Learning to play jazz

Learning to play jazz

Play jazz: practice and theory

Have you ever been asked the question “What do you do?” When I used to reply “I’m a singing coach” the usual annoying response was “Do you know anyone famous?” Now that I teach jazz piano, an equally infuriating reaction is “How can you teach improvisation? I thought you just make stuff up.” However I have to admit that they do have a point. I can’t imagine that fifty years ago jazz players had the same access to teachers, courses or even books on the practical aspects of playing jazz. So how did they learn? Perhaps they did just ‘make stuff up’ but they would have also learned by listening to other musicians. More importantly, their musical progress would have evolved through the act of playing alongside fellow musicians.

Nowadays, there is far more access to jazz education, with full-time degree courses, jazz teachers, online tutorials, and books by the cartload. But however much we fill our heads with jazz theory, there is still no substitute for the two activities that jazz musicians have always engaged in: listening and playing together. Understanding tritone substitution and gaining the ability to play
II-V-I’s in every key will is will get you so far, but until you get out there and play with other musicians your progress will eventually hit a brick wall. This also applies to only ever playing along to backing tracks. These tracks will help you with timing and acquainting yourself with a piece, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

Even if you have a personal teacher playing alongside you, there is still a difference between this relatively safe activity and playing in a room with a group of fellow musicians. Taking this to the next level has to be performing live. Even if you are just playing to the barman one can only benefit from this shift up in gear: this is now a gig rather than a practice section or rehearsal. There is no longer the option to stop half way through if something goes wrong but there’s also the added buzz that only comes from performing rather than rehearsing.

So, assuming that you are now playing with other musicians and doing the odd gig, is there really any need to learn theory? Let’s break this down.

Reading the dots

I’m not one of the lucky ones that can carry dozens of tunes around in my head. However, I played classical music in my younger days and can therefore read music. But is it an essential requirement? For me, I know that this skill has enabled me to work as a pro musician for 40 years but, generally speaking, I’d say that you can get by just by reading the treble clef, in other words, the top line or melody of a tune.

Recognising the chord symbols

This has to be an essential requirement, for the simple reason that a lead sheet comprises of the top line (melody) plus chord symbols. Some single line players (sax etc) have been known to get away without knowing their chords, but for us piano players it’s our bread and butter. You must work towards recognising chord symbols for all major, minor and dominant seven chords in every key. There is no escape from this requirement.

Reading the map

Just seeing each chord individually is not enough. You may have your favourite voicings and know scales that work over each chord, but playing a solo by referring to each chord individually will sound unmusical and disjointed. All songs have a map: chords fall into groups and these groups of chords usually belong to a key centre.

Key centres

Most tunes begin in one key but then move through a number of related keys before eventually returning to the original key (the key signature). The chord chart doesn’t inform you explicitly of these key changes. It is for you to decipher them. The big clue is to be found in the dominant 7 chord, which usually ‘points’ towards its tonic, in other words, the key centre. So, for example, if you see the chord A7, it ‘wants’ to resolve to D major or D minor. Once you have identified a group of chords that all belong to one key centre, you can then play through this passage in a way that makes musical sense. The most common sequence in jazz is II –V – I.

Scales and modes

Choose any chord, no matter how complex, and there’s bound to be a scale or mode that can be played over it. The danger here is that just running up and down these scales and modes will produce bad jazz. But, that said, you need to gain some knowledge of these scales and how they relate to chords.

Chord tones

There are certain notes within a chord that identify that chord and need to be targeted. Top of the list is the 3. This is the note that tells us whether a chord is major or minor. Nest in importance comes the 7. The difference, for example, between C7 and C major 7 is whether the note ‘B’ is natural or flattened. These 3s and 7s need to be highlighted in order to illuminate the harmonic line of your solo.

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It can always be said that all the above can be learned by just having a good ear. But in the end it’s finding your own balance between studying the theory and just playing the music.

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