CELLO CITY INK, New Directions Cello Association


SS: What got you started improvising on your cello?

MD: When I was little, my family sang a lot in the car, and I loved to sing my own harmonies, so I guess that was the beginning. Then in the 70’s I had a lot of friends who were folk singers and I discovered how easy it was to play along on their songs with the cello. And it was very fun and refreshing after all that intense music school playing. I played with songwriters for several years in Great Britain and then back here and got really comfortable with it.

I got acquainted with Paul English who is a Houston jazz great, and my wife encouraged me to play with him. But I had absolutely no jazz background, so it was sort of like deciding to learn to speak German or something. So learning his tunes and the jazz standards became my next big project. I got the “Real Book” and started getting jazz recordings from the library and made tapes of all the tunes I could find that were in the Real Book. But I was perplexed: hearing Miles Davis playing a tune didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the Real Book version. He was way up in the “stratosphere” and I didn’t even know the basic tune yet. So I would got earlier recordings or the original songs the jazz standards are often based on. My dad knew all these tunes but I didn’t. I grew up with the Beatles.

I also got a bunch of Jamie Abersold records. “ii V I” and “Nothin but the Blues” were helpful. It also helped that I had a 4-channel tape recorder. I’d pick a tune I liked and record the bass parts very slowly with a metronome. Then on separate tracks I’d record the thirds and sevenths of the chords playing everything on the cello. Learning to read chords and quickly play the 3rd and 7th gave me a headache at first, but I gradually got better at it and it is probably the most useful skill I know for learning to play over changes.

I’d jam along with these practice tapes and sing with them in the car trying to work these new sounds into my brain. I was listening over and over and singing along until the music played kept playing automatically in my head. At that point, the changes literally captured my imagination, and I went around hearing it in my mind and scat singing constantly. My wife will tell you I was pretty hard to talk to!

I called up jazz professor and cellist David Baker at IU and he was so encouraging. He suggested I learn jazz by playing along with bebop tunes at half speed. He sent me a couple of tapes with about 40 bebop “heads” and music for them all. I hated them at first. If you’ve never heard bebop it sounds incredibly complex and frenetic. I was supposed to learn this?? My tape recorder had a half speed switch so slowing it down was easy. Then Charlie Parker’s alto sax sounds just like sort of hashy lugubrious bari sax but it is right in the cello register. I started with “Groovin HIgh” which David said was an easy one and transcribed most of Charlie’s solo note by note. Later I got the “Charlie Parker Omni book” which has most of his solos transcribed. I gave them cello fingerings, and practiced them with the tape and tried to find bowings that gave the right swing. Over time it started to sound familiar in but I sure had to force it in at first. Baker’s approach is to memorize “licks” that the jazz greats use until the sounds get in your mind and your fingers and they form the basis of your own improvising. Then it’s up to you to find your own voice with this language.

SS: What other resources have you found helpful in learning how to improvise?

MD: The “Band-in-a-Box” program. It is a music processor for both PC and Mac and you can get it at music stores and on the internet. It’s a very useful tool if you want to learn jazz or really any kind of improvisation over chord changes. Typed-in chords will play back at any tempo and in many styles and it’s a lot of fun to jam with. I appreciate this so much, as it much less cumbersome than the four-track, and I now can slow down and loop parts of the music I’m working on to try to master the tough changes. I recommend it highly.

There were some outstanding instructional video tapes I rented: “Larry Carlton Plays the Blues”, “Emily Remler Jazz and Latin Guitar” were two of the best. What terrific jazz lessons! Emily Remler was a terrific jazz instructor and she boils a decade of teahing into an hour on video. It’s so sad she died. I’m not a very intellectual player and she showed me ways to play jazz instinctively by learning to hear thirds and sevenths and then base solos on those “guide tones”. She also stresses practicing with a metronome on 2 and 4 which brings big results in learning to “swing”.

Also “Jennie’s Jazz” is a bulletin board on the internet for Jazz lovers around the world with lots of good tips for improvisation.

SS: Describe some ways you practice your improvisation–how do you warm up?

