Mulgrew Miller’s Secrets to All the Things You Are

All The Things You Are is a timeless jazz standard…Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra…these are just some of the legends that recorded it. But with its traveling tonal centers and unfamiliar keys, this tune is sure to give every improviser quite a challenge! When it comes to figuring out the secrets to a tune like this, who better to turn to than the late great Mulgrew Miller?

His lines flow perfectly. His ides are seemingly never-ending. The guy just doesn’t make a mistake!!

As a kid, I remember hearing Mulgrew on my favorite Kenny Garret albums, on the later recordings of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and of course, his classic album, Live at Yoshis, recorded at one of the first real jazz clubs I can recall going to as a child…

The first time I heard Mulgrew live, I was blown away. His time-feel. His lines. Everything about his playing. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to me before that someone could possibly swing that hard!!

Fast forward a decade, luck would have it that this incredible musician would be one of my teachers for a few years.

Just by being around him, you couldn’t help but learn something. He might sit down at the piano and work out an idea, or play through a chorus of a tune, never giving you the exact answers, but making you listen and work for it, helping you find your own path.

And this is the best thing a teacher can do – inspire you and share pieces of their knowledge so that you get motivated enough to apply your own creativity to every musical situation.

Mulgrew did this daily, and while he left us far too early, his legacy and positive affect on so many people continues to grow.

Browsing around Youtube the other night, I ran into this clip of Mulgrew playing through a chorus of All The Things You Are for a few students at a school in Tel Aviv…

Watching this video transported me back to school and immediately I felt the need to transcribe yet another perfect Mulgrew Miller solo.

With Mulgrew, every note has a purpose, a meaning and a direction. There’s so much to learn from everything he plays, and today, we’ll take a look at a few of the highlights that stand out in this beautiful chorus.

Just a few insights from Mulgrew Miller on All The Things You Are and this jazz standard is sure to be much easier to approach!!

Secret#1: Learn the art of inserting dominant transition chords

You know when you’re improvising and your line is flowing nicely but then something happens in the chord changes and suddenly your line stops, as if all melodic motion came to a screeching halt?

It’s like you hit a road block or a speed bump, and what was a nice flowing line turns into something that becomes static and motionless.

But you know what?

This doesn’t happen in the solos of the greats, no matter what the chord changes are. It doesn’t happen in Charlie Parker solos. It doesn’t happen in John Coltrane solos. And it certainly doesn’t happen in Mulgrew Miller solos!

And the key is this: inserting dominant chords as transitions where the chord changes are static  to MOVE your playing forward.

Listen to the opening phrase of Mulgrew’s solo on All The Things You Are (Note that the first 2 measures are moving into the first A Section of the form):

Mulgrew all the things Line 1

Anything stand out to you?

Ok. Bad question. There’s so much in this phrase, it might be difficult to just choose just one thing that stands out…

But something that really stands out to me occurs right before the IV chord, and it’s only 3 little notes:

Mulgrew all the things alt dom

These 3 notes contain a ton of valuable information that you can learn from, but first things first…that’s an Ab major 7 chord in the chord changes.

How can he just insert an Ab7 altered chord there?

And that’s the thing about great players – they’re doing things that you’re NOT doing. 

These things might not even be that difficult. It’s just that they never even occurred to you as an option. And this little secret is the perfect example…

You see, moving from the I chord to the IV chord in All The Things You Are always seems to be a static point because of the nature of the chord changes – one major chord to another with no tension and resolution points, just two static major chords.

But it doesn’t have to be a static place in the changes…

You can insert a dominant chord in between them to smooth out the transition from one chord to the next and to create a sense of melodic momentum.

Mulgrew allthings Line 1 explanation

And no…these notes will not sound wrong because the strength of your line always supersedes the harmony being played by the rest of the band.

So if your melodic line confidently suggests a logical melodic structure with clear tension and resolution points, it will sound correct even when the rest of the band continues with the normal chord changes.

Now Mulgrew tends to step things up a notch nearly all the time…He does what I like to think of as layering – he takes several improvisational techniques and layers them on top of one another, using them all simultaneously at a single point in the chord changes.

For instance, in this example, he’s not just inserting an Ab7 chord before the IV chord, he’s also altering the Ab7 chord by using specific notes from the the bii minor scale (A minor). Even more, the notes he’s using form what is called a melodic “cell” – a note-grouping, usually containing 3 or 4 notes.

