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jazz composing

How Composing Can Keep You Out of Trouble

How Composing Can Keep You Out of Trouble

That’s right – Jazz Composing can keep you out of trouble.

How CAN composing keep you out of trouble? If you’ve followed this blog then you know this is mostly about improvisation tips. But, composing can help you with your improvisation too. I’ve heard it said (and repeated) that composing is improvisation that you can edit along the way (wouldn’t it be nice to edit our improvisations in real-time? Maybe someday…).

I recently finished a new composition called Dad’s Game that will most likely be on the JKQ’s next album later this year. I wanted to show how I composed it and how I use the idea of “improvisation that you can edit.” If you want to check out more on how I compose you can check out that series HERE.

I usually start with a blank sheet of staff paper (good old analog paper), piano, and Finale open on my computer. There’s no one way to start composing and I don’t do it the same way every time, either. In the case of Dad’s Game, I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago and had a specific rhythmic figure over a Latin-feel. This is the initial sketch:

jazz composing

From there I sat down with the piano and improvised various chord combinations over the rhythmic vamp. I eventually locked into what I believe was what I heard in the middle of the night (I probably should have taken better notes, but I was half asleep). After deciding on the progression I wanted to come up with the B3 organ’s left hand figure over the vamp. This is where having a strong idea of targeting concepts helped keep me out of trouble (or I could have been spending more time finding the right sound). I knew what notes I was aiming for within the rhythmic figure and it helped me come up with the final idea. Here’s the final sketch (in treble clef):

jazz composing

When you improvise in real-time you must have a system of navigating the chord progression. I’m a BIG proponent of targeting (not sure what I’m talking about? Check more out HERE). When you compose, you will use the same process albeit much slower. You get time to think about your various targeting, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic options and change them if they don’t sound the way you want (i.e. you get to edit). The more you do the composing process the more solidified they become in your mind. That comes out in your playing.

  • How would you suggest to get started on this?

If you’re just starting out I would suggest writing out a chord progression you’re working on. Write out the guide tones or other targets. Compose a line of nothing but quarter notes. Play it back. Does it sound interesting with just the quarter notes? If not, edit it until it does. Once it does, add eighth notes. Sound good? If not, edit it. Once it does, alter the rhythm. Continue, rinse, and repeat.

This is an area I cover with my improvisation students (on Skype and in-person lesson). If you’ve used this process or found it helpful, please feel free to share how you compose to help your improvisation in the comments below OR feel free to share this with the social media buttons!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. If you’d like to learn more; check out the online school.



Tritone Subs

I was having a conversation recently with someone who was having difficulty understanding what a tritone substitution was and how it can be used in improvisation. They had watched a number of videos on YouTube from someone who talked about the use of tritones in left-handed piano voicings. Unfortunately, they remained stuck thinking that was the only use of this “secret to tritones” as advertised on the video. Hopefully in today’s post we can uncover some of that secret for him and possibly others that may be stuck on the question: what is a tritone substitution?

About a year ago I made a post in my Outside-In series that covered this topic, but looked at it from a superimposition standpoint. Below is a portion from that post:

Let’s first take a look at the often talked about tritone substitution. There’s been a lot of mystery associated with this term and I hope to clear some of that up to show that it’s not as complicated as some make it out. A lot of our recent examples have been in the key of C…so let’s switch it up this week and move to the key of Eb. Let’s start with the ii-V-I in Eb:

A tritone substitution is simply taking the V7 chord and replacing it with the same quality chord a tritone (sharp 4th or flatted 5th interval) away. Instead of having Fmin7-Bb7-Ebmaj7. You now have Fmin7-E7-Ebmaj7. Notice how the root movement descends chromatically. The reason why the tritone substitution works so well is that the Bb7 and the E7 (tritone away) share the same guide-tones (the 3rd and the flat 7th of the chord):

(Quick note: anytime you have a V7 chord that lasts a full measure…you can turn it into a one-bar ii-V. This holds true for tritone substitutions.)”

As an improviser, you can take a normal ii-7, V7, I and turn it into a tritone substitution whenever you would like. Below is a quick example of what you could play:

I wrote the line so you could see it as an E7. It definitely has a more outside sound to it (which is why I talked about it in the Outside-In series). Hopefully that clears up some of the mystery that has surrounded the tritone substitution! There are a number of jazz greats that use them. Who do you like that uses them?




