I studied with Bruce Forman during the majority of my undergraduate and doctorate degrees at the University of Southern California. As a result, many of my thoughts on jazz performance and improvisation are directly influenced by him. Forman is a legend amongst jazz guitarists; many a time I have watched guitarists react to the mention of his name, often shaking their heads and mumbling about his unbelievable speed, his original take on the bebop language and phrasing, or his chord substitutions. Watching Forman live is always an experience. Like Sonny Rollins, Forman is always exploring during his improvisations. And, like Rollins, he improvises with a firm belief that jazz music can be fun, often demonstrating a strong sense of humor. Forman creates an environment of interaction and exchange, not only with his fellow band members, but with the audience as well. Everyone in the room is along for the journey and is excited to find out where Forman will take the solo.
If you are not familiar with his playing, here’s a clip of Forman’s latest trio project, featuring Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. This trio, with bassist Alex Frank, recorded an album that will be available in the summer of 2015.
Since 2003, Forman has invested a significant portion of his time performing, touring, and recording with Cowbop, his cowboy jazz and western bebop band. Given Cowbop’s roots, the jazz standard “I’m an Old Cowhand” seems right at home among the band’s repertoire of country, swing, and sixties pop songs. The song may be best known by jazz aficionados by its inclusion on Sonny Rollins’ 1957 album Way Out West. It has an abbreviated form, divided into two sections (AB). Section A is eight measures long, while section B is eight measures with a built-in two measure tag, resulting in a repeating form of eighteen measures.
Forman’s three choruses on “I’m an Old Cowhand” clearly demonstrate his impeccable time, melodic sense, and great linear playing. Forman’s implementation of various chordal textures in the guitar, bass, and drum trio on this recording represents a very valuable lesson. He does not merely shift from single-notes to chords, but uses chords in a variety of ways:
- Accompaniment behind single note melodies (piano left-hand style): Creates the illusion that there are two guitarists, playing in call and response. Voicings are in the low to middle register, two or three notes, played at a softer volume. Chord durations are usually staccato and the rhythms help provide a sense of propulsion, often placed on upbeats. See mm. 19, 21, 37.
- Voicings integrated with melodies: Voicings that are sporadically used among a single note melodic phrase. Volume of chord voicings must be balanced to volume of single note melody, so as not to overpower the overall melodic idea. See mm. 34 and 52.
- Counterpoint: Dyads or chords that are comprised of “independent” notes. One note may move up while another moves down (contrary motion) or one note may be stationary while another note moves against it (oblique motion). See m. 31.
- Shout chorus chord voicings: Long runs of block chords (ala Wes Montgomery) that harmonize a melody and provide a heightened sense of excitement. See mm. 26–27, 48–50.
In addition to chordal textures, Forman helps pace the solo through the intentional use of specific rhythmic subdivisions. Below is a general roadmap of his solo, outlining the evolution of texture and subdivision.
- Chorus 1: Mostly eighth notes melodies with sporadic eighth note triplets for variety. No chord voicings.
- Chorus 2 (A section): Piano “Left-hand” style (self accompaniment) chords, sixteenth note runs, longer eighth note triplet runs.
- Chorus 2 (B section): Shout chorus style chord voicings are used to lead in to the B section. Dyads (two note voicings), some that feature contrary motion, are integrated directly into single note melodic lines.
- Chorus 3: Begins with blues melody and left-hand chord accompaniment. Highest note of the solo is in the chorus (intentional use of extreme melodic range). Longer melodic lines without silence. B section ends with shout chorus style voicings and two-beat block chord “cadence” that clearly marks the end of the solo.