Getting the Feel of a Key

Before I launch into the topic of this post--a quick tip of the hat to Big Band Nouveau for Thursday night's outstanding performance at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. I think this was our best show yet. The guys were simply scorching those charts, and the crowd was hugely responsive. A standing ovation is a pretty good indication that we're doing something right. Mike Doyle deserves major props for having the vision to pull together some outstanding musicians in a creative effort of such high caliber. Thanks to Mike, and thanks to all the cats. You guys rock to the third order! With that said, I turn my attention to tonight's feature: Bb7. Yes, Bb7--or really, the key of Eb major. I just happened to be hashing it out via its dominant chord during my practice session earlier this evening. I've been hammering on that key lately because two of my solo numbers in Big Band Nouveau modulate briefly to Eb major, and I want to do more than just get by in those sections. I want to play the crap out of them. And the way to do that is to saturate myself in the key of Eb. I've written previously about key saturation. The idea is to steep yourself in a key in as many ways as you can think of until you know it inside and out. Until you own it. And you own it when you hear it in your head and feel it in your fingers. Every key has its own feel on the saxophone. Most of us get the feel of certain keys early on. As an alto player, I'm quite comfortable in the keys of D and G, and, to a slightly lesser extent, E and A. I'm also comfortable in C and F, and of course, a number of minor keys. And I can get by decently in all the remaining keys, both major and minor, some moreso than others. But my fingers know the feel of just a select few keys in a way that I would describe as intimate. Why is that? After all, there are only twelve tones that a musician has to deal with. True. But those twelve tones relate to each other in entirely different ways from one key to the next. F# is not just F#.
  • In the key of D, it is the third of the tonic chord.
  • In the key of G, it is the seventh.
  • In B, it is the fifth.
  • In C, it is the augmented fourth; in Eb, it is the sharp two; and in both of these keys, it is a non-diatonic tone.
  • And let's not forget the obvious: in F#, it is the root.
And that is just how F# relates to the tonic chord. There are six other chords besides in every major scale, not to mention various harmonic formulae, many of which include altered and borrowed chords. And F# has a unique relationship with all of them. Your fingers feel each of those functions of F# differently, and some functions may be more familiar to your muscle memory than others. Your fingers may, through constant use, know exactly what to do with F# in the key of G, know how to get onto it and off of it from and in every direction and use it in all sorts of creative ways. But move the key center a tritone to C# and now how familiar are you with that same F#? It has become a completely different animal, and your fingers may not know its feel. The note that you felt utterly at home with in one key can seem like a complete stranger in another. And while it's true that certain keys get used far more than others, ultimately you want both your fingers and your mind to instinctively know how to treat every one of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale in all twelve major and all twelve minor keys. The way to achieve that goal is key saturation. I've already offered some good suggestions on how to approach the saturation technique in another post, so there's no need for me to repeat myself here. My point is simply to mention that every key has a feel that is all its own, and it behooves you and me to master all twenty-four of those "feels." Yes, it's a big task. But it's also a fun one. Just pick a key and work at it. Mine right now is Eb. I find myself focusing especially on the third and seventh of the major chord and the seventh of the dominant chord--G, D, and Ab, respectively. Once I become conversant with those notes in any key, the other notes--both diatonic and non-diatonic--all seem to fall into place. Okay, enough for tonight. It's after one o'clock in the morning, and I'm getting sleepy. The rest is up to you.

Video Tutorial #3: Circular Breathing

Circular breathing has something of a sensationalist aura about it, but its mystique exceeds its mystery. There's no secret to acquiring the skill other than to learn how it's done and then work at it till you own it. And it's worth the effort, because circular breathing is a useful tool to have. When you find yourself playing an extended passage and need to come up for air, circular breathing will let you replenish your lungs without having to break up the flow of music. This video tutorial piggybacks on a post I wrote a couple years ago on how to circular breathe. I highly recommend that in addition to watching this video, you read that post as well. Either may provide that flash of insight that you might not get with the other. By the way, contrary to what all my fidgeting may lead you to believe, I do not suffer from Tourette's syndrome. I shot the video at a nearby park in the evening, and mosquitoes as big as fruit bats kept trying to establish fracking operations on my skin. Between swatting constantly at the little blighters and puffing my cheeks out like a blowfish and then thrusting my face into the camera, I will probably not secure my reputation as a suave, cool kinda dude. But that's okay as long as this video achieves my goal of helping you to learn circular breathing. If you find the tutorial helpful, drop me a note and let me know. It helps to know that my efforts are making a difference, and supportive comments are like bars of gold in my emotional Fort Knox.

