Chris Potter plays “The Source”

The cover to Chris Potter's GratitudeToday’s transcription is the modern tenor giant Chris Potter’s tribute to 60s tenor giant John Coltrane. “The Source” comes from his album Gratitude, which is loaded with dedications to Potter’s heroes. This is the first of a few tracks I plan to pick from this record.

Its a blues, more or less…though cleverly modified in a distinctively bright style. The head shows demonstrates all the quirks of Potter’s writing:

  • He doesn’t have chord symbols in his lead sheet…just voicings
  • Modern, slash-chord progressions: like the G/Bb chord
  • Different Head, Interlude and blowing sections lending a lot of variety

The head is a simple, riff-based tune like the classic blues heads of Coltrane’s era. Coltrane Plays the Blues has a lot of tunes that must’ve influenced this track. In particular, the track “Mr. Day” is very similar…the 11 chords and the 4, b3 turnaround are pretty much identical to the blowing section of Potter’s tune.

The Solo

I was drawn to Chris Potter’s playing instantly for his clarity of sound and the seemingly impossible lines he throws off with ease. But beyond his chops, there’s a profound logic in each and every line he plays. The lines naturally evolve from each other. The rhythmic motifs are carefully explored. No note ever feels wasted. And then there’s his HUGE ears…in every performance I’ve heard, there’s always a moment when the interaction with the band will go way beyond just listening. An almost psychic response…

Man…can you hear the jealously pouring out of your monitor?

As Potter is one of the most virtuosic modern saxophonists, its little surprise that the technique required to perform this solo is high. He pops out altissimo C#’s with seemingly little effort, and runs bebop-inspired licks in and out of that range with a fluidity you don’t often hear up there. Then there’s the tremendous grace every line is executed with. To truly get the flavor of this solo, play it while matching his time precisely. You’re not going to find a cleaner performance anywhere – one of Potter’s hallmarks.

Stealing is Flattery

Ok…so let’s look at some of the best parts.

Early on in the solo, starting bar 65, there’s a 5ths lick that Potter develops for the next chorus, and then keeps coming back mutated into 4ths or rhythmically evolved. The most interesting developments begin and end (F). A nice side-effect of these 5ths stacks is the somewhat triadic sound against the chords with it…a light polytonality, or at least a strong emphasis of the 11 flavor of the progression. It also lends a really fresh, intervallic openness to his line.

Potter's 5ths lick from "The Source"

In bars 89 to 92, you’ll find my favorite moment of the whole performance…an enclosure lick from hell. Its one of those lines that’s just so slick, it all but requires close analysis and 12-key practice.

Potter's enclosures lick from "The Source"

Notice how each strong beat finds a chord tone wrapped in chromatics? I love the twisty sequence at the end as well…in fact, that moment is the reason I selected this solo. Sometimes it’s just not fair. 🙂

Posted in Jazz, Practicing, Transcription | 8 Comments

Lee Konitz plays “Subconscious Lee”

Lennie Tristano - IntuitionIn the late 40s and 50s, Jazz was going through a bit of an identity crisis. The Big Band Era was over and Bebop hadn’t caught on in the mainstream despite the best efforts of Dizzy Gillespie. Older musicians seemed conflicted as to what to make of it. Louis Armstrong famously called out Dizzy at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was common among the Beboppers to refer to the previous generations as “moldy figs”…out of touch, out of fashion.

Cool Jazz Enters

But 1949 saw the emergence of a new style of Jazz – an art-conscious but highly listenable style, embracing subtlety, grace and an almost Classical intellectualness. It came to be known as Cool Jazz, for the record Birth of the Cool, released by Miles Davis in 1951. This is a landmark in and of itself, but as with most landmarks, it served primarily to expose this new genre and all its many players to a wider group of listeners.

A major player in this “new” style was Lennie Tristano and his various ensembles made up of his students. Their Jazz was a highly technical, very cerebral brand, loaded with intricate harmonies and surprising melodies. In the 50s, he garnered a small but loyal following, but then receded into the background as Hard Bop and Miles’ further experiments retook mainstream audiences. Today, with giants like Mark Turner, reinvigorating the sound, Tristano and his students are seeing a resurgence of popularity.

