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Greg Lyons

Masterclass 1

for Listeners &

Musicians

Greg Lyons was born in Newcastle in the north-east of England to rather nomadic parents who arranged that he started roaming the planet at a very early age. By the time he left school he had lived in 4 separate locations in England, in India and finally in central Scotland where he developed his fascination with music and started his career playing bass in bands of various styles in the late 70s.  He moved to Hamburg at the age of 19 and became a hard-gigging bassist in bands playing the club scene, but soon became dissatisfied with his musical horizons and decided to switch to the saxophone and enrol himself into Berklee College of Music in Boston USA, where he spent a couple of years immersing himself in the stream of jazz education.  Greg will be touring the UK with his Quintet in Spring 2006

The Art -
Courtesy of Greg Lyons

A popular misconception that I often come across is that jazz improvisation is somehow an intellectual process. The primary damaging outcome of this belief is that the music attracts a lot of people for the wrong reasons, and a lot of garbage gets played, recorded and bought. Many potential players or listeners find themselves drawn to - or repelled by - jazz because they see it as some kind of convoluted mental game.

Good jazz, like any good art, is an emotional communication of the artistís sense of beauty to his audience, in the expectation of the audience's joy at witnessing such beauty. Anything else is garbage.

No worthwhile music is created through conscious adherence to some kind of formula. Whether we're a Mozart or Chick Corea or BB King, the creation of music is an intuitive expression of what we consider to be beautiful. Of course in music, as in literature, dance, or the visual arts, we've developed a whole academic library of theories governing the structure and development of "art". The raw artists are burdened with a mountain of structural theory, and those who become more fascinated by the process than the purpose can really lose the plot. We will ideally emerge from this study with a more sophisticated means of expression, the great joy in this process being when we are once again able to create with our instincts though in an infinitely more articulate way.

The truth is that we humans love to complicate our lives. What started out in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century with a bunch of marching-band musicians getting together after hours to "jazz it up", became a popular sound produced by more arranged and sophisticated bands, and grew quickly into an art form as the improvisation became the focus and players developed the ability to play over increasingly complex chord progressions.

It is necessary, if we are to be able to effectively negotiate the curves of a difficult progression, that we are completely familiar with the progression. When BB King or Eric Clapton plays over a blues, they are in such familiar territory that they can create beautiful lines without being in any way limited by the form with which they are playing. Likewise when a good jazz player improvises over a progression like Giant Steps or Dolphin Dance, they have internalised the sound of the structure with which they are playing.

Where the jazz player differs then is in the complexity of the form or structure, which means that to arrive at the same level of freedom of expression as with a blues progression, an awesome amount of Ear Training must occur.

There are some of us who will internalize these sounds faster than others. There are those who know relatively little about the structure or relationships of the chord progression intellectually, but with an incredible aural facility, they can still build a familiarity with the piece and manage to really know the progression. For most people - for physical or psychological reasons - there are hurdles to overcome, and a lot of hard work involved.

Best way to start is to hear the thing being played by someone who can really make it happen. This will give us an aural picture of where we're going. This should be a saturation experience if we really want to make it happen for ourselves. Then we can start the hard slog by studying the relationships of the chords in the progression, playing the progression over and over to internalize the sound, and then practise creating melodic lines that connect one chord to the next. This practise is an intellectual process for sure, but it's a means to an end, and the end is to eventually be so familiar with the progression that we can freely express ourselves over it.

Another vital aspect is the transcription and internalisation of solos we like. This teaches us about how the language is spoken. There is no getting around the need to work through all the basic existing language of jazz before we can start to create anything more personal. It's exactly like learning to speak. The dictionary will not teach you to communicate; all languages are built through simple repetition of phrases that will eventually form the foundation of our expression. The more clear and precise our repetition in the early stages, the faster we can move on, and the more articulate we can become.

This is the beauty of jazz. Nobody wants to hear a player limited to reading or consciously following a progression. There's no music involved. The music comes when the player can freely fly over a progression, expressing their joy at being so liberated. Improvisation should be like a gut reaction. As intellectual as sex. In fact it's probably the closest you can get with your clothes on!

  Greg Lyons 2


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Last modified: 18/02/2012