Archive for the ‘Jazz Language’ Category

V7 to I: 10 Options for Expanding Your Dominant 7th Vocabulary

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

What’s the most important chord progression that you need to know as an improviser?

That’s a good question! Previously we explored some common chord relationships that you’ll encounter as an improviser, however the most important chord relationship that you need to know is V to I.

The Dominant/Tonic relationship is at the foundation of Western music from Baroque concertos, to Mahler symphonies, to Louis Armstrong, to Coltrane, to the Beatles. In nearly every standard that you’ll practice or perform as an improviser, you’re going to encounter the V7 to I chord relationship.

The Blues, Rhythm Changes, Stella by Starlight, Giant Steps, All the Things You Are…it all goes back to V7 resolving to I. If you haven’t already worked on this dominant to tonic relationship, it’s time to get started.

The Basics

For many players, the most common way to access the Dominant 7th to Tonic sound is with the Mixolydian mode:

or a Bebop Scale:

The other common rule that many players also fall back on for V7 to I is the natural voice-leading motion between these two chords. Coming from an analytical perspective, the voice leading “rules” of the V to I relationship are resolving the 7th of the V chord to the 3rd of the I chord:

(7-3 Resolution)

and the 3rd of V7 to the root of the I chord:

(3-1 Resolution)

This is a fine place to start conceptualizing these chords in your mind and your ear, however … Read More

The Philosophy of Learning Jazz Improvisation: Thinking like a Composer

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Composition is selective improvisation…~Igor Stravinsky

In 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.~Steve Lacy___________________________________________________________________________________________

Learning to improvise is a big undertaking. Not only must you become proficient on an instrument, you also need find something musical to play on that instrument. That’s no small task!

But don’t get discouraged just yet, many musicians have learned to improvise before you and many more will in the years to come. Having the correct mindset as you start your journey, however is vital in realizing your goals. In this day and age you can have all the study materials and learning aids in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, they’re useless.

So where are you going to find this mindset?

In your musical journey so far you might have noticed that improvisation is often compared to musical composition, and for good reason. Creating a solo over a chord progression is essentially composing music in the moment.

As you improvise, you’re using your ears, instrumental technique, and musical language to create new melodies in real time. All of the skills that are essential for composition are also necessary for improvisation. You must create a theme, develop that theme, follow the contours of the harmony, and send a musical message to the listener.

Therefore it’s only … Read More

The Anatomy of a Sound: Overcoming the Barrier of Music Theory

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

From the moment we are born, the world tends to have a container already built for us to fit inside: A social security number, a gender, a race, a profession, an I.Q. I ponder if we are more defined by the container we are in, than what we are inside. Would we recognize ourselves if we could expand beyond our bodies? To be authentically ‘un-contained’ would we still be able to exist?

~Paige Bradley

Expansion                                                                                                                                                                                   Bronze, electricity and mixed media

Music is sound.

We take in this sound with our ears and produce sound on our instruments.

Everything that you need to know about improving as an improviser originates from these two phrases. When you approach improvisation with the big picture in mind the entire process becomes much simpler. Coming to this realization can even change the way you improvise today.

Now I know what you’re thinking…”So I don’t have to worry about those scales, chords and theory ever again?” Not exactly.

You need to know your chords and scales, but you mustn’t stop there. Your creativity shouldn’t be limited to music theory alone, however this is much easier said than done. In the practice room analyze each chord, learn the names for each scale degree, and learn the rules for creating melodies and chord progressions, but when it comes to performing strive to move past the theory.

Remember, in the end music theory is just a method to describe sound with words. No matter what you’re thinking when … Read More

6 Common Chord Relationships (…other than ii-V-I)

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

A common question that many improvisers often have is “How do I connect chords when I’m soloing?”

Improvising over one chord is simple enough, however when you begin to play tunes with actual chord progressions, creating and connecting lines becomes a bit more challenging. This musical obstacle goes to the heart of the skills you need as an improviser and the solution, like many obstacles we encounter in music, is simple in theory yet significantly more involved in implementation.

