A Useful Framework for Soloing on Jazz Standards

There are many ways to approach improvisation, from the use of Key Scales to Chord Notes/Chord Scales and all manner of Chromatics.  Option anxiety, in fact, may be one of the main problems when it comes to putting together a meaningful solo.  Too many possibilities can freeze you in your tracks, and your ‘brain’ isn’t any help at all.   

THREE LEVELS OF FOCUS

KEY SCALE IMPROVISATION:

It’s always good to remember that there are (in our system at least) only twelve notes to play with.  Seven of these (again, in our system) define the Key, leaving only five left for ‘other purposes.’  The odds are in our favour when it comes to soloing on the Key Scale.

Keys tend to be well defined in Jazz Standards.  Along with the key of the overall piece there are most often a couple of new temporary key areas introduced as the tune progresses.  The most straight     forward approach to soloing involves simply playing on the appropriate Key Scale and using your ear to find the notes for your melody.  You will, of course, have to change the Key Scale as various temporary key areas crop up, so it’s important to note where these occur. 

For the Minor Keys you will, of course, be using combinations of the Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic MInors.  Key Scale soloing in the Minor Keys tends to work very well.

This is a great way to solo, as your ear and not your head is the guiding light, and your ear will         ALWAYS be better than your head when it comes to making music.  (See the ‘Something To Say’ workshop)

The first question that comes up in Key Scale soloing, usually is, “So what happens when I run across Secondary Dominants (e.g. A7 in the Key of C), or Modal Variants?  (e.g. Fm6 in the Key of C)” Well, that’s what the other five notes are for, and there are two ways to approach them: 

  • Simply continue to use your ear to find the additional note – a wonderful idea. 
  •  Pay attention to the chord sounding at that moment, identify the altered note, and incorporate it into your solo.  (We are starting to ‘think’ at this point.  Make a note.  This thinking business will be coming up again).

There is, of course one more possibility, and that is to avoid the altered note altogether.  Many Jazz Standards have melodies that stay strictly on the Key Scale regardless of the harmony underneath them – something to keep in mind.

One of the best tools in Key Scale Improvising is the use of passing notes where useful.  They add flow, and can often be used to ‘round out the line’ rhythmically in a passage 

The advantage of Key Scale Improvising is that you are forced to use your ear; you are forced to be musical.  Once we move to focusing on individual chords, the intellect becomes more involved in the transaction …  it’s that apple in the garden business … Pandora’s box and all that.  It opens up all   manner of possibilities, but at a price.   Still, it does allow all kinds of clever substitutions at the chord level, so let’s join Adam and take a bite. 

CHORD NOTES

Learning chord arpeggios up to the ninth has always been the standard suggestion for Jazz musicians.  You can, of course, take arpeggios right up the thirteenth, but they get a tad cumbersome, a tad turgid, unless you have something particular in mind.

The way to use chord notes traditionally has always been to use them in conjunction with the key scale.  They add an automatic lift to the solo and solve the problem of too much horizontal (scalewise)    movement.  The mind is now much more involved in the process, however, and there is that tendency to get ‘clever’ and start ‘running arpeggios,’ … very impressive … for a while … but it quickly becomes tiresome.  Again, let your ear be the guide.

One of the best ways to use arpeggios is to use approach notes from above and below, (usually a scale note above and a chromatic note below).  You can also use both to good effect (delayed melodic     resolution).

One of the advantages of using chord notes is we can now utilize altered notes in our chords, (#5, b9 on dominant sevenths for example), and see exactly how they are working on the chord itself.  We can also as work with chord substitutions such as the tritone or b5 sub. as well as the many possibilities for reharmonization and moving ‘outside.’  

CHORD SCALES

Chord Scales are simply the ‘horizontal’ (scalewise) version of chord arpeggios.  They can be used the same way except that they lack that vertical lift an arpeggio gives you and, in fact, they sound much like horizontal lines produced on the Key Scale (which, of course, is what they are – the Modes – their     Tonics placed on each degree of the Key Scale.)  So why bother with them at all? 

Well, very often it’s a good idea to isolate the scale that represents a given chord so you can work with substitutions more efficiently.  One example might be the use of the Ascending Melodic Minor (Jazz Minor) in place of the Dorian Mode on the IIm.  But that’s only the beginning.

