Using chords in solos

I was recently asked on the forum how I approach putting harmony into my solos as I do in this song (check around 2:25 for a clear example) :

When I started out playing jazz I listened a lot to Lorne Lofsky who uses quite a lot of chords in his playing, and I also really liked Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans so I tried to find a way to simulate having the left hand on a piano playing chords. In the beginning I did not really get anywhere with that. A few years later I heard Kurt Rosenwinkel’s debut album East Coast Love Affair where he does this really a lot and at that time I had was closer to having the skills to get it into my playing.  So I decided that I wanted to do learn that.

Let’s look a bit at what actually happens. I use chords in two different ways in the solo:

1. As a way to fill up long notes or rests in the single-note lines

2. Ideas that are chords and melody together (similar to a harmonized melodic idea)

For now let’s concentrate on the first one of those, since that is something that basically should fit into anybody’s playing to some degree or other.

A simplified version of that would be let’s practice putting a chord under notes at the end of phrases. So to start with. Let’s play a II V I and put a chord on the note we resolve to on the I chord.

Here’s an exercise to have I chord voicings for all notes of the major scale.  This is not the kind of exercise that you want to practice to tempo 200 etc. It is more the kind of thing that you want to sit down and figure out in different keys, and different solutions in the same key, so it is better to practice it a bit open ended.

Using Chords in Solos - Ex 1 Major 7

You’ll notice I start with notes on the G string. Most notes lower than that are not that effective when harmonized. The Bb does not fit with Fmaj7 so I chose to harmonize that with a Bbm chord. You could use others too. I tend to use mostly 3 note chords because they are more flexible technically.

Here are similar exercises for Gm7 and C7

Using Chords in Solos - Ex 2 Minor 7

Using Chords in Solos - Ex 3 Dom7

A lot of exercises like these are possible, staying on one set of strings, ascending through the major scale with II V I chords etc. etc. They are all good to check out.

The next step could be to make lines using these voicings. The best place to start is probably to put a chord at the end of a line, so start composing lines towards a target note where you know what chord to put under it as in the first example. The 2nd example is to put a chord at the beginning of each bar. Eventually it should get easy to make lines using the chords.

Using Chords in Solos - Ex 4 Line 1

Using Chords in Solos - Ex 5 Line 2

Here’s a video of me using this technique in a simple medium tempo II V I VI in F major:


Here’s another video from a few months ago where I am playing I Fall in Love Too Easily and playing a chord on every beat while playing the melody and soloing. This is an approach that I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel do in a masterclass while I was studying at the Conservatory.

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