An Introduction to Jazz Improvisation / Part 2 of 4
How to Start Hearing What to Play
In the last article, we talked about an overall approach to learning jazz improvisation that included three broad categories. If you remember, they were as follows:
1) Ear Training
2) Scale and Pattern Practice
3) Learning Tunes
As you can see, I think the first (and most important) broad category in learning how to improvise is ear training. Improvisation, in its most basic and pure form, is really nothing more than just hearing something good to play in your head and being able to immediately play it on your instrument. Put another way, we can say that there are two types of ear training as it pertains to improvising jazz on your instrument. These are:
1) Playing what you can already hear
2) Hearing better and more interesting things to play
In the Summer 2013 ITEA Journal, I wrote about the ability to play on your instrument what you can already hear well. I chose to separate this part of ear training from the “Introduction to Jazz Improvisation” article because I think it is an important skill to have for ANY style of music that you play on your instrument. If you haven’t read that first article or tried anything I suggested, stop! Go back and read it and spend some time working on playing things you can already hear in your head and sing with your voice. It’s critical that you do this first for a while so that you start developing the crucial link between your voice and your instrument. Otherwise, you are going to be working on two things at once, which can be very frustrating and discouraging. Once you have started to forge the link between your ear and your horn, which I feel is critical for any type of music making on your instrument, you can start exploring the more specific sounds of the jazz idiom.
In this article, we will explore the second part of the ear-training equation for jazz…hearing better and more interesting things to play. The best way to explain exactly what I’m talking about is with an example. Chet Baker, a noted jazz trumpet player, was known for his simple, clean playing and straight ahead jazz lines. If you go to YouTube and search for a clip of Chet Baker playing “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” you will hear a great example of somebody that can really hear some beautiful things to play. He sings the head of the tune and sounds fairly straight ahead, but when he starts improvising with his voice, listen very closely to his choice of notes, sounds, and lines. It’s incredible! He is clearly hearing some fantastic things to sing. This is the kind of ear training I’m talking about. It’s the ability to hear chord tones, scale colors, alterations, melodies that make sense, phrasing, and all the other things that make jazz music unexplainably beautiful. This is a skill that stands alone from your horn and will, in fact, transfer to any musical instrument. Chet was said to have had almost no knowledge of theory and played almost completely by ear. If you listen to his trumpet improvisation later on in the clip, it sounds almost exactly as though he is still singing. That’s because he is! He’s singing in his head while he plays his trumpet! How cool is that? The answer is very, very cool and you can do it, too. It just takes a little thought and practice.
So how do we start hearing better things in our head to play? The answer is to sing! If you can sing it with your voice, you must be hearing it in your head, right? We start with easy things to sing and slowly work toward more advanced sounds. It’s important to note that we are speaking about hearing more and not about theory or identification. Although we will talk about chord tones and scale choices, try very hard to focus on the way they sound, not the theory behind them. I once heard famous pianist Marion McPartland playing on public radio. She finished playing a beautiful ballad and the guest she had on her show asked her what key she had played it in and she didn’t know! She had to go back to the piano and figure it out. She was just singing the song in her head and playing the sounds she heard. We use theory to learn sounds, not to think about abstract notes on a page while we are trying to make beautiful music.
One of the best ways to start hearing some good notes to play is to start with the chord tones. After all, they are the notes the rhythm section is already playing! If you hear and play the chord tones, you will always be playing good notes that make sense. This takes some practice, however. The good news is that once you start hearing them, music will never sound the same again. It’s been my observation that many young players (and older ones, such as myself) have learned from the scalar perspective and haven’t learned to hear the chord tones well. Chord tones are the rocks we stand on while crossing the stream.
In the last article we briefly discussed singing different chord tones with the piano and with a random chord generator found in the free, online ear trainer at a website called iwasdoingallright.com. Triads are a great place to start, both major and minor. First, sit down at the piano and practice just singing the roots while you play the chords, then sing up and down the chord with your voice. Move the chords up and down by half steps or whole steps at first, then skip around by thirds or fifths. Once you feel comfortable with this, try doing the same thing starting on the third and finally the fifth, always outlining the chord once you find your starting note. When you can do this easily, try it with a friend playing piano (and not showing you what chord he is playing) or with the online ear trainer set to generate random chords. Eventually you will sing all the notes of the major and minor triads and be able to outline them without difficulty.
