Feb 20, 2018

Patterns books, Part 1: Oliver Nelson, Hanon, Slonimsky, Coker

Oliver Nelson's "Patterns For Improvisation" was published in 1966, originally titled "Patterns for Saxophone." As far as I know, this was the first jazz-instructional "patterns" book, presenting patterns both as a way to practice and as a way to create improvised solo lines.

The idea that improvisation could actually be taught was fairly new in music education in 1966, and there weren't many instructional publications available. Nelson's book became a major influence on many developing players. I first picked up a copy in the early 1970s, and practiced it from cover to cover.

Oliver Nelson was a first-rate saxophonist and composer, who not only recorded as an instrumentalist, but also had a busy career as a Hollywood composer and arranger (his movie credits are on his IMBD page). He passed away in 1975, at the age of 43.

The patterns approach was not new to music, of course. Nelson explains in his preface that he considers "patterns" to be the same thing as "sequential musical devices," as found in the music of "Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane..."

Although it's true that sequences are nothing new, the "patterns" approach to improvisation is quite pronounced in Nelson's own solos and compositions. Nelson was influenced by John Coltrane's music, which was more consciously patterns-oriented than the work of earlier players, e.g. Parker or Lester Young.

Nelson's best-known recording was the album "The Blues and the Abstract Truth," with a band featuring Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Roy Haynes, and George Barrow. You can hear Nelson's patterns approach in his solos:

On the album "Sound Pieces" Nelson plays soprano, though he most often recorded on alto and tenor. (The head to this tune, "Example 78," is included in his patterns book as "Example 78.")   

Precedents for Nelson's "patterns" approach can be found in classical instrumental methods like Hanon, as well as in Nicholas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns." However, Nelson's angle was different, presenting patterns as a concept that would aid jazz improvisers. 

As I see it, these books, as well as later ones like Jerry Coker's "Patterns for Jazz," Yusef Lateef's "Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns," and Barry Finnerty's recent "The Serious Jazz Practice Book," are all aimed at serving the following purposes, in varying degrees:

1) Improving finger dexterity
2) Achieving 12-key fluency, mentally and/or physically
3) Providing sources for musical ideas, to be explored in improvisation or composition

Charles-Louis Hanon, "The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises" (1873)

Hanon has been used by countless thousands of pianists over the last century and a half. It involves what jazz players might call "digital patterns," written out in the key of C only. According to its preface, the purpose of the book is to develop finger dexterity. As dexterity exercises, these exercises are not unlike the short, repetitive fingering exercises found in other instrumental method books, such as the Klosé clarinet method. Hanon's book was intended for pianists, but its patterns would be good practice material on any instrument (in Oliver Nelson's book, his Examples 5 and 6 are Hanon patterns). 

Although the stated purpose of Hanon's book has nothing to do with creative composition or improvisation, classical pianists have adapted it to the pursuit of 12-key fluency. From Wikipedia:
Both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Lhévinne claimed Hanon to be the secret of why the Russian piano school delivered an explosion of virtuosi in their time, for the Hanon exercises have been obligatory for a long time throughout Russian conservatories; there were special examinations at which one had to know all exercises by heart, to be played in all keys at high speed.
Hanon is in the public domain; you can download it here

Nicholas Slonimsky, "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns" (1947)

Slonimsky's Thesaurus is a systematic, exhaustive cataloging of all the ways in which an octave (or several octaves) can be subdivided. According to his introduction, Slonimsky intended the book primarily as an idea source for composers. However, testimonials from the book jacket show that some found it valuable as exercises:
...A violinist or woodwind player who works out fingerings for these figurations will be able to read at sight, except for rhythmic difficulties, anything that modern orchestral repertory can present. (Virgil Thomson)
The Thesaurus is a monumental compilation of unfamiliar melodic patterns; it is a precious reference book for pianists in developing a superior technique. (Maurice Dumesnil)

Charlie Parker seems to have used the book as an idea source. Carl Woideck's biography of Parker documents Bird's use of Slonimsky's Pattern No. 629, in a 1949 or 1950 live recording of "Street Beat" (at 8:19 in the clip below, trading fours with Fats Navarro), also in a 1952 live recording of "Rocker."

It's well-documented that John Coltrane studied the Thesaurus and practiced from it extensively in the late 1950s; in fact, a musical example in the introduction to Slonimsky's book was clearly the source for the second half of the melody and chord progression to Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Coltrane developed and used this "cycle of thirds" harmonic concept through the rest of his career. Here's the example from Slonimsky:

When word got around that Coltrane used the Thesaurus, sales skyrocketed. 

This book is deep. It has been remarked that while many musicians have purchased the Thesaurus, very few have had the focus and patience to look into it truly seriously (I count myself among the many who have only skimmed the surface). Order your copy here! 

Trivia note: In the introduction, Slonimsky cites Rimsky-Korsakoff as having used our "diminished scale," and Busoni as having used what we would now call the "altered" (aka diminished whole tone or superlocrian) scale.

Oliver Nelson, "Patterns for Improvisation" (1966)

As mentioned above, this may have been the first patterns book aimed at jazz education.

I'd call "Patterns For Improvisation" 
a dexterity book, a 12-key book, and an idea book in approximately equal parts. Most of the 81 exercises are presented in 12 keys, generally moving either chromatically or along the circle of 4ths. All the exercises are written out, which does not encourage the student to do the mental work of transposing. The 1 2 3 5 pattern that Coltrane used extensively in his "Giant Steps" solo is presented in a number of rhythmic variations.

Just a few II V patterns are included; there is one exercise involving Schoenbergian 12-tone rows. The only Slonimsky pattern I noticed was Nelson's Example 27 (which is Slonimsky's Example 131) - this may be a coincidence, though Nelson surely was aware of Slonimsky's book.

It seems to me that to use Nelson's book to best advantage, the student really has to read between the lines - for instance, draw a lesson from the rhythmic variations shown for 1 2 3 5, and create rhythmic variations for other patterns. Similarly, the student could take a cue from the way Nelson moves his phrases - chromatically, along the circle, whole steps, etc. - and apply that technique to other licks. And of course, one should try to shut the book, and play the exercises without reading. 

The book is not too big and threatening; its compactness could make it useful for private instruction, with a teacher to explain how to use it.

Jerry Coker, Jimmy Casale, Gary Campbell, Jerry Greene, "Patterns for Jazz" (1970)

"Patterns for Jazz" was published in 1970, just a few years after Nelson's book. It is a more carefully organized version of the patterns approach to jazz practicing, presenting 326 exercises in increasing order of difficulty. Exercises start easy, with major triads and major scales, moving gradually into harder patterns (modes, whole-tone and diminished patterns, polychords). Each exercise shows a phrase in one, two, or three keys, leaving it to the student to transpose the pattern into 12 keys, with suggested movement of keys along the circle, chromatically, by whole step, etc. I'd say that it starts as a dexterity and 12-key thinking book, but towards the end becomes also a licks-and-ideas book.

Like the other books discussed above, this one has become a classic. I got a copy back in the 70s, and worked through about half of it, taking each exercise past its suggested metronome marking, before I decided that with limited available practice time, I would rather focus on specific licks of my own choosing. The bottom line is that this is a student-friendly book, well-presented and methodical, with enough material to last you for quite a while. It's a great product, for those with some patience.

Click here for Part 2 of this post, where I review Yusef Lateef's "Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns."