One very important concept I work on with students (as well as work on myself) can be distilled down to three words. What I infer in this statement is that an instrumentalist might think of a way to formulate their playing, be it improvised or playing the theme, so that you can actually hear all the components of a quartet. For argument’s sake let’s say piano, bass, drums, and saxophone. Through the creation of a strong time feel (pulse), a well constructed melodic line that clearly implies a harmonic structure, some semblance of connectivity between phrases, and a clear implication of form, you should be able to listen to a solo instrument and hear the whole band.
What is critical in being able to do something like this is a hands-on understanding of the instruments in a jazz quartet. I encourage all my students to play drums, piano, and bass or guitar. My thinking is if you are going to communicate with a rhythm section as a saxophonist you should know what the piano bass and drums do in some level of detail in order to have any kind of grasp of what your role is. I maintain that it is the above-mentioned grasp of rhythm, harmony, and melody through playing all the instruments that gives your playing a strong sense of purpose while allowing for you to converse articulately with a rhythm section.
Let’s start with rhythm
There are profound lessons to be learned through paying attention to ride cymbal patterns and bass/snare drum fills good drummers employ in a playing situation. This mode of manipulating the time feel suggests rhythmical patterns that a horn player must acknowledge in real time, usually through some sort of complimentary response. I’ve borrowed rhythms from drummers all along the way to work into my improvising vocabulary.
Even better is to transcribe grooves that drummers play and sit down at a drum set and figure out how to play them. I’ve been doing this from the very beginning! Through this activity you will learn the language of the drums. The next step is to see how you can imply these rhythms on a saxophone.
A key component of being a rhythmical saxophonist, along with being able to play rhythmically consistent legato lines, is the ability to use an accented attack. Starting a note with an accent gives that note a percussive quality. Better yet, short accented notes strategically placed have a drum-like sound and feel. Typically we use a “sforzando-piano” technique for sustained notes. This gives you rhythmical intensity and some sense of texture, where the accented attack creates rhythmical propulsion while the sustain is considerably softer. Try to “be the drummer” on your saxophone.
On to Melody
We develop a melodic vocabulary through learning tunes, transcribing solos, and practicing various melodic devices based on patterns and sequential movements (playing things a minor third apart is a frequently visited destination).
Take, for example, the song “Honey Suckle Rose”. The first phrase is a great melody to use over a 2-5 progression. It has all the qualities of a great melody: lots of color (first note is the 11th of the minor 2 chord, and last note is 13th of the 5 chord) a large interval surrounded by a smaller interval and an arpeggio, and a clear display of the 2-5 harmony.
By expanding our melodic vocabulary we hopefully get better at playing a series of melodic phrases that join together to form a story line, If you add the rhythmical component to a well constructed solo that clearly outlines the harmony (check out the Bach cello suites), you are on the way to having many of the ingredients of a whole quartet in your playing.
Harmony is the expansive grid that can lead you to more interesting melodies. Playing piano is a must! By observing how great pianists voice chords (can you say Herbie Hancock!), one can gain the command of the ability to add color and interest to your melodic lines. Again, I refer to the J.S. Bach cello suites and violin partitas. This single-note writing sounds like a whole orchestra, in great part due to the clarity of melodic development, strong implied harmony, and rhythmical forward motion. See if you can slide this concept over into a jazz setting, using jazz harmony, melody, and rhythm.
If you can think in terms of “being the band” on your saxophone, where rhythm, song form, harmony, and strong melodies interact in a thoughtful way, you will have the ability to make rhythm sections smile. Playing with musicians that have a strong time feel, an expansive harmonic vocabulary, and a melodic approach that has a strong sense of purpose is the greatest feeling in the world. The conversation flows and takes you to unexpected places in an effortless way.