Jazz improvisation is inherently subjective. What makes one solo “better” than any other is often a matter of taste, a preference for a given style. But while articulation, swing feel, and phrasing vary wildly from one great player to the next, every noteworthy improviser is able to effortlessly demonstrate a tune’s chordal movement. Just as any writer worth her salt showcases complete mastery over grammatical convention, the conversant jazz musician must be fully in command of the harmonic structure on top of which they are improvising. Simply put: You’ve gotta be able to play the changes!
Arguably even more important than their virtuosic technique and impeccable rhythmic feel, what makes the great players truly great is their unshakable fluency of harmonic language. Until you are playing all the changes over a tune, your not really playing the tune. All the cool licks in the world won’t make you sound any more proficient than a truckload of glue will convince anybody that little Tommy’s mustache is a all-natural, glorious Tom Selleck.
What does it really mean to be able to “play the changes”?
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, the “changes” are the chords that were originally composed to support the melody of a song. Many musicians first face chord changes by being presented with an excerpt from a Real Book, known as a lead sheet, which states the melody and chords to a given tune. As these changes are flying by, it is the job of the jazz musician to spontaneously compose a line that fits within the context of the harmony. More advanced jazz musicians will occasionally superimpose other, more complex harmonies on top of the original chord changes, with the intention of eventually resolving back to the originally composed harmonies to give their superimposition context. Some call this playing “out” and then back “in” [the chord changes].
Learning to play the changes takes many years of focused listening, practice, and patience. However, I’d like to offer 4 simple tips that will get you headed in the right direction:
Tip #1: Play ALL the changes
This may sound silly, but more I’m around jazz, the more I realize how critical it is to be aware of every single harmony you are playing over. When you catch yourself playing over a tune and thinking “G-minor-7, something, something, C-maj7”, don’t let is slide – either stop or go back later and figure out what “something” and “something” really are. Then practice outlining both “somethings” in your improvisation.
Tip #2: Don’t play “out” until you can play “in”
First learn to play chord tones over an entire tune (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7ths) and practice finding half-steps that nicely voice-lead between the chord changes. Next, be able to play eighth-note lines in time that are 100% “in”, meaning they use the voice-leading you practiced first to make smooth transitions between the moving harmonies. Only once you are comfortable with may you then take on the added challenge, if you so desire, of adding your own harmonic flare by playing “outside”.
Tip #3: Throw out your “random stuff” lick ASAP!
A common pitfall of many inexperienced improvisers (and some experienced ones too!) is to constantly put a band-aid over their harmonic trouble-spots by playing the same random, chromatic or atonal lick. It’s the jazz equivalent of having a conversation with bullshitter who says “like” and “um”, then just spews a bunch of random big words and other crap that is clearly BS. Be honest with yourself. The next time you’re practicing, take note of the times you play your “random stuff” lick and try to eliminate it from your repertoire.
Tip #4: Learn the tune by ear
Staring at a real book is the absolute worst way to learn a tune. By finding a classic/standard recording of the tune and learning the harmonies by ear as you play along, you will learn how the tune sounds. Once you have internalized what the chord changes actually sound like, crafting solo lines that fit that sound becomes a far more natural exercise.
Now that I’ve sufficiently scared you into some dark hole, don’t be discouraged. Honestly, try not to worry about this too much outside the practice room and just play with your fellow musicians! Everybody struggles with everything I’ve talked about above at some point, and as long as you’re having fun playing the music, you will discover each of these things for yourself over time and be determined to overcome them.