The latest Pixar film, Soul, focuses on a jazz musician and shows how his passion for beautiful music inspires others and enriches his life. This movie’s amazing soundtrack will inspire you to play jazz any way you can, even on cello! Jazz is a very broad musical genre, including subgenres like bebop, latin jazz, and rag, with roots in African traditional music combined with Western instruments.
Jazz cello uses special harmonies, melodies, and techniques for a unique sound. This article will look at how cellists can incorporate the instrument into jazz in two ways. The first step to learning this musical style is emulating the double bass with basic pizzicato lines, which helps learn the jazz harmonies.
What makes jazz distinct from most cello repertoire is the very free harmonies, and expressive melodies without the strict voice-leading and harmonic expectations of classical music. For the low-ranging instruments in the ensemble, such as double bass, electric bass, and cello, the first thing to learn are how to emphasize these special harmonies.
Play Like a Bass
Before we learn to play arco melodies on the cello, we will emulate the sound of a bassist’s pizzicato.
In jazz ensembles, the bass is considered part of the rhythm section, not the string section. Imagine yourself in the back of a big band with a full brass section in front of you, a drum set beside you, and yourself as the only bass player. You must keep up with the beat from the percussion, but also be adaptive for the melody. Put down the bow, and pluck the strings like a bass: keep the wrist high and pluck in one direction with the entire index or middle finger. Use a good amount of force to pluck the string, so you can support the melody while also being heard over the percussion and other accompaniment.
Jazz bassists don’t just play the root note of each chord, they also connect the harmony by “walking” up or down to make chord inversions, or omitting certain thirds to create a more open harmonic environment for the melody. There are audible expectations for the bass line, so you must decide where you want to be predictable and where you will alter the bass line to subvert expectations.
Play Like a Cello
Stephan Grappelli, the “grandfather of jazz violinists” incorporated the gypsy violin style into early French jazz in 1934, setting the groundwork for future string players in jazz. Fred Katz was the first cellist who pioneered playing arco on jazz cello a short time later, with the Chico Hamilton Quintet in the late 1950s. Katz’s cello is rarely the foreground in the ensemble; instead he uses the cello to create color with tremolo, chopping, and scale passages to connect harmonies, such as in I Want To Be Happy.
Tremolo is executed the same as in classical technique, with the one difference that it doesn’t need to be as measured. Chopping is using the weight from the bow to make a rhythmic, percussive sound. This style of jazz cello is great for incorporating your sound with a small ensemble, because you can work yourself into the music as often as you want.
Even though playing the melody line is exciting because you are in charge, you want to make the audience happy and your band happy by playing something recognizable and enjoyable. This takes some of the pressure off, as all you really need to pay attention to is making your melody sound good, and thereby making the band sound good.
Jazz Cello Solos
Of course, there are jazz cello solos which incorporate all of the above techniques to the extreme. One of the most popular solo pieces is Julie-O by Mark Summer, which was so popular it was used in a series of Apple advertisements in 2015.
Notice how the different sections use a variety of sounds such as pizzicato chords, melodic embellishment, and plenty of harmonic variation. In the extended arco section at the end the melody always comes first, but the glissando and flourishing scale runs keep it from being repetitive.
Another great example of what jazz cello is capable of is Wassily Gerassimez’s Cello Blues, which explores several jazz sounds in a series of episodes.
One crucial piece of jazz missing from this article is improvisation, which will take an entire article of its own.
To work your improvisations into jazz, you need to understand the structure of the music and how your improv will work against the harmony and melody already established in the music. Practice along with your favorite jazz music using the techniques above and with time you will discover your unique jazz cello sound.