This article is copyright 1997 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in the International Trombone Association Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring 1997. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.


Choosing Alternate Positions for Bebop Lines

by Antonio J. García

The term "alternate positions" should be given a new name, as it suggests that they should be employed as an option rather than a necessity. It seems that most students are introduced to these options far too late in their development and are therefore often unsure of intonation, attack, sound, etc. when using them. (A similar phenomenon occurs in learning to play in "difficult keys" such as F# or B.) This insecurity can haunt even the best of players and must be avoided. When these positions are perceived as "user-friendly" and "just another place to find that note," this will no longer be a problem.

–Jiggs Whigham1

While alternate positions offer similar uses in jazz as in classical performance, I believe them to be even more useful for jazz, where the performance goal often includes a more individual articulation and phrasing vocabulary not generally welcome in the classical repertoire. As Ian McDougall suggests, "The trombone is arguably the most 'vocal' of the brass family–perhaps of all the orchestral instruments. Alternate positions and the natural 'clicks' juxtaposed within the seven harmonic series at our disposal maximize this vocal quality (used with a very fast slide and precisely coordinated articulation)." And while the use of tenor-bass "trigger" horns is common in orchestras and chamber groups, the vast majority of jazz tenor trombonists (section or solo) do not employ that option.

The questions that regularly daunt the new explorer of alternates are WHEN, HOW, and WHY.

 

When to Use Alternates

Since there are multiple slide positions in which to produce certain notes, a variety of choices are available. While those I choose may not always be the best choices for you, they should demonstrate the following rationales behind their use:

• keeping notes in the same position;

• keeping the same slide direction, minimizing jerkiness;

• changing the slide direction for extra and natural accent;

• using the changing air-partials to articulate notes without tonguing, enhancing the legato feel and reducing the technical demands;

• sequencing ideas chromatically on the horizontal slide without need to transpose musical theory.

Additional principles guide my choices when performing written lines. McDougall emphasizes that "alternates are strongly tied in with learning to sight-read effectively, in that it's not so much where you're coming from as where you're going to that's important." I offer the following guidelines:

• Any occasion to save the arm's traveling four, five, or six positions is definitely worth exploring. A lesser savings may still benefit phrasing, if not save so much energy. Conrad Herwig points out that "alternate positions are critical in that they make seemingly impossible tunes possible. For example, a Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane tune that may not seem trombonistic can really become within the realm of all trombonists when approached with alternates, against-the-grain playing, and doodle-tonguing."

• I generally avoid seventh position as an alternate locale: most fast passages call for more dexterity than I feel comfortable with at full arm's reach, and most slower passages require a clearer tone than I tend to generate on upper partials in that position. However, I may adopt this for future practice, as Herwig encourages: "One tune that comes to mind is Monk's Well You Needn't: Try it all in sixth and seventh positions, and it slots right in. The same applies to Bird [Parker] tunes like Donna Lee and Confirmation."

• Many bop lines arpeggiate chord structures; so I look for any parallel to playing an F, Bb, or D major, minor, diminished, or augmented arpeggio near first position–then transpose (or "plane") my hand downward to find parallel positions representing the correct key for the passage.

• Since trombonists are most comfortable in the mid-range played in upper positions (i.e., Bb, A, and Ab major arpeggios played in positions 1, 2, or 3), any mid-range passages in G or Gb warrant examination for potential alternate placement in parallel positions 4 or 5. Passages in the key of B major should prompt one to consider options as well (this also applying to these keys' relative minors).

• I execute most turns or trills by playing the initial note, then retaining the slide position or extending the slide a bit for the ornamental note while blowing up to the next partial (whatever pitch that may be), then returning.

• "Ghosted" notes need not be performed in their true positions if placing the slide elsewhere makes for better execution of the surrounding line.

• No matter what the apparent technical advantages, how the music then sounds best dictates my final decision–meaning that I may need to retain primary positions (slide placement without any alternate positions) for certain passages until my practicing brings me to a point where I can play musically using the alternates.

John Fedchock describes his choices for sound as a lead player and soloist using alternate positions this way:

In playing lead in a big band, I use alternates quite a bit, many times due to the subtle color differences between the alternates and the standard positions. Although in my practice I am always trying to get the two to sound as identical as possible, the knowledge of their timbral tendencies can be a beneficial tool when trying to draw more attention to the trombone section–or perhaps to help the section blend with the ensemble better. For instance, I might play the F two ledger-lines above the staff in fourth position–for perhaps a brighter sound than in first–when I think the lead part should have more of a biting, aggressive quality.

