Branford Rants, Actually Makes Sense

Another quotation from Before the Music Dies.

If you haven't watched this movie, do yourself a favor and do it now. I'll wait.


Not only does it have great performances, there are some amazingly insightful interviews with Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews and Brandford Marsalis among others.

One of moments that hit me as a practicing musician and someone who is constantly trying to get better was this:

Interviewer: "What have you learned from your students?"

Branford Marsalis: "What I've learned today from my students, is that students today are completely full of shit. That is what I've learned from my students.

...much like the generation before them, the only thing they're really interested in is you telling them how right they are and how good they are. That is the same mentality that basically forces Harvard to give out B's to people that don't deserve them out of the fear that they'll go to other schools that will give them B's and those schools will make the money.

We live in a country that seems to be just in this massive state of delusion. Where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that. And it actually works as long as everyone is winking at the same time. Then if one person stops winking, you just beat the crap out of that person and then they either start winking or they go somewhere else.

But it's like, yeah, my students, all they want to hear is how good they are, how talented they are they're not really -- most of them are not really willing to work to the degree to live up to that."

I've talked to a couple of friends about this and have gotten various reactions, some positive and some negative.

But I think he has a point. Especially the negativity of, "the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that."

It's tough to take a real assessment of your ability as a musician. It requires being objective about your playing which is nearly impossible while you're doing it: you're the performer, not the listener.

So how do you get an idea of what you sound like?

When I took some lessons from Wayne Krantz he made me buy a $20 Sony cassette recorder. Cheap, crappy and it works. It's also completely objective about your playing.

Record yourself. Play something you think you're good at, record it, then listen back. I'll bet it's not as good as you thought. How bout this: do you think you stand up straight? Have someone take a candid picture of you walking or talking to someone.

There's a lot of stuff we do we're not aware of and it follows into your playing as well.

So make recording a regular part of your practice. Maybe five minutes a day of just performing into a tape recorder and listening back to it. Acknowledge the things that are good, and pay attention to the things that aren't, then figure out how to fix them. And stand up straight while you're at it.

This is the hard work that Branford is talking about.

Kurt's Sonic: Goes Pentatonic

While looking at seminars on YouTube I came across this one of Kurt Rosenwinkel filmed in Italy.

In it, he talks about something I heard him discuss in a master class he gave a number of years ago while I was at Berklee-- the idea of playing "through" changes. At the time he was talking about his song "Cubism" that he had written using all 12 keys in order to force himself to improvise through them. The idea intrigued me and I ended up writing the song "Absolute Convolute" using the same idea.

Though any great improviser plays through chord changes, perhaps even coming to this naturally after years of practice and performance, it's rare you hear a professional musician talk about a method or practice technique in order to get there. Kurt clearly thinks about what it is he wants to be able to do and then devises ways to accomplish it. That's a good habit to get into.

Here's the seminar. Below it I have a transcription I made of the first minor Pentatonic example he gives at about 39 seconds into the video:

The transcription of the line at about 39 seconds in:

(click on chart to see full-size)

Great, right?

Notice how he's not jumping around to different positions on the neck each time he announces what Pentatonic he's playing. He just grabs the next available note from the scale and continues from there-- that is playing through changes.

This is not easy to do. It's challenging for any instrument but especially on stringed instruments that deal with positions. The challenge on guitar especially is to not start each key change on the root or move to comfortable positions but to stay relatively close to where you are on the neck and just shift to the next scale. Kurt does this beautifully. You're looking at the result of hours of practice here.

Is it hard? Yes. Is it doable? Definitely.

I think I might be most impressed with his ability to speak while playing this line. Improvising while talking takes practice. Maybe that's my new regimen...

Mads has a nice blog about Kurt's music that addresses this seminar as well. Check it out:

How do you practice this? Unless you're already prodigious at quickly switching between Pentatonic scales, I would suggest breaking things down.

Set your metronome to a comfortable tempo for you to play the scale, then:

1. For guitar, start with one key and every measure move to a different position in order to make sure you're comfortable playing in all of them. On other instruments, make sure you're proficient in playing the Pentatonic scale through the full range of your instrument.
2. Add another key. Every bar, switch to the other key. Example-- Bar 1: C Minor Pentatonic. Bar 2: A Minor Pentatonic. Bar 3: C Minor Pentatonic and so on.
3. Add a third key and continue the method.
4. Try it over a pattern like Kurt has done-- chords going up in Major Seconds -- or chords going up in Major Thirds, Cycle of 4ths etc.
5. The real world challenge! Try it over a song like a blues, "Cherokee", "All the Things You Are" or "Giant Steps".

You can see the possibilities for this are virtually limitless, the idea is to get comfortable wherever you are on your instrument so you can play what you want, when you want. This is always the goal, everything else is just a way to get there.

Bonus Bonus:
Here's my song "Absolute Convolute" mentioned above with a chart. There are 12 bars and every bar is in a new key. It starts in the key of B and goes through the cycle of 5ths (B, E, A, D, G, etc.). I've put the key of every bar below each staff and the analysis (at least the way I like to think of it) above the staff in red.

(click on chart to see full-size)

Though you could probably get this together relatively quickly, it's difficult with this much static tonality (just the Major key) to play musically, at least I find it to be. When my group plays this live, I always have a mixture of excitement and dread.

Easy to play, difficult to master. Enjoy.

So Much Sound Is off the Ground

"Improvisation is like a conversation: you say what you know, but you don't know what you're going to say." --Marcus Roberts

A friend of mine once had a short conversation with Marcus Roberts a number of years ago about improvisation and this was the money quote. Even his remarks swing. Amazing.

I've shared this quotation with many people and thought a lot about how it pertains to writing and improvising music. It's easy to focus on the brilliance of his idea, an idea that seems obviously true as soon as you hear it.

But what if you don't know anything?

That's the reason to practice and listen and check out other musicians and go to jam sessions and buy books and talk about music. So we can learn something. So we can be inspired and create something new. So we have something to say when the time comes.

I'm starting this blog so that when you go to those jam sessions, or have a gig or sit down to write a song, you don't repeat yourself. You'll have something new to say, and the best part is, even you don't know how it's going to come out.

That's the fun of creating.