Learning how to play jazz can seem like a daunting, and at times, absolutely insane undertaking, but it is extremely rewarding. One of the most important things to keep in mind when starting is that we’re actually learning a new language. The building blocks of improvisation are no different than learning how to speak. We first develop our ability to handle the alphabet, then words, soon sentences, and then the ability to craft those sentences into responses to our surroundings. That is really what is happening between jazz musicians on stage. The real question becomes then, how do I become a part of this conversation. This is where Grant Green comes into play.
Let’s be honest you probably think that his guitar tone is super plinky (that’s right, I said it...plinky) and you gave it a shot, but quickly changed to another album. Let’s put all this in context. Grant recorded in an era in which people hadn’t really figured out how to deal with the Hammond Organ sound. It was loud, harmonically dense, and very difficult to record. Guitar players had to find some way to climb on top of that mass of sound. Thus, using a lot of mid-range and virtually no bass starts to make a lot of sense, but see what happens when you do that with your rig. Every little mistake is amplified greatly! With this perspective go back and check out “I’m an Old Cowhand” on Talkin’ About, with Larry Young and Elvin Jones.
Now that we’re past that unusual guitar tone, let’s talk language. As a jazz improviser, language is how we communicate with the people we’re are playing with and how we communicate with the audience. These are the rhythmic and melodic ideas that are part of a shared base of knowledge among musicians and specifically say what you intend to say while engaging the other participants of your group. That sounds like some heavy stuff right? How can I possibly learn that in the next week? Well, I’m going to be honest, you’re not going to read this and then go dust everyone at this week’s jam session, but! It’s not hopeless, I promise.
Grant Green made an exceptional career off of a relatively limited jazz vocabulary. Let’s examine the album Solid, that arguably captures him at his peak (Matador was also recorded during this session – A nifty little tidbit for another day). Green most frequently uses the following three ideas; the blues, the “Honeysuckle Rose” lick, and a Charlie Parker-y 3-b9 lick. With this vocab he is able to create lengthy lines that drive through the changes of every tune with a heavy groove and impeccable time. These pieces of vocab stayed with him through his entire career. A legendary career that saw him become one of the most recorded musicians of an era. Musicians didn’t just tolerate him, that wanted to play with him! You cannot chalk this up to the fact that he was such a great accompanist (bonus: find the album that he is the lone comping instrument on) A lot of what made him a great sideman on so many Blue Note records can be attributed to his sense of feel, time, and interaction, but learning Green’s jazz vocab can serve as the first step in getting your feet off the ground and scaring everyone away at the next jam.
If you want to dive in and see what this is all about, visit my Musiclessons.com page and check out the Grant Green lesson course. In this course I break down the key ideas that make up Green’s language and discuss how to utilize this knowledge to develop your own playing. If you want to discuss, ask a question, or you know what that album is, post a comment or send me a quick email!