Alternates are also essential in playing ballads. Aside from solving the problem of slide vibrato in first position, again the color variations can make a huge difference in the vibrancy and brilliance of the tone–especially in the upper register. For example, I really like the sound of the high F in sharp third. If I choose to play high Bb in third, it's for a little more brilliance, providing a more delicate or sweet quality to the sound; but if I play high C in third, it's because I want the sound a little darker. Depending on your horn, certain alternates may not lock in as well or provide the same results as they would for another player on a different instrument.

These principles guide my choices in improvised lines:

• Any practice I have done with written lines and the principles above will also help me make subconscious choices toward the best positions for improvised lines. As Bill Reichenbach emphasizes, "I wish I could actually say that I think about alternate positions when I'm playing jazz; but I guess I try to think in terms of linear content and (hopefully) building up the energy level of the music.However, on record dates with trumpeter/arranger Jerry Hey I find that I must use many alternate positions just to get some of those fast licks out of the horn."

• Any musical idea performed can be sequenced/transposed higher or lower by using parallel positions higher or lower–so long as I do not run out of slide!

This last point brings out one of the few, true advantages of the otherwise technically challenging trombone: just like the guitar, cello, or other stringed instruments, the musician can transpose ideas visually or physically–by planing the location of the slide positions higher or lower–rather than using music theory or knowledge of key centers. While this feature (not available on the piano, trumpet, or sax) can be overused, it should be explored for quick reaction and the important benefit of chromatically solving "wrong" notes as well as seeking "outside" lines over given harmonies.2

What notes are played most often in alternate positions? Though it varies from player to player, the consensus seems to be F in the staff (sixth position); Bb atop the staff (fifth); D, F, and G above the staff (fourth); high Bb and C (first or third); and high B (second or fourth); followed by the mid-range C# and E above the staff (fifth); and finally a litany of other combinations.

 

Tuning

Alternate positions require your knowledge of tuning the trombone generally (for ornamental notes) as well as precisely (for exposed pitches). For example, in first position the D above the staff may be a bit flat, the F a bit sharp, and the Ab quite flat. These characteristics remain as you lower all pitches a half-step via second position and then on down the slide–where the positions themselves actually become farther apart. Examples 1A, 1B, and 1C show several perspectives on exploring alternate positions. Note that as one gets into four or five ledger lines above the staff, a given pitch is available in virtually any position (in varying degrees of tuning and timbre). Thus a trombonist can "rip" a major scale to high D or higher by simply approximating hand placement from first position rapidly down the entire slide to seventh.

J.J. Johnson states, "I tend to use alternate positions mostly in the upper register: in the area of Bb an octave above the staff. There is a wealth of overtone-series possibilities–and in all seven positions. As you develop and mature as an instrumentalist, the use of alternates becomes more and more intuitive." A variety of trombone technique books detail exercises for anyone requiring an in-depth discussion and are often used by teachers to guide their students. For example, McDougall utilizes Kopprasch's Sixty Selected Studies for Trombone, Book 1, No. 5 as an exercise for students to explore alternates on many mid-range F's, G's, and Bb's; the Bordogni/Rochut Melodious Etudes No. 75 for extending upwards from Bb to C and D; and Bordogni No. 89 for upper-range F, G, and Bb study. While an extended focus is not possible here, tuning and the resulting timbre are essential to the best performance one can offer via alternate positions.

 

Examples for Study

When reviewing the examples to follow, note the following:

• The position numbers in bold (immediately above the notes) indicate the positions I usually employ in performance;

• The position numbers in italics (above the bold) indicate primary positions;

• Parentheses around a position number indicate that the position may be approximated (as in a "turn" or trill) or virtually omitted ("ghosted," when the best phrasing does not call for emphasis on the note, resulting in position choices best for playing the notes before and after that note);

• All of the examples are in swing-eighth styles, though the decision of positions would be virtually the same in straight-eighth styles;

• If you wish to quiz your own choices of positions versus mine, lightly tape strips of paper or "Post-It Notes" over my position notations until you have tried yours.

 

Just Friends

Each generation of jazz trombonists has its memorable big band solis to conquer. Certainly the late '70s brought this one to the fore.

While this excerpt could end with positions 3 4 5 6, emphasis and tone make returning to the primary positions a good choice. Using third and fourth positions for the Ab and G allows a slight gliss favored by most trombone sections with which I've performed this music.

Performing the middle measure's passage in Ab minor via alternate positions not only makes for better phrasing but also a good parallel to a hypothetical transposition a half-step up to A minor (in positions one degree higher) or down to G minor (in lower positions).

Hassles

Rich Matteson provided a lead sheet for any wind instrument or section to take the melody on this chart–if they were up to the challenge of a blazing tempo!

