Jamming with the best

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Jazz musician, composer, bandleader, classical soloist, pedagogue, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner; Wynton Marsalis is a musician who exhausts superlatives. He's also someone who lays great value on practising and formal training. If he sanctions a particular music training programme you can be sure he's given that endorsement serious consideration.

SmartMusic Studio is a practice and rehearsal system that uses contemporary technology to help students through a series of exercises and improvisations that encompass skills from rudimentary to advanced level.

The program covers all bases: it can be used for developing rhythmic and aural skills and digital dexterity - there are more than 5,000 exercises - and for improvisation. The inclusion of two compact microphones means that it can be used by instrumentalists and vocalists.

The microphones are needed for Intelligent Accompaniment, one of SmartMusic's most impressive features. Intelligent Accompaniment analyses and responds to the performer's playing tempo. It's almost like human responsiveness and, as Wynton Marsalis says, "It makes practising fun, so that you want to practise longer and more often."

The practice repertoire is drawn from a huge and diverse body of material, including works from Dowland, Bach, Mozart, Hindemith, Schubert, the Beatles and Jerome Kern. There are even tracks from the Star Wars trilogy, Batman and The Wizard of Oz.

All the pieces can be adjusted using a slider-controlled metronome. Piano accompaniment to the scale and arpeggio-based exercises is of the two-beats-to-a-bar "oom-pah" variety and is supportive without being intrusive.

The software also allows for transposition (you can play tunes in any key), the setting of practice loops for sections that need particular attention and a recording facility enabling students to analyse their performances.

Much of the jazz section is drawn from the Jamey Aebersold arrangements on which many jazz students will have cut their teeth. And lips! And fingers! Older readers may remember attempting to play along to the ridiculously paced tempi and rhythmically coruscating tunes of the bebop era. The original Aebersold collections came out on LPs and there was no way of changing the speed of the performance. Digital technology has now made this possible and you'll want to practise say, Scrapple from the Apple or Billie's Bounce at half tempo - go ahead.

The accompaniments on these tracks are produced by top-class jazz musicians whose playing is perfectly balanced between driving the chords and rhythm forward and giving sympathetic support to soloists who certainly don't need to be overwhelmed by the virtuosity of a rhythm section.

There's a huge selection of tunes to play along with: Gershwin, Ellington, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter - they're all here. The Intelligent Accompaniment agent, it should be noted, doesn't do jazz. That's not really a problem, however, as some pieces are presented in both fast and slow tempos, and one thing's for sure - not many soloists are going to be playing faster than these guys.

Regrettably, the songs are not accompanied by melody lines, chord symbols or lyrics. Apparently the cost of royalties makes this impossible. Teachers who don't have the relevant sheet music in their libraries should be able to get most of these standards by purchasing the relevant jazz "fake" books.

SmartMusic is a stimulating, comprehensive and well presented package; a welcome and very useful music resource. And if, as Wynton Marsalis says, "It makes practising more productive so that you get better, faster", it will have improved on the best efforts of many exasperated teachers and parents. This program can be unhesitatingly recommended for school and home use.

* SmartMusic Studio, pound;99 for software on CD-Rom and one-year subscription for online materials. Education licences available.

UK distributor Etcetera



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