How not to learn jazz fiddle!
When you study classical violin, you learn to reproduce exactly the notes written on the page. You learn to play with long, even bows, to use a smooth, consistent vibrato, with every note played squarely in tune and in time.
You can forget all that!
Jazz violin needs just as much discipline and technique, but it's applied in quite a different way. The first thing you have to do is to read, and then memorize your tune. Once you can play it as it's written, you have to loosen it up and give it some swing. All the quavers will often turn themselves into dotted pairs- long/short, long/short and so on. You have to learn how to syncopate, lengthening or shortening notes so that the accent comes off rather than on the beat, creating surprise and a sense of urgency. You'll find yourself sliding up to many of the key notes instead of hitting them squarely. Long notes are broken up into rhythmic patterns. Intervals between adjacent notes in the melody may be filled by bits of chromatic scale. You might shift up and down the octave, and add bits of harmony and melody that aren't written down. If there's a rhythmic phrase that is frequently repeated in the melody, you'll probably want to do several different rhythmic variations, so that the listener is always kept guessing. Try targetting a particular note in the melody, and instead of playing it as written, precede it with the note immediately above or below it in the scale. There are a million tiny variations you can make to the tune which will make every jazz violin performance not only personal and unique to you, but also to that moment.
jazz violin bowing
Take a look at your bow as you're playing the melody. If you've not played much jazz before, the chances are that most of your bows are six inches or longer, and mainly around the middle of the bow. For playing runs and fast swing phrases that's far too long. Try playing a G major scale, in swing rhythm. The short notes (the second of every pair) should be so short you can hardly see the bow moving. It should be possible to play a swingings scale with all separate bows, but it's very useful to have some bowing patterns to allow slurs. One of the most common, sometimes referred to as swing bowing or chain bowing, goes down, up-up, down-down, up up etc. One of my favourites is down, up-up-up, down, up-up-up, down , up-up-up etc. Also try down, up, down, up down up-up-up; down, up, down, up down up-up-up etc. Patterns like this will allow you to do runs and fast phrases which sound smooth and relaxed, but have some accent to them. Learn several patterns, but switch between them, so that your playing doesn't sound predictable.
Try to avoid using the same part of the bow all the time. The kind of bowing described above usually works best in the upper half of the bow. The other end, down at the heel, is good for chopping, attacking phrases, and for tricky bebop-type melodies. A good approach is to try starting a long phrase down at the heel, with a few short, punchy notes, and end it near the tip with more subtle, flowing notes. Think question (heel), answer (tip).
A supple wrist is important for jazz bowing; for short bows there should be very little elbow or upper arm movement; try and get most of it from the wrist. Try practicing a series of short up-bows where each note is very clearly articulated. The dig which you can give to each note comes from the first finger of your right hand pushing momentarily down on the bow. Didier Lockwood refers to this subtle wrist and finger action as his "secret weapon"
When playing ballads you can use a very light touch on the bow to give a soft, whispering tone, or even to produce haunting and mysterious false harmonics.
Whilst you'll go to great efforts to make your solos rhythmic, syncopated and swinging, there are also times when it's great to play completely out of time; practice playing scales which start slowly, and in the course of a few notes accelerate dramatically before slowing down again as you reach the top. Applying this technique over a ballad gives the effect of exhilarating,soaring freedom.
So far we've looked at how to play the melody or "head" of a jazz tune, in a way that will sound jazzy and will allow you to put a lot of yourself into the performance. Next it's on to the solo.
Soloing- the scary bit!
The interesting part and, to the rule-bound classical player, the really terrifying part, is when you have to leave the melody behind you and, like a hang glider pilot jumping off a precipice, take off into the unknown. This is the part where the little kids in the audience stop chattering, the hard-of-hearing turn up their hearing aids and every single person stops to focus-- on you. No pressure!
Actually this part is not half as difficult as as some people would have you believe. Most tunes have a tonal centre which runs all the way through, and to which you can constantly refer. In practice, this means that with a tune like Dinah, Lady Be Good or Autumn Leaves you can play the same major or minor scale all the way through the chord sequence. The notes will sound different in the context of different chords, but basically you'll find that you aren't playing any wrong notes at all. It's a very useful exercise to try alternating one or two bars of melody with one or two bars of the major scale. It's a first step towards improvising, and gets you used to the idea of moving a step away from the melody, whilst remaining aware of where you are in the sequence. At this stage you will need to have some chordal and rhythmic backing whilst you're playing; I would strongly recommend the software Band in a Box (see below).
The Pentatonic Scale
Try the same thing using not a major scale, but a pentatonic scale. ( a five-note scale with no semitone (half-step) intervals. You'll find that this is not only even easier (once your fingers get used to the patterns), but is also far more melodic; a simple pattern of any two or three adjacent notes in the scale will create their own melody.
