Triads over “All the Things You Are”

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The Super Summer Workshop Post

Like many musicians, I often teach at workshops during the summer. I always learn as much from the students as I hope they learn from me. It’s a teachers’ cliché, but I  learn from other musicians of all levels—students, beginners, hobbyists, semi-pros; and also from the huge breadth of talent, expertise and dedication embodied by my fellow teachers.

This summer I revisited a couple of my favorite.workshops: The Sligo Jazz Workshop in Ireland, and the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Both camps feature dedicated teachers, enthusiastic participants—and I did, once again, learn a lot and experience great joy through sharing music with people from all walks of life.

Chris Potter, Phil DeGreg, Carl Allen, John Goldsby, Louisville, KY, July 2016

Chris Potter, Phil DeGreg, Carl Allen, John Goldsby, Louisville, KY, July 2016

I’d like to thank all of the students who participated. Without you, these weeklong music-learning experiences wouldn’t exist, and the world would be less enlightened, less tolerant, and not as groovy. Jazz workshops focus on music, not on any kind of Olympic-style competition or pressure to be super human or fierce. Jazz is the great equalizer. A student who just recently took up saxophone can revel in the amazing energy of Chris Potter, Matthew Halpin or Eric Alexander. They’re all in the same club; they’re all musicians. The kid who just bought a bass finds the same Db on the neck (where was that again?) that Federico Malaman, Steve Rodby and Rufus Reid play. They’re all part of the bass community.

When I first started attending jazz workshops in the late ’70s, and teaching for Jamey Aebersold in 1980, his Summer Jazz Workshops were the only weeklong summer programs for small-group improvisation, with the exception of the Stanford Jazz Workshop and a few scattered college offerings. The workshop audience was very different from the audiences at the jazz clubs where I had been playing. At workshop performances, hundreds of people hang on every note, and most of them listen deeply. They want to not only be entertained by the music, but also know how and why the musicians onstage are doing what they do. They want information, along with great music, and these workshops deliver.

A few of my vivid memories from the past 40 years of workshop performances include, as a student:

  • Hearing Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw play a very fast completely burning, frighteningly aggressive tune with Rufus Reid on bass and Ed Soph on drums (Louisville, 1977). I didn’t know what they were doing at the time, but I knew I wanted to know what it was and learn how to do it myself—inspiring.
  • Watching Dave Liebman give his very first clinic/performance (Iowa, ca. 1978). Dave talked about his time with Miles Davis, and the New York “loft scene.” That made me want to move to New York, which I did two years later.
  • Having Ron McClure give me a five-minute lesson and “show me” how to play in thumb position on the bass (Louisville, 1979). He pointed out that it’s easy when you know how. I discovered, after I practiced for another few years, that he was right.

As a teacher at various workshops, I remember a few sublime moments:

  • Playing some sets with Dave Liebman with two bassists (early ’80s). I played electric, Todd Coolman played double bass. Liebman would sketch out the whole set on three or four lines on a set of staff paper . . . an intro on a certain chord progression, an odd-meter vamp, some beautiful ballad changes, something fast and crazy to end the set. Exciting stuff.
  • Playing trio with Ed Soph and Steve Erquiaga—two incredibly musical players. You can find some of those performances on YouTube now (mid-80s).
  • Playing with James Moody in quartet (Louisville, 2009). From the early years of bebop, up until the conclusion of his life in 2010, Moody was a driving force on the jazz scene. He was in a way the ultimate teacher, because when he played or talked, he filled the room with an undeniable power, joy, and love of music and life. I had played with Moody on various occasions over the years, but I was thrilled with this particular performance at the Aebersold camp. He brought the entire history of jazz to the students (and faculty) that night.
  • This summer, I played a lot of music with incredible musicians, and to pick any particular set as “the best” would be selling the others short. I would say though, that playing “So What” with Jimmy Cobb, Phil DeGreg, Randy Brecker, Eric Alexander, Jim Snidero and Steve Davis was just one of the many high points (Louisville, 2016).
  • This *is* my blog post, but it’s really not all just about me, me, me. Another highlight from this summer was sharing the stage with Liane Carroll (Sligo, Ireland, 2016). Yes, I was also playing bass, but Liane’s duet with Sara Colman was brilliant—thank you Liane and Sara.


Liane Carroll & Sara Colman, Sligo, Ireland. Photo © 2016 Lieve Boussauw

My goal when teaching at a workshop is to show participants at all levels that they can make music now, in the moment, no matter what their level of musical development. Great musicians play within the boundaries of their technique, possibly even pushing the boundaries for a bit of risk, excitement and fun. Once students realize where they are in their development, and the work that needs to be done to get better, they can begin to make great strides towards solid musicianship. There are no magic pills for becoming a better musician, but at the Aebersold and Sligo workshops, students are shown a clear path to improvement as instrumentalists and improvisers, and given more enjoyment of music as listeners. Thanks to everyone who made the effort to come, participate, listen and play.