Imagine for a moment that you took away all the theory terminology, the voice leading rules, the maze of scales and the chord symbol jargon that you normally encounter as an improviser. What would you be left with? You’d be left with sound – that’s it! Despite everything that our brains get caught up in as we try to create a solo, the harmonic aspect of improvisation boils down to sound: Individual sounds (chords) and the relationships between these sounds.

As an improviser a theoretical understanding and technical proficiency are the first steps when approaching these harmonic relationships, but your ultimate goal is melody. Can you create a seamless melody over these sounds and subsequent chord progressions? Herein lies the creative challenge that improvisation poses to us every time we attempt to play a tune.

Your ability to play melodies over a chord progression is directly related to how well you can hear the individual chords of a progression and the relationships between them. If you want to play … Read More

Quadruple Your Jazz Language in 10 Minutes

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Quadruple Your Jazz Language

Learning language is vital to your success as an improvisor. Without it you’re truly lost. You may know a scale, a chord, a concept…but without the fundamental ideas of what to do with these tools, you’ll aimlessly wander through the harmony. These fundamental ideas are gleaned from learning and studying language.

A reader recently wrote in, “I’ve been transcribing and learning language from my favorite players, but now I feel like I’m just repeating the same stuff over and over. How do I get beyond this?”

For starters, make sure you’re learning language not licks, and that you’ve spent ample time making lines your own. If you’re doing those two things, you should already feel like you’re not playing the same stuff all the time.

But, how do you set yourself up from the get-go feeling like when you learn a piece language, you’re going to open many doors, not just one door to one line, in one particular situation? The answer lies in how you understand the line, and what you do with that information once you know it.

The inner workings of jazz language

Whenever you study a piece of jazz language, whether it’s a line you just transcribed, or it’s something you learned months ago, always ask yourself, “What makes this specific line special?” Really dwell on it and ponder the answer. In some cases it’s immediately obvious and in others, it may taking some more thinking.

The point is, you need to realize early … Read More

Thinking About Musical Phrasing for Improvisation

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Recently I’ve been studying and transcribing a lot of Miles from around 1956-1957. Albums like Cookin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’.

More than the notes or the harmonic devices in his solos, the one thing that sticks out about Miles is his sense of phrasing. This is what sets him apart and why so many listeners connect with his sound. Miles could play anything he wanted, but he always plays musically.

It takes an advanced and honest musician to improvise a melody that they are hearing in their heads amid the wash of constantly moving chords and time. And it takes an even more mature musician to not play all the scales, and patterns and language that they’ve practiced for hours.

Most people don’t realize how much work and focus it takes to get to the point that you can free yourself from the theory and play something that you’re hearing and feeling.

This idea of phrasing and creating meaningful musical statements is one aspect of improvising that is missing from a lot of players’ solos. Improvising is not just using scales or inserting a pattern into a chord progression, in the end it’s all about creating music and performing personal melodies.

What is a musical phrase?

When you improvise a musical phrase, you essentially become a composer, creating new melodies on the spot over an established chord progression. Therefore, studying or at the very least becoming familiar with the elements of composition is essential for creating a … Read More

Another Look at Slow Practice for Jazz Improvisation

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Play it slow. Feel every beat. Subdvide. Hear every note. Concentrate on every single detail.

There are dozens of different ways to describe the process of slow practice, yet it seems that the majority of successful musicians in any genre are saying “practice slowly!”

Every teacher that I’ve ever had, from classical players to lead trumpet players to accomplished improvisers, has stressed the importance of focused slow practice. I’ve heard it in masterclasses, I’ve read about it in books, and I’ve watched it in video clips.

It doesn’t matter if you’re working on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or figuring out how to solo over Confirmation, s-l-o-w p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e is oddly enough the quickest way to your goal. Check out the great Itzhak Perlman discussing the benefits of slow practice:

I guess it makes sense, right? The slower you go and the more time you have to process information, the easier it is to learn something. And the faster you learn something, the more efficient you’ll be at improving and achieving your goals.

