Studying with Gary Burton

Gary Burton

Gary Burton

OK, so the 3 month Gary Burton course has now finished, it was an amazing experience and I learnt much valuable information from studying with him.  Perhaps the most useful was being able to speak to Gary every week for an hour online via a kind of Berklee Skype, we had the opportunity to ask questions about the course, his life and improvisational concepts.  Another valuable experience was the submission process, each week we had to record ourselves improvising over various pieces, focusing on specific elements, and it proved a great way to evaluate were I really was at, as a jazz musician.  I mean, having to record your own playing to send to one of the most successful improvisers of the day, at first, felt a little daunting, but the benefits of listening to your own playing (something all jazz musicians should do often) so regularly proved to be very useful indeed.  So much in fact, that I am hoping to study with some other great musicians online in the future.  At the bottom of this blog is a downloadable document with a synopsis of the course content summarised, lots of really interesting points covering everything from basic scales and the mechanics, to  philosophical questions about what it means to be an improviser.  Before that however, are a list of Gary’s ideas that particularly resonated with me personally, ideas that I am going to make a conscious effort to incorporate into my own playing, thanks for reading, Mark.

  • A great solo is a story that unfolds and you can listen to a recording of it over and over and continually get the same excitement and intensity from it. That high level of communication is what we’re hoping to achieve, as we become better improvisers. It’s not enough to play the right notes, get through the chord changes without making mistakes, and to sound like a familiar jazz improviser; we must aspire to being great storytellers when we improvise.
  • We become fluent when the vocabulary (scales and chords) and grammar (harmonic progressions) are assimilated into conversational content or story (melodic themes and structure) and we no longer have to consciously think about them while we play.
  • What is important to us as improvisers is the sound of the scale and the type of harmonic coloration suggested by the mode, is it brighter or darker? is it major or minor or dominant 7?  Consequently, it is more logical to think of the modes in this order: from brightest to the darkest, and note which modes are major or minor, and the one mode that is dominant 7th in nature.
  • The important thing when learning new chord scales for a tune is to not allow yourself to cheat. Yes, you may be able to get past a certain harmony you don’t know very well without having a chord scale ready, but you’re going to want to know the scales for all the chords of a song and not have to resort to guessing or waiting to hear what someone else plays on a harmony so you can try to pick up usable notes by ear. Learning the vocabulary now will allow you to better express yourself later.  Being sure to use several keys, practice the 10 scales we have covered in random patterns, using a variety of intervals, with the full range of your instrument, leaping around the range frequently, while varying the rhythms.
  • It is important for the improviser to clearly imply the harmonies when improvising. It is not enough to just play correct notes on each chord. You have to also help the listener follow the changes as the chords move from one to another. Whatever kind of motion the harmonies suggest, it is the improviser’s job to show this to the listener.   One thing you should notice when you hear a good solo is that a strong soloist doesn’t even need an accompanist to suggest the chords in his or her improvisation.  A good solo melody will feature enough of the important notes in the harmonies for the listener to hear the progression of the chords. To put it simply, the improviser needs to help the listener follow the chords’ movement.
  • There is more than one way to approach soloing when a guide tone line is present, using the conventional approach, a soloist would think of each chord individually, outlining each harmony, or, the player could use the guide-tone lines built in to the progression as a basis for the improvisation. Think of it like a clothes line on which you can hang your melodic improvisation.
  • When chromatic motion appears in a song, soloists will almost always want to make sure it is featured in the improvised melody.
  • Listeners like to follow a solo that unfolds like a story; it pleases their ears and engages their minds.  They want a time feel they can identify. Whether it is swing, straight eight, or ballad, or other—it doesn’t really matter, they want chords and harmonies that sound pleasing and rich, and, most of all, listeners want a storyline—some way to follow the development of the improviser’s solo. It’s our job as players to make sure our story is clear and likely to be followed by our listeners (if we lose them, then they won’t be with us when we have our great moment of creativity somewhere in the third chorus).
  • Ideally, you want to keep the melodic development going until you feel you have fully developed it and not be forced to abandon it prematurely because you can’t keep up with the chord changes.
  • Those of us who play piano, guitar, vibes, or drums, have to intentionally learn to phrase melodies in a sentence-like manner, always being aware of the danger of playing too continually; not leaving opportunity for the listeners to comprehend what we are playing.