A Crummy Storm Season and an Upcoming Video Tutorial on Circular Breathing

Well over a month has elapsed since my last post. I look at the date of that post, April 1, and think, Right. April Fool, everybody. It sure fooled me. My exuberant expectations for this storm season, particularly compared to last year's, have fallen so far short that they'd need to climb a step ladder just to be upside-down. Last year by this time, I'd at least gotten in two productive chases, one of them spectacular and the other decent. This year, nada. I didn't think it was possible to have a worse chase season than 2012, but 2013 is demonstrating just how a wrong a man can be. Now, I know what everyone says: you can't judge the latter part of a season by its early part. I believe that. The past has proved how dramatically things can change. Chase seasons that started out crappy suddenly shaped up and started cranking out some great setups. I hope that proves true with this one. As it stands, my traditional target date of May 22, nigh sacred to me for the great chases it has provided, has been consistently flatlining on the GFS. That long-range model has me gazing wistfully at its the far, far end, willing for a shadow of hope to show up at 384 hours and remain hopeful--a nice, robust trough that survives successive runs and moves through the timeline into the Plains, where--you'll say I'm dreaming--it actually overlays moisture and instability. There's actually such a shadow lurking in this morning's GFSM. I don't trust it, no sir-ree, not at all. Yet I hope it will show better integrity than its predecessors. Regardless, I'm crossing my fingers for late May and June. As for this blog, its inactivity is due a depressing lack of anything stormy to write about. Oh, yeah, there was the history-making April flood that put a number of Michigan communities underwater and came within inches of overflowing the floodwalls in downtown Grand Rapids. I heard of a golf course on the southwest side of town that was under four feet of water. That's not something you see every day around here. So I made a point of going out and snapping some photos in my own neck of the woods along the Thornapple and Coldwater rivers. The 84th Street dam on the Thornapple was like a giant firehose, the jewel-like Coldwater Park was underwater, and a couple miles further east, vast acres of wooded floodplain had opened up to exploration by canoe. It was something to see, but I didn't much feel like writing about it. Fortunately, when the weather refuses to cooperate, music keeps me occupied. Last Thursday, Big Band Nouveau debuted at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. We played our butts off and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. I see great prospects for this band. More immediately, I've been working on a video tutorial on circular breathing. In fact, I shot some video yesterday and uploaded it last night to YouTube, with every intention of posting it on Stormhorn.com today. But in reviewing it this morning, I realized that it wasn't up to snuff. So I deleted it from YouTube. I need to do another video session before I can post. In other words, everything you've just read is really a substitute for the post I had planned, featuring the video tutorial. That post is in the works, so consider this a heads-up, particularly if you're interested in learning circular breathing. That's all for now. A full day of editing a client's manuscript awaits me, and I've got to get to it. Sayonara.  

Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

Jazz Jams at Noto’s: An Interview with Guitarist Steve Hilger

Every other Thursday night, guitarist Steve Hilger hosts a jazz jam in the lounge of Noto’s Old World Italian Dining at 6600 28th Street SE. Located in the Grand Rapids bedroom community of Cascade in southeast Kent County, the restaurant is easily accessible from the main drag. There, from 7:00–10:00 p.m., Steve provides a topnotch rhythm section for jazz musicians to sit in with and air out their chops. While seasoned players are always gladly welcomed, Steve is particularly interested in giving high school and college musicians the chance to perform onstage with a live band. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come often or easily in West Michigan. Thanks to the vision and persistence of well-known jazz veteran Randy Marsh, downtown Grand Rapids has had a jazz jam venue for the last two years on Sunday nights, first at HopCat and lately at Speak EZ. Now Steve offers a similar opportunity to the outlying southeast area, within easy reach of musicians in the Forest Hills, Caledonia, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Lowell, and Middleville school districts. This is the kind of thing I longed for as a younger player--and as an older player, for that matter. Let’s face it, West Michigan is not New York or Chicago. There are plenty of musicians here but not many chances for them to get together informally and blow.  So the jam sessions at Noto's are a boon to developing and even professional jazz instrumentalists and vocalists. The setting is one where parents can feel comfortable letting their teen musician hang out with other players, and the rest of the family will enjoy it as well if they wish to listen. The sessions have gotten off to a slow start, but there's plenty of reason for them to take off once area musicians find out about them. Word just needs to spread. So I’m doing my part with this post. I’ve had a blast sitting in with Steve and the guys, and I invite you to do the same if you’re a jazz practicioner. And that’s enough from me. It’s time to hear from Steve. _______________
Question: How long have you played guitar? Who are some of your influences? Steve: I started playing guitar in the eighth grade with a cheap nylon string classical guitar and a borrowed Peter, Paul, and Mary songbook. I started with “Don’t Think Twice, Its Alright.” I actually learned the finger picking before the strumming. My influences are many. I am a fan of a lot of different types of music including jazz, blues, acoustic folk, rock, and classical. Some of my influential guitar players include Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I would have to say that the most influential was Carlos Santana, because even as a kid, I marvelled at his melodic lines. It was not the number of notes he played that mattered, but which notes he played. Yet musically overall, my influences are more from horn players such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Miles Davis was another example of playing the right notes instead of a lot of them. Q: You’ve had your own bands for quite a while now, and you’re well-established in the Grand Rapids and West Michigan music scene. How did you get started? S: In college, I had a friend who I started a band with. We wrote our own tunes and eventually recorded them in a studio in New York. The music took a back seat while I was raising a family and starting a legal career. After a divorce, I rekindled my lifelong passion of guitar playing and song writing. Nothing quite like a divorce to inspire you to write lyrics. I went into the studio in 2005 to record some of the new tunes, and then we performed them live at the 2007 Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts. Shortly after that, we started to play blues and started performing around town. Q: You started with a blues band. More recently you formed a jazz combo. What led you to diversify? S: Ever since I heard Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” shortly after it came out, I was fascinated by jazz. Then, in the mid-70s, when The Allman Brothers put out “Live at the Fillmore East,” I discovered the blues. I’ve always loved both genres. So when I realized I had a blues band full of really talented jazz musicians, I decided to do both and started a jazz band as well. Q: You and veteran drummer Randy Marsh are doing your utmost to uphold a vital tradition of jazz: the jam session. Randy hosts a Sunday evening session at Speak EZ in downtown Grand Rapids. You host one at Noto’s in Cascade every other Thursday, and you’re particularly interested in encouraging high school and college musicians to participate. Why are you doing this and what would you like to see happen? What do younger musicians get out of a jam session that they can’t get other ways? S: When I was in high school in a small town thirty-six miles west of New York City, I played trumpet in the school jazz band. Our band leader played gigs in New York City and was pretty well known as a trombone player. She was able to attract top talent to come to our school and give clinics. I do not remember all of them, but I specifically remember Count Basie and Doc Severenson. That was a huge opportunity, and it would be nice to pass it on in some small way. Student musicians need a chance, and have the right, to make mistakes. Once they get past the fear of failure, they can start to experiment, learn, and develop confidence which carries over in all aspects of life. If, for as long as I do this, I am able to reach one student in this fashion, all the effort will be worth it. Young musicians really need a place to come out and give it a go. Q: You provide a unique tie-in between the Noto’s jam session and the selection of young musicians for this summer’s GRandJazzFest. Please tell us about it. S: Every other Thursday, my jazz trio, TrioJazz has been performing at Noto’s. We thought that Noto’s would be a good venue for students to sit in and work their chops on jazz improvisation. I am on the selection committee for musical acts for the 2013 GRJazz Festival. The Board thought it would be a good idea to have students participate in the festival, and we needed a way to reach out to jazz students to see who was willing and able to perform. It’s part of the GRJazz Festival’s commitment to include education as part of its goals. The Thursday night Noto’s gig provides a perfect opportunity to find student jazz musicians who might play in the festival. The Noto’s gig is really the only way I will get the chance to meet student musicians in the community. And if a young musician feels they did not do as well as they would have liked on a given night, they can always come back and try again. There is no point-scoring here. While we hope to pick some of the top students to participate, everyone who comes out and plays is a winner in their own right. We will be selecting five or so musicians who will be given a chance to jump on the big stage at the jazz festival to showcase their talents. Q: It can feel intimidating for a high school kid to set foot onstage and play with professional musicians. But you and your musicians are hugely encouraging and love to have younger players sit in. Talk about what a student can expect when they walk in with their instrument. Do you have any advice for them? S: They and their family can expect a casual, wholesome setting and a warm welcome. They can listen as long as they want, assemble their instrument when they feel ready, and then play the tune or tunes of their choice. My first piece of advice is, relax. Have fun! Enjoy the moment. Nobody is scoring anything here and you have nothing to lose. All of us started out at some point. So pick a tune, preferably out of the Real Book, or bring charts, and let’s see if we can have some fun! Q: Jam sessions aside, what are you striving for personally in your own growth curve as a musician? S: I strive to be the best musician I can be. That applies to all the music I play. I practice a lot. One common experience among many musicians, me included, is that you always hear other musicians who do something better than you. What you don’t realize is that you yourself do some things better than anyone else. I remember an interview with a jazz great who was so disappointed with a solo he played because he hit some wrong notes, or so he thought. Then he noticed that everyone who was following him started playing those wrong notes because the “wrong notes” had now become hip. So I am always listening, always trying to get better, always trying to hear what other musicians are doing to see if there are any take-away things I can do or use. Q: A steady diet of nothing but music makes for a great player but a narrow life. You own your own law firm, and I know that you absolutely love what you do. What other interests and activities do you have which round you out as a person? S: First and foremost, my interests are my three wonderful kids and the lovely Deborah Richmond. They are the foundation of my life. I truly enjoy my work and the firm I started and have helped to grow. We have great partners and a wonderful group of clients. I am also an avid photographer and have traveled throughout the United States on photography trips, focusing mainly on nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. I have published articles and photos, and started all that as a news photographer in the late 1960s when photographers were somewhat of a novelty. For many years, I traveled the country competing in archery, which ended in multiple state and national championships, records, and even the 2004 Olympic trials. Now, my son and I are into the shooting sports such as skeet and big-bore, long-range rifle shooting.

