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
Following up my first post regarding bebop drum vocabulary, I thought it would be fun to present an incredibly tasty Roy Haynes transcription. This particular solo is from Thelonious Monk’s 1958 live album Misterioso, and features Thelonious on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and the incomparable Roy Haynes on drums.
There are several reasons that make this particular drum solo so enjoyable, both as a listener and as a student honing one’s craft.
Maybe I’m just a math geek, but I love exploring patterns on my horn. A plethora of jazz literature is available on scalar/pattern studies (Jerry Coker, Oliver Nelson, David Baker, Slonimsky, etc.), each offering a veritable buffet of patterns for you to get under your fingers and have in your back pocket. You COULD just open one of these books, flip to any page, read the lick, and transpose into all 12 keys, and repeat. But for me, these books just collect dust on my shelves. Meanwhile I’m practicing patterns almost every day.
In my last post I explored why patterns, when used thoughtfully and judiciously, are essential for the improvising musician. …
=&0=&Here’s a framework.
Patterns are composed of cells, or small, mathematically constructed groups of notes.
Coltrane was famous for his exploration and application of various cells.
Here are the most common variables I toy with:
- # Notes
- # Notes
- Time Signature
Let’s walk through an example:
Here are 2 basic cells. These 2 ridiculously simple elements form the foundation for everything that follows.
Now let’s construct some basic patterns. Just humor me and start here, please!
Combining Cells: From now onward we will use both cells 1 & 2 together to create increasingly complex patterns.
Now you’re ready for the fun stuff!
Once you’ve wrapped your head around the basics outlined in patterns 1-8 above, you can start playing around with the 2 cells in more interesting ways. I’m going to take the same cells, modulate to minor, and iterate on just one idea (you can think of pattern #9 as the base pattern):
Here’s a clip of me applying that last pattern over the tune Softly as in a Morning Sunrise. Notice how you can imply the harmony of minor chords moving in ascending minor thirds by playing this line:
Another way you can use patterns in your improvised solos is to actually move what you are playing in real time with the changes. Let’s get a fresh pattern and see how this works:
Now let’s apply it over the first 4 bars of Green Dolphin Street:
It gets a lot tougher when the changes start moving faster. Here’s one way to kind of make the same pattern work over Confirmation:
Now I know I’d be hard pressed to compute this pattern in real-time, so we can use the same idea, but simplified, to create a melody or motive. Here’s something similar to what Chris Potter might play if here were using our cells:
Bebop Drum Solos
One of the challenges in teaching jazz drumset to younger musicians is connecting the dots between their existing physical technique and a stylistic concept of what it means to play jazz/bebop vocabulary. John Riley has authored three incredible books: The Art of Bop Drumming, Beyond Bop Drumming, and The Jazz Drummer’s Workshop; all of which prove helpful to students over the course of their development.
It also goes without saying that listening to jazz music (or any style of music one is attempting to master) is first and foremost the most vital learning tool. A particular strategy that I have utilized more often in recent years is composing short exercises to introduce classic bebop drum vocabulary. Many of these phrases are common, and are reminiscent of Max Roach or Roy Haynes. That being said, they feel fresh and exciting for a young drummer only beginning to build a toolkit of jazz phrasing/vocabulary.
Below are three distinct 12-bar drumset solos. The first deals only in eighth-note subdivisions.
The second introduces eighth-note triplets.
The third solos introduces sixteenth-notes, and moves between subdivisions ala Elvin Jones.
Once a student has learned these short solos, I find it helpful to break them into four-bar phrases to practice trading with timekeeping. I also have students compose their own short solos as a bridge between reading and improvising. Finally, we practice improvising over short forms with the added confidence/awareness of possessing an authentic vocabulary around the drums.
Here are the downloadable PDF files:
Let’s start by eliminating what patterns are NOT:
=&0=&. Plug in your David Baker diminished pattern lick over the first altered dominant chord you can find at your next gig, and your solo will be about as tasty as soggy, cold French fries. Yes, they are still French fries, and technically they qualify as food, but would you ever walk into B.K. and ask for “extra cold and soggy fries, please”? Don’t serve your audience cold fries.
=&1=&It’s typically lazy and unimaginative. You should PRACTICE plugging patterns into tunes to get their sound in your ear and notes under your fingers, but please don’t allow that to become your ultimate artistic statement. In my next post, however, I will explore some creative pattern construction techniques that I use to come up with fresh, pattern-based lines. I often find them sneaking into my solos. I am not ashamed of this, as they can be extremely effective vehicles for implying complex harmony, adding the perfect amount of tension or release at the right time. But I think pattern application of this variety is the exception, rather than the rule.
Ok, so =&2=& if most aren’t providing you with a lick to plug in? Here ’s why pattern study is essential for any improvising musician:
1) =&3=& – by studying different scalar permutations in addition to simply running scales across your full range, you will gain incredible fluidity, enabling yourself to speak freely across a harmony during your solo. You can’t be thinking about whether Gmaj7 has an F or F# when you’re trying to create a musical statement.
2) =&4=& – Give your mind a killer workout by moving any pattern across keys, chord qualities, groupings, etc. (more on this in my next post).
3) =&5=& – Envy how the masters are able to develop little ideas and build on them throughout their solos? They’ve spent a lot of time shedding patterns, which is one of many tools that empowers one to tell a story that actually goes somewhere.
4) =&6=& – building off point 3, you patterns are a great way to capture harmonic movement through a single improvised line.
My next post, Patterns: Part 2 – Endless Possibilities, will explore different brain exercises that can be used to create an unlimited variety of compelling patterns. Meanwhile, here are some examples of totally satisfying, highly musical applications of storytelling that spawned, at least in part, from extensive pattern study (and some of my favorite solos):
=&7=& and =&8=&: Switchblade – Notice how effectively both Yahel and Redman move cells around to build out simple ideas.