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.

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.

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.

Practicing “Giant Steps”: Static and Chord Tone Sequences

Here are some more exercises on the Giant Steps cycle. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) While it might not be immediately apparent, the linear patterns shown here are actually a continuation from my previous post on isolating V7s in the cycle. Note that the V7 chords are still spotlighted by emphasizing them with quarter notes, which are led into by the preceding grouping of eighth notes. Think of the dominant harmonies as target tones preceded by a walk-up. In these exercises, I've elected to focus on the treadmill-like cycle of Coltrane changes rather than the full eight-bar A section of "Giant Steps." As is typical of so much of the practice material in my posts, what you're getting here comes straight from my own current explorations and discoveries in the woodshed Don't be cowed by this post's heady subtitle, "Static and Chord Tone Sequences." I'm just not sure how else to describe this material. The goal I'm after is to work with linear sequences that will drill the shifting tone centers of Coltrane changes into my fingers. (Geeze, that still sounds murky as all get-out. Oh, well. Deal with it.) Since I'm an alto sax player, I've written these exercises in the Eb transposition. If you play a Bb or a C instrument, you'll need to transpose accordingly. Exercise one proceeds through the entire Giant Steps cycle in three bars. The first three-bar cycle starts on Ab; the second, on E; and the third, on C. In each series, I've kept the first note of each measure as static as possible, shifting it by just a half-step in the third measure to accommodate the change in key. In exercise two, the harmony continues to repeat itself (i.e. AbM7 to B7, back and forth) while the starting tone for the eighth-note groupings shifts, progressively, from the root to the third to the fifth. In both exercises, pay attention to which target tones you arrive at in the dominant seventh chords. And that's enough of me talking. Dig in, engage your analytical thinking along with your fingers--and, as always, have fun! Oh, yeah--if you enjoyed this post, please check out my many other articles, practice exercises, solo transcriptions, and video tutorials for improvising musicians.

The Giant Steps Scratch Pad in All 12 Keys Is Nearly Finished!

A quick report on the upcoming all-keys edition of The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. It's almost finished! In fact, I had hoped to publish it today, but I ran into one of those inevitable last-minute snags that I won't be able to fix until tomorrow. However, while the problem is irritating, it's easily resolved. So assuming that nothing blows up in my face, I should be able to make this new edition available for sale as a PDF download sometime tomorrow. I'm titling it The Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete: 155 Licks and Patterns in Every Key to Help You Master John Coltrane's Challenging Tune. Right now my plan is to sell the book strictly as a PDF download. However, at 250 pages, it may be practical for me to also offer it as a softcover print edition. I'll welcome your feedback on this, so please click on the "comments" link if you wish to share your input.

Coming Soon: The Giant Steps Scratch Pad in All 12 Keys

My book The Giants Steps Scratch Pad is enjoying modest success. While it's not flying off the shelves, musicians are buying it, and I find that gratifying because I haven't done much to market it other than display it on this and a couple of other jazz websites, and run a few ads in Craigslist. Available in separate editions for C, Bb, Eb, and bass cleff instruments, the book supplies 155 licks and patterns designed to help jazz instrumentalists master the Giant Steps cycle. To the best of my knowledge, there's no other resource out there like it that helps musicians actually practice Coltrane changes. The closest I've seen has been for guitar players. But enough about that. If you want to learn more about The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, visit my sales page. This post is to announce the upcoming release of a new edition of the Scratch Pad that covers all 12 keys. I've had this edition in mind for a while. I finally got the project underway but have held back announcing it until I felt certain that I'd see it through to completion. Today, with just three keys left to go, I think it's safe to say that this new, all-keys edition is gonna happen. I hope to wrap up the main grunt work within the next few days. I wish it was as easy as simply hitting the transposition button on MuseScore, but while transcription software is great, it doesn't eliminate the need for hands-on editing. So I've been sifting through each key page by page, changing the range where necessary, correcting wrong notes, inserting and deleting accidentals, and so forth. Once I'm finished, I'll proofread the results to make doubly sure that the manuscript is glitch-free. Then I'll assemble the whole lot and make it available as a PDF download. I will not offer it as a print edition through unless I get requests to do so. Judging from my sales of the present editions, people would much rather download the PDF and get the guts of the book instantly for cheaper rather than pay the shipping costs (even though the full-color cover looks sooooo sharp!). And I'm fine with that. Prepping a print edition is a lot of extra work; I have to charge more for it in order to make less than half the profit; and Lulu's insistence on putting a single, slim book inside a cardboard box that costs nearly $4.00 to ship is just plain crazy, not to mention a sales-killer. Anyway, stay tuned. It'll still take a week or two, but The Giant Steps Scratch Pad for all 12 keys is on the way. I haven't determined the price yet, but it'll be reasonable, something that'll let you still pay your utility bills while helping me to pay mine. I should add that this edition is written in treble clef. I may do a bass clef edition in all 12 keys as well--I'm not sure right now. One thing at a time.