I have two daughters that love it when I read them books and tell stories before bed time. They especially love my improvised stories where they give me a subject or characters and tell me, “tell us a story on that, daddy!” It stretches my creativity a bit, but it is a lot of fun for them as well as myself. I have been thinking of the parallels of improvising on the bandstand in jazz with being a great storyteller.

There are a number of things we can learn from storytelling. One of the obvious parallels are that we communicate with a rhythm section and audience when we improvise (or at least we should strive to be doing that). But, I wanted to take a look at what characteristics a good storyteller has and how as improvisers we can learn from them. It is difficult to do this if you have not already learned your scales, can play your instrument with a certain level of proficiency and have an understanding of harmony, etc. I would suggest you check out some of the many other posts/tips on this site that will help that stage of your development and then come back to this.

I will admit I am not the greatest storyteller (although my daughters would argue otherwise), so I found an online source of characteristics from that I thought were great. They are listed below:

  1. moves through a logical sequence of events
  2. has interesting characters
  3. includes details to develop the plot, characters and setting
  4. includes a problem that must be solved
  5. uses attention getting introductions
  6. tries to build suspense
  7. makes eye contact with the audience
  8. speaks at the right volume and speed for the audience to hear and understand them clearly

While reading that list I took inventory of how I approach improvising on the bandstand and took note of things that I did similarly and those that I know I can improve. Below are a few parallels that I see with jazz improvisation:

  1. improvises through the harmonic progression in a logical manner 
  2. interesting motifs, licks or melodic fragments
  3. develops the motifs, licks or melodic fragments to tell a story
  4. reacts to musical cues from other band members
  5. makes a clear opening statement (see Out of the Gate) to beginning of improvisation
  6. builds the improvisation with dynamics, articulation and phrasing that creates an overall arc that includes a climax
  7. makes eye contact with the audience. I am guilty of this because I tend to close my eyes while improvising
  8.  improvises in a way that the audience can understand them on some level (i.e. melody connects with the average listener while an array of technical virtuosity may not)

Try this out at some point in the coming days/weeks. As an improviser are you an effective storyteller? If not, work on becoming one by practicing some of the parallels above. People remember great storytellers…



Break It Down

It happens to all of us at one point or another. We get excited on the bandstand and get caught up in the moment. We have a tendency to overplay and force the swing feel instead of allowing it to happen. Our articulations become harsh and our lines either fall apart or they wander aimlessly. Honestly, this is normal. We allow our heart rate to dictate what we play instead of the music. The good news is that there is a simple tip that will help you calm down and swing harder.

A number of great jazz educators talk about this, but the first person to hip me to it was Greg Gisbert. Instead of feeling quarter notes (or even tapping on 2 & 4) while playing, break down how you feel the time to a lower denominator. For instance, instead of feeling the time in 4/4, feel the time in 2/4  (in a sense you are playing as if it were in half-time).  You could even break it down to 1/4 (every measure is felt as 1 beat). Essentially you are breaking down how you feel the tempo.

There are a number of benefits for feeling the tempo this way:

  • The tempo feels slower which has a calming effect on your heart rate. This allows you to think in larger phrases which will also cause you to not overplay.
  • Faster tempo songs become more manageable.
  • Your articulations even out and you’re more likely to lock in with the rhythm section. This actually helps you swing in faster tempos. It does not sound forced.
  • Slowing things down allows you to look ahead, notice what is happening around you and react with the rhythm section (instead of having a one-way conversation).

This simple tip will have an immediate calming effect on the bandstand. However, it is also good to use when practicing. Getting used to playing in a half-time (or less) feel will only benefit your playing.

I hope you have enjoyed this tip and that it adds value and benefit to your playing in some way. The JKQ could still use your help in getting our album mixed/mastered. If you would like to help finish this project you can donate, buy a book or schedule a Skype lesson at my Digital Store today!

Out of the Gate

Out of the GateI wanted to talk today about a very practical tip that can improve your improvisations on the bandstand. Everything we do in jazz improvisation is about creating music in the moment. Today’s tip is simple, yet one that is often overlooked with younger or intermediate level players. That is the importance of starting out strong out of the gate.

