How Do You Read All Those Chords on a Jazz Chart?

July 5, 2017, 7:52 AM · As a classical violinist, I find it a little overwhelming to read a jazz chart and improvise over the chords.

Yet that's what I'm doing all week at Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus, Ohio. I'm surrounded with true experts, who are well-versed in this medium. Besides having classes about improv, we've been placed in small ensembles, in which we read through jazz charts and then improvise over the chords. Each small ensemble of about five people sees two coaches a day. My coaches are violinist Nicole Yarling and guitarist Paul Brown.

Paul and Laurie
Laurie with Paul Brown.

This is really learning by immersion and by "doing," which is great fun. But I have to say, every time things come around to me and the coach says "GO!" I struggle. I've been searching for things to hang on to -- and there are many, but it is a process of discovery.

On Tuesday I did have one such revelation, when it comes to comprehending a written page of jazz music. Take for example, this chart that Paul gave us for Coltrane's Central Park West.

Central Park music

Generally, I see a chart like this and I panic, for several reasons: First of all, it has five sharps. ("Paul, do you have capos for us?"). But second of all, I just see a bunch of chords, and I'm overwhelmed. How can I keep track, jump from one to the next? For me it's like reading Chinese characters, it just doesn't compute. However, my perception changed, once Paul pointed out the fact that there are patterns: these are really series of chords, and this is what I need to start trying to discern. My music theory has never been exceptional, but I do know that the dominant generally tries to resolve to the tonic. This harmonic tension is present in just about any kind of music, from pop to jazz to classical. A lot of these chords are actually a series of fairly simple dominant-tonic resolutions.

For example, in "Central Park West," the first three chords are simply trying to get to B major: the chords are built on two, five and then resolving to one; or put another way, ii-V-I; or put another way, chords built on the supertonic, dominant, and tonic. Suddenly a lot of patterns emerged, I started seeing ii-V-I everywhere! He encouraged us to bracket those series on our sheet music: the next one led to D major, the next to Ab major etc. Suddenly, the idea of improvising over this series of chords seemed a lot easier to understand:

Central Park music

We tried improvising to a number of tunes: Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz; as well as Pat Metheny's Minuano. I realized later in the day, that "Minuano" was a song I knew -- knew well! I listened to a lot of Pat Metheny in college and even went to see his band live, when they were touring with this music. I caught Paul on video, laying down the chords for us for that tune. After that, he goes one round with his own improvising, brilliant stuff. The more I try to do this, the more my appreciation grows for this kind of ability, check it out:

And if you'd like to try improvising along to the above music, here is the chart:

Minuano

Later in the day I returned to fiddle class, where I'd enjoyed learning yesterday about Celtic fiddle from violinist Andy Reiner. Today he was exploring Scandanavian music, particularly from Sweden and Finland.

We started by looking at a Swedish fiddle form called the Polska, which as he explained, is in two. But not really! If I heard just the fiddle part of this tune, no context, I think I would hear it in two beats. It's actually in three, but for this form of Swedish fiddle music, it is counted in a very unique way: One long beat, followed by a short beat. Undoubtedly this has to do with the dance for which it is composed. In order to keep this feel, we tapped our feet throughout the song. You can try it, too, it really changes one's perception of the music:

The above piece is called "Fluddën's Död," (apparently about the death of Ms. Fludden!) and it is a traditional Swedish fiddle tune. He taught us how to play the main part of the piece, and I actually just relished the opportunity to learn music this way: completely by ear, by rote. He played a small portions, and we played it back, repeating sections and putting them together until we'd learned the whole tune. I teach my smallest Suzuki students this way, but no one ever teaches ME this way! Everyone in the whole room was so quick to catch on, too; there were no hang-ups about playing by ear, everyone just did it. For someone who primarily learns by looking at the music, this was a real treat.

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Replies

July 5, 2017 at 03:43 PM · Starting your improv training with Central Park West is a bit like starting a brand new Suzuki student in Book 3. Not virtuoso stuff by any means, but you still have to deal with four different keys -- and are they ever different! On the other hand CPW is a ballad so you have tempo on your side.

