Joy of Improv


Joy of Improv, 2 volumes, by Dave Frank with John Amaral. Hal Leonard, 1997. $24.95 each volume. Includes CD.

WORTHWHILE COMPANIONS to, but by no means substitutes for, the Levine books, are these two volumes from Dave Frank and John Amaral. If you can stand the volumes' infomercial appearance, laden with references to JOI (Joy of Improv), there is much of value here. Whereas Levine emphasized theory, Frank and Amaral definitely focus on practice.

Through a series of 52 lessons (26 in each volume), students learn 52 different blues and 52 different ballads (most in 32-bar, AABA form), all original by Frank. The main advantage to this approach (besides having saved the authors a bundle in licensing fees) is the strictly controlled pedagogical crescendo, allowing clear, step-by-step advancement from easier to more complex concepts. In every tune, a single-line series of eighth-note riffs in the right-hand is superimposed over a three- or four-note chord in the left-hand, presented in halfor whole-notes, according to the harmonic rhythm.

Unlike the Levine books, very little reference is made here to the stylistic sources of these pieces, though it isn't too hard to recognize Bill Evans as a main font. While the limited range for each treble and bass may seem an annoying restriction (bass comps generally occur in the octave below middle-C, treble licks within two octaves above middle-C), this narrow focus forces the student to think about intervals and the relation between melody and harmony notes.

Despite the originality of the compositions, standard chord progressions and song types emerge. "Bird's Bounce" is only a thinly veiled version of Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" (which itself was based on "How High the Moon"), "Hoosier Influence?" is based on the changes to "Indiana," and so on. Thus students not only learn well-known harmonic schemes, but also participate in the honored bebop tradition of borrowing forms and harmonies.

I wonder how a student who has worked through these 52 lessons will differ from one who has worked through one of Levine's books. By the sheer density of repetition and tightly managed variables, Frank's method may approximate the "total immersion" approach to learning a foreign language, in which syntax becomes intuitively understood, rather than explicitly identified. Spend enough days in Mexico, and you'll begin to know what to say when asked, "?Otra cerveza, senor?" ("!Si!") After having played through umpteen A^sup 07^ D^sup 7^ Gm progressions, you'll know what to do, even if you can't always say what scale you're using.

Of course, really cultured jazz artists, like Joe Henderson or George Shearing, can tell you what they're doing and do it, the goal of Levine's books. But as a start to learning the language of jazz, Joy of Improv should be of great service.

Copyright String Letter Press, Inc. Sep/Oct 1998