How to Decode Greatness – The Process to Solve Any Musical Problem

Every single musician to ever embark on learning to improvise jazz runs into countless musical problems. That’s just the way it is. One problem after another, figuring out different ways to approach a progression in hopes of clarifying their musical ideas and better communicating them to the listener.

So if you want to play jazz, then being a problem solver is where it’s at. And the more you can understand about the problem solving process as applied to learning jazz, the better equipped you’ll be on your journey.

Over the years I’ve had tons of musical problems, but the most common one is simple – having difficulty playing over a few bars of a tune.

This single problem sums up why you can’t play a jazz standard the way you want to and why you prefer some over others. You see, if there are a few bars in a tune that you stumble over every time you reach them, well it pretty much ruins your entire solo.

I can recall having this problem with the famous Tadd Dameron tune Lady Bird. For the life of me, I never felt creative or inspired playing over the first few bars of the tune.

Now it wasn’t that I couldn’t play them or didn’t know the chord changes, in fact I knew the theory, scales, and chords really well…I just felt as though nothing sounded good coming out of my horn, despite knowing all the theory behind the changes.

I was lost…

And I’m sure you can relate – you know the theory, you know what’s supposed to work, but no matter what scale you use or theoretical concept you apply, nothing seems to actually sound good.

But the bottom line is this – If you don’t like the way you’re playing over a tune, it’s up to you to isolate the specific problem and solve it rather than reenforcing poor soloing decisions and musical ideas that you don’t actually like.

So you’ve gotta problem…

No matter where you’re at in your development, you’re going to have musical problems…

But having problems over a tune like this is actually a positive thing. They’re the fuel that feed your motivation to improve.

Think about it…if you never had any musical problems and were in love with how you played over every piece of every tune, why would you need to practice? Why would you need to improve? Why would you need to continually search for ways to better approach something?

But just like me and every other jazz musician, you have dozens of musical problems that you hope to solve too.

Each one of these problems is not an obstacle in your way, but an opportunity to grow beyond your current skill level, a chance to open your mind and musical perspective.

As you progress in your jazz improvisation journey, the problems never end, which means your opportunities to grow as a musician never end…

Today I want to share with you a process of how to solve your musical problems so you can continuously face your challenges and move forward.

So let’s take my problem from Ladybird and really dive into how we might solve it. First, have a listen to the tune to get familiar with the composition.

Now here’s the problem that plagued me: Every single time I tried to improvise over the first part of the A Section (the first 5 bars or so), I felt bored, uninspired, and formulaic, as if nothing I played really mattered…

I would improvise with a background track on repeat, hoping that something good would come out, but it never did…

Eventually I realized that I needed some help…but not in the form of a private lesson or a book. I needed to be shown what was possible in the form that musical solutions actually come in: sound.

Research Your Problem

So we know that the first step is NOT to put on a background track and try to improvise endlessly hoping that things magically start sounding good, and that it’s not to try a different scale, or theory concept.

The first step is to research the problem with the underlying goal of understanding how your musical heroes dealt with the same problem that’s frustrating you now.

Just like everything in life, we get so caught up in our own single way we approach something and tend to ignore or forget that there exist infinite possibilities outside our own little bubble…

So the first thing we want to do is find some great versions of the tune we’re working on, while paying close attention to each recording, ensuring that we like how the player solves the musical problem we’re focused on.

Go to Youtube, type in the name of your tune, see what comes up…

And this is where your research begins…

Engage your ears and listen to any version of the tune that looks remotely interesting to you, all the way from the super old ones, to the modern renditions.

Which versions grab your ear? Do you hear anything interesting over the section that’s giving you trouble? Do any of the recordings jump out at you and make you smile?

Take this part of the process very seriously – I might spend an hour or two just listening through my headphones to different versions of a tune, really trying to find recordings that have potential, ones that I know contain the information I’m after.

If you’ve spent time training your ear, this is where you need to use it! This is where you want to apply your skills to select versions of the tune that set you up to solve your problem.

So gather a few of your favorite versions of the tune and pay close attention to the spot where you’re having the problem, and decide which ones have the most potential to solve your issues.

When I listen to the various versions of Lady Bird on YouTube, two of them really blow me away in terms of what they play over the first few measures, the place where the problem occurs.