Take heart, because if there's one thing you undoubtedly know very well, it's how to practice: Go slow, work with a metronome, take it in small portions, and listen to pros. There is a certain type of phrase called a "turnaround" that works especially well with ii-V-I sequences. (You can Google a few and pretty soon you'll see what makes them tick.) You can learn a turnaround for each of the ii-V-I's in Central Park West, in isolated fashion. The next step is to figure out how to stitch them together. When you do, you may discover that a fair amount of rework is needed.

Is that improv or composition? Well, it'll be improv when you get to the point where you can envision the possibilities as the changes are coming and spin it out in real time. And pro jazz musicians do work on tunes, figuring out what kinds of things work for certain key transitions and the like. That's totally legit.

So it's not exactly the same way you'd work up new classical rep, and indeed at the end the objective is much different, but there are similarities in terms of the task management.

Are you familiar with iReal Pro? That is an Android and iPhone app that plays piano/bass/drums/guitar along with you while you jam on any tunes in the Real Book (including CPW). You can set the tempo, the key, the instrumentation, the number of repeats, etc. It's not as good as live musicians but it's better than just a metronome. You can play your iRealPro through earbuds and you'll still hear your violin just fine. That's what I do, it's great fun.

July 5, 2017 at 03:50 PM · Thank you for sharing! I've recently been able to attend the Montana Fiddle Camp held in Monarch, MT, and come to the realization that the fiddle camp experience fits right in with the Suzuki experience- learning tunes in units by ear and imitation, group jam sessions where everyone is welcome, experiencing music as a language, a very "family" approach where everyone wants to "do it too",

and having a large amount of common repertoire in your fingertips just ready to pull out at any time to jump in and jam with :)

July 5, 2017 at 07:37 PM · There are a series of Jamie Abersold (sp) books that have standards and ii V i changes that you can play and work out with from home. The books each come with a CD that has the changes and a Rhythm section. I think they are 10-20 bucks each. For those who don't have real live people to play with, they are a great option.

When I played guitar a little bit, I learned to play harmonized scales in every key. I would play ii-V-i chords on my guitar in C major for my children and just tell them to play a c major scale. Then we would make up simple tunes. Great fun and it's amazing how you can put things together once you understand the what scale works with what chords.

July 6, 2017 at 03:30 AM · Laurie, I am loving your coverage of this workshop! It is now on my bucket list!

July 6, 2017 at 06:55 PM · Paul, that app is amazing. I play with the praise band at church every week and this will help me to practice improvising more in advance. Would you be able to recommend any books or articles that delve more into this topic?

July 7, 2017 at 12:19 PM · There are innumerable jazz improv books. My experience with them will not surprise you: They're not as effective as lessons. I'm in a situation where if I spend $25 on a book and I learn three or four new voicings or other generally useful ideas, I figure that's worth it because a lesson would have cost twice as much.

For piano, the "Jazz Piano Book" by Mark Levine (1989) is comprehensive. For modern chord voicings, get the book by noted Chicago pianist Frank Mantooth. Mantooth's four books entitled "Best Chord Changes ..." have some great substitutions and altered changes for the solo-piano player -- they're out of print (Mantooth died in 2004) but you can find them on the secondary market.

For violin there are scale books by Christian Howes, Mike Laird, etc. I have Mike's book and it's fine but you don't need fingerings (!!) because in an improv situation you will never know where you'll be coming from position-wise, and you really don't need anything above two ledger lines. A scale by itself is not that useful; it's all in the application. On the other hand a lot of violinists are so hung up on diatonic and chromatic scales that they do not consider practicing pentatonics (which are surprisingly violinistic) or the extremely useful diminished scale (rather more difficult). Patterns are useful too, but again, those are just fundamentals -- it's really about what you do with it. Mike's book covers the "different" scales, scale patterns, and has a few useful exercises as well.

One thing you can do with iReal Pro is input your own tunes. There are places where these get shared online too (for example talkbass). The interface for the create-your-own feature is not too convenient. What I wish they had was PC companion software so that you could do this "composing" in a more user-friendly environment and then download that to your Android device.

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