Monthly archives "May 2015"

Jazz Organ Basics

If I can learn to play in jazz style, so you can you! You already have everything you need in your classical organ tool box. And you have YouTube! So, go on-line and see what you can learn just by listening. Much of the music I listed in the June TAO article are being demonstrated there. Mostly, what you need to develop is an ear for what jazz “should sound like.” As your ear develops, you will have an auditory target for what you want your piece to sound like, and you will be able to confirm correct playing as you practice. This alone will speed you along your way.
There are three skills that will move you toward making an authentic jazz sound. The first is learning how to apply what you already know about agogic accents to jazz. Agogic accents are simply the organist’s way of emphasizing and de-emphasizing selected notes in a rhythmic pattern. You already know how to emphasize the downbeat by shortening the upbeat just before it, right? The same thing applies to jazz. In addition, Wwe need to pay careful attention to the lengths of notes. If you were to look at a big bang score, you would notice the amazing amount of detailed markings over the notes: staccatos, tenutos, accents, and everything in between. You should do the same as you study the score you are preparing. The visual cues help you to anticipate the kind of touch you need to apply to achieve just the right musical line.
The skill of rhythmic note differentiation can only be accomplished in relation with the other two skills, backbeat and swing. What did Duke Ellington mean when he said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing?” Simply stated, the sense of swing is accomplished by emphasizing the second and fourth beats, instead of the classical emphasis on one and three. In order to get a sense of the difference, set your metronome (app) on 4/4, 60-80 bpm, then count out the two different ways. When you get how two/four backbeats work, let all your playing decisions center upon supporting this pattern. Believe me, your body will respond to everything you play differently once you learn to relax and trust it.
Now that you have the two/four backbeat engrained in your technique, the only thing left to do is understand that eight notes are counted as triplets. This gives them an unevenness that is valued in the jazz line. Essentially two eighth notes become a quarter/eighth triplet. This can become tricky when you try to coordinate the left hand accompaniment/walking pedal patterns that are common. Just remember to defer everything to the triplet pattern, even in the left hand accompaniment. Jazzers like to emphasize notes that land on that last triplet before the next beat, which adds to the unevenness we just mentioned.
This will seem like strange territory for a while. As I said, a little listening goes a long way toward giving you confidence to keep at it. And keep at it you must! No risk, no reward. Let me know how you are doing!

Practical Organ Music–June 2015

JUNE 2015

Summertime! How easy is the livin’ in your liturgical world this time of year? Every church approaches its summer music program differently. Some churches avoid vernal variety in favor of constant consistency. Others vacate any concerns for what comes from the loft during the vacation season. I, myself, see the summer as an opportunity to make friends for the organ.
Is there such a thing as friendly liturgical music? I think so. In fact, playing congregational favorites is a much-loved tradition for many of us. We can also consider music with folk roots, such as Celtic, spirituals, and even some of the contemporary worship tunes that are seeping into the congregational song. One of the easiest ways to bring a fresh, casual sound into the summer service is through jazz-influenced hymn tunes.
If this kind of music will be new to the ears of your congregation, let me recommend Marianne Kim’s Jazz Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Lorenz 70/1883L). These are easy arrangements of familiar hymns that avoid theatre-organ clichés while introducing occasional gracious harmonic extensions. A little more challenging is an old favorite, Sacred Sounds from George Shearing (Sacred Music Press KK229). Here, you will find a wider variety of tunes with variations that go one dwarf-step into the lush harmonic world of jazz without expecting matching rhythmic sophistication.
Rhythm is what people love. Unfortunately, most of us lack any experience or training in that most basic jazz rhythm, swing. And, as the Duke (Ellington, that is) told us, “it don’t mean a thing” without it. I do have some good news for you: each of us has everything we need to learn it, and it is right there in our classical tool kit. The only thing you need to bring with you is a commitment to listen and learn. For more of my thoughts on how to learn jazz, log onto my blog:
The first Gentleman of Jazz to I would like fore you to meet is Dr. Joe Utterback ( Dr. Joe has been a passionate advocate of sacred jazz for decades, and he has a formidable catalog to explore. Let me help you get started. Sometimes abstract pieces are a good way to slip into a new sound. Take a look at his Beside Still Waters and Meditation, or his more chromatic Reverie. When you are ready to tackle something more rhythmic, look at Three Spirituals for Organ or Voluntaries for Manuals Only. He really is good at transcribing jazz rhythmic conventions into notation. You can easily apply what you learn here to other composers who are not so careful. Of course, Dr. Joe has some wonderful hymn tune arrangements as well: here are Deep River, I Want Jesus to Walk with Me, and Talk About a Child Who Do Love Jesus, available separately. A little more adventurous, are two volumes of Five New Spirituals for Organ. While Utterback’s music is a rich vein to mine, we must move on.
The second Gentleman of Jazz I want to introduce is Johannes Matthias Michel, our very own Mannheim steamroller. He first came to our attention with the publication of Organ, Timbrel and Dance (Concordia 976805). Stunning, but this is not a beginner’s piece. Much more approachable is his Gospel, Jazz, Blues and Soul (Concordia 977057 POD), containing eighteen chorale preludes circling the liturgical year. This is a very useful volume with a variety of jazz stylings that will be familiar to everyone. They are short, but easily organized into suites for longer preludes. You will find some rhythmic challenges to practice, and every one of them will help you gain the confidence to explore more. When you are ready, take a look at some of Michel’s other works, including his five-movement “Petite Suite in Blue” in Jazz Inspirations for Organ, Vol. 2 (Barenreiter BA9203) and the “Suite Jazzique” in Das Swing & Jazz Orgelbuchlein, Vol. 2 (Strube-Verlag 69054). Now this is friendly music, without deteriorating into the trite.
When it comes to jazz organ, the Germans really are our friends. Two publishers have compiled anthologies that cover a great deal of the creative writing done there in the last few years. Check out the other volumes in the Strube-Verlag Das Swing & Jazz Orgelbuchlein series. (Volume 3 is for manuals only.) Currently, Barenreiter has four volumes in their Jazz Inspirations series. They also offer some lovely pieces in L. Kunkel’s Jazz Meditations (BA 9256). There is something here for every technical level and every jazz style. Whether you offer all these in worship, you will enjoy the search, I promise!
Summertime. May your livin’ not just be easy; may it be fruitful, as well. Here at the beginning of this new season, take a moment to look ahead. What do you need to nurture your artistic nature? Rest? Exercise? Practice? Study? Travel? Yes, of course! We need variety: a variety of life experiences, and variety of musical styles. Take time to stretch your wings and enjoy the life you have been given. And, give thanks… It’s summer!