Improvising in an r ‘n’ b style

R ‘n’ b is a broadly defined genre, known for its sophisticated production techniques, virtuosic singing and commercial focus. It’s not to be confused with rhythm and blues, also sometimes known as r ‘n’ b, contemporary r ‘n’ b was first recognised by the Grammy Awards for best r ‘n’ b Album in 1995.

In the early 1980s, pop music contained elements of soul, disco and funk, but the hip hop scene was quite separate. Producer Teddy Riley was a key figure in starting to blend pop with elements of hip hop, in a style that came to be called new jack swing. Vocals would be sung over hip hop grooves, commonly using a drum machine rather than live drums. The influence of hip hop did not filter into the mainstream overnight. Other r ‘n’ b artists were producing a much smoother style, making significant use of saxophone and a rich vocal style reminiscent of soul. However, by the late 90s, the use of electronic instruments with increasingly slick production in r ‘n’ b, created a sound that some found to be too synthetic. These artists wanted to use modern production techniques to emphasise musicianship rather than iron it out. This neo-soul movement drew influence from classic soul, funk, hip hop and jazz.

In the early part of this century, urban music was gaining in popularity. As Chris Molanphy wrote in the Village Voice, ‘By the early 2000s, urban music was pop music… This early-noughts period was the all-time peak for r ‘n’ b and hip-hop on the Hot 100, and hence on Top 40 radio.’ With many artists achieving success in both hip hop and r ‘n’ b charts, the lines between the genres was becoming increasingly blurred.

The increasing sophistication of production techniques since the 1990s has been a key factor in the development of r ‘n’ b. The use of autotune, vocal tracking and compression are not new, but the skilled use of these techniques today helps to create an aesthetic of enhanced reality that works well when heard through different listening devices, and the importance of the role of ‘producer’ is increasingly reflected in their public profiles: Pharrell Williams is known as much for his back-room production and writing, as he is as a performer.

Improvising in the style

Many of the instruments on recorded r ‘n’ b are programmed or quantized, and when musicians are employed, this precision makes them some of the most in demand session players available. So, when playing r ‘n’ b, we need to be as accurate and as consistent as possible. Fortunately, there is readily available software that can slow down recordings without altering the pitch. This kind of study is a great way to get under the skin of a groove, which is an essential part of developing your own musical language. Rhythm section players should be aware that finding the right place to put a fill is as important as its content. When there are instrumental solos, they should serve the arrangement rather than be about telling an individual story.

For singers working on melisma (the singing of a single syllable while moving between different notes), checking out recorded examples (ideally by slowing them down) is very important; and practising embellishments in advance is essential. Choose the moments to add a melisma carefully, and make sure you are clear on the harmony and what will work over it. Practice the melisma slowly, separating each note and focusing on accuracy of tuning. Speed it up gradually, taking care to ensure the notes are clearly articulated and the stresses are correct.

Watch videos with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler and session musician Harry the Piano:

Influential artists

The success of Janet Jackson’s third album ‘Control‘ (1986) was significant in its fusion of rap with funk, disco and soul, making use of synthetic drum sounds. Michael Jackson’s album ‘Dangerous‘ (1991) was produced by Teddy Riley, who was key to the development of new jack swing.

The hip hop influence was much less present in the smooth style of many other r ‘n’ b artists of the late 80s and early 90s, such as Babyface. The use of saxophone and rich vocal style was reminiscent of soul. Whitney Houston’s ‘The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album’ (1992) sold over 40 million copies worldwide and is to date, the best ever selling soundtrack. R. Kelly was well versed in the hip hop grooves, but ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996) was a smoother ballad and is his biggest hit to date. He has been one of the most prolific writers and producers in the industry and is known by the nickname of ‘The King of r ‘n’ b’.

The neo-soul movement came to prominence in the late 90s, but many associated with it had been making music in that style for some time. D’Angelo, and Lauryn Hill were very successful then, but popularity waned in the 2000s, in part due to the artists disliking the way their music was being marketed and the pressures this put them under.

The increasing influence of urban music in the 00s can be heard in much of the r ‘n’ b being made in that decade. Alicia Keys, Usher, Mariah Carey, Rihanna and Beyoncé were all hugely popular in this decade. In her 2003 hit ‘Crazy In Love’, the urban influence is very clear with the drum grooves and rap from Jay-Z, as well as the horn and vocal parts strongly reminiscent of soul. The vocal arrangement is slick, with parts of the lead line richly harmonized and virtuosic melismas in the choruses. This enduring hit is a classic of the genre.

