Learning Chris Potter's Solo on Tune Up

A while ago, I gave myself the challenge of learning Chris Potter's solo on Tune Up from start to finish.  I thought I'd share a few words on the experience.

Here's where I found the original video:

This is an amazing demonstration of what a saxophone can do in the right hands. I've seen clips of a few such performances by Chris elsewhere on Youtube, and the solos seem to contain the same elements:

  • Play the head
  • Walk bass lines
  • Simple improvisation
  • More complex improvisation in terms of harmony and rhythmic ideas
  • Superimposition of different meters

There's a ton of great practice material here, especially on this particular tune, since it's mostly made up of 2-5-1 patterns, and a lot of the ideas can be applied to other classic jazz tunes.

Notable sections:

  • Around 0:50, Chris starts with some simple improvisation, and walks a bass line for a chorus.
  • Near 1:20, he starts playing more complex lines. You can really hear the logical progression how one idea leads to another. Almost like hearing a story told, which is one thing that really grabs my ear in his playing.
  • At 3:53, he begins to deviate from the tune's chord changes. At first, this sounded pretty random to me, but as I learned these phrases, I realized that he's playing over the chord changes in John Coltrane's tune "Countdown". That tune is essentially "Tune Up" with Trane's substitutions, so instead of | Em7 | A7 | Dmaj7|, you use | Em7 F7 | Bbmaj7 Db7 | Gbmaj7 A7 | Dmaj7 |.
  • At 4:50, he begins superimposing a 6/8 time signature based on the quarter note triplet of the orignal meter.
  • At 5:46...Giant Steps! He also morphs the Giant Steps melody into the form of this tune.
  • Near 6:00, he returns to the original meter, and goes through some really nice lines and arpeggios in the lower register. This was the part of the solo I needed to spend the most time on while learning (and I still didn't nail it in the recording).
  • I also really dig the large interval stuff he plays in the middle and end of the performance

Learning the solo

My method for learning this one was similar to the way I've learned other solos:

  1. Break it into small, manageable pieces
  2. Learn each piece by slowing it down
  3. Practice longer sections at increasing speeds until the whole solo is learned

Practicing Very Slowly

Some of the sections in this solo are so demanding, that even at the normal speeds where I learn solos (usually around 50% of the original), I still wasn't able to get the lines to play cleanly. I took a couple of weeks, and played much of the solo at very slow speeds (around 25-30%), and that really opened things up for me. I'm beginning to understand why many great players practice this slowly all the time:

  • There's no chance of glossing over anything. Mistakes are much more obvious.
  • It allows you to focus your attention away from the notes onto other aspects of playing. For me, I noticed extra unnecessary tension in certain fingering patterns which were slowing me down, as well as tension in my embouchure that was tiring me out. I feel like I've improved on both of those while studying the solo.
  • It simply works better for burning the patterns into muscle memory.

It can be boring to practice in this way, but if you have the patience for it, it's well worth it.

Practicing as Meditation

In Kenny Werner's book Effortless Mastery, he writes at length about letting go of the conscious thought stream in order to let the music flow freely. That state of mind is essential when improvising, but I also found it useful in this context. In order for me to play the solo from beginning to end at full speed, I had to stop thinking about it, and just let my body do it for me. Whenever my conscious mind would butt in while playing (say, thinking about a difficult passage coming up), that's when I would lose the flow. Instead, I practice concentrating only on the sound I'm making without any value judgements, and any other sensations occurring in the present moment -- and not coincidentally, this is also the process for practicing mindfulness meditation.

My Attempt at Playing It

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