The first version is Chet Baker playing Lady Bird, from the album Chet Baker in Milan

And the second version is Miles Davis from the record, Miles Davis From Cool To Bop:

Just upon listening to them, not writing anything out or trying to emulate what they’re playing on my horn or the piano, I can tell right away that these recordings hold the solutions I’m after.

And that’s the attitude you need when you’re doing your research – Always ask yourself Does this recording contain the information I’m after?

Get some Ideas

Ok, now that we’ve got some recordings in mind that have a high chance of solving the issue we’re having, it’s time to isolate some ideas…

We know exactly where the problem is, so it’s as easy as loading these tracks into the Transcribe App, slowing them down if needed, and figuring out the improvised melodies, rhythms, and implied harmonies that both Chet and Miles are using over this piece of the tune.

And this is where your knowledge of functional harmony, transcribing skill, and ear all play a major role.

Transcribing is hard for most people, but it’s the easiest way to improve fast because it gives you a window into what’s actually happening in the music.

It’s just you and the source.

Transcribing is the best way to quickly get out of your own perspective and hear and see from someone else’s

OK, so listening to the Chet Baker recording and the Miles version, I hear 3 places in each that could potentially solve the problem we have before us…

After listening to them dozens of times and even singing them, I load these places up in Transcribe and figure out the notes and the rhythms and write them out.

Have a quick listen to the 6 ideas we’ve gathered and get excited about digging into each one later…

Here are 3 ideas from Chet…

And 3 ideas from Miles…

But just figuring out the notes and rhythms is not enough…this is just raw information…you have to transcend these things and make sense of how these players were thinking.

If you can think like them, then you can move past just copying a lick they played or focusing on the notes, and learn to actually improvise with the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language that these players possess.

Make Sense of What You Find

Often when you transcribe something, the reaction you’ll have is…”Really??That’s all it is?!?!”

Leading up to that point, you think that this player has to be doing something crazy, that they know some secret you don’t…but once you transcribe what they’re doing, it all seems so obvious.

Never underestimate the power of what they’re doing, after all, before you figured out what it was, it amazed you. But now that you have the line in front of you, it’s time to figure out what makes it tick – you need to figure out WHY it amazed you.

Most importantly, you have to ask yourself, “What are they doing that I’m not??”

When you articulate the differences between your approach and theirs, you’ll arrive at why you have a problem, and they don’t.

Chet’s 1st Line

Go ahead and have a listen to the first Chet Baker line we worked out…

The first thing I notice when I listen to this line is how Chet plays one continuous idea over the entire 5 bars, which is not necessarily how I’d think to approach this progression straight away.

So much of the time we think from chord to chord, playing an idea for each rather than thinking of a single line running through all the changes…

But how does he do this? How specifically does Chet Baker play one continuous idea through these changes?

A primary tactic that he uses here to flow seamless between these chords is to use common-tones.

By utilizing the “C” as a connection point between C major, F minor, and Bb7, he’s able to smoothly transition between these 3 chords without you even noticing.

And no reason to stop there….get in the habit of asking yourself, “What can I do with this information that I couldn’t do before?”

Or in this case, ask yourself, “What other common tones exist that I could make use of?”

If you take a minute and focus on this concept, you’ll see that there are a few other common tone connections you could make use of like G, which is the 5th of C major, the 9th of F minor, and the 13th of Bb7.

Now it’s rare that a line you transcribe will contain only one helpful solution to your problem. Often a line is littered with dozens of helpful tricks, and the lines we’re looking at today are no exception.

Have a look at the end of this line and see if you can tell me what chord movement this looks familiar to…

If you look, and listen closely, you should realize that this looks a whole like a V7 to I resolution (using the classic #9-b9 combination), and that’s because it is!

Studying melodic lines like this can give you great insight into why the harmony works the way it does.

This chord isn’t just a mere Bb7, but it’s a specific sound that acts as substitute for a standard V7 to I. The Bb7 substitute highlights both the #9 and b9 alterations of what would be the standard G7 dominant chord.

And then pairing the Bb7 with it’s ii minor pair (F minor), we get what’s called a Backdoor ii V

But coming at the progression from Chet’s line, we actually understand why each chord is there, how the progression came to be, and how to approach it as an improvising musician.

Lines from your heroes contain clues not only about how to play over a chord or progression, but about how the progression works and functions. Give these little details the attention they deserve and you’ll unlock any jazz standard.

Chet’s 2nd Line

Now Chet’s second line is completely different from his first line, which is great news for us because It means that we’ll learn even more perspectives on how to solve our musical problem.

