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Learning Tunes

Good Advice - 20 years later!

by Skip Spratt

In my previous columns for Sax on the Web, I have focused on work experiences to make each point relevant. This column is no exception. Each time I step on stage I learn something. Perhaps the readers of this column might learn from my experiences as well. This time around the topic is about learning standard songs.

"You've got to learn tunes." That's the advice that I have gotten since I was a teenager and it rings more true today more than anytime in the past 20 years.

Being able to play tunes or standards is often the lowest common denominator among many musicians I interact with these days. We can all show up on stage for gig and speak a common language - the tunes we all know. A band full of well-rehearsed musicians will always sound best, however most of us will encounter situations without rehearsals and "readable" charts. It is in these situations that "the cream rises to the top."

As I mentioned earlier, I have always been preached to about the virtue of knowing tunes. Only recently, within the last few years has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "You've got to learn tunes." Finally I agree, I've got to learn tunes!

For quite some time I have been blessed to be in the good company of many well-trained musicians while performing on stage. It might have been a 30 piece orchestra behind one of the stars passing through Atlantic City or even a club band covering the latest hits. Even the occasional jingle or studio demo usually had a compliment of talented musicians associated with the project. Whatever the situation, it was nice to be associated with people who played in time, in tune and with "feeling." The measuring stick I always used to size up other players was always how well they played in tune, how well they grooved with the rhythm section - and even what they looked like on stage.

Grooving, playing in tune and many other basic characteristics of good musicianship remain just as important today as always. What has changed around me is -and within me - is my attitude toward having the ability to play gigs without written music or rehearsal, i.e. "faking".

Having the ability to play standard tunes (from memory) has been and will continue to be the expectation of every saxophonist young and old. I remember practicing John Coltrane transcriptions and ii-V licks in my room while in high school. My mother would say, "Skip, why don't you just play a nice melody." I thought I was too hip for that. When I was seventeen, I went to a booking agency to audition for a local band leader . He asked me to play a tune I knew, which was Body and Soul. Unfortunately, I played Coltranes' version but couldn't play much more than that from memory. He said, "You've got a good sound kid, but you've got to know tunes." That was good advice but I was young, cocky and not ready to take that advice to heart.

More than twenty years later I continually find myself surrounded by players who know many more tunes than myself. This can be intimidating, however having an open mind and open ears works wonders. Once upon a time many of these same players enjoyed careers playing in theaters, showrooms, night clubs, dance halls and jazz clubs six nights a week. Today, many of the best jazz saxophonists will supplement their playing careers playing "tune gigs."

Recently I interviewed smooth jazz saxophonist Michael Lington where he echoed my thoughts.

"There were difficult times. What I realized at one point was how unprepared I was for how things would work when I first got over here. I was hired for a casual where the first half of the gig consisted of standards. You know, I knew a few standards. I knew a few Duke Ellington songs but that wasn't something that I was heavily into at 21 years old. I remember the bandleader calling tune after tune and I just didn't have a clue. It was kind of a scary experience. It was then that I realized just how unprepared I was. What I had done prior to coming over here was basically pop records and pop tours. I could play a really great pop solo. A lot of connections are made through those kind of gigs. Initially, survival money comes from those type of dates. So, I re-evaluated my knowledge and started studying tunes. I spent every single minute I had learning tunes in every possible key. I was really happy I had this experience because not only can I survive in any application...learning the heads and learning the changes...In the process of that, you just become a better player. It just gives you a deeper general knowledge."

So how did you go about learning the tunes?

"I got a Real Book and I started from page one! The things I couldn't figure out, I bought the albums and checked them out. Every time I was on a gig and somebody called a tune I didn't know I wrote it down and learned the song the next day. The funny thing is that playing these casuals in L.A. is exactly how I made a lot of connections initially. Ultimately, that's how I got offered Bobby Caldwell's gig. I had done a New Year's Eve party in Beverly Hills with Bobby's keyboardist and music director."

Whether a contemporary jazz player like Michael Lington, seasoned professional playing on a Saturday night or a young kid cutting his teeth - "knowing tunes" has it's undeniable place in public performance.

Going about learning standard tunes is best achieved by listening to classic recordings, especially vocalist renditions. Legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon was known to think of the lyrics to any given standard as he played on tenor. Using a fake book is how many of us began learning tunes, however learning a tune by ear seems to make it stick in your memory longer. I also feel much more comfortable playing tunes in different keys when I have learned them by listening to a recording rather than reading them off of a sheet.

There are several very well-written publications which help in learning tunes. Jamey Aebersold's Volume 76 - HOW TO LEARN TUNES by David Baker is one commonly used guide. Understanding cycles and key centers are invaluable tools to have for anyone attempting to play jazz or standards.

To sum it all up, becoming a good saxophonist requires many skills to be learned and tools to be sharpened in the shed. You can have all the skills in the world but you'll need know a tune or two to share your craft with others.

Stay well and play well.
Skip Spratt

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