If you've ever been to any of my lessons or workshops, you'll know I bang on for ages about these scales. If you don't know what one is, the G major scale would be G,A,B,D,E,G. You can transpose this to any key using the same intervals of tone, tone, tone and a half, tone, tone. It's the same as the black notes on the piano. Practice these scales in first position up and down and round and round ; on two strings, three strings and four strings so that your fingers know them without any effort on your part. Then even more useful, paractice them in what I call a closed position- with your fingers locked in maybe second or third position, using no open strings. The great advantage of this is that, once you've learned the patterns out of first position, soloing in the key of C sharp or F sharp is literally as easy as C or F, so long as you stay in position. When I want to show off to other fiddlers at a gig I occasionally play a blues which ascends by a semitone every twelve bars, so I go through all the keys. People who don't know how hard it is to play in those weird keys are not impressed. People who do are Very Impressed, whilst people who've figured out how I do it just yawn and look nonchalent.
In this short video I demonstrate the use of the major pentatonic scale for violin improvisation, and show how you can use simple finger patterns to go all the way up the neck.
Then try the blues scale by adding a flattened third to the major pentatonic. Again this will fit easily anywhere over your simple chord sequence, and now it is starting to sound really jazzy.
This approach to the melodic side of improvisation I laughingly call the Snowplough Method, since it shoulders aside any chord in its path with careless abandon. It's a great starting point and will give a jazz violin beginner a lot of confidence to keep going. It's the natural starting point for a violinist, who is used to thinking only about melodies, not chords. However, beware..there may be trouble ahead! Not all those plain white virgin snowfields are as safe as they look, and believe me, there are plenty of rocks hiding just under the surface!
Beware the Chords
Before long you'll find that your reckless noodling through a G tune is rudely interrupted by an E7 chord, and suddenly most of the notes you were relying on sound dramatically and emphatically wrong. At this point it becomes clear that sooner or later you're going to have to learn the chord sequence, or at least become familiar with the important changes. At first this can seem quite daunting, until you realise that chord sequnces follow natural patterns which you will eventually become very familiar with- the II/V/I, for example, or the cycle of fifths. If you work slowly through a chord sequence, playing a triad (3 note arpeggio) for every chord, you will soon get the feel of the chord sequence, and you'll find that you can either dodge the tricky bits by playing safe and simple at that point, or else change gear, moving to a new tonal centre (ie playing a new scale) until the sequence gets back to the straight and narrow. A great way to practice a new tune is to play all the way through making arpeggios from the chords. At first this will sound very mechanical, but by alternating up and down arpeggios, swinging them, and starting not always on the root note but but on the closest note to the one you finished the last arrpeggio with, you'll be able to create something much more musical. Don't get hung up on complex chords; if you see F sharp minor seven flattened fifth, you don't necessarily have to pay any attention to the flattened fifth, or the seventh. You read the chord name from left to right; the important bits are on the left- the further you go to the right, the less important the information as far as you're concerned. After all, you could spend hours learning the fine points of each chord voicing, only to find that when you come to perform it, your accompanist decides to substitute a completely different chord and your effort will have been wasted. If you follow the Berklee method of improvisation much beloved by American saxophonists, you'll have to learn a different mode for every single chord and the whole thing becomes a huge mental exercise...It doesn't need to be as difficult as that. My main aim is always to make it swinging, relaxed, and above all, fun.
Once you've turned yourself into a bionic 100 Ghz chord -processing machine, you might think that the job is done, and you're a jazz player. Not a bit of it! Any fool can knock out a continuous stream of notes which follow the chord sequence, but it will still be a dog's dinner if you can't produce melodic phrases. There's no short cut to this- you have to listen to lots and lots of other people's playing until you get used to the phraseology which jazzers use. You need a large stock of riffs in your head which you can call on at any time, in any tune and in any key, and you need to be able to instantly modify them to suit the job in hand. I find it helps to imagine that the line you're improvising is being played not just by you, but by a huge brass section.. You've got to make it simple (they're only brass players after all!), you've got to give them time to breathe between phrases, and since they're damned expensive, you have to make every note count.
Try practicing phrases of a particular length, related to the chords you're playing over, and try and give each phrase a distinct start, finish and sense of direction. For example you may have four bars in which the chords do a II/V/I; try phrases which last three bars, and follow a meandering pattern up or down a single scale, leaving yourself a bar rest at the end. Repetition of phrases is something you rarely hear from a beginner- instead you get a kind of nervous desperation, an unbroken string of notes, a constant searching but never a finding of anything meaningful to say. Relax, let the chords do some of the work, and as soon as you find a simple, neat phrase (maybe 1 bar long), play it again. And again! People won't be bored with a phrase played three times, they'll think you're making a confident and definitive statement. Only on the fourth time do you need to move on to something else. Stuff Smith is a great player to listen to for this. Although his phrases are harmonically very adventurous, unlike Grappelli, he rarely goes in for long, sinuous phrases, but prefers, short, punchy phrases repeated again and again.