Now it’s time to start exploring the upper extensions of chords that are used in the jazz idiom. One of these, the V7 chord, will already sound familiar to you due to its use in all styles of music. Do the same as you did on the triads and practice singing starting on all of the chord tones and outlining the chords up and down with your voice. Make sure you can eventually do this with the random chord generator, so that you really know you can hear these tones no matter what the root movement happens to be. You then can use this same technique to explore “jazz” chords such as Maj7, min7, min7b5 (half diminished), and dim7 (fully diminished) chords. Then you can continue with the same ideas using even cooler sounds such as dom7#9 (or b9), dom7#5 (or b5), dom7alt, Maj#11, or any other chords you find. The idea is always the same-try to sing one of the chord tones and then outline the rest of the chord.
If you have problems spelling these chords or voicing them on the piano, please purchase the excellent jazz theory book The Jazz Language by Dan Haerle. If this seems like a shameless plug, it is. It’s simply the best book about jazz theory I’ve ever seen. For now, I have illustrated the spelling of many of these chords in figure 1.
Another excellent exercise to try in regard to chord tones is a lower neighbor exercise. Sing the chord tone, the lower neighbor a half step below, and then the chord tone again. Outline the chord doing this on every chord tone starting on the root, then starting on the third, fifth, seventh, etc. For instance, over a C major triad it would look like figure 2.Eventually you can start singing the lower neighbor of all the chord tones without singing the chord tone first, again over a C major triad (figure 3). You can sing any kind of chord this way, and doing this lower neighbor exercise will really help you hear the chord tones better. Clifford Brown outlined chords with lower neighbors like this all the time.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “Why would I want to do all of this?” Well, the answer is music! If you can sing the chord tones and hear the lower neighbors, you are well on your way to hearing and playing just what you heard Chet Baker doing in our previous example. There are many legendary jazz phrases that are mostly chord tones and their respective lower neighbor tones.
Now it is time to start filling in those missing gaps between chord tones by singing some more notes! Surprisingly enough, this is not that hard once you start hearing the chord tones well. The notes between the chord tones will generally “sound right” to you now that you know which sounds they are connecting. Once you know where the stones in the river are, it’s easy to step from one to another. You can prove this to yourself by going back to the major triad sound. Play it on the piano and then sing the root. Now sing up by step to the fifth and back down, as in figure 4. The notes easily fill in because you have heard this sound a million times and you know where the chord tones lie. Try to hear the chord tones as you pass them by while singing the scale. Now, for an experiment, try playing that same C major triad and then singing the notes that don’t usually fit a basic major triad sound. See figure 5. It’s hard, isn’t it? It still technically fits the triad but it is not what you are accustomed to hearing, so it’s hard to sing. Believe it or not, your ear already contains a lot of information about which scale tones sound the best between the chord tones. You just need to unlock it by learning to hear the chord tones and listening carefully to what your ear tells you. Of course, theoretical knowledge can guide us to new sounds and it’s ok to use it. I just wanted to point out the fact that a lot of “which scale goes with which chord?” questions are obvious once your ear starts to come into play.
Using The Jazz Language book, we can go through and train our ear to hear different scale sounds to go with the chord tones. For instance, play a min7 chord on the piano and then sing a dorian minor scale over it. A dorian sound is the second mode of a major scale, so in the key of C it is a scale going from D to D. See figure 6.
Pay particular attention to the 6th scale degree (in this case the B) as it may sound a bit different for you. Go through the same process you did for the chords…play minor chords on the piano and sing the scale up and down, down and up, starting on different chord tones, etc., until the sound of the scale starts to get in your ear. After a while it becomes a certain sound, not just a theoretical mode of a major scale. Then you can start trying to sing the scale sound with the iwasdoingallright.com random chord generator, just like you did with the chord tones. You can set it to just generate piano chords or you can go to the “Rhythm Section” tab and have it play chords from an entire rhythm section. Set it very slowly at first so you have plenty of time to sing the entire scale sound with the chord. You can eventually do this starting on different chord tones and with many other types of scales and chord combinations, slowly programming the sounds of the scales to fit the sounds of the chords in your ear until they sound “right” to you.
