There is a lot of talk in improvisation texts about the three minor scales (which start on LA), the Dorian mode (which starts on RE), and the blues scale (which can begin on either one). However, the reality is that master jazz improvisers glide freely between all five scales with additional nuances interspersed. Below is a lick to illustrate this principle. Listen to the mp3 recording while looking at the chart. Try practicing this lick in all 12 keys. If you have difficulty, try slowing it down or looping the hard section with the FREE DOWNLOADBest Practice. Or contact me for a FREE chart of the lick in 12 keys by filling in your email below. Your address will NOT be used for any other purpose, and it will NOT be saved. Better yet, if you want to learn to play jazz by ear, download New Ears Resolution.
Any improvisation teacher will tell you that knowing your scales is essential to becoming an effective improviser. But here’s the rub: For many musicians, mindless repetition of scales numbs the imagination, limits your lyricism, and eliminates the joy from your performance.
Here is a solution. I have developed hundreds of phrases such as the one shown below which develop incredible technical facility on your horn while keeping your heart, mind, and imagination fully engaged.
Practice this phrase in all 12 keys, progressing around the circle of fifths as indicated on the example, while listening to the attached mp3 file. Use the contact form below to request a free chart, if you can’t figure out the lick in all 12 keys. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution” for just $9.99 to totally revolutionize your playing.
What you practice is what you will perform. A joyful practice session produces a joyful performance. If you “practice joy” instead of merely “practicing scales,” the joy in your performances will be contagious, and your audiences will grow larger and more enthusiastic.
Now here’s the rub: Any teacher of improvisation will tell you, “You have to master scales to be a great improviser.” But you hate practicing scales! Your mind grows numb. You can’t wait for your practice time to be finished.
The challenge is to keep your imagination joyfully engaged AND, at the same time, increase your technical mastery of your axe. Can you do both?
Over the years, I have assembled a book of 300 licks that both challenge my technical ability and — AT THE SAME TIME — keep my heart and my imagination fully engaged. Most of them evolve as I work them out in all 12 keys; others are borrowed from the solo transcriptions of the masters. Below is a recording and a chart for 1 such scalar lick which I just finished practicing. Try it! Can you play it in all 12 keys? If not, contact me using the contact form below for a free chart. Better yet, download New Ears Resolution to learn how to play any melody by ear in any key.
New Ears Resolution has helped hundreds of musicians learn to play by ear over the past 15 years. And now, the Second Edition offers scores of new innovations designed to make your learning experience more enjoyable, effective, and thorough.
Whether you work with a jazz combo, rock group, or big band, or just play for your own pleasure, “New Ears Resolution” will help you become the musician you have always wanted to be.
i’ve taught this method for years and have used it in my own performances. i’ve researched extensively in order to improve its design and have thus developed a comprehensive approach to the art of playing by ear.
This most unique ensemble is comprised of HONK member Craig Buhler along with bassist Jack Prather, trumpet & vibes man Brian Atkinson (Disneyland Band), brass man Dan Barrett (Benny Goodman, Woodie Allen, etc.), and first call L.A. session players Karen Hammack (piano) and drummer Paul Kreibich (Ray Charles Band). Their repertoire is amazingly diverse spanning jazz history from Louis Armstrong to Wayne Shorter, pop icons from Benny Goodman & Nat King Cole to Bob Marley & Steely Dan Continue reading “What is This Thing Called “Storyville”?”→
Sonny Rollins is renowned for his unique approach to thematic development, which is somewhat similar to the way Beethoven worked in a piece such as his famous Fifth Symphony. His solo on his original tune “Blues for Philly Joe” (named for drummer Philly Joe Jones) is a perfect example of this type of development. Parts of the solo are so rhythmically driven, one can imagine that Rollins was consciously emulating the way a jazz drummer would approach a solo. Here is a great blues lick that works well over the IV chord (bars 62-63). Doesn’t it sound like something Cannonball (a great blues master) might have played? Try playing it in all 12 keys. If you can’t figure out how to transpose it, leave a comment below or email me for a free copy of the figure in all 12 keys.
