Thursday, January 9, 2014

All Music Is Music: Finding the Melody

In an All About Jazz interview from 2009, guitarist Bill Frisell had this to say about his approach to melody.   

When I first started getting into jazz, I studied what was going on with the music theoretically and would look at things more in a mathematical way. I would look at the chords and learn what the chord tones were, what the scales were. But somewhere along the way, I tried to understand all the inner workings of the melody. If the melody isn't there, then it really doesn't mean anything. It's also where it gets harder to explain. With every song, I'm trying to internalize the melody so strong that that's the backbone for everything that I am playing no matter how abstract it becomes. Sometimes I'll just play the melody over and over again and try to vary it slightly. It's really coming from that, like trying to make the melody the thing that's generating all the variations rather than some kind of theoretical mathematical approach.

Interviewer asks: Could you explain what you mean by internalizing the melody?

It's playing and hearing the melody and not playing anything but the melody until it starts going on inside your body, even without thinking about it. But the older I get, the longer it seems to take to learn new things and get it to the point where it's really deep down in there somehow.
Bill Frisell
This approach to melody coupled with the fact that he often uses the American folk songbook as his palette, is what drew me to Bill Frisell in the first place.  (Frisell grew up playing clarinet and seems more influenced by saxophone players than guitar players.)

A love of melody is partly responsible for why, when I started playing music, I came upon traditional Irish and oldtime tunes.  No chordal backing is even necessary.  The tune is the melody and everyone is going for it in unison.  To use a jazz term, you play the “head” all the time.  You’re not flailing around trying to improvise over chord changes or comping/vamping while waiting for your turn solo.

Grant Green is another guitarist who was influenced by horn players.  Green had a very unique, linear, single-note melody style that was almost devoid of chords.  He rarely comped - when his guitar drops out and he trades off with the piano player, for example, you don’t really hear him doing any backing.
(Check out his Goin’ West and Feelin’ the Spirit albums).  I read somewhere that when asked why he didn’t play chords Green responded “Charlie Parker didn’t play chords”.  

I wonder if, as a tenor banjo player I could also be influenced by horn players?  My ultimate musical goal is to be able to hear a melody and play it.  That could be anything from an Irish jig, to a Grant Green solo, to the vocal-line from the song You Are My Sunshine, to the Trey Anastasio guitar part following the “we love to take a bath” lyric in Bathtub Gin.  A slow, simple, basic style is fine with me.  All music is music.

Check out this full set of Bill Frisell with banjoist Danny Barnes from the 2008 Northwest String Summit:

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