Is my approach to jazz built for success?!

Question by Patrizio Biondo
(Rochester, NY)

Hello Marc!

Thank you multitudes for your personal effort you’ve put into this website and all of your independent study. I intend to come here constantly to gain insight on the many topics regarding jazz. This topic in particular is what I consider more as philosophical study of music.

To start off: I’ve only been practicing in the jazz idiom for about 6 months after some truly energetic improv classes from my jazz combo at school. Before that I was a classical player for what I thought was also fun and preceding that rock and blues playing. I came to school to get a better understanding of music and I ended up falling into love with all of its aspects. Thus, plunging me into the most in-depth study of all music(I feel), jazz.

As you probably know, music school includes the studying of music theory, aural skills, individual instrumental performance, ensemble participation, piano minoring, and history. In my short 2 1/2 year of studying these aspects I want your opinion on if what I’m applying to the guitar makes sense.

After not previously having formal jazz lessons and ever really playing in that genre, I had to personally try to attack the many topics of jazz by myself(before I realized the many resources online) to quickly adapt to fitting in the band as a jazz guitarist.

I bought “the real book”, “drop 2 voicings: by Randy Vincent”, Bert Ligons “Connecting chords with linear Harmony” and his Jazz Resources vol. 1. Plus, since I had learned at least 2 full years of music theory and aural skills so I had a pretty good understanding of harmony, rhythm, and melody. I felt confident that I could achieve success if I just practiced smart and never quit, because I remembered that feeling you get when your solo just sounds like magic and you don’t want it to end.

My basic approach as follows is what I’ve absorbed from others. 1)Learn/engrave the melody via hearing/sight singing 2)Attack Harmony with smooth voice leading 3)Maybe transcribe a solo for a feel of the song and conceptual soloing/comping advice 4)Listen to the band as much as possible and play within the framework in which you can play accurately.

Great. But now I’ve hit a good, ‘ol fashioned thinking(not playing) plateau.

For instance, I like to think of notes or tones in terms of numbers and colors as aural/memory muscles to remember them better as a function. Ex) C=1 D=2 E=3, C7(#9)=crunchy blues CMaj9=Beauty/elegance etc.. This works great because of its complimentary music theory benefits. Also, I like this because you can sing any major scale and it will sound like the same in any key, therefore as long as you have any melody or phrase in one key, you basically have in another. Ah Ha! This is where I pose my questions. When I listen to great improvisers and harmonic giants like Bill Evans, Ted Greene, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and others, and I only know that what I HEAR, sounds good. Whose to say though, that these players studied theory at all? I’ve heard countless interviews of greats like Joe Pass and George Benson, Stan Getz, and Oscar Peterson saying that they don’t knowingly use/understand all those modes/scales and theory mumbo jumbo. After all, I’ve had teachers tell me themselves that all theory boils down to is, basically the study of how to make music sound good.

I then took what a lot of these great players said and came up with this. What if; instead I substitute the acceptance of notes as tones being played. And substituting the shape of a chord(like a particular chord voicing) for what the chord really is(in terms of notes). If I learned how the sounds of every or most alteration, extension, chord color/structure, rhythmic variation, and short excerpts of melody from the tune studied, I could then bypass the use of “thinking” through harmonic changes. These efforts are pretty much me trying to get out of thinking mode and into playing mode. See because when I look down I start to mess up and start playing guitar like other guitarists do, with their head down and face planted into the fretboard. I am trying to avoid this mentality, for aesthetic, personal and musicality purposes! When I see those greats like Benson, Greene, and Kurt Rosenwinkel play jazz guitar, they just shimmer with ease of playing without ever looking down(usually).

So today I hypothetically followed that approach of my theory to a later date in my musical career. Seeing as I already know how to construct harmony, if I just continue to create good voice leading, will I gradually be able to subconsciously make the changes with ease, WITHOUT ever thinking of the chord’s, and effectively improvise spontaneously after the first time through of the progression like Evans and Greene? So when I descend through a minor sequence I will play the notes EVEN if I don’t think about the technical name for the chord or particular notes in them? If I already know where a tone lies on the fretboard, must I always acknowledge that it is there – specific to that associated name of a note? Will thinking of notes as numbers affect me thinking about certain notes in particular key signatures? In that last question, what I mean is: Does it really matter if I think about playing Gb, or thinking the number 4, or even remotely thinking about what the tone is as long as what’s being played/heard IS the fourth degree of the scale diatonic to Db? Asked myself these questions: Will my creativity lack if I just think the scale tones, rather than just play the scale tones? In essence, can I learn how to just play music without consciously thinking about it? Can this be a valid approach to truly understanding music?

As you can see, I’m a very passionate person. Heh! Thank you for your time and I value whatever opinion you offer me.

Deepest regards,

Patrizio Biondo

M-A Answer :

Hello Patrizio. Finally, I took some time to answer your (very long) question! I was not really sure how to approach all the topics you mentioned in the message … so here’s my “best shot” at it (and I’m sure I’m better at talking-this-through rather than writing back to you!)



Please leave a comment / further questions at the bottom of this page. Thank you!

Marc-Andre Seguin

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