I would recommend doing these in the following order, from the most used chords on down:
1) Major scales with Maj7 chords
2) Mixolydian scales (5th mode of a major scale) with dom7 chords
3) Dorian scales (2nd mode of a major scale) with min7 chords
4) Blues scales with dom7 chords
After this point, it will become obvious to you how to work on more scale sounds such as diminished scales, whole tone scales, harmonic minor scales, etc. Again, I don’t want to turn this into a theory article when The Jazz Language explains it so well. The point is to continuously program new scale sounds into your ear by singing them with chords you are playing and then with chords randomly played for you. I promise you that if you sing a whole tone scale (which is very weird at first) while you play a dom7#5 chord at the piano for enough days and weeks in a row, it will start to sound “right” to you and it will fit in perfectly with the chord. Then, someday when you get to the dom7#5 chord in the third bar of “Take the A Train,” your ear will jump all over that sound and come up with some good melodies to play. Then, it’s up to your ability to play what you are hearing and SHAZAM! You’re a jazzer! Just kidding. You’re nowhere close…but at least you can play the third bar of “A Train!”
Many players think of pattern practice as a mental exercise, but it can be fantastic for your ears if you sing the patterns first instead of playing them. For instance, look at the simple pattern in figure 7.
First, sing the pattern while you play a C major triad on the piano and then transpose it and sing it in many different keys. Now have a friend play a triad and sing it or use the random chord generator and see if you can sing it quickly when a new triad pops up. Now try this one starting on the third (figure 8). It’s a little harder, isn’t it? You have to find the third quickly when you hear the chord. That’s why we spend so much time getting those chord tones in our heads. How about one starting on the fifth (figure 9)?
You can continue with this same technique to work on patterns over all different types of chords, even if you don’t have the scales under your fingers yet. As a matter of fact, it’s better to get the scales in your ears first, then go to the horn and get them under your fingers. Then you will be learning sounds on your horn instead of pushing buttons or reading notes off a staff in your head. You will be singing in your head while you play, just like Chet!
Just to show you how quickly your ear can learn some very advanced sounds, try this one over a dom7#9 chord as in figure 10. Go to the piano and play the pattern to hear it a few times. Then sing it a few times with the piano. Next, play the chord and try singing the pattern with it. Now transpose it to a few keys. Eventually, have a friend play a random dom7#9 and see if you can sing it with your voice. Guess what? You are now hearing a fairly advanced jazz sound. And it didn’t take that long! You will be surprised at how quickly your ear can get used to sounds that it would take your fingers and mind a lot longer to figure out. And your ear can do this in the key of B as easily as it can in the key of C! This is how great players play in all those keys. They are just singing like Chet and pushing the buttons that go with the sounds. They’re not transposing every chord and scale in their heads at a million miles an hour. I used to think Rich Matteson was a genius because he could transpose things intellectually in his head instantly. I was wrong. Now I know he was a genius because he had developed a great ear and could quickly play what he heard in his head on his horn.
For my final trick, I would like to show you how to apply this singing to all those ii-V-I patterns you’ve been hearing about (or struggling with). For those of you that don’t know what a ii-V-I progression is, it is the most common of jazz chord progressions and looks like this in the key of C, in root position (figure 11).
In jazz, we smooth out this progression by building the piano voicings on thirds and sevenths as in figure 12. Notice how the voices all connect smoothly now and that not many voices change between chords. The Jazz Language has a basic explanation of piano voicings and I highly recommend another one of Dan’s books, Jazz/Rock Voicings for the Contempary Keyboard Player, if you would like a more in-depth explanation.
Jazz players all have some licks/patterns/sounds they like to play over this progression, so it’s good to get the progression in your ear. First, start by singing the roots of the three chords with the piano while you play these voicings on the piano. If you are not careful, you may start to learn how to voice chords on the piano while you do this, so proceed with caution. Keep learning these “three note shell” voicings on the piano in different keys, and keep singing the roots while you play them. Eventually, just as with the chords and scales, start singing the roots with randomly generated ii-V-I progressions.
Next, work on getting some “guide tones” for this progression in your ear. Guide tones are tones in the progression that our ear can pick up on easily and they progress smoothly from one note to the next. In a ii-V-I progression, the primary two sets of guide tones we want to hear are shown in figure 13. You’ll notice that we are focusing our ears on the 3rds and 7ths of these chords now. That’s because those are the tones that define the chord and make it sound like a Maj7, a min7, or a dom7.