Video Tutorial #2: The Tritone Scale

A while back, I wrote a post on the tritone scale. For my second video tutorial, I thought I'd supplement that article with a brief audio-visual clip. Supplement is the operative word. Besides describing the theory of the tritone scale in somewhat greater detail and probably a bit more lucidly than the video, the writeup provides written examples for you to work with. But the video helps you hear the sound of the tritone scale, and in so doing, allows you to come at the scale from every angle. People's learning styles differ, so maybe this tutorial will be more your cup of tea. Regardless, if you haven't read my written article, make sure to do so after you've watched the clip. On a side note, the video was shot out at the Maher Audubon Sanctuary in rural southeastern Kent County, Michigan. I'm discovering a fondness for producing these tutorials in outdoor settings when I can. With winter closing in, my future productions will soon be relegated to the indoors; right now, though, nature is singing "Autumn Leaves," and it has pleased me to capture a bit of her performance. If you enjoy this tutorial, check out my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions page. And with that said, enjoy the video.

Fourth Patterns with Altered Dominants

This post builds upon a jazz improvisation post I wrote a month ago titled Fourth Patterns: Three Exercises to Build Your Technique. That post gave you some quartal patterns to practice that took you around the cycle of fifths. While I pointed at the harmonic possibilities, I left you to sort them out for yourself. In this post, I'm providing a specific application by applying fourth groupings to altered dominant chords (V+7#9). Click on the image to your left to enlarge it. The first thing you'll encounter is a brief exercise that takes you through a fourth pattern moving by whole steps, first down, then back up. It's a simple exercise. Once you've got it down, practice it starting on the note F instead of Eb; you'll be using the same notes you've already practiced, but you'll reverse the direction of the patterns. From there, play the same exercise starting on the note E. You'll now have a different set of notes. Finally, start on the note F#. Once you've worked that into your fingers, you'll have covered all the possibilities.

Moving On to Application

The material you've just practiced is designed to help you develop technique specific to the application that follows. Now we'll move on to that application, as indicated by the chords. For each chord, you'll find two groupings of the fourth pattern spaced a major second apart. Together, the two patterns contain the following chord tones: #9, b9, b7, +5, +4*. The patterns are arranged in eighth notes that resolve to a consonant chord tone, thus:
    •  In the first two bars, the b9 resolves to a whole note on the chord root. •  In the second two bars, the #9 resolves to a whole note on the major third of the chord.
I've written down the applications for six keys. I'm sure you can figure out the remaining six on your own, and you should. Don't be lazy! You need to become familiar with all twelve chords. Moreover, I encourage you to experiment with variations on these patterns. This exercise will open up your technique for altered dominants--and other harmonic applications--but you should view it as a springboard for further exploration. As is so often the case, the material I'm sharing comes to you fresh from my own practice sessions. It's a chronicle of my personal learning curve, and I hope it assists you in yours. If you found this article helpful, you'll find many more like it on my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions sub-page. Practice hard, practice with focus--and, as always, have fun! -------------------------------- * If you add two more tones--the chord root and the major third--you'll get a complete diminished whole tone scale. In this application exercise, the whole notes use those two missing tones as resolutions.