Chromatic scales are useful fillers both in melody and soloing; if there are two important melody notes a fifth apart, for example, you could fill the gap with a chromatic scale. The fingering I use, starting on an open string and going up, is 0-1-1-2-2-3-4-0. Don't worry about the fact that, theoretically, a chromatic scale is packed with notes which aren't welcome in any particular chord. Think of it this way; if you're a G major you don't want an A flat, B flat or C sharp sitting down at your table for a cup of tea, but you don't mind if they wave at you over the garden wall. So long as your starting note and finishing note are comfortable in the chord, the passing notes in between aren't going to spoil anything. An interesting and amusing exercise is to try playing slowly through a melody, hitting all the melody notes as you go, but filling in all the gaps chromatically, so that you never play two adjacent notes more than a semitone apart. Weird!
The violin certainly isn't the first instrument you think of in relation to the blues. However, players like Sugarcane Harris and Clarence Gatemouth Brown have shown that with a rough edge, lots of attitude and plenty of note bending, the violin is well suited to the blues.
Blues is an essential element of jazz, but a rather complex and elusive one. There are three different aspects to blues. Firstly, it's a sequence of chords, usually 12 bars in length. Secondly, it's a scale containing certain flattened "blue notes"; and thirdly it's a feeling which can be applied to music, a passion and angst which finds its expression through playing the blues.
The blues sequence
Most jazz tunes are 32 bars long, typically with an 8-bar line (the A) repeated twice, an 8-bar B section, and a reprise of the A. Blues is different, having typically just 12 bars which are repeated through the song.
The most basic sequence is 1/1/1/1/ 1v7/1v7/1/1/ v7/1v7/1/v. It therefore consists of just three chords; the root (1),subdominant (1v) and dominant (v7) . From the 1930's onwards, numerous modifications and refinements have taken place;
A slightly more sophisticated version, a "jazz" blues is l /1v7/1/17/ 1v7/1v7/1/v17/ 11m7 v7/1/11m7-v7/
There is also a minor blues;
1m/1vm7/1m7/17/ 1vm7/1vm7/1m7/1m7/ b1v7/v7/1m/11m7-v7/
Further variations include the bebop blues and a complex descending blues. So when someone says, "ok, lets play a blues in G", how come everyone knows what to do, and they don't have to sit down and discuss the chord sequence beforehand? Basically, assuming it's major, then all the different versions are interchangeable; even if every member of the band is expecting something different, with a little give and take it will always sort itself out.
The blues scale
There is some debate about what is the blues scale. The most commonly used scale used to teach the blues is, for a G major blues, G Bb C Db D F ; it's the scale that guitarists use, and one of the first patterns that any lead guitarist will learn. You will notice several things about this. It has three flattened or "blue "notes- the flattened third (Bb), the flattened fifth (Db) and flattened seventh (F natural). The most striking feature is that it places a minor third against a major chord, creating an immediate tension; it is this tension
which is the driving force and emotional heart of the blues. The scale as a whole is a minor pentatonic plus one extra note, the Db; it is sometimes called the minor blues scale.
Try playing the scale against each chord of the blues sequence, and you will see that it works all the way through; any lick you create from the scale can be repeated as many times as you like throughout the sequence.
I said earlier that the blues is an essential element of jazz, and in fact blues lick are very often used in jazz tunes which do not follow the blues chord sequence. For this reason it is very useful to learn another scale as follows; G A Bb B D E. This scale contains both the flattened 3rd (Bb) and major 3rd (B). This allows you to play the scale over a major key , moving in and out of the minor feel at will; in fact you can bend up and down between the Bb and B in a very satisfactory way (here fiddle players have a big advantage over pianists, who find themselves hammering two adjacent notes at once, as if trying to get at the note in the crack between!) This scale will allow you to play blues riffs in a "sunny" sounding tune without colouring the whole tune too much.
Because it is based on the major pentatonic, it is an easy addition to a lot of shapes and patterns you will already have become familiar with. The scale does not include the flattened fifth or seventh; on a major tune you'll have to add these in when you need them.
And what about using this scale in a minor key? Just as with the ordinary pentatonic, the same notes will work for the relative minor, so the G major blues scale will work for an E minor tune. But now look at the intervals. The Bb is now the flattened fifth, which can bend up to the natural fifth (B), and the D is now a flattened seventh. So although you can no longer call the third a blue note (since it's flat in the key of Em anyway), you now have two other blue notes to play with.
To get more of an idea of Blues violin, listen to someone like Papa John Creach, who specialises in this style.
Your first few years of learning jazz will concentrate on staying inside the chords- finding notes and phrases which sit comfortably and move with the chords. After a while you may start to yearn for a bit more danger and excitement in your playing, and might start to think about the idea of playing "outside". This is an idea which started in the bebop era and developed through jazz-rock and fusion music. There's actually a sort of spectrum of outsidedness;
1.Playing "leading notes" a semitone below your safe "target notes". For example, on an Em7 chord, a strong (safe) E note might be preceded by a "passing" E flat note. The E flat doesn't belong in the chord or its scale, but because you're not dwelling on the note, and it's obviously leading up to the E note, it sounds fine. This technique is used very frequently, and people often practice arpeggios where root, third and fifth are all preceded by a note one semitone below.