Lee Konitz

Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is one of the greats of this period of Jazz (and has had an interesting career beyond Cool as well). While I wont claim to be an expert in all things Cool, he clearly understood the teachings of Tristano, as his improvisations contained much of the same precision, harmonic surprise and rhythmic character. Another frequent practice of Tristano’s was the use of contrafact – a new melody written to famous chord changes. Think “Donna Lee” and “Ko Ko”, which were new heads to “Indiana” and “Cherokee” respectively.

“Subconscious Lee” is a Konitz contrafact based on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, a classic 1929 Cole Porter tune. The head is complex and really showcases the sonorities Tristano’s students were exploring – mostly “modern” colors on conventional chords, like maj 7’s on minor chords, #11’s on Majors, melodic minor modes…etc. Its also a highly rhythmic head with several displacements and an emphasis on jarring syncopations. Check out the last [A] (bars 25 to 32) of the head to get the full effect. And dig those #5’s on the last chord!

The Solo

On all these early recordings, the solos are short and loaded with ideas. Lee’s solo is precise and unadorned, but rhythmically and harmonically very sophisticated. For me, there are really 3 standout elements:

  1. The prominent use of Diminished Scale-like ideas
  2. That super-cool sequence kicking off the second [A] (bars 102 to 104)
  3. The rhythmic idea in bars 121 and 122

First up, the diminished ideas. Full disclosure…there’s never a “perfect” moment when the whole scale is fully spelled out, so it’s hard to be sure exactly what Konitz was hearing/thinking, but there’s enough of the scale there to make some assumptions. He really leans on the b9 and #9 and the line starting at m. 101 gives that #11 flavor. Notice how his usage tends to ignore the ii-7b5 chords? It seems to me that he’s reducing ii-Vs to just Vs, giving him longer time to sound that altered V color.

Next up…the sequence. Go dig bars 102 to 104. Meditate on the hipness. I don’t think I need to tell you any more about it. Om…om…om…

Ok…so I’ll say one thing…does this remind you of the 90s fusion tenor players (Brecker, Mintzer, Berg…etc.)? This is one of those perfect sequences where the idea is note-for-note transposed. The first bar treats the ii chord as a Major or maybe a Dominant chord, second bar is a tritone sub, and the third is warped a bit to fit the minor chord. Ok…now go back to digging!!!

The rhythmic idea in 121 and 122 does this great job of representing the character of Lee’s 50s phrasing. Precise. Energetic. Driving.

Posted in Jazz, Practicing, Transcription | 3 Comments

A Few More Limbs

Supercollider / The Butcher EPRadiohead gave a treat to fans today. If you purchased a copy of The King of Limbs through the King of Limbs website, there are now two tracks for free download on an EP called Supercollider / The Butcher.

Radiohead called this a thank you to the fans in an email sent out by W.A.S.T.E. today. As a close friend of mine said today, “finally a benefit for paying 56% more for wav files than a CD”.

Supercollider (3/5)

A droning piece with a lot of synth textures and a drifting melody. It has a pervasive Eraser feel to it, reminding me a lot of tracks like “The Clock” and “The Eraser”. The bass recalls “The Gloaming” from Hail to the Thief – which was never a favorite of mine. I like this track better, but it does feel monotonous. It desperately needs a Thom Yorke gut-wrenching bridge a la “Reckoner” from In Rainbows. In state, its interesting, but not much more.

The Butcher (4/5)

A morbid, percussive feature with a very interesting sound treatment done to the drums. There are elements that recall the brooding “Climbing the Walls” from OK Computer, but its sparseness clearly fits the new Radiohead sound present on The King of Limbs. I have to say, its nice to hear Phil Selway cutting loose a bit more on this track. And check it out – there’s a bridge on this one!

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Live Concert Sharing

Dime-a-dozenI’m a huge fan of live jazz. You really can’t understand the experience of jazz improvisation without witnessing it live for yourself. Even many, if not most, studio recordings are polished to the point where the essence of live is missing. While the studio creates a valuable document, the performance is where you really get to tap into that elusive thing that gives jazz is uniqueness.

