Review: The New Guide to Harmony with LEGO bricks: the best way to remember jazz changes, by Conrad Cork (revised edition, 2008). London: Jazzwise Publications Limited.[Editor’s note: It is with a note of sadness that we are publishing this review, as the author, Conrad Cork, a friend of your editor who played in my jazz ensemble at the University of Birmingham, UK, in the late 1960’s, recently passed away. In the name of impartiality, and in recognition of his expertise, I passed on responsibility for the review to Dr. Tom Sykes, pianist, violinist and professor at Liverpool Hope University. (See his bio below.) His review follows.]
Is this the best way to remember jazz changes? Conrad Cork’s aural approach makes a good case for it, and there are many aspects of his method that reflect the way in which jazz musicians learned their craft before jazz education became formalised – on the bandstand. Cork does have a point about traditional music theory being inappropriate for many aspects of jazz improvisation, but tends to argue this rather forcefully and in ways that could actually be unhelpful to students. In order to make the most practical use of Cork’s book it is necessary to obtain the play-along CDs as well as his recommended companion book, Lionel Grigson’s A Jazz Chord Book. This reviewer has not been able to obtain either of these, limiting the extent to which Cork’s book can be evaluated, or indeed used.
Cork’s method is very carefully thought through and the book is logically structured, clearly summarised in the introduction, along with summaries concluding each section (written by John Elliott in this edition). Cork has a rather idiosyncratic way of helping students learn common chord sequences (his ‘LEGO bricks’), however, giving them names such as ‘Cherokees’, ‘Woodys’, ‘Half Nelsons’ and ‘Stellas’! His point is that if you are familiar with these jazz standards, you will hear the chord sequences that make them memorable in other repertoire and can then apply knowledge of improvising over these sequences to any pieces that contain them. At the time Cork wrote the book, it was necessary to obtain recordings of his recommended listening – now we have YouTube and Spotify! [And soon our own streaming service. More soon]
The chapter titled ‘Perspectives & Polemics – Junking the WEAM baggage’ is a curious one. Here, Cork rejects the ‘baggage and analytical techniques of the WEAM [Western European Art Music] tradition’ (and in the introduction points out that this book ‘is not any kind of a theory manual’) and for good reasons – context is everything. Harmonic structures in jazz standards are, however, built on principles developed since the Baroque era and, in my experience, students benefit greatly from some understanding of traditional music theory, albeit applied to jazz with the appropriate terminology and use of chord symbols, voicings etc.
I agree with Cork that the idea of an improvised ‘solo’ on top of a purely functional rhythm section is outdated in modern jazz, yet nevertheless, he still suggests practising to play-along tracks. It is understandable that many students do not have regular access to other human musicians! Thankfully, nobody seems to have developed a robot that can play jazz convincingly, so the only way to really develop in jazz is with other jazz players. To be fair, Cork gives a well thought-out guide on practising, justifying his argument for using play-along tracks, as well as promoting learning standards by heart (and in all keys), recording oneself and various other tips that many other jazz teachers would suggest. Interestingly (and in contrast to many teachers) he warns against practising scales for the sake of it – only practise a scale if you need to play it!
Overall, Cork’s very practical approach suits jazz improvisation well, and is useful for competent musicians who are new to jazz and want to progress fairly quickly. For me, the resistance to music theory and considerable repetition of points (the book could have been somewhat shorter without losing any information) makes it a little irritating at times, and if the play-along tracks and Grigson’s book are indeed no longer available, many of the practical exercises are not really possible using this book alone. This is unfortunate, as these would appear to be the most useful aspects of this book.
Following Conrad Cork’s passing, his books are still available from his friend and colleague John Elliot. Elliot is a jazz pianist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He helped Cork edit and bring out a new edition of Harmony with LEGO Bricks (HLB) in 2008. Having used the HLB in his own teaching, he also wrote and published his own book, Insights in Jazz, an extension of Cork’s method, which Conrad strongly endorsed. For more information go to www.dropback.co.uk. He has also helped to develop a Google Group for the Harmony with LEGO Bricks method where users can exchange experiences and ideas.
Elliot has some objections to Dr. Sykes’ review, some factual, some theoretical. To summarise:
Elliot‘s basic objection, seen in this last point, also hinges on a belief, shared with Conrad Cork, that jazz cannot be taught effectively using the same methods as classical music instruction. Their whole method is based on finding a system that does not require such methods, rather depending upon ear training and the use of memory, reinforced by practice, to allow the jazz student to internalise the patterns typical of the chord structure of jazz standards. For many students, this is very helpful. For others, this goes too far, which is what Dr. Sykes points out. He has found that most students in his experience benefit greatly from some understanding of traditional music theory. In my experience, including a recent extensive evaluation of jazz method books, both general and for flute, Dr. Sykes’ point is well taken.
To strike a balance between these two extremes, we cannot perhaps do better than to quote the late Lionel Grigson, late professor of harmony and improvisation at the Guildhall School of Music, perhaps the first person to offer an academic course in jazz in the UK, and someone with whom Conrad Cork, John Elliot and this writer studied:
“Every musician who succeeds in memorising a large number of chord sequences surely does so in some such way as Conrad Cork describes in this excellent and thorough book.”
This is both a slightly different approach and a slightly different approach to learning jazz. Therefore, while it may not be the first choice for many students, Harmony with Lego Briggs can be a very valuable addition to their library.
For a PDF of the book, or a copy of Insights In Jazz, go to John Elliot’s website.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Also at email@example.com you can also request an insert that goes with the print edition and contains important information for the reader, addressing issues that Dr. Sykes has in his review, regarding play along and companion recordings.
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