2. Playing chromatic runs and phrases. Chromatic scales, where the notes are a semitone apart, are very fluid, and will fit over any chord so long as you end on a strong, safe note. It's the intervals of a whole tone, which occur in normal minor and major scales, which give the information which determines whether the phrase sounds "in" or "out" with the chord. When you're listening to a chromatic phrase, your brain suspends judgement until the last note- make sure it's a good one!
3.Extending the chords. The simplest way to make a phrase sound more interesting is to stress one of the weak or unstable notes, such as the second or sixth. These are normally notes you would use on the way to a stronger note, but if you use them with confidence and determination, you can create tension and excitement. You can extend a chord "upwards"; play a minor seven arpeggio (1,3,5,7); you can carry on the arpeggio, playing 9, 11 and 13. In this context they'll sound quite "out" even though they're the same as 2,4 and 6 (but an octave higher)
4.Altering the chords. If you watch an accompanying guitarist or pianist playing a chord sequence, you'll see that they keep putting in chords which aren't written, substituting, putting in passing chords. It makes the backing more interesting- in fact it makes the soloist sound more interesting as well. Once you are familiar with the sequence, and understand some of the rules, you can play the same game yourself. Playing "blue" notes is a simple example- flattening the third, fifth or seventh. There are also lots of interesting licks where you use both flattened and sharpened ninths on a dominant chord; for example, on a D7 chord you can use E flat and F natural.
One of the most interesting chord alterations is the Tritone Substitution. This may sound like something you might learn in a Transfiguration class at Hogwarts, but in fact it's a neat device for giving a different feel to a II/V/1 sequence. Basically, you replace the V chord with another seventh chord a tritone (three tones)higher or lower. In the sequence Am7/D7/G, for example, you could play Am7/Ab7/G. This works because D7 and Ab7 share two important notes; the seventh of D7 (C) is also the third of Ab7, and the third of D7 (F sharp) is also the seventh of Ab7. The beauty of the new sequence is that it provides a chromatic descending line from A down to G. The use of the tritone substitution works two ways. If there's one written into a tune, by recognising it for what it is, you can play a line that's simpler and smoother than it might otherwise be, and it will avoid the tendency to panic when you encounter an Ab chord in a tune in G. If the chord sequence asks for a straight II/V/1, on the other hand, as a soloist you can imply the Ab7 chord, which will include some interesting "outside" notes at the same time.
5. Diminished and whole tone scales. You may see a diminished chord in a tune; if so you play a diminished scale (made of alternate tone and semitone intervals). There are also places where you can use a diminished scale even if it's not written. For example, you often see the chords Em7flat 5 and A7flat 9 used together. It's a bit of a handful following these, but you'll find that an E diminished scale or arpeggio will fit very well instead, and will sound very coherent. It also helps to give a gypsy jazz feel; it's the kind of substitution that Django style guitarists use all the time. You can do the same thing with a dominant chord; Over E7, for example, you could play a D diminished arpeggio,scale or phrase. (Start on the seventh note, not the root)
If you see an augmented chord- anything with a + or sharpened 5th symbol- you can play a whole tone scale or pattern. This is a scale where all the intervals are a tone. You can also use the same thing wherever you see a dominant chord- augmented or not; the best place to use this is at the end of an 8-bar line or in the last bar of the tune, where the dominant is leading back to the root. The effect is like creating an impossibly high house of cards, or like playing "dare" with stolen cars. Using a scale like this will show confidence and determination; it will show who's in charge!
6 Extending a chord's length. By this, I mean if a D7 is written for one bar, you can play a phrase within the D7 chord, but extend it into the next chord, as if the chord hadn't changed. This will make the notes of your phrase start "in", but end up "out". Similarly you can anticipate a chord change by half a bar or a bar, maybe starting a diminished scale before the diminished chord actually appears. Here your phrase will start off "out", and end up "in". The phrase will work because it's anchored to a chord where it actually fits.
7. Repeating a phrase a semitone higher. Play a short, distinct phrase which is "in", and then immediately play it a semitone higher. The phrase will be "out" the second time, but because it's an echo of the previous phrase, it will have some coherence and you might get away with it. Pentatonic phrases work well in this context. Talking of context, what the rest of the band is doing will go a large way to determining how successful your outing is. If the pianist is playing modern, open indeterminate chords, and the bass player doing chromatic runs, you will have a lot of freedom. If the rest of the band is playing "Oh when the saints go marching in", you'll no doubt be offered the freedom to join another band.
One of the finest, and best known exponents of modern, bebop and jazz fusion violin techniques is Jean Luc Ponty.
One thing about learning to play the violin with a classical training is that it will have given you a good vibrato. However, this will almost certainly sound wrong in jazz. You should be able to turn it on or off at will, often shaping each longer note so that it start off plain, with vibrato gradually coming in towards the end. In some situations a really wide, crazy vibrato is called for, particularly at the end of a punchy phrase, but if you use it too much you'll be in trouble.