A Universal Chromatic Lick

Universal Chromatic LickThe lick shown here will fit in pretty much any harmonic situation (click on it to enlarge it). You can work it as you please, then resolve it on a chord tone and move on. I like to start it on the flat five of a dominant chord, particularly an altered dominant or a V7b9. The first measure here, for instance, could pair with an F#7b9, and the next measure with an E7b9, and so on, moving downward by whole step with each measure and resolving finally to an F# major chord in the last bar. You could just as easily maintain an F#7 throughout the entire lick. It will work fine, with dissonances justifying themselves as either leading or passing tones. The lick also works well with a minor chord, though instead of starting on the flat five, you might try starting on the fourth or fifth. Really, just experiment and decide what you like. The nice thing about a lick like this is that you can use just fragments of it--a single bar is nice--or you can coast on it for a bit till your brain finds a jump-off point, then launch into a new creative direction. Have fun with this little device. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out my many other articles on jazz theory, exercises, and solo transcriptions.

Presenting Big Band Nouveaux

Beginning with the new year, I've spent a number of Monday nights practicing with West Michigan's newest (that I'm aware of) jazz venture: Big Band Nouveaux. Under the leadership of Grand Rapids tenor saxophonist Michael Doyle, this band is a collective of top-drawer jazz musicians that absolutely kicks butt. Some months ago, Mike contacted me about a project he had up his sleeve. Would I be interested in participating? Mike is a great musician, so naturally he immediately got my attention, but I have to confess that when he mentioned big band music, I felt lukewarm. The big band format has never been my passion. Nothing against it, but I've always leaned toward smaller combos: more freedom, more flexibility, more interplay between musicians. That's just my preference. But Big Band Nouveaux is a different breed. It is unquestionably the most incendiary big band I've ever played in, with great charts that offer plenty of room for soloists to stretch and with some tremendously talented musicians in the lineup: Paul Lesinski, Fred Knapp, Isaac Norris, Louis Rudner, Mark Wells, and Arnaldo Alcevedo, just to name a few. Veteran Blue Lake Radio jazz announcer Lazaro Vega is honing his trumpet chops with the brass section; our fearless leader, the man in the pork pie hat, Mike, is playing first tenor; and Tyler Beer and I are making the alto sax charts happen. The arrangements are uber-hip, and playing with this ensemble has been more fun than I ever imagined. Last Monday we recorded some demo tracks for the band. (Big thanks to Paul Lesinski for bringing in his recording equipment and then doing the mixdowns during the course of this week. Great job, Paul!) And I know that Mike is doing his best to hustle up some gigs for the band. We've still got our work cut out for us in terms of building our repertoire, but keep your eyes out for this molten-hot outfit. It will be making the scene in the coming months, and you definitely want to catch it when it hits the clubs.