Since my kiddos came along, I don’t get out as much as I’d prefer. So I’ve substituted an obsession with collecting significant recordings of live shows by players I admire. Through this, I’ve found Michael Brecker solo concerts, rare Ornette Coleman performances and obscure tunes played by heavy weights. Where did I locate these, you might ask?

Live Concert Recording Resources

I use to track down live shows. There’s a nice community of jazz enthusiasts and a wealth of shows up for trade – as I write this, I’m downloading a Don Grolnick concert from 1984! They trade via BitTorrent which often associates with less reputable sites (like PirateBay and the like…), but isn’t inherently illegal. Their policies try to safe-gaurd artists’ rights while still making shows for music fans attainable.

Are there drawbacks? There are a few potential issues I’m aware of. Dime has taken efforts to be *legal*, but they really exist in a gray area. In many ways, these files are typically performances of copyrighted material which, recorded or not, are bound by those conventions. Venues pay royalties (like BMI fees) to allow this material to be performed, so these concerts should be covered under that, but shows aren’t usually intended to be fan-documented and then traded. Dime does this service for free though, so the “harm” is really only theoretical. Some artists don’t like the idea of their live material being traded. Others could care less. But at least Dime can say they’re not robbing artists of profit.

Another potential pit-fall…you could theoretically download corrupted or virus-laden material. Dime does a pretty good job restricting this sort of thing via its method of signing up – only a very limited number of users get to be involved. And the moderators and community likely come down hard on offenders. I’ve been acquiring live shows for years through this source and have never even had a poor transfer, much less a corrupted file.

Last thing…which is only a problem if you’re not a member. Its hard to get an user account. They have a strict cap of users, which have to be active or their accounts are closed. You have to wait until someone is booted to get one. I imagine open slots are getting progressively more rare. All I can say is keep refreshing your browser. They once said to me in an email that they purge accounts every 10 minutes, so you’ll eventually get the sign-up screen.

Software? My favorite BitTorrent client is Transmission for Mac. Its very reliable, super easy to use, and a very tiny program so you wont get all cluttered up. Installation took all of 30 seconds…mostly spent on finding the website.

Then all you do is find a show you want via the Browse or Search options. Click the underlined link at the top of the show’s page to get the tracker file (which tells Transmission or the like where to connect and draw from) and add it to your client.

A few matters of etiquette

  • Dime is a community of people sharing shows. Don’t grab and go. If you download a show, stick around after you get it (by leaving your client open) until people have had a chance to share from you. I try to share at least a full copy back into the pool before I close a “seed”.
  • Dime requires you have a share ratio of at least .25. That’s 25% shared back into the system. My advice? Make your first download something active (this is easy if you get something recently posted from the Browse list), and leave it up awhile…like days. You’ll get a really positive ratio and not have to stress about getting cut off.
  • Be nice. These shows were recorded by people taking a degree of risk and are shared out of their kindness and fan enthusiasm. Bare minimum, take a moment to thank them on the forums. And honor any reasonable requests in the listing (usually, don’t convert to a lossy format like mp3 and re-share, and don’t resell for profit). The community works very much on an honor system.

Good luck…hope you find something good. If you do, come back and tell me about it!

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Michael Brecker & Bob Mintzer play “Giant Steps”

Bob Mintzer's Twin TenorsI’m in the weeds right now, so here’s an oldie! I picked this solo back at NAU in 2000. It comes from Bob Mintzer’s tribute record to the Tenor Sax, Twin Tenors. This is a killer 90s record that showcases Mintzer performing some of his most creative solos. And to add to the treat, he’s being backed by Don Grolnick, Michael Formanek and Peter Erskine with Michael Brecker as a guest soloist on a few tracks (two of which I’ve picked and plan to post). Unfortunately, I think its out of print now, but hey, this is the age of the internet…I’m sure you know what to do about it.

