Fitting It All Together: Reading, Listening and Playing Through the Changes

Wayne Shorter “Juju” chart

Last week, we wrapped up the series on Breaking Down Harmonic Substitutions. After that, I had a great moment with a student where there was a small distinction made that seemed to have a great impact in the student’s playing. An immediate impact.

We were running the Wayne Shorter tune “Juju”, primarily because it has a ton of whole-tone scale opportunities (Dominant7 ?5 chords). We were playing around with the whole-tone scale and trying to combine other altered dominant options into the mix (half-whole symmetrical diminished), the altered scale, 5th mode melodic minor (thereby treating it as a dominant7 ?6 instead).

The second half of the tune has some changes that are a little more common. I also like this tune because I can hear how someone changes their lines and ideas when they leave the world of the whole-tone scale:

Do they play with a lot of space over the less comfortable chord type and then start blazing through the rest?

Or is there a consistency to their approach?

Do the two sections feel coherent and tell one story with the soloist or two very different tales?

Getting to the point, the student was struggling with the dominant7 ?5 chords, but then also struggling with the rest of the tune as well. My guess was that this was because he was getting flustered and frustrated with himself, and then he was unable to recover.

We stopped, talked a bit about various ways of playing through this change or that, and began again.

This time I saw him get flustered and then close his eyes (he does not have the tune memorized). His ideas began to have a commonality of approach but he still wasn’t making the changes. He was just trying to hear a melody through them. It was better, but he was also falling back on an old habit of ignoring things he didn’t understand harmonically and winging it.

Now, we’ve done enough work with arpeggios, chord scales and scalar patterns through various tunes in the Real Book for me to know that he knows what notes are inside the harmony and which notes are outside the harmony for any given chord type. Much of his issue was with muscle memory and not having the stuff deeply ingrained enough for immediate recall. In other words, he was having to think too hard to play through the changes effectively at tempo and in real time.

I stopped him again and pointed out that he was no longer paying attention to the changes and just playing by ear again. Our course, this is a fine exercise on its own, but not what we were going for here. He apologetically said, “I know. I just can’t see melodic content in the changes written on a chart. But I also can’t hear jazz well enough to just play through so many shifting chord changes like I can on an R&B gig or something”.

This is when a simple concept made its way into the right words at the right time. What I said was this:

“This isn’t a ‘one or the other’ scenario. Nobody can look at a set of changes and just see beautiful melodies jumping out at them. The thing is to use your ears to direct your hands but to also look at the changes that you are playing over and make micro-adjustments to your line while still fitting within the harmony.

“If your ears are moving you up in a linear line but you see that you are about to resolve your line on a major 3rd over a minor chord, follow your ears, but make that one small adjustment to the line. Use your ears and pay attention to the harmony”.

Disclaimer: this is not the only way or even the best way to go about it. But it is one way for an ear player who has also done the work to get familiar with chord types, scales, etc. to start to merge the information he has with the system he knows. I find it important to learn to play within the harmony before you worry about playing outside of it. Sometimes I might want to hit a major 3rd on a minor chord, but I likely would use it as a passing note and not a resolution point and this student was landing very strongly on some whacky notes.

A lightbulb visibly turned on in his head. This also followed a conversation about not treating every chord like it’s own separate entity, but rather perceiving them as small (or large) variations on each other. Playing through the changes, not just starting and stopping an idea with every chord change.

So, we started up again and he instantly started playing better. He was playing the kind of lines he hears and not trying to force a scalar pattern to a chord type. He was weaving his melodies through the changes but now resolving appropriately and harmoniously and hitting far fewer of those wonky notes that make us all cringe when we play them (usually a result of playing a pattern and disregarding the notes and their relationship to the chord at hand).

We then proceeded to have a blast playing through a few more tunes and both left with a smile on our faces. This got me thinking on the drive home about tying together concepts, inherent tendencies, learned theories, and so on.

We tend to compartmentalize our practice regimens. This is very helpful and an effective way to get the most out of available time, but I wonder if we need to focus more on pulling some of these things together. I find that with many of my intermediate and advanced students, many of the roadblocks that remain have little to do with understanding or time put in. The issues are more mental road-blocks of one kind or another. It might be fear of making a mistake – leading to a hesitancy to play anything with authority – or it might be the simple realization that you can listen and think at the same time. It might also be not fully realizing that music is an art form and has no real limits or boundaries and can be approached in any number of ways, or it could just be a lack of real-world experience getting in the way of having a strong voice.

Regardless, I thought it worth writing about as I have come across many students who have a hard time reading and listening, or even just listening when outside of their comfort zone. When the brain is in overdrive, we tend to shut off our ears. In addition, I have also had many students who were ‘ear’ players before anything else and I have found it to be a consistent theme that you have to remind them that they can still trust their ears and simultaneously make jazz-theory-type-educated note choices while looking at chord changes.

Just because we are doing ‘A’ or focusing heavily on ‘A’ doesn’t mean that we ignore ‘B’. We receive knowledge from all directions – from within and from the outside. We must always be conscious to merge the old and the new into a unified set of abilities. Compartmentalize in the shed, but be sure to bring it all together so that every bit of knowledge enhances every other bit of ability.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything related to this lesson! Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Alec

    Great explanation. A wave/particle scenario applied to music. This one should be kept on the home page for a while.

  2. Burkhard

    That was definitely worth writing about, thanks for doing so.

    Very inspiring. I’ll read that again after some thinking with my instrument at hand.