I had started really spending time practicing scales and arpeggios and even gotten them to where I could use that in my solos and could go beyond just playing pentatonic licks, but the first time I tried to learn a Jazz Standard, I failed completely, and was pretty much, doing Everything wrong.
A the time I had no idea what a Jazz Standard was, and if I had known that they were mostly songs written for musicals in the 30s and 40s then I would probably have run away screaming
My introduction to this was also a bit odd, and this is really the story about me being clueless and fumbling around in the dark while making every possible mistake., and hopefully helping you avoid that.
At the time I was still studying mathematics at the university, and I was hanging out with a bass player friend of mine that I knew from high school. I hadn’t seen him for a few years and we were jamming and improvising. Because we were improvising he told me about Jazz and played me some fusion albums.
I was not really impressed with the fusion stuff, it sounded like instrumental pop music with chorus on the whole album to me. The music I was listening to at the time was more blues-based and really not produced like the 80s fusion was. At the same time, I was still really curious to learn and to try to play Jazz because I wanted to become better at improvising. That part fascinated me because improvising was what I had the most fun doing when I was playing in rock bands, which I did next to studying at the university, and I was quite lucky that I played in bands where I had a lot of space to improvise like that (especially given how bad I probably was at it). I had been checking out some Satriani and Steve Vai, but when I realized that they were not improvising their solos then I lost all interest in their music and went looking for other stuff. It took a long time until I started to appreciate their playing, it is strange how pretty random things can influence our taste, I somehow also ignored that a lot of the rock bands that I listened to did not really improvise either.
Luckily Johan, the bass player, had an Aebersold album that I could borrow so that I could try to learn to play. If you don’t know what an Aebersold album is, then it is a book with sheet music for some songs and backing tracks for all those songs which is great to practice with if you know how to read and interpret a lead sheet.
but I had absolutely no idea what to do with all the chords in that book, the most Jazzy song I had improvised on was probably T-bone Walker’s Stormy Monday which is still just a 12 bar-blues.
I started listening to the Aebersold cassette and the first song was Green Dolphin Street. Of course, I only had the backing track so I listened to the groove in the bass intro (which was a bit confusing) and especially the chords which sounded amazing with a lot of colors and it was moving around in ways I wasn’t used to which I found really interesting. I immediately set out to try and learn to improvise over that song.
Listening To The Song
If you want to learn a song then one of the first things you want to do is to listen to the song, that seems obvious. When I am working on a song then I usually check out several versions and also try to figure out what the “famous” versions of that song is.
But I was in the situation that I had ONLY the backing track album, and this was in 1994 without any Spotify, YouTube or iTunes then I had no idea how people played the song. Remember that I had no experience with listening to or playing Jazz, and the only source of music I had available was the library where it was hard to find specific songs if you did not know what album it was on or who had recorded it, which is really a pity because the Coltrane/Miles versions of this song would probably have been really cool to check out and would have made the whole thing a lot easier.
Learning the Melody
From the Aebersold book, I could spell my way through the melody, even though Eb was not exactly a key I felt familiar with. I might have had an advantage because I had been playing with my guitar tuned down a half step, just like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn and I had had to sometimes play in fairly odd keys because of that when I was playing with other people, but reading the melody of the song was certainly a challenge and something that I could at most spell my way through. This meant that I did not spend a lot of time on it, since that was anyway not what I wanted to do, I wanted to improvise, I wanted to solo on it.
What I did not know was that, If you want to learn to improvise over a Jazz standard then one of the first things you want to learn is the melody. The two main reasons for this are:
#1 The Melody is what you use to hear the harmony
So you hear the melody note and from that note, you hear the rest of the chord that is around it,
that is much easier than hearing 4 beats of Cm7, just try…
#2 The Melody is what gives you the form
Instead of counting bars while you play you hear the melody as a guide through the form so you don’t get lost.
Not having the melody internalized made that VERY difficult, mainly I then had to count to keep track and the chord progression, which was anyway completely new to me. I had never heard of a II V I or a III VI II V anyway. I actually think that I could have gotten a lot further if I had learned the melody first and if someone had told me to do that, but nobody did, so I tried to count and keep track while I was improvising, which was a very poor strategy.