Once we enter the world of substitution (of both chords and scales) the top to Pandora’s box is flung wide open to the altered modes from the Harmonic/Melodic families as well as the   Symmetric scales in the Diminished/ Whole Tone families, all manner of pentatonic and hexatonic subs as well as various manufactured scales … in short … every damn scale imaginable.  Slonimsky, in fact, wrote a book … well … don’t read it unless you have a strong constitution.

On top of that, we have to deal with George Russell’s contention that a chord, as separate little        universe, must have a chord scale that truly represents its vertical character, and in the case of the Major Triad, that scale is NOT the Ionian or Major Scale but the Lydian Mode.  You wanna talk about        Pandora’s box!   Yahoo! … I love this stuff … but I digress … 

THE CHROMATIC SCALE

Behind all is, of course, is the Chromatic Scale – a place where all notes are available and, if you      adhere to Schoenberg’s philosophy, equal.  For the purposes of the Jazz Standards,   however, we will be raining on Arnold’s parade a little and taking the step of identifying one of those notes as the Tonic, this music being, if nothing else, monumentally tonal.  

Handled well, ANY note in the Chromatic Scale will fit ANY chord.  Between passing notes, approach notes and the like, we use chromatics all the time.  But the Chromatic scale offers us much more than that.  With all 12 notes available, all manner of extravagant excursions can take place, all kinds of     superimpositions can show up, all of it coming under the general heading of ‘playing outside’.

— 

So let’s review all this: 

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ve defined three distinct ways of looking at improvising through the changes of the average Jazz Standard:  Key Scale, Chord Note/Chord Scale, and Chromatically, each with its own level of complexity and set of requirements.

In my opinion, sticking with any one of these frameworks is a fool’s errand.  So how do we combine three levels of focus in a real improvising situation when the changes are coming thick and fast?   Well, how about we construct a framework where all of this stuff can come together with some kind of grace.

First off, let’s picture the Chromatic Scale as the backdrop to the whole business – the ‘canvas’ of the painting so to speak. This is the Chromatic Level.  Picture these notes in gray. 

Because the melody and harmony of the majority of Jazz Standards spring from our  Major/Minor     system, we’ll use the Key Scale of the piece as the basis for the solo.  This is the Key Scale Level.  Picture these in black – e.g.: C D E F G A B C for the Key of C Major.  These will change, of course, with any temporary key areas introduced.

Next, let’s visualize the Four Note Chords as they fly by on the chart.  These should be in colour,    lighting up as the chord sounds – CMaj7 – C E G B,    G7 – G B D F and so on.  This is the  Chord Level.  We can add to these notes if we choose, all the way up to the thirteenth if we care to, or we can use the appropriate Chord Scale.  Any substitute chords or scales can also be used, but the reference structure should remain the four note chord.

What you want to do is ‘dip into’ whatever level tickles your fancy at any given time.  This is, after all, PLAYING.  Each level will give you something, support you in some way.  Apply whatever approach you care to.  Do you want to play Horizontally?  Vertically?  How much tension do you want to use?  How much density?  Clarity?  It’s up to you. There is only one weazel clause in any of this – you must play music.  Dicking around doesn’t count.  That means creating a coherent melody.  That melody can be as simple, complex or outside as you want, as long as it has that coherence.  This, of course, involves the Muse.  (See the ‘Assembling Coherent Solos’ Workshop.   

There are no soloing examples here.  They wouldn’t be yours.  Your best solos will always come out of your own head and heart, and they come through experimentation and playing. 

A Handy Framework for Jazz Standard Harmony II

THE DIMINISHED 7th CHORD

One of the chords that comes up consistently in Jazz Standard harmony is the Diminished 7th.  Many of the tunes we play from the early American Song Book contain the Diminished 7th chord or are reharmonized versions of those tunes. 

Although the Diminished 7th chord shows up as the chord built on the raised 7th degree of the Harmonic Minor, its ‘symmetric’ characteristics come more from the ‘Tempered ‘music system than the ‘Just’ musical system.  (Look ‘em up!  It’s a great and useful study and it’ll change your ears!)

The Diminished 7th chord consists of stacked minor thirds, contains two tritones and has eight well defined resolutions – four with a Dominant function and four with a Subdominant function.  The fact is though, the damn thing can resolve almost anywhere, including to other Diminished Sevenths.  This makes it a perfect ‘pivot chord’ capable of resolving to key areas near and far.  Because we are looking at chord progression within the Major Key for now, though, we’ll look only at Diminished 7ths relevant to the key. 

