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.