Monday, December 26, 2011

Trying Jazz on the 5 String: Not for the Faint of Heart

Merry Christmas!!

After talking about the possibility of putting my banjo next to a neighbor’s jazz guitar, with us behind our respective machines, my friend Steve and I finally got together. I’ve seen Steve and his group (which includes an incredible Vibratone player) wow audiences in Staunton VA, so I approached the experience with some trepidation. After all, I’m a banjo player, primarily clawhammer. What do we know of chords? More to the point, what do I know of chords?

Actually, I had focused on memorizing the three chord positions, F, D and Barre, up and down the neck, and after about two and a half years of constant, daily work I’ve managed to recall some of the fingerboard. I also sort of figured out minor positions, but I’ve had some trouble with anything more complex than Major 7 chords. But I decided to haul two of my instruments, a BG banjo and an OT banjo, to Steve’s house – unfortunately it is uphill which reminded me exactly how heavy banjos in hard shell cases can be…

Steve warmed up a bit on his guitar – one of those classy jazz instruments – not your average Dreadnaught to be sure.

I told him I needed to figure out some basic jazz idioms, some runs or licks or common chord positions. He decided to take me through “Summertime”, and to introduce me to some basic I, VI, II, V chord progressions – but chord progression in BG is clearly not the same thing as jazz chord progression. My fingers ached, my mind spun, and I barely was able to run a simple three finger pattern on any chord before he was pushing me up or down the neck: Dm/ Gm/ A7/Bb/ F/ Dm/ Bb/A Gm/ C /Dm.

We’ve resolved to meet once a week, and to work on a tune a week – that might be really optimistic. I tend to be an immersion learner, and generally stick with a tune for a 1 to 3 month period. We’ll see.

But the fun didn’t end there. I told Steve that for the heck of it we ought to see whether there’s any applicability of basic clawhammering capabilities to jazz. So I unholstered the open back, and ran through what I knew of “Summertime” in a basic claw pattern. Surprisingly, to me, and astoundingly from Steve’s perspective we were able to make it work. I had to slow down, and he had to make some compromises (apparently, moral ones) before we could fuse clawhammer and jazz standards but what we produced at least in this first instance worked surprisingly well.

And then, to add icing to the cake I suggested we see whether some of the bluesy modal type tunes in clawhammer might lend themselves to some jazz guitar work. I slowed down and exaggerated some of the “jazz” aspects I thought I heard in Cluck Old Hen, Kitchen Girl, Abe’s Retreat (that one might have been a bridge too far…) and Steve figured out how to apply his jazz guitar prowess to these tunes, to tease out their jazz flavor, and to work alongside what I was doing on the open back.

This is going to be fun.

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