Quadruple Your Jazz Language in 10 Minutes
Learning language is vital to your success as an improvisor. Without it you’re truly lost. You may know a scale, a chord, a concept…but without the fundamental ideas of what to do with these tools, you’ll aimlessly wander through the harmony. These fundamental ideas are gleaned from learning and studying language.
A reader recently wrote in, “I’ve been transcribing and learning language from my favorite players, but now I feel like I’m just repeating the same stuff over and over. How do I get beyond this?”
For starters, make sure you’re learning language not licks, and that you’ve spent ample time making lines your own. If you’re doing those two things, you should already feel like you’re not playing the same stuff all the time.
But, how do you set yourself up from the get-go feeling like when you learn a piece language, you’re going to open many doors, not just one door to one line, in one particular situation? The answer lies in how you understand the line, and what you do with that information once you know it.
The inner workings of jazz language
Whenever you study a piece of jazz language, whether it’s a line you just transcribed, or it’s something you learned months ago, always ask yourself, “What makes this specific line special?” Really dwell on it and ponder the answer. In some cases it’s immediately obvious and in others, it may taking some more thinking.
The point is, you need to realize early on what makes the particular line you’re working on unique. What makes it work? What is the essence of the line?
Some examples of what makes a line special:
- The way a chord tone is enclosed
- The way a structure, like a triad or a four-note grouping is used
- The way a chord tone is gotten to
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a line from Dexter Gordon:
What makes this line special? Now, keep in mind, this is completely objective. What you think is special about a line, may be totally different than what I think. That does not matter. It’s these personal tastes that mold us into the player we wish to become. There are no right or wrong answers, just what you think based on what you hear.
The first thing that jumps out as special to me, is the quick drop to Ab on beat four (example #1). The b5 on a downbeat over a minor chord? Wait wait wait!! That goes against our jazz theory rules. Chord tones should be on downbeats, not a b5 on a minor chord. This must be wrong!
Does it sound wrong? No, not in the least. That’s why transcribing and learning language is so important. Music theory can be used to support what you’re hearing and observing through your study of the music. It helps you conceptualize your findings and gives you a way to think and talk about them.
Back to the line. So, that quick detour to the b5 is definitely something special and unique to this line. There are many ways to understand what Dexter is doing here. A simple way to think about it would be as a type of enclosure of the 5th. It barely matters what you call it, as your main goal is to just “get” what he’s doing.
Looking at this next part (example #2), this is a slightly special way players descend the minor chord (D- in this case), or we could say he’s using an F triad with an approach note. Again, don’t get too caught up in the theory, you just need a quick way to understand what you’re hearing. Hearing being the most important part of that sentence.
In this example (#3), I’ve highlighted the same notes as before, but left the third note out. Okay, here’s where it gets extremely objective. To me, these three notes make this line special. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. How often do you hear people getting to the 5th of a chord (on beat 2) like this? In my personal study, I haven’t seen (heard) it too much, therefore, to me it’s pretty unique.
And in our last example (#4), above, we have a unique type of enclosure of the third. Definitely something that makes this line special.
That’s the first part of what you should always be thinking when learning language. What makes this line special? Hammer it home to yourself like I’m doing with you. The next time you’re learning a line, think in these terms.
Once you begin to think like this, the next part is where all the fun comes in.
Extracting the specialness
Once you clarify what the specialness of the line is, doors start to open. You’re next task is to take that essence of the line, and transfer it to other situations.
Here are some examples of how I might do this with the examples explored above.
Our first element of special was that quick drop to the b5 in example #1. The easiest way to create new lines with a concept like this, is to simply use the concept with other material. In this line, that would mean keeping the drop to the b5 on your line, but changing the rest of it. The beginning of the line could look something like this:
or perhaps this:
or we could leave out some notes:
Any of these options would work. All we’re doing is keeping the uniqueness and changing everything else. A point to emphasize here. You need not write down a bunch of different options. You want to practice improvising with these concepts in mind.
After you try doing this, move on to taking the underlying concept behind the special points, and applying it in a new way. A simple tactic is to use the concept taken from the special part of the line, and transfer it to a different chord tone. An example will make this clear.
Taking our last example, #4…
What if we used the concept behind this line and transferred it to other chord tones? Ok, so the concept is some sort of an enclosure. Let’s take that enclosure type device and transfer it to the root instead of the 3rd (of C):
Here’s the original piece of the line:
Here’s the extracted concept transferred to the fifth of C
Here’s the extracted concept transferred to the root of C
And here’s what the whole line might look like with that part transferred to the 5th
I adjusted the line so it flows a little better to the transferred up section.
All of these are viable options. Same concept, same uniqueness from the original line…different chord tones. And what do different chord tones mean? Different sounds.
As you do this, you’ll realize that playing these concepts on different chord tones will completely open up your ears and cause you to play things you would not normally play. You’ll end up combining things in ways you have never done before.
And to clarify again, these concepts are meant to be practiced via improvisation. Of course you can write lines down, but the main way to explore the different avenues you can take is through improvising with the concepts in mind.
And before we wrap up, let’s talk quickly about examples #2 and #3. In example #2 we saw this:
We called it special for two reasons. One, it seems as though you could think of it as the top part of D- and secondly, it contains an F triad. Hmmm…seems like we have two important concepts that we could then start applying. One, that you can play D- material over a G7 chord and two, an F triad can be used in certain ways over a G7 chord.
In example #3, we saw the same snippet as example #2, but we thought of the uniqueness as the first three notes: Arriving to the 5th via the first two notes is fairly unique. And so we have yet another concept that could generate more material.
Gaining four times the language
It really is that easy. You first have to do your own homework and transcribe some language . From the very start, begin to think to yourself, “What makes this language special?” Don’t get drowned by the theory, just figure out a way that you can solidify your understanding of what you’re hearing. Everything else will follow.
When you grasp what makes a line special from your own perspective, extract the concept and start to apply it. Be creative! What can you combine it with? What other situations can you use it in? Explore and figure out what sounds good to you.
Then start to transfer the concept to different parts of the chord. If an idea originated around the 3rd of a chord, how does it fit around the 5th? or perhaps the 7th? It might work, or it might not. Adjust things so they do work, so they sound right.
Ten minutes of extracting the essence of a line and learning how to apply it creatively in new ways while improvising, will more than quadruple your language. And it only does take ten minutes to take one line you already know, figure out what makes it special, and start implementing the concept behind it. In time, you’ll feel as though every line you study gives you ten-fold the amount of language to improvise with.
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