Harmonics in jazz violin
There are four different kinds or uses of harmonics you might find in jazz fiddle playing. The first kind are the true harmonics that exist at various positions up and down each string. Everyone knows about the octave harmonics in the middle and at the top of the string, but there are some much more interesting and useful ones lower down, Go to third position on the D string, and play A and G with your 2nd and 1st finger respectfully. Now do the same thing, but with a very light pressure on the string, so that the string doesn't touch the neck. You should now find some lovely and unexpected harmonics. Use the same positions on the other strings and you can make some nice little riffs and melodies. This is the type of harmonic much used by Stephane Grapelli, for example in the melody of the tune Daphne. MORE ON STEPHANE GRAPPELLI
Because there are lots more of these harmonics up each string, there's a good trick you can do, particularly on the G string, by sliding all the way up and down again- by all the way I mean right to the top of the neck- whilst having a very light pressure on the string. Each harmonic will ring as you pass it, giving a weird and unworldly effect. I first heard this used very effectively on a jazz-rock album by Didier Lockwood. Very effective, but not to be overused!
A third type of harmonic is the "false harmonic". You can get this on any note by simply lessening the bow pressure on the string. The note will give a soft, ghostly whistle which, though it doesn't ring like a true harmonic, is a great effect. You can either use it in a dark, reflective part of a solo, or, if used fast and loud, can give a good imitation of an overdriven electric guitar.
Finally, and by far the hardest. Play a normal E with your first finger on the D string (in first position). Now put your fourth finger lightly on the same string as if playing an A. So long as your fourth finger is exactly in tune, but is not pushing down, you should get a true E harmonic. Now slide the whole hand up a semitone and try the same thing, and you should be able to play an F harmonic. In fact using this technique you can play a proper harmonic to any note. I first came across this in the tune Czardas. Some jazz guitarists use the same technique to great effect but hey, it's easy for them, they've got frets!
When playing in a soft, lyrical fashion you can move in and out of all these different types of harmonic, giving each note a shape, texture and "fuzziness" which is normally the prerogotive of sax players or electric guitarists
Give a structure to your solo
It's all too easy when soloing to just noodle around for several choruses without any sense of direction, and then you'll get to the end without the sense of actually having been anywhere- because you haven't. A simple way to shape a solo is to start off gently and gradually work upwards in terms of volume, pitch and intensity so that you hit a climax near the end, and then bring it gently back to earth, signalling your end clearly. To do this effectively it helps if you know how long your solo is going to be- just one chorus or several? An alternative ending strategy is to put your climax at the very end, perhaps ending on a really high note; if you do this effectively you should earn yourself at least a modest round of applause if not a standing ovation.
As the starting point for your solo you might play a recognisable variation of the melody, or you might pick up on a phrase from the end of the preceeding solo. If the last solo was fast and frantic, it's often a good idea to drop right down, giving space to build later on. If the rhythm section don't immediately respond by dropping down as well,turn round and glare at them; if they still don't get the hint, make a note to cross them off your Christmas card list.
If you're going to do several choruses, you might think about using a different approach to different parts of the solo; maybe use a blues scale once round, perhaps concentrate on individual chords another time, and lots of double-time runs a third time. Try to devolop each idea, phrase or feel for a while rather than constantly changing tack- you want variety through your solo, but not dizzying confusion.
If you're playing a gig with other musicians, pay attention to what everyone else is doing. How long are everyone elses's solos? If the other soloists are taking 16-bar breaks, it's not going to look good if you launch into a fifteen minute solo when it comes to your turn. And how about the order of solos? Is it already set in the arrangement, is it called by the bandleader, or is it done by a nod from the previous soloist? If the latter is the case, don't be twiddling your thumbs or eyeing up the girls in the audience during other people's solos; keep an eye on them and watch for the signal, and remember to give one yourself at the end of yours.
Jazz Fiddle repertoire
After I'd first got the hang of improvising I thought that made me a jazz violinist; I turned up univited to people's gigs and asked to sit in, and was very pleased with myself that I could busk along with any of their tunes; however, when people asked me to lead into a tune myself, it quickly became apparent that I didn't actually know any. You can't begin to call yourself a jazz player until you've memorised a whole load of "standards"-tunes that most other jazzers will know.
These will include things like Autumn Leaves, How High the Moon, Ain't Misbehavin, Undecided, Dinah, Caravan and so on. There are lots of different branches to the jazz repertoire and, whilst you'll probably specialise in one area, you should try and make sure you know some of every type; Hot Club tunes, Latin, bebop, ballads, waltzes etc. When I give lessons I always work from tunes that are going to be useful, so that after a year or so you should have built up a good pad of material.
How to practice jazz fiddle
Practicing jazz fiddle on your own is a thankless task. You can learn the tunes and the scales, but without the context of rhythm and chords you're banging your head against a brick wall. A tame accompanist- preferably a guitarist, who doesn't mind playing things over and over whilst you blunder through the chords, is ideal but hard to find. More practical is a backing tape of some kind. I've recently discovered the excellent book/CD sets by Robin Nolan- these are full of the kind of tunes that jazz fiddlers play- mostly Hot Club tunes, with excellent backing. The melodies are written out in guitar tablature (guitarists, of course, can't read music!), but they're easy enough to learn or transcribe from the lead guitar part.
