Lines of Least Resistance and Trusting to Chance

I once asked South African jazz harmonica player Adam Glasser if it wouldn’t be more practical to have an isomorphic chromatic harmonica laid out around the two whole tone scales, to make intervallic improvising intuitive and everything you play freely transposable.

I have never attempted to play the chromatic harmonica seriously myself, as the bias towards C major as a default scale (with the slide in “out” position) goes against my musical aesthetic.

But Adam has a different view. He actually enjoys learning the different phrases that work best – or that are easiest to play – in each different key.

It put me in mind of a doctoral thesis I once read some time back in the sixties which listed all of Charlie Parker’s licks in each key, and came to the conclusion he had a strong bias for certain licks in certain keys.

Well, hats off to the man for finding that out!

You might call musical phrases that are begotten by the design of the instrument “artefacts”. Naturally such things are foreign to the concept of “playing like singing in the shower” that this blog aims to encourage and inculcate. We want our playing to follow our inspiration and do what it’s bloody well told by our Inner Ear.

I came across an extreme case of an artefact when working on Coltrane’s tune Offering from the album “Expression”. He uses these jerkily delivered wide intervals to create an almost unbearable tension :


and then a bit further on:


These are notated transposed for tenor saxophone so saxophonists can see what’s going on: a simple interplay between the first finger of the left hand and the pinky of the right. Suffice it to say, it’s a whole lot more difficult to do in any other key – on the saxophone. On the violin it is actually surprisingly easy in any key!

Nobody would describe this pattern as a cliché, but in a way, having different lines for different keys can help you avoid repeating yourself by simply playing in another key. I will have to ask Adam if that’s what he means.

Saxophonists have moved on since Bird’s day, some spurred on by Lennie Tristano’s injunction against repeating yourself verbatim in your solos, beginning with Warne Marsh and continuing with players like Chris Potter, Chris Cheek and Mark Turner.

You might say that they have finally overcome the instrument’s inbuilt biases, through dedicated hard work.

But you need a certain mentality to persevere in such obstacle course training. If that’s not you, the ideal improviser’s instrument would be one whose layout makes all lines into lines of least resistance in any key. Like the wholetone panpipe. Or the yet-to-be-developed harmonica with a slide for slipping between the two wholetone scales.

Trusting to Chance

OK, so, changing the subject here, I just came across a Kickstarter project for a card game for improvisers with ideas block called Tonic Improv. As of August 1st, you have 14 days left to get your first edition copy.

I find the concept a bit abstract, and the 12-sided dice use note names, not intervals, but since the maker, Scott Hughes, even lets you download the cards to print out yourself for free (without the 12-sided dice) it costs you nothing to give it a try!

Those of you interested in developing your intervallic awareness, or in using chance operations to compose music and/or MOVES exercises, might wish to invest in this set of 12-sided dice on eBay. The coin (shown for scale, not included – duh!) could be tossed to decide up or down.


Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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