Minor scale over dominant 7

So he’s taking these three techniques…

  1. Inserting a dominant chord to make smoother transitions
  2. Using notes from the bii minor to access altered chord-tones
  3. Creating a “cell” or “note-grouping”

And layering them into one single instance.

Powerful stuff, right?

With only 3 notes, his melodic line accomplishes a lot. When you start to realize how much there is behind the curtains of his playing, you begin to understand that there’s a whole lot more going on than you might have thought.

Now all three of these concepts are important, but the concept of inserting dominant chords at static points like this is crucial.

You can start to use this concept in your playing by practicing this simple exercise.

  • Moving around the Cycle, play the 3 note cell over each dominant chord and resolve it to the 5th of the major chord like this:

Mulgrew all the things you are inserting dominant exercise

Pay close attention to what chord you’re playing over and how the notes you’re playing relate to the harmony. Visualizing through this exercise will help you tremendously.

This single exercise should have you re-thinking how you travel between I major and IV major and understanding how you can easily liven up static chord progressions by inserting dominant chords.

Now, any time you’re learning and transcribing your heroes, take the material beyond where you found it. Do something different. Experiment!!!

There are no rules holding you back even though many people act as if there are. No, the Jazz Police aren’t going to show up at your front door and arrest you for trying something different…

Jazz Police

Relax guys, they’re just doing their job…

Ok, so It’s actually really easy to experiment…perhaps instead of creating a cell with 125, use other notes from the minor scale like 145…

Make your own exercise with the minor scale

And then take your new cell and play through the idea in all keys around the Cycle as before:

Using your own minor cell on dominant

See how easy it was to modify the original exercise and create a new exercise in only a minute? Remember, use your creativity and come up with something new! Ignore the Jazz Police.

Even after working on these exercises for a little while though, you might have some difficulty actually applying the technique in real-time because your ear needs to become familiar with the new information…

If it  doesn’t sound right at first when you start to insert dominant chords as transitions, relax. Take your time, learn how to hear in this new way, and gradually you’ll start to use these transition chords in a natural way.

Secret #2: Use the diminished scale like a boss

Everybody knows the diminished scale. But almost nobody uses it creatively.

Mulgrew Miller uses it everywhere, and in quite a few ways. But in this part of his solo, he uses it over a ii V progression:

Diminished scale over ii V progression

There are many ways to think about how you apply a diminished scale to a dominant chord or a ii V progression, but a straightforward way to think about how Mulgrew uses the diminished scale here is to play the C Diminished Scale down from the 7th:

Using diminished on ii V

So, an easy way to think through this would be:

  • Use the diminished scale from the 3rd of the minor chord (C is the 3rd of A minor) or from the b7 of the dominant chord (C is the b7 of D7).
  • Then, play down from the 7th of that scale (B down to C).

Now, you might dismiss this as simple or easy, but under close examination, there’s a lot to learn from this use of the diminished scale in this particular context, used in this particular way.

When I’m transcribing, I’m always thinking to myself, “How can I EASILY use the ideas and concepts that I’m discovering, in my own solos?”

The more I talk to students, the more I realize a mindset that I can relate to all to well. The mindset of transcribing to create a masterpiece work of art – to create an exact replica of the solo, both in notation and in performance.

And yes, it’s incredibly beneficial to copy every nuance of a solo, but the idea is not to just reproduce everything. It’s to make use of it all!

If you can’t make use of the things you’re learning, then what’s the point?

And to me, in this case, I like to think about this line in two parts: Two specific note-groups that correspond to each of the minor and dominant chords:

  • 9-1-M7-6 over ii minor 7
  • #9-b9-1-b7 over V7

Splitting diminished into 2 parts

Of course you should continue to understand how you’re applying the diminished scale over the ii V, but this little trick will help you feel the specific chord-tones you’re using and how they relate to the harmony rather than just glossing over the whole progression with a scale.

To get started, play the fragment 9-1-M7-6 on every minor chord slowly ascending in half-steps. You can think of 2 instead of 9, or 13 instead of 6 if it helps. Do what works for you!