Tonight by the Tracks: The Foibles of Practicing the Saxophone When You’re Me

I've found a new place to practice my saxophone along my beloved railroad tracks. If you've followed the musical side of this blog for any length of time, you know that I do most of my practicing in my car, parked by a CSX line that threads the countryside from Grand Rapids to Lansing. Living in an apartment has forced me to find a suitable "studio" away from my living quarters, and since I've loved trains since I was a kid, the tracks are it. I don't mind this arrangement at all. I've been getting in my practice this way for years, even a couple decades, and I like it so well that even if I owned a house, I would probably still venture out to the tracks frequently. Anyway, these past couple of months I've begun parking in a little turn-in next to the tracks between Alto and Elmdale, which is like hanging out halfway between Huh? and Nowhere. I love this spot. Parking parallel to the tracks, I can see the distant signal lights both behind me in the mirror and in front of me through the windshield and can spot the headlamps of approaching trains from far off. It's great. Of course, the sight of a car parked off to the side with its lights out and the dim outline of a person sitting inside it looks a bit suspicious, and once in a while, the cops stop and check me out. I don't mind--they're doing exactly what they should be doing, and usually they're pretty nice about it. The guy who investigated me tonight was a good example. I was sitting there ripping through "Ornithology" with my Aebersold CD when a patrol car pulled up and melted both of my retinas with its spotlight. Okay, no sweat. I kept on playing, figuring that doing so would provide the quickest explanation for what I was about. I figured right. When the policeman walked up to my window, he was laughing. "What's the matter? Wife won't let you practice at home?" he said. I explained my living situation and how I had been parking by this stretch of tracks for many years. "Yeah, I think I've seen you out here before," he said. "You know, my father-in-law plays trombone, and my mother-in-law gave him crap for playing it last Thanksgiving." "Hey," I said, "someone understands!" I handed him my license and let him run his routine. Then we wished each other well, he took off, and I returned to my practicing. It was a clear January night with a new moon, not very cold, and through my side window I could see Orion the Hunter striding through a riot of stars in the southern sky. In my rearview mirror, a green signal light announced the approach of a train still miles down the line. Such are the perks of practicing by the railroad tracks. Why would I ever trade them for playing indoors?

Diminished Whole-Tone Lick around the Cycle of Fifths

Tonight's post is low on text but high in content. Click on the image to enlarge it, then print it out and take it with you to your next practice session and start adding a nice new lick to your diminished whole-tone collection. Not much to say about this little gem that you can't figure out for yourself, but here are a few points of interest:
    ♦  The lick begins and ends on the flat seventh of the V+7(#9) chord.
    ♦  Beats two and three highlight the major triad that's formed off of the raised fifth of the parent chord. For example, if you're playing a D+7(#9), the raised fifth is A#--or Bb, enharmonically--and beats two and three will accentuate an A# (Bb) major triad. You can look at it as chord superimposition. ♦  The last beat emphasizes the two "identity tones" of the dominant chord, leaping a tritone from its third to its lowered seventh.
That's all. Have fun with it! And if you enjoyed this post, check out my large and ever-growing library of jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions.

