Bill McBirnie – The Technique and Theory of Improvisation
February 10, 2022 (No Comments) by Ganved14

The focus of this review is the jazz flute method book The Technique and Theory of Improvisation, by Canadian flutist Bill McBirnie. However, this publication has to be seen in the context of the whole, still emerging field of jazz instruction, as he puts it for flutists, doublers and other instrumentalists.

It has been some months now since we at Flute Journal began looking at jazz flute method books. There are several reasons why it has been so long before we have managed to produce reviews of all of them. First, there are way more of them than we anticipated. We thought there might be 5 or 6 quality publications — and we already have reviews of several — but there is a stack of them in our office that we have not been able to get to. Secondly, teviewing them is not as straightforward as we hoped for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a look at this situation.

There is no doubt that jazz is a unique and precious genre. Throughout the history of music one genre has evolved out of another, with new elements emerging from within a settled style to bring about new tonal and rhythmic relationships which are then forged into a new balance. Thus, in Europe, the Baroque emerged from the Renaissance, the Classical from the Baroque — via the Rococo — and so forth. In India, khayal emerged from dhrupad, while in the United States, jazz emerged from modern a unique mixture of genres and then proceeded to follow that same sequence . . . order leads to growth which leads to balance which leads to order which leads to growth . . .

From time to time, the demands of order are outgrown by the demands of growth and the forces of balance cannot fully assert themselves. Result: chaos in art as in society. So it was in the first half of the twentieth century. In politics, two world wars, in music, the abandonment of the very essence of meaning — tonality.

Paul Henry Lang

But Nature always responds on some level, and in the first half of the 20th century, the mainstream of Western composition was surrendering first to what Paul Henry Lang called the ‘varicose veins of chromaticism . . . followed by violent antitheses: revolutionary dissolution, followed by severe, tradition-oriented concentration; emphatic subjectivity, then dogged objectivity and studied collectivism, form so fragmented that its dangling remnants could hardly be detected.’

Then, miraculously, in the uncultivated but vibrant bars and churches, not only of New Orleans but also in Havana, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, new forms of music were emerging, the product of African workers/musicians transported to plantations where they encountered Europeans who had brought Western dance and folk music with them to the Americas. The result: a variety of genres including, in Cuba, charanga, in Brazil, choro and samba, in Argentina, tango, in the USA jazz, as well as blues, r&b, rock n’ roll . . .

In recent decades the African-American community, rightly proud of its home-grown music, began to refer to jazz as ‘America’s Classical Music.’ This is not unreasonable although perhaps a bit premature. The evidence — the stack of jazz method books sitting in my office, premature because they are still to develop into a single, coherent approach to teaching jazz.

Bill McBirnie

Defining ‘classical’ is a complex matter, but for our purposes there is one issue that we can point to. A music tradition, to be called ‘classical’ should feature some degree of agreement regarding pedagogy. In other words, teachers should impart a similar repertoire and a similar set of skills to each new generation of students. This is largely true of Western music, of both North and South Indian music and many other genres world-wide.  Jazz approaches this in many ways, but is different in several respects, two in particular:

  1. Teachers of jazz music tend to have very individual approaches, somewhat, but rarely entirely, overlapping.
  2. Jazz is unique in that what musicians perform is not the same as they produce in performance.* Teachers have to recommend practice regimes that will produce and support required modes of improvisation. This is a puzzle to which teachers have a variety of solutions. Even then, the students have to adapt what they learn in developing a personal voice.

It is in response to this issue that I approached the task of reviewing available method books in jazz performance for flutists. We managed to tackle four of them, by John O’Neill, Stephanie Wagner, Sarpay Özçagatay and Nestor Torres. I was overwhelmed, however, by the sheer number of books that arrived at our office. I was expecting 3 or 4, I got more like 20. Books on jazz, perhaps, but just on the flute in jazz? The result has been that we have not been able to review all of these items. One or two do demand our attention however, and there its one, finally, that comes close to representing a coherent course of study that can take a beginner — jazz player, not beginner flutist — and take him or her a good way down the road towards both understanding and mastering the language of jazz.

It is not that the others have no value; in fact several of them definitely belong on the bookshelf in any student’s practice rooms. The one that comes closest to a structured course, or, as she calls it, a progressive method of study, however, is by Ali Ryerson and called The Jazz Flute Practice Method. On the title page she quotes guitarist Barry Galbraith: “I study all this so I can play by ear.” The seven chapters, very nicely typeset in a handsome spiral-bound volume, focus progressively on jazz scales, chords (arpeggios) and patterns designed to strengthen jazz improvisational skills. According to Mark Levine, author of The Jazz Theory Book and The Jazz Piano Book, “If I were an aspiring jazz flute player, this is the first book I would buy.”

Ali Ryerson with Hubert Laws, Jim Walker and Maraca

Ryerson‘s book actually works for both aspiring and experienced jazz flutists. To better understand the process of jazz improvisation, the basics of jazz theory are explained and illustrated. The exercises following each lesson help to develop the technical and musical reflexes necessary for jazz playing.

Others writers have an equal pedigree. Sam Mostwas one of the early pioneers of jazz flute. His book Jazz Improvisation, does not include much theory or explanation. Rather, a dozen backing tracks are presented on a CD, while pages of exercises and licks lead the student forward exploring “the best way to develop solos over classic changes.” Again, to succeed, the student needs to explore progressively rich melodic lines over progressively complex harmonic sequences, eleven of them, while developing their technical skills and their ears. In each case, Most coaxes the student along with a series of notated lines imposed over the chords, illustrating progressively more complex techniques of improvisation, each drawing on tones and rhythms more remotely related to the basic chord sequence and time signature. It is a brilliant series of exercises but it it is not for beginners, as students are reminded that they will require a working knowledge of intervals, scales, keys, chord sequences, triads, seventh chords, etc. I would recommend this book to anyone, but for most students, a teacher will be required to guide them through it.

Equally impressive are some publications by flutist/saxophonist Jim Snidero who can been seen between Eddie Daniels and Frank Wess in the woodwind section of the poll-winning Toshiko Akiyoshi big band. His two most recent volumes, The Essence of the Blues and The Essence of Bebop, present compositions cleverly written by Snidero in the style of various jazz and blues artists, among them Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, set up as études very similar to those by Sam Most, with backing tracks, notated chord symbols and melodies for students to copy and emulate. Lovely stuff which I am happy to have on my bookshelves. Similarly valuable is the offering by Nestor Torres which is included in our recent review. This is similar to Most and Snidero’s books except that, rather than composed études, the exercises are transcriptions of Nestor’s solos. 

For further materials there are what seem to be endless method books, similar to John Oneil’s. There is Patterns For Improvisation by the great Oliver Nelson, for example, which contains jazz ‘licks’ in many keys, Exploring Jazz Flute by Ollie WestonImprovisation for Flute by Andy McGhee, a faculty member of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, who previously toured with Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman. He has ‘taught thousands of musicians to improvise, including luminaries such as Bill Pierce, Javon Jackson, Donald Harrison, Antonio Hart, Richie Cole, Greg Osby, Jaleel Shaw, and Ralph Moore‘ none of whom, as far as I know, have become distinguished soloists on the flute. Then there is Mel Bay’s Complete Jazz Flute Book by William Bay. the son of Mel Bay, and a decent guitarist, (but not a flutist) and Classic Jazz for Flute which is simply sixty-six jazz standards arranged for flute by Jack Long, an L.A. based film composer, who also does not play jazz on the flute, plus Flute Sound Effects by Ueli Dorig, formerly of the Swiss Army — background otherwise unknown!

Readers will note that method books by actual jazz flutists are definitely in the minority. Certainly, such books aimed at jazz players in general, by such as Oliver Nelson and Ollie Weston, both saxophonists — Weston a faculty member at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music in London — can be very useful. In fact, Weston’s book is very well done, very professional, very methodical, sequentially introducing aspects of jazz harmony supported by numerous examples and a very ample set of backing tracks. Again, however, apart from pictures of eight prominent jazz flutists such as Eric Dolphy, Frank Wess, etc. scattered throughout the text and adjustment of keys, this volume was not conceived for the flute but part of a series that includes Exploring Jazz Trumpet, Exploring Jazz Clarinet, and Exploring Jazz Saxophone which was probably the initial volume. Presumably Exploring Jazz Trombone, Exploring Jazz Violin, etc. could follow. All of this is useful, but the focus on flute by Bill McBirnie does make a difference.

Günter Wehinger

In addition to actual method books, there is what amounts to a cottage industry of backing track volumes, the Music Minus One of jazz, primarily by Jamey Aebersold, which are important enough to warrant a separate review. But however valuable all these materials are, they still do not add up to a coherent course that can turn a jazz novice into an intermediate jazz player, positioned to be able to begin taking advantage of advanced materials such as those described above to build a personal jazz style. There are, of course, many skilled teachers at conservatories and colleges around the world who do a wonderful job – I fondly remember Lionel Grigson at the Guildhall school of Music, Andy Penayi at Birmingham conservatory, James Newton at U.C.L.A., Gunter Wehinger at the Basel and Zürich Schools of Music in Switzerland, Jessica Valiente at the New School in New York . . . But, again, there may be a coherent jazz pedagogy emerging, but there is still along way to go. And is it an accident that the best jazz flute methods are by artists who have actually made it to become leading jazz flutists, or at least leading jazz woodwind artists?

