During the last ten years as a beginning jazz improvisation instructor at Sonoma State University, Santa Rosa Junior College, and North Bay Trumpet Studio, many students have asked me "Where do I start with all these play-along albums which ones are best".
The question is a valid one. The task of finding one's way to the best material is a daunting one-especially in this age where there is more material available than was once imaginable. When I began my jazz studies 25 years ago there were only a handful of Aebersold play-alongs to choose from. I simply worked with what was available. Now, with over 100 Aebersold (and other) albums available (as well as a wealth of other material) the choices have become confusing.
Unfortunately, due to the development of the play-along series over time (and the fact that Aebersold has attempted to respond to student requests and needs) the numbering system of the play-alongs is not sequential. We can not, unfortunately simply start with volume 1 (as I did) and be guaranteed success (which I was not). Beginning with an album that is too difficult, as many students do (without guidance), can cause a student to loose interest and develop an aversion to the study of jazz. I want to help students avoid this difficulty. I want them to be encouraged from the starting point (wherever that is for them) and, hopefully, avoid the confusion that I suffered during the early stages of my pursuit.
When I am asked this question ("Where do I start"), I try to base my answer on the level a student is entering their study of jazz improvisation. As a teacher of primarily beginners (in jazz we are essentially eternal beginners), the answer is fairly easy. Start from the beginning!
What does this mean?
I find that many students approaching jazz improvisation are lacking in some of the basic components that will allow them to play jazz with some degree of comfort. These components include instrumental proficiency and theoretical understanding. Over time, I have developed the feeling that a student should not begin to study improvisation until they are well along in their development in both of these areas. (Who should judge this? A qualified teacher-of course.) Instrumental proficiency involves the ability to play over the full register of the instrument with reasonable tone quality, intonation, and ease. Strangely enough, many students approach beginning improvisation as though it were the beginning of music or instrumental itself. Unfortunately, this is NOT the case. Beginning improvisation is much like beginning algebra. We must understand how to add, subtract, multiply and divide in order to undertake something of this nature. Students who understand this analogy will save themselves (and their teachers) a lot of frustration. Let us not put the "cart before the horse."
After teaching classes and private lessons for a number of years and through my experience of trial and error, I have developed a format (and process) for classes and lessons that seems to work fairly well (for now). This has resulted in my list of favorites. I would like to share these with you here.
A student should start by utilizing the albums that allow him to hear and play freely with the sounds used in jazz with a minimal amount of stress. Stress is often created by rapidly moving chord changes. Albums and tracks that offer a single sound for an extended period will fit this need most readily. After feeling completely comfortable with the basic components of the II-V-I (one at a time-day by day-week be week), one can begin to piece things together into longer chains: first, in chains of "like" chords, then in chains of "unlike" chords (II-V-I's). This process of moving from one chord type (in all 12 keys-one at a time) to one chord type (in all 12 keys-together in a sequence), to different chord types (one after the other) is a SLOW process. Many students (especially in this age of immediate gratification and consumerism) tend to want to rush through this process. This is not advised. The result will only catch up to the student in a later stage of development when they "fall flat on their face" because some basic component has been skipped or skimmed over. Remember that Charlie Parker (the father of modern jazz) practiced 11-14 hours a day for 3-4 years and he was considered a musical genius! Most of us can expect a longer journey.
My first improvisation teacher once told me that it would take 10 years for me to be able to play well. At age 15, I resisted that idea. 10 years later, in graduate school, when I began to go on gigs and feel comfortable enough to stop dragging fake books with me, I realized he was correct. I had indeed arrived at the starting point for the creation of music. After 20 years of working out suggestions given by one of my instructors at Berklee College (during one 30-minute lesson), I am still wondering when I will really be able to play well.
Best wishes on your journey,
Pete Estabrook B.M., M.F.A
Practice Materials (in order):