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I found this quote (in a another post) to be a thought-provoking idea: "You can 'play the changes' or let the (passing/chromatic) chord do the work of creating the dissonance while you stay in the tonality and flow of the cadence. Either technique has its place."

I have been struggling a bit with a standard 12-bar blues (as well as other jazz tunes/formats) and the thought of letting passing tones create the tension and dissonance always seemed like "cheating" to me. But I think I'm getting too old to "play the changes" in the sense that if I'm reading a chart "real-time", unless I am super-familiar with it, I'm just to slow and I'll tend to make more mistakes, or worse, "freeze up" and not even be sure what to play. For example, if we have a 12-bar blues in F:


| F7 | Bb7 | F7 | % | Bb7 | Bdim7 | F7 | A-7 D7 | G-7 | C7 | F7 D7 | G-7 C7 |


I'll tend to say to myself (as I read from left to right) "OK, 1 bar F blues, now Bb blues, F blues ....B dim scale....F blues, whoah now I need to play in G...ok now F major....oh I need to play something with tension that resolves over those last two bars".....I'm generalizing a bit but you get the idea. Cumbersome and not efficient, to say the least. I know there are no short-cuts with all of this but just wondering how you more seasoned "jazzists" approach improv when reading a chart? So much of it is feel/experience I know, but there has to be some level of "consciousness" with regard to playing over the changes....

thoughts/opinions?
 

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The thing is to think of written changes as you would think of reading a sentence in English. You don't read each letter in each word, then sound out the word, then say the word, and hope that by the time you get to the end of the sentence you can remember what the first of the sentence was. Well, you may do that when you first learn to read, but as an experienced reader, you probably inhale an entire clause at once.

In your blues progression above, there are some things I see when I look at it without any music happening.

1) It's a 12 bar blues with a more complex form than the vanilla 12 bar form. Specifically, I would describe this (if I were telling someone) as: 12 bar blues, with a quick 4, diminished chord in bar 6, a 2-5 in bars 9 and 10, and a 1-6-2-5 turnaround. If you have played and listened to a lot of blues, you will definitely know what this is as soon as you hear it, even without the music in front of you or the description.

But! If you just said "blues in F" and started, after the first chorus or so I would have identified this progression based on having played and listened to a lot of blues, and I have a vocabulary that works over that sequence of sounds. (In this case, music theory doesn't directly enter into it; I could know nothing about theory and use my ears, and play melodies over those chords, based on listening and playing a lot of blues forms. Of course you can gain vocabulary faster if you also understand the functions of the chords.)

The description of "inside your head" that you provided is like reading one. word. at. a. time. What you really have is three phrases: bars 1-4, 5-8, 9-12. Or, you could break 9-12 into 9-10 and 11-12 where 11-12 is the turnaround. You. can. manage. one. word. at. a. time. if. you. can. quickly. attach. chord. symbols. to. scales. on. the. fly. and. I. and. other. musicians. do. this. when. we. sightread. a. chart. with. weird. changes. for. the. first. time. But it doesn't lend itself to the most musical results. You need to think in bigger chunks.

You know, you could play nothing but a series of repeated Fs over that progression, and if you did it with rhythmic variation, you could almost get away with it. If you were Louis Armstrong, for example.

The key point is what sounds good. Different people, or the same person at different times, or even at different points in the same tune, will use different kinds of sound patterns as serves the music best at the instant.

For people who get hung up on the chord symbols, I recommend lots of playing along with records by ear. When you can nail the changes of simple tunes every time that way, but you are starting to get bored because your vocabulary is too small, then try some theory-motivated different things. When the theory starts to tie you up in knots, go back to the ears. I think you can go back and forth this way to get better.
 

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The better you know the chords, the less you have to think about what is going on in the technical sense. That makes room for your musical ability to come through so you play lines that have meaning rather than spouting exercises. Its not about how much you know - its about getting some color and emotion into the music. Sometimes even some humor.
 

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I like turf3's comparison to reading a written sentence. Also good advice re playing along with records by ear.

When I look at chord changes, I don't think about them individually - I try to see how they relate to the progression and key center, and then I try to think melodically (horizontally?). I sometimes get stuck reading hard changes whose function isn't immediately obvious to me (I struggle with Kenny Wheeler tunes, for example, if I haven't listened to them a lot first) and that's tough. The only solution for me in that situation is listening more and transcribing. If I start to think about scales, I lose track of melody and direction. I think being able to hear your way through a progression is the most important thing.

edited to add: I have a far better time (and I believe I play better) when I'm listening and feeling my way through something rather than when I'm thinking about chord changes. I prefer to think as little as possible when soloing. That's not always possible, of course.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
All great points here. I feel a little better knowing that at least more complex tunes that you are unfamiliar with might require an initial.read.through.one.chord.at.a.time.