Modal Improvisation And Scales Sucks for Changes
What really drew me to Green Dolphin Street was probably that it had the A part with shifting maj7th chords that sounded both complex, surprising, and still pretty smooth or natural, and that was also what felt was the easiest to solo on, or rather possible to solo on.
That part of the song feels more “modal” and is not really a typical jazz progression. The 2nd 8 bars with the two II V I progressions with an altered dominant were impossible. I didn’t know what a II V I was, so I certainly had no vocabulary for that, and altered dominants were also pretty far out of my reach even if I knew what scale it was.
The way I had been taught to improvise at this point was to look at the chord progression and then figure out what scale to use and play something with that scale.
The skill of really spelling out changes was not something I was really aware of, and combining that skill with a chord progression so that your solo would flow through the changes was also not something I had heard of. Everything was per chord, and not about playing specific chord progressions. The other approach I knew was to have one scale that fitted the entire song and just use that, but I could not find a scale that had an Ebmaj7, a Gbmaj7, a Fmaj7, and an Emaj7 chord in there….
I could barely figure out what to play on the chords and had no idea how to tie together those melodies then 200 bpm is pretty fast! Those parts of the song were mostly just crash and burn, and often I would get completely lost trying to count and just play something.
This is really why you want to learn some vocabulary and also work on soloing over specific progressions like II V I and turnarounds, which will then give you much better tools to handle blocks of chords within songs, it isn’t just one scale per chord, and knowing the building blocks of turnarounds and cadences helps you hear what is going on. That way you are moving towards improvising more freely over the progression.
The Weird Paradox Of Difficult and Easy
The way I learned to improvise using chord scale relationships, is not that uncommon, and it is also sort of a logical next step if you deal with shorter progressions where you don’t have too many chords. Often that means that the first songs you are given by a teacher are modal, so different chords next to each other with no really harmonic connection. Songs like Cantaloupe Island or So What are typical examples.
This way of learning improvisation is useful because the songs are easier to play over, you don’t have to think about a million chords, scales, and arpeggios, but they do have a problem if you want to later play songs like Standards and Bebop Themes.
Jazz as a language was not developed by playing over a static chord for a long period of time. It was developed by improvising over Jazz standards which have faster-moving progressions, and a part of the language is how the solo incorporates those chords into the lines. You need to learn to think ahead and also to play a melody that spans several chords.
That is difficult if you are trained to think about everything one chord at a time and not have an overview of several chords in one phrase. In that way, the modal pieces don’t really help you get better at playing faster moving progressions since the chords don’t move in the same way as they do with Standards and you are not working on what connects the two chords.
At the same time, it can be really useful for a beginning improviser to work on a modal piece because it helps develop a sense of period (so feeling the bar, and the 4-bar periods) and a lot of modal progressions have really surprising chord changes that are easier to hear so that you don’t get lost when you play because you can easily hear what is going on.
This can be much more complicated with a Jazz standard. So there are pros and cons to learning modal pieces in the beginning that you might want to be aware of, but of course mainly if you aim to learn to also play Jazz standards.
My Aebersold backing track was clearly way too fast for me to play over it, and in this first attempt at learning a Jazz standard then I did not sit down and make my own slower and clearer backing track which is what I did later, just recording me playing the chords, but there is a funny side effect to practicing slowly when it comes to Jazz.
Practicing Slowly – The Wrong way
Any song that you play slowly enough becomes modal. You can easily try, just play a II V I but make each chord 4 or 8 bars long, and then you will hear how the forward motion of the progression disappears. This is also how The 2nd Miles Davis quintet made songs like Stella by Starlight and My Funny Valentine into modal pieces: slowing them down so that the function of the harmony disappears.
So when you want to practice slowly on a Jazz standard, then maybe it is not about taking the tempo too far down that will work against you because you can’t hear the flow of the harmony which is as important if you want to develop your jazz skills. Instead, you can slow other things down so that you internalize the harmony and learn to improvise over the chords. I have other videos on improvising with chord tones and in my course, I even reduce that as a starting point before gradually helping you develop your playing so that includes arpeggios, scales, chromatic phrases and octave displacement.
Another important aspect is to focus on the short chord progressions that are the building blocks of a Jazz standard progression. That is what makes it both easier to remember the chords and also what will make it easier to improvise over them because you have those shorter building blocks in your ears and in your fingers.
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