I was listening to a recording this past week of a lesson I had years ago with jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles. I’ve always admired Ron’s melodic style and how the phrasing of his lines floated over the top of the chord changes in a unique way. During my lesson I asked him about what he was doing/thinking about to accomplish this style of phrasing. He said that you can view playing changes a number of different ways. We can look at things from a micro point of view (chord change to chord change) to a very macro point of view which is what we’re going to talk about in this week’s tip.
Ron and I talked about a lot of different subjects in that lesson, but I wanted to talk about thinking in Big Phrases. To be clear, playing from chord change to chord change or playing in big phrases is not a one or the other issue. It’s important to be able to both so you can effectively express yourself in your improvisation. How can we think in big phrases? Whether you have chord changes flying by every downbeat or you have one change for every couple of bars…there is one more form of organizing those changes in a macro point of view. That is the form. Songs have form (ABA, AABA, ABC, etc) that organize different sets of chord changes to complete the harmonic skeleton of that song.
One way to think/play in big phrases is to think of each section of a form as one phrase. For instance, if the “A” section is 8 bars…those 8 bars become one phrase. That doesn’t mean you have to play one continuous line for those 8 bars, but it does get you to think beyond improvising from measure to measure.
An exercise Ron had me do during our lesson was to take a form, in this case AABA, and make each “A” section the exact same. Whatever I played on the first “A” had to be repeated on the second “A.” The “B” section was its own phrase, but the third “A” section had to be an exact replica of the first. This exercise causes you to not overplay (it’s much harder to remember 8 bars of nothing but eighth-notes), it increaes mental awareness and gets you to think about making phrases on the macro level (not chord change to chord change).
Let’s take a look at, in my opinion, one of the most recognizable AABA forms in jazz: Rhythm Changes.
We’re going to take this relatively simple “A” section phrase below and make sure it’s the same thing over each “A” section.
Below is what this exercise might look like if it were all put together into one chorus of rhythm changes:
I hope you find this exercise not only challenging, but fun and valuable to your playing. For more information on the importance of space in your improvisations and thinking on the macro level I would invite you to check out my book, Breaking the Monotony, which you can find at my Digital Store. All proceeds go towards the JKQ’s recording Mountain, Move.
Jason Klobnak is a versatile trumpet player that has been performing as an active musician, author, clinician, composer and educator. His band, J's Ruckus, is Denver's blend of Post-Bop, Soul, Gospel, and Hip-Hop. They perform infectious and up-lifting originals for audiences hungry for a memorable live experience. J's Ruckus released their latest album, Suck Less, in March of 2020 and their first EP, Sermons, in July of 2019. Both were recorded live in front of an audience. Suck Less was recorded to a packed auditorium at Arapahoe Community College's Waring Theater in Littleton, CO. Sermons was recorded in front of a sold out crowd at the Soiled Dove Underground. The JKQ (the Jason Klobnak Quintet/Quartet) is Mr. Klobnak's Hammond B-3 centered groups. The JKQ released their third full-length album in March of 2018 called Friends & Family. It has been very well reviewed, on numerous Top 10 lists for Jazz radio stations across the country (including Denver's KUVO 89.3FM which named it May 2018's CD of the month), and in Jazzweek's Top 100. Each composition was written for specific family and close friends (that might as well be family). Their second album, New Chapter, was recorded in part thanks to the Pathways to Jazz Grant from the Boulder County Arts Alliance. In 2015 and 2016, New Chapter was in the Top 75 on the Jazzweek charts and on the Top 10 playlists for over a dozen radio stations worldwide. Their first album, Mountain, Move made the Best Recordings of 2013 list from AllAboutJazz.com by C. Michael Bailey. His very well reviewed Christmas single, Hark the Herald, in 2016 as part of a creative project with musicians James Roberson and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. Besides the JKQ, Mr. Klobnak is a B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman-custom trumpet), Denis Wick (mouthpiece and mutes) and Westone Audio endorsed artist (ES20 and Tru Customs). Mr. Klobnak has played and recorded for numerous groups ranging from jazz, soul/R&B, indie-rock/pop and gospel. In addition to performing, he has also written two improvisation-based books called Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony and is currently an adjunct professor and brass instructor at Arapahoe Community College. Mr. Klobnak holds a bachelor degree from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) and a Master’s degree from the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music (Denver, CO).
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