Improvisation is the holy grail of jazz players. It seems that everyone wants to learn howto do it, or to do it better. George Bernard Shaw said that “Those who can, do; those whocan’t, teach.” Fortunately, a few of those who can also do teach, and Robert Conti is oneof those few. Readers of JJG have known Robert Conti for years. However, if you are only playing his wonderful chord melodies you are missing out on half the fun! Mr. Conti is a smokin’-hot single-line player whose machine-gun delivery seems to defy the laws of physics.
Marking the tenth anniversary of his original Source Code instructional series, Robert Conti has added 8 hours of DVD instruction to what was his first instructional book: The Jazz Lines. In this remarkable learning resource, Mr. Conti presents his No Modes NoScales® methodology. Rather than theoretical presentation or sets of exercises, this book presents actual lines used in performance by Robert Conti. First you learn to play the lines, then try them out against various chords and progressions, before analyzing where they are effective and why.
The set tackles the big questions right off the bat: How do you solo against diatonic changes? How do you solo against altered chords, particularly altered dominants? How do you create solos that sound like “jazz” and not like exercises? And how do you get to the point where you can play long strings of notes at a fast tempo?
The No Modes No Scales® methodology is no gimmick. Countless guitarists bemoan spending years learning more and more esoteric scales while still being unable to play decently in a jam session. (I will admit that I have mis-spent part of my own youth learning all sorts of scales and still floundering in a jam situation.) The lines that Mr.Conti presents are real musical phrases that combine scalar motion with arpeggios, melodic decoration, and characteristic turns of phrase that make them sound like jazz. All music has its characteristic motions, which is how we can tell Bach from Beethoven from Louis Armstrong from Dizzy Gillespie from the Beatles. With these lines, Robert Contiteaches you the vocabulary of jazz. Think of it as learning another language: how to enunciate properly, to speak without an accent, while conversing fluently on your feet! The lines presented start off simple and rapidly become more complex, but they retain common structural details that link them all in a comprehensive system. And if you have mastered scales and modes these lines will give you excellent frameworks to build upon.
As with all of his instruction, Mr. Conti urges you to experiment with these lines using different rhythms, arrangement of notes, repetition – anything that will make the particular line your own. Many variations are demonstrated, with tips for exploring even further. This is no ego trip for Robert Conti, but rather an exhilarating “If I can do this, then you can too” experience. Having seen so many instructional DVD’s where the presenter has an attitude of superiority and even disdain for the viewer, Robert Conti’s down to earth presentation is a breath of fresh air.
Let me be clear that this method does not leave you ignorant of the theoretical underpinnings of what you are playing. Practical application of just the theory that will aid your playing is the goal. Mr. Conti is quite adept at explaining a harmonic situation and how a particular line sets up or relieves tension. Students with only a basic knowledge of harmony will come away with an advanced appreciation of, say, the triadic components of altered chords. The emphasis is on playing first (and fast), and then learning the theoretical niceties.
Obviously this is an important volume for Robert Conti, as the first book in his original set, and now the latest DVD in the Source Code series. In a way it is the backbone of that entire series. Although it presents melodic lines, the approach is necessarily strongly harmonic. You need a strong grasp of the basic chord progressions to solo over them, andthey are introduced here in a straightforward manner. The melodic motions are so integralto Mr. Conti’s conception of jazz that they also show up as details in his other books (look at the short solo lines in his DVD set Intros, Endings and Turnarounds, for example).
The DVD’s extend and amplify the information contained in the book, and will be valuable additions for those who already own the book version. A nice addition is the “After the Gig” section, a sort of appendix with ideas that present the most important concepts in a variety of settings. This is another example of Robert Conti’s commitment to your learning; he presents the core concepts in different ways in order to reach you no matter how much or how little you know.
You may need to get used to some of Mr. Conti’s terminology, which clarifies much of his harmonic insight. For example, he uses the term “a one” not, as some might expect, to mean a tonic chord (i.e. a “I”) but rather to mean a major (or major seventh chord) that acts as the upper structure or extensions of another chord. For example, Fmaj7 as “a one” functions as the upper part of a Dm9 or an unaltered G13. By extending this and severalother concepts over the entire neck, Mr. Conti presents a comprehensive system that contains both harmonic and melodic elements. (If this seems a bit abstract, be assured that it is demonstrated in depth in the “After the Gig” section.)
In addition, the DVD’s clarify Robert Conti’s intent in some examples. One instance is example 2a, where the background harmony includes a V7#5 on the first two beats of bar 4, making the line instantly understandable. Further demonstration shows how this line works over the entire diatonic gamut at speed, that is taking the line as a whole without emphasizing the altered tone. Of course, when and how to use such altered tones are at your own discretion. Mr. Conti demonstrates his own use of them, as well as the speed at which these lines sound most effective. In fact, speed is one of the major components of this method, and one of the points of these examples is to “get you used to playing lots of notes.” The lines get progressively longer so that you become comfortable playing extended passages rather than just short phrases, another key strength of this method.
Once again Robert Conti’s presentation on these DVD’s is inspiring. His constant encouragement is bound to keep your spirits up, while his good natured presentation keeps the learning fun. As in all of his DVD’s Mr. Conti is a font of tips and tricks that are bound to improve your playing beyond the stated subject matter. The only problem may be that he is too helpful! He obligingly plays all of the examples, and while this is helpful for less skillful players, you should not be tempted to ignore his advice to play each example yourself before watching the DVD segment. This will help to develop your own ear as well as your playing. The DVD can then confirm or extend what you have heard on your own.
The Jazz Lines is a great way to learn to improvise jazz. Robert Conti’s No Modes No Scales® methodology gets you playing real jazz lines from your first session, and then expands your facility into different musical situations. If you want to improvise jazz well, this set is a must-have.
—reviewed by “Dr. Dave” Walker
David Walker holds Honours Bachelor and Masters degrees in both Music and Computer Science, as well as a Ph.D. in Education specializing in teaching music theory at the post-graduate level. He has taught guitar and theory privately as well as at universities and colleges for over 40 years.