We often times get in our own way by wanting our improvisation to be great and impress others that we force ideas that don’t fit what is happening in the moment and spiral downwards by wandering aimlessly hoping to find those that do. I want to make sure you have fewer of those moments on the bandstand. To start strong out of the gate there are a couple of questions you will want to ask yourself before you start your improvisation. These questions will set the stage for your improvisation and will give you a foundation to build your solo.

  1. What melodic and/or rhythmic statement do I want to make at the beginning of this solo? People remember the beginning and ending of your solo the most. If your opening statement is strong (melodic, catchy, definitive) then you can capture the audience’s attention. From here you can truly build your solo from what is happening in the moment.
  2. How does my opening statement connect with what is happening before this solo? We have to remember that our improvisation is NOT something separate from the initial composition. Your improvisation should be conversational which means your subject matter should be related to what has already been said (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it if I’m having a conversation with someone and someone else comes in and changes the subject). If you’re following another soloist, how does your opening statement compare to their ending? If it’s not related then  you may want to edit your opening statement.

You have a greater chance of success in your improvisation if you have a strong opening statement that is related to what is happening in the moment. What happens after that opening statement will depend on how the rhythm section and the audience reacts. This is how the music influences the direction of your solo and why you can’t rely on licks alone.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s tip and that it has added some value and benefit to your playing in some way. If you haven’t checked out my books (Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony) yet, I would like to invite you to check out my Digital Store where you can find more information on them as well as my other products.



analyzing nica's dream

Analyzing Lines-Donald Byrd on Nica’s Dream

Analyzing Lines – Donald Byrd on Nica’s Dream

Analyzing Nica’s Dream. About a year ago I started a series on Analyzing Lines. We took a look at a few lines of  some of the giants of jazz and broke them down to see why and how they worked. If we can uncover those questions we can learn to build our own lines. The jazz community recently lost a great jazz trumpeter, Donald Byrd. I remember the first time I heard him play was on Nica’s Dream on The Jazz Messengers album by Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers (Columbia, 1956). I’ve included a YouTube link at the bottom if you haven’t checked it out.

I wanted to do a tribute analysis from one of my favorite lines in his solo on Nica’s Dream. Like I mentioned in the previous Analyzing Lines series-this is my breakdown of what I see him playing and how we can relate and build from it. I’m not inferring in any way that this is how Mr. Byrd played or thought about improvisation.

Below is the line that occurs in bars 42-45 on his solo in Nica’s Dream:

analyzing nica's dream

For those that have been following my posts, you know how much I dig targeting concepts. So let’s take a look at how Mr. Byrd targets specific notes in the line above. Bar 42 looks like he is thinking in the key of Db. You will then notice that he chromatically targets the “F” in bar 43:

Then he uses a diminished targeting concept to target the “F” in bar 44 on the Bb7(b9):

A similar targeting concept is used to target the Bb in that same bar:

I love the way this particular line flows. It has a great combination of targeting concepts, key centered playing and soul. If you’ve never checked out Donal Byrd’s playing, I would highly recommend it. If you would like to know more about how to construct your own lines with different targeting principles (like those mentioned above), I would suggest you check out Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose which you can find at my Digital Store available as a digital download or for only $15/month get access to everything (every course, book, PDF, album, etc).




map it out

Map It Out part 4

Welcome to the last part of the Map It Out series. In today’s post we will finish looking at the song Stand Firm by completing the “B” section and then creating a route through the whole progression. If you haven’t looked at the earlier parts in this series, I highly encourage you to check those out (or any of the other past posts on improvisation, composition, etc).

First, let’s take a look at the “B” section to Stand Firm. We mentioned last week that the “A” sections were in Abmaj, yet had a quick minor 2-5 that went to C minor (or the 3rd of Ab). Instead of implying a C minor sound, like the “A” section, the “B” section goes to the C minor. It’s complimented by it’s 5 chord-the  G7(b9).






As mentioned in the previous parts, we want to keep the map options simple through the first pass or two. So I’m listing different pentatonic scale options to simplify the thought process.