There’s a sort of contradictory, Yin and Yang quality to all of this that you have to come to terms with. To play fast, you must practice slowly. To play the high notes, you must first master the low notes. To innovate you must assimilate the past. These phrases are easy to remember and have a nice ring to them, but practicing in this fashion is another story.

Number one, it’s counter-intuitive and two, it’s flat out hard … Read More

Developing Aural Knowledge: How to Turn Music Theory into Music

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

“Jazz is smart people music!”

I first heard these words from the great pianist Harold Mabern. Walking through the practice rooms at school one day, as was usually the case, a group of eager students was huddled around him as he told a story. An impromptu musical lesson that didn’t involve scales or chords, but just as valuable – maybe even more so.

This man probably has two stories for every tune he knows and he literally knows a thousand tunes. To hear one of them was to get closer to the music, the history you’ve only read about in books, your musical idols from Lee Morgan and Miles to George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Freddie Hubbard.

But, there was something about that particular phrase that stood out for me: smart people music.

If you’ve ever spent any time around this legendary musician, chances are you might have even heard him say this phrase and more importantly, if you’ve ever tried to play jazz or improvise, you know he’s not kidding around!

It’s no secret that it takes brains to play jazz. The typical improviser is determined, focused, dedicated, well-rounded, and studied…and that’s just a list of what it takes to get some basic instrumental technique and music theory down.

Getting up on stage in front of an audience and improvising in real time demands the utmost from both your intellectual and your physical senses. It’s an understatement that you need to be intelligent to survive in that … Read More

Where to Start Learning Jazz Improvisation

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Where To Start Learning Jazz Improvisation

One of the questions we’ve been getting a lot lately is where to start learning jazz improvisation. There’s so much information out there, that knowing where to start is a complete nightmare.

If I could start again today, I’d ignore nearly all the information out there in terms of method books and do my best to learn this music the same way that the greats learned. They didn’t have books filled with transcriptions of their favorite players. They didn’t have real-books or fake-books packed with sheet music of tunes. And they certainly didn’t have play-along records that they could pop in and jam with.

They learned from the recordings of their heroes, coupled with playing with others.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s up to you whether you use any of these materials and even play-alongs can be used effectively, however, why fix it if it’s not broken?

In other words, people were learning how to play jazz long before any of this material existed and they certainly sounded just fine ;) Sure, the convenience of playing with a play-along record when you have no one to jam with can be fun and beneficial, but in my experience, as well as observing countless other musicians’ experiences, nearly all these resources distract you from the pathway that will get you where you want to go.

Where to start

Here’s a checklist to get you started learning jazz improvisation. If you simply go through the checklist, you’ll be well on your way … Read More

Getting Stuck In ii V Land

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Just learn a few ii V licks in all keys, learn how to use them, and that’s jazz, right? Unfortunately not.

ii Vs make up the bulk of chord progressions found in all western music from classical to pop music, hence, ii Vs are necessary to master. However, a common result from working on ii Vs a lot is something that sounds like a combination of noodling around and plugging in ii V licks. We never want to sound like were noodling around, and we’d much prefer to sound spontaneous and interesting than uninspired and predictable.

When we finally decide to start devoting time to studying ii Vs, our ears open a ton and we get excited, as if we’ve found the key to unlock everything. Studying ii Vs does unlock a ton of mystery and will greatly help you improve as an improviser, but know that that this study is only part of the picture.

Getting stuck in ii V land

We all practice ii Vs. We practice lines over them, we practice freely improvising over them, and we try to figure out how to use any concept we’re working on over them, but to what end?

Somewhere in this mess of working on ii Vs, we lose track of the real goal: to sound musical. That’s right. To actually say something with what we’re playing. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

What happens when we get enthralled with ii Vs … Read More