Unchained Melody

The cello has what has been described as “a freakishly wide range.” A good cellist can cover more than four octaves — more than any other instrument except piano, organ, and possibly the concert harp.

As an improvising cellist, I tend to scamper all over the place. This is not necessarily the right approach to good lead playing. If you listen to a good jazz trumpeter or trombonist, you’ll find that they create complex and absorbing melodic statements within a range of maybe an octave and a half.

They keep listeners’ interest through hip phrasing — deep syncopation, startling suspended tones, and so on.

On Pandora radio the other day I heard a female vocalist singing the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Turned out it was Judy Collins. She was the very first pop musician I ever paid attention to, back in 1966 or thereabouts. As a teenager, all I knew was classical music, so Collins sounded hip to me. If you had played me a Miles Davis track, I wouldn’t have known how to make heads nor tails of it. But her version of “Blackbird” was white-bread. She actually removed a couple of Paul McCartney’s syncopations and blue notes from the melody.

Ugh.

Frank Zappa once commented that when you’re writing music, you’ve got 12 notes to work with, and that’s not a lot. We all use the same 12 notes, over and over. (Devotees of microtonality, please do not email me. I already know.)

So the trick is knowing how to put those 12 same notes together in fresh ways. Where to draw one out. Where to cut one short. Where to make one rasp, or wobble. Where to wait instead of playing a note at all.

Jazz musicians have known this for a hundred years. It’s not a revelation. But it’s worth reminding ourselves of. Next time I try improvising a solo, I’m going to stay within one octave for a couple of choruses. Pretend I’m a trumpeter.

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