Jazz ballads came naturally to me. In fact, when I was still a teenager, the great jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan heard me accompany a vocalist and told me that I played ballads with the maturity of a 60-year old person. This was a big compliment, but the flip side of it was that I couldn't play uptempo tunes as well. Bebop didn't come as naturally to me as ballads did.
I still love playing jazz ballads, and I've worked hard at playing the faster tempos too. Ironically, I've found that the slower I practice, the better I play at faster tempos.
Case in point: John Coltrane's "Countdown." Countdown is probably the hardest tune in The Real Book. The chord progression is notoriously difficult and the melody has to be played at light speed in order to sound good. In short, it's a big challenge.
When it came time to play Countdown for my Journey Through The Real Book video series of YouTube, I began practicing it slowly. I mean, REAL slowly. At 40 beats per minute on my metronome. And when that felt comfortable, I increased the tempo to 42 bpm. Although this may seem like an imperceptible difference, I knew that if I could play it at 40 and 42, I would then be able to play it at 44. And then 46, 48, and so on, all the way up to 300 bpm or whatever the final tempo would be.
What you'll learn by slowing down the tempo so drastically, is that it's about learning to "hear" your way through the chord changes. The extremely slow tempo gives us time to 0acclimate ourselves to the sound of each chord and "hear" a melody line that moves through the progression. That's the key. It's not about "technique" per se; it's about hearing an improvised melodic line through the chords. And once you can do this at 40, you'll be able to do it at 42 and so on.
I've found that the incremental approach is only necessary for a while. It's like running long distances for exercise. At first you can barely jog for a mile. And then you work hard to gradually increase it to 1.5 miles, and after a while, to 2 miles. You might take a long time to incrementally get up to 5 miles. But then one day you feel "in shape" and decide to go for 10 miles and find that you can do it.
Playing jazz at fast tempos are like this. After you spend a few weeks or a month incrementally increasing the tempo each day, your ear will become so accustomed to hearing your way through the chord changes that you can "go for it," and try a much faster tempo. And then, after a while, you mix it up: practicing slowly one day and faster the next.
Playing fast did not come naturally for me, and if I can do it, so can you. Watch me demonstrate how to practice slowly on my "Countdown" video, and see how the slow practicing can lead to feeling comfortable at very fast tempos.
Here's the video:
Countdown: Journey Through The Real Book #75
Remember - If I can do it, you can too!
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