Using our now tried and true techniques, go to the piano and sing these with the progression until you start to hear them. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you can hear them in a random ii-V-I progression. Once you start hearing the ii-V-I progression and the guide tones that go with it, you will notice it everywhere in pop, jazz, and country music. It’s like a big elephant in the room that you never saw before.
Lastly for this article, try singing a complete ii-V-I pattern over the progression, as in figure 14.
Just like we did with roots and guide tones, sing the pattern over the progression until you can do it easily when hearing a randomly generated ii-V-I. Again, start the random generator extremely slowly so you have time to hear your starting pitch (often the hardest part) and then sing the pattern. It gets harder when the first note of the pattern is not the root of the Dmin7 chord but, with time, the other notes of that and other chords will start to jump out to you and be easier to hear quickly.
You can continue your pattern practice by:
1) Writing your own patterns for any chord, scale, or ii-V-I
2) Buying one of many pattern or solo books that contain hundreds of patterns (the Jamey Aebersold ii-V-I book contains tons of good ii-V-I patterns)
3) Lifting (transcribing) patterns of players you love
Out of all of these, my favorite thing to do is a combination of using patterns I get from players I love and then changing them around a bit or combining them with others to make them my own. As Picasso is often quoted, “Good artists copy…great artists steal.” I don’t know if he said that or not but I do know that Rich Matteson told me the greatest compliment he could receive is when he heard someone playing one of his licks. I hope he meant it, because a lot of what I try to play is straight out of Rich’s bell. For a future article, we will discuss transcribing solos but for now, just figure out a few of your favorite licks and start singing them over the chords until you can hear them easily when you hear that chord or progression.
Putting the two types of ear training together!
Now it’s time to put the pedal to the metal and start combining both kinds of ear training into improvisation! You’ve practiced playing what you can hear (using the ear training article from the Summer volume), and hearing better things to play (using this article). Now, start combining the two and having the most fun you have ever had on your horn!
Start with an easy exercise, like our first chord exercise with the major chords. Have a friend play a random major triad on the piano and sing your first exercise-root and then up and down the triad. Then, pick up your horn and play what you just sang. Do this with another chord and another until you are singing the triad and playing it afterwards with ease. The next and final step is to eliminate the singing and just play. You still sing; you just sing in your head as you play. Sing with your instrument instead of your voice. If you have trouble or get confused, stop! Put down your horn and sing for a while until whatever exercise you are doing is in your ear. Then pick up your horn and try it again. Always make sure you can sing whatever you are trying to play. Don’t cheat and “think” the pattern on the staff (or keyboard) in your head. Just sing and try to play what you are singing. It’s simple, efficient, pure, and beautiful. Slowly try this with everything you get in your ear. Chord tones, scale sounds, and patterns can all be “programmed” into your ear and then played on your horn. It’s incredibly fun and the most honest connection you can have with your instrument.
One final and very fun thing to do is what we old people call “drop the needle.” Don Little pointed out to me that younger players might not know what I’m talking about when I use this phrase but I’ve decided not to explain it. Find an old musician and figure it out. While you’re at it, have them tell you about Herb Alpert, 8-track players, and their tough walk to school uphill both ways in the snow after their morning paper route. Anyway, the idea is to put on any kind of music that you like, and I mean anything, and start singing with it. Then start playing with it, completely using your ear. This will be quite a struggle at first, but the more you do it, the easier and more fun it will become.
Some readers may find it easy to do all of these things; some may find it a struggle. Remember, you are working on two fairly big skills that you may have never really grappled with before. Be patient and try to have fun with it. If you can sing whatever you are working on easily but can’t play it, that means you need to work more on your ear/horn connection until you can play what you can sing. If you can’t sing what you are working on, stop and put down your horn until you can.
In the next issue, we will talk more about scales and patterns and the many different ways to practice them. Until then, KEEP SINGING!
As always, I welcome feedback or any questions you may have about this article. Please feel free to write me at email@example.com or call me at 703-678-9783. Have Fun!! That’s why it’s called PLAYing your instrument!
Joe Dollard began his musical adventures on the trumpet at age 12. He later earned a Jazz Studies degree from North Texas State University where he studied euphonium with Don Little and jazz improvisation with the late Rich Matteson. A founding member of the Dallas Wind Symphony, Joe served as principal euphonium and soloist with the group until 1989 when he joined the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C. He retired in 2009 as leader of the Brass Quartet and Principal Euphonium of the Concert Band.