Cannonball Adderley’s solo on “The Way You Look Tonight” is an amazing tourdeforce! He blazes through an entire chorus in 53 seconds. But, if you play this solo** at half speed, it is as melodic as a Johnny Hodges invention. Played in concert F, it is written for alto sax in D major. In this key, the bridge modulates to F major. However, the wonderful phrase shown below actually begins in G minor and ends in F major. Try playing this lick in all 12 keys. It works well over a II-V change. If you cannot figure it out on your own, email me for a free chart of the lick in all 12 keys.
Here is an exercise to develop your rhythmic precision, finger dexterity, and improvisatory diversity.
In Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery,” he states that in order for a phrase to sound relaxed & swinging, it must be played effortlessly. How do you play a line like the one below and make it sound effortless? You must sacrifice one of these qualities:
playing it fast
playing the whole phrase
playing it perfectly
Try looping little sections (as few as 2 notes) until they flow effortlessly. Use your metronome in order to keep the groove going smoothly. Start slowly and gradually extend the length, speed, and precision of what you are able to play effortlessly.
New Ears Resolution is not only designed to teach you to play by ear; this discipline also encourages you to think more intelligently about the material you are playing. Rote memorization of a song is not only tedious & laborious, but that process also cheats you out of the joy, wonder, and beauty implicit within the composition, the qualities which make a great performance so special. When you approach a piece with “new ears,” you are beginning to understand its underlying logic in the same way the composer did while creating it.
Below is a simple illustration of this process. The example is a Mixolydian phrase. Try playing it in all 12 keys. On the first line, the phrase is presented as if it were in C major. On line 2, the same phrase is shown once again, this time as if it were in F major. Which line helps you to better understand the phrase? I welcome your comments.
Page 43 of the Eb Charlie Parker Omnibookcontains this cool phrase in lines 12 & 13. Why does this particular lick sound so nice over a V7 chord? One reason is that the 3rd of the chord (TI), the 7th of the chord (FA), and the 13th of the chord (MI) are prominently featured on the strong beats 1, 3, & 1 respectively. These are the most interesting notes in the chord. FA & TI form an attractive tritone, while MI is a major 7th above FA. The line also has an interesting contour.
Although Bird’s solo on “An Oscar For Treadwell” is in the key of A major (on alto sax), you will notice that the lick shown below – which occurs in the first 2 measures of the bridge – is in the key of F#. For the benefit of New Ears Resolution students, i have written in the solfége syllables below the notes. (The syllable “SE” – pronounced “say” – is between SO and FA.) As always, you will derive the maximum benefit from playing this phrase in all 12 keys. If you cannot figure out the notes in the other keys, email me for a FREE pdf of the complete chart and an mp3 recording you can practice along with.
The more you study the work of the masters such as Charlie Parker, the richer your own musical vocabulary will become. Playing the licks in all 12 keys develops your “hand / ear co-ordination” and prevents you from falling into “finger familiarity” ruts.
Are you hip to Ralph Moore? He has a fabulous sound and great ideas. The following lick is taken from Ralph Moore’s solo on the tune “SOS” from the CD “Moore Makes 4” by the Ray Brown Trio with Ralph Moore. This is an amazing solo, packed with wonderful lyricism and dazzling technique. For details, see the book “Ralph Moore Jazz Tenor Solos” Transcribed by Bill Sears, published by Corybant Productions, Inc., 1994. I have recorded the lick in all 12 keys, so you can play along with the recording. On the following page is the link to the recording along with a chart showing the lick in all 12 keys. Below is an analysis of the various key centers traversed by the lick. You will note that the melody & the chord changes both adhere strictly to this key center scheme. (See “New Ears Resolution” for details on this analysis technique.)
This phrase from Charlie Parker’s solo on his composition “Cosmic Rays” is 1 more example of his stunning melodic gift. Study a whole encyclopedia of great Bird creations in “The Charlie Parker Omnibook.” Click on the arrow below to hear the audio file, which was created from the original recording slowed down & transposed into all 12 keys.
