Pentatonic Pairs

I’ve just been looking at Willie Thomas’s teaching on ‘Pentatonic Pairs’ as a simple way of navigating ii-V-I progressions. Link

Here’s my adaptation of the technique using just four notes of the pentatonic scale (major or minor), i.e. avoiding the tonic. For each chord play the associated pentatonic pair in any order, or choose just one of the pair.

Partial pentatonic solutions to major ii-V-Is
added notes (chords 1 & 2) are ∆9ths

Partial pentatonic solutions to minor ii-V-Is
added notes (chord 1) are 4ths and m6ths

Not and end in itself, but a useful exercise nevertheless.


Playing the Saxophone & Sailing

John Harle’s advice on tongue position when playing the saxophone has come as a revelation, liberating my playing from constant bother about intonation, tone and dynamic range. It got me thinking about parallels with sailing (an old passion of mine): e.g.

  • you can’t steer a boat unless it has power, you can’t play the sax with ease and accuracy unless the breath is properly directed;
  • the need for multiple navigational clues when piloting a boat in and out of harbours, as well as when improvising on an unfamiliar chord progression.


Chord-Tone Practice

In an earlier blog I noted the potential un-musicality of the popular chord–scale approach to jazz improvising. But there is an additional issue about this approach: i.e. the need to build skills from firm foundations, which this quote from Berklee makes clear:

‘… for beginner and intermediate-level players, the chord-scale approach has a potential downside. Many students begin studying chord scales early in their musical education and attempt to apply the knowledge acquired immediately on their instruments. Unfortunately, this often happens too soon in the student’s development as an improviser–before he or she has learned how to shape an appealing improvised melody by ear on a chord or chord progression using only, or mainly, chord tones.’ source

As a precursor (and possible antidote) to chord-scale theory, try improvising on chord tones instead, then incorporate this approach into your improvisations, as many great players do. Here’s an initial exercise to try:

Chord tone practice 01

Modes #2

Here’s another exercise on the common jazz modes, this time those using one b

Modes using one b

However, remember that the key signatures of modal music should refer to the appropriate major or minor scale, in order to establish the tonic: e.g.

F major = b
C mixolydian = C major (i.e. no flats or sharps) but with accidentals changing B to Bb
D minor = b
D dorian = b but with accidentals changing Bb to B


Modes #1

Modes #1

Here’s an exercise on the common jazz modes using one #

Modes using one #

However, remember that the key signatures of modal music should refer to the appropriate major or minor scale, in order to establish the tonic: e.g.

G major = #
D major = ##
D mixolydian = ## but with accidentals changing C# to C
E minor = #
E dorian = # but with accidentals changing C to C#


Modes #2

Sonny Rollins, thematic improvisation and the subconscious

Thanks to Joan Vicens (see video below), Gunther Schuller and others for their insights into Sonny Rollins’ approach to thematic improvisation.

N.B. this transcription is for instruments in Bb.


But Rollins has said: ‘When I get on the stage, I don’t think. I sort of let the subconscious take over. That’s what it’s all about … I surprise myself, occasionally, with something that might come out that is striking. I don’t really think about whatever else is happening. It just happens.’ See Levy 2014 for thoughts on the subconscious and conscious mind.

More on Schuller and Rollins

Frankie Trumbauer #1

Frankie Trumbauer (1901-1956), like the ‘C melody’ saxophone he mastered, isn’t as well remembered as he or his music deserve. An early virtuoso of the saxophone, Trumbauer’s forward-looking solos were highly influential on the development of jazz in the late 1920s and early ’30s, especially on players such as Benny Carter, Lester Young and Art Pepper. Young is reputed to have carried Trumbauer’s recordings in his suitcase

Born of part Cherokee ancestry, in Carbondale Illinois, Trumbauer grew up in St Louis, the son of a musical mother who directed saxophone and theatre orchestras.

Often referred to as ‘Tram’, he was playing with the Benson Orchestra in Chicago when noticed by Bix Beiderbecke and recruited to join the legendary cornetist in Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra. Soon Tram climbed to the position of Goldkette’s musical director, earning equal recognition for his effortless and inventive sax solos. He cut some of the definitive records of the era with Beiderbecke, Eddie Lang and others, including ‘Singin the Blues’ (1927). In that same year, Bix and Tram joined Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra.

Trumbauer remained with Whiteman on and off until 1936. He then led the Three Ts, featuring the Teagarden brothers. With the onset of World War II, Tram was assigned to the US Civil Aeronautics Authority and then North American Aviation, as a test pilot and instructor for B52 bomber crews; but he continued to pursue music in his spare time, playing with Russ Case and cutting a number of records in NY in the late 1950s. With the arrival of modern jazz, Tram’s musical heyday ended, and so he pursued his career in aviation instead, until an early death at the age of 55.

In this series, I’ll explore Frankie Trumbauer’s life and music, including a look at his Saxophone Studies publication of 1935.


Here’s something to get you started playing like Tram

Frankie Trumbauer #2

Continue reading Frankie Trumbauer #1

Early Jazz Practice

Following on from an earlier blog about typical approaches to melody in early jazz and swing, here are three simple examples, with parts for instruments in C, Bb and Eb. These and other examples to follow are adapted from tunes and solos by W.C Handy, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, George Lewis, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman and many others. Always swing the quavers (8th notes) unless otherwise indicated.

We’ll start with the unelaborated arpeggio of a major triad. These ‘bugle calls’ are common.


Adding intervals 6 & 9 (=2) to a major triad is typical, creating the major pentatonic scale. Additions are shown in red.


Adding interval p4 to a major triad was rare at the time, but here it’s used as an auxiliary note in the first beat of bar 3. More typically, 6 and a b3 are added, the latter being a blue note. No more colour-coding: learn to spot the melodic elaborations for yourself. Borrow these approaches for your own improvisations and compositions. Their use goes way beyond early jazz alone.

* Play the quavers straight in the third beat of bar 2.


These examples and many more are available as iBooks with audio backing:

for instruments in C at link
for instruments in Bb at link 
for instruments in Eb at link

Continue reading Early Jazz Practice