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Introduction

The ABRSM Jazz Ensembles syllabus has been designed to facilitate a wide range of group music making within the broad area of jazz, and to extend ABRSM’s positive commitment to jazz as an enjoyable yet challenging form of musical expression. Any group of two or more people can take part, and they are free to offer anything and everything from a simple improvised duo of a standard to a full big band interpretation.

All groups have a free choice of repertoire, which may include items from the earliest to contemporary jazz, straight or swing, but within the following basic requirements:

  • Initial level: two pieces, comprising a 12-bar blues and a standard
  • Intermediate level: three pieces, comprising a 12-bar blues, a standard and a third item of the group’s own choice, all of which make up a programme covering a range of tempos and moods
  • Advanced level: three or more pieces, including a 12-bar blues and a standard, covering a range of tempos and moods

The widest possible choice of jazz repertoire is allowed and indeed encouraged, ranging from New Orleans to free and ECM, and from swing and bebop to Latin and Rock-influenced styles. ABRSM is also keen that the syllabus will give jazz bands, with performers of all ages and playing in all styles, established standards to aim for as well as recognition of not only their recreative musicianship but also their creative musical skills and understanding which are necessary in group improvising.

Jazz

Assessment

The assessment will consist of the examiner awarding an overall grading for the performance heard, and providing detailed written comments on the mark form concerning the accomplishments of the group, reflecting their strengths and weaknesses as a jazz ensemble.

Examiners will be assessing the overall musical outcome in terms of:

  • Control of pitch and note placement
  • Understanding and communication of musical vocabulary and style
  • The performance and flexibility of the head and the improvisation
  • The contribution of each member to the overall performance and their response to the other members of the group
  • Understanding and response to the leader’s instructions (where a leader is present)
  • Unanimity of musical outlook
  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Blend

Expected standards

Some repertoire items can be played successfully at more than one level, but the performances included below represent typical technical and musical demands for the level indicated.

In broad terms, the following instrumental skill levels will be expected:

Initial

Intermediate

Advanced

Grades 3–4

Grades 5–6

Grades 7–8

The Basis of Jazz Piano Assessment provides further guidance. The statements illustrating the basis of assessment for Jazz Piano at Grades 1–4 are broadly applicable to the Initial level (for Distinction, Merit and Pass read Grades A, B and C); and the statements illustrating Grade 5 requirements likewise for Intermediate level.

Advanced ensembles at Pass level will have demonstrated overall technical security with evidence of musical awareness, such as reasonably secure dynamics, texture, speed and character of the groove. Phrasing and embellishments will be generally stylish, the ensemble balanced, and some account will have been taken of the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic possibilities within the given material.

Advanced ensembles at Distinction level would need to show a high level of technical assurance combined with musically authoritative playing in which the sense of performance is both instinctive and communicative to a high degree. There will be varied and stylish dynamics and texture, crisp and appropriate phrasing, imaginative embellishments with a sense of flair, well-paced solos and comping which inventively explore all the elements within the given material, and completely unified and convincing ensemble playing with a flexible response to individual contributions.

Jazz

Improvisation

Sufficient improvising must take place for the examiner to make an informed judgement on it. At least one substantial solo or a number of shorter ones must be included per programme item. These may occur at any point in the piece. Every item should also incorporate interactive comping and/or improvising from the rhythm section. Arrangements where solos are written out may not be offered. It is for the ensemble concerned to decide how many of its soloists improvise depending on personnel and context. Solos should be kept shorter where a number of improvisers are involved, but if one soloist features, a longer improvisation may be appropriate, bearing in mind the form of the whole. Performers are encouraged to be creative within the style, and to demonstrate flexibility and on-the-spot decision-making both in their choice of material and in their presentation of it.

General points

Careful positioning of instruments should reflect the overriding need for eye-contact and for musicians to hear each other comfortably.

Short (5-10 second) announcements of items played and personnel featured are also possible, as long as the overall length of the performance remains within the given limits. Where amplified instruments or voices are used, candidates are responsible for ensuring that all equipment works, that spare leads etc. are available and that the exam starts and finishes on time.


Regulations

(a) Entry

A special entry form should be completed for this subject. See information on places and dates of exams as well as entry and fees.

(b) Size of groups

Groups comprising any combination of two or more instrumentalists, or a vocalist with one or more instrumentalists, may enter for examination.

