As I've mentioned, I've been going to a bunch of jazz jams lately, and I'm treating the experience as a challenge to master. I've been a "jazz dabbler" for many, many years, and played (and led) a lot of jazz gigs. Yet, when it comes to playing in a "true jazz" atmosphere, with pianists and horn players steeped in the tradition, I feel... well, not like a "baby", but more like an advanced beginner.
For one thing, I have sax and piano envy. These are the instruments that defined and, in most respects, continue to define jazz, and it seems like they can both play faster than the guitar (more about that later, no doubt on a continuing basis). Also, sax players can blow their notes in a way that makes them swell after the initial attack, enabling them to add "distortion", if you will, in an expressive manner that, I'm sorry to say, beggars the best guitar fuzztones I've heard.
As a guitarist, almost all of my "after the note" expressive capability lies in my left hand's ability to bend the notes I'm holding. I can also add volume swells with the volume control, and footcontroller-induced after effects, but these are limited in expressiveness by two factors - (1) the fact that I'm not pushing against any dynamic resistance with these controls is something that I find to be a limitation, and (2) guitar notes can decay quite quickly, even after being compressed. without enlisting feedback (perhaps in the form of an ebow), there's just not enough signal to work with to get a six-second note that builds to an 'explosion", something that's not hard for a skilled sax player.
All that said, the main component of my envy is sheer jazz knowledge. And this is something I can remedy. I believe that it's generally true that jazz sax and piano players statistically have been exposed to much better training through their early years than guitar players. I know that in my specific case, I've had a year or two of jazz-specific lessons here and there, but I'm largely self-taught. But enough whining!
Today, the availability of learning and practice materials is amazing. As of this writing, Napster, for absolutely no money makes probably hundreds of thousands of jazz recordings available on demand. DVDs offering condensed, repeatable, private lessons with great musicians are available for less than the cost of a single private lesson with a local teacher (although, of course, everyone starting out should have a personal teacher to make sure that the physical basics of playing are established properly). Products like my own SlowGold make it easy to transcribe music. So there's no excuse not to work. My own main current project on the understanding front is to work through Mark levine's Jazz Theory book, using Napster to listen to the musical examples from the book (many are written for piano players and can't be played on guitar).
Well, finally, I'm getting around to what I started to write about: a strategy for memorizing jazz tunes for jam sessions. Here are some points relevant to this:
- My experience tells me that you need to know the chords to maybe 150 tunes to be able to do this.
- There are some tunes that it is just embarassing not to know - memorize at least the chords to these pronto! I don't have a complete list, but they include Autumn Leaves, Solar, Summertime, All Blues (and most of the simpler blues-based tunes; e.g. Blue Monk), Blue Bossa, Impressions/So What. I'm sure it would be easy to add another half-dozen to this list (do your own adding in the Comments section!)
- There is a difference between tunes you call and tunes that others call. Although it is ideal to learn both the chords and melodies for all tunes, from a practical standpoint, you generally only need to know the melodies for the tunes that you call. And learning the chords is often much faster (at least for me). So start by learning the melodies to maybe 25 tunes that you can call, and then focus on learning the chords to another 125 songs.
- You can learn the chords to one new song every day. Chords are easy to learn, especially if you start to recognize common patterns (more on this in a later note). Do this, and you'll have all the songs you basically need under your belt in just a few months. This small amount of work will offer a lifetime of rewards.