Take a listen to this line…

Think through the idea and see what you come up with…

What do you suppose makes it work? What kind of concepts is Chet thinking about over the major chord? How is he transitioning to the iv minor? How’s he resolving the Bb7 back to the Tonic?

Asking all of these questions will help you reveal the importance of each decision Chet makes so you can make similar decisions, or at the very least understand what kind of soloing decisions you want to make.

Over both the C major chord and the F minor, he’s primarily focused on communicating the notes from the triad (1-3-5) but it’s more than this – it’s how he arrives at each note of the triad using arpeggios, enclosures, pieces of the scale, and even anticipation (Although we’ll talk more about this later…)

While it may seem like there’s a lot going on here, when you break it down, it’s the combination of simple elements that makes this line interesting, not any single part.

But one subtle feature within this line is essential to the transition between the Tonic major chord and the iV minor chord – he implies a C7 chord (the V7 of V7) right before the minor chord, helping propel the line forward into the backdoor ii V.

Most people might not notice this or completely dismiss it, but when you’re solving a musical problem, you have to pay attention to the minute details because the details that matter are usually the little things that slip through the cracks.

This is a powerful tactic that surely could help us with the transition within these chords. Simply insert a quick V7 sound right before the iV.

Of course, there are many ways to interpret what you discover from your heroes. There is no one right way, so don’t get caught up in that…

For instance, you could just think of this as anticipating the iV chord, or even an enclosure of the 3rd (Ab), instead of a V7 of iV. Or you could think of it as all of them!

And that’s the beauty of transcribing and solving musical problems for yourself.

When you transcribe, YOU get to decide what story the line tells and YOU get to interpret the information in ways that best work for YOU

Now, another thing to be on the lookout for is when soloists use the same strategies over and over to solve the problem you’re focused on. Chances are, if they’re repeating a concept, or you find the same concept from player to player, it’s an integral piece of the puzzle.

For example, in this line, Chet again focuses on the G7alt piece contained within Bb7…as we saw before, all of these notes are part of Bb7, but they’re also within G7alt, which gives a huge clue to how he’s approaching the Bb7 and how he’s hearing it resolve…

What’s more, he anticipates the return to C major, so he’s repeating 2 tools that we’ve heard him use before: The G7 alt resolution within Bb7, and Anticipation.

Clearly these are two things we should work on if we want to solve our problem.

Chet Baker’s 3rd Line

Just like lines #1 and #2, #3 is completely different as well. While still melodic and lyrical, rhythm acts as the primary driver behind this line.

Again, just like the last couple lines and the whole process up to this point, to truly understand what’s going on, you have to train your ear, but you also have to have a sense of time and rhythm.

If you listen closely, Chet’s actually superimposing bars of 3/4 over the 4/4 time signature. Can you hear it?

To do this, he combines two bars of 3/4 with a bar of 2/4, which makes for a total of 8 beats, or 2 full bars in 4/4.

With this in mind, listen to the line again and hear how he’s no longer just playing over two bars of 4/4 but instead two bars of 3/4 and a bar of 2/4.

With this underlying rhythmic concept in mind, you can move beyond his improvised line and improvise anything you want – that’s the beauty of this whole process.

You can take pieces of anything you like, get inspired, and combine it with your own creativity to play something fresh and new.

And in doing so, you solve your music problems…

But besides the rhythm, there’s of course other aspects of this line you could take to inspire you. Did you notice what melody notes he’s using?

You guessed it…the major triad, his old standby.

But, notice that over the F- he’s actually using the V triad (Bb).

This is another thing to be on the lookout for. Not every note will correspond to the chord that a chart would present to you. Sometimes you have to infer that he’s thinking of a different chord, like the V7 chord or whatever the situation might call for.

And another interesting part of this line is the resolution…

Coming back to the Tonic, he resolves to the major 7th, which is not something you might have thought of doing.

Remember, you’re listening for things that you wouldn’t necessarily do because those are the exact things that will help you solve your problems.

Miles Davis Line #1

Now that we’ve checkout what Chet Baker does, we’ll quickly take a peek into how Miles Davis deals with these first few measures of Lady Bird.

Keep in mind the similarities as well as the differences between what we’ve already found in Chet’s approach.

Take a listen to this first line and try to hear the specific sound he’s dwelling on…can you tell what it is?