(c) Levels of examination

Initial: for performers of approximately Grade 3–4 standard
Intermediate: for performers of approximately Grade 5–6 standard
Advanced: for performers of approximately Grade 7–8 standard

In order to illustrate more accurately the standards of performance that are expected at each level, recordings of exemplar performances, together with detailed descriptive notes explaining the criteria by which they are assessed and categorized, are available on this page.

(d) Length of exam

The exam should last about 12 minutes for Initial level, 18 minutes for Intermediate level, and 25 minutes for Advanced level. All groups will be allowed an additional 5 minutes for setting up and tuning.

(e) Repertoire

All groups have a free choice of repertoire, which may include items from the earliest to contemporary jazz, straight or swing, but within the following basic requirements:

Initial: two pieces, comprising a 12-bar blues and a standard
Intermediate: three pieces, comprising a 12-bar blues, a standard and a third item of the group’s own choice, all of which make up a programme covering a range of tempos and moods
Advanced: three or more pieces, including a 12-bar blues and a standard, covering a range of tempos and moods

(f) Criteria for assessment

The examiner will award an overall grading, rather than a mark, taking into account the following broad aspects of the performance:

(i) control of music elements
(ii) understanding and communication of musical vocabulary and style
(iii) organization and flexibility of improvisation and its impact on such matters as unanimity of outlook, balance, contrast and blend.

(g) Assessment gradings

A (Distinction): an outstanding performance with little reservation
B (Merit): a very good performance, but with some reservation
C (Pass): a competent performance, but with significant reservation
F failure to reach the standard required to pass

(h) Results

The examiner’s notes and grading are sent to the applicant named on the entry form, and certificates are issued for each member of a group obtaining a C grading or above.

Examiner comments and recordings

Exemplar recordings

The following exemplar recordings and comments set out to give guidance on the basis on which an assessment will be made at the three different levels.

There are ten performances covering the Initial, Intermediate and Advanced levels, and detailed comments and an overall grading are given for each performance.

Initial Level

Curtain Call Blues
Peter Churchill

You all played with some energy and a basic sense of the swing groove. The drum patterns had some variety and colour but a more secure lock between bass and drums was needed, and the bass could have more connection and control overall to create an authentic walking bass line. Piano comping was descriptive but could use more colourful chords and controlled rhythmic placement. The pushes at the end of the head caused some unsteadiness in the ensemble each time but you found the shape of the melody. The front line played with some control and tightness and some dynamic variety but there was room for further detail to give extra swing and rhythmic authority. Solos all had some melodic contour but could have more controlled rhythmic placement to add to the blues-scale based language you improvised with. However there was a genuine sense of discovery and enthusiasm in the solos and idiomatic shapes in all the solos.

Result: B-

Initial Level

Just a Closer Walk with Thee
Anon

There was a mainly secure pulse here but the drums needed a simpler pattern and the bass more connection in both 2-feel and walking to really give the swing feel groove and consistency. Piano chords spelt the basic harmony but could have more idiomatic voicing and more rhythmic placement. The head needed more embellishment and variety of phrase shape, but some interaction in the front line gave a sense of classic jazz style, despite too many voices in near-unison making the tune unclear in some sections. There was room for more variety of texture behind the solos, which mainly expressed the form clearly but needed a greater sense of conversation and in some cases more stylish melodic shape. However some good harmonic details were found even if the general feeling of comfort with this style could be greater.

Result: C+

Intermediate Level

All Blues
Miles Davis

The general texture was idiomatic and well balanced with an obvious knowledge of the original informing many aspects of the performance. The groove was well maintained and mainly authentic though piano voicings could be lower and the bass could move away from the opening figures to provide more variety and evolution. However the whole rhythm section worked with a sense of interaction between chord instruments and some rhythmic interplay between piano and drums made for a good variety of energy levels. The guitar solos had some welcome contrasts in approach and tone and there was a strong sense of sensitive accompaniment from the piano here. The trumpet could have more authentic vibrato and open tone in the head but much of the solo was well shaped and the melody was accurate, sensitive and well phrased with generally good intonation and some fluent embellishment. The alto solo had some confident energy though could be more restrained with further controlled phrase length in this style. The piano solo had some inventive harmonic choices though could have more melodic identity to fit with good tonal variety and idiomatic rhythmic placement.

