Getting lost in jazz standards? Try this exercise to stop

Today we are going to talk about playing through tunes/songs with just the melody and bass notes. Why you ask? Uhhhh, ‘cause I said so! I kid, of course. Honestly, you can never know a tune too well. Students often say they know or have learned a tune, but one pass at the melody or one chorus of comping and they are lost. If this is you, here is a great exercise to help!

The melody is the signature piece of any tune. It’s what stands out, catches your ear, and is usually the part that gets stuck in your head. So, if we can start to associate that with the bass notes of the harmony we almost can’t get lost, right? That’s the goal anyway. The first task is to really listen to a tune, I mean listen hard, not while you’re doing 6 other things, driving, dancing, etc. I mean listen, we’re not just hearing, we are focused. How does this melody move? What is the form of the tune? What is the hook? Do we hear repetitions of ideas? Do those repetitions change pitch? Then let’s play/sing the melody. What is the most basic version of this melody? We’re not looking for a version where someone has played three notes and then started their solo, I’m looking right at you, Coleman Hawkins...

Now you’ve got the melody down. How does it fit with each chord? I’m going out on a limb here and saying that there is a high probability that all the longer notes in that melody are chord tones. (hint: if you want to know the chord qualities you’re dealing with when learning a tune, you might want to put the melody and bass notes together...wink, wink, nod, nod).

From this our challenge is to play the two simultaneously. Start out with something like “All The Things You Are” or “Days of Wine and Roses.” These are both great tunes to experiment with learning new devices and techniques. Matching up the melody and bass notes in time on these tunes should open your ears to some things pretty quickly. First you should start to hear the chords passing if you play just the melody. Next, when you are shredding through these changes, you should start hearing the melody note on each chord, which! Takes me back to an earlier point, the melody is the signature piece of any tune. If you can achieve the ability to solo by consistently referencing the key melodic ideas of each tune (see Peter Bernstein) you can seriously step up your game. Most importantly, it will greatly increase the melodic content or your solos and differentiate what you do on “Windows” from “Scrapple from the Apple.”

Check out my short video lesson on YouTube and work through “All The Things You Are” with me.