The II-V-I progression is perhaps the most widely used of any swing or be-bop chord sequence (besides the 12-bar blues.) Here it is in all 12 major keys. Try to master the arpeggios without having to look at the paper if possible. Play along with an audio track of this progression by clicking on this arrow:
This wonderful phrase illustrates how Charlie Parker (“YARDBIRD” or “BIRD”) could take a simple chord progression (such as III minor / bIII minor / II minor) and transform it into an opportunity to modulate. In this case, he raises the key by a half-step, a favorite be-bop modulation. (Thus, the bIII minor becomes a II minor in the key a half-step up from the original key.) To solo properly over this progression, you need to use the Ab major scale for beats 3 & 4 of measure 1, the G major scale for the rest of bars 1 & 2. Try it! As always, try to master the exercise without resorting to the printed page. Click here to hear the audio.
The Dorian minor blues offers up a palette which some consider to be richer and more emotionally expressive than the major blues. Below is a simple step-by-step method for mastering this fun to play genre.
There are so many great phrases in this classic solo. This one deserves attention because of its rhythmic & melodic vitality and its effortless harmonic insinuation. Click below to see the phrase in all 12 keys. However, it is better to practice your ear training by figuring out the lick through melodic extrapolation. Click hereto purchase the Charlie Parker Omnibook with its 142 pages of heads & transcribed solos by Bird. Click here to hear a play-along version. (To slow it down or change the key, download the free program “Best Practice.”)
This arpeggio is very useful over a V7 (or a V9) chord. Notice that the iteration beginning on A# is actually in the key of C major. The A# is LI (sharp 6) in the major scale. For “New Ears Resolution” students, also note that the key change is indicated by the presence of a “pivot note.” Marked as (TI=LI), this notation is understood to mean “The note B natural, (TI in the old key of C major) will now become LI in the new key of Db major.” Once grasped, this understanding of modulation as described by a pivot note is a very powerful concept when one attempts to navigate the changes of a song with many internal key changes (such as “All the Things You Are.”)
You can play along with the background track to this lick. It’s an enjoyable & useful figure. Note that the background track starts with a count & a 4-bar introduction before you begin playing. Please email me, if you want a complimentary MIDI file or the Band in a Box file (to change tempo, style, or key). The background track is available here in 2 formats:
For “New Ears Resolution” students, listen for the II-V progression in the background track (Cm7-F7, etc.). The lick is easier to learn, if you hear it as: ti do li ti so fa la mi re so mi fa la li ti mi di re so .
This lick is in the John Coltrane solo to “I Love You.” Coltrane used this lick throughout his career. Many of his disciples also picked up on the lick. i work on it in 8 keys (the range shown for the first lick is 8va). For variety, try playing it in retrograde (backwards) as shown in the second example below.
For those studying “New Ears Resolution,” this blues lick is in the mixolydian mode. (See the chart showing the modes at the end of your book.) Try thinking of this melody first in mixolydian and then in ionian. Both sets of syllables are shown. Which ever set of syllables feels more comfortable to your ear, that is the set you should use. Try to play the melody as smoothly as possible, in order to realize the underlying swing. As with all exercises, start slowly and smoothly, gradually increasing the tempo. I play this at dotted quarter = 150.
Improvisation (or “improv”) is the art of creating a unique, new musical statement on the spur of the moment. This does not mean that your utterance is entirely without precedent. Jazz improvisation is a product of the individual’s history, temperament, technical facility, and mood, as well as the thrust of the composition which houses the performance, the history and legacy of jazz as a whole and ones chosen sub-genre in particular.
Here is a lick you can practice which fits nicely over the V7 – I (“five to one” or “SO7 to DO”) chord progression in major. I like to swing it, but you can also play it straight. You can experiment with different combinations of articulation, phrasing, and accent. I always start these exercises slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Right now, i am playing this one at quarter note = 115. The range of starting notes for sax is given below the exercise. If you are studying the “New Ears Resolution” ear training method, think of this lick in terms of: Li Ti Re Ra Ti Do Ri Mi La Fi So Fa Le So Do.
Practicing these exercises in all 12 keys will help strengthen your ear and build your “ear / finger co-ordination.” Try to play them withOUT looking at the chart whenever possible. Start with the metronome at a slow tempo and execute the notes as cleanly as possible with smooth finger motion. Gradually increase the tempo, as you become comfortable with the notes.