Back to Jim McBirnie

Bill McBirnie with Sir James Galway

It is in this context that Bill McBirnie’s accomplishment should be evaluated. We have discussed his playing, but the appearance of his book owes something to the prompting of Sir James Galway, for whose website/organization McBirnie acts as jazz advisor. In the preface to The Technique and Theory of Improvisation, Sir James writes:

“When I first heard Bill play some 15 years ago, I was truly impressed with his work, because I recognized that I was listening to flute playing on another level altogether. At that time, I thought Bill should write a book. Well, he has finally fulfilled my wish. Not only that, but I think he has written a book that is up there with the greatest flute players of all time. Bill discusses the technique first. He then examines the theory, focusing on scales and modes. His approach is unique in its simplicity because it focuses on melodies and idioms. 

“Bill tells you all about articulation, vibrato, and breathing. He also guides you through the maze of rhythm, melody, and harmony. He then covers practical issues, such as analyzing tunes, taking a stylistic approach and transcribing solos, with plenty of examples and illustrations to help you along your way. Whether you are a student or an experienced performer, this book is a very useful and valuable source of reference. Any player, at any level, can benefit from reading Bill’s book and applying his ideas about music because they will definitely expand and advance your musical vocabulary.”

Bill McBirnie

Sir James has virtually written our review for us! When I first read Galway’s comments about McBirnie, however, I thought, “What does he know about jazz.” Now I take that back, Sir James has recognized a quality in McBirnie’s work that transcends genre, while, at the same time, it provides insight into improvisation in general, not just in jazz. In fact, McBirnie recommends playing along with recordings of latin music and rhythm and blues as well as jazz artists.

On a very practical level,  the value of this book became evident to me as soon as I introduced it to one flutist who has been using my help in learning jazz for the past several months. A mature student, with some very astute insights, it was he that opened my eyes to the central issue when he pointed out that learning jazz is unique in that what you practice is not the same as what you actually play.* So, how do you prepare for that?

After working with a couple of other method books I introduced him to Bill McBirnie. After some weeks he sent me his thoughts.

“I’m a student with a degree of technical skill, originally stemming from a world of written music. The aim of surviving in a jazz environment is tantalising, daunting and abstract. When I got hold of this book a fortnight ago, I sat down and read through from start to finish in a single block, because I knew this was the text I was ready for: now that I’m working through these areas, my enthusiasm remains that this book, for me, opens up my awareness, my understanding and my approach to using my skills for playing, and especially improvising, in a jazz context.

“So, with relief at first to discover this text which is presented in a friendly and personal way, where every item feels relevant and achievable.

Bill McBirnie

“Not just a rehash of the standard areas of jazz for aspiring neophytes: contains moments of blazing, fresh insights that organise my perceptions of music and have a direct impact on practice and playing. For example: “Harmony arises from modes – because chords come from scales – not the other way round.” Seems pretty obvious, but in a nutshell, this guides me immediately to sidestep the urgency of mentally processing the chordal substance – always too slowly in my case to react in real time – and flow with a more fluent scalar approach. 

“The scope of the book is also notable in this less weighty text, from simple and usable hints on technique and breathing, through approaches to rhythm, the excellent sections on harmony and function, analysis and ear training ,idioms and much more.

“The focus on integrating the theory is confident and reassuring, with a mix of analysis, ear training, practical activities, how to develop when you haven’t got a band to play with, and rich appendices for a listening and learning syllabus.

“I would really appreciate seeing Bill presenting areas of this wonderful book in person, or at least through videos or webinars. There’s no doubt that he has an awareness of the difficulties, matched with the skill of paced guidance that makes a great teacher –  not always the case with great musicians who perhaps floated past the foothills in their youth.”

In fact, we are encouraging Bill McBirnie to do just that. As part of a series of webinars we intend to launch over the next few months at International Flute Journal, we have asked Bill to put together the first class on jazz, confident that this would provide the foundation for further contributions by Nestor Torres and others. In fact, it will go down as ironic if we finally get to the heart of jazz with the help of gentlemen from Canada and Puerto Rico? Don’t wait though; you need this book.

Here is Bill playing along with Etta James

Here he is with The Tavares Brazilian Jazz Quintet playing Wave by Antonio Carlos Jobim


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