Examples of contemporary r ‘n’ b songs in the syllabus are:

Get Here‘ by Oleta Adams (keyboards), ‘1 Thing‘ by Amerie (drums), ‘Crazy‘ by Gnarls Barkley (vocals), ‘Crazy In Love‘ by Beyoncé (drums, vocals), ‘Without You‘ by Mariah Carey (vocals), ‘I Have Nothing‘ by Whitney Houston (keyboard, vocals), ‘The Greatest Love Of All‘ by Whitney Houston (vocals), ‘One Moment In Time‘ by Whitney Houston (vocals), ‘Price Tag‘ by Jessie J (vocals), ‘Bleeding Love‘ by Leona Lewis (vocals), ‘Umbrella‘ by Rihanna (vocals) and ‘Cry Me A River‘ by Justin Timberlake (vocals)

Blog post written by: Paul Trippett

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

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Improvising in a soul style

Soul is a popular form of music born in the United States of America, in the late 1950s/early 60s. It’s largely an African-American derived style, incorporating elements of blues, jazz, rhythm and – most importantly – gospel music. Despite many rhythm and blues artists being well versed in gospel music, there was some resistance to blending sacred music with a genre that was considered by many to be ungodly. The resulting blend of rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel, with secular lyrics, came to be known as soul. An early popular example of the gospel influence is in the 1954 hit ‘I Got a Woman’ by Ray Charles. The partly improvised, declamatory style of singing was based on the call and response between preacher and congregation and required a powerful lead singer. The hand claps and simple steps that became a common feature of soul were also straight out of the gospel music tradition. Aretha Franklin, among many others, also began her career singing gospel music.

Soul was made popular by giants of music such as James Brown, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder, initially recording on legendary labels such as Motown, Stax and Atlantic.

Many later styles, for example: funk, hip hop and contemporary r ‘n’ b, can be considered direct descendants of soul. Today, soul artists still feature in the UK, US and worldwide charts, including stars such as Joss Stone, John Legend and the late Amy Winehouse.

Like many styles, there have been various off-shoots and sub-genres, such as funk, r ‘n’ b, disco and more closely related categories including neo-soul, psychedelic soul, blue-eyed soul and geographically grouped styles like Detroit soul, Memphis soul, Chicago soul, Philadelphia soul and Northern soul in the UK.

Improvising in the style

It’s important to think about the origins and feel of soul music when deciding how to improvise in the style. Soul songs are often simple in harmony and rhythm, but feature catchy melodies and hooks, which stick in the listener’s mind and draw you in. This might be something you wish to achieve in a melodic solo. Another feature is the use of call and response, particularly in vocals, which derives from gospel and African forms of music. This means you need to leave space between phrases for other singers or instrumentalists to reply to a call. Or you may wish to be the person responding, in which case, try to develop a phrase or counter-balance something sung or played by another performer.

Soul generally has a very laid-back feel, with funky grooves. Drummers should keep things simple and focus more on creating the appropriate level of energy and feeling by sitting on the ‘back’ of the beat and delivering clear backbeats on the snare drum. Interest in drum grooves tend to come from basic variations in bass drum patterns, but remember, consistency is the key to a catchy groove. All instrumentalists may wish to think about adding a very slight ‘swing’ to their phrasing, much like we hear in blues music; one of the key styles which influenced soul.

Soul is a hugely emotive genre, and this is most effectively expressed through voice. Singers often use a wide range of rich vocal timbre, expressive in sound and feel, and also in the lyrical content. Songs often describe trials and tribulations, or love stories, including heartbreak. It is important to reflect the content of the story in your performance as a vocalist. Melismas and vibrato are common vocal techniques you might also wish to employ.

Guitarists have used a wide range of techniques and ideas in soul music over the years, but some common techniques are to use upper register chordal accompaniments in a rhythmic manner, as in a lot of Motown classics. You can also play arpeggiated chords for slower tempo soul songs, as in many Otis Redding songs.

Keyboardists may wish to choose a softer voice or padding to accompany a soul style song. Common sounds might be a Hammond-Organ voice or a Fender Rhodes-type sound. Bassists, on the other hand, should think about keeping a warm, clean tone, allowing clarity in their funky riffs and simple, rhythmic bass-lines.

Influential artists

Despite a short life lasting just over 26 years, Otis Redding remains one of the most influential soul singers of the 1960s. Having left school aged 15 in 1956 to support his family by working in Little Richard’s backing band, The Upsetters, he gained experience touring and performing with various groups throughout the late 1950s. An unscheduled appearance on a Stax recording session in 1962 led to his first single, ‘These Arms of Mine’. Later hits included ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’, some of which only gained worldwide recognition after his untimely death in a plane crash in 1967.