One option that I see that sticks out would be the Bb major pentatonic because it could be used over the entire “B” section. Again, this DOES NOT mean this would be your only option for improvising. It does, however, help provide a mental map of what your options are going through the changes for the first time. The more familiar you get with the progression, the more options you have available.

Now we have all of the different sections (intro/vamp, A section & B section) mapped out with some pentatonic options. Here’s how our map turned out:








The final stage is to take that map and chart out a route. You could do this in the moment if you are at a mature enough stage in your improvisation development. If you’re a beginner, I would suggest you do this before hand. Here’s one charted route based on the map above:








It may be hard to tell from the picture so here’s another version that may be easier to read:

  • Intro/vamp: Bb major pentatonic to C major pentatonic (repeated twice) to Db major pentatonic to Eb major pentatonic.
  • A Section: Eb major pentatonic through the first 6 bars. Then the Ab major pentatonic to the Bb major pentatonic in the 7/8 bar. (repeated)
  • B Section: Stay on the Bb major pentatonic because it works over both the Cmin7 AND the G7(b9)

This is ONE possible route you could take. There are a number of different route options. To hear which one I end up taking in the recording studio-be sure to grab my CD “Mountain, Move.” It should release in the Fall of 2013. If you’d like more information on how you can be a part of the CD project, you can visit my Digital Store today. Individuals and businesses that support the project not only get a copy of the album when it comes out, but they will have other benefits added along with it (including tickets to the CD release, their name/company logo on the jacket or CD, etc for certain donation levels). Be sure to stop by today and be a part of the project!





map it out

Map It Out part 3

Welcome to part 3 of the Map It Out series. If this is your first time visiting this site I’d like to welcome you to check out the previous posts on this topic as well as a number of other categories you can find on my blog. Also, be sure to check out the Lick of the Day as well as my Digital Store.

Last week we finished mapping out a plan for the intro/vamp section. This week I wanted to take a look at the “A” section of Stand Firm.











The first chord of the “A” section is an Abmaj9. If that were the only chord to the “A” section then we could use just about anything that was in the key area of Ab major. However, you’ll notice in the 7th and 8th bar that there is a Dmin7(b5) and a G7(b9). Those are not in the key area of Ab major. When you see something out of the key area you know you need to do some quick investigating to find the relationship.

Any time you see a chord progression that looks like the two types listed below-they are some form of 2-5 (and the “5” chord can have any type of alteration applied). 2-5’s and 2-5-1’s outside of the original key area are temporary modulations or setups for key changes:

  • Xmin7 to X7 = a major 2-5 (which may or may not resolve to the one chord)
  • Xmin7(b5) to X7(b9) = a minor 2-5 (which may or may not resolve to the one chord)

If we take that information and look at the Dmin7(b5) to G7(b9) in Stand Firm we know it is a minor 2-5. Where would it resolve? To some form of C (typically a C minor). How is the C minor related to the Abmaj9? It’s the 3rd of the Abmaj. So the minor 2-5 in bar 7 & 8 is a minor 2-5-1 of the 3rd scale degree of the original key area. Because we go back to the Abmaj9 we know we’re not changing keys so it  is a temporary modulation.

This means we could apply some form of C minor to the Abmaj9 chord (this can give the chord an Abmaj9(#11) sound) and simplify our initial options. 





Over the minor 2-5 itself we can use a number of different options. However, since we’ve been talking about simplifying our options in this Map It Out series and using pentatonics-let’s look at some pentatonic options over the minor 2-5. Over the min7(b5) you can use major pentatonics based off of the b6 or the b5. Each one gives a slightly different sound then the other. Another option is to use the F-insen pentatonic scale (insen pentatonic based off of the b3). For more information on that I would invite you to check out previous posts on pentatonics on this site.

Over the 7(b9) you can use major pentatonics based off of the b9, #9 or #11. There are a number of different pentatonic (and non-pentatonic) options you can use for these, but that could turn into a completely different topic altogether. You can use the melodic minor scale, pentatonic scale, diminished, etc.





I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s post on mapping it out. Next week we will finish mapping out Stand Firm and looking at the “B” section. For more information on how you can use various pentatonic scales to creatively target notes in your improvisations I would highly recommend you check out Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose which is available at my Digital Store.




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