Because of its many functions, the classical terminology that has followed this around has been often complicated and cumbersome.  Jazzbos dealing with chord symbols just generally want to get on with the job, so they tend to distill the whole business down to the three simple possibilities for the chord and proceed to name the Root according to the whatever note is the lowest at the time – all voicings being inversions of each another anyway. 

So a Bo7 can also be a Do7, Fo7 or G#/Abo7, and to hell with its classical origin.  For that reason, simply consider the chords in each category below (1, 2 or 3) to be inversions of each other and feel free name them according to how the bass notes appear in the piece. 

That being said, we need to take the time to define the difference between Diminished 7th chords with a Dominant Function and those with a Subdominant Function.  

Those with a Dominant Function can be seen below.  They are often called ‘Leading Tone Diminished 7ths’ because they lie a half-step below their resolution chord.  They lie rather nicely in the cycle of 5ths boxes as follows:

The underlined inversion is the one with the Leading Tone in the bass and is the most characteristic of this movement.  All of the other inversions are, of course, available.  They will, however resolve to the other inversions of their target chord e.g., in the third to last column: 

Do7 – C or C/E; Fo7 – C/E; Abo7 – C/G.

(Note:  A Dominant Function Diminished 7th chord can be interpreted as a 7(b9) without its ‘acoustic’ Root.  It is sometimes called a ‘assumed Root 7th for that reason, e.g. a Bo7 can be looked at as a G7(b9) without its Root.)

Move through this cycle just like before but note that the movement ‘up’ (e.g.: C#o7 to Am7) is not included.  This is, in fact, a Subdominant function.  We will look at it shortly.

COMMON USAGE

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at SCALEWISE PROGRESSION in the key.  Chords tend to flow freely along the Key Scale, e.g.:

Ascending:    |   C     Dm7   |   Em7    Fmaj7   |   G7   |   Am7    Bm7(b5)    Cmaj7   |

Now consider the following:

| Bo7  C | C#o7 Dm7 | D#o7 Em7 | Fo7* Fmaj7 | F#o7 G7 | G#o7 Am7 | A#o7  Bm7(b5) | Co7* Cmaj7 |

With the exception of the Fo7 and Co7, ALL of these Diminished 7th Chords are Leading Tone Diminished 7ths.  They are simply the chords in the Cycle of 5ths table in inversions that allow them to double as ascending Passing Chords.   This is very common usage.  

So what are the Fo7 and Co7 if not Leading Tone Diminished 7ths then?

SUBDOMINANT FUNCTION DIMINISHED 7TH CHORDS

Dominant Function chords are ‘active’ resolving chords … (“Shave and a Haircut … Two Bits!”)   Both the Fo7 and Co7 here are Subdominant Function Diminished 7ths.

Subdominant Function chords are ‘passive’ and have a ‘falling back’ character, (“Amen”).  As a result, they don’t fit conveniently in the constantly resolving cycle of 5ths table we have created.

One of their functions is to act as ‘Delayed Resolutions’ to, or ‘Elaborations’ of certain chords. Often called ‘Common Tone Diminished 7ths,’ they act very much like a Pedal 6/4 in Classical terminology, i.e.   C  –   F/C   –   C.   Some examples:

|   C   Co7  |   C    |                   |   F   Fo7  |   F   |                   |   G7   Go7 |   G7   |

| Dm7   G7  |   Co7  C   |               |  Gm7   C7  |   Fo7  F |                  |  Dm7   Go7  |   G7   |

They also function very well as descending Passing Chords, e.g.

|    FMaj7   Fo7    |    Em7   Ebo7   |   Dm7   G7    |     C      |

Again, all inversions are available.  They will, of course, resolve to the other inversions of their target chord.

A Handy Framework for Jazz Standard Harmony

NOTE: As a Jazz player you should already be familiar with Cycle of 5ths, Secondary Domi-nants, b5 Substitution (Tritone Substitution), Chord Quality (Chord Type), Parallel Minors and Parallel Modes. If not look ‘em up pronto!

