Jazz tune writer’s block? We all know the feeling. In fact, I’ve also been in a massive blogging dry spell, having taken over a year off from this site. But in the spirit of this post, it only seemed fitting to blog about the idea of having no good ideas. Here are a few jump-starters to get cooking on your next tune when that elusive, perfect melody just isn’t coming to you.
1. Harmony Can Lead to Melody
For a long time I was embarrassed to retrofit melodies to the harmonies I would plunk out at the piano. Somehow the origin of my melodic content felt shameful and insincere, since I felt strongly that harmony served to reinforce melody, and not the other way around.
Upon reflection, however, I realize that revealing the perfect line over a set of chord changes is perhaps the very most natural and satisfying means for a improvisation-focused musician to compose. Think about it: we are “spontaneously composing” melodies all the time while playing over changes. So why not sit down until you’ve come up with a compelling progression, devise something lyrical that fits over it, add a pinch of rhythmically-engaging accompaniment, and call it a day?
2. Start with a Rhythm
Forget about the pitches and, just for a minute, allow yourself to draw inspiration from a rhythm. One time I started a tune based on the cadence of my bedroom ceiling fan’s incessant clicking. I ended up taking that tune in a different direction, using the melody I came up with to the rhythm of the fan clicks but eventually revising it to fit a different rhythmic idea. However, I never would have found that melody if it weren’t for the sleepless night I spent jamming out to my ceiling fan.
3. Bass Line and Go
If you write enough tunes, you’ll have the good fortune of stumbling upon a bass line that inspires a new composition. Run with it. Maybe one day it will turn into something that’s not a just a funky minor jam. The good news is that even if it doesn’t, everybody loves a good funky minor jam with a hot bass line.
Ok, the process of writing this blog post just gave me an idea for a new tune, so gotta go.
“…it’s so hard to describe music other than the basic way to describe it – music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm – but I mean people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways…”
~Charlie Parker from an interview conducted by Paul Desmond (1954)
The more I ponder Bird’s fundamental decomposition of music, the more I discover how aptly anything musical can be described by its harmony, melody, and rhythm. There’s still that lingering, intangible “much more,” the part that gives music meaning. But let’s save the “much more” for another post…
As improvisers, we strive to use our instruments as a medium for channelling the musical thoughts that are trapped inside our mind’s ear. When I sit down to practice, I want to focus my routine around activities what work the mental and physical muscles that will get me closer to this goal on two fronts: working on my ability to execute the sounds I hear is one piece of the puzzle, but I’m also constantly looking to develop my ear and my mind’s ability to imagine new sounds. These sounds can be harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, or a some combination of the three.
Here’s one approach I’ve used to structure my practice routine around this goal.
Core, Ear, & Mind
As I delve into any new concept, my abilities will evolve with continued practice.
Back in the late 60’s and 70’s, fourths were the hippest thing since sliced bread. Jazz entered the age of treble-heavy bass and electric fusion, and musicians were overlaying fresh-sounding (at the time) intervallic fourth patterns over all sorts of funky modal groove tunes.
But fourths are so much more than just a few licks to plug in. Let’s explore the harmonic and intervallic possibilities the fourth creates. I hope to open your mind, your practice routine, and your playing. After all, it’s called a perfect fourth for a reason!
Let’s start from the beginning and work our way up.
What is a fourth?
Let’s take 10 seconds and cover the extreme basics. The fourth is an interval. In the key of C, moving from C to F is moving from 1 to 4 if you number each note sequentially:
Harmonically speaking, the fourth takes a similar form. In the key of C, an “F” chord is known as the fourth.
Building a Major Scale Out of 4ths
Say what you will about Roy Hargrove’s current lifestyle choices; the man has blown some serious trumpet in his day. Roy’s ability to effortlessly glide between playing “in” (playing notes that fit the harmony) and “out” (creating tension by playing notes that don’t fit) has always impressed me, so I recently decided to pick a few lines to analyze his various harmonic devices.
Although he released a slew of post bop material throughout the 90’s, I reached for his more groove-oriented stuff in order to cut to the core of his soulful harmonic concept. His solo over Rich Man’s Welfare off RH Factor’s “Strength” fit the bill nicely.
