Composition as a way to learning

Composition is an important part of defining ones self as an improvising musician. Aside from the “ought to’s & should nots” of learning and playing jazz, i.e. learning the history of our instruments and the jazz idiom in general, there is a point we reach (for our own sanity) when we ask “why the fuck am I practicing this shit anyway?” It isn’t like there are great rewards at the end of the process, as if there was an end to the process and come to think about it, the Jazz Police never paid my rent as I recall…

Anyway, composition is just a more thoughtful and “if I had my druthers” way of improvising.

So, what can we do to become more our selves instead of more like an unhappy but perfect clone? I suggest two things for a start.
1) Ask yourself “what changes, grooves, tempos, moods, keys, chords, etc. do I like to blow over?” As in, if I had to choose, what is my thing?
2) “What are the harmonic truths (developments and changes) that make me happy?” “How do I generate an infinite variety of these things” and “What are my rules or pointers, what’s my concept for harmony?”
3) “What are the building blocks of my melodies” or “What makes my ear satisfied and interested when I play?” “What keeps me from becoming bored when I practice improvisation?”

Ok, to begin to answer some of these questions for myself I began playing with harmony in a very practical way. At the beginning of August, while away from my normal routine and on vacation, I started playing with a little app on my phone. It uses jazz styles derived from classic recordings to generate playback tracks using sampled instruments and a somewhat limited number of chord types. The app is called “SessionBand” and does a pretty good job of assigning good voicings to chords in a groove oriented setting. You can try things, your theories about harmony and check to hear if they are what you thought they should be. In short, you can make mistakes and more mistakes until you really feel chord relationships and “changes” in harmony.

I started by asking myself “what are the similarities between chords that share the same scale tones?” “What are the differences?” “Can I articulate them?”

And then I asked “What happens when I add sharps or flats to these related chord types?” “What do I feel when the scale changes by one flat, 2 flats, 3 flats etc. “What does it feel like when the change is in the other direction, to sharp key centres?” To be more precise, if Cmaj7#11, A-7, D7sus and Gmaj7 share the same scale, what do the chords (and same 7 notes) feel like they want to express when played in time?

When I could articulate how I felt about these qualities I added the variable of changing keys by degree (distance on the circle of 5ths) away from the first chord or by a degree (distance on the circle of 5ths) back to a chord.

So, with a little elbow grease you can apply this idea and check a lot of possibilities out. You can also make a leap to other scale types and their related chords, along with their relationship to the “church modes”.

What follows is an honest representation of this process. The lowest recordings were done in August of 2018 and the last four, more recently. They are simply vehicles for improvisation. I asked myself: “What would I like to blow over?” “Can I write a melody over the changes?”

Two Apples and an Orange
Little Flower
Keep ’em Coming
Who Are You?
Old Times Sake