Canadian Musician - January / February - Page 29

WOODWINDS Bill McBirnie is an award-winning jazz and Latin flutist who was personally solicited by Sir James Galway to serve as the resident Jazz Flute Specialist at Sir James’ website. Bill has produced several acclaimed albums, including Nature Boy, Paco Paco, Mercy, and Find Your Place, all of which are currently available at CDBaby and iTunes. Bill’s most recent award-winning Brazilian “Extreme Flute” excursion with Bruce Jones is entitled Grain of Sand. You can find out more about Bill at his website, By Bill McBirnie Obligato Behind, Obligato Upfront! T he first thing to recognize about obligato is this: obligato is NOT obligatory! So simply leaving well enough alone is often a rational – and very musical – thing to do. Many aspects of obligato are intuitive and therefore, it takes time to learn to do this effectively, but here are some guidelines that will help. First, it is usually best to back off from the vocalist completely for the first half-chorus or so – even the entire first chorus. This is a musical courtesy that will also enable you to get the vibe of the tune, listen to the changes/ voicings, and, most importantly, see how the vocalist phrases. Once you start playing, proceed carefully and adhere to the following general principles: 1. Do NOT trample on the vocalist! Stay be- hind, letting him or her sing the phrase, and then find your place in between as the next phrase comes up. 2. Do NOT play loud! The vocalist has the lead, so you must be sotto voce. 3. Think in terms of “call-and-response.” “Simple” and “sparse.” Often just a few notes will do the trick (and they can be as simple as a couple of guide tones). 4. Try to imitate the shape, contour, and/or register of the vocalist. You can also try to use contrasting shapes, contours, and/or registers, but these will likely work better at cadence points and not haphazardly through the tune. W W W. C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N . CO M In short, aim for “continuity” and, if and when you choose to generate contrast, consider do- ing so: at the end of an A, B, or C section; at a repeat sign; on the way into or out of the bridge; or on the way out of the form. 5. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to avoid playing the same note as the vocalist, because he or she may want to pitch it or nuance it in a very personal way and your notion of that same note could end up clashing. Stay out of the way – and stay out of trouble – by picking another note. 6. Know when to stop! This is THE most im- portant principle and it rests very much on intuition. Here is one example of how it might work: You do NOT have to demarcate the downbeat of each and every phrase. In fact, leaving that strategic point to the rhythm section – alone – can be very effective. This means that a “miss” at the very beginning of a phrase is every bit as valid as a “hit,” because either can work! Finally, as an alternative to the above princi- ples, you might improvise a line underneath the vocalist (say, on the out-chorus). This can be effective, but it is a more “radical” alternative and must be done with care. Make sure that you “flow” underneath the vocalist without dis- tracting undue attention from his or her lead. The best way to develop your obligato skills is by imitating the obligato work of any good horn player you like; however, don’t overlook what the comper (i.e. the piano play- er or the guitarist) in any good small instru- mental ensemble is doing because the same principles apply. In addition, listen carefully to any good big instrumental ensemble because there are always underlying parts (brass, reeds, woodwinds, and/or strings) in support of the melody and/or the soloists where, once again, the same principles apply. One last thing. These principles may ap- pear to be peculiar to working an obligato from behind; however, they are actually basic musical principles, which means they also work upfront, when you’re soloing! For ex- ample, if you are playing a lot of active lines, consider switching into “obligato mode.” This will not only reduce the stress of trying to play too much, but it will also encourage you – as well as the band – to listen to and focus on the essential vibe of the music. Presto! Less work, more groove! There are many good examples that I could suggest, but I will confine myself to just three (and these only because I hap- pened to be practicing with them in the last couple of days): John Coltrane – John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman Frank Sinatra & Count Basie – Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First Frank Sinatra – Only The Lonely So remember, obligato behind – and upfront! C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N • 29