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:




Dom substitute for F7, probably an Ebm6 in original.


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.

Jazz Improvisation 11: Listening

There are two things you don’t want to hear about your playing.  The first is ‘He just plays notes’, and the second is ‘He doesn’t listen’.  We looked at first one earlier on.  The second complaint is an equally important one.

Improvising is a group affair.  A great solo will fall flat on its face without proper support, and that support is dependent on every player LISTENING. The number of players out there who simply don’t listen is astounding.  And it’s a problem, because all it takes is one person in the group not paying attention to spoil it for everyone else.

Listening is critical.  That’s why nature supplied us with one mouth and two ears.  Playing something before you listen is like yelling “Go Cowboys!” at a basketball game.  You sound like an idiot.  Playing before you listen makes you that kid who keeps the ball to himself and tries to score without any help from the rest of the team.  Nobody liked that kid and he always wondered why he got picked last.

Playing before you listen makes you that loudmouth who never stops talking and nobody else can get a word in edgewise.

OK then.  Point made.  The first rule of playing is ‘Don’t speak until you have something to say,’ or, as the old saying goes, ‘If in doubt, lay out.”  The key to being a good listener is to take that split second (there it is again) to hear what is going on around you and ask yourself, ‘How can I contribute.’  The rewards are immediate.  The rest of your band mates (all listeners hopefully) respond, and the results end up being logarithmic.  The music is taken immediately to another level.

Jazz Improvisation 10: Time and Space II

Beginning improvisers rarely use too much space in their solos.  More often than not, their phrases sound like commuters crowding onto a subway train.

It’s perfectly understandable.  Even if you are about to play a single chorus in some piece or other, that time needs filling with something, and from the perspective of the novice improviser, that time can look like an eternity.  In fact, the whole business can feel like an exercise in survival, and that’s no way to create real music. 

So here are a few suggestions to help with that:

Concentrate on playing music, not notes.  The thought itself will bring up the idea of framing your phrases with the right space.  And the right space automatically gives you the breathing room to create a related following phrase.

Give notes the full value they deserve.  Don’t be jumping off one note just so you can get on with playing the next.

Don’t always hit on beat one.  Make ‘em wait.  Or catch them by surprise by anticipating your entry, by pushing the note, or leading into the note with a pickup. 

Dig in.  Listen to good Blues players.  A good Blues player can grind more meaning out of one or two notes than any flurry of cleverness will ever do.  Listen to the entries and exits and where they are spaced.  

Review the section on dynamics and articulation.  Then remember to USE them.  Nothing becomes real until it is brought into the world.  It is tempting to say to yourself, ‘I’ll practice those ideas a little more before I try them,’ but in that scenario the moment never comes.

In reality, you are NEVER ready.  You have to jump off that high diving board at some point even though you’re NOT READY.  You can walk up the damn steps, wander to the end of the board, and stand staring down at the water but it takes faith to finally jump off.  Or fear maybe – fear of that big hairy dude behind you yelling that you’re a chicken, and get on with it or he’ll toss you off himself!

Oh, and one last thing:  Listen to Miles … a lot.

Jazz Improvisation 9: Time and Space

‘Notes are what happens when silence is broken.’

‘Notes are the painting, silence the frame.’

‘When you play silence, it fits perfectly.’

Yeah, they are all valid, and there are many more.  Silence is the equal partner to sound.  Without it, notes make little sense.  The meaning of a phrase is entirely dependent on where the silences are located.  It’s all about timing.  Just ask a stand up comic.

The art and craft of the comic is the ability to distill of all of the principles of storytelling into the 100 proof rum of a great bit and the key to that skill is timing.  ‘Set it up and knock it down pal, that’s what you have to do.’  Easy to say, but harder to accomplish, particularly if you are new to improvisation.

Timing comes from good instinct, but that instinct is learned.  It is acquired naturally from experience.  The ballpark where we learn to play with timing is life itself and, in particular, how we play with language in life.  (There it is again – language.)

We have talked a lot about storytelling, phrasing, dynamics and the like, but in the end it is the delivery that makes or breaks a solo.  And good delivery is entirely dependent on timing.  And timing is entirely dependent on how your phrases are spaced; in other words, where you choose to place the silences.

