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Jazz vs. Classical

Ever since I started playing, I’ve loved all kinds of music, both to play and listen to. As a consequence, I’ve never been able to decide if I wanted to be a classical trombone player or a jazzer. As much as I love sitting in an orchestra and play the great music by the great composers, I can’t imagine not playing tunes with a swinging rhythm section. The result is, that so far I’ve put off making a decision, and while waiting for the right moment, I’m doing both! Years ago I had a conversation with the great Swedish jazz musician Ulf Johansson-Werre. You gotta check this guy out, he plays piano like Art Tatum and trombone like Urbie Green! I asked him if he thought of himself more of a trombone player or a piano player (he’s also a phenomenal drummer and singer!) and he said that when he’s playing piano, he considers himself a piano player, and when he plays trombone he’s a trombone player. ‘Nuff said! I think that’s an important point. If you can identify with what’s going on around you musically, you will have an easier time to feel like you are a part of the musical process, and not feeling like being out of your element. In other words, think like an orchestra player when playing orchestra, and learn to speak that language, and vice versa with a jazz gig. For the classical player who wants to play jazz: it takes a lot of work! It involves lots of listening, transcribing solos, study harmony and learning tunes. It’s a different way of thinking about playing. Just practicing the scales the “jazz “ way can be a really fun and liberating experience, turning the scales inside out, building chords, practice patterns etc. If you’re serious about jazz and improvising there are some excellent resources. Get volume 1 “How to play jazz and improvise” of the Jamey Aebersold Play-Along series. It’s a step-by-step method on how to get started, complete with a swinging rhythm section on the CD. Also get some good recordings of players you like, and start transcribing solos. J J Johnson is a great starting point. His playing is very clear and logical, and you can hear all the notes. Then go on and learn about the modes, the blues-scale, how a blues is constructed, the difference between rhythm-changes and other 32-bar tunes etc. There is a whole universe of new musical experiences just waiting for you to start exploring. In my experience, classical players who want to do more jazz playing sometimes have a hard time getting the concept of swing. They also tend to “blow through” the phrases too much. What works in classical playing, a steady air stream to make sure that all the notes get the same sound quality and volume can make a jazz phrase sound overbearing with no swing. Usually relaxing the air and use a more legato-type tongue helps. The most important thing to remember is to not get overwhelmed and discouraged by all the new information you have to process. Take one step at a time, and you’ll get there. Jazz players who like to add a more orchestral style to their playing might not be used to the amount of sound you have to crank out in a large orchestra. A forte in an orchestra is very different from one in a big band, usually with a little less “bite”, but more sustained playing, even in faster passages. I also like to hear a clear attack, with the tip of the tongue between the teeth instead of legato-tonguing on everything. In playing orchestra, I’ve also learned to be much pickier about my own playing. Little details matter! It’s not unusual for an orchestra player to practice a seemingly easy passage over and over again, to make sure he or she can perform it perfectly every time under pressure. Inevitably, the question of switching instruments comes up. I like the idea of playing all the jobs on the same horn if possible. For a while I used to play all jobs on my King 3B, but nowadays I do so much classical playing, it’s the other way around, I sometimes play my big horn on jazz gigs. Most of the time though I try to keep up both horns, that means practicing both, every day! It’s gotten easier over the years, and I’ve learned to not overblow on the small horn. There is definitely, at least for me, an element of frustration in trying to sound good in every style. In the back of my mind is always the question if I should concentrate on one thing and try to master it. Do my excerpts get worse by my practicing doodle-tongue? I have found though that I get more frustrated if I don’t get to play both jazz and classical, something’s missing! Ideally, the idea is to become a complete musician, comfortable in expressing him- or herself without being limited by different styles or concepts. My thought has always been that if I want to work as a trombone player, I can’t afford to be picky. That means being able to play the gigs you’re hired to do, and sound like a pro, whether it’s swing or straight. And it’s a lot of fun in the process; you get the best of both worlds!

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