Having said that, I have always been a far better "ear" player, and so far all 3 of you guys have eluded to the importance of feeling your way through a piece, listening, the emotion, all of that, etc. Obviously jazz requires some theoretical knowledge and technical ability but I'm glad to see experienced folks saying that isn't what they "rely" on, continually anyway. I like the idea of breaking the changes into chunks, and alternating back and forth between "theory" and "ear" practice. It's more fun, for me anyway, to just blow to a piece with no music....warts and all I probably learn more from this, in the end. I'm determined to hone my theory/reading skills, but as my title suggests I think I've been over-analyzing a bit at the expense of making "real" music, for the fear of making mistakes or being technically "wrong". An easy trap to fall into in the jazz world, I suspect.
 

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I'm not an accomplished jazz improvisor, but my former teacher is and she said something that made a lot of sense to me when I asked her how to approach playing over changes. When a tune modulates from say G to F to Bb, she said she mainly just focuses on which notes have changed. So in G major she just thinks "f#", F major "f natural, b flat", Bb "e flat", etc.

Emphasizing the changing notes helps to really outline the key centers and allows her to play long melodic lines across the modulations.

Of course, there are many other ways to approach improvisation. This can work well over standards with lots of basic ii-V changes, but tunes with many altered chords require more analysis. However, I've found this concept interesting and useful as a beginning improvisor.
 

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My first thought was that you should think about what notes change between the chords, instead of thinking about each individual chord. For example for the first two bars, I see F dominant 7, and then I see that the next bar is the exact same scale, except that you're supposed to play Ab instead of A. Thus, I instantly see that I can voice lead from the 3rd of F7 to the 7th of Bb7. In the second phrase, the Bdim7 looks really tricky, but just think of it as Bb7, except the root is B instead of Bb. It's the same chord. In the next bar, F7 is Bb7 except with a natural A, A-7 is the same as Gmaj7 and D7 is the exact same scale so just ignore that symbol for now. With G-7 all you have to do is play F natural instead of F# like in the prev measure. Every time the chord changes, one or two notes change...you just need to know which ones.

Obviously you should have a very solid grasp on your chords for every single scale in major, dominant 7, and minor. Specifically for this situation, you should practice "bricks"--the other chords that can be found in the extensions of chords. (For example, the level 1 brick of Dmin7 is Fmaj7--FACE is an extension of DFAC)
 

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| F7 | Bb7 | F7 | % | Bb7 | Bdim7 | F7 | A-7 D7 | G-7 | C7 | F7 D7 | G-7 C7 |

I'll tend to say to myself (as I read from left to right) "OK, 1 bar F blues, now Bb blues, F blues ....B dim scale....F blues, whoah now I need to play in G...ok now F major....oh I need to play something with tension that resolves over those last two bars"
Just to clarify, you aren't switching your blues scale for every bar right? You could get away with just playing F blues the entire time. I am not saying that is the best way, but for a lot of beginners, that is the easiest thing to do. The next step would be to try to incorporate the notes of each chord in your melodies as the chord passes. Also try to hear and understand circular progressions and cadences. You can get away with playing diatonically there or use the leading tones in the secondary dominants for color.
 

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Just to clarify, you aren't switching your blues scale for every bar right? You could get away with just playing F blues the entire time. I am not saying that is the best way, but for a lot of beginners, that is the easiest thing to do. The next step would be to try to incorporate the notes of each chord in your melodies as the chord passes. Also try to hear and understand circular progressions and cadences. You can get away with playing diatonically there or use the leading tones in the secondary dominants for color.
Personally, I like the sound of an F blues over a Bb7 more than over an F7. It's got some cooler alterations.
 

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There are so many approaches and so little time...I always do better on modal tunes myself ;-) As others have mentioned, look for the notes that change between chords. This gives you the basic voice leading. An example is the A to Ab back to A in the F7 to Bb7 of the first 4 of your blues. Eb to D is part of it too.

You could try doing some simple riffs that change slightly to fit the chords. Some riff tunes, like Lester Leaps In on rhythm changes, don't change at all but some blues heads like Jumping With Symphony Sid and Tenor Madness follow the changes to a degree. Try coming up with a riff for your blues progression.

Another approach is to find the melody and use that as a stating point.

Also remember that if you land wrong, a "right" note is usually just a 1/2 step away.
 

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I found this quote (in a another post) to be a thought-provoking idea: "You can 'play the changes' or let the (passing/chromatic) chord do the work of creating the dissonance while you stay in the tonality and flow of the cadence. Either technique has its place."