Chords can move in many ways. Resolution by half step, common tone sharing and symmetrics are but a few. Much of the music in the ‘American Song Book’ (the Jazz Standards) how-ever, tends to use harmony from the Classical/Romantic periods – harmony that often relies on the resolution of the half-step. You’ll find that players who have hundreds of standards committed to memory tend to have a framework to base their ‘Common Practice’ chord progressions on. More often than not, this consists of some combination of the Cycle of 5ths, Chord Quality alteration, b5 Substitution, and the various resolutions of the Dim7 chord. So let’s take a look at this framework. For the time being, we’ll stick strictly to the Major Key.

The harmonies found here all sound very ‘inside.’ They are, however, the basis of hundreds of standards and the starting point for all reharmonization and the more ‘outside’ harmony that follows.

COMMON CHORD MOVEMENT IN A MAJOR KEY KEY OF C MAJOR

The most common chord movement in Jazz Standard harmony involves the CYCLE OF 5THS. Progression in the following table can flow both ways but Left to Right tends to be ‘with the current,’ giving the feeling that you ‘flow’ downstream while you ‘work at’ moving upstream. This psychological effect is used constantly in chord progressions.

CYCLE OF 5THS

Chords in the key are often altered to (dominant) 7th chords to create forward motion and/or imply another key center. These are called SECONDARY DOMINANTS.

Chords can also alter their CHORD QUALITY; for example: Em7 to E7. Although this isn’t re-ally a ‘chord progression’ as such (the root remains the same), it is used constantly. While all chord types are available, the majority of chords change from the Secondary Dominant version to the ‘natural’ version and vice-versa. Check out the different methods of moving ‘downstream’ through the cycle: left to right, diagonally, up and down and all combinations of the above.

CYCLE OF 5THS, SECONDARY DOMINANTS, CHORD QUALITY ALTERATION

The number of possibilities available as you move through the entire cycle ends up being astronomical. And that doesn’t even include periodically ‘backing up’ (moving ‘upstream’) for a period of time, e.g.:

A common substitute for the V7 chord in a IIm7, V7, I is the bII7; for example, in the Key of C Major: Dm7, Db7, C. This is called a FLAT FIVE SUBSTITUTION. The G7 and the Db7 share the tritone (B and F) – reinforcing their functional relationship.

CYCLE OF 5THS, SECONDARY DOMINANTS, CHORD QUALITY ALTERATION, FLAT FIVE SUBSTITUTIONS

The chord movement is still Left to Right, Diagonal and Up and Down and Any Combination but the possibilities are greatly magnified by the extra line of b5 subs.

Another common harmonic tool is the use of BORROWED CHORDS. These are chords borrowed from the Parallel Modes and/or Parallel Minors. One of the functions of this is to lend the sound of that mode and its emotional content to the progression, e.g. Dm7b5 G7 C where the Dm7b5 is borrowed from the Key of C minor.

All of the “Tonal Modes” are available for this purpose (Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian and Aeolian) as well as the Parallel Minors (Harmonic and Ascending Melodic Minors sharing the same Tonic as the Major Key scale). When substituted, these chords have an emotional and/or functional effect on the song. A chord that may have had a Subdominant Function, may end up having a Dominant Function depending on the substitution!

Any chord in the same column is available as a BORROWED CHORD when creating a progression for a song.

BORROWED CHORDS

NOTE: Whereas the flow is still ‘downstream and upstream’, the change of chord quality and possible function requires you handle these carefully, e.g.: an Dm7b5 in place of Dm7 now has a Dominant function, and is perfectly happy moving directly to C major! Generally speaking, a high percentage of chord progressions found in the Jazz Standards are simply different ways of moving through the expanded cycle of 5ths we have looked at here. All kinds of modifications can take place on these chords, from building up to the 13th to adding multiple altered notes to dominant 7th chords. The FUNCTION, however, can always be found in the basic four note chord.

We will be looking at a few Standards and applying these ideas shortly, but first we have to take a look at one of the most influential chords in Classic/Romantic harmony: The Diminished 7th – its structure, resolutions, and substitutions.

THAT’S NEXT.

Learning New Music: Creating a Frame For A Piece

In order for me to make sense of a piece of music, I find I have to put it in a frame of some sort.  I suppose it is impossible to understand the world without knowing how things relate to each other, what repeating patterns occur and how some elements are the same as, or different from, other elements.  In the case of a music repertoire this is doubly true.  Without a framework of some kind every new piece you learn has to be learned from scratch, every solo must be drawn from a brand new set of harmonies.

