Scenes, Songs & Solos: A Composition and Improvisation Workbook for the Creative Musician

Scenes, Songs & Solos: A Composition and Improvisation Workbook for the Creative Musician

by Steve Slagle

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936182305
Publisher: Schaffner Press, Inc.
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Steve Slagle is an internationally renowned jazz musician and composer, a professor at the Manhattan School of Music, and a two-time Grammy Award winner for his arrangements with the Joe Lovano Nonet and the Charles Mingus Big Band. He lives in New York City.

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Scenes, Songs & Solos

A Composition and Improvisation Workbook for the Creative Musician

By Steve Slagle

Schaffner Press

Copyright © 2011 Steve Slagle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936182-30-5




The basis of my playing, and a lot of my writing, is the feeling of "the blues" in music, a much broader concept than some might think. The very first adlibbed phrases I tried to play were mostly "blues-y" things. Short blues-inspired phrases, such as those that I wrote out in the back of this chapter, (see "Blues Runs") can be played in every key and are a good introduction to the feeling of "blue" notes.

One thing is certain, if you are coming up as a musician in the USA, hearing the music around you — all styles, but especially jazz — you will definitely be saturated with all forms of the blues. As is often the case, what starts out as simple can ultimately become the most complex, and in music (as in life), that is especially true of the Blues!

While the first and deepest introduction is the twelve-bar blues form, which begins this chapter, the blues feeling can take many forms and flavors and isn't always confined to twelve bars. The most important point I want to make is that, aside from purely musical exactitudes, like bars and keys, the blues is basically a musical "tone" that produces a unique mood springing from the American experience and feeling. That concept is a significant part of understanding the blues as a musical form.

When you hear it, you know it! But, in composition it can come through in infinite ways. In this chapter, to demonstrate how broad the blues form can be in composition and how each song sends you to a somewhat different place for improvisation, I have selected a variety of blues-inspired songs that I have written and performed. It is fascinating to see how each new song that touches on the blues creates a deeper understanding of all the music that fits into this huge category. If a song is good enough, it uncovers another of the infinite musical secrets hidden within the blues, and the more that is revealed, the more our understanding of it grows.

Many styles of playing have derived from the blues, and in my opinion, you can't have good, authentic American music without the blues being somewhere within it. (Name one great American musician who doesn't have a feel for it!)

Also, blues covers many more moods than the obvious — there are "happy blues" (Charlie Parker recorded just such a title), and every feeling in between, including, for example, Oliver Nelson's masterpiece, "Blues and the Abstract Truth," all the way to the depths of the down and out, nasty gut-bucket blues!

It is as wide as the American landscape and now covers the whole world ... So, it seems only fitting to begin "Scenes, Songs & Solos" with a chapter devoted to the Blues!

1. Blues Inuf


This first piece is a 12-bar blues in the key of F (In-Uf). It is first transcribed in lead sheet form as just the melody and basic chord changes of a 12-bar blues. Melodically this blues is fairly simple, the possible exception being the B triad used as melody against the tonic F (see bar 7). After writing it and playing off the lead melody and blues form for a while, I arranged it in four parts (Enuf ) — all counterpoint so all of the four lines work independently as melodies to a 12-bar blues. Or all can be played together as four interlocking voices. This isn't easy to pull off compositionally. Bach long ago realized that four parts in counterpoint stretched the listener's ear to the limit, and there is no reason to write music that does not transmit clearly what you want to your listener.

In our music, two soloists improvising together can create great counterpoint lines together, in some ways similar to what I have composed here. With four soloists it would be that much harder to have everything as in sync. In order to compose these four parts, I adopted a more "slowed down" and one-by-one process than if I had simultaneously improvised them. I started with the top voice which of course is the lead sheet melody — then created the second line below it to fit in duet, then went to the bass voice, and finally the third or tenor voice which was the hardest and took the most re-hashing. So what comes out is through-composed and very different than if there had been four different players improvising at once on a 12-bar blues form.

Try playing separately through each of the four parts. Now you can see three quick variations on the original melody. Try to record one and then play the others on top of it to see how they fit. Most musicians I know have a natural feeling for the blues, and it's referred to in so much of our music, because the feeling of the blues is universal. So this 12-bar blues in four parts is a good start.

AMF Blues


"AMF Blues," also in the key of F, shows the difference in harmonizing a melody to a 12-bar blues as compared to writing a counterpoint line. In this case, the harmony line is written in a range above the melody rather than below it, which is a more common practice. After composing 12-bar blues lines and learning others that have already been written (there are so many!) you will have learned one important fact: Less is more.

A lot of ideas can be played over a 12-bar blues and often a simple composition can be just as effective as one full of notes. Even the first counterpoint blues shown in this chapter, "Blues Inuf," starts with an uncomplicated lead line. You can attempt to write a blues with fast moving and angular lines, and it may succeed, but it's much harder to retain the feeling of the basic blues in it. Also, the tempo in which you feel a blues makes a big difference in the overall shape of your composition and the solos that follow from it.