  • While some players have an assortment of specific chord scales for use in blues situations, I take a different approach.   The strongest blues characteristics are the co-existence of both the b3 and natural 3, the natural 4 and #4, also sometimes the 13 and b13. So, instead of thinking of a new blues scale, I picture a dominant 7 scale I know, such as the Mixolydian, and add extra notes, the b3 and #4, for instance, giving me an enlarged scale.
  • In preparation for performing a song, we first need to get a sense of the general characteristics of the composition.  What is the melodic theme or themes like?  What is the time feel?  Is the tonality minor, major, bluesy?  What’s the general mood?
  • Next, we take a detailed look at the composition itself. My approach to this is to break up the tune into sections, such as four-bar sections, or eight-bar sections, though sometimes the sections are divided with uneven numbers of bars such as a three-bar or five-bar section.   Once you have identified a section, figure out what is going on compositionally.
  • After you’ve determined the general characteristics of the song, the chord scales you’ll be using, and what constitutes a section of the song, ask yourself, “What can an improviser feature in the solo that demonstrates the compositional elements of this section of the tune?”
  • A song that is weak compositionally, that doesn’t really have much to say, is surprisingly difficult to play effectively. Just as important, if the player doesn’t really understand the compositional elements in a song, the end result is most likely going to be lacking in interest.
  • Writing a jazz song is one of the greater challenges for a composer. First of all, a jazz composition is usually pretty short, maybe 30 to 60 seconds in length, and it has to stand up to multiple repeats as we improvise on the form, chorus after chorus.  In addition, a jazz tune has to be both familiar and yet unique at the same time—two contrasting elements. If a song is too familiar and everything seems predictable, then it will sound boring and cliché. On the other hand, if the song has too many unusual and unpredictable elements it will seem awkward and too foreign for comfortable improvisation.
  • It is difficult to crescendo steadily over, say, the course of three choruses of a song going gradually from soft to loud, from sparse to busy, in a smooth way. What tends to happen instead, is that the soloist goes from soft to loud by the end of the first chorus, and is then stuck playing at top volume and intensity for the next two choruses.   The solution is that we want to give the impression that the solo is building in volume and complexity, but we don’t want to get trapped into making it follow one long arc. It is better to think in waves. After building in intensity somewhat, pause and drop down to a lower intensity and start building again.   While in the act of soloing, there is a natural fear that if you leave a high level of energy and drop back to a lower one, the bottom will fall out of the solo, and the audience will notice the sudden drop in intensity. However, that is not usually the case.
  • You want your opening phrases to announce to the audience, “Okay, now it’s my turn, check this out, you’re going to find this really, really interesting!” Try to make them forget the soloist that just preceded you.  All professional level players end their solos clearly and effectively, and the succession of soloists moves smoothly from player to player.
  • With no game plan about how long to make a solo, the improvisation tends to be poorly shaped, and there will be sections that lack interest. I learned it is better to always start a solo with a plan for how many choruses I am going to play. You are the only person who knows that you are, say, intending to play three choruses. So if things are going really well as you get near the end of the third chorus, you can always add another and go on a bit longer. But, by having the number of choruses in mind, you will be more likely to have a well-executed solo, paced nicely, and you will be more likely to get something going in your improvisation in the early part of your solo rather than spending time experimenting, looking for a direction.   Try to start your solo with a strong, exclamatory melodic phrase that introduces you to the listeners and serves as a starting point for the development of your solo. Don’t waste valuable time or the listeners’ attention by starting out with something tentative or boring.
  • When I play melodies, I am usually imagining how a singer would execute it, or I picture a trumpet or a saxophone playing the line, and that gives me a sense of what the dynamic shape of the melody line should be.
  • Chromaticism is the improviser’s best friend.
  • Time – I started playing a lot with a metronome and play along tracks. I practiced playing along with records using a pair of brushes I borrowed from a drummer friend. And I started recording my soloing as often as I could to become more aware of my unsteady time.
  • Pick a standard you are familiar with, and play continuous eighth notes, no rests, as you work your way through the changes. This helps us learn to twist and turn our lines to feature the strong notes on the strong beats, and so on. If you become skilled at this exercise, you will find playing over changes becomes more and more fluent.
  • A bird flies in a straight line from tree branch to telephone wire, for instance. But a butterfly changes directions constantly and in unpredictable directions, in a graceful kind of ballet in flight. That’s what we want our improvised solos to be like. All that unexpected change of direction and leaping around the range of our instruments provides a lot of energy and surprise to keep the listeners interested.