Ray Charles was one of the first artists to bring his blend of gospel and rhythm and blues to the mainstream in the 1950s. Little Richard and James Brown were also key figures in the development of soul at this time. In the late 60s distinct sub-genres appeared, the earthier funk from James Brown and other artists such as Sly & the Family Stone contrasted with the more produced style of artists such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Stevie Wonder.

Despite being blind from an early age, Stevie Wonder signed to Motown’s ‘Tamla’ label aged just 11 in 1961. To this day he continues to write and record for the label, still touring the world and performing to huge audiences. His tight, melody-driven funky-soul sound has resulted in legendary hits such as ‘Sir Duke’, ‘Superstition’ and ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, featuring Stevie’s multi-instrumentalism (although live he usually performs piano/keyboard and vocals), alongside sharp and catchy horn-section writing.

Aretha Franklin started her career as a gospel singer at her minister father’s church whilst only a child. By 18 she had begun a secular music career, recording on Columbia then Atlantic records, with hits such as ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Think’. By the end of the 1960s she was known as the Queen of Soul and her often fiery, protesting style of singing displayed virtuosic vocal technique and emotionally-charged vocal melodies. Aretha has since gone on to win 18 Grammy awards and, as one of the leading women of soul music, she had a profound affect on current British soul singer, Joss Stone. Joss’ debut album ‘The Soul Sessions’ included hits such as ‘Fell In Love With a Boy’ and ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’.  More recent hits for Stone include ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’, in collaboration with Al Green.

Examples of soul songs in the syllabus include:

Rock Steady‘ by Aretha Franklin (drums), ‘I Say A Little Prayer‘ by Aretha Franklin (vocals), ‘Chain Of Fools‘ by Aretha Franklin (drums), ‘What’d I Say‘ by Ray Charles (keyboard), ‘My Old Piano‘ by Diana Ross (bass) and ‘Chasing Pavements‘ by Adele (alternative songs – bass)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner and Paul Trippett

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a boogie-woogie style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a blues style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a jazz style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a disco style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a Latin style blog post

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Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

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Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a boogie-woogie style

Achieving widespread popularity in the 1920s, the boogie-woogie style originated in the African-American communities of the 1870s. Closely related to blues music, it features many similarities, particularly in its traditional use of the 12-bar structure and reliance on chords I, IV and V. It does however use these elements in a much more upbeat positive style and is often used as music for dancing, with its fast flowing bass-lines and driving rhythm section grooves.

Originally performed on the piano, it has seen growth in instrumentation through piano duos and trios, guitar, big band arrangements and many other wide-ranging ensembles. Sometimes people call the style ‘8 to the bar’ in reference to the traditional use of constant quavers or ‘8th notes’ in the bass-line or left hand of the piano particularly. Traditional styles were played at rent parties during the great depression, and in bars and drinking establishments, often by unschooled musicians on poorly kept instruments. This created a raw, ragged, percussive sound, only somewhat masked by the frantic and uplifting pace of the music. Boogie-woogie pianists are predominantly known for their strength and loud volumes, created by ‘bashing’ out the melodies and accompaniments, with frantic soloing in the upper registers. The style is often referenced in popular culture today, particularly when trying to convey a ‘retro’ feel, often associated with the 1930-50s, jive dances and similar period upbeat occasions.

Improvising in the style

The first important point to make is that the style is infectiously upbeat. Whatever you play, it needs rhythmic drive and a huge amount of energy; there’s no hiding or shying away in boogie-woogie music. It’s also important to check out whether the song is played in a ‘swung’ or ‘straight’ feel.

Think rhythmically: it’s called ‘8 to the bar’ for a reason, so try to string long passages of quavers (8th notes), triplets or semi-quavers (16th notes) together in melodic phrases, to create authentic boogie-woogie phrasing. These should have a real forward momentum, either sitting exactly on or even in front of the beat, pushing the song along.

The harmony in this style is usually quite simple, following traditional I – IV – V – I and 12-bar blues structures, so make sure you get to grips with the chord-scales and how to outline these effectively. Informed use of melodic phrasing can also help to shape and outline the form of harmonic sequences, by starting and ending phrases in places which show the start and end of the structure. For example, try creating a phrase for 4 bars, performing a development for another 4 bars, and then returning to the first phrase with minor embellishments for the last 4 bars, creating a 12-bar structure. Then, at the top of the next 12 bars, you can introduce a new idea and repeat the exercise, as a basic way to outline the shape of the piece.