Blues is possibly one of the most perfect song forms for improvisation, because it's often short and right to the point! So, whether it's "Blues Enuf," a lead melody with counterpoint lines, or the simpler "AMF Blues" with a harmonized melody, you'll discover that, either way it's all blues.

2. Double Blue


Now, we have a 24-bar blues — basically, a "double-blues" where each change in 4/4 time is double in length (compared to a 12-bar standard blues form). Yet, here the melody maintains a blues-y feel throughout. The only difference between this tune and the one with standard blues changes is the blues in the key of B-flat ends on the G-flat 7 chord instead of on the tonic. (That is, we end in the flatted sixth dominant seventh chord — a funky sound, which fits right in with the blues!) This melody also outlines the basic sounds of a dominant 7th chord — the flat seven and major third, so getting into the melody line can really provide you the framework to solo on. You can voice the sounds of chords like this in the blues, with just the bass note of the chord, and then to the third and seventh (on piano) — creating a simple but effective chordal sound on which to work on your solo lines.


I developed this song by playing duo with drums one day; and for all you horn players out there, this is something you should do as much as you can, with the best drummers you can find. In this case, I found myself playing a "twice-long" 24-bar blues form, and later went home and created the whole song. You can develop many ideas for composition by working just with rhythm. In working solely with drums, my ideas could open up in aa way that wouldn't have been possible with bass and chords. When you write, it's best to keep all the "fences" open — you can always add the details later.

3. Child's Play


Although this melody is in 12 bars — a blues — the chord changes in the 8th- 10th bars of the composition are not typical of the usual blues. But they continue the child-like play of this song. I also liked writing a 12-bar blues where the major third of the key is a melody note on the IV chord of the blues (in this case E in the key of C major). Anything is possible, and although the "blue note," ie. the flatted third, is usually the seventh of the four chord, this composition goes to the major third. The solo changes, though, are a normal 12-bar blues in C. The vamp at the beginning sets up the melody, and the lead voice can play the top note of the vamp voicing. The song leads you to an open blues feel on your solos, since the melody goes "out of bounds" in places.


I came up with this melody while driving down the Palisades Expressway in the NYC area with my daughter, and being with her at that particular moment, I guess, influenced the child-like feeling of the song. Getting to the piano I had to find those unusual changes (8-10) over the melody, but other than that, it was a piece of cake (the beginning vamp being the icing ...). At first I played off the changes on bars 8-10 but decided it's best to return to the true blues changes for soloing on "Child's Play."

4. Bailout


This is a 12-bar minor blues that also has a Bridge in AABA form. In this song, the chord changes written for the melody are different from those that the soloist plays over. Compare this to a song like Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," also a 12-bar minor blues in C minor. His song goes to the four chord, whereas in "Bailout," we stay on the tonic. Coltrane really liked to stretch out on a minor blues, and this song points towards that, too. The A melody here is simple but tone-oriented, and ends with a line in fourths. The bridge is eight bars long, and changes from the minor key to dominant seventh chords. The beginning of the bridge is improvised by the player and then comes a quick eighth-note-y line that leads to the last A. (Use tri-tone substitution on any of the dominant chords, ie, D7=A flat7//or D flat7=G7). Soloing on a 12-bar minor blues can really improve your feeling for minor keys in general — you can use the ideas you feel in this blues for many other minorkeyed compositions, even if they are not a blues form. The most basic sound in this kind of minor blues is the dorian scale with an added flatted 5th. (That is, for C-minor, a B-flat major scale and add F#.) Also pentatonics can be used against the roots effectively. (In C minor the root pentatonic would be: C-Eb-F-G-Bb.) Chromatic versions of the same five notes against the C-Pedal can "modernize" your approach, as long as you hear it and it's rhythmic. The same techniques can be used in any song with a similar minor pedal point — from Coltrane's "Impressions," to the standard "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," and even to Gershwin's minor-keyed "Summertime."


I recently arranged this composition for Joe Lovano's Nonet. As a quartet, I just recorded it with my Stryker/Slagle Band with Victor Lewis and Jay Anderson on drums and bass. It's a new composition with an "old" story.

5. Leadbelly Sez


This is basically an 8-bar blues with a bridge of 8 bars in AABA form, making for a total of 32 bars. The bridge, consisting of just chromatic chord changes, can be played over as a break from the angular melodies of the A section lines — which are all over the same set of 8-bar blues changes. The mix of blues scale melody and chromatic movement are a great send-off for improvisation. The 8-bar form of blues — 2 bars tonic, 2 bars four chord, 2 bars five chord and 2 bar turn around — is easy to feel although you will find it isn't often played. In this case, I didn't realize it was an 8-bar blues until after I wrote it!


