Chops And Changes: Learning to Improvise on a New Tune by Bobby Shew

Originally published to BobbyShew.com

 

The following sequential process is something I’ve worked on and been using with some notable success in teaching about improvisation. Naturally, some of my students are beginning to intermediate with regard to their playing levels. Any decent jazz musician would probably tell you that it’s impossible to “teach someone how to play jazz” and I would agree totally if we look at it in a literal manner especially with reference to the essence of the art form. However, I know there are many things that can be referred to with regard to this activity and this information just might open up some doors of perception for a student and get them headed down the “correct path” of self-learning and ear training which perhaps might enable them to learn to improvise well someday.

 

Most of the young players I’ve come in contact with are seemingly searching for some sort of short-cut or magic formula that will make them sound impressive and that will keep them from playing any “wrong notes”. This is really a big problem with our educational system. I’ve spoken of it prior and will no doubt continue to speak of it until it goes away. For now, I’d like to submit the following process as a simple, yet sometimes tedious and demanding method of getting more deeply involved in the basic understanding of some of the academic materials used in learning to play jazz solos.

 

I think it’s necessary, or at least helpful, to be able to understand music in all stages in order to fully master it. A chord is simply a static SOUND. It can have duration but it doesn’t require motion or movement to satisfy its definition. The PRIMARY level of understanding must start with a VERTICAL, or up-and-down way of recognizing each chord. This chord has primary chordal tones, i.e., 1st (root), 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Even MORE primary to this is the TRIAD, i.e., root, 3rd, 5th with no 7th. In jazz, almost all chords have at least the basic four notes aforementioned. Moving onward, the chord then has extensions, i.e., 9th, 11th, and 13th, either in natural state or altered as lowered (flat) 9th or raised (sharp) 9th, raised (sharp) 11th, and lowered (flat) 13th.

 

Having dealt with the VERTICAL approach and information, the next possible approach is more HORIZONTAL. This would include the addition of the scales from the syllabus that apply to each chord. This horizontal approach eventually involves forward movement thru various chords, the scale changing to match each chord “change”. This can possibly lead to more linear motion in your soloing. Once you feel more comfortable with the chord scales, then the REAL essence of improvising is moving into true LINEAR playing where you strive for melodies that fit in yet flow not only thru but almost above the harmonic structure of the tune. The real beauty of going thru this step-by-step process is its effect on your ability to “hear” the changes and THE TUNE. Ear training is probably the most vital (and overlooked) aspect of any musical training program from my point of view and it is with that point in mind that I’ve devised all of the routines & exercises. So much could be written here about all of this but for now, let’s move on to the process. As you put it into practice, try to find your own personal needs and make your own decisions as to how to use it. The intent here is not a musical cloning. Learn to THINK and OBSERVE.

 

1) Learn the MELODY of the tune. Play it over and over until you can play it without reading it. If possible (and preferably), LISTEN to a recording of it hopefully by a GREAT PLAYER. Also if possible, seek out OTHER recordings of the same tune, even if in a different key and different style.

 

2) Get the correct chords for the tune. Fake books are not to be trusted so learn to develop your ear to check and eventually you should be able to transcribe the tune AND changes.

 

3) On a piece of music paper, vertically spell all of the chords. If you’re new at this, start with triads only, then add the 7th after triads are done.

 

4) On your instrument, play these spellings , up and down. Keep repeating them until you are comfortable with them, i.e., 1-3-5, 5-3-1, then invert them in several ways, i.e., 3-1-5, 1-5-3,5-1-3 . The add the 7th and play them 1-3-5-7,7-5-3-1 up and down. When somewhat comfortable, do the inversions as above, i.e., 1-5-3-7,7-3-5-1, 1-7-3-5,5-1-3-7, etc. Take your time, play them slowly. Use a metronome to help develop rhythmic-“time” control as you develop harmonic skill. For playing triads, play quarter note and two eighth notes in each bar.

 

When there are two chords in a bar, then play two eighths and a quarter for each chord.

when you go to four-note chords, play four eighth notes on each.

 

An important point with this routine is to play them at first by looking at them but then look away from the page and play them by ear, remembering what you played when reading . This enables your “ear” to learn them, not only your eyes and fingers.

 

5) Using a play-along recording (or just a standard jazz recording if you don’t have a play-along), play the spellings along with the recording. Repeat several choruses until you gain a degree of familiarity and comfort. Also play the melody several times thru.

It’s a good idea to alternate a melody chorus and then a spelling chorus, back and forth. There is an old adage in music, “Melody dictates Harmony”. They work together but melody always helps stabilize the harmonic movement thru the tune and helps you develop the “inner ear”.

 

6) Get a copy of the Scale Syllabus and figure out from the chart which chord scale applies to each vertical chord. Write these out for each chord on a separate piece of music paper. Play thru them slowly, once again up-and-down and then reorganizing the position of the scale tones , i.e., play the notes in several different sequence alternating the intervals around and around. Extend past just one octave. Alternate & experiment with different rhythms, i.e., some sustained notes, some 8ths, some quarters, etc. Suggest you start with 1-2-3-5 of each scale as eighth notes.

Make them SWING!

 

7) Using the recording, play thru these scales, chorus after chorus being sure to alternate intervals so it doesn’t sound like you’re just playing scales. Experiment with rhythms, etc., as above. It’s OK to leave space here and there… whatever you WANT. Remember, we’re playing MUSIC here. Make things have FEELING.

 

8) Go back to your basic spellings of the 1-3-5-7 vertical chords. As you play the recording, you now need to learn to spot common tones and voice leadings in the chord progressions. Select any chordal tone from the first chord of the tune and sustain it as long as it applies as a PRIMARY (1-3-5-7) chordal tone as the chords go by. This is known as a common tone. If it does NOT apply, it is no longer a common tone but is now a VOICE LEADING. That means that if you do not move it to a chordal tone, you will be playing the “forbidden wrong note”. Common tones and voice leadings will teach your ear the connections between the chords. Typically you will find simple things like if you pick a 3rd, it will likely become the 7th of the next chord without moving and sometimes the 7th will become the 3rd. It is always nice to sit back and take a look at these analytically just so you start to understand the inner workings of tune construction. During this exercise, you’ll mostly be playing only whole notes and perhaps half notes. These are almost like sustained “string pads” under a melody. Each chorus start with a different chordal tone so you find several different “pathways” thru the tune.

 

9) Repeat this process with chordal extensions and alterations called for in each chord change. These are considered SECONDARY chordal tones. As you approach the extensions, it’s OK to eliminate the lower basics of each chord in order to concentrate and facilitate dealing with the extensions. After some degree of comfort, try combining Primary and Secondary tones. Always remember THE MUSIC. Try to gain as much horizontal and linear movement as you gain but try as well to combine vertical with horizontal -linear lines . Don’t forget the RHYTHMIC aspects. It’s gotta feel good!

 

10) Sit down with some music paper and write several melodies that work with this chord structure. Try to write melodies as if you were planning on adding singable lyrics later.

 

11) Using your ear, play the tune in several other keys, starting with the melody and then learning to “hear the tune” as you improvise in different keys.

 

Read the original publication by Bobby Shew here.

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