I have been struggling a bit with a standard 12-bar blues (as well as other jazz tunes/formats) and the thought of letting passing tones create the tension and dissonance always seemed like "cheating" to me. But I think I'm getting too old to "play the changes" in the sense that if I'm reading a chart "real-time", unless I am super-familiar with it, I'm just to slow and I'll tend to make more mistakes, or worse, "freeze up" and not even be sure what to play. For example, if we have a 12-bar blues in F:

| F7 | Bb7 | F7 | % | Bb7 | Bdim7 | F7 | A-7 D7 | G-7 | C7 | F7 D7 | G-7 C7 |

I'll tend to say to myself (as I read from left to right) "OK, 1 bar F blues, now Bb blues, F blues ....B dim scale....F blues, whoah now I need to play in G...ok now F major....oh I need to play something with tension that resolves over those last two bars".....I'm generalizing a bit but you get the idea. Cumbersome and not efficient, to say the least. I know there are no short-cuts with all of this but just wondering how you more seasoned "jazzists" approach improv when reading a chart? So much of it is feel/experience I know, but there has to be some level of "consciousness" with regard to playing over the changes....

thoughts/opinions?
If you want to play changes then start with learning the chords and being able to solo on just chord tones. It sounds like you are jumping right to thinking of scales which I believe is the wrong way to do it. Yes the F Blues scale can sound great on a blues but on an F7 chord if you just think FAbBbBCEbF you are totally missing out on the 3rd of A. Also, you are probably playing all sorts of AbBb and B's and not hearing how those notes want to resolve and the tension caused by them. You just think they are ok because they are in the scale. That is not true. In music each note as certain consonance or dissonance as it is played against a chord that needs to be heard and affects the line in some way.

Then on Bb7 you say you think Bb blues. I don't know if I have ever seen or heard anyone play a Bb blues on the IV7. Logically it should work if the F Blues works on F7 but it's not about logic but sound. Does it sound good? To my ears, it has always sounded awful. Why? Because you are playing BbDbEbEFAbBb. Again you are probably hitting the Db and E and missing out on the beautiful note of D. It's beautiful because now it is a primary note of that chord. It wasn't on F7 but is on Bb7. Like others have said, you want to try to hit the notes that change to outline the chord changes.

You can practice and play a perfectly good solo with just chord tones. It actually is one of the most important things to be able to do before you mess with the notes in between. You are working on learning the home base of every chord and mastering the consonant notes. You are working on voice leading in a big way as you get better and better at it. Once you master it then add the notes in one at a time. Once you have the chord notes down and can solo on multiple choruses with no wrong notes and not starting on the root of every chord (practice specifically not starting on the roots)then try adding the 9ths to each chord and working with adding those in. Listen to how they sound and where they want to go. Take your time as you play a G on F7. Actually you might find that the G doesn't need to go anywhere and sounds ok. But practice G to F and G to A and see if you can hear the difference in tension and resolution. Then try the same thing withthe 11th and 13th of each chord. Not playing scales but working these into your chord improv ideas. Every idea you play think "How was that from 1-10?" If it was a 10 play it again over and over a hundred times. If it is a 5-9 see if you can change it a little to make it a 10 then play it over and over a 100 times. If it is 2-4 that is debatable i usually toss those ideas and try another completely but maybe you can work with it and make it work. A 1 is just a horrible idea and sounds awful and isn't worth trying to save. I just toss that idea and move on with maybe a slight shiver as I try to forget I just played that. At first you might play a lot of 1-4 rated ideas but if you keep working on this and practicing over time more and more of your ideas will be in the 5-10 rating. You will learn what works and how to create melodies. How to play and balance the tension and release of notes etc...........The last part has nothing to do with this but I was on a roll so.........Hope this helps, Steve
 

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I hoped that helped sthsquid because I certainly found it clear. That was a great response Steve. Your responses often are but that one really hit the nail on the head. Thank you.
 

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Arpeggiate the changes until you are well and truly sick of it in 12 keys. Just when you think it's getting you nowhere, the half step resolutions will start, that's where the gold is. Took me about a year.
 

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turf3 said:
For people who get hung up on the chord symbols, I recommend lots of playing along with records by ear. When you can nail the changes of simple tunes every time that way, but you are starting to get bored because your vocabulary is too small, then try some theory-motivated different things. When the theory starts to tie you up in knots, go back to the ears. I think you can go back and forth this way to get better.
This about sums it up.
 

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"Theory driven vs. ear driven improvisation"
I think it should be theory driven + ear driven improv.. a little mix of both.. Tho IMO i think that if you have a good ear (perfect pitch) theory can be a limitation..
 

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| F7 | Bb7 | F7 | % | Bb7 | Bdim7 | F7 | A-7 D7 | G-7 | C7 | F7 D7 | G-7 C7 |
When I see this progression, I hear - in 1 gulp - 12 bar blues in key of F, quick IV chord, next IV chord goes up to diminished, then it does a 3-6-2-5, then a 1-6-2-5. I think play F blues, but for color hit the raised 4 root note of the diminished and catch some of the chord tones of the 3-6-2-5 and of the 1-6-2-5 turnaround.

It's always much harder to write this than to play it.
 
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