“Giant Steps” is often built up as one of those looming hurdles in the development of a jazz musician that everyone must eventually clear. It was always getting called at the jam sessions – usually as a joke or a dare. It has challenging changes built of chords moving in 3rds and 4ths while the keys descend in Major 3rds. And those key changes happen on beat 3, rather than on any rhythmic landmarks. The melody is odd and intervallic, and while simple, is not particularly catchy except to the legions of jazzers who’ve dutifully committed it to memory. And to top it off, it usually moves at ludicrous speed when performed. Really, its a very odd duck. But despite this, John Coltrane’s tune has become a test of a modern player’s mettle…for better or for worse.

It comes as no surprise then that Mintzer, looking to pay homage to the legacy of the Tenor Sax, included this tune not once but twice on Twin Tenors. I’ve transcribed “Version 1” which features a blazing, pattern-oriented solo by Michael Brecker bearing a strong resemblance to the original Coltrane performance, and a more abstract, highly rhythmic solo by Bob Mintzer that demonstrates a more conceptual approach to the tune. The contrast between the two interpretations is really remarkable.

Comparing Notes

Michael Brecker’s solo is built from the same “digital patterns” found all over Coltrane’s solo. The 1-2-3-5 pattern is here. 5-3-1-5 is here. Lots of fragments of the bebop scale show up. And a wide variety of arpeggios and passing bebop vocabulary saturates the rest. Its a remarkable feat of dexterity, even though it stays pretty close to the traditional approach to “Giant Steps” Coltrane gave to us in 1959.

Its also notable that Brecker, who is renowned for his incredible harmonic vocabulary and rich palette of substitutions, keeps it pretty inside. This is a true testament to the difficulty of the song. The only consistent alteration can be seen over the C7 chords, where he is most likely using C Super Locrian (C Db D# E F# G# Bb). This isn’t surprising, as tunes with exotic chords like these often seem muddled when you push the harmonies too far. In fact, a bit of wisdom can be drawn from this – don’t alter alterations! At least, tread lightly.

Altering already-dissonant chords and substitutions can actually reduce tension, weakening the line. In this tune’s case, its more like, altering chords that are already complex makes the line less clear and can fool the listener into hearing the wrong portion of the tune. Notice how close C Super Locrian is to Db Major? Using this sound too much can actually rob your line of the intricacy of the progression.

Here’s a few tips for those trying Brecker or Coltrane’s approach to “Giant Steps”:

  1. Practice 1-2-3-5 patterns and other number-derived ideas. Work a variety of these through the progression until you can switch between them with relative ease. Beware though…this can lead to lots of senseless repetition. You’ll have to maintain focus and not let the tempo take control. And even if you do, this formulaic approach will often come across contrived. Strive for variety and always let your ear and instinct prevail over formulas.
  2. A more free approach to this same concept would be to take the shapes of the idea and practice manipulating it through chords. An example might be the same 1-2-3-5. But now play it from all scale tones, getting used to the subtle change in intervals occurring on each step. Then move according to inspiration rather than simply recreating the exact pattern’s structure on the next chord. So 6-7-8-3 or 3-4-5-7…6-#4-3-2 anyone?

Mintzer’s solo seems to come from a more original place. While still nailing the changes, he spends much of the time abstracting the rhythms of the tune. He almost seems to play like a drummer…percussive rhythms, over-the-bar phrasing and hints of hemiola sneak in throughout.

I love the strength of his themes. Take the opening 4 bars for instance. The quarter-note phrase endings in bars 1, 2 & 4 give a sense that each chunk is part of a bigger idea. Often, on a tune this challenging and this fast, pre-fabricated ideas take over leaving little room for inspiration. Mintzer has avoided that here by using simple ideas that can be easily moved around. And then he executes flawlessly!

One more particularly interesting moment is the second half of chorus O. Notice the pentatonic bit beginning on F∆7 in measure 330? He then begins shifting the idea up more-or-less in half steps to finish out the chorus. This is a great example of letting the idea lead the way. Even when its not completely “inside”, it still comes across because of the strength of the line and the repeated shapes and rhythms.

Closing thoughts

There’s so much great stuff in this one! It was a blast comparing the two different approaches to this tune. And that’s not even counting the incredible Don Gronick piano solo that I didn’t pick here. Hopefully this gives you some new insights into how to attack this beast.

Happy shedding!