This is one of my earlier compositions, yet we still like to play it. The title fits because the early blues master, the great Leadbelly, used to compose and sing blues numbers that often were not exactly 12 bars long. I doubt he wrote them out, and didn't mind or care about "bars" per se., but he always nailed the feeling of the blues. I also wasn't thinking in bar numbers, yet still just in melody for this update on a blues that is modern yet rooted in tradition.

6. Alive


This is a blues in the key of C that is 20 bars long, which is an unusual form. Yet, when you hear or play it, there is a modern blues feeling all over it. The composition uses dominant chords going from I to IV to V, as a basic blues does, yet the last 4 bars turn around to end on the flat sixth dominant chord (bVI in the key of C is Ab7. Most of the dominant chords can use their #11(or as we say, "flatted-fifth") as a tension note which is also outlined throughout the melody. The last four bars are the hardest to play over, and it's best to dissect each chord slowly in order to discover how bars 17-18 lead harmonically to the last chord of Ab7


I wrote this as a solo piece that I played live on WKCR (Columbia University) Radio NYC. As I played it on sax, the melody works on its own without any chord instrument and you hear the overall line and not the bar length which even I didn't realize until after I wrote it! Later I arranged it for my four horn group, so a piece like this is open to a lot of interpretations.

The rhythm feeling of this melody line, which has a vamp pedal on the bass (not written here) calls for a straight 8ths phrasing, but with a swing feel. That is, the drums would play a rhythmic "boogaloo" on the melody and throughout the piece. In our music the rhythm section's style of playing is integral to the composition and affects the way the melody is played. A song can be played with a straight 8ths funky feel to it and still swing! One drummer that comes to mind for this kind of feel would be the late great Billy Higgins who was one of the masters of this idiom. You could say that it crosses over from funky to swingin' and gets the best of both!


Workshop: Blues Runs


If you boil the blues down to a note series it comes naturally as 6 notes — for instance in the key of C: C — E–flat — F — F–sharp — G — B–flat or roman numerals: I-bIII-IV-bV-V-bVII. But when you add to that the major third of the key (III-in the key of C, E natural), you actually come to the heavenly number of 7 notes, which make the color tones of the blues.

The beauty of the blues is that it contains the major note of the key (i.e., happy) and the minor note (i.e., sad) together! Also, remember that all of these notes can be "bent" in pitch depending on your instrument — or as you will see in some of the following examples, a "grace" note is effective in getting that "in between" happy and sad sound of the blues at its best.

The first 16-note series I wrote out in quarter notes, which can be played forwards and backwards! Then I wrote out a few blues runs or licks — some against chord changes and some just around the tonic key. Although none of these examples are over a 12-bar blues, the first "magic" six notes can be played over an entire 12-bar blues creatively. But to really get deeper into the blues you have to get a feel for the minor/major tonality that is inherent in the form — blues in the pocket, blues as you like it, blues not to lose!


1. Write a 12-bar blues in any key but use only a 4-bar repeated riff as the composition-(the riff repeated 3 times) examples of this kind of riff blues:

"Sonnymoon for Two" (Rollins)
"Dukes's Place" (Ellington)
"Bags Groove" (Milt Jackson)

2. Write a minor 12-bar blues in C minor using the standard changes for a minor blues. That is, going to the four minor chord on bar 5 and resolving by using the normal flat VI dominant chord on bar 9 to V7 on bar 10, i.e. Coltrane's "Mr P.C."

3 a. Write a 12-bar blues in F using the major seventh (E natural) as melody note in places over the tonic chord. Ex: "Barbados" — (Parker) b. Write a 12-bar blues in F using the flat seventh of the tonic chord (E-flat) as melody note in places, especially on the tonic chord. Ex: "Bessies Blues" (Coltrane)

4. Write a blues that is not 12 bars — choose any length of bars but have the composition be a blues. See: "Leadbelly Sez" or "Double Blue" in this chapter as examples.




Though this might not be true of every composition a composer writes, the songs in this chapter deal first and foremost with melody — the rest follows from there.

The phrase "Melody Rules" is true for many reasons. First, only a melody can be copyrighted. No set of chord changes, no matter how original, can be copyrighted (owned) by their composer. For instance, if you take the changes in Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and write your own melody to them, technically you have written your own composition! This is easier said than done because a good melody is often "married" to its harmony — there is something magical in the process. It is for this reason that composition cannot really be taught. Therefore, what I hope to do in this book is give you your own feel for it. In this case, you must trust the process: you really learn by doing.

A song or melody lasts over time for a reason. Within it there is usually some kernel of inspiration, so even something that has begun as an exercise can result in perfection. In fact, John Coltrane called his many "Giant Steps" compositions "exercises," several of which are now accepted as standards.


Excerpted from Scenes, Songs & Solos by Steve Slagle. Copyright © 2011 Steve Slagle. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Spirit of Composition,

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