By far your best and most versatile option is to get hold of the Band in a Box software. With this you can easily input a chord sequence (it's all done manually, by typing or choosing chord symbols from a menu). Once that's done you can choose and very easily change the key, tempo, style (swing, bossa, jazz funk etc), instrumentation and so on. You can loop a section, allowing you to practice over and over a particular part of the sequence. You can set it to just play a II/V/I for example, or create an exercise sequence going through all the keys. You can input the melody, using notation, and have it played back on any instrument. You can arrange the tune, setting the number of times the head is played, and how many times round the changes before you go back to the tune at the end. A particularly useful feature is that it can "embellish the chords' so that, if you allow it, it will add substitutions- minor sevens, flat nines and so on, in the same way that any live accompanist would.
And, amazingly, you can get it to generate and play a solo in the style of any number of famous jazz players. These are not random, brainless noodlings but solos phrased just as the original artist might, giving you lots of ideas on how to deal with a particular tune. It's available for both Mac and PC, and costs under $100. Try hiring a band to who will turn up on time, sober and polite, who won't smoke joints in your kitchen and eat all your food, and will then accompany you tirelessly and uncomplainingly for an hour while you scrape and scratch your way 75 times through Autumn Leaves, and see how much change you get for $100.
I can't recommend it enough!
For a budget version of the same sort of thing, try the app Ireal Pro. You can use this direct from you smartphone or tablet. When you pay the £6 approx for the pro version, you get access to a huge free library of standards which you can play back, again with control of key and tempo, and with the ability to input your own chords. I've seen this app used with reasonable success as a budget backing band on a gig.
Practicing Jazz Violin
When you practice, try and concentrate on just one one thing at a time. For example, let's say you're working on How High the Moon; work all the way through the sequence just thinking about pentatonic scales, or chromatic scales, or two-bar phrases, or blue notes, or chord triads, or types of vibrato, or slotting in a new riff you've learned.
Set aside a block of time- preferably the same time each day, in which to practice, and give yourself a list of daily exercises to do- scales, arpeggios, riffs, techniques and so on. Don't forget that every new lick you learn will work in any key- but only if you practice it in every key.
Set yourself specific goals- short term (a week), medium term ( a few months) and long term (a couple of years). For example you might decide in the next week to study and memorise a new tune and get to grips with the chord sequence. Over two months you might try to master different uses of the diminished scale, whilst you might have a long term goal to play with equal facility in any position on the neck of the violin. Don't be impatient. Some musical ideas, scales, the use of certian riffs, might take months of practice before you've got them completely mastered. With anything new you learn, expect to go through three stages; 1. You can do it in isolation whilst practicing; 2. You can do it in the middle of a solo if you concentrate hard on it; and 3. You can do it during a solo whilst thinking about what you're going to have for dinner tomorrow. Number three is the one you're aiming for!
Keep your eyes on the ball: keep listening as much as possible to other jazz violinists, and indeed soloists on other instruments, and try and decide whose style you like best, and what aspects of that style you want to emulate. Don't be afraid of copying other players to start with, but keep the goal in mind that you want eventually to have your own recognisable, individual style.
Have fun, stay fresh and stick at it!
If I haven't managed to
put you off after all this, or alternatively haven't given you
the impression that you now know all there is to know, you might
now be thinking of getting some jazz violin lessons. If you are
reading this from Finland or Mongolia, I'm afraid I can't be of
However, if you live in or within striking distance of London, then give me a call. I've had plenty of experience of teaching, both privately, on University Jazz courses, and at fiddle workshops. I have a structured and organised, though flexible, approach to teaching and can go at whatever pace suits you. You may want just one or two lessons to get you started, or you may want to come regularly and diligently for a long period. All my lessons are based around jazz standards, so that you'll develop not only technique but also repertoire. Most of my students come from the London area, but people sometimes travel from the North of England, Ireland and even the USA for a lesson. I recently had a student come from Sweden just for a lesson; she is a classical violinist who had landed a seven week tour with a country singer, and had not the slightest idea what to do; she came over for about 5 hours of lessons, and went away very happy
SKYPE LESSONS; I've recently also started giving lessons by Skype. For this to work you need skype on your computer, a broadband connection, and also band in a box (see above). The sound quality isn't great, but it works quite effectively. You can pay for lessons by paypal. If you're interested in this, we can arrange a free 15 minute taster session to make sure all the hardware works ok.
I teach from home in Forest Gate, East London, and charge £40 for an hour's lesson.
Get in touch by email or call me on 020 8534 3887
By the way- sorry, but I don't teach beginners!; if you want to learn jazz I'd recommend at the very least a couple of years of "straight" playing so you can read music, play scales and arpeggios, get into third position and so on.