It is worth checking out traditional boogie-woogie bass-lines, particularly for bassists and pianists. These usually have a simple 1 bar pattern constructed of arpeggiated or scalic patterns in quaver (8th note) pulse, which is then transposed depending on the chord required. Shuffle accompaniments, as seen in the syllabus song ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ by Robert Johnson, are regularly heard in boogie-woogie music as well. Blue notes are also a commonplace in boogie-woogie music, such as the flat 3, flat 7 and diminished 5th. This is common to the blues scale, discussed in the ‘Improvising in a blues style’ blog.

Watch videos with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler and session musician Harry the Piano:

Influential artists

Albert Ammons was a popular boogie-woogie pianist from Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. As the son of 2 pianists, he learnt to play fluently by the age of 10 and grew to love boogie-woogie thanks to his friend and other influential boogie-woogie pianist, Meade Lux Lewis. The pair practiced together, later performing at parties and bars around Chicago. Ammons then moved to New York where he teamed up with pianist Pete Johnson, playing regularly at the Cafe Society. Famous recordings of Albert Ammons performances include ‘Shout for Joy’, ‘Swanee River Boogie’ and ‘Boogie Woogie Dream’.

Britain’s greatest exponent of boogie-woogie is the pianist, band-leader and television presenter, Jools Holland, who originally came to national attention with the band Squeeze in the late 1970s. He began his solo career in 1978 with the EP ‘Boogie Woogie ’78’ and regularly cites the boogie-woogie style as his greatest influence. His long-established Big Band still performs around the world and he has collaborated with many artists, including Sting on ‘Seventh Son’, Eric Clapton on ‘What Would I Do Without You’, Mark Knopfler on ‘Mademoiselle Will Decide’ and Tom Jones on ‘It’ll Be Me’.

Examples of boogie-woogie songs in the syllabus are:

Pencil Full Of Lead‘ by Paolo Nutini (drums) and ‘Great Balls Of Fire‘ by Jerry Lee Lewis (keyboards)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a blues style blog post

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Check out our Improvising in a disco style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a Latin style blog post

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Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

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Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a blues style

Blues music grew from the experience of the African-American communities in the Deep South of the USA in the late 1800s, often featuring tales of despair or hardship. Mixing African song with spirituals, work songs and European folk influences, the style often uses simple forms and common chord structures, such as the 12-bar blues harmonic sequence, or the AAB form.

Originally the music of African-American slaves and poverty-stricken folk, the music was adopted in the second half of the 1900s by mainstream Americans and Europeans, as the style developed. We still hear aspects of the blues style in most forms of popular music today, including jazz, pop, folk, dance, rock and country.

Early blues and many subsequent styles are often associated with acoustic guitar and vocals; with singers such as Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith widely recognised as pioneers in this style. Use of slide guitar sounds is also synonymous with the style. Later forms of blues developed using the electric guitar, with artists such as Eric Clapton and the more boogie-woogie orientated pianist Jools Holland, performing blues music and its sub-genres in a more contemporary manner.

Improvising in the style

The first thing for any instrumentalist or vocalist to think about is whether the music is ‘straight’ or ‘swung’ (with a triplet feel, like the song ‘Humpty Dumpty’). This will have a huge bearing on how you perform your improvisation rhythmically, and should be taken into account immediately. Blues music historically can be performed both ways, although older styles often have more of a swung feel. Sometimes, even on straight-feel blues, singers and instrumentalists like to add a slight ‘swing’ to their rhythms, to create a laid-back, bluesy feel. This takes practice and it’s worth listening to recordings of how artists do this, such as Chris Rea.

Melodically, it is a good idea to check out the ‘blues scale’ as a basis for improvisation. Unlike a normal major or minor scale, the basic version of this focuses on just 6 notes of the scale, taking the key of the song and using the minor pentatonic (1-flat 3-4-5-flat 7), then adding the diminished 5th into the mix. For example, for a blues in C, we might focus our attention on the notes of; C (1st degree of the scale), Eb (flat 3), F (4), F#/Gb (diminished 5th), G (5th) and Bb (flat 7). Try running up and down this scale, playing arpeggios using these notes, then creating melodies and lines jumping around different points of the scale. It’s also quite common to flicker between 2 notes of the scale which are only a semi-tone apart. Using the above example in the key of C, this might be the G and the F#.