Here are a few of the nice folks who I encountered this summer:

photo 2

Aebersold Combo, Louisville, KY, Week 1



Aebersold Combo, Louisville, KY, Week Two



Sligo, Ireland Combo, Photo © 2016 Lieve Boussauw

Of course, it wasn’t just all about workshops. I did a couple of nights at the NachBar in Louisville with my friends (l. to r.) Jason Tiemann, Corey Christiansen and Jacob Duncan. Extra-curricular jazz!


I want to hear what you think!

Please comment below.


But Is It Music?

Chord/Scale Theory

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music!

I recently got an email from Hector in Florida asking for my thoughts on chord/scale theory and whether it’s okay to play notes outside the generally accepted chord/scale sounds. Hector boiled several far-reaching questions down to this one, simple question:

“Is it ok to play any note against any chord (without restricting your notes to those from a particular scale), as long as you’re aware of the chord tones, especially in jazz and improvisational music?”

My short answer to Hector is:

Yes, if you have trained your ears and fingers, and use your musical instincts, you can play any note on any chord, as long as you resolve the note in a way that makes sense and sounds good. You can play an Db on a CMaj7, but it’s going to pull towards the 9th (D) or the root (_DSC6254_WebC). You can play a B on a C7, but it needs to resolve to the root C, or down to the b7 Bb. If you don’t resolve the notes, there probably remains some tension in the line that sounds either unfinished, or in the worst case, like a mistake.

The notes of the chord are what are important. Scales are just a linear description of the notes of the chord:
Dmin11 = D F A C D E G
D Dorian scale = D E F G A B C

Those are 7 seven notes in the Dmin11 chord, and those notes laid out horizontally make up the D dorian scale.

There are 5 notes that are not in the scale. You could also use those notes chromatically, as passing tones, or as part of a melodic phrase that goes outside of the basic chord sound. If you play a note outside, the ear wants to hear the sound go back inside.

Sounds Good, So Far  . . .     

In traditional swing and bebop bass playing, outlining the root movement is most important. A common method that I use to describe the spontaneous creation of walking bass lines in 4/4 time to beginning bassists is: root, something, something, leading-tone, root. The two “something” notes on beats two and three can only be chord tones, scale tones, or chromatic passing tones. That’s all there is . . . simple!
But many of the great players were doing something else: They were only using their ears and their available technique . . . also simple! When I listen to great musicians playing jazz, I often hear the likes of Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath and thousands of others deviate from the root-something-something-leading-tone formula. When they are playing well, they are creating spontaneous counterpoint by using their ears, available technique, and musical instincts.

Percy Heath Talking About The Role Of The Bass

Most of those players—like Percy Heath—obviously knew the progression Dmin7, G7, CMaj7, but they did not think of that as a ii-V-I that can be described with D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian scales. They knew the C Major scale, and were most likely aware of the modes of C Major. In their performances however, they were outlining harmony by using counterpoint in their bass lines, and an ear for tension and release in their solo lines. They simply used their ears and played within the limits of their bass technique.

My point here is that the currently prevalent chord/scale methodology is not wrong, but it is not the only way that players think of chord tones, scale tones, and tones that are outside of the scale and chord. Indeed, many of the master swing, bebop, post-bop, R & B, pop, rock, funk players never think about, or thought about chord/scale theory. As the seminal New Orleans bassist Pops Foster says in his autobiography, “I just play any old go-to-hell note, as long as it swings !”

Hector’s long question requires more in-depth response. Here’s what he asked in full:

Hi John,
I recently had a “mind blown” moment. I’ve been playing bass for 21 years. I’ve practiced scales and arpeggios for a long time. I could basically spell out (in bass clef standard notation) and play for you any chord and most of the common scales and modes.

I had read an interview in Bass Player magazine many years ago with bassist Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. In it, he said the following:

“What I learned in music school was that in modern music, you can play any note against any chord and make it mean something. If you don’t know how you’re using it, or where it resolves, you’re an idiot-you shouldn’t be in music. I learned a couple of simple laws, and I utilized them.”

Then, I opened my copy of Aebersold’s How To Play Jazz and Improvise and looked at the scale syllabus. He lays out every common type of chord, and then the scales you can use with each in order of preference. If you look closely, you’ll realize that, when you combine all the notes from all the scales that you can play with, say, a Maj. 7 chord, all 12 tones are represented in one way or another.

So, my question is this: How right is Scott Thunes? Is there really an issue if I play a Db against a Cmaj7 chord while every other tone I play is from the C major scale? How about if I just add a flatted 6th? I don’t think there’s a scale that goes C-Db-E-F-G-A-B,  is there? But the point is, I think it wouldn’t matter.

Scott Thunes playing with Frank Zappa in 1988

My Long Answer

Hector, it depends on so many factors.
In the Jamey Aebersold scale syllabus, he concisely describes all of the basic types of chords, and spells the scales that are usually played over each chord. Aebersold’s theory and methods are correct — but after you master the scales and chords, then your ear should be your guide. Ultimately, your ear is what determines the notes that sound good to you, and your choices and instincts determine and support your unique musical personality.