How to Play Chord Changes: Melodicism Versus Change-Running

It was back in my college jazz band days that I first became concerned with "playing the changes"--that is, improvising in a way that insinuated the harmonies of a tune. Prior to that, I didn't know what changes were. My inner ear had been informed by the blues and the psychedelic, proto-metal, and progressive rock of the seventies--wonderful styles of music, but they didn't prepare me for the logic and complexities of more traditional harmony or the notations used in jazz charts. So when our band director, the brilliant Dr. Bruce Early, handed out the first round of charts in my first semester, my freshman mind was fascinated by the lineup of symbols strung across the blowing section of a tune titled "Pygmy Dance." What did all that mumbo-jumbo mean? An F# followed by a circle with a line slanting through it--what was that? And a B7b9? I recognized B7, but what did b9 mean? It seemed like that might be important for me to know. Not that I needed to at the time, because I wasn't playing lead alto. Good thing, too, because the tune was written in 11/8, and I was in no position to do anything with it but follow the rest of the band. When we got to the solo section, the lead guy, Dan Bryska, stood up and blew the balls off of those changes, as he did with pretty much anything I ever heard him play. What the ... how did he do that? Amazingly, Dan didn't even appear to be paying attention to those arcane scratchings on the chart. I'd have been glued to them, but he evidently had internalized them to the point where they appeared to be part of his genetic makeup. Knowing the Mile Markers Had I known then what Dan knew, life would have been easier. I'd have instantly recognized the tune as a blues--a long-form blues, as I recall, but still in essence just a blues--and done what Dan did: just stood up and blown. Dan saw the overall form and signposts of the tune while I was trying to figure out its hieroglyphs; Dan saw the tree while I was scrutinizing the leaves. And that knowledge (not to mention Dan's fantastic technique and musical experience) allowed him to create where I'd have struggled simply to survive. I soon came to understand the runes of jazz harmony and the scales attached to them. But translating that knowledge into inventive and expressive music was another story. I viewed the written changes as an accountant might, as hard figures which demanded that I justify every note spent, rather than realizing that they were simply guides that suggested certain melodic directions. I still wasn't ready to do what Dan and other great soloists do: just stand up and blow. Which brings me to the point of this post: how does one move from the constraints of jazz harmony to freedom and spontaneity? The question is more relevant for some tunes than others. There's a big difference between, say, "Cantaloupe Island" and "Confirmation." The latter, a bebop tune, is far more complex harmonically, and its dense, fast-paced changes are exactly the kind that can hang a player up. But they don't have to. Here's why. Two Approaches to Improvisation There are two broad approaches to improvising on tunes: change-running and melodicism. In running the changes, a player seeks to outline or imply every chord in every bar, or at least, most of the chords. With a seasoned player, the results can be stunning. But by itself, change-running ultimately is limiting. There's more to music than glorifying chord tones, and that's where the melodic approach steps in. Melodic playing concerns itself with creating a pretty or an interesting melody rather than making all the changes. Not that this more scalar approach ignores or disdains a tune's harmony; it just deals with that harmony more flexibly. As the name implies, it works with scales and melodic lines rather than chord tones. Most good jazz soloists know how to utilize both approaches. It's the blend of the two that can take a seemingly tight, demanding harmonic structure and make real music with it. So here's the deal: learn the changes to a tune. Work them into your fingers during practice by running arpeggios, patterns, and licks over them. And as you do so, consider whether there are any particular tones that define distinctive measures in the tune, then earmark those pitches mentally. In other words, look for harmonic signposts that you can refer to. You don't need many of them, just a few, ones that to your ear are the most significant. These will help you get a feel for the broad shape of the tune. The more you work with the tune, the better you'll get at filling in the areas between those signposts with cool stuff. The process I've just described, which seeks to cultivate both change-running and a broader melodic perspective, requires a good deal of mental effort at the front end, but your playing will become increasingly intuitive as you stick with it. By degrees, the tune will become yours, and you'll find yourself stepping out of rigidity into exploration and inventiveness. This holistic approach seeks to balance the extremes at either end. If you've been locked into the changes to the point where you're a change-running machine, maybe you need to lighten up and think more melodically. If you've been lax in dealing with the rigors of harmony, think about adding a few more leaves to your tree. The discipline comes first, then the freedom. Learn how to play the changes, but also know that you're not enslaved to them. They're consultants, not employers; guides, not dictators. The better you and your fingers know your way around a tune's harmonic structure, the more you'll be able to make judicious choices as an improviser--but don't get stuck on the chords. The point of learning to serve the harmony is to make it serve you, and you don't need to be a master change-runner for that to happen. The goal, after all, is simply to play pretty. So practice hard and practice smart. Then do like Dan: just stand up and blow.