Posted in Jazz, Practicing, Transcription | 7 Comments

Bob Brookmeyer plays “Stella By Starlight”

Brookmeyer - Old Friends CoverIn my second year at New England Conservatory, I had the honor of studying with Bob Brookmeyer, the wonderful composer, pianist and trombonist. Much of our time was spent talking about thematic development and finding ways to play more freely within the changes. Bob had me try all sorts of experimental ideas, including two particularly useful/unusual techniques:

  1. Playing simple ideas and transposing them logically to each other, with no real concern for changes I was playing over…in other words…let the idea, not the chords, be the guide. I call this chromatic sequencing.
  2. Using free atonality over changes. In early stages, he had me playing 12-tone-rows over conventional standards. That was some intense ear work there…

And he suggested I check out his performance of “Stella By Starlight” from his live recording Old Friends to hear these at work. At the time, I just picked a few choruses…wild stuff. He plays alone at first, and then with bass, so loosely around the chords that my analytical mind was spewing smoke trying to “get it”. It clicked when I stopped trying to justify the notes harmonically, and just listened to the development of the ideas.

Recently, inspired by Hal Crook’s How to Improvise, I’ve been obsessively working on motivic development. It made me flash back to this solo, which I’ve now completely transcribed…all friggin’ 12 minutes of crunchy notes, endless development, and immaculate groove.

So Bob, with great thanks and respect for your teaching, this one’s for you.

A bit of analysis

As many of you are probably aware, Bob Brookmeyer composes with a very modern harmonic vocabulary. Compositions such as “ABC Blues” & “Hello and Goodbye” demonstrate advanced scales, modern chord structures built from clusters and a liberal use of dissonance.

It should come as no surprise that his improvisations show this as well. There’s a frequent use of symmetrical scales and melodic minor modes, as well as “note sets” that don’t come from any obvious tonal category. Here’s a few choice moments:

  • G7 in Bar 4 – a clear use of Whole Tone
  • D-7 in Bar 20 – Whole Tone also, but a more dissonant version with a Major 3rd
  • G7 in Bar 126 – Half-Whole Diminished
  • The Bridge of Chorus D – a group of sequenced Whole Tone phrases

And of course, lots of other less obvious hints of these scales run throughout.

More importantly though, I feel Bob wasn’t concentrating on these specific sonorities. The performance sounds and plays more like he is painting with intervals. I get the impression of splashes of color, rather than any attempt at flagrant dissonances. The effect comes off as more controlled and sophisticated than a player just striving to “play out”. And the solo is performed with a playful atmosphere and a free-flowing quality that keeps some pretty hairy clashes from sounding grotesque.

So how do you take advantage of these ideas? You’ll need to get comfortable with a richer palette of colors. #5’s and #9’s on Major chords, the occasional Major 3rd on a Minor chord…that sort of thing. Here’s an ear training exercise (not for the faint of heart or the squeamish traditionalist) to improve dealing with these sounds:

  • Compose a 12-tone row…really easy…just write all 12 chromatic notes without repeating any. But don’t write randomly. Try to make the order sound good.
  • Now play a “C” drone…on the piano or whatever.
  • Here’s the tricky part…sing your line, one note at a time against the drone. Check on the piano once you’ve found it. Are you on the right note? Is it in tune?
  • Change the bass (maybe up a 1/2 step) and its like having a whole new phrase.
  • Once you sing the lines consistently, change from a 1-note drone to a complete chord. CMaj7 or E-7b5…etc. Now you’ll get to hear some of those really unusual clashes…a natural 5 on a b5 chord or a Major 7th on a dominant chord.

Be patient…it took a while to get good at this. But there were a lot of great side-effects. Chord sounds became sharper in my mind, I got comfortable recognizing and playing exotic sounds over changes, and I started hearing melodies with surprising notes.

A few choice moments

Starting in measure 9, Bob begins the first of many extended lines that sequence using their own logic, rather than the prevailing harmony. Check out how the rhythm and shape keeps the line working…even when he’s WAY outside (F# minor over D-7 anyone?):

A Brookmeyer Chromatic Sequence

Several times, Bob splits from “running changes” not for the sake of dissonance, but to play more bluesy. Check out this Bb Blues Scale drenched bridge starting in measure 49:

Brookmeyer gets bluesy

The A section beginning at 97, and all of letter J are great for this too.

