Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Introduction to Improvising with Large Intervals

Need some large interval exercises?
Throughout the music's history the occasional jazz musician has been interested in creating melodies and improvisations that incorporate larger intervals. Anything larger than a major 3rd usually qualifies. Coleman Hawkins was one of the first saxophonist to incorporate them, and many have followed since then including Wayne Shorter, Eddie Harris, and modern saxophonists like Mark Turner and Chris Potter. Larger intervals have always interested me, so I wanted to share some of the ways that I've worked on them.

Developing the Technique

Before you can start improvising these lines you'll need to have the basic ability to play large intervals cleanly on the saxophone. Following are a couple sets of exercises that worked well for me.

This first set of exercises is based on a scale. Lets start out using the C major scale and the interval of a 4th. Start out on the first note, C, and jump up a 4th to F. Then start on the 2nd note, D, and jump up a 4th to G. Repeat the process unil you reach your upper limit, whether it be the top note of the scale or some real or imagined upper limit of the saxophone. Then descend in a similar fashion. Keep all the notes within the scale meaning you'll sometimes play an augmented 4th. Here is a one octave example written out:

This is a very limited example.  You could play this exercise with any scale, and more importantly with any interval. I would suggest trying it with 5ths, 6th, 7ths, and octaves. The object here is to be able to play quickly and more importantly, cleanly. Pay attention to intonation, entrances, and tone quality.

Another set of exercise I found really helpful are from Walt Weiskopf's book "Beyond the Horn". These are based on 7th arpeggios and octave jumping. The idea is to ascend up the 7th arpeggio 2 octaves and then descend, however you jump to the opposite octave for each arpeggio note. Here it is written out for CMajor7:

Again practice for cleanliness, tone, and speed. This might not sound great, but it's a fantastic technical exercise. Apply it to any 7th arpeggio or variation you'd like.

A Simple Start

An easy way to get started creating with larger intervals would be to write a simple vamp or bass line. This is no longer just an exercise, so work to make it sound musical. You might want to combine larger and smaller intervals, but there are lots of ways to approach this. Here is a simple vamp that serves as the bass line in my composition, "Ducks in a Row":

You don't need anything long or elaborate, just something simple and fun to work with. Once you've got something you like, try improvising using the vamp as a jumping point, creating variations, etc.

Eventually you're going to want to write a melody, which will give you a chance to dig a little deeper into the colors larger intervals have to offer.  Here is the original melody (it has since been edited) to the A section of  "Ducks in a Row":

If you'd like to see it larger you can find a link to a PDF lead sheet of this tune (and a play-along mp3) at the bottom of the article.

With a large interval melody in hand you should be on your way to improvising with your developing intervallic language. I would suggest repeating this process with some other vamps and melodies, and, of course, practice improvising over the vamps as well. Once you feel ready, move onto something with moving harmony, which can be more challenging. I'll be writing in a future post.

Here is an example of me messing around with my  vamp as an introduction to the song at a live performance.  Though I admit much of what I'm playing is based on smaller intervals, there is a fair amount of larger intervals at various points during the introduction. If you let the whole thing play through you'll hear the melody as well.

Also, here is Chris Potter playing an absolutely fantastic solo over my same tune. Plenty of larger interval lines to check out here.

For those of you who are really interested in using the tune as a practice vehicle here are links to a play-along of it and PDF lead sheets in various transpositions.

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