Flute Punch

Tonguing for Jazz Flute

Posted on: January 18, 2009

I had the privilege of studying briefly with Horace Alexander Young III several years ago, from whom I learned a little about jazz flute tonguing.

If you’ve ever played jazz on the saxophone, you’ll have that experience of the feeling of swing to help you out. But there are some subtle differences as well when it comes to playing jazz on the flute.

The most notable similarity is that you still use off-beat tonguing. Say you have a measure full of eigth notes in 4/4 time: If you were to tongue them in groups of two as a classical player, you would most likely tongue on the beat — that is, 1, 2, 3, and 4. But if you are playing jazz, you would tongue on the off-beats — all of the “&”s.

Now if you’ve ever played sax, you know that the feeling of swing is created through the fingers. That is, you play the swing rhythm. On the flute however, if you were to swing this hard, it would sound unnatural. Why is this?

My opinion is that this is due to 1) the classical background of the flute, and also 2) the strength of the flute in Latin jazz, in which you play straight eighth notes (not swung).

So how do you create a feeling of swing on the flute? The answer to this lies not in the fingers, but in the tongue. Try this exercise:

Play a measure of moving eighth notes at a moderate tempo, straight (not swung) and slurred. (For example, a G major scale). Now apply this tonguing: “oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah” — you should notice, that without changing the straight eighth rhythm as played by your fingers, you have now a feeling of swing that sounds more native to the flute than it would if you were using heavy triplet swing rhythms.

Horace has written a very informative book, Improvising Jazz Flute, that unfortunately appears to be out-of-print, but you might be able to find it used if you’re interested in learning more.

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