Saturday, May 16, 2009

Working the Blues 1, Introduction

This series of articles will hopefully help new players come to grips with improvising over the wellspring progression of American popular music, the blues. Many who teach improvisation hold that the major scale is the primary scale and that all other notes not in the scale but which are brought into play are grafted onto the major scale or used to substitute for notes in the scale. While this is correct in the grand scheme, it does not address "blue note" resolutions or help the new player get any closer to a "more authentic" feel in creating melodies. Identifying the notes that can be used is the easy part. Mastering the syntax and grammar in order to make music in the blues and jazz language is another matter entirely. To make matters even more complex, there is a wide variety of "dialects," though basics are shared.

Nearly all of us carry with us our earliest musical training, at the most meager, the assemblies and brief classes we had in grade school. Here we are taught from the European point of view, and the very first item on the agenda is "do, re, mi," the natural major scale. We are taught, as in European music, to sing or play on the beat. We also carry the influence of all the music heard at home and on the media, and much of what we hear has great value but does not help with understanding the blues or how the basic behaviors of the notes within blues informs all popular music that followed it, especially jazz.

To getting a start, an overview of two basic scales, the major and minor pentatonic, and their historical uses as early as the nineteenth century is really important. The foundation of most American popular music was laid in African-American drum song and dance, work songs, British and British-inspired folk songs, the Spiritual and the sorrow song Spiritual, and even prison songs. The two scales represent polarities in that one is essentially major and the other minor, but herein is found the bases of melodic direction, note resolutions, melodic leaps, and the substitutions of some notes for others and when the substitutions are possible, desirable, and even absolutely non-negotiable in their absolute necessity.

Though I would hardly describe myself as a "blues god," especially since my playing is colored for better or worse by decades of classical music training and by an interest in jazz that prompts me to use scale materials that are outside blues but not jazz, I nonetheless would like to start with a sample of my blues:

Twelve Bar Blues in B Flat

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