I performed my final jury in my pursuit of a Master of Music in Jazz Studies on Friday. For those unfamiliar with music school terms, a jury is like a reverse audition. My school, San Diego State, holds juries at the end of every semester. Students must play a variety of scales upon request, sightread some music, and perform and improvise on two reputable and challenging jazz tunes. I chose Wayne Shorter's "Fall" and Lee Morgan's "Hocus Pocus." "Fall" has weird chord changes, but they go by slowly enough that I was able to figure it out and develop a decent solo with tasteful voice leading. "Hocus Pocus" is a different story. It doesn't seem to be a contrafact, but it's a pretty standard tonal bebop progression at around 180bpm. The tricky bits are in bars 3-8: a long back-cycle with tritone subs followed by a Coltrane turnaround.
Here it is in F:
Bm7b5 E7b9 | Am7 Ab7 | Gm7 Gb7 | Fmaj7 Ab7 | Dbmaj7 Gb7 |
While I know exactly what to do over all of this, it's a rather colorful progression, and it's over in an instant. If I want to play something convincing over this, I need to address all that color. Just faking it in F major-ish won't cut it. As I worked on this tune for the week leading up to Friday's jury, I found that I could construct some good ideas that weaved through the changes at slow tempos. But whenever I went back to full speed, it felt like I hadn't made any progress. I just couldn't hold on to all those chords at once, and I'm still pretty weak at plain old bebop tunes.
Since I was gaining confidence at the slow tempos, I had an idea. I decided to compose a single-chorus solo based on my own improvised lines at half speed, then learn it at full speed. I knew I had the physical chops to execute long 8th-note runs at 180bpm; it's not a challenging tempo at all. The challenge is mentally keeping up with the harmony. So I figured with a bank of licks I'd worked out under my fingers, I'd be able to draw from it at will to get me through the changes.
And here's a video of me playing it, starting with the original head:
A round of applause for hokey Band-in-a-Box backing tracks, please. After bringing the whole thing up to speed it's immediately apparent that the pacing didn't develop at all. It was way too busy from the start, but that's what happens when you compose something at half the speed at which you intend to play it. Besides, the point of this exercise was to get a bunch of my own licks under my fingers very quickly, not to create a self-contained work of art. I also notice that most of my lines started on the and of three, not sure why it ended up that way.
At Friday's jury, I felt much better about playing this tune, and I knew that the above process was the best thing I could have done. I purposely didn't memorize my entire solo before the jury, so that I wouldn't fall into playing it straight through and get uncomfortable about trying to play something different. But since I wrote all these licks myself, I felt no shame about quoting them verbatim and sprinkling them all over the rest of my improvised lines.
And it worked. I still had plenty of shaky moments in my solo in front of the professors, but just as many flashes of stability from all the little ideas I'd worked out in the previous two days. I will do this again, perhaps on every tune for my recital.