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Book Review: Jazz Essentials - Nuts and Bolts Instruction for the Jazz and Pop Musician by Dean Kelly

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

Jazz Essentials by Dean Kelly was one of those books that shows up at the right time and the right place. I was a junior in high school when I became interested in playing jazz vibes. The public library in suburban Chelmsford, Massachusetts (where I grew up) just happened to have this text sitting on a shelf, which in retrospect seems particularly strange (and fortuitous).

Not just a book for those interested in jazz improv, Jazz Essentials is a great primer for studying music theory. Covering scales, triads, 7th chords, chord-scale choices, and basic harmony, this book also includes study sheets as well as a discography of suggested jazz listening.   

The strength of this text is the tone and brevity. Registering in at 100 pages with a conversational and easy going tone (cartoons included!), this book is useful for both teachers and interested students. It is well edited and obviously laid out by a teacher; it starts with a list of twelve learning outcomes such as: "Learn to spell major, minor, augmented, and diminished triads in all keys."  This layout makes it an ideal book for self-guided study.    

By the end of the book you will have the tools to improvise without becoming overwhelmed by stacks and stacks of details and complicated theory. If you were teaching jazz improv, the content in this book would help your students get oriented and prepared for more genre specific improvisation language. If you don't teach jazz, the book is still applicable since almost all improvisation involves chordal and scalar motion, regardless of the style.  

Amazon.com currently sells this book for about $10, making it a perfect buy for summer lessons or as a project for the teacher if you are new to improvising.  The Hennepin County Library system also has a copy that you can reserve. You can peruse a dozen pages or so on Google Books.

You might also want to take a look at the Coursera course: Introduction to Improvisation taught by Berklee's Gary Burton, for more improvisation content. The course is free and you can still sign up even if you don't intend to complete the course. You can just lurk and read the content that is of interest to you. And for those of you who teach jazz, the discussion boards are particularly useful if you want to listen to and critique student improvisations.

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