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Charles McPherson shared this post, originally posted by Michael Kanan, on Facebook yesterday, an excerpt of an interview from last summer.

I found it interesting and thought maybe some others here would too.

“Here's some deep wisdom from saxophone master Charles McPherson. This is an excerpt from an interview with Ethan Iverson from summer 2020. Mr. McPherson's description of harmony is very moving to me, and I think it's spot on:

EI: Charles, at one of our lessons you said a phrase that I wanted to toss out again. You said the harmony is there — the changes are there — but you don’t play the changes. That’s sort of what Bird sounds like to me: like the changes are there, but he’s actually not playing the changes.

CM: See, here we go with, “There’s a lot of ways to be a typewriter,” because a lot of people chase chord changes. But harmony and chord changes are just there as collateral. They tell you what group of notes might be valid for the moment, but they don’t tell you what’s the best note for the moment. Your eyes can tell you right notes if you know harmony, but your ears — if you got some — will tell you the best notes out of the many right notes. It’s up to the melodic ear to eke out the greatest four or five notes for the moment. That’s when the phrasing and rhythm comes in.

And this is one of things that the younger children of the bebop guys did not really understand from the real founding fathers of bebop. The younger players could get wrapped up in treating complex chord changes as the greatest thing of all. You gotta realize that the founding fathers of bebop — Bird, Dizzy, Monk, and the rest of those guys — they basically were just the younger swing musicians. They’re just the younger guard, they’re just a little bit younger than Harry Edison or Lester Young. Kenny Clarke is just a couple of years younger than Papa Jo Jones. They got all of the lessons from the great swing players, and the greatest of them were virtuosos. People like Don Byas, man, come on! Harmonically Don Byas is off the charts. The younger guys learned everything from people like Lester Young and Don Byas and had their own natural talent, and that’s how you get a Bird or a Dizzy. But Bird and Dizzy played so well and so correctly that it was very easy for the younger players to start treating chord changes as the greatest thing of all. There’s a danger there because chords are not the “reason why.” Chords shouldn’t be the jumpstart of your creation. Your jumpstart of creation is your melodic ear and rhythm.

The chords are there, they’re like parts of speech. Nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, adverb phrases: they’re meaningless on their own, but they’re there to create sentences, paragraphs and stories. But parts of speech are not the reason for your creation. When you get ready to speak your thoughts and express your feelings, you’re not saying, well now let me use a noun or a verb or an adverb.

It’s the same when you play an A minor seven. An A minor seven has no dignity unto itself. It just is what it is. The A minor seven is just acting as part of speech, helping you express your emotion. A lot of the players after bebop on became top heavy with the harmony. Now we have a bunch of players who will basically chase chord changes, that’s all it is. If they’re grammatically correct, they think they’re great, you know? And that’s part of it, of course. At least you’re in the ballpark if you outline the changes. But that ain’t the main event!”
 

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Absolute agreement! We play one note at a time, so better make it a good one. The academic approach has a lot to answer for in this respect as it doesn't feature encouraging melodic thinking or playing by ear or indeed creativity. It's one thing to analyze the chord structure, but if all you're doing is running cut and paste riffs and arpeggios, you're saying nothing musically except maybe how fast you can play those.

All of the great players had something to say and a style of their own. Why are today's academic players being taught to sound like/imitate some earlier sax hero? Learn your basics and your way around the horn, understand harmony and Music Theory (not the same as "jazz theory" which is reverse engineered analysis of what those players did without premeditated thought).

CM is totally right about using your ear and thinking creatively. The music world doesn't want or need 10,000 tribute players of those pioneer jazzers, or players who just cut and paste according to the changes.
 

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Total complete agreement. Melody is everything. I want to hear (and play!) music that has some meaning. Melodic motifs, rhythmic motifs, combined and extended and developed throughout a solo. But harder to do than just run a bunch of arpeggios and licks.
 

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I hear that! When I'm working out the melody for a particular standard tune, I play what comes into my mind, while following enough of the "standard" melody, to know what tune it is, but the rest is a choice of notes that my brain manufactured and juxtaposed beside each other. They may not be mind blowing or Earth shattering, but they're my concoction.
Right now, I'm still a beginner, but I play by ear, and play what I dream up. As my library of riffs and licks grows, I gain an increasingly broader range of notes to choose from, and my version of the standards changes, just about every time I play one. It's called making music, right?
 

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Like I say, improvising is basically making up little melodies that go with the song and the chords. You have to know the chords because its the foundation of the tune. If you can't play by ear in the first place, all you're left with is playing the exercises you have learned over the chords. This is mostly what i hear from the average 'jazz' player today.
 