While a case could be made to alter the positions towards sixth position at the end of m.3 (rather than second), I find this combination favorable. If the triplet Db in m.3 is played more as a turn than as a clear pitch by the trombone section, fourth position comes into play for the turn (even though the pitch would be a "humored" D natural).

 

Smooth direction reigns here.

 

What a fine opportunity for alternates this is! But it also displays your ability (or lack thereof) to tune the various partials of fourth position. I prefer to end the passage in first because of the notes that follow it (not shown).

 

On Green Dolphin Street

This more recent trombone soli shows that challenging passages are still in vogue in big band writing.

The major-triad arpeggios in this brisk soli suggest planing D major down to Db major and the fifth of a C chord before returning to primary positions.

 

After a descending Eb arpeggio, a calculated "rip" to an upper G allows the trombonist to dispense with tonguing the fastest notes. This leads to passages where alternate positions provide graceful movements across the soli–including the descending major triads that occurred in the preceding example. An alternate for the D pickup to the final measure prepares for the gliss to first position.

 

Donna Lee

I recall four distinct occasions of learning this melody. In early college I attempted it using only primary positions. Years later I relearned it using alternates. Then I had to slow things down to introduce doodle-tonguing into my performance. Finally, I attempted to expand my study and use of alternate positions by transposing the entire melody down a step (and a slide position). This composition remains an excellent barometer of one's dexterity–and ability to keep up with the saxophonists!

The overriding factor is getting smoothly to the low C in m.2, which means the preceding A calls for sixth position. While one could surely play m.2 as "3 5 6 5 6," I have not found that option an improvement. The Gb and F in m.3 suggest an alternate for F. I play the opening notes in mm.1 and 3 as a turn, not as articulated notes. While the middle of the triplet in m.1 is played approaching third position, the middle of m.3's triplet is retained in fifth without detracting from the line.

 

Playing the Eb triad in m.7 (within the Cm7 arpeggio) in positions 3 4 5 (parallel to a mid-range F triad in 1 2 3) reduces tonguing demands, improves articulation, and streamlines slide direction. The Gb Maj7 arpeggio in m.8 is a prime example of taking positions that work for Ab Maj7 (3 3 3 2) and applying them a whole-step (two positions) lower.

If you are looking for a true challenge, practice "Donna Lee" down a half-step (in G) as mentioned earlier. I can plane all the positions I use in the original key of Ab down one position for performance in G–except one. Perhaps you can identify that note (not shown in the excerpts provided)!

 

S.N.O.W.-Bliz Bop

At quarter note equals 240 and up, a trombonist should seek all the technical assists possible. This tune is written over the chord changes to "Donna Lee."

Alternate positions really assist the accents of the line and minimize tonguing within this passage.

 

If the trombonist becomes used to playing mid-range Eb major triads in parallel fashion down the slide (3 4 5) from an F triad (1 2 3), this Cm7 arpeggio (containing the Eb triad) leaps out the horn without a change of slide direction or the need for tonguing. Once positioned mid-slide, it makes sense to stay in that neighborhood for the remainder of the excerpt.

 

The two alternate positions in this line make all the difference. While I could complete the passage with the slide extended (7 6 5), I do not view that as dependable handling at this tempo.

 

The one alternate in this line minimizes tonguing and improves aim for tonguing the last note of the melody.

 

This tongue-twister at the end of a stop-time soli demonstrates how useful alternate positions can be for intricate bop lines. I prefer to end the first four notes in primary positions (1 2) rather than alternates (5 6) to ensure more security for the following Gb and F away from the end of the slide.

 

Bill Watrous: "Zip City"

Improvised lines are decided in an instant: one cannot be sure what slide positions were used to accomplish challenging improvised passages–often the soloist cannot even confirm the choices after the fact. But at quarter note equals 322, some options are easier than others. (The excerpt could end with the C in sixth, but the notes that follow it make that less likely.)

 

In m.19, the Gm7 arpeggio of beats 2-3 could easily be played heading towards first position (4 1 1 1); but doing so requires the tongue to re-attack the Bb and the approaching Eb (otherwise articulated by the change in air partials with the alternate positions suggested.) If desired, m.19 beat 2 through the end of the excerpt could be played without any tonguing at all!

 

The primary positions are a real coordination test at this tempo and do not create the idiomatic smoothness of the cross-rhythm as with the alternate positions.

 

Bill Reichenbach: "Tuning Up"

Using alternate positions for m.24 at quarter note equals 150, only the Eb in beat 2 and D in beat 4 need be re-attacked. While m.25's D and initial F could be accomplished in fourth position, retaining first allows the D not to be tongued.

 

Planing an idea chromatically makes physical sense when extending the slide positions further in one direction or another.

