Classy Jazz

As a long-time fan of guitar tuition books, I am always on the lookout for new ways to approach learning and teaching the guitar. I taught for several years while working in a music store, where I had access to the best of the available books. I often used Frederick Noad's "Solo Guitar" for beginning classical students and to teach note-reading to rockers as well. I especially liked the perspective that classical methods gave to the kids that only wanted to learn to play the intro to "Sweet Child o' Mine". As fun as learning how to play Slash licks is, it is ultimately a pointless exercise without learning what it is that you are playing and why it sounds good to you. 

The roots of classical guitar pedagogy go back over three centuries and with a few modern exceptions are mostly variations on a theme of "preparing to play already written music via standard notation". The improvisational aspects of music in styles like jazz, rock and blues are typically not addressed in classical teaching. Like the John Thompson piano lessons I had as a kid, chord voicing and music theory were not covered as such, but only occasionally noted when they occured in whatever piece was being learned. Stand-alone study of the fundamentals of song structure was not encouraged. More modern methods, especially in "adult" courses, have addressed this knowledge gap and today's student can get a sound background in theory as they learn to play pieces and etudes. 

As distinctions between even such diverse styles as jazz and classical continue to dissolve, some kind of crossover method is needed to get players from one discipline easily acclimated into the other. Andrew York's "The Classical Guitarist's Guide to Jazz" (Alfred Publishing, in association with the National Guitar Workshop) is one such book. The book/CD is a compendium of York's previously-released three volumes under the "Jazz Guitar for Classical Cats" series.

York is a former member of the famous Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, with a history of marrying the classical and jazz techniques. The task before him is to teach classical players the elusive and supposedly "un-teachable" ability to improvise, something their previous learning experiences may have lacked. Whether he succeeds at that or not will have to be determined by a legit classical player, not me. I grew up playing Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin tunes, never studied formally, and do not have the years of classical training that I expect the main target audience will have had. I am going to review this book from a different perspective. 

One of the challenges that any teacher writing within their specialty faces is their ability to "forget" what they already know and "remember" what they have deeply internalized in order to teach it to their students. The goal is to try to remember what it was about learning the guitar that gave them trouble, albeit many years ago. Regardless of their conscious efforts, there is always something they take for granted, even if only in degrees. Switching from "C' to "F" or playing a "Bb" barre chord may be second-nature to a jazz teacher, but might be a major (and confidence-shaking) roadblock to the student. To be fair, if every potential snag in the learning process were accounted for, guitar books would be in multiple volumes, each several inches thick. Some assumption of skill and ability is needed to write any text, with the hopes that any gaps might be filled in via further study or musical osmosis. One of the great values of a human teacher is their ability to recognize that situation as it arises and steer the student towards supplemental study.

And that's where this book comes in. Because it was written from a classical player's perspective as an entryway into the world of jazz, it covers the topic from a point of view that I think the average rock or blues player would greatly benefit from. I suspect York's inherent assumptions about his fellow classical players (being an accomplished player himself) are different than those of a similarly talented rock/blues player writing a jazz method. Improvisation is a part of the rock and blues  styles, and jazz improv is often taught as taking your existing skills "uptown", with a 12-bar Blues as the common starting point. Dominant 7th chords are fleshed out into 9ths, 13ths and altered versions. Scales are morphed from pentatonics to modes and altered scales and "playing over changes" supersedes staying in the "blues box" minor pentatonic approach. The rock/blues teacher may take too much for granted.

York tackles the subject of jazz guitar with none of the advantages that the many published rock and blues attempts do. He needs to explain in great detail what improvising is and not merely how to do it, in effect getting his students to think "off the page" and to tap into their "composing on the spot" abilities. In order to facilitate this, he spends 2/3rds of the book on Harmony and Chord/Melody, not addressing Improvisation until page 129.


These early chapters are some of the clearest and most accessible lessons I have seen on the subject. In the first 60 pages, he covers the differences between standard notation and jazz-friendly lead sheet/fake book charts in depth. He uses chord diagrams in addition to notation and has you translate the "picture" of the chord to written notation by including blank staves beneath them, a great way to solidify the "look" of the voicing in your head and hands. The detailed lessons on moveable voicings and jazz rhythms, a subtle subject more foreign to a classical player than us rockers, is explained thoroughly and the included CD full of MP3s gives examples every time notation comes up short. York encourages you to listen to as much jazz music as you can, to get the feel of the music in your ears.

The Chord/Melody section of the book, pages 65-128, again offers a clear and complete dissection of this essential jazz guitar technique. The Editor's Preface to the volume reads: "The purpose of this section is to put the information from the first part of the book to work in a chord/melody context; this, as the author points out, will be the most familiar jazz style to classical and other fingerstyle guitarists. An inquisitive, self-motivated classical or fingerstyle guitarist will be able to use this section as a jumping-off point and enjoy a lifetime of music-making in this style...".

I am always of fan of getting to the practical as soon as you can, once the theoretical is covered. Getting the new sounds/techniques under your fingers and onto the stage and into your repertoire is essential in retaining and understanding the lesson.  York uses the familiar classical pieces Romanza and Greensleeves to broach the chord melody method. He foresees the possible stiffness a trained classical player might project in playing in this style and instructs on how to adapt the left-hand to a more swinging technique. Triads in open and closed form are explored in detail, harmonized scales, quartal scales and passing tones are all discussed before he tackles several jazz and classical standards via chord/melody.

The Improvisation section has the following Introduction: " To pick up and play music without knowing what you will play - this is the thrill of improvising, or creating music spontaneously, and a joy to which many players feel drawn but at the same time find intimidating. I wrote this book to help classical players (and players in other styles too) begin to find their way toward improvising on the guitar...". York uses what he labels "the color of sound" approach: "...Any note we hear in our mind exists in our mind as an intervallic relationship to a root note...we can think of each interval as a unique color - not a literal color, like pink or green, but a unique sonic quality we can use to immediately identify every note in relation to the root note".

He then lays out every possible interval and it's relationship to the tonic. In one exercise, he has you playing a drone G while singing short phrases over it. Lessons that progress from intervals to scales and modes, playing over the individual chords in a ii-V progression, and eventually soloing over the changes to "Fly Me To The Moon" move the student along in a practical and satisfying fashion. York ends his excellent book with an afterword about the philosophy of improvisation and tips on how to transcribe the solos of your favorite artists. In effect, writing transcriptions is coming full circle for the classical player: from reading off the page to using your ear to writing down what you hear others play. 

In all, a very instructive, eye-opening and useful manual on jazz guitar playing and musicianship in general.

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