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The Shape Method for Jazz Improvisation; an important step for jazz pedagogy

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Last month, Malcolm Lynn Baker, professor and director of Jazz Studies and Commercial Music at the University of Denver, released a new book on jazz theory and pedagogy called, The Shape Method for Jazz Improvisation. The Shape Method “is a unique approach to learning how to improvise jazz. The method will help you unlock the secrets of great jazz phrasing and guide you to developing your own language within the jazz tradition,” Baker states.

While there are many books on jazz theory and pedagogy, many of which are currently used in colleges and universities already, Baker’s book aims to get students improvising and composing jazz tunes like pros more quickly and convincingly than the programs in which these books appear. It doesn't have to take years and years to become a good jazz player. In fact, students could begin improvising great solos and composing their own work in a matter of months, maybe even weeks. Further, the book is good for DIY’s or students who are practicing and learning outside of an academic institution. No professor necessary.

The book’s publication is an important one. It serves as an example of an inter-mingling of the publishing and social media worlds. Baker’s book utilizes social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube as part of the process for learning and getting the word out. The book proves to be more than just a text for university classes, and is marketed as such. The book and its accompanying resources include old teaching paradigms and brand new ones while harnessing the powers of a more natural and intuitive learning method. It also connects local musicians and organizations in a bit of a grassroots effort that has brought in hundreds of page-views already to the YouTube introductory sessions for the book, which launched August 4.

The book also serves as an example “of how teachers continue to hone their skills and re-examine their teaching in order to do a better job,” said Baker. Before he had begun developing and using this method, he had noticed that his students were struggling even though they were adamantly listening to and studying jazz in depth. They just weren't making the mark, and listening to the results of their work was quite frustrating. “I have noticed that the various [jazz teaching] methods employed were not as successful as I thought they should be,” he relates in his book. “Jazz is an aural language, and it is widely acknowledged that listening to it is crucial to being able to play it. However, I have had many experiences with students who I know are listening a lot but still are not able to play in a convincing jazz style.”

The way music was (and still is) taught in the academic setting didn't seem to be intuitive. It may have even seemed a little backward. Certain nuances were not explained in jazz pedagogy. It was all about technique and learning the data from a book. As a result, student improvisations and compositions regularly felt awkward and canned.

Baker related in an exclusive interview that,

Music doesn't happen the way we teach it in school. The chord/scale relationship [we teach] has taken over music pedagogy. [Because of this, I wanted to] see if there’s some way I can take a great solo, if there’s a way I can describe a solo without even consulting chord/scale relationships. I want to completely describe what’s going on in that solo.

Baker is not solely speaking of what notes are played and for whatever duration; he is also speaking of actual patterns that are reoccurring throughout the jazz traditions. By attempting to distill decades of listening into a group of “common, foundational characteristics” that make great jazz improvisations “great”, he found an “appropriate hierarchy” of five characteristics. These characteristics explain what was happening on any given note on any given great jazz improvisation, recorded or documented, that he had researched.

Baker’s new pedagogy is successful, with proof to the methods’ effectiveness. He has seen the results in his students’ work, and the book is beginning to get attention from some of the major players in jazz. Hal Galper, a famous jazz pianist and educator, told Baker, “I think you've added a much needed contribution to a subject rarely discussed.”

Want to know more about the new Shape Method for Jazz Improvisation? On Aug. 4, Baker began releasing introductory lessons to his course which can be followed on his YouTube Channel for the book. The introductory chapters will be released through the first week of January. Each chapter is an introduction to each of the concepts from the book where there are more detailed analyses, practice exercises, and resources for furthering jazz improvisation studies.

The book is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

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