One more…a great Melodic Minor inspired moment from measure 155. The tip-off that this comes from Melodic Minor is the use of Natural 9s on the half-diminished chords and the #9 and #5 on the F7b9. This is my favorite lick from the whole thing.

Brookmeyer arpeggio sequence

Alright…good luck with all that. Happy shedding!

Posted in Jazz, Practicing, Transcription | 4 Comments

James Blake “The Wilhelm Scream”

A track that I’m still tripping out on even a few months after I got it on my radar. I guess he’s a “dubstep” artist. I’m not really familiar with this style yet, but if Blake is indicative, I’m intrigued.

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Radiohead Anonymous

Gotta love this.

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A King of Limbs Review, pt. 1

Radiohead’s King of Limbs came in with a bit more of a whisper than expected. The sudden announcement, the fast timetable for release, and then dropping the record unexpectedly a day early, led to a release with far less fanfare than the media explosion of In Rainbows. And being an obsessive worshipper of these mopey Brits, I wanted to be excited by this record, and then be completely fulfilled. Uh oh…sounds bad right?

Well, actually I love it.

Like so many others, I was surprised by the brevity and opacity (trying to be pretentious as possible, in honor of Thom). But like all Radiohead releases, it grows more interesting with every listen. The 1st half is loaded with electronic blips and crackles that are hard to penetrate at first listen…or tenth. But the second half invites you in. Made up of ballads and mid-tempo groovers, that’s the part that keeps you coming back. Lets start with the back half.

5. Lotus Flower (5/5)

My favorite…a groover with a very odd video of Thom dancing convulsively. The hand claps and danceable feel make it fun, but the lyrics really get me going here. The whole idea makes me think of “dancing when no one is looking”. That image alone, the idea of unfiltered joy with more than a little deviousness, resonates with me.

6. Codex (4.5/5)

I like this track, but want it to arrive somewhere. Not that I’m implying that it goes nowhere…only that I don’t feel like it fully arrives…the rambling sonics at the end felt too much like a comma. But there’s a calm in both the music and lyrics that finds a space where these Brit boys don’t often go.

7. Give Up the Ghost (3.5/5)

Like “House of Cards”, some people will probably think this is an instant classic, while I find it dull. Its a perfectly acceptable song, but one that just passes time between two much more interesting tracks. A simple set of chords, a droning background vocal and a melody about wanting to die in someone’s arms somehow comes across a bit sappy. I’ll still hear it all the time though…it’s sandwiched between Codex and…

8. Separator (5/5)

I can’t wait to hear/see this live. This track is repetitive like Track 7, but unfolds in a much more interesting way. There’s the strangely-bright hi-hat snare pattern opening the tune which gives way to a soul-tinged melody. And then the ear candy comes in. When Thom croons “If you think this is over then you’re wrong” it lifts the whole tune up. Gotta be the Major 7th… From that point on, its all about intricate layering. Fascinating to hear it develop.

About that 1st half…

The first 4 tracks are a lot more challenging. I refuse to pass judgment, as every listen is changing for me. If I ever figure them out, I’ll come back to these. For now, I’m going to do something rare – not voice my opinion too strongly. 🙂

And to Wicked Children fans, I’ve started writing again. Look for some new performances later in the year.

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Practicing Jazz In 12 Keys

In this post, I justified why I practice in 12 keys. As promised, today’s post breaks down my approach.

Jazz By Numbers

To transpose rapidly between keys, you may have to change your way of thinking. When I was a younger player, I learned melodies by pitch names (C, A, Gb…what have you) which does work, but gives little information about a note’s context. You know the note is a “C”, but how does it function? Is it a 3rd, a b9 or a “ruptured 129th”? It also makes moving to another key difficult, since it takes a lot of math to move every note by a fixed interval, one-by-one.

When I first started out, I worked out of Jerry Coker’s Patterns for Jazz – a semi-comprehensive tome of arpeggios, scales and clichés. The book writes out a bunch of patterns, pre-transposed for you, but later only gives the pattern in a single key. You end up having to do a lot of the transposing yourself, which is the secret to the whole system.