Understanding chord movement is critical if you are to solo successfully over a set of changes.  There are many ways chords can move ‘logically’ – via cycles of 5ths, 3rds or 2nds, Common Tone, Symmetric, Chromatic, ‘Planing’.  ‘Common Practice’ music harmony, however, is a good place to start, i.e. the music of Mozart, Beethoven or, in our case, the music in the ‘American Song Book.’

I know players who have hundreds of ‘Jazz Standards’ committed to memory.  Or do they?  I think it is more likely they can retrieve the memory of a tune by stopping to recall the framework upon which they hung its parts.  Frameworks, it seems, are quite personal.   How I relate to the structure of a tune is likely to be very different from yours.  Here’s one: 

“Stella by Starlight” is perfectly logical to the ear, yet it’s a challenge to sort out the harmony first time you encounter it.  I am going to make a leap here and make the assumption that you would be looking at the ‘Real Book’ changes to this tune.  I haven’t checked the original changes for Stella, but I can guarantee you they are not exactly what we find in the Real Book.   Still, this is the version in front of you and we need, desperately need, to figure it out.  The desperation aspect is not overstated.  If you are to play through Stella, you need to know exactly what is happening in the harmony.  You need a logical framework so you can solo on it.

My framework is not going to be the same as yours.  Fact is, if we take our hugely different ways of perceiving the world into consideration, you may well think mine is entirely perverse!   Nevertheless, here was my first take at framing Stella ‘lo those many years ago:   (No chord extensions or alterations bothered with here – it’s shorthand)

STELLA BY STARLIGHT                                                                                   KEY: Bb

Em7b5 – A7  

Start of a II – V cycle on the b5? –  hmm, no, it goes to the IIm,  so more like a jazz reharm of the Idim/maj7 to V7 from that period – melody note supports that … enough … move on.  

Cm7 – F7 

Well okay, IIm – V, but it’s short circuited with chord quality change to Fm7.

Fm7 – Bb7 –  Eb – Ab7  

Yeah, IIm – V  of the IV …  but then to Ab7 … more likely Ebm6 in the old version, but Ab7 is a substitute dom for F7 … or I can think of it as “fore-cycling” … thinking too much, move on.

Bb – Em7b5 – A7 – Dm  

I then a II – V of the IIIm, this time really going to the IIIm.

Bbm7 – Eb7 – F

IIm – V functional substitution for Gm7 – C7. To  F – F new real brief key area

Bbm7 – Eb is likely a Bbm6 in old version.

Em7b5 – A7  

Could be II – V to relative minor in F … Dm, but short circuited with chord quality change to Am7b5.

Am7b5 – D7 – G7#5  

II – V to relative minor in Bb – Gm, but chord quality change on G so it can go to:

Cm7sus

Okay

Ab7 

Dom substitute for F7, probably an Ebm6 in original.

Bb

Em7b5 – A7 –  Dm7b5 – G7 –  Cm7b5 – F7 – Bb   

Okay, whatever…… standard cycle from the b5 with all minors flattened –  probably not the original changes.

Gibberish you say?  “Well”, as the farmer said, looking at his three legged pig in the yard, “Y’ain’t pretty, but yer mine.”  And so it is with frameworks.  It doesn’t matter what the construct is, as long as it works. That being said, this framework was one designed to fix the chord progression for this tune in my mind.  In order for me to have enough raw materials to do this, however, I had to understand enough jazz harmony to make it work. 

Now for the punchline.  This tune stays entirely in the key of Bb!  Yes, their are fleeting excursions to the IV and the V as key centres, but the progression in Stella stays for the most part right in the key.  The changes are simply tarted up versions of the naturally ocurring chords in Bb.  Harmonicists are the kings of deception and they will mess with your mind.  They use backcycling, secondary dominants, b5 substitutions, modal variants, stacked fourths, stacked fifths, planing, common tone substitutions, polychords, chromatic progression, symmetric progression … anything to screw with your head.  And it sounds freaking wonderful!

But consider this:  the melody for Stella remains (with the fleeting exception of an E natural and a Gb) ENTIRELY on the Bb diatonic scale.  I rest my case.  Nevertheless, this tune is worth a closer look.    THATS NEXT.