Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 2: Shifting and Chords

We’ve all heard it before, in one kind of funk jam or another, when everyone’s on a solid groove and all of a sudden the whole thing jumps up a tone, or a minor third, or whatever. You can call this transposition or modulation, or even “key change!”. We call it ‘shifting’. Its the easiest way to change key and its as simple as telling everyone how many semitones you want to move and in which direction.

On a geeky note – In our experience, shifting up or down a major third(four semitones), rarely happens. It doesn’t sound as good as other shifts. It’s not as useful. That’s the reason we sacrificed it and made the four finger shift signal mean a perfect fourth, and five, the perfect fifth. Also, these signals of the fourth and fifth are so strongly ingrained in live music culture that it would be dangerously confusing to mess with them.

When we first started suggesting chords with The Katet, we split the chord across the horn section. Trombone took the tonic, alto sax took the 3rd and the trumpet took the 5th. Since then it has become much more interpretive but this basic set-up is very handy to fall back on. With each player taking a fixed ‘degree’ of the scale it was easy to jump to any chord we wanted and no notes in the triad would be left out. It also meant that I could manipulate the notes within the chords using ‘shifting’, because I knew what note everyone was supposed to be on. In larger ensembles this becomes more difficult but there are still some subtle ways to play about with the chords.

Shifting and chords 2

I think I’m primarily a song-writer, and from this point of view being able to suggest extended chord sequences is very important. And, with Suggesture, its also possible to call complex harmony by setting up a chord on top and with the other hand below, asking the bass player, and therefore, the bass/lower instruments in the ensemble, to player another note. This creates ‘slash chords’ and one can easily translate most jazz harmony using this method. i.e D half dim = Fm/D, Abmaj9 = Eb/Ab etc.

I guess the point was to try to be able to do something that no one else could. When improvising with a large group using other methods, the harmony is usually struck by chance. It sounds very “Modern” or “Post-modern” depending on how apologetic you are. How can everyone possibly know exactly which notes to play? Well, Suggesture retains a huge element of choice, whilst giving the players a framework created by the Suggestor, who at this time is acting very much like a composer/song-writer.

On the role of Suggestor – It’s worth mentioning how important it is to give the appropriate lead time. This is basically how much of a heads up you give the players with your signals. I spent many months messing up improvisations because the players weren’t reacting fast enough to the suggestions, or they were misinterpreting them. A huge learning curve was realizing that this was my fault. I wasn’t showing the signal for long enough. I wasn’t showing it all the way round to everyone in the band. I wasn’t being clear enough with my signals and frustration occurred on both sides. Once I took responsibility for this I started practicing and my conducting grew stronger.

Communication is the essence of Suggesture, and arguably all music. At the end of the day, the music will come from the musicians, from what’s inside them. And it’s the responsibility of the Suggestor to pull this out of them, using his knowledge of composition, harmony, dynamics and structure. At the end of the day though, the most important role of the Suggestor is to inspire.