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Aebersold helped students master jazz PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Tuesday, 02 July 2013 09:37
The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced its new class of Jazz Masters.
It's a suitably eclectic bunch.
The headline name was pianist Keith Jarrett, beloved of the NPR crowd, most known for his solo rambles that helped conceive New Age music.
Then there's Jarrett's contemporary, reedman and composer Anthony Braxton, beloved of the avant garde, whose titles look like mathematical formulas.
The elder statesmen were represented by bassist Richard Davis, a ubiquitous supporting figure who occupied in every corner of the jazz scene in the 1960s and 1970s as well as playing orchestral bass. Then he turned his attention to education.
Oh, and then there's Jamey Aebersold. The first tweet I saw about the awards called him a banjo player. Well his principle instrument is saxophone, but why he belongs in such esteemed company is his work as an educator.
Truth be told. Though I've seen Jarrett, Braxton and Davis perform, Aebersold had a more direct influence on me through his series of instructional play-along recordings.
While he may not have as high a profile among jazz fans, Aebersold's selection makes perfect sense to almost all those who have worked to master the skill of jazz improvisation in the last 40 years or so.
Aebersold is more than anything a jazz education entrepreneur. Someone who built an enterprise with a simple product that fulfilled a great need.
It started with a simple request. A student asked if he could have a recording of Aebersold's piano accompaniment from a workshop.
To anyone coming up in the 1960s interested in playing jazz that request is understandable. Yes, we talk about jazz solos but the reality is, jazz improvisation is a collective endeavor. It involves a lead voice supported by other players. Ideally you jam with other musicians. But if you're a kid in a suburb, one of maybe a few wannabe jazz players, mostly other horn players, finding sympathetic collaborators was problematic. The drummers all played rock, and the guitarists and bassists if they were interested lacked even the basic sense of jazz harmony and rhythm.
Enter Jamey Aebersold and "A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation." Like most that touts itself as new, the elements weren't. The  mechanics of the improvisation Aebersold taught, basically using specific scales to realize specific chords, were firmly rooted in the method taught  at his alma mater the University of Indiana. .
Play-along records, especially those put out by Music Minus One had been around for awhile. But those records had the player maneuver though arrangements with maybe a chorus of improvisation added as a dessert.
With Aebersold's records, the improvisation was the sole focus. At first the tracks didn't even include melodies, just harmonic changes laid out chorus after chorus by a rhythm section playing chords. This allowed the aspiring musician to improvise over a long stretch, longer than either taste or the patience of fellow musicians would allow for in a live session.
I date myself among jazz musicians by declaring I remember when there were only two Jamey Aebersold records, the original blue and the red, "Nothin' But Blues." They were LPs.
These were my playmates, offering a chance either to blow over easy stretches with the harmony changing every eight bars or to be the challenged of the blues modeled on the work of bebop legend Charlie Parker, with chords changing every couple quicksilver beats.
This was not  only solitary pursuit. I had been introduced to the Aebersold play-alongs by a saxophone playing classmate who brought them back from a summer jazz clinic. We'd get together and trade choruses.
Certainly the recordings, especially these which were more exercise-like, had limitations. The accompaniment was static and didn't respond either to the improvisor's stumbles or inspiration. They function much like a harmonic metronome.
They certainly didn't replace live playing. Rather we polished our skills to be able to make the most when after a lengthy round of phone calls we manage to organize a jam session.
The Aebersold records were set aside as I move into college with its greater opportunities to play with live rhythm sections.
Aebersold was just beginning. He expanded into selling all manner of textbooks, and even started a record label to release recordings by the contemporary jazz musicians his audience dreamed of being when they grew up.
He recruited top jazz players for his rhythm sections, including Dave Brubeck for the session devoted to his work.
Most importantly his catalog of play-along records expanded. The recordings started featuring compositions that musicians play on the stand starting aptly with a record devoted to the work of Charlie Parker. This was followed by the usual suspects Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and the standards of the Great American songbook, then shifting to newer work by the likes of Tom Harrell and Dave Liebman, helping to establish a jazz canon of tunes musicians should know. Now he offers more than 130, including several featuring Christmas tunes.
Not that's he's come close to tapping out the jazz repertoire. He still doesn't offer an Anthony Braxton play-along.
Last Updated on Thursday, 09 January 2014 12:05

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