Scott Thunes is a brilliant bass player who played highly complex, thoroughly orchestrated, sometimes-written, sometimes-improvised music with Frank Zappa. When I hear Thunes play, he is precisely outlining harmony and rhythm and serving the music. His comment that any note can fit any chord is indicative of a master player who does not feel constrained by any particular theoretical concepts—he’s got tons of chops, but he is using his great ears and musical instincts.

What’s the style of music? If everyone is playing freely and reacting to a certain rhythmic and harmonic structure, then anything goes. There are no set formulas. On the other hand, if we are playing Zappa’s “Black Page,” then we really have to play it precisely—there’s no room to play notes that are not the composer’s intent.

If we play a jazz gig in the style of ‘50s bebop, then there are certain unspoken agreements that the players abide by: The bassist outlines the root movement; the pianist plays the chords with proper voice leading, the soloist outlines the chords  (usually emphasizing chord tones on beats 1 and 3), and the drummer plays a repetitive swing ride pattern with the hi-hat one 2 and 4, and comps on the snare and bass drum. That still does not mean that the bassist is only playing the theoretically correct notes in the bass line—he or she should be listening to determine the best sounding counterpoint line to support the ensemble and play the song.

For example, in Israel Crosby’s classic bass line “But Not For Me,” there are plenty of non-chord and non-scale tones.

Israel Crosby With Ahmad Jamal, 1958

Hector Continues:

Here’s how I’m conceptualizing it. As long as I know what the chord tones are (so that I emphasize them in important moments), I could really play ANY note against any chord.

My response:

Yes! This is jazz and improvised music at it’s finest. Know the harmony, melody, rhythmic feeling—and then let yourself be free within the music. This might not work with a pop or rock band, where the role of the bass is more constrained.

Hector’s Conclusion:

I’m not saying I’m going to stop practicing scales. As the saying goes, “you gotta know the rules before you break them.” But, I’ve practiced the “correct” theory for far too long. I think it’s time to loosen up a bit. I don’t REALLY have to be thinking “I’m gonna play a diminished scale fragment for a few moments against this Maj7 chord.” I could just go with my ear, and, as Scott said, know where you’re headed in the form, what the next chord is and how to resolve from one to the next.  and you should be ok.

As bass players, we have to contend with our function as well. So, I figure that when it comes to building bass lines for most genres, this concept would not necessarily be applicable. But, in jazz, I believe it can work both during solos and walking bass lines. Again, you’d have chord tones on the important beats. Other than that, just go with the flow and your ears without worrying with stuff such as “Oh, this is a min. 7 chord, I gotta play Dorian now.”

My conclusion:

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music.

Right—don’t stop practicing scales! Scales are building blocks of technique, and we need technique to express ourselves. There are reasons why certain theoretical practices have become hard, fast rules: they describe things that sound good in particular situations. Scales (and arpeggios) are the musician’s bread and butter. The better one can play scales, the more fluency he or she has on the instrument. As I wrote in my first book, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist, “Great musicians are in control of their technique. If a great musician does not possess extraordinary technique, the musician still keeps his or her performance within the boundaries of available technique. If a musician knows the limits of his or her technique, great music is possible.”

A musician practicing scales is like a basketball player doing wind sprints, stretches, drills and lifting weights. The exercises are not the game, but they provide the technique and facility to play the game well. Scales in themselves are not music, but they provide the framework that connects our instrumental ability to our musical intuition.

The value in studying theory books and methods, is that we can look inside the mind of a particular author/improviser. Many great musicians have written practical books about jazz theory and how they apply their theoretical technique to achieve musical results. Recently I had the pleasure of working with saxophonist Gary Campbell, who has written several books that have influenced my thinking and playing very much: Connecting Jazz Theory, Expansions, and Triad Pairs for Jazz.

One of the first and finest scale compendiums was written by pianist Dan Haerle, Scales for Jazz Improvisation. Haerle’s book shows you many of the typical scales that are used by jazz, rock and pop players—it’s a thorough compendium which I often used when I first learned to play. And the best bargain on the market is Jamey Aebersold’s Free Jazz Handbook (that’s “Free” in that it costs nothing).

So, practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but scales and chord/scale theory do not by themselves magically yield great music. I think the following video from a true jazz master sums up how great players really learn to play.

A Master Speaks: Jimmy Raney On Chords and Scales

The legendary Jimmy Raney was one of the greatest bebop guitarists, alongside Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Smith, and Jim Hall. In this brief workshop video, he talks about using scales and chords and how he learned them. “We didn’t have it worked out like Jamey (Aebersold) and all those guys do now,” recalled Raney. “I of course learned scales, because the classical teachers they assume that you are going to play classical … scales are very helpful. I think I just did it on my own more. I knew chords. I just picked up what I call grips.”

Talking about the value of only relying on theoretical knowledge, Raney says “To be very honest with you—playing scales or modes, or seventh chords—in the last analysis, it’s here — your ear guides you or fails to guide you. As E.B. White says about prose—all the rules of grammar and syntax ain’t gonna’ help if you don’t hear it. It’s good to know all that stuff, but it’s not going to make you play. Don’t think it will.”

Jimmy Raney On Using Chord/Scale Theory

Jimmy Raney Playing ‘Out Of Nowhere’