They say time is money, but in jazz improvisation, it’s more than that. Time is what’s passing while you’re trying to remember the chord to a tune, the notes to the melody, or what to play at any given moment. Everything in jazz improvisation happens in real-time. There’s no time for thought. So how do you surpass the need to think and have the ability to conjure up everything you want to in real-time?
Before we get there, grab a sheet of paper or take the following quiz mentally and record your response time for each:
- What’s a ii V in the key of F# major?
- If the V7 of a ii V progression is Ab7, what’s the ii chord?
- What’s a iii Vi in the key of Db major?
- If the ii chord of a ii V progression is C# minor, what’s the V7 chord?
- If the ii V of a key is F- Bb7, what’s the VI7 of the key?
Now, judge your answers based on correctness and speed of response. Did any of them take you more than a split second?
Be honest with yourself. Chances are a couple of these questions took at least a few seconds for you to answer. You may not think that a few seconds is a big deal, I mean, you got the correct answer, right?
The problem is that after even a second of thought we can totally lose our creative focus. The more ingrained these fundamental progressions are, the less we have to think, and the freer we become.
Why is it difficult to quickly conjure some chords, while others are easy? We’re very used to encountering chords in a set way. For example, after A- we expect D7. Or after D7, we expect G major. But even standards mix and match these basic chord progressions.
These slight rearrangements of the chords can shift us just enough to make it so we screw up. For instance, after D7, the progression may continue to a iii Vi of the key instead of resolving to the tonic. Or perhaps, you’re playing over a bar of D7 and you want to play a ii V (A- D7) over the bar instead. Well, you best be able to have all the appropriate knowledge to do this at your fingertips.
Chord independence is all about understanding how each chord fits into the progression, while at the same time understanding how it relates to the key. So for E7 in G major, you would know that it’s the VI7 chord, and you would also know that it’s part of the iii VI progression. Beyond that, you would know that the iii chord that pairs with the E7 is B- and that the ii V it progresses to is F#- B7. Get my drift?
This is all stuff that should be so accessible to your mind that you could be watching television while reciting the alphabet and doing jumping jacks, and still be able to have all this knowledge right at your disposal.
Visualization key by key
We talk a lot about visualization, in fact we even gave a away an awesome visualization ebook. Visualization is the secret to getting chords operating in your mind and body on a visceral level. However, there’s a particular way to use visualization to soak up the fundamental chord progressions. The way is to focus on one key at a time.
Below I’ve listed ten exercises to hone your fundamentals.
By drilling these ten exercises, you’ll greatly strengthen the key you’re working on and should then be able to recall any part of the fundamental progressions in any order or any context. It’s really quite easy to start working on these.
As you lie in bed, right before you go to sleep, pick a key. Then run through the exercises. Over time you won’t even need the worksheet in front of you. You’ll just select a key and start working on it.
1.) Visualize a ii V progression clearly in your mind’s eye.
2.) Visualize just the V7 chord resolving to the tonic
3.) Visualize the iii VI
4.) Visualize the VI moving to a ii V
5.) Visualize the tonic moving to V7
6.) Visualize the tonic moving to VI7
7.) Visualize the tonic moving to a ii V
8.) Visualize the tonic moving to iii VI
9.) Visualize a iii VI ii V
10.) Visualize a ii V iii Vi
Once you work on these key-by-key visualization exercises for a while, start testing yourself on the fly in a similar manner as the quiz presented at the beginning of this article.
Name the first chord that pops into your mind and ask yourself for some sort of related chord. For example, perhaps B7 comes to mind, so ask yourself what the ii chord would be if the B7 were the V7 chord? Or maybe Db major pops in your mind, so ask yourself, what’s the V7 chord? You can do these simple tests anywhere and they’ll make your recall dramatically faster and your understanding of progressions much deeper.
Next time you’re in the dentist’s office, riding the bus, or just going to bed, run through some key-by-key visualization with a few tests thrown in there. A few minutes a day and you’ll feel way more solid in all keys.