By Bob Mintzer
Back in the early ‘90s, I composed a series of short pieces based on common jazz forms that combined the jazz tradition with my take on improvising. The idea was to have melody, harmony, and rhythm implied in the pieces in a way where you could play by yourself and have it sound complete (J.S. Bach did this so beautifully in his cello suites and partitas). This idea eventually morphed into a written jazz etude that could be played along with a recorded rhythm section track on a CD. I added a track with myself playing the etude as a demonstration. I think of these jazz etudes as something in between a play-along and a solo transcription. These etudes illustrated some of the things I like to play when I solo and hopefully they might be of value to aspiring students of jazz. I’ve written five etude books since then varying in difficulty and stylistic focus. All the books have recordings with the trio rhythm sections I usually play with in my own quartet or with the Yellowjackets.
The books serve multiple purposes. 1) A player can study and learn the notes of the etude by playing along with the CD demo track to match the articulation and inflection of my saxophone playing. In addition, to listen and interpret the way the rhythm section and I play the etude together. (2) The player can work on time and phrasing by playing the etudes on the CD play-along rhythm section track. (3) A player can solo over the play-along rhythm section track of the etudes and incorporate the various melodic and harmonic devices illustrated in the written etudes. In a nutshell: listen, practice, learn, and apply the knowledge. I include an explanation of the how-and-why with each etude. Finally, the fringe benefits include improving sight-reading skill, expanding jazz vocabulary, and getting the chance to play with a world-class rhythm section.
Is this a viable way to learn to play jazz? Probably not in and of itself. Nothing beats the painstaking process of transcribing solos of the masters, learning several hundred tunes, practicing soloing on the tunes, working on patterns and all the devices that give you vocabulary for soloing, going out to hear live music, and playing a lot with other musicians. But in these times of quick access to information, these etude books can provide a forum for live playing and individual study and serve as a springboard for further study of playing jazz. For example, take any phrase from one of the etude books, practice it in all keys, and see if you can find a way to use that melodic shape while soloing over a blues or standard. Or, take one of the etudes and write a contrafact on the form and changes. Or, use one of the etude grooves as a vehicle for writing a new tune. The possibilities are endless. My hope is that my etude books will inspire students to move past merely playing the etudes verbatim and use the information to further research this wonderful art form. The more the player listens and observes the detail in the way we play the etudes on the CD—details such as attack, sustain, decay, dynamics, accented notes, length of notes, and so on, the better jazz musician any player can become. It’s all about the detail!