When creating an improvised accompaniment, it is worth making sure you know the common extensions and harmonic trends of blues music. For example, there is a lot of use of minor chords and dominant 7ths (meaning the flat 7, a whole tone below the root). We also sometimes come across the diminished chord, which uses both the flat 3 and the b5. Make sure you understand these chord symbols, how to play them correctly on your instrument, and the chord-scale relationship. A common accompaniment technique used in many blues songs for guitar and keyboards is the shuffle accompaniment. This is featured in the syllabus on songs such as ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ by Robert Johnson. It’s worth checking out how this works and applying it to all twelve keys.

In terms of basic stylistic traits, blues music tends to be quite simple, with the aim of conveying a tale of sorrow, hardship or regret as clearly as possible. The style generally has quite a laid-back feel, although more up-beat variations occur in sub-genres such as boogie-woogie. Use of techniques such as slides, slurs, note-bends and breathy, softer tones can create an effective blues sound.

Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming, and session musicians Harry the Piano and Sam Edgington:

Influential artists

Despite dying at the tender age of 27 in 1938, Robert Johnson is widely recognised as one of the most influential voices of the early blues style. Usually performing solo on acoustic guitar and vocals on street corners, in bars or at night dances, he gained little exposure in his lifetime, but has since become revered following re-issue of his recordings since 1961. He is known as a master of the Mississippi Delta blues and his recordings of songs such as ‘Crossroad’, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ have influenced generations of blues and popular music artists since.

B. B. King., born in 1925, is described as the ‘King of Blues’. Over his career he developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles and was ranked sixth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of all time guitarists in 2011. His soloing style was described by Edward Komara as ‘a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed’. Hits such as ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, ‘How Blue Can You Get’ and ‘Lucille’ are just a few examples of his virtuoso guitar playing and singing. B. B. King died in May 2015.

In the later 20th century, blues was adopted and fused with rock to popular acclaim; particularly by British artists such as Eric Clapton. Guitarist/vocalist Clapton came to fame with the bands ‘The Yardbirds’ and ‘Cream’ in the 1960s and 70s. Also influenced by genres such as reggae and rock, his hits such as ‘Layla’, and ‘Tears In Heaven’ hold worldwide attention. Clapton still tours to sell-out arenas and stadiums and received a CBE from the Queen for services to music in 2004.

Examples of blues songs in the syllabus are:

Black Betty’ by Lead Belly (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ by Robert Johnson (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘Mean Jumper Blues’ by Blind Lemon Jefferson (bass, keyboards, drums, guitar, vocals), ‘Hide Away’ by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (guitar) and ‘What’d I Say’ by Ray Charles (keyboards)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a jazz style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a disco style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a Latin style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a pop style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a jazz style

Developed in the New Orleans melting pot of cultures in the early 1900s, jazz initially began as a mixture of blues, spiritual and Creole music. Often played at social occasions and events such as parties, funerals, and in bars and night clubs around the area, the genre developed a standard repertoire of songs with set forms, over which improvisation and melody would be performed.

Legends such as trumpeter Louis Armstrong grew up immersed in this style and were instrumental in developing the subsequent paths that jazz took in the 1920s and 30s, from traditional New Orleans styles through Big Band swing and into the early stages of bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker then took on the jazz mantle during the late 1930s and 40s, developing bebop in downtown New York along with their peers, at clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse. This was the birthplace of the most typical forms of modern jazz and is often characterised by its elements of swing time (triplet feel), complex harmonic sequences and improvisational structures.

Today jazz has branched out into dozens of areas, with crossovers and influences from all types of music mixed with jazz sensibilities. The genre is undoubtedly the fastest developing style of the 20th century and continues its expansion worldwide today.

Improvising in the style

Though jazz is a wide-ranging genre, it is useful to think about some of the most historically common elements of the style which we can try to recreate in our improvisations, whether as a lead player or accompanist. One of these elements is the use of swing time; this means feeling the pulse in a 12/8 metre instead of 4/4, which takes us into triplet time. Another way to feel this is to think of a ‘skipping’ motion – take the well known nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’, sing it and you will be creating a triplet feel. This is key to all ‘swung’ types of music.

Another key element to think about is the use of harmonic sequences. Whether playing or singing a lead-line, or performing an accompaniment, it is vitally important to have a grasp of harmonic movement and where you are in the sequence. Accompanying (or ‘comping’) should clearly state this harmonic sequence, to allow soloists to tailor their melodies to the chords. Equally, when playing lead lines it is important to understand the chord symbols, and which scales to base your melodies from on each of these. For example, a Cm7 chord indicates the use of an E-flat (making the chord ‘minor’) and B-flat due to the ‘7’, which indicates the use of the dominant (flat) 7th note of the chord-scale. Equally Cmaj7 would indicate the use of a B-natural (the ‘major’ 7th of the scale).

