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Singing the “Line” and Playing the “Sing”

Singing the "Line" and Playing the "Sing"
This is an important section because what I want to persuade you that what the ideal improvisation is is to have the melody in your head and then to articulate it on the piano. Let me play a blues in C - a slow blues in C - and I’m going to improvise and I’m going to sing with it. 1,2,1,2,3,4.
What I’m doing there is singing along with the line. Now what’s not clear is whether the line comes first and I’m just singing with it, or whether the ideas come first and I’m playing what I’m singing. So there’s “playing the line” - singing the line where you sing along with what you’re playing - and the more important thing is “playing the sing” - that is where you have the idea first in your head and you articulate it. Some of the great jazz pianists have sung along as they played - or at least made a noise which suggests that they’re singing. Early Oscar Peterson comes to mind as someone who sang or grunted his way through his solos.
Of course, Keith Jarrett did a lot of squeaking in the earlier years of his playing - much to the annoyance of many listeners who couldn’t cope with it. He rarely does it now. I find sometimes that if I play the line I’m singing in my head on a gig, then the line is stronger. You might say well why don’t I always do it - because obviously it can be a bit irritating to the other members of the band and the audience. The point is that you’re letting the mind lead the piano - the tune’s leading the piano and not the other way round.
I mean it’s dead easy obviously on a piano to play things which fit nicely under the hand … might be something that’s really easy to play because all the fingers are sitting on top of the notes and hard to sing. I want to try and persuade you that I, even if I don’t do it, I’m capable of doing it - that is of singing the line. Let me have another go at this blues and see if I can do it. I’ll probably sing a bit and play a bit lower down so that I can make contact with my voice range. 1,2,1,2,3,4.
So it’s this key business of having the tune in your head and articulating it on the instrument. Of course, it’s really hard because the music is in time and you’ve got to get the thoughts out in time with the playing. I’m not saying always that’s the case. Sometimes the fingers do take over and they play what feels comfortable for them, but if you can let the mind dictate what you’re playing then I think your line will be stronger - your jazz, your improvisation will be stronger.

I discuss the distinction between something I call “singing the line” and “playing the sing” and its significance.

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Learn jazz piano: Improvising on Jazz Standards

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