. Nor will they think you an idiot – they’ll appreciate the care you’ve taken and respect you for it.

YOU TOOK THE CHART THAT ONCE WAS MY HEART

Incidentally, while accompanists can work without, they usually appreciate having the actual tune on their sheet. First, it makes it easier to play cues. Second, they can easily check the melody line to play appropriate chord alterations. Sometimes the ones on the chart clash with the melody.

I’m not getting at singers in particular – we’ve all done it occasionally. Written in a simple 7 chord when the melody includes flat and sharp 9ths, that sort of thing. Your friendly neighbourhood pianist or guitarist will probably hear the clash on the first chorus and adjust thereafter – but the first chorus is your impact statement and it’s a shame to have it blemished unnecessarily.

As ever, remember the golden rule about charts: why give things a chance to go wrong when you don’t have to?

PS Incidentally, with intros “last eight, guys” isn’t always a good option. I’ll give an extreme example.

I recently did Michel Legrand’s You Must Believe in Spring with a singer. It’s a beautiful tune, but complex – it involves lots of gymnastic chromatic 6th leaps, starts with a relative minor statement in a major key and eventually resolves to a minor key a tone below that major key (or a semitone up from the first minor progression). On a note a major third below the starting point. Oh, and the final section is 10 bars long. What could possibly go wrong?

I decided to play the second four of A as an intro. Not only does that mimic what goes on in the tune, it finishes neatly on the singer’s starting note. Simple, clear and effective. “Fanfareing” the melody in the intro set her up with absolute certainty, giving her not only her starting note but also clearly aurally imprinting the seesawing sixths in the line. Rather than stealing her thunder, as it were.

PPS I’m not drawing some insulting distinction classifying singers as not really musicians. The point is simply that, absent perfect pitch and without clear context, an instrumentalist can usually find any note you ask for. Remember that singers don’t have keys, valves, open strings and so forth – they just have the physical awareness of different parts of their range as a rough guideline.

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings

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