Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Art of Pitch Inflections

As I mentioned in my Teaching Philosophy section, most of the posts in this blog will steer clear of things like scales and theory, and focus more on the inflections that are crucial to jazz. This music was originally an aural tradition, and I feel we have moved a bit too far away from that in recent years as more and more people begin to look to books for instruction. I’m all for having an organized jazz curriculum, but as educators, I feel we have to find more ways to incorporate listening and imitation into the learning process. It’s also important to look at the cultural context of jazz. Jazz is an African American tradition, and the musical inflections used by its greatest players - from Louis Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard - were distinctly African American. Like all great music, jazz now belongs to all humankind. But if you want to honor the tradition of this music, you have to address its musical inflections.

Inflection is one of the things that give the music its spirit. Without it, your solos are doomed to sound sterile and antiseptic. I like to use language as an analogy for this. Imagine Martin Luther King’s great “I Have a Dream” speech in your mind’s ear. Now imagine that someone who had never heard this famous speech was handed the written speech on a sheet of paper. Do you think that person would be as moved by the words as someone who had heard it in person? Of course not! It was Dr. King’s delivery that elevated these pretty words on paper into a transcendent experience. The inflections and cadences he adopted from the African American church tradition gave the words an emotional depth that can’t be conveyed on a piece of paper. It is this emotional depth that speaks to something deeper in all of us, and without it, the most cleverly written speech will never make it past the brain to the heart. In the same way, the jazz solos of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis contain essential emotional information conveyed through things like articulation, rhythmic feel, and vibrato. These inflections are subtle and highly complex, and cannot be represented by notes on a piece of paper any more than the passion of Dr. King’s speech can be conveyed merely by writing down the words.

Since my last post had to do with Louis Armstrong, I thought I would talk about shaping (or bending) notes, a technique of which Louis Armstrong was a master. I’m not talking about extreme half-valve bending from one octave to another, which is usually used more as a novelty. I am talking about the subtle bending that all great jazz musicians employ. While pitch-bending goes all the way back to West Africa, it is one of the defining characteristics of all Black American Music (to use the apt moniker by Nicholas Payton). In the early development of jazz, musicians took European musical forms like marches and applied an African American aesthetic to them by incorporating vocal aspects of the blues and church music among others. On stringed instruments such as the guitar, pitch bending is easy, but when it came to the trumpet, musicians had to find creative ways to make it happen.

First, a little bit on how the trumpet works. The trumpet is essentially a glorified amplifier for the mouthpiece. However, it has one other important function. Unlike the mouthpiece, which doesn’t lock the player into any particular notes, the trumpet locks the vibration of the lips into distinct pitches called “partials,” which are basically the notes of the overtone series. The overtone series is the series of sympathetic pitches that make up any vibrating object. As a trumpet player, you can move up and down the partials by holding the same fingering and adjusting the vibration of your lips until the horn kicks up or down a note in the series. This happens because the vibrations of your lips are locking into place with the acoustics of the horn.

But what happens when you purposefully and artfully play “out of tune”? Early jazz players learned quickly that you can add expressiveness to your playing by lipping up so just enough so that the note doesn’t lock in with the horn, but not so much that the horn goes into the next partial. Suddenly, the possibilities of the trumpet opened up. In one instance, it could be an instrument capable of playing precise technical passages like the Carnival of Venice. The next moment, it could be a fluid instrument capable of imitating the human voice. Louis Armstrong in particular was the greatest at switching back and forth from these two roles. Just compare his highly technical introduction to West End Blues to the very vocal way he plays the melody. In this way, he gets the best of both worlds, the clarity and precision of an instrumentalist and the liquid expressiveness of a vocalist.



So let’s talk in more detail about how to actually do this. To get started, take a look at Figure 1 below. Imagine the horizontal bar as the sound of the third space “C” as dictated by your trumpet. In trumpetspeak, we call this “slotting.” Within this slot, you have some wiggle room in which the trumpet will allow you to play some version of a “C.” If you buzz in the center of the bar, the note will sound in-tune. Buzz a little high and it’s sharp. Buzz a tad low and it’s flat. Think of the lines at the top and bottom of this “C” is the threshold to the next note in the overtone series. Buzz any higher and the trumpet will kick the note up to an E. Buzz too low, and the trumpet will play a G. The trick is therefore to play around in the area of “C” without going past these thresholds.