Miles loves to emphasize the #11 (or the b5) on a major 7th chord. It has a bright yet mysterious sound in a way that certainly jumps out at the listener.

He uses it 3 times in the span of this short line…

And now you have another tool to help solve your problem: use the #11 on the major chord, using it as an arrival point that you can resolve to, surprising the listener and adding interest to your line.

Can you see or hear anything else in this line that looks familiar?

If you’ve been paying attention, then you should notice that he, like Chet, uses the piece of G7alt within Bb7 much like Chet Baker used (Which coincidently, is also part of his composition Half Nelson, a tune based on the same chords as Lady Bird).

Both Chet and Miles use this device, so that’s a good indicator that you might want to use it too.

However, each of them use it in their own way, which is exactly what you want to do as well – take the information and apply it, but make it your own.

Miles Davis Line #2

Take a listen to Miles play here and from what you’ve learned so far, try to make sense of what you hear…

What strategies have you seen before? How is he combining them? What’s unique?

You should notice that like Chet, he emphasizes the major triad on the Tonic chord, and also like Chet, he makes use of common tone transitions, minor language, and similar resolutions.

And this is when the answers to your problem really start to unfold…

You see, once you’ve studied multiple lines and multiple players over the place that’s giving you trouble, a lightbulb will turn on.

Suddenly, you start to hear, see, and conceptualize how to architect a line that runs through the changes in a musical way. You deepen your knowledge of the harmony, yet move further away from theory and more into the way things sound.

Miles Line #3

And finally, here’s our last line which gives us a little bit more new information, while illustrating some of the tools we’ve seen before. Have a listen…

Remember, As you transcribe lines and figure out what your heroes are doing, make it a habit to come up with ways that help you understand what it is they’re doing so that you can do it too.

So how might you understand what Miles is doing over the major chord so you can do it too?

Well, a simple way you might try is to think about E minor pentatonic…

Using this little pentatonic shape quickly gives you a way to think about what he’s doing over the Tonic major chord.

And as always, continue to look and listen for the tactics you’ve observed in previous lines…

You can see that almost every line presents something new, yet shares some sort of commonality with other lines.

By studying each detail and truly making sense of what’s going on within each line you transcribe, you’re well on your way to solving your musical problems.

Practice, Practice, Practice…

Now that you’ve made sense of what the great players are doing, it’s time to actually start working on integrating these concepts into your playing.

Remember, just knowing what your favorite players are doing is one thing, but it’s a whole different thing to actually be able to do it yourself!!

By creating some simple exercises based upon what you discovered from your heroes and practicing them over and over, you’ll quickly be able to use the information.

It’s as simple as saying, for the next 20 minutes, I’m going to practice only these 5 bars and work on only:

  • Creating a common-tone connection between the tonic and the iV minor chord

It’s really that simple.

Or you might choose anything else we worked on today:

  • Emphasizing the G7 alt part of Bb7 – really understanding the relationship between the two chords
  • Using anticipations – moving into the iV minor, as well as when you resolve back to the Tonic
  • Making simple triad statements – Varying the ways you target the chord tones and applying different major and minor jazz language you’re working on
  • Inserting V7 of iV chord as a transition – Finding places like this to use V7 relationships to smooth out motion and propel your lines forward
  • Superimposing bars of 3/4 over 4/4 – Being rhythmic and experimenting with various approaches to the time
  • Using the #11 on major – learning the sound of this chord tone and experimenting with what it’s like to resolve into it
  • Using Pentatonic Scales – Learning to utilize simple pentatonic shapes

Each one of the things you learned can be a part of the solution to your problem. The key is to take one thing at a time and integrate them into your playing slowly.

With each new concept that you add to your arsenal, your problem will evaporate more and more…Even with just 2 or 3 solid approaches, you’ll notice that you barely have the problem anymore.

And the great thing to realize is that this process is always available to you.

Remember the process…

  1. Research Your Problem – Find recordings that speak to you
  2. Get Some Ideas – Transcribe ideas that potentially solve your problem
  3. Make Sense of What You Find – Conceptualize it in a way that makes sense to you
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice! – Integrate the solutions into your playing one at a time

Using this process, you can unlock the solutions to any problem you’re having with any jazz standard. Focus on what inspires you and gets you thinking differently, opens up your brain, fingers, and ear to new possibility.

Let your frustrations disappear and tackle each problem you run into with clarity and purpose. In time, you’ll turn all your musical problems into exciting opportunities for musical growth!