Ney Rosauro Arthur Lipner

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Playing a Jazz Standard On Vibes Part 2: Notes
Part 1 of this series, “Concepts,” appeared in the Feb. ’97 issue of PN. Items covered included overall approach, some differences between jazz and classical repertoire, what you already know, and getting started. If you have that back issue available, it will open up your awareness and help put you in a positive mindset to get the most of this second installment.

I would like to restate three thoughts here from Part 1. First, very little jazz theory is necessary to play a jazz song from a lead sheet. If you can read notes on a staff, you’re ready to get started. Second, we all bring a certain degree of experience and musicality to any musical setting. Always count on that as a confidence-builder. Finally, feeling a connection with what you’re doing and a sense of control over what you are playing will help you feel the reward of having accomplished something new and gratifying.

The components of a simple jazz standard could be listed as:
style/rhythm, melody, bass note of chord, chord quality, and form. By identifying each of these components, we can get a good idea of what the tune is about. If you’re a beginner, you may find that knowing the components and scope of a new project like this will help you to progress in a methodical—and reliable—manner.

Working from a “lead sheet” is the usual format for playing jazz standards. Lead sheets contain all of the information necessary for all instrumentalists to play the tune; it’s a conductor’s score of sorts, except all of the written charts are the same.

If you’re new at this, one of the most difficult parts of the process is to learn how to extract only what you need from a lead sheet. So get your eyes comfortable with looking at, for example, only the melody, or only the upper-case letter that represents the chord symbol. The person writing the lead sheet has the responsibility of presenting all relevant information properly in one readable format. Unfortunately, not all lead sheets are perfect and/or legible, but after you see enough of these you’ll learn what to look for.

A little bit of background on the tune you’re working on will help you to get inside the music. Finding out how and by whom it was originally recorded is always interesting. Many jazz standards were originally co-written in the 1920s and ’30s with lyricists, and were originally recorded and performed by vocalists. Knowing the words to a tune is always an entertaining addition to the music, and may be a valuable tool for you when it comes to memorization.

Let’s use Bill Evans’ composition “Waltz For Debby” as an example. It was originally copyrighted in 1964 and was recorded several times by Evans over the years. “Debby” was his brother’s daughter. This 3/4 jazz waltz is one of many great pieces written by Evans. The bulk of his playing and recording was done in a piano trio format with acoustic bass and drums. A major innovator in jazz, Evans also collaborated with Miles Davis, Paul Motian, Eddie Gomez, Toots Thielemans, Jim Hall and others. If you can find a recording of the tune, check it out. (By the way, Evans happens to be the single best source for anyone interested in learning how to comp.) “Waltz For Debby” is most often played at a medium tempo. The form is AABA, with an extended last A, and a coda.

If you’re a beginner, two mallets will be sufficient to play enough of the song so that you can hear it. Example 1 shows the first sixteen bars of the tune presented in a lead sheet format, but without chord changes. It looks rather simple, all quarter and half notes. At a slow tempo, even students just learning to read can play this.

Example 2 shows the bass notes of the chord symbols. If you play through this you’ll hear the chord changes, even though you’re not playing the chords. Try singing the melody as you play the bass line.

What have we done thus far? You can hear and play the melody and bass line. Now comes the real payoff: putting them together to hear the tune. Example 3 represents Examples 1 and 2 notated together on the same staff. They appear as simple two-voice writing.

Can you hear the song? Absolutely. It is amazing that only a melody and bass line can give such a full-sounding representation of what a tune sounds like.

Now is a good time to look at the implications of what we’re doing. The beauty of this process is two-fold: (1) it actually illustrates how to play ANY tune from ANY leadsheet or songbook, and (2) the more you do this, the more adept you will become at it. With practice, the process will happen faster and faster until it is just another skill that you have mastered. The first time is always the hardest.

[Example 1: Melody]

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Now, let’s re-work Examples 1, 2 and 3 with four mallets. Examples 4 and 5 can be practiced separately, as they are presented here. But they were designed to work in tandem, the two together creating the entire part. The two additional mallets are utilized to add harmony, accompaniment and overall fullness. Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to do this. Herein lies the fun part: individual interpretation of the music. The more technique and theory knowledge you have, the better the results will be.

In Example 4, the inner right-hand mallet is used underneath the melody to harmonize. Almost always, a chord tone of 1, 3, 5, or 7 is used as the harmony note.

Octaves are a great way to add density and fullness without introducing new harmonic colors. Although there are none used in these sixteen bars, I use right-hand octaves later in the arrangement. For players limited in theory, I recommend using right-hand octaves as an exercise, and as a great tool for developing accuracy and interval control.

[Example 2: Bass line]

[Click for larger image]

[Click for larger image]

In Example 5, the inner left-hand mallet is used to harmonize the bass note (or root of the chord symbol) with the latter on the bottom. As with the right hand, a chord tone of 1, 3, 5, or 7 can be the first choice for a harmony note. With four mallets,the left-hand outer mallet is generally assigned to play the bassline. But, the limitation of only four mallets often requires the left-hand outer mallet to do more. Thus, the bass line often plays a role in the voicing—even playing melody on occasion.

[Click for larger image]

Dynamic control and musical sensibility will help to strengthen and balance these two parts as they appear written together in Example 6.

Each of bars 1 to 5 presents a different voicing (voicing = arrangement of the chord tones). If you listen carefully you’ll find that these five voicings sound very different. This difference is determined, of course, by the physics of the note frequencies—how these frequencies interact as intervals, and how the intervals are distributed and balanced in the voicing. In the beginning of this article I briefly mentioned confidence and a sense of control over what you are playing. Perhaps the quickest way to gain confidence in your playing is to establish a sense of control. Accepting responsibility for what you play, good or bad, will also strengthen your confidence. As I often say in clinics, your hands can’t think or hear. It takes a brain and ears to make music. Even though jazz and improvisation are highly spontaneous, the rule still applies. So as you adventure into the world of playing jazz tunes on vibes, build upon your thinking and listening skills. Even though you may have only gotten as far as Step 1 above, you can still enjoy that progress and your newfound skill. I hope the methodical approach outlined in this article will open the door for many hours of enjoyment and satisfaction in the wonderful world of jazz mallets.

(The entire “Waltz For Debby” lead sheet can be found in Arthur Lipner’s text The Vibes Real Book.)
Lyric by Gene Lees; Music by Bill Evans
TRO © Copyright 1964 (Renewed) 1965 (Renewed)
Folkways Music Publishers, Inc., New York, NY
Used by Permission
Percussive Notes V36 N6 December 1998

Reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society, Inc., 701 NW Ferris, Lawton, OK 73507-5442; E-mail:; Web: