Talking and taking the words away: a visit from Stefon Harris (The State of the Blues, Part 2)

In a recent master class with my students at UVM, Stefon Harris talked about the connection between language and melody in an improvised solo.  While discussing the performance of a student group, he said: ‘The details of rhythm are connected to the way that you speak.  You’ve heard people say that music, it’s a language and we’re communicating with each other when we’re on stage…well, it literally comes from language.  So when I’m playing, for example, I’m always talking…sometimes people think that I’m singing, but actually I’m talking and I’m taking the words away.’  He then demonstrated this by first speaking in scat syllables, then mixing them with English words: ‘ba-da du da-da, du-du da-da, du da-da…you understand, da-dl-ah?  Oh! Now you see my phrasing…’  He then used the vibraphone to add pitches to his spoken scat syllables.   During this quick demonstration Harris made his instrument mimic his own voice laughing and asking the question ‘whaaaat?’ with a rise in pitch.  (Making instruments laugh is a long tradition in jazz; Mr. Harris’ laughing vibraphone reminded me of Clark Terry’s trumpet laughs in solos such as ‘Incoherent Blues’, which have been echoed more recently by his former student, Wynton Marsalis.)

Harris then asked the student group on stage to play a blues with him, during which he played a solo in which his phrasing on the vibes was guided by his simultaneous vocalizations (or perhaps the other way around, or perhaps both.)  After a few choruses, he stopped and said: ‘I’m not playing the rhythm, I’m not thinking the triplet, I’m just talking, I’m telling a story.  So when you do hear a melody, it should be connected to that type of fluid communication.’

A rising inflection evoking the pitch pattern of an inquisitive speaker also makes an appearance in a solo by Harris that I have been studying with my improvisation class at UVM.  It’s the third and final chorus of his solo on Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s D flat blues ‘Centerpiece’ from the Rodney Whitaker album ‘Ballads and Blues: The Brooklyn Sessions.’  (With Stefon’s permission, I have included my transcription of this solo below.)  In this chorus, Harris brilliantly uses a number of basic elements from what I call ‘the improviser’s toolbox’: varied uses of a repeated motive (the same two beat idea is used in m. 2 and 5, but on two different beats and in two different registers), referencing the original melody of the tune (in m. 4), and ‘making the changes’ i.e. using new notes ‘made available’ by a particular chord change, as he does in m. 9 and 13, where he uses notes that are not part of the pentatonic-based pitch collections he employs in m. 1-8.  One of the most challenging tools to use in the improviser’s toolbox, space, is demonstrated by the full measure of rest in m. 6.  (One of my students is working on transcribing the rest of this solo, so I’ll be adding the earlier choruses soon.)  In light of his comments from the master class, it is also clear that Stefon is not employing each of these techniques in some isolated, abstract way, but that they come from the deep connection his phrasing has to speech and movement.

Before the discussion of the connection between spoken language and melody, Stefon began his comments on the performance of my student’s trio by discussing the connection between full-body movement (i.e. dance) and rhythmic awareness in musical performance.  He said: ‘When you played the intro the first time I noticed that you weren’t really moving your feet.  And the thing is rhythm, it’s primarily connected to coordination.  It has nothing to do with triplets and sixteenth notes or anything like that, it’s like, can you rub your belly and make your hand go that way, right (pats head)?  So it starts with this idea of can you move your body…(taps foot on 2 and 4 and vocalizes syncopated rhythms)…you see what I’m singing is so connected to the way I’m moving my body (here he drew out the word ‘body’)…you understand, it’s a whole body experience, it starts with how you move first…so before you play this intro I want us to become a unit by tapping our feet together…and actually tapping is too polite.’  Here he had the trio stomp their feet together in time to the tempo of the song.  After this exercise the students did indeed play the song with more rhythmic connection.

Stefon’s comments reminded me that I (like many piano teachers) suggest that my students not tap their feet while playing the piano, as it adds one more task to the already complex multitasking of playing the piano with both hands.  This advice was handed down to me from a number of my teachers, and I think it can be helpful in the context of trying to simplify various aspects of a piece while practicing, in the same way one works to find the simplest fingering for a passage or practices one hand separately.  However, Stefon’s comments and his demonstration at the master class reminded me that swing feel, or indeed any dance rhythm, in music is always an expression of a wider cultural phenomenon that includes the physical act of dance.  He reminded me that certain kinds of moving before playing and certain kinds of moving while playing can improve a musical performance.  Stefon’s way of having the students move together before playing together resulted in a more rhythmically connected performance.

Stefon was also encouraging and yet persistent in requiring the students to not only listen to one another, but leave space in their playing to react to one another’s improvised ideas.  This was a great reminder that while music, like any form of communication, requires everyone to contribute ideas, it is also requires everyone to leave space: not just space to take a breath before your own next idea, but space to hear the ideas of others, so you can say (or play) something that shows you have been listening and supports a collective conversation (rather than an isolated monologue.)  Stefon’s work in getting students to listen and react to one another reminded me that listening is not simply waiting quietly for someone else to leave a space you can fill with your own ideas, but actually taking in and considering the ideas of others enough to be able to reproduce, rephrase or react to them yourself.

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