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During the 1st week, after starting Music College, as a member of the Big Band, I was confronted with a chord chart to use, to improvise over a section in a Sammy Nestico tune, a week later.
Most of the chord symbols seemed alien to me, so I set off with a new book that I had purchased for learning which scales to play with which chords. I soon realised that it may take me longer than a week to learn my chord chart, in fact the book described hundreds of scales and chords, and the task of learning to play them fluently in all keys seemed like a lifetime’s undertaking.
I was right.
So, the following week I stumbled through the solo, forgetting the harmonic knowledge (or lack of) approach, and just used my ears and intuition to guide me.
Lots of people I knew at the time informed me that this was the right approach, that jazz was a simple matter of ‘busking’, or making it up as you go along.
At the time I was listening to JOHN COLTRANE. I could not believe that that was what he was doing. Then I read one of his biographies and realised that his approach took a longer path, more akin to a scientist; in fact his virtuosity as a master musician was based on an ongoing dedication to studying many forms of musical and artistic mastery, never ceasing to develop his own system for creating music.
The majority of people still seem to think that improvising in jazz or other forms is simply a matter of using your ears and your intuition.
Herein lies the main problem for the average musician – especially beginners – when it comes to improvising. They really believe that if they do not have great ears from the outset, then they will never play jazz.
I have experienced 2 main types of approaches…. intuition and studying, and both seem to be able to create great jazz players.
However, I have also noticed that the natural players – who rely solely (or mainly) on their intuition – seem to eventually hit a dead-end and sound the same for ever more. On the other hand, musicians who are studying as well, seem to be able to move through and morph in and out of different styles, building on their musicianship continuously – more akin to the Coltrane approach.
So, this system I wish to describe and recommend to you, follows the latter approach and is therefore useful for any person, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or level of musicianship.
Simplifying Jazz Theory
How to make it easier
From my own experience as a student and teacher, I understand the difficulty of learning the scale/chord aspect of improvising. The fear this creates is then greatly increased when you realise the time scales involved, when learning and then practically applying this, on your instrument.
So…..I would like to draw your attention to 1 particular unique approach that I use here with regard to the theory of scales and chords (harmony).
It is an approach that has evolved for me, out of necessity, as a teacher and performer.
In a nutshell, this approach refines the information to its simplest and most understandable form.
The main difference of this approach to your harmonic development stems from the idea of learning 5 note scales, as CHORD SHAPES, as your main approach…..not 7 note scales.
The reason……By learning three, 5 note scales in the 12 keys i.e.: 36 scales, we can create most of the common chords. Sound too good to be true? Keep reading and I will explain how.
From here we can ‘go forwards’ by learning 6, 7, 8 and 9 note scales; or ‘go backwards’ by learning 4 and 3 note groups.
This will then give you a comprehensive understanding of the architecture of functional harmony and how it is implemented into jazz improvisation (‘jazz’ in the widest sense).
I would recommend watching the videos and reading through the accompanying information, repeatedly.
Once you begin to understand this concept, you will realise how this approach will make your task ahead seem less daunting.
Without exception all of the students that I have introduced to this approach have been relieved, optimistic and excited by these ideas and so I heartily recommend this idea to you as the main core of your melodic/harmonic development.
We take it for granted that a chordal instrument player – guitar, piano etc. should know all of the chords in all keys, with many different voicings.
However, I have noticed with many students, that most monophonic instrumental players find it difficult to play a wide variety of chords and chord sequences, by just outlining the chord shapes. They commonly have either gaps in their knowledge of chord types, or keys.
Possibly the reason for this is that generally, we are encouraged to learn all of the 7 or 8 note scales for all of the chords. This is a huge undertaking and understandably this is why the holes develop.
It is of course not an easy task, to be able to immediately recall a ‘unique’ set of 4 or 5 notes from hundreds of different combinations and then improvise melodies endlessly, all over your instrument.
I think one of the best set of recorded examples of this, is the album-set of ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane. Especially on the title track, he shows how he has mastered the ability to play melodically over a sequence of quickly changing chords at breakneck speed.
An analysis of this solo (available from many sources) shows that he is playing different permutations of the chord shapes, occasionally glued together with different 7 or 8 note scale types.
As the title implies, this is a huge achievement, requiring a great deal of knowledge and physical virtuosity. It also, at least to my ears demonstrates that by learning the ‘basic’ chord shapes, we can create amazing results, and is by no means a limiting approach.