Drummers should listen to as much jazz as possible to get a feel for the style. You should notice two important aspects: first of all the focus of the groove (in both volume and energy) is no longer in the bass drum and snare drum, but usually in the ride cymbal; secondly, the ‘down’-beats (1 and 3) of the bar are no longer the centre of the energy, instead transferred to the 2 and 4 of the bar. Check out the left foot hi-hat which particularly emphasises this by playing the 2 and 4.

Tone plays a big part in jazz styles, no matter which instrument you are playing. While this varies through the different sub-genres of jazz and the fact that different artists have distinctive tones, it is worth checking out some of the sounds adopted by greats, such as Miles Davis during the cool jazz era (the albums ‘Birth of the Cool‘ and ‘Kind of Blue‘ especially), or Ella Fitzgerald’s instantly recognisable vocal tone.

Scat-singing is a common technique employed by jazz singers, in which they improvise melodic lines over the chord changes to form a vocal solo, much like horn players. Scat lines are usually wordless, instead using syllables to create articulation and rhythmic flow. Again, Ella Fitzgerald is a prime example of this technique. Check out her ‘scat’ version of ‘One Note Samba’.

Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming, and session musicians Harry the Piano and Sam Edgington:

Influential Artists

Possibly the most famous jazz artist of all time is Louis Armstrong. His larger-than-life personality translated itself into both his trumpet and vocal performances, with a unique tone and style on both instruments. Born in the early 1900s in New Orleans, Armstrong (or ‘Satchmo’ as he was nicknamed) grew up in relative poverty, turning to music and particularly the cornet as a way to escape the toils of everyday life. He quickly became known for his swinging style and big character, performing in dance bands for social occasions all over the district; including in brothels and bars. After rising through the ranks he moved to Chicago and later New York, as his fame grew. Over his career he worked with the Big Bands and smaller ensembles, most famously alongside singers and instrumentalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Bessie Smith and Fats Waller. He recorded hundreds of hits including ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘St Louis Blues’ and ‘All of Me’. He is also cited as a major inspiration to many huge jazz stars such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

Ella Fitzgerald, known as the ‘First Lady of Song’, was recognised for her pure vocal tone, incredible intonation and clear diction, alongside an ability to scat sing and improvise in the same way as horn players. Born in 1917, her early life was troubled, but she found fame singing on many stages around the Harlem area of New York. Her natural talent was noticed by Decca Records in 1942, which began her professional recording and performing career, eventually lasting around fifty years. She worked with top jazz icons such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones, recording hits such as ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, ‘Dancing Cheek To Cheek’ and ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’.

More recently, modern artists such as Michael Bublé have brought jazz to a mainstream audience with hits and covers such as ‘Haven’t Met You Yet’ and ‘Feeling Good‘. Robbie Williams recorded and performed an album of music in the Frank Sinatra vein, entitled ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, in 2001, which included classic swing songs such as ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Mr Bojangles’.

Examples of jazz songs in the Trinity Rock & Pop syllabus are;

Don’t Stop The Music’ by Jamie Cullum (keyboard), ‘Cry Me A River’ by Julie London (vocals), ‘Moondance’ by Van Morrison sung by Michael Bublé (vocals), ‘What A Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong (vocals) and ‘Mr Bojangles’ by Robbie Williams (vocals)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a disco style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a Latin style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a pop style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a disco style

The word ‘disco’ comes from the French ‘discotheque’, initially meaning library of phonograph records, but later becoming the word for nightclubs and bars, which play music for dancing. Disco music was at its most popular during the 1970s, although it has had several revivals in popularity and has had an influence on popular music and culture ever since.

Having grown out of the New York club scene in the late-1960s/early-1970s, disco cemented its place in western popular culture after being featured in box-office hit films such as ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and ‘Thank God It’s Friday’. The accompanying fashions reflected the musical influences of disco, with a mixture of African-American and psychedelic sensibilities.

Groups and artists such as ABBA, The Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor helped to define an unmistakable disco sound, incorporating elements of funk, soul, pop, salsa and psychedelic music. Their songs featured simple four-to-the-floor beats, funky bass-lines, soaring vocal melodies and horn/string arrangements, padding out the tightly produced orchestrations featured in many of them.

