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Stolen Moments - intention in soloing

In a week's time I'm heading back to the Cambridge Jazz Co-operative to lead a workshop on Oliver Nelson's Stolen Moments and my tune Lamb Chops. The Co-op has been running almost weekly since 1998 and brings professional jazz tutors from across the UK to Cambridge to impart a bit of wisdom to local players in a friendly and supportive environment. I think this will be my 4th or 5th time leading a workshop there, but the first time in a few years as until recently I've always been working on Saturday mornings when they meet. In this post, I'm going to preview a few of the ideas we'll be covering in the workshop.

Contrasting solo styles in Stolen Moments

In this session I'm aiming to get the players to think about intention in their soloing, and choosing appropriate language to fit this, rather than being led by the language itself. I've chosen Stolen Moments to introduce this because:

  • It's a good fit for having lots of horn players as the head requires multiple players to fill out the harmonies.

  • Being a minor blues, it's relatively approachable for less proficient improvisers, but is still an interesting composition for those seeking a challenge.

  • Most importantly, the solos on the original record are extremely varied in content and style, and are great models for having different approaches.

We'll look at the solos of Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy and Oliver Nelson in particular, as each has a very focused and very different approach to their solo.

Firstly, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (1'20). Hubbard's approach encompasses passages of Miles Davis-influenced modal playing, as well as some be-bop language and a healthy dose of blues inflection. Across the four choruses of his solo, Hubbard utilises a wide range of rhythmic values, but particularly deploys double time feel from the 2nd chorus on.

Eric Dolphy (3'01), heard here on flute, immediately draws on the double-time feel that Hubbard has established, but soon mixes in much longer note-values. His phrase lengths are less even than Hubbards, who more or less sticks to a conventional 4-bar phrases, incorporating both shorter and longer ideas, and leaving little space between each. Whilst Hubbard's harmonic and melodic language sat comfortably within blues, modal and be-bop idioms, Dolphy's is much more abstract, incorporating a great deal of disjunct, intervallic playing as well as varied harmonic choices.

Finally we have what I think is the most interesting solo, that of alto sax player and composer of Stolen Moments, Oliver Nelson (4'13). Each of Nelson's four choruses develops a single motif very clearly, with little 'jazz vocab' or linking material. Most of Nelson's material is intervallic in nature, for example the stacked 4ths of the 1st chorus and the triad pairs ofof the 2nd, triplet-focused chorus. This leads him to some harmonically unexpected corners, such as the passage linking his 3rd and 4th choruses, which incorporates the superimposition of a series of major triads unrelated to the underlying harmony. Unlike Hubbard and Dolphy, Nelson uses almost no double time feel, his rhythmic language consisting largely of triplet figures and long sustained notes (the aforementioned superimposed triads passage being the exception).

Apologies to Bill Evans for ignoring his brief piano solo!

Here's a concert pitch transcription of Nelson's solo. You can also find a good transcription of Hubbard's solo here. I've yet to find a transcription of Dolphy's solo and haven't had a chance to do my own yet - a challenge for the future!

What can we learn - the concept of intention

Here are some descriptors I would apply to the three solos.

Hubbard: modal, mainstream jazz language, balanced phrases, uses double time, explosive

Dolphy: abstract, surprising, virtuosity, contrast, intensity

Nelson: intervallic, motivic, developmental, linear, deliberate

Whilst these lists are subjective and incomplete, I believe they are helpful in drawing out the some of the contrasts between the soloists, as well as clarifying what each was primarily concerned with - their 'intention'. Now, let's be clear - I'm not proposing to be able to see inside each soloist's head at the moment they began improvising. Instead, what I mean is that from the solos they actually played, we can reconstruct an intention which we can then as improvisers apply to ourselves in an improvising situation, in order to push us beyond our own comfortable languages which we have developed. To show what I mean, I recorded a single chorus inspired by each soloist:

In each case, I've tried to keep some of the descriptors I used above in mind as I improvised and, to be clear, I didn't plan out the choruses in advance. At most, I had a sense of how I would start, and the rest flowed from there, but shaped by the descriptors I'd used for each soloist.

The result? I haven't suddenly turned into Hubbard, Dolphy or Nelson (I wish!), and I still recognise hallmarks of my own improvising language in each chorus, but attempting to model the three soloists encouraged me to push ideas further and explore different areas than I would have normally, creating three contrasting choruses, each of which could form the basis for a longer solo. In other words, I began each chorus with a clear intention, which then reminded me to explore different aspects of my own improvising language as I went on. Extending this idea, through sustained practice and transcription, would bring new vocabulary into my language.

What next?

Hal Crook, in his wonderful book Ready, Aim, Improvise, stresses the importance of a process of first imitating, then assimilating, before (possibly) innovating. In our look at Stolen Moments, we've really only tried to imitate the broad brush strokes of some great improvisers, but doing so can be a very useful tool for expanding the possibilities of our own existing improvising languages, through encouraging us to explore an idea in more detail and for longer. The next step, assimilation, will involve more close study of an individual player's vocabulary and detailed practice of the permutations therein - for example, the use of the interval of a 4th by Oliver Nelson. The choice of what to focus on is best guided by individual taste - there just isn't enough time to cover everything!

Thanks for reading my thoughts on this. I'll be exploring all of this in a more practical way with the players at the Cambridge Jazz Co-operative on 25th January 2020. For more details see:

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