Begin by playing a long tone on third space C, as you would in a classical piece. Imagine playing in the dead center of the pitch (as represented below in Figure 1) so that you get a nice broad sound. Next, play the C again and slowly buzz up to the next note, and then buzz back down to the center again (as in Figure 2). It will help to adjust your tongue position from the open “aaah” syllable to the “eeeh” position. As you practice this, you’ll get a feel for just how far you can push the note up before you go past the threshold line and the trumpet wants to kick up to the E above. The trick is to know what that threshold feels like. For help, listen to the audio clip below Figure 2. I’ll start by playing an open long tone “correctly” if you will, and then lipping up to create this effect.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Play Audio Clip

Let's hear how this actually used in music. We’ll start by checking out another clip of the master himself, Louis Armstrong. Listen to how he shapes each note of his solo on “Back O’ Town Blues”:



Now let’s break this down. In the clip below, I’ll play a lick in concert Ab (our Bb) similar  to one Armstrong used in the clip, first with no inflections (Figure 3), and then with some note bending (Figure 4). See Figure 4 for a visual representation:

Figure 3

Figure 4

Play Audio Clip


Again, this is all done by lipping up or down within the note as dictated by the trumpet. There's no half-valving involved. As you can see, I only lipped up on the first C#. On the second C#, I made a full arc pointing down to the last Bb. Lastly, I added some vibrato, which is basically the same technique done in fast motion. Some people prefer a hand vibrato, but that's another debate for another time.

This technique gives the phrase a sense of emotion and forward momentum that it does not have when it’s played in the traditional classical sense. As in the example above, you’ll find this type of bending works great on the “blue notes" of the key center, that is the b3, b5 and b7. I am always hesitant to call these “blue notes,” because the feeling of the blues happens not from the notes themselves, but from the space between these notes and their upper chromatic neighbors. The tension that comes from bending or reaching up from the dissonance of these notes to their consonant upper neighbors, the 3rd, 5th and 7th degrees of the major scale, creates a musical sense of longing that is totally unique to the blues. And while the blues has come to define the black experience in America, the music itself speaks to all people, because it conveys a sense of emotional struggle is part of the human condition.

Probably no other trumpet player in the history of this music has mastered the inflections of the blues better than Clark Terry. We’ll talk about some of the other techniques he employed such as tonguing techniques and growls in later posts. But for now, check out the clip below. No one could touch Clark Terry on a slow blues.


As with any idiosyncratic technique, there are always pitfalls. The technique of adjusting your pitch should only be used with a solid foundation of trumpet fundamentals. In other words, you should also be doing long tones and exercises that reinforce good intonation. If you don’t keep up with your fundamental trumpet technique, you’ll eventually lose your concept of “home base,” that is, the center of the note where it resonates best with the trumpet and is in tune. If your focus on being expressive to the exclusion of your basic trumpet skills, you’ll eventually find yourself playing sloppily and out-of-tune. So be warned!

It is also worth mentioning that certain horns have more room inside the note than others. The “slotting” as we referred to it earlier, is often loose on horns by makers like Martin Committee or Inderbinen. While this allows for more expressiveness, the tradeoff is that you have to be that much more accurate as a player to play classical or ensemble passages in tune, as the horn does less work in directing the pitch. It can also make fast passages sound kind of flubby. On the other hand, I have found that horns by makers like Yamaha are often too slotted for my tastes, and have less room for expressiveness, but sound very clean and precise in other styles of music. I prefer Bachs as they are a good middle-of-the-road horn in this respect.

We’ll that’s it. As I mentioned, this basic concept has been used in a million different ways by all of the great jazz trumpeters, but hopefully this will serve to get you thinking about how the pitch is manipulated when you hear a solo. Remember, it's not just the notes that are important, but how they are played!

3 comments :

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  3. Thanks for creating this blog. I have been playing trumpet for 24 years. I lost my passion for playing a while ago...I had done all there was to do classically, played professionally etc but I eventually become so board and unstimulated by classical playing that I looked to jazz...only to run a mile because of all the theory books. Today a student of mine asked me to teach him jazz...and so I started googling and stumbled across this..your blog is the gap I've been looking to fill. I never knew it until I read what you had to say. So a big thanks. I'm looking forward to picking up my trumpet,learning a few new things and teaching it all to my students.

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