More recently, solo artists such as Madonna and Justin Timberlake have used disco sensibilities to create a ‘retro’ feel in their music, for instance Madonna’sHung Up’ samples ABBA’sGimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’. Artist collaborations such as that between Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams and Nile Rogers have also revisited the disco feel and resulted in massive hits such as ‘Get Lucky’.

Improvising in the style

When thinking about how to improvise in a disco style it is worth listening to and thinking about the characteristics of the style. We can incorporate these into our improvisation to become more idiomatically correct. For example, bassists should think about how many disco bass-lines feature tight, funky ‘riffs’, often syncopated to create an upward lift to the music. This could also be applicable to guitarists, who may wish to play chords in upper registers or higher hand positions, to create an authentic disco sound. Many disco songs feature repeated quaver or semiquaver patterns in the guitar parts, which can be replicated to good effect when creating an accompaniment to a disco track.

Drummers should think about opening the hi-hat on off-beat quavers, giving an authentic disco feel. This is commonly played alongside a four-to-the-floor feel bass drum pattern (bass drums on all 4 beats of the bar) and simple 2 and 4 snare drum back-beats. Another option on the hi-hats would be to play a semiquaver feel. Be careful when doing this to keep closed hi-hats firmly shut to find the tight, produced sound of many disco records. Experimenting with using the tip or the stick on top of the hats, rather than the shoulder of the stick can also enhance this further.

Singers are a big feature here. Melodies should be clear and move with the music, and phrasing should take the form or length of each section into account. You may wish to experiment with spoken or rapped phrases, (such as on Average White Band’s ‘Pick Up the Pieces’, and Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and lyrics should be typical of the style. These often feature content about going out dancing, having a good time and other happy or positive subjects.

One feature of the style keyboardists could also incorporate into their improvisation is use of synthesised keyboard sounds. These can either be used as lead textures or chordal accompaniment and padding. An alternative would be to recreate the horn accompaniments often found in disco music using synth horn sounds. These are often jagged, syncopated lines or ‘hits’, punctuating the music to good effect.

Whatever your instrument, try to make sure your improvisation has forward momentum and a positive energy. Disco music is specifically for dancing and having a good time, so it’s wise to reflect this in the feel of your playing.

Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming, and session musician Harry the Piano:

Influential artists

After singing with jazz/soul band Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s, Gloria Gaynor went on to have a successful solo career spanning several decades. Her best known hit ‘I Will Survive’, went to number one in the billboard hot 100 and is still one of the most frequently played songs at parties and discos to date.

Formed in 1958, British-born brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, or The Bee Gees as they are known, started as a rock act but went on to become one of the most prominent disco groups of the late 1970s, with classic hits such as ‘Jive Talkin’, ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Stayin’ Alive’. They combined tight harmonies with vibrato and falsetto vocal sounds, to create a unique and instantly recognisable brand of disco music. They also wrote and performed the soundtrack for the hit film ‘Saturday Night Fever’, which still tours the world as a stage show today.

Another widely recognised disco act is ABBA. This four-piece Swedish group won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, and has gone on to be the most successful act ever to win the competition. To date they have sold over 380 million albums and singles, with theatrical performances and songs very much a part of their signature style. Known as perfectionists in the studio, their tight sound and up-beat music epitomised the disco style, with hits such as ‘Waterloo’, ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Dancing Queen’.

Examples of disco songs in the syllabus are:

Wishing On A Star’ by Rose Royce (vocals), ‘New York Mining Disaster’ by The Bee Gees (vocals) and ‘Super Trouper’ by ABBA (vocals, keyboard)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a Latin style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a pop style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a Latin style

In this context, the term ‘Latin’ refers to a large group of musical styles mostly originating from Spanish and Portuguese speaking communities in South America. These styles also sometimes incorporate elements of African music, introduced by the slaves transported to and through the area. Some common examples of Latin styles are bossa nova, tango, samba and merengue. Some of these styles have roots as far back as the 16th Century, when European settlers arrived in South America. Salsa, although developed by the Latin-American population more recently in the 1960s/70s in New York City, is another popular style of Latin music.

The vast majority of Latin styles are intended as music for dancing, often featuring stylistically-specific rhythmic trends and ostinatos, such as ‘claves’ (a set rhythmic pattern or phrase around which the whole rhythmic structure of a piece is formed) or pre-determined call and response parts.

Improvising in the style

It‘s important to remember that whichever Latin style you are improvising in, it’s likely that the purpose of the music is to make people dance, so your playing should reflect this. This might mean that you choose to prioritise rhythmic content, making simpler melodies and rhythms feel great, rather than performing complex lines or polyrhythms.