But First, A Few Observations
Before getting into the meat of the analysis, I want to note a few keys to Hargrove’s playing in this era that made it all work. His time is impeccable, he shapes his lines with clean, clear articulations, and his style is…well he really swings.
Even more pertinent to the the analysis of his harmonic concept when playing outside the changes, RH could play nearly perfect bop, meaning that his “inside” playing is really fantastic. When Hargrove wanted to lay down a line to outline the changes, it was his for the taking.
Now, on to the solo!
Let’s dig into 2 excerpts from his solo and try to see if we can figure out what he’s thinking. Roy opens by stating some great dorian minor and blues-infused lines. These are firmly rooted in the groove and harmony, and they are the wonderful “in” that make his out playing “out”.
In measure 6 (see transcription below), he starts to play against the Em (concert Dm) tonality. Roy first moves into a F7 concept (could also be C7), then chromatically wanders to end the line implying Eb. He then continues that Eb thought, then moves down another whole step to imply a Db7 in bar 8.
Bar 9 starts with a hint of returning to the Em6 sound, but then moves back out to a Eb major sound, but that could also be interpreted as an F7. The latter would make sense given the next line, which moves from Em quickly to F7(#11). Not sure what that line is at the end…
Excerpt 1: Audio & Transcription
It’s been a whirlwind of a summer. I almost moved to London, but then I heard the burritos over there are terrible, so last week my girlfriend and I moved into a new apartment together instead. So, the posts stopped for a while, but it’s time to get back on the horse!
I’ve been thinking a lot about harmony and come to believe that the difference between today’s best jazz musicians and the rest of us is their masterful command over the minutia of harmony.
I realized that I don’t have as a good a grasp of the plethora of dominant alterations out there as I should.
Why Harmonic Mastery is ESSENTIAL
Those of you with some degree of jazz exposure may be thinking…
…I know what a dominant chord is, and I know what a b9 and #9 sound like. It’s not rocket science.
Fine. But are you sure you aren’t just blindly applying alterations regardless of each particular context? Do you REALLY know when the piano player is hitting a #11 or b13, or are you just thinking…
…Ah, some sort of altered dominant, time to plug in my angular diminished licks!!
Have you ever played the board game Operation? The basic objective is to use little tweezers to take out tiny plastic organs from a dude’s body without without touching the sides. Jazz harmony functions in a surprisingly similar manner. Your hands don’t have to be perfectly steady and studied to come close to getting it right. But every now and then your hands (ears) aren’t studied enough to make it out (of the harmony) cleanly. The inappropriately dissonant buzzer goes off, Beaker’s nose glows bright red, and you’re busted.
I’m not here to sound the hater-buzzer every time you sit on an F over a C7#11. But I hope to help you understand that the more you play “close enough” with harmony, the further you will be from sincerely obtaining your musical goals.
Some chords are pretty straightforward. Major, minor, and half-diminished chords have consistent functions in conventional harmony, and their varieties are limited.
Take the varieties of C major for example. You can play a C major scale over Cmaj7, C6, C6/9; raise the fourth (lydian) and you’ve got the rest of the C major family covered (Cmaj7#11, etc). It’s a good bet that the C major you are playing functions as either the tonic (root), IV, or III (relative major) of the tune.
Similarly, 99% of minor chords you come across are the tonic, iv (relative minor), or ii of a ii-V-I. Again, I’m talking about traditional jazz/western harmony here, not the more contemporary harmonic approach to non-functional chord progressions.
What Makes Dominants So Special
Compared to major & minor, the dominant chord is unpredictable. It’s most versatile yet subtle harmonic family in music.
Before diving into the many forms of the dominant that I cover later, let’s pause to think about WHY it’s so flexible. Go sit down at your piano, play any simple dominant chord (i.e. C-E-G-F), and resolve it to the closest inversion of ANY major or minor chord. It works! I won’t get into why, but the presence of that embedded diminished triad (3-5-b7) creates a lot of tension, and that tension can resolve anywhere, which means that in jazz harmony, the dominant chord can function in many ways.
Western Classical: V7
Classical composers, or really any composer before the early 20th century, would employ the dominant chord in an extremely predictable manner: as a five chord. No alterations were used, and the presence of that embedded diminished triad created all the tension necessary to make the resolution sound good to your ears.
The traditional functions are:
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