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I understand what he's saying, but to be the devil's advocate: people chase changes because there is a culture encourages correctness and alignment specifically with bebop vocab over everything else. Even the repertoire reflects this - standards are emphasized over modal tunes, and of course fusion and free music is erased. Literally watch Ken Burn's Jazz, which besides erasing fusion erases non-fusion jazz from the 1970's, from McCoy Tyner to Keith Jarrett, from CTI to ECM: it's erased, and jazz just disappears between after Miles goes "off course" until Dexter Gordon comes back to reclaim jazz from purgatory. Students are told to go pick up the Charlie Parker Omnibook as the guide to every jazz question.

This isn't all of jazz culture, of course. But it's a very prominent strain. Obviously players like Shabaka Hutchins or Christian Scott or Chris Potter or Kamasi Washington or Melissa Aldana are operating on a different level. But to just give an example of how this bias affects the culture, my (semi) local jazz radio station took months to play anything from Kamasi Washington's The Epic, and when they did... they picked "Cherokee", and that's the worst cut on the album by far!

So yeah. I agree that the harmony and changes shouldn't be viewed as the beginning and end of jazz improvisation. But it's very clear to me why that's so common. If you lionize one style and reject all others, you're gonna get endless repeats of that style.
 

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I understand what he's saying, but to be the devil's advocate: people chase changes because there is a culture encourages correctness and alignment specifically with bebop vocab over everything else. Even the repertoire reflects this - standards are emphasized over modal tunes, and of course fusion and free music is erased. Literally watch Ken Burn's Jazz, which besides erasing fusion erases non-fusion jazz from the 1970's, from McCoy Tyner to Keith Jarrett, from CTI to ECM: it's erased, and jazz just disappears between after Miles goes "off course" until Dexter Gordon comes back to reclaim jazz from purgatory. Students are told to go pick up the Charlie Parker Omnibook as the guide to every jazz question.

This isn't all of jazz culture, of course. But it's a very prominent strain. Obviously players like Shabaka Hutchins or Christian Scott or Chris Potter or Kamasi Washington or Melissa Aldana are operating on a different level. But to just give an example of how this bias affects the culture, my (semi) local jazz radio station took months to play anything from Kamasi Washington's The Epic, and when they did... they picked "Cherokee", and that's the worst cut on the album by far!

So yeah. I agree that the harmony and changes shouldn't be viewed as the beginning and end of jazz improvisation. But it's very clear to me why that's so common. If you lionize one style and reject all others, you're gonna get endless repeats of that style.
From my point of view you're hardly being a devil's advocate. Improvisation isn't owned by jazz and certainly not by just one period/form of jazz. It moved on and so did many/most of the best players from the 1970s onward (as you note). IMHO it has a lot to do with academics finding something that they though they could formulate and teach, like engineering. How the feck does one formulate creativity? Several generations have been captured and fed this BS to their detriment. Time to remove the pedagogue's "new clothes" to see that there is nothing beneath. Looking continually to the past and formulaic prescriptive playing does not = art or creativity. I truly feel for those who have swallowed this academic misinformation. They have had little/no audience for their hard work and mostly become teachers of the same failed paradigm. It's well and truly time for it to stop.

Those who love playing "standards" and that style of music are hopefully enjoying themselves, but shouldn't hope for some miracle to suddenly make it popular again. Where is the drawing power of being a tribute player to some long dead sax hero that 99% of people today have never heard of (much less listened to). If you've got something to say to today's audiences that they can relate to, then you're in the the running as a pro. If you're trying to push people today to listen to your imitating (in a mechanistic fashion) what someone played 60 years ago then it shouldn't surprise you that nobody wants to listen.

Learn your instrument (not just one style or period), play your ass off, and be creative and be part of today.
 

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Here's the thing - there is a difference between vocabulary and poetry. It's easy to teach vocabulary - hand the student a dictionary, say "Start at 'A'" and off the poor student goes. Poetry, well - about the only thing you can do is teach some form, and give the student a bunch of great poems to read - hopefully aloud.

Music is the same way. Academically, the best one can do is teach form - things like 12-bar blues, rhythm changes, and some other well know standards like Autumn Leaves (I did say start at 'A' didn't I?). And vocabulary - scales, chords and arpeggios. Does that equal music? No. The student of jazz must listen to records and go to jam sessions and jazz clubs and concerts and...

End result, we have players with big vocabularies and nothing much to say - and very little idea of how to get their feelings into their music. I don't think it's a conspiracy or "the jazz mafia" or anything like that - it's just a natural outgrowth of the way people learn music today, and the frankly alienating, short attention span lifestyle of the 2020's. I call them the "moaning '20s"...
 

