“How Did You Learn to Play Through Changes?”

The other day I got a message on Facebook asking this question.  It’s a good one, but not one that I’m asked that much.   When I was trying to figure it out for myself, it was the biggest concern and dilemma in my musical life.

Back then I was doing tons of daily listening to all kinds of records by the jazz masters, trying to figure out how it was done by hearing it being done.  I realized that the most frequent points of occurrence of commonly used “jazz language” (phrases that I had started to recognize as common to and played by just about everyone who could play changes), were over 2, 5, 1s.  Once I noticed that, then I started listening for these “lines” in every tune’s chord changes (where were the 2, 5, 1s?) and from every player (what melodic lines were they playing at those points)?

Learning to imitate. Hoping to emulate.

At that point for me the task became two-fold:  1) To understand common chord progressions and to be able to play them as accompaniment (comp) and “play with” them (comp whimsically and freely) and 2) to be able to play over them melodically at the points where they occurred (play solo lines).  #1 meant learning (memorizing) songs.  Ones that were common to jazz players (and students), like Satin Doll, My Romance, The Days of Wine and Roses, Stella…, Blues, Rhythm Changes, etc. Within these tunes I’d realize the differences between 2, 5, 1s in major and minor Keys. I’d also get familiar with various common chord progressions:

5 – 1, 2 – 5 – 1, 1 – 6 – 2 – 5, 3 – 6 – 2 – 5, 4major – 4minor – 3-6 – 2-5 – 1, etc.

These changes are in all the standards and I realized intuitively that I had to be able to hear, understand and even anticipate them in an instant. With that ability, I could hear and play the changes to standard tunes that I I’d never played before and/or, didn’t really know.  I tell my students all the time, you can only improvise as well as you can comp (or hear harmony).  The whole technical point musically of jazz improvisation is to interpret songs by depicting their chord progressions using instantaneously “composed” melodies.

Which brings me to task #2: The jazz language is just that, a language or a collection of melodies (some call them lines, phrases or licks), many that have remained and/or have been developed and evolved over jazz’s 100+ year history.  Knowing and playing them (verbatim or in essence) is the declaration of a player’s allegiance to the jazz culture – its history, practices and underlying, original meanings, feelings and purposes.  (More on that later.) When I was trying to figure out how to “play through changes,” the main thing that I wanted to do was to play lines like I heard them played on the records, in the right places (the correct harmonic situations) and with the right feeling and intention. In order to become fluid and to sound natural meant that I had to have at least a few melodic phrases that sounded like 2 – 5 (or 5) going to a major chord resolution. Likewise, I needed minor key resolution 2 – 5 (or 5 altered) sounding phrases, as well as lines that sounded like a major chord and ones that illustrated a minor chord, etc.

Putting the #1 and 2 components together was (and is) what “playing” is all about.  The development, maintenance and quest for variety and freedom within one’s vocabulary can last a lifetime.  However, first we should learn and understand that oftentimes, one note will make the color of the chord just perfectly and if we can hear how to “move around” using (hearing) just individual notes appropriately, we can play changes in that most simple, yet beautifully melodic way.  In fact, that is the cornerstone of playing lines, phrases and patterns successfully through changes: being able to hear which note(s) to start and end phrases with – which note will connect me to my next idea, the next chord or line?  Playing, no matter how complex (or fancy sounding) is only as tasteful as the choice of notes that start and finish phrases.  If that philosophy is the foundation of your solos, then even at a fairly novice level you can make correct and pleasing choices of colors (notes) over chords.   After that, no matter how much more you advance, the driving force of your playing will always be governed by that simple, musically intelligent, core aesthetic value.