After slogging through the 1st set of patterns (the major arpeggios), I noticed that Coker always built the exercises with the same transpositions. Taking a cue from this, I developed a pattern routine:

  1. Analyze the pattern for structure (i.e. “C D E G” is “1 2 3 5” in C∆)
  2. Use the numbers to recreate in new keys (i.e. “1 2 3 5” in Ab∆ is “Ab Bb C Eb”)
  3. Transpose and play full range in 1/2 steps, up and down
  4. Ditto in whole steps
  5. Ditto in minor 3rds
  6. Ditto in major 3rds
  7. …circle of 4ths anyone?
  8. And my own weird custom pattern – up a tritone, down a 1/2 step

Side note: I recently saw a Berklee interview with Michael Brecker (posted on Casa Valdez) where he demonstrates basically the same thing.

As I improved, I began to think numerically – which was more efficient. Instead of trying to shift the whole thing a minor 3rd, note by note, I just recreated the number set in the new key. All I had to do was know the key well enough.

Applying Numbers to Tunes

So how do you leverage this keyless way of thinking when it comes to moving tunes around? It comes down to being able to understand the structure of a tune. A lot of times, this is simple…

Miles Davis’ “So What”:
The Changes to "So What"

A Typical Jazz Blues:
A Typical Blues Progression

But it can also get complex. Let’s look at “All the Things You Are”. This tune has key changes, a wide variety of chord types and an unusual 36 bar form.

Let’s look at one possible breakdown:

1. First, find all the chords in the tune that are clearly in the key of the song (AbΔ in the original key). Here it turns out that the 1st 5 bars are all just chords from diatonic AbΔ. The last 3 bars are a ii-7 V7 IΔ7 progression in CΔ. So turning that into function, we get:
All the Things - The 1st Section

2. The A’ section (or should we call it B?) is identical to the first, but up a 5th.
All the Things - The 2nd Section

3. The bridge is just two ii-7 V7 IΔ7 progressions in two keys (GΔ and EΔ originally), and it ends with a V7b9b13 to take us into the last section. Here’s how I see it:
All the Things - The 3rd Section, The Bridge

4. The last section is an extended variation on A. This time, it stays in one key with some clever passing chords.
All the Things - The 4th Section

Notes on the last section: The bVII7 is often played as a IV-7. I like the bVII7 since it keeps the circle-of-5ths bass line going. Also, the bIII°7 can be seen as a V7/b9 of the V7 chord. Try it out. Cool, right?

The structure is actually pretty clean when you look at it like this – especially given the tune’s sophistication. What we’ve created here is the plan for rebuilding the tune in any key. Just assign a key to the first I chord and the rest will fall in line.

Also, did you notice that seeing the tune this way points out subtle details in the progression? See those VI chords and the III chord? I hear a lot of players treat these as II chords. I bet not all of them do it as a creative exercise. They probably just saw the minor chords and went straight for Dorian.


Ok…so that was a mouthful, but it does spell out the way I practice tunes these days. And like anything, this gets easier as you add “formulas” to your trick bag. For instance, all the ii-7 V7 IΔ7 patterns are just one thing in my mind – a ii-V-I progression. In fact, there are 24 chords in this tune that can be summed up as ii-V-I’s. Out of 36 bars, that’s a pretty good start.

Is this for the young improviser? Probably not. If you’ve only been playing for a few years, this probably seems like a mountain. I assure you it isn’t. But it took years of theory study and countless hours of practice to get to this point. Start small.

  • Get Patterns for Jazz or something like it and start thinking number & function.
  • Make this a part of your daily routine so you absorb it naturally.
  • Read concert charts to get practice transposing (a skill I use all the time). This is a related skill that gets you seeing intervals.
  • Study theory. Try Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book or Randy Halberstadt’s Metaphors for the Musician.

And if you’re a pro, you need these skills. There will be a gig where having this ability makes you look like a superhero – especially in comparison to all the players out there who can’t do it.

Guess who they’ll call the next time they need a horn player!

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