Learning a lot of tunes is key to becoming a better Jazz improvisor, both because it establishes a common repertoire between players and because studying old standards is the best way to internalize fundamental harmonies and forms. Many veteran musicians know literally thousands of tunes, which they can play in any key. At New York jam sessions, that is even an expectation if you’re a rhythm section player!
The question is: how do you get to that point? Fortunately, not all of those house bands are filled with geniuses. Those players have simply developed pattern-recognition skills that allow them to learn a lot of tunes quickly. Here’s a rough outline of what I think they do:
Step 1: Jazz Karaoke
I always start with the melody, and preferably learn the words along with it. Pick a few favorite recordings of the standard you’re learning and try to sing along with the lyric. Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby are all good resources and cover most tunes you’ll need to know. Pick a version that’s as clear as possible, though inevitably singers improvise around the melody. As you sing along with the recording, try to internalize the inflection and phrasing too-it will help your sense of style and swing, and allow you to tastefully improvise your own variations of the head. If you’re thinking of the words as you play the melody or solo, your phrasing will inevitably match up with the original tune. Other musicians and even non-musicians who know the original recording will appreciate your depth of knowledge.
Step 2: It’s All About the Bass
Now go back through the recording and see if you can sing along with the bass motion. That means a single low note per chord change, or a reduced version of the bass line. This can be tricky at first, but the classic recordings usually delineate the harmony pretty clearly.
After a while, you’ll start to notice patterns in how chords move. Standards typically only “land” on a few chords, and most of the changes in between are typically part of a ii-V progression. For example, you could quickly explain the first 8 measures of “There Will Never Be Another You” this way: The tune starts on Eb major, then goes down a half step to a minor ii-V in the key of C minor, then goes down another step to a ii-V in Ab major. Granted, there are a few chords after that you’ll have to memorize, but that’s most of what you need to know already.
If you “chunk” the harmonic information that way, it won’t take long to commit the bass-melody counterpoint to memory. Often, it’s just a matter of remembering which keys the ii-V progressions are leading to and filling in a few passing chords in between. Even for non-pianists, I would recommend playing the melody and bass line together slowly on a piano. The melody can even help guide you if the bass line is hard to remember, as it too has a harmonic function!
Step 3: Quality Control
Now that you have the outer voices straight, it’s just a matter of figuring out the chord qualities. Start by figuring out which chords are “tonic” sounds, the stable major and minor chords the tune lands on for extended periods of time. Then, figure out all the dominant 7ths that immediately precede those chords. Finally, the chords before those will typically be minor or half diminished, depending on where it resolves. There will inevitably be a few other sounds, but the information you have already should help guide you.
Initially, this may seem like a lot of information to absorb simply through listening. The first few times you try approaching tunes like this, it might be confusing and a little more time-consuming. You will want to check your work with a Real Book afterwards just to make sure you’re right, but chances are you won’t have that much correcting to do. After learning a few more tunes, you’ll likely start to notice that learning by ear is faster and more reliable than memorizing tunes from a book. When I first started picking up tunes this way, I was surprised to find how much easier it was for me to transpose what I had learned. If you memorize bass movements rather than specific chord symbols, it isn’t as much of a problem to simply start your melody and bass line on a different note.
Plus, if you’re more aware of the motion between the bass and melody, chances are you’ll outline harmonies more clearly while you’re soloing. It won’t be a matter of choosing the right scale that fits over a chord, it will be filling in the specific chord qualities you learned from the original recording.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I hope that at least some of these tips are helpful, and to hear more about what students would find useful in the future.