  • Comping –  The first job is rhythm. When comping you are part of the rhythm section, and that requires that we all strive to provide a nice, comfortable rhythm feel for the band. If the soloist knows the song, he or she doesn’t really need you to spell out the harmonies. But if you are going to be part of a rhythm section, you must contribute to the time feel along with the other rhythm section players, first and foremost.
  • Comping in straight eighth time requires a more constant and steady flow of attacks rather than looking for accents to emphasize. Straight-eighth comping is more like providing a kind of smooth blanket of comping over which the soloists play. It is quite different from comping in swing time.
  • We need to keep our comping interesting and that is done mostly through featuring contrasts. Voicings can be spread out or closely clustered; voicings can be plain and consonant, or complex and dissonant. Some notes or chords will be of short duration and others of long duration. You can use full voicings of four to six notes, or small note groupings of two or three, or even single notes or octaves. Volume can vary from soft to loud. The idea is to keep changing things to keep it interesting. You don’t want to comp nearly the exact same voicings and figures chorus after chorus or the soloist will find it uninspiring.
  • When there is more than one comper in the rhythm section, keep this advice in mind: No matter how many accompanists are chording at the same time, the overall effect should add up to the equivalent of one comper. So each chord player will need to play less and listen carefully to the other compers in order to provide a balanced amount of accompaniment.  Use guide-tone lines when they are present in the music. They help support the flow of the harmony and are a strong compositional element in the song.  Highlight strong harmony resolutions when you come to one in a song. Most of the time, only play one voicing on any given harmony, unless it holds for a longer period of time.
  • The temptation is always to play too much and be too busy when comping. Better to comp less than to play too much.  Don’t feel you have to play something on every harmony in a song. When you practice alone, you naturally feel the need to include every harmony, but in a band setting other players are also providing content, so you don’t have to include every harmony.
  • Don’t comp more busily than the soloist. Sometimes a soloist will play a very sparse and simple kind of melodic style. If you are playing twice as many hits per bar as the soloist it will seem out of place. Keep your comping less busy than the solo you are accompanying.
  • Remember to keep your attention on the soloist more than on your own playing, so you can follow along and properly support the improvisation.
  • When I comp, I sort of pretend that I have another set of arms and I’m playing that other instrument as well as my own. I follow every phrase and melody line, and play right along with the soloist. The best soloists are really easy to follow because their solos develop very logically. But in any case, that is your job as a comper.
  • You must become a fanatic listener when comping, even at the expense of giving your own playing full attention.
  • If our unconscious is going to be responsible for so much of the playing, becoming what I often refer to as my “inner player,” then we need to have a very thorough understanding of how it works and how we can assist in the process with our conscious mind.
  • Fear of mistakes works against us in the long run, though. Ultimately we want to be spontaneous and free, and creative—the opposite of controlling everything we play.  On one hand, we have to be very committed and disciplined, practicing thousands of hours to develop our instrumental craft. But at the same time, we need to be loose and creative when we ultimately perform. It’s always a challenge to keep these two opposing things in balance.
  • The improviser plays along comfortably on a familiar piece, and somewhere in the solo an unexpected melodic line pops out, something the player didn’t anticipate playing, didn’t think about before hand, and had never played before—a new melodic idea. This is the inner player in full charge, while the conscious mind took a break from acting as gatekeeper.
  • Since the inner player is doing the lion’s share of the playing, we need to communicate with it. We want to use our conscious mind to offer guidance, to direct it toward what we want our playing to accomplish. The challenge is that our inner player does not use words. It communicates via feelings and imagery. We need to communicate to our unconscious about how we want the music to feel, and how we want it to sound. We need to keep sending instructions to the unconscious about what we want to have happen.
  • Listening back to your playing as recorded is a great way for the unconscious to sort of look at itself in the mirror, and learn from this opportunity to re-experience what was played.
  • I find it helpful to imagine that I am playing in front of an audience when I practice. Improvisation is like conversation. It’s hard to practice speaking while you are alone, with no one to speak to. So even if there is no audience, like in a recording studio, I find it necessary to imagine that there is an audience listening to what I am playing. It gives me some sense of feedback and response that helps me pace my soloing.
  • Try sitting quietly and visualising yourself playing a favourite song.  Imagine that you are playing beautifully and how satisfying it feels to play so well. Show your inner player this is what you want to achieve; give your inner player guidance through picturing your desires for the playing experience.


Download the full Gary Burton course synopsis here.

Gary Burton Course

Thanks, Mark

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