The actor/comedian Steve Martin once made a TV skit where he simply looked into the camera, perplexed, and said, “What the heck IS that?” Being the great comedian that he is, the skit somehow got funnier and funnier each time he repeated the question!
Do you ever look at a jazz tune with complex chord changes and ask yourself “What the heck IS that?”
It’s OK. This is a natural response to when we encounter unusual chord progressions, which often don’t establish tonal centers in conventional ways. After all, we’ve practiced soloing over ii/V/I chord progressions, and then painstakingly learned how to navigate shifting tonal centers in tunes like Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” and Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” And perhaps we’ve become comfortable improvising modally on Miles Davis “So What” and “Milestones.”
And then…. We look at a tune like Joe Lovano’s modern classic “Lines and Spaces” and think, “Yikes! What the heck IS that? How am I supposed to solo over THOSE chord changes?”
At this point, we grit our teeth, play the chords, and begin to stumble through the changes. At first, nothing seems to fit. We start a phrase that sounds good, but then the chords take a left turn and seemingly good phrase fizzles out. Nothing we play makes sense. Then, we may begin to “plug in” licks that we’ve successfully used on other, more traditional tunes. Yet even if we succeed in adapting these stock phrases to the tune’s shifting harmonies, the result doesn’t seem quite right. The styles don’t match. The harmonic picture that Lovano establishes with the tune’s melody implies a musical universe that’s beyond bebop, beyond licks, and even beyond knowing what will sound good in advance.
To go further, we need to relax for a moment, take a deep breath, and accept the fact that soloing over a tune like “Lines and Spaces” requires us to find a new approach. Indeed, we need to wholeheartedly embrace a new approach.
For me, this new approach is to look at the lead sheet (physically or mentally) and sort of “smudge the ink” a little. Yes, I know it’s a Bm7 chord, for example, and I know all the stuff I normally might play over a Bm7 chord. Then, I let my musical vision get a little blurry, so to speak, and I allow other notes and melodic possibilities to appear. Just like Lovano does with the melody.
A tune like this invites us to expand our hearing, our approach to improvising, and even our whole concept of how to improvise over chord changes.
You can see and hear me demonstrate these concepts on this video, which also includes a full-length performance of the tune:
Lines and Spaces: Journey Through The Real Book #212
Good luck with your improvising, and as always, enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”
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