Minor part of diminished line

Next, isolate the dominant fragment. Play #9-b9-1-b7 on every dominant chord ascending in half steps:

Mulgrew diminished line second part

Then, once you can easily play and visualize, every fragment over each chord, connect the two fragments over each ii V progression like this…

Mulgrew Miller full diminished lick

Notice though that I’ve only written out the first 3 keys. If you can’t mentally think through it in all keys, and hear what’s going on, and you’re depending upon the written page to play something, then you actually don’t understand the line.

With any melodic technique you’re trying to learn, break it up into smaller pieces like we just did until what you’re trying to learn becomes easy.

Going through these steps, you should now see and hear diminished in a new way while having a new understanding about how to practice it over ii V chord progressions.

And remember…this is just one way to use diminished. Be on the lookout for more!

Secret #3: Master tension and release on ii V7 I or V7 to I chord progressions

Mulgrew Miller is a master of tension and release…

And you can’t say the word tension without thinking of dominant chords in ii V and V7 to I chord progressions.

In all of these situations, tension plays a key role, and it’s no coincidence.

Dominant chords tend to get a ton of alterations in nearly every situation, which is the source of the tension. But when most people alter a dominant chord, they come from a scale mindset and limit themselves to the notes of either the altered scale or the diminished scale.

While these two scales are indeed viable options for altering a dominant 7 chord, there are many other ways to think about how you utilize the various combinations of altered chord-tones you have at your disposal.

Take a listen to this line from Mulgrew’s solo on the bridge of All the Things You Are and you’ll hear exactly what I mean…

Mulgrew Miller All The Things You Are lick 3

When you first see and hear this line, you might think, “What on Earth is Mulgrew doing?” But like most complex things, it’s pretty simple when you break it down.

By rewriting the notes, you can actually see that the notes he’s playing over the dominant chord form an inverted major triad from the VI of the chord (G# or Ab), while the second part of the line is closely related to what we found earlier – a melodic cell formed from the bii minor.

Mulgrew Miller Line 3 explained

By combining these two concepts over a single dominant chord, he’s using both the natural 13 (Ab/G#) and the b13/#5 (G) in the same measure, not something that’s even possible if you’re sticking to a single scale like the altered scale or diminished scale for the entire bar!

Think creatively and don’t get boxed into one single mindset.

Understanding the structures on a deep level like this can greatly help you see, hear, and feel the relationships within the music, giving you greater access to the sounds and concepts.

And as I stressed earlier, the key is NOT writing things out in every key and memorizing them. The key is to learn the relationships and iron them out both mentally and aurally.

Here is a series of stepping-stone exercises you might use to integrate the concepts from Mulgrew’s altered dominant line into your playing:

  1. Think through the bii minor for each dominant chord
  2. Think through the 5321 from this minor scale on each dominant chord
  3. Think through the VI major triad for each dominant chord
  4. Think through the inverted VI triad for each dominant chord

If it helps you, try writing out a chart like this to assist you in getting these relationships internalized:

Thinking through jazz lines in all keys

Then, once you have a mental foundation, start to play through each part. Just as we did with the diminished line:

  • Break it up into multiple pieces before you play the whole thing
  • First work on the triad idea,
  • Then the bii minor piece
  • And finally assemble the whole thing

Like all the melodic techniques you glean from Mulgrew, there are many different ways to use and apply them. Don’t be limited by only what I’m suggesting, and always explore and experiment.

Mulgrew Miller – The Real Genius

Mulgrew used to talk about how some people were geniuses, but that he certainly by any measure wasn’t…But, it’s just not true.

Sorry Mulgrew. You were one of them, even if you wouldn’t admit it yourself.

Every line, every tune, every piece of wisdom…

Pure genius.

There is so much to learn from everything Mulgrew did and today, while we got into some pretty deep concepts, we just barely scratched the surface.

Hopefully you have an even better idea of what this jazz giant accomplished and are inspired to listen and learn from him even more. Remember, that behind every seemingly small musical idea lies a wealth of knowledge.

Take the time to not only transcribe your heroes, but to unravel the secrets behind the subtle details, in your own way. That’s what Mulgrew encouraged, always insisting that there was no single correct method for jazz improvisation, but that you needed to find yours.

There are many questions I still have for Mulgrew, but to me, his presence will always be here, teaching us every day about music, life, and everything in between.