 

Frank Rosolino: "Rock Bottom"

Though this tempo is a moderate quarter note equals 123, executing this passage without alternate positions would seem a virtual impossibility. Try it out of rhythm first!

 

Parting Advice

A time-honored rule is, "If you can't play it slow, you can't play it fast." To make the best use of alternate positions, you must indeed slow the music down to experiment, tune, and apply the possible choices. Once you make the decisions, be sure to practice the passage with those positions each time so that their use becomes second-nature. As Conrad Herwig reiterates, "Regular practice of scales with alternate positions–just utilizing those all the time–will become a sixth sense...or a seventh sense, if you use that position!"

However, a corollary to the above rule presents itself once you have mastered a passage with alternate positions: "Playing it slow may sound unnatural." Why? Because of your initial motivation: you chose those positions to accomplish specific phrasing demands brought on by the tempo of the music; so slowing the speed may show you that the alternates are illogical for lesser tempos–and that's fine!

After a while your choices will seem not random but driven by practical and musical forces. Ian McDougall relates the following tale from an appearance a few years ago at the Lionel Hampton Festival in Moscow, Idaho: "Bill Watrous and I joined thirty or forty trombonists for one tune in groupings of eight or ten per part. We stood next to each other on the lead part; and it was particularly revealing to note that we played the entire chart identically, position-for-position. And we used lots of alternates!"

There are those persons who still view jazz playing (on any instrument) as inarticulate. To the contrary, in my view jazz demands every conceivable articulation so as to best approximate the vocabulary of other instruments (including the spoken voice) which have also advanced the jazz language. Alternate positions often provide just the right amount of technical support to make trombonists' music sound less technical and more lyrical: whether that means sometimes more literally accurate, other times more general in direction–just as in the myriad expressions of the human voice.

This article is dedicated to the memory of New Orleans trombonist Angelo "Bubby" Castigliola. As a young college student, I first met the older, slower-moving gentleman and figured his endurance wouldn't last the gig–until he proceeded to play me "under the table" for the next seven hours of the Mardi Gras ball and dinner dance. Bubby was a gracious professional who always took the time to teach the next generation of players and was himself a continual, loving student of the trombone. One of the most remarkable trombonists I have ever heard, he eagerly awaited every issue of the ITA Journal until he passed away–outplaying his colleagues with a kindness everyone could admire.

Notes

1 All trombonists quoted within this article were recently interviewed by the author.

2 For additional information on chromatic applications for the trombone, see the author's article "Thematic Dissonance–No Wrong Notes!" in the International Association of Jazz Educators Jazz Educators Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 1991; pp. 28, 29, 83, & 89.

"Just Friends," Big Band Jazz, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass (Umbrella UMB-DD4, 1977), publisher of sheet music unknown.

"Hassles," recordings unknown, published for jazz ensemble by UNC Jazz Press.

"On Green Dolphin Street," What Are We Here For?, Rob Parton's JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze SB-2067, 1995), published for jazz ensemble by Don Schamber.

"Donna Lee," released on countless recordings and publications.

"S.N.O.W.-Bliz Bop" is unpublished at this time.

"Zip City", Bill Watrous: Manhattan Wildlife Refuge (Columbia KC 33090, 1974). For the author's complete transcription of the solo with analysis, see the IAJE Jazz Educators Journal, Vol. 19, No. 4, April/May 1987, pp. 44-46.

"Tuning Up," Toshiko Akiyoshi—Lew Tabackin Big Band: Road Time, (RCA CPL2-2242, 1976).

"Rock Bottom," Bobby Knight's Great American Trombone Company: Cream of the Crop (Sea Breeze SB 2009, recorded 1978, released 1981).

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is an Associate Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded the B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Bobby Shew, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own garciamusic.com, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton's JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ).

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band. An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) and an Editorial Advisory Board member of the Jazz Education Network. His new book, Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by MENC). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA's All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association's 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: "Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education." Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: "Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe." The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García's "splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing" and cited him as "a nationally noted jazz artist/educator...one of the most prominent young music educators in the country." Down Beat has recognized his "knowing solo work on trombone" and "first-class writing of special interest." The Jazz Report has written about the "talented trombonist," and Cadence noted his "hauntingly lovely" composing as well as CD production "recommended without any qualifications whatsoever." Phil Collins has said simply, "He can be in my band whenever he wants." García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

A member of the board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.'s international management executives. The partnership he has created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association's Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest's "Midwest Jazz Masters" panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts "Artist Fellowship in Music Composition" panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of MENC, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 "Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching" award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE "U.S. Professor of the Year" (one of 434 nationwide). Visit his web site at <www.garciamusic.com>.

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