Thursday, January 22, 2015

Enjoyable Warmup - (Rhythm and) Blues Exercise

Forty-four degrees Farenheit tonight in San Antonio. Perfect moment to share a warmup with you players of melodic instruments...

Bob Cranshaw
It gets the blood flowing and the keys knowing. It requires little or no reading, and a minimal amount of equipment: your instrument, a CD or mp3 and player, plus about 44 minutes of focused time.

Here's a link to purchase the CD or download the tracks from It's Volume 42 of Jamey Aebersold's Play-a-Long series, "Blues in All Keys."  (We have several of these playalongs in the circulating collection of the library at Northwest Vista.) It comes with a booklet containing chord sheets for Eb, Bb, C, and bass clef instruments.

As its name would imply, the CD contains playalong tracks for blues progressions in 12 keys. They are performed by a trio of world class jazz musicians: James Williams at the piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums. Follow the links and look them up...

James Williams
The form and formula are simple. There is one basic progression and one variation of it.  These are played in each key; from 3-5 choruses for each progression. When you're in a particular key and it's time to move from the basic progression to its variation, listen for a little bell dinging during the last four bars of the form; you switch progressions at the top of the next form. You'll hear it...

So how to dig in? It's not as daunting as it may seem. Twelve keys, yes, but only one simple progression...

First, put the CD or mp3 into the player, turn to track #13 and tune your horn. Set it back to #1 and hit pause.

Second, get out the booklet and take the time to look at it. There's a discography and other items that may be of interest, along with the progression and its variation, written out in all twelve keys for C, Bb, Eb, and bass clef readers.

Mickey Roker
Third, analyze and memorize the progression. Yes, memorize the progression in at least two keys. Bb and C concert would be good choices. Play it at the piano.

Fourth, put on the first track and play along. Start simple if this is unfamiliar territory. Play roots in harmonic rhythm, guide tones, etc. (I have a checklist for learning new tunes that I can share with you if you email me.)

Finally, play through all of the keys before returning to the first track. This is a discipline. There are always things you can improve next time, but one of the main objects of this exercise is to gain fluency in all keys. You don't have to play all keys in one sitting at first, but make a note of which key you stopped on and resume with the next one at your next practice session. With practice, you will be able to play through all twelve keys in one sitting, one after the other. This only takes, as I said, about forty-five minutes.

My fearless prediction is that you will soon look forward to this as a daily exercise, finding it to be both relaxing and invigorating, satisfying and rewarding. Once you've memorized the progression, you can do it in the dark if you like. I use it as a way to center myself, as a kind of meditation on the blues... 

With mindful practice, you'll witness your facility with all keys growing and strengthening.  When you encounter these progressions in "real life" on the bandstand or in a session, this is likely to make it easier for you to play what you hear. Sounds like fun now, right? Let me know how it goes.

Note to multi-wind players--Play through the blues tracks on Bb, C, and Eb instruments alternately (and/or whatever other keys your horns are in). Your tonal relationship to the track will be different, which will probably change what you play. Record yourself...

Once more, with rhythm...
Once you're comfortable with the blues in all keys, try working similarly with Aebersold's I Got Rhythm Changes in All Keys (Volume 47).

Second only to the blues, "Rhythm" changes are the most popular form in jazz. Thousands of contrafacts have been written to this harmonic scheme.

Todd Coolman
As with the blues, once you've looked at the progression, don't read from it; analyze and memorize it. Pause the recording between tracks as necessary to recalculate the changes in the upcoming key. 

Unlike the Blues in All keys playalong, this volume doesn't have a voice reminding you of the new key. But the movement through keys has logic; starts in concert Bb, then goes to F. The remaining keys appear in circle-of-fourths order: Eb-Ab-Db, etc.

Jim McNeely
As always, check out the players you're practicing with! This playalong features bassist Todd Coolman, pianist Jim McNeely, and drummer Steve Davis

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