I've put virtually everthing I know about jazz violin in this 200 page book, published by Schott. It teaches jazz violin playing more or less from scratch, assuming only that you can read music and play beyond first position. It introduces jazz bowing- how to swing and phrase so that even simple scales can sound fluid and jazzy. It shows how to play a "head" with many subtle variations, loosening it up and making it a personal performance rather than just somethin read off the page. You'll find yourself learning to improvise very easily, through a series of steps- major scales, pentatonic and blues scales played over simple diatonic chord sequences. There are then two chapters explaining chords from first principles; we look at each major chord type and show how a jazz violinist can deal with it. II/V/Is and the cycle of fifths are dealt with- both major drivers of jazz.
I then look at the playing of some of the greatest jazz violinists; Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty, giving you a lot of background to their playing, and analysing the kind of licks that they use. There's a section looking at some of the more out-of the way jazz fiddle styles- bebop, gypsy jazz, free jazz, jazz fusion and latin jazz. The final chapter imagines you playing your first gig, which just happens to be in the Albert Hall (so no pressure!), and shows how you might prepare for the big night.
There is an accompanying cd with both backing tracks and violin top lines, recorded with eight top-of the range jazz musicians. My approach all the way through was to take everything in small, bite -sized steps, keeping theory always as simple and straightforward as possible, and keeping the whole thing irreverent, lively and entertaining.
For years there has been a shelf full of books available for gypsy-jazz guitarists, as well as a fair pile of general jazz violin tutors, mostly trying to cover the full range of jazz styles. Now at last there’s a book specifically for those fiddlers who want to learn the style of Stephane Grappelli, written by Tim Kliphuis, himself a master Grappelli stylist.
The book opens up with a clear and simple explanation of the relationship between scales and chords, targeted at the crucial II, V, I sequence and, important for gypsy jazz, the difference between harmonic and melodic minor scales. An entertaining exercise with walking feet and clicking fingers (based I’m sure on Tim’s extensive workshop experience) introduces the idea of on and off beats, and eases you into the idea of swing vs straight playing.
One of the biggest problems I find with converting classical players to jazz is the way they want to bow every note evenly. Kliphuis gets right to the point, introducing the idea of “ghost notes” which receive a bow length of approximately nil- they are swallowed up and become a mere suggestion. The contrast of these ghost notes with the accented notes is a crucial nuance of jazz fiddling which I have rarely seen described elsewhere.
The distinctive Grappelli vibrato and harmonics get a look-in, followed by some valuable suggestions on bowing, slurs and accents. The addition of extra chromatic notes to scales turns them into swinging, fluid melodic phrases rather than stilted exercises. For melodic instruments like the violin, arpeggios are particularly important in jazz playing, and Kliphuis shows how the addition of 6th, 7th and 9th notes, and starting below the tonic, can make them far more useable in jazz soloing.
My pet hate for jazz fiddle books is when you’re given huge transcriptions of solos. Go on, admit it. You’re one of those people who bought a certain Grappelli book, sat down and tried playing through the first page. You got no more than twelve bars into the first solo, sighed and went to make a cup of tea. That’s as far as you got. I know, I was one of those people. Kliphuis provides six such transcriptions but, mercifully, he then breaks each one down into short, useable phrases, pointing out examples of blue notes, sliding notes, anticipation of chord changes, altered notes and rubato phrasing.
No review would be complete without some petty griping. I would like to have heard more audio tracks of the short phrases which I found so valuable, to have had more examples of Grappelli’s many “stock” licks, such as the use of parallel fifths, and to have had a fuller explanation of the blues scales which are so fundamental to Grappelli’s playing.
Nevertheless I would say to anyone learning to play Grappelli style fiddling that this is what it sets out to be, THE book that you’ve just got to have.
Here I am playing Stevie Wonder's Sunny at the London Fiddle Convention:
Off The Wall; Chris Haigh solo album. It’s got 15 tunes, covering a wide range of styles (Texas Swing, Shetland, Irish, Klezmer, jazz, Russian, Balkan and Romanian), and some great guest musicians (Brendan Power (harmonica), Leon Hunt (banjo), Alan Dunn (accordion and piano), Stewart Curtis (clarinet), Andrew Tulloch and Richard Bolton (guitars), Raph Mizraki and Viktor Obsust (double bass)
FREE SHEET MUSIC!
And an extra bonus for fiddle players is that if you buy the cd and fancy trying some of the tunes, email me and I’ll send you, Absolutely Free, a pdf file with sheet music for all the tunes on the CD. Now that’s an offer you don’t see every day!
The CD is available from Chris;
-by post- a cheque for £12 to Chris Haigh at 232 Sebert Rd, Forest Gate, London E7 0NP
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This page part of a much larger site dedicated to fiddle playing in all its different styles around the world. The site also has
lots of stuff about the different bands that I play with:
Return to fiddlingaround.co.uk homepage
You can never learn to play jazz violin without listening to and studying other players. You can certainly develop your own style. but there's no need to re-invent the wheel. Here's some recommended listening:
What Stuff Smith lacks in tone and finesse he more than makes up for with melodic and rhythmic invention, and the sheer force of his playing. This collection gives you an excellent overview of his playing at the peak of his career.
