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.