Altered Dominant with Pentatonic b6 Scale

Lately my practice sessions have involved both the diminished whole tone scale and the pentatonic scale. There's a reason for this: the two are related, and both scales go well with the V+7#9 chord. My previous post explored how this plays out with a basic major pentatonic scale. I worked with mode 4 of that scale, starting on the b9 of the V+7#9 chord. In root position, the scale would actually begin on the +4 of the chord. Today during my practice session I focused on another pentatonic scale rooted on the +5 of the V+7#9. It's a wonderful sound that really brings out both the major third and #9 of the chord as well as the evocative color of the raised fifth. This scale is not your standard-issue pentatonic; its flatted sixth gives it a mysterious augmented quality. Click on the image to your right to enlarge it. The first thing you'll see is a D+7#9 chord outlined in whole notes. To its right is an ascending Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth. You'll see how the scale is entirely consonant with the chord. Moreover, further analysis will reveal that the Bb pent b6 is actually an abbreviated form of the D diminished whole tone scale. Still more interesting is the fact that the Bb pentatonic scale with a flatted sixth actually is the D+7#9! It's what you get when you scrunch all the chord tones together linearly (or as near linearly as possible). While I'd love to make myself sound like a master theoretician who has known this fact for most of his musical life, the truth is, I just made the discovery a little while ago. Now I know why this scale sounds so great when played with the altered dominant chord. It is the chord. Of course the scale has other applications besides the V+7#9, the most obvious being major and dominant chords that share the same root as the scale. I'll let you work out the various other harmonic possibilities for yourself as they're not the focus of this post. Back to the image: The second and third lines introduce you to a basic exercise that will help you start getting your fingers around the pentatonic b6 scale. It would be most helpful if you had some kind of accompaniment sounding the chord when you work on this pattern. You want to internalize the sound of the chord-scale relationship, not just the technique. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Take this exercise through the full range of your instrument and learn it in all twelve keys. And that's that. For lots more chops-building exercises, solo transcriptions, and information-packed articles, visit my jazz page.

The Augmented Scale: A New Pattern to Whet Your Fingers On

Here is an augmented scale pattern that I started tinkering with yesterday. It's similar to one I've practiced fairly often, but inserting an extra note into each four-note grouping--resulting in quintuplets--adds both harmonic and rhythmic color. The exercise uses the Bb augmented scale. Since it is a symmetrical scale, it also functions as D and F# augmented scales. For the theory behind it, see my first post on the augmented scale and view my page on jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions for a number of other articles. The image to your right (click on it to enlarge) contains three rhythmic variations of the pattern. The topmost is the pattern as I originally conceived it in five-note groupings. The line below it shows how the pattern lays out in a standard eighth-note flow. Last of all you'll find the pattern set to triplets. These latter two exercises introduce a polymetric element, displacing accents in ways that pack added interest. During the last few months my focus has shifted to pentatonic scales, and my augmented scale work has consequently suffered. The simple truth is, I just don't have time to cover all the bases. (I wish I did, but no one is paying me to practice eight hours a day!) Lately, though, now that I've gotten the preliminary muscle-memory curve behind me with my pentatonic work, I've begun to return to the augmented scale. It is a fascinating, hauntingly colorful scale at which I want to become increasingly adept. The augmented and pentatonic scales both now fit into my practice regimen, along with the diminished whole tone scale. By the time I'm finished working all these weird scales into my fingers, I just hope I'll remember how to play my major scales. It goes without saying--it does, doesn't it?--that you'll practice this pattern in all four of its tonal iterations (I don't know how else to say it; you can't rightly call them "keys"). Remember to keep application in mind. It's not enough to get this pattern under your fingers; how are you going to use it? Again, see my initial post on the augmented scale. Other than that, there's nothing left to say except, as always, practice diligently and enjoy the journey.