MD: It always varies. In the course of “warming up” the music starts flowing inside me, that inner voice starts singing and then I’m set for the day. Some kind of music just keeps going around in me, and I’m hearing it constantly. So I guess at some level I’m practicing whether I want to or not! I’m not sure this is the best method, but it’s what happens to me. The main priority for me is to cultivate a soul that’s ready to turn on like a faucet. Doing this requires a lot of things that are not specifically musical. I meditate in various ways and do Feldenkrais body awareness work which is kind of like yoga and read the Bible and other things that make me feel strong. I love Fritz Magg’s “Hour of Daily Calisthentics” and an hour-long scale routine with a million bowings by Francois Rabbath. The bass guys use this and it really gets you buzzing.

I’m sure everybody develops their own warm up routines, but the goal is always to forget the technique and play what you hear. If you really want to express something, the fingers will find a way with a little repetition.

When I’m practicing charts, I use the Band-in-a-Box extensively. One good way is to read through the changes playing first the “head” or melody. I play the bass notes, the thirds, sevenths and the nines and then to try to connect these “guide tones” as melodically as I can. But then after my brain gets tired, I just jam and see how much I have retained. Recording myself playing along with the changes is very useful at this point.

You have to remember this is a slow and gradual process and you can’t expect fast results. Internalizing takes tremendous repetition for me. But I work on what I love so I enjoy this. I never get tired of jamming on “Falling Grace” by Steve Swallow.

SS: What do you think about when you’re soloing in a live performance?

MD: Not a hell of a lot!! I’m not a mathematical-crossword puzzle-chess playing- jazz player. I can hear beautiful things in my mind, and guess I play my best when my thinking is at a minimum. I like to just close my eyes and let it rip. But for hard changes, unfortunately, I do have to think and try to remember some stuff. I make a loop of the hard chord change with my Band in a Box and jam with the cello and also make tapes to sing with in the car while I’m driving around and eventually it gets internalized. Then I find a few good notes or licks for that spot and I try to memorize them so at least I have something to hang on to in the tough changes.

Improvising live in front of an audience is so fun because you really get out on the edge! Making “noises” which seem to fit with that moment. You learn to trust yourself in the moment to produce beautiful things. And you get good at playing what you hear in your mind. Sometimes I can hear the next idea begin just before it comes out on the cello and then it unfolds from there, other times I get so absorbed and intense, I’m not sure what I’m doing but somehow it works. When you take a solo the other guys are supporting you, helping you, rooting for you. And you do the same for them. And it’s so liberating to get caught up in that.

When I’m waiting for my turn to take a solo, I try not to figure out what I’m going to do. I always bomb if I make that mistake. Instead I listen hard and try to stay in the moment, right up until I begin to play. A lot of times I start my solo with an idea that imitates the last few notes of the previous soloist. In my solo, I’ll probably only use a fraction of what I could do, but if it’s fresh and I’ve never done it before, then I’m happy. Lots of times I can’t remember what I played but I have a sense that whatever it was, my own “voice” was speaking.

When you play night after night, a big temptation is to try to recreate some “peak experience” that may have happened the night before. It’s so important to learn how to let go of anything that’s happened before and come back again to “square one”. Expectations can be a real distraction. You have to “break the mold” and allow something entirely new to happen. I guess that’s about the most challenging part of performing for me.

SS: Anything else?

MD: Yeah, a quote from Charlie Parker:

“Master the instrument, learn the changes, then forget all that shit and just play!”

-Sera Smolen for CELLO CITY INK, New Directions Cello Association


“Max Dyer’s cello playing combines the beauty of fine classical technique with the soul and spontaneity of a great jazz improviser. His experience in a wide array of styles is evident in every note he plays.”
Chris White, Director, New Directions Cello Festival

Max Dyer is a classically trained cellist who performs in every context from Opera and Chamber Music to Jazz, Folk, Renaissance, and also loves Indian classical music. In the 1980’s, he played and toured with the Houston Symphony. He currently plays with the Houston Ballet Orchestra. His jazz trio, PICO, performed their original compositions as well as Jazz standards at the1998 NDCA festival. Max also shared his approach to learning Jazz as a cellist in a workshop titled “Playing Over Changes”.