What kinds of things do you do to learn a new jazz tune? Of course we learn the melody, but if you are planning to improvise on the tune and it’s chord changes, your work has only just begun. I often ask students if they know the spelling of all of the tune’s chords, and the applied scales that reflect the sound of those chords, and the answer is usually…No. Sometimes a school aged student has received some well intentioned advice from their band director, but are given only one, general scale to play with…which most of the time is barely enough to get things off the ground. I often find adult students, even those who have been improvising for awhile, are only working with only a small number of tools, and are leaving the rest up to luck or “inspiration.”
The first thing I do with my students is make a “map” of the basic elements of the tune. If I do it by hand during the lesson, this would made up of two staves (both in treble clef if it is for a trumpet student), with one stave for the chord, and the other for the applied scale. If the tune is simple enough, the chord and scale are placed on the same stave, which leaves the second stave open for other uses, which are explained below. I divide each line equally into four measures, so it is easy to see the phrases, and the general framework of the song, since most songs in the repertoire have four measure phrases. If the phrases are of irregular length, like three or five measures, I will arrange the measures to reflect that the best I can…with three or five measures in the appropriate lines. The example below shows just a fragment of the fifth measure (which would normally be placed at the beginning of the next line), only to show where the examples in some of the staves are headed.
Ideally, there would be more than two staves…one for the melody, and then more blank staves below to work with in various ways. These blank staves can be used for drawing shapes, and visual lines, and experimenting with motivic cells (see the links to related posts below), and even writing a sketch of a solo based on these different approaches. If there is more than one applied scale, you can either write it out on another stave, or (if there is only one or two notes that are different), make a note above or below those notes (see Stave 3. If you have good notation software, like Finale or Sibelius, you can start with just a couple of staves, and add more as you need them, without having to write out the entire map again.
With all of this room to work with, you can include even more information, like Roman numerals that show the function of the chords, or experimenting with moving a melodic fragment by either transposing or rhythmically displacing it. Piano or guitar players can write out possible voicings. This process may at first seem like overkill (especially with all of the staves in my example), but it has a way of not only organizing all of the information in one place, but also of organizing and clarifying the mind…lubing the wheels if you will, so eventually there will be less of a need to think while improvising, and more time and opportunity to listen.
This map can be used during your practice, or during your first attempts to solo. Having that information in front of you, makes it easier to access it in real time. But eventually it will be memorized and internalized, which will take your soloing to the next level.
A map is a tool to help you find your way, or how its contents relate to each other, and so our musical map is no different.
Here’s a brief explanation of the staves shown above:
- Staff 1- The melody and chords…in this case the first four measures of Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice” ( in Concert Pitch), with an analysis of the chord progression using Roman numerals, and melody (using circled notes and a dotted line bracket to show a nice descending shape).
- Staff 2- The basic spelling of the chords in root position
- Staff 3- The spelling and labeling of some of the applied scales. Things can get pretty crowded very quickly here, especially when there is more than one scale possibility per chord. For those cases I’ll list the variations as accidentals above or below the note, or try to at least write out the scale name.
- Staff 4- An ascending shape using chord or scale tones
- Staff 5- A three note motivic cell that alters to fit the underlying chord and/or applied scale)s)
- Staff 6- The same three note motivic cell with notes spaced (in ascending order) a 4th and a 2nd apart, this time moving in a more interesting way
- Staff 7- A visually appealing line that can be translated into a musical line
- Staff 8- Rhythmic scales, adjusting to fit an applied scale of the moment. These particular rhythms come from the song, with the first two measures beginning in a different part of the measure than the excerpt’s original positioning.
More Related Posts:
- “Using “Shapes” to Improve the Structure of Improvised Solos and Compositions” (includes sound files of written examples)
- “Using Motivic Cells with Beginning Improvisers“
- “More Ways to Improvise Using Motivic Cells“
- “The Visual Connection to a Musical Line“
- “Creating Longer Phrases“
- “A Casting Call for All Notes“
- “2012-2013 Colorado All State Jazz Band Auditions“
- “Rhythmic Scales“