One of the big mistakes beginning improvisers make is rushing.  I am not talking about rushing the time, which is an entirely different problem, but rushing with what they have to say.  You can sacrifice the meaning in a phrase if you don’t frame it with the silence it needs.  That silence may be long, or so short it is barely noticeable, but it is vital to the intent of the phrase.

This is true regardless of tempo and style.  When Charlie Parker stunned everyone in the day with his unbelievable chops and his continuous streams of perfectly tailored phrases, it was easy to conclude that he was just filling up all the available space with notes.  But listen closely.  The placement of the notes is exquisite.  There is no sense of crowding, no sense of frantically piling one idea on top of another; it is as smooth as silk because of one thing – timing.

So how do we go about developing better sense of timing and delivery?  Next up: TIME AND SPACE II

Jazz Improvisation 1: The Trouble With Jazz

Becoming a good Jazz improviser takes awhile, and there are some very good reasons for that.  The main one, perhaps, is that there is just a lot you need to know if you are going to be successful.

Jazz started combining Blues and traditional elements with European harmony very early on, creating the possibility of huge complexity.  And it was voracious in its expansion, managing to assimilate the content of the entire history of classical music in a span of 50 or 60 years.  Of course, it had the advantage of a damn good template and it had some great role models: Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg….endless beacons for direction.

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Jazz Improvisation 2: Music & Language

Picture this:  Your college professor is lecturing on the immutable qualities of light…a subject fascinating to some, and infinitely dreary to others.   Regardless, there you are at 8am on a Monday morning casting the favor of your attention towards the lectern.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong this morning, however.  This learned encapsulation of all you respect in education is spouting gibberish.  Well, not entirely. The phrases and some of the sentences seem largely intact, but the connections, oh Martha, the connections!  They make no sense.  In fact, many phrases appear to have come from different lectures entirely.  And the mode of delivery is all over the map.  The student body, smelling trouble, becomes increasingly restless and uneasy.  Where are the ambulance people?  Surely somebody has called them by now…

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Jazz Improvisation 3: Sing For Your Supper

So what does it mean, “sing your solos?”.  Should we be grunting and wheezing along with ourselves as we play?  Well, many players have actually done that with great results. Apart from the fact that wind players would need some sort of exotic surgery to accomplish this, though, there are many reasons why this is not practical – one of which is that a stage full of grunting close mic’d musicians sounds like a herd of stampeding elephants.  Another is that it is not reasonable to think you can sing with the range and at the tempo you are capable of on your instrument.

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Jazz Improvisation 4: Something To Say

Ahh yes.  Now we come to the crux of the matter.  There you are.  On that stage, instrument in hand.  Expectant eyes gaze upon you.  Expectant ears perk to your sonic presence.  That spotlight seems brighter than physically possible.  They are ready for you.  And you don’t have a damn thing to say.  The horror!  The horror!

We’ve all been there.  I am not talking about stage fright here, which is something else entirely, but simply that moment where you find yourself standing on stage and absolutely nothing is happening.

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Jazz Improvisation 5: Road Blocks, Trip Wires and Dead Fish On Docks

We all know that golden kid – the one who is absolutely fearless; the one who is so sure of his footing that he just forges ahead, trusting completely in his instincts and carelessly relying on his “mind” to take care of the details.

We know that kid because we were that kid before the world got hold of us and instilled the necessity of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”.  Growing up, more often than not, involves putting the clamps on much of our creativity in favor of fitting in, doing a good job and the like.  Oddly enough, the more advanced we become in most fields, the more difficult it is to step aside from the intellect and trust instinct.  It feels far too much like relinquishing control.  And control is what it is all about.

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Jazz Improvisation 6: Transcribing Solos, Licks, and Making Music

One of the BEST things you can do is transcribe solos.
One of the WORST things you can do is transcribe solos.

While both of these can be true, no one can tell me that transcribing solos is a poor way of learning to improvise.  We are imitators at heart and the best advice I could find was to find a musical mentor, available in the flesh or not, then listen to, transcribe, and learn as much as I could about the music and the man that I could. The second statement is a warning though, and an important one.

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