What Every Classical Clarinetist Needs to Know About Jazz with Elizabeth

In her presentation, Elizabeth Gorman sought to cover many of the fundamental elements that are needed for a basic understanding of jazz theory and performance. She began with the basic rhythmic concept of swing, with its emphasized, irregular offbeat accents, but she noted that as tempi increase, swing becomes less and less pronounced, so that somewhere around 250 beats per minute, the swing feel tends to disappear. She also noted that Latin styles, such as salsa and samba, along with some fusion styles, tend to emphasize straight eighths as well. Gorman continued by discussing styles of jazz articulations, including styles that are particular to jazz, such as ghosted notes and falls. She then showed how jazz articulations can be used to “bop the top” of a melodic line, bringing out the important notes of a melody, which she even linked to the concept of Schenkerian analysis and structural notes. She spoke briefly about sound concept and vibrato in jazz, emphasizing that playing jazz does not mean playing with a “bad” sound. She suggested that jazz can be approached either from a saxophone-type tonal concept or from modifying a classical clarinet tonal concept.

Gorman suggested some methods for beginning to improvise, beginning with listening and transcribing favorite solos and continuing with a basic understanding of common jazz progressions, such as the ii-V-I progression. She suggested using classical excerpts that relate to jazz scales, such as the pentatonic scale featured in the excerpt from Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, to begin practicing useful patterns in all keys. She also pointed out similarities in the classical concerti of Weber and Mozart, which, by using the lowered seventh and the raised seventh, actually offer opportunities to practice the scale known to jazz players as the dominant bebop scale (the familiar diatonic major scale with an added flat seventh). She then suggested some practice patterns to assist classical players in learning octatonic patterns, known to jazz players as diminished scales, beginning by emphasizing the diminished seventh chord that structures the scale and then adding in the adjacent half-steps. She went on to suggest different practice strategies to become more flexible with different keys, patterns and rhythms.

Gorman delivered her in lecture good spirits, not even becoming distracted when some video difficulties delayed the start of her presentation. This was a valuable introduction to jazz concepts, with some innovative links to classical literature that were especially insightful.

–Notes by Michael Rowlett
Michael Rowlett is the assistant Professor of Clarinet at The University of Mississippi. You can find his CD Close to Home: Music of American Composers on Amazon and Albany Records.

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