On this note, it’s worth trying to get at least a basic grip on what some of the key trends are in different types of Latin music, how to identify these quickly and how to play within these traits. A lot of these trends are common to several styles of Latin music, sometimes with minor changes, so even if you can’t identify the exact style immediately, you should be able to identify some of the features and improvise within these. Here are a few examples.

Clave: This is known as the ‘keystone that holds the music together’ within Afro-Cuban styles and is usually either a ‘son’ clave or ‘rumba’ clave. Amazingly, the only difference between the two is a shift in just one of the notes of the rhythm, by a quaver (in simple time) or triplet (in compound time).

Sonclave

Son clave

Rumbaclave

Rumba clave

These patterns might appear either in 3-2 form (as above, the ‘3’ side meaning the first bar, as it has 3 notes in the bar, the 2 being the second bar with 2 notes) or 2-3 form, which simply switches the order of the two bars around. Knowing how the pattern is structured and keeping an ear out for this whilst either soloing or accompanying is incredibly important, as it can help you resolve phrases or rhythmic patterns in the correct place. You could even (at a basic level) copy this rhythm and try soloing or accompanying using it as a repeated ostinato.

Partido alto rhythm: This is common to samba styles and denotes the ‘push’ or tension (off beat quavers) and ‘pull’ or release (on-beat) parts of the basic rhythmic structure.

Partidoalto

Partido alto

In this graphic I have added a ‘+’ sign above the off-beat quavers which create tension. The rhythmic tension is resolved and ‘released’ by the on-beats, indicated by a ‘-‘ sign. Good improvisers of all instruments should understand this way of creating rhythmic tension and release, with an ability to end phrases in the same places as the + or – beats. This shows you understand the underlying patterns. Notice that the change-over happens in the middle of the bars, rather than the start or end.

If you want to take the concept of rhythmic tension and release further, you could explore playing against the clave or partido alto rhythm to create ultimate rhythmic tension. Then you can resolve this by ending a phrase within the clave or partido alto.

For pianists and guitarists, whether accompanying or soloing, it is quite common to utilise block chords or simple triadic harmony. Think about taking the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a chord scale and using these together or in arpeggiated movements for melodies. Again, we can show advanced improvisational skills easily here by shifting these triads up a semi-tone from the correct chord (creating harmonic tension) and back down again to resolve within the correct harmony.

All instrumentalists, but especially bassists, should note the 2/2 feel for many Brazilian and simple-time variants of Latin music, particularly samba music. This means that, even if the music is written in 4/4 (four quarter-notes per bar), it is better to feel the music in 2/2 (two half-notes per bar). A typical Latin bass-line in this style will emphasise the two half notes, with an ‘upbeat’ added. This creates a heart-beat style rhythm, uplifting and easy to dance to. Often these simply utilise the root and 5th of the chord.

Sambabass

Samba bass

Watch videos with session musicians and Rock & Pop examiners JJ Wheeler and Tom Fleming, and session musicians Harry the Piano and Sam Edgington:

Influential artists

One of the greatest exponents of purer forms of Latin music, particularly bossa nova songs, was the Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim. Born in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, his songbook includes hundreds of titles, most famously ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, which is one of the most recorded songs of all time. Many of his songs have also been adopted into jazz and pop standard repertoire.

The Buena Vista Social Club was formed in Cuba, in the 1930s. This became a hotbed for Cuban musicians to play, develop and perform their craft. So much so that its luminaries include a vast array of the most influential and important Cuban-style Latin musicians, such as Cachao Lopez and Ruben Gonzalez.  They shot to world-fame when Ry Cooder recorded the seminal album ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, alongside several of the club’s regular patrons and musicians in 1997.

Virtuoso guitarist Carlos Santana is an example of someone who successfully fuses Latin styles with rock music. He first came to fame in the late 1960s/70s with his band ‘Santana’, performing hits such as a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Oye Como Va’. He later experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in the early 1990s, and continues to tour stadiums and arenas around the world.

A more recent artist whose music is heavily influenced and based on Latin styles is the singer Shakira. This Colombian-born star started her recording career in the early 1990s, eventually rising to fame in the English-speaking markets (and worldwide) in 2002 with the release of the hit single ‘Whenever, Wherever’. Her style fuses Latin style rhythms and grooves with pop sensibilities, to create an easily recognisable sound of her own, as featured on further hits such as ‘Hips Don’t Lie’.

We often see lots of influences from Latin music throughout many other genres, as well as fusions of styles such as Latin-jazz and Latin-pop.

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a pop style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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