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What a great quote! I was working with a student on a tune (can't remember what it was) But the first chord was FMaj7 and the second chord was Bb7b5 and the student kept going to Bb's on the second chord. It just sounded awkward and forced to me. I told the student and he responded "How can it sound bad if it is the root of the chord, I don't understand....?" We had a talk about how what's on the page doesn't always depict what sounds best. I told him to try it again but this time, on measure two, don't focus on Bb but focus on measure one being FGABbCDEF and measure two being FGAbBbCDEF. What is the difference? Ab. Focus on bringing that Ab out. He sounded 1000% better on his next solo on that tune. It was like night and day. Playing by ear you might arrive there but looking at the page all you see is Bb on the second chord! Theory is amazing but at the end of it all, the ear has to have the final say.........
 

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I have been tossing this idea of why I spend so much time playing music from the past, another long gone era, that hardly resembles the age we find ourselves in now.
Sometimes when lifting stuff off of records from one of the masters, and playing it back on my horn feels artificial and not coming from inside me, or reading and memorizing a transcription and playing it becomes just an exercise in memory and imitation. Its fun and I am not knocking the exercise but really those lines are from someone else's story, their life and their reflection expressed in music played with masterful skill, talent and hard work combined with their command of improvisation and skill on their instrument and playing on the bandstand night after night, year after year.
Those standards we all love are from a different time and a reflection of what was going on in the world at that time.
Those masters didn't just sit in a classroom and listen to how to make a chord substitution.
What we have now are schools of Jazz that are turning out hundreds of students a year that seem to all sound the same, at least to my experience playing with several of them, although I am sure there are a few exceptional player emerging also and coming unto their own in music.
The clearest instruction I got about how to learn the rudiments of improvising on the standards came directly from the horses mouth.
As a young man, I asked Eddie Lockjaw Davis what I could do to learn how to play this music. He put his hand on my shoulder, walked me over to the bar and he said,
"You need to learn the changes, get a guitar player, or a piano player and learn the changes.
You have to practice your horn everyday, seven days a week, and if your friends want you to go out with them, tell them no, you have to practice." and then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "you'll do it, don't worry you can do it'
I don't think I needed to go to a four year college course to learn what he told me over a glass of bourbon.
I will remember his kind encouraging words of advice till the day I die.
On the other hand the pleasure of listening to the music of that era are still a pleasure I thrive on, just as listening to the classics of Bach and Handel are. Just today I was listening to the great Don Byas! Yes, now that is true mastery! absolutely my man in the world of Jazz of that time.
 

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The article doesn't make much sense to me.
 

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. ...snip... If you've got something to say to today's audiences that they can relate to, then you're in the the running as a pro. If you're trying to push people today to listen to your imitating (in a mechanistic fashion) what someone played 60 years ago then it shouldn't surprise you that nobody wants to listen.

Learn your instrument (not just one style or period), play your ass off, and be creative and be part of today.
I like your take on it. If you want to reach today's audience you better learn some steps and put on your dancing shoes.
 

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The article doesn't make much sense to me.
Basically, what he's saying is that it's good to understand harmonic concepts and chord changes but that alone won't make you a great player. You have to keep a sense of the melody and use your ears to play something creative and listenable. Quite a few times have I listened to someone play changes, just the changes, and it really wasn't going anywhere. It had no real feeling and or creativity. Having musical intellect is great, but unless you put your soul into it it's gonna come off sounding mechanical and boring.
 

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You have to keep a sense of the melody and use your ears
I took it to lean something slightly different. Not necessarily the melody (ie the melody of the tune you are improvising on) but to improvise melodically as oppposed to slavishly following changes.

it's also valid of course to keep the melody in mind, but that isn't what I took from this.
 

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For me to be impressed by an interpretation of a song, it has to sound better to my ears then the original as written. When the melody of the original is strong/unique/memorable, chances are that a player who comes up with a new melody is not going to improve upon the original. Embellish it a bit, maybe alter the harmony a tad, but don't overdo it. When the strengths of the original song are rhythm and/or harmony rather than melody, I believe the chord changes become more important.
 

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Hes a beautiful player and the cut I heard with him and a dancer was very planitive. We all like what we like? For some the king is Boots Randalf the guy they grew up with . For some the king is Kenny G, the guy they grew up with.

For me its coltrane and henderson and brecker and Charles and Ernie watts but also maynard, miles, lee morgan, freddie hubbard the guys I grew up with. I did a gig last saturday and I know some of the stuff I played on a jump blues sounds like a trpt ? Makes sense since I was a lead trpt player going into berklee college of music in 1976 so thats what I grew up on and "hear" . So its really like catching the wind to try an define good or bad . Taste is taste is what you grew up with. go to hear and support what you love to hear and let the rest just go. Lifes too short
 
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