Disk one covers the period 1935-39, and is mostly with his Onyx Club Boys line-up. The majority are vocal numbers, with Smith displaying his “Jive Talkin’” humour that you might be more familiar with from the likes of Louis Jordan. I’s a Muggin is one such number, a big hit for Stuff which was covered by Grappelli and Reinhardt, among others. The solos tend to be short, but some, such as Old Joe’s hittin the Jug, are exceptional; the “outsidedness” of his playing shows him as a player well ahead of his time. The fireworks really start on disk 2, which is mostly instrumental numbers recorded with his trio (with piano and bass) between 1940 and 45. The bebop influence on his playing is clear in numbers such as The Red Jumps, and his playing is full of excitement and danger, peppered throughout with parallel fifths and strident octave licks. We get no less than three versions of Desert Sands, a Smith composition which became something of a theme tune, almost certainly influenced by the Duke Ellington hit Caravan. With 49 tracks, and a 15-page booklet this is terrific value. If you buy nothing else by Stuff Smith, this is the one to get.
If I had to recommend a single cd of jazz violin of all the ones I’ve ever listened to, this would be it. Lockwood was a protégé of Grappelli in the 1970’s, and absorbed many of the most endearing stylistic traits of the older player. This is heard most clearly on the slow ballads such as Les Valseuses, My one and Only Love. Misty and Tears, where the breathy tone and broken phrasing are pure Grappelli. Lockwood’s rendition of Nuages is the one I always play to students to demonstrate his absolute mastery of harmonics, both natural and artificial, as well as the way in which such incredible depth and expression can be squeezed into 32 bars of melody. Didier Lockwood may once have been a Grappelli disciple, but this album clearly demonstrates that he is his own man, and his playing has moved many steps beyond his former mentor. The faster tracks, such as I Got Rhythm, Pent up House and All the Things you Are, show a strong bebop sensibility, with carefully judged “outside” playing, while Barbizon Blues and The Kid are cool and funky.
The most unique aspect of Lockwood’s playing is his bow control. Every note of a phrase is given the clearest articulation, but between phrases he often takes all the pressure off the bow, and makes little slides, gasps and sighs which make his violin into a living, breathing thing, and a very sexy one at that. I don’t give star ratings for cd’s; even if I did, there wouldn’t be enough in the sky for this one.
Since its publication in 1981, this must have been one of the most popular jazz violin books on the market. Put together by Matt Glaser, former chair of strings at Berklee College, and now director of Roots Music there, it contains faithful transcriptions of 24 Grappelli solos, plus others by Venuti, Ponty, South. Asmussen and Smith. There are also interviews with Grappelli , Ponty and Yehudi Menuhin. There is analysis of each solo and a table of common motifs, and there are comparisons of different solos for the same tune. Glaser makes a good choice of numbers, using classics such as It Don't Mean a Thing, Dinah, Lady be Good, Undecided and Sweet Georgia Brown.
To get the most out of this book you will need a lot of patience to work through the transcriptions, and to get hold of some of the original recordings. Transcription of solos is an essential part of any jazz student's labour, and here Glaser has saved us all a great deal of effort!
This is one of the most useful jazz tutors I've come across, particularly if you're interested in the more modern end of jazz fiddling. He starts off describing the invaluable bebop scales, where an extra chromatic note in the scale starts each new bar with a chord note on the beat. He talks about chord analysis, inner melodies, and the importance of avoiding starting chord arpeggios on the root. The section I found most useful was a series of II/V/I patterns with altered notes; sharpened and flattened ninths for example, giving a cool, modern, slightly outside sound.
Recorded in 1964, Jazz Long Playing is the hidden treasure at the bottom of Ponty’s vault. It is not widely known that, sandwiched between his brief classical career and his much longer reign as the jazz fusion violin king, Ponty was a bebop player extraordinaire. Only Didier Lockwood has come anywhere near him since. This album, recorded with piano, bass, drums and a little flute has all the evidence you need.
Recorded with no effects, and with an almost total absence of vibrato, Ponty achieved a sound equivalent to, and no doubt modelled on, that of Miles Davis circa Kind of Blue. His playing is peppered with unexpected double stops, dissonances and altered notes. On the two blues numbers- YTNOP Blues and Sniffin the Blues the outside notes and chord substitutions are easiest to follow. On the medium tempo numbers such as Une Nuit au Violon and Spanish Castels, his solos move effortlessly from swing 8ths to straight 16th notes, while the up tempo tunes such as Postlude in C or Au Privave, the notes pour out like water from a tap. Perhaps most interesting are the ballads. How would he deal with a romantic gypsy jazz standard such as Django Reinhardt’s Manoir de mes Reves? With no vibrato or gypsy inflection to his playing you would expect it to fall flat, but not a bit of it. Playing a straight bat, and with total confidence, Ponty turns this into a bebop masterpiece. If all you’ve ever heard of jazz violin is swing or jazz fusion, this album is a must.
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