May 2, 2012

Note justification

I’ve recently been talking to my students about a concept that I call “note justification” — the idea that you can make any note sound good on any chord change, depending on how and when you play it, or how you “justify” playing that note.

A common example of this is the idea that if you play a dissonant note once, it may sound wrong to the listener.  But, if you repeat it, it sounds like you meant to play it.  Repetition can be a strong tool for note justification, but I’ve been spending time talking to my students about harmonic justification of notes.

Notes that don’t need justifying are the basic chord tones: 1, 3, 5, 7.  You can play those notes on a chord with little or no context and to most listeners they will sound consonant.  Also, most non-altered chord tones usually work as well.  For example, playing the 9th of a C Maj7 (D) is a relatively consonant sound — it has a little bit of a rub with the root and 3rd of the chord, but probably not enough to make it sound like a “wrong” note to a listener.

With the altered extensions, justification starts to become necessary.  For example, the #11 can sound like an extremely dissonant note or a hip extension of the chord depending on how you play it.   I usually demonstrate this idea using the blues.  First, the dissonant example:


The #11 with little or no context to the rest of the chord structure is a grating sound — enough to scare some improvisors away from it if they don’t understand how to make it work.  That’s when harmonic justification comes in.  The basic idea is that you want the notes around (preferably leading to) the #11 or whichever note you’re going for to provide enough context for the note to sound like a logical extension of the chord.  The sound may still be “dissonant” to some listeners, but the dissonance has more logic to it and is usually easier to digest.

As demonstrated in the example above, the harmonic justification technique works by including the lower (and more constant) chord tones leading to the #11, providing enough “context” for listeners, whether consciously or subconsciously, to hear it as an extension rather than just a note with an uncomfortable rub against the 5th.

Keep in mind that on any chord, any of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale can be described as a chord tone, assuming that you extend the chord up to the 23rd.  Most jazz harmony only deals with extensions to the 13th, but extending the chord to it’s maximum degree opens up all the notes as possibilities.

Of course, even if you use the harmonic justification theory to play those notes in your solo, it doesn’t mean the audience or the rest of the band will be able to follow you — that all depends on how accustomed to hearing extensions everyone is, the comping from the rhythm section, etc.  For example, when playing a gig where the music is primarily triadic for an audience of non jazz-aficionados, this type of harmonic justification may not be enough to make the more adventurous note choices work.  Hearing and playing extensions is an acquired taste.  Give a kid a sip of wine and they probably won’t like it at first.  And, give a regular wine-drinker a glass with a pancake breakfast and they might not find it palatable, not because they don’t have the taste for it, but because it’s not the right setting.  Playing dissonant extensions should be given the same sort of considerations.

Another (and perhaps more common) way to approach harmonic justification is rather than landing on the extensions as your “goal notes,” using them as passing tones to get to more consonant notes.  If you choose a particularly dissonant note, such as the minor 3rd on a major chord (which could also be described as the b17 if we extend the chord to the 23rd), by moving a half step away, you have two far more consonant notes, with the 3rd a half step up and the 9th a half step down.  Also the passing tone will sound significantly less dissonant if placed on an offbeat rather than on a downbeat.  This method of harmonic justification usually doesn’t lead to the same level of harmonic interest that the previous one does, but it can certainly be a useful tool to use.

One exercise that I would recommend to force yourself into practicing these situations is to give yourself an extension that you have to hit on each chord change during a song.  For example, force yourself to play the 11th of every chord in the blues.  Of course, you’ll be altering the 11th to fit the chord type — #11 on major and dominant chords and a natural 11 on the minor chords.  Try both methods of harmonic justification: providing context using lower chord tones and using the #11 as a passing tone to a more consonant note.  Try this with all the degrees of the chord.  You can also vary the exercise by forcing yourself to either start or end on the note rather than just including it somewhere in your line.


For some more reading on jazz harmony and the perception of dissonant notes, check out “Learn to Hear Jazz Harmony” at — the article came out at the same time that I happened to be talking a lot with students about these concepts and I think they have some very useful insights.

April 17, 2012

Teaching melodic improvisation

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague about a practice session that I had earlier in the day with another saxophone player.  In the session, we talked about what we had been practicing.  Both of us had been practicing some theory and math-heavy improvisational concepts.  The colleague asked if those sorts of ideas were what the improvisation course at the Manhattan School of Music had covered when I was there.  I said that yes, to a certain extent, the improvisation courses dealt with fairly calculated ways of constructing solos — using certain rules or formulas to generate solos that sounded like the jazz idiom.  Perhaps not true “improvisation” in the purest sense, but a great way to show a player how to achieve a certain sound.

The colleague mentioned that he wondered why there isn’t more focus on melodic improvisation in music education.  By this, I think he meant focusing on how to make our solos naturally melodic and improvisatory rather than focusing on specific rhythmic or harmonic devices that end up “forcing” a player to play certain things.  Maybe a good analogy would be the difference between writing a freeform story with no constraints as opposed to being given an outline of the plot and specific vocabulary words to use while writing an essay.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since he brought this up.  The question I keep coming back to, is how does one teach melodic improvisation?  In classical education, melodic composition is often taught with “motivic development,” which encompasses a set of devices that can be used to alter a melody and develop it over time.  All the devices (augmentation, diminution, inversion, etc) are certainly applicable to soloing, but do they really teach the player to be any more melodic than the harmonic and rhythmic devices do?  After all, it’s still using a set of rules to achieve the result.

It seems like improvisation courses should be as comprehensive as possible, including information on harmonic and rhythmic formulas, melodic/motivic development, free playing, etc.  It’s the combination of all of these devices that creates a great solo in an experienced player.  Unfortunately, the reality is that it takes a huge amount of time to study and internalize all of these devices and be able to apply them in real-time during a solo.  A one year improvisation course can cover a lot of theoretical ground, but the time that it takes a player to be comfortable using the information will almost certainly be longer.


March 26, 2012

Portland jazz musicians share their thoughts about a changing industry

Last month, saxophonist (and skilled wordsmith) Tim Willcox interviewed me and a few other Portland jazz musicians about our thoughts about the current state and future of our industry.  The piece was originally published in the Jazz Society of Oregon newsletter, but Tim has also reprinted it on his label’s website.

It’s an interesting read with a few different perspectives on a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Strategies for musicians and listeners (via Ninjazz Records).

March 16, 2012

Minor-Friendly Venues in Portland

When I was in school studying music, I went to see a ton of live shows.  When I was in middle school and the first couple of years of high school, the Oregon Liqueur Control Commission had very strict rules about minors being in bars and even some restaurants, so most of the regular venues were unavailable to me.  My parents did a great job of finding other opportunities for me to see music though — we used to go to performances at the Central Library, Borders bookstores, Music Millennium, outdoor concerts during the summers, etc. By high school, the OLCC had relaxed a little and I went to hear music every week. In many ways, it taught me more about playing than any private lessons or classes have.

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I’ve begun to realize how few students get or take the opportunity to hear live music.  It’s such an important part of not only learning to play music, but also of being a part of the arts community in general.

There are quite a few reasons that getting out to see music can be difficult.  Students today are increasingly busy with extra-curricular activities.  It usually costs money to go out and see a show.  And, it can be difficult to know where to go to hear music and if the venue allows minors.  That last point is one that I figured I could try to do something about.

I’ve compiled a list of minor-friendly venues in Portland and a couple sentences explaining what you’re likely to find there.  Hopefully, this list can make it just a little easier for students to go out and find the music that is so important to hear.

Feel free to copy and distribute the list — the more it’s out there, the better.

Download the list in PDF form.

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