Result: A-

Intermediate Level

I Wish I Knew
Billy Taylor

The groove was really well defined and flowed confidently in the rhythm section, with the drums providing stability throughout, though the bass could dig in more solidly for extra energy. However a good variety of colours and comping styles behind solos shaped the overall form. The horn section playing was rather loose in places with a more consistent approach to phrasing needed in opening sections, but the second chorus had some interesting textures and a sense of interaction despite some crowded moments. By the last head section the trumpet led with authority. The alto solo had some assured and stylish shape though some phrases could sit more comfortably with the harmonic detail. The trumpet solo was mainly fluent but needed more controlled pitch in places and could express the groove more consistently. Some inventive formal ideas and a good dynamic build added enjoyable shape to your arrangement though the ending could be tighter and more accurate.

Result: B

Intermediate Level

That Old Feeling
Fain & Brown

This had some confident swing feel in many places but also sections that needed more forward motion for full effect. However a good lock between bass and drums was generally maintained. The piano needed to leave more space and some chords could be more accurate but comping was otherwise effective. Overall in the horns tone in all instruments needed more confidence and flexibility to make the most of some clear stylistic sympathy. There was a lack of improvisation in general - the solos were really paraphrases and repeats of the melody rather than original melodic shapes based on the chord sequence, and for this to be effective more dynamic control and contrast was needed and better ensemble. The ending had some originality in the shaping and the horn section chords were both effective and idiomatic to the melody despite needing more rhythmic punch and variety.

Result: C

Intermediate Level

ID
Dan Monkton

You maintained a good sense of groove through the winding melody though there was room for a fuller tone and more precise intonation. The trumpet mis-pitched from time to time but there was a clear sense of ensemble between the horns. There was some inventive and colourful drumming which maintained the pulse confidently, with a good feeling for space and connection through the whole rhythm section. The bass played fluently and inventively. A good dynamic contour was heard during the opening head section though there was room for more light and shade later on, and at quieter dynamics there was a tendency to lose tonal energy. The guitar played a mainly fluent solo that addressed the harmony and played some good melodic contours, though stronger rhythmic placement would add authority to the solo lines. This was a well-shaped original composition with some interesting harmony and a good chromatic melody.

Result: B+

Advanced Level

Well You Needn’t
Thelonius Monk

Bass and drums had a good sense of lock and a well-maintained sense of swing, with good time in the opening bass line. The guitar played fluently through the head and the solo was well-shaped with some mature language and clear, developmental phrase structure over the chord sequence. The bass solo flowed conversationally and also demonstrated a good knowledge of the harmony and a sense of groove and line. Although this was a small ensemble there was room for more dynamic contrast overall, and in places rhythms could be steadier, but some assured swing feel and solos made this a convincing performance.

Result: A

Advanced Level

Skylark
H Carmichael

There was some fluent and mature playing from both piano and saxophone in the first section of the head, with some expressive embellishment of the head by the saxophone and a confident and stylish knowledge of the harmony demonstrated in the piano. The transition into double time was less successful and some of the form and contour of the melody was lost, though you both recovered quickly and ended safely with an expressive use of a final lydian mode. Some saxophone phrases clashed with the harmonic background but tone was stylish and flexible in most phrases.

Result: B

Advanced Level

Nica’s Dream
Horace Silver

The Latin groove was fluent and the rhythmic detail of the head was well expressed by the rhythm section, though the bass could walk with more energy in the swing sections, and there was some slowing down overall. The horns played tightly in most of the head, with a good sense of balance, accent and ensemble, though for both tone could have further focus and there were some slips of intonation. The trumpet solo was quite fluent with some simple smooth melodic contours though tone became rather hazy and production needed more energy and focus to add rhythmic detail. The saxophone played with a good sense of style with more tonal confidence and expressed many elements of the chord sequence in some flowing lines with a variety of shapes and directions in the language. Overall there was a good sense of form and colour in the arrangement with lots of characteristic detail in the stops and pushes, giving a strong sense of overall ensemble.

Result: A-

Advanced Level

Confirmation
Charlie Parker

The head had energy and detail, though there were some occasional minor fluffs in this demanding melody. Overall some driving rhythms and stylish accents gave strong shape, however. The rhythm section maintained a good swing groove though there was room for more energy and variety from the drums despite good dialogue with the piano. The bass walked confidently and expressed the changes clearly. The piano comped with imaginative rhythmic shape and some stylish voicings. The complex harmony of this tune was mainly handled well by the soloists though the horns needed more fluency and rhythmic variety to add the required chord detail to some diatonic lines, and some rhythms needed more flexible placement. The guitar and piano solos found more authentic bebop language, had some well-structured phrase shapes and led the ear well through the changes. The overall feeling from the group was of confident performance and good ensemble, with a secure and well projected ending.

Result: B+
 

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