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Melodic vs harmonic improvising

Pete Thomas

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As we know, in jazz, blues and a lot of pop/rock there are often chord changes which can form the framework of improvising. In fact it's probably true to say that is the normal approach which we see in academic institutions and all over the web.

Another approach might be to improvise based to various degrees purely on melody, ie where the melody seems to take you. A good fairly extreme example might be Ornette Coleman, within a much freer framework lacking conventional chord changes and often time constraints such as bar lines, he managed to make his impro extremely melodic.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GB9RazkRrM

Yes, Ornette is pretty "free" here, but if you listen you can here how one phrase leads to another almost as it it is inevitable.

But other great jazz improvisers all do this to a certain extent without being quite so freeform. You may have seen analyses of transcriptions falling over themselves attemting to explain in great technical detail something that was purely a magical phrases out of the player's imagination and not a quartal altered sub-median superlocrian confluation.

On a basic level you may think it is just going outside the changes, but often the true masters do it in such a way that it is more than just a bit of freeform noodling, it can make more sense than the cleverest bit of acrobatics around the actual changes.
 

John Setchell

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As we know, in jazz, blues and a lot of pop/rock there are often chord changes which can form the framework of improvising. In fact it's probably true to say that is the normal approach which we see in academic institutions and all over the web.

Another approach might be to improvise based to various degrees purely on melody, ie where the melody seems to take you. A good fairly extreme example might be Ornette Coleman, within a much freer framework lacking conventional chord changes and often time constraints such as bar lines, he managed to make his impro extremely melodic.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GB9RazkRrM

Yes, Ornette is pretty "free" here, but if you listen you can here how one phrase leads to another almost as it it is inevitable.

But other great jazz improvisers all do this to a certain extent without being quite so freeform. You may have seen analyses of transcriptions falling over themselves attemting to explain in great technical detail something that was purely a magical phrases out of the player's imagination and not a quartal altered sub-median superlocrian confluation.

On a basic level you may think it is just going outside the changes, but often the true masters do it in such a way that it is more than just a bit of freeform noodling, it can make more sense than the cleverest bit of acrobatics around the actual changes.
Hear-hear!
Some sympathy for the Listener would be generous. People like to recognise what they’re listening to - teased but believe they’re part of it.
Leaving root notes out of chords is a great trick - the Listener knows what he/she should be hearing, but their brain has to instinctively fill-in-the-holes and they feel involved.
Academic variations on chord progression are a great ego boost - but in a soundproof room pls!
 

Wade Cornell

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Pete, It's a joy to hear you giving full expression to what should be an obvious truth. Hopefully others will give this the appropriate recognition it deserves and reflect on how the academic "paint by the numbers" system has failed to deliver artistic and creative expression.

It's only by repeating this message that new players may stop subscribing to academia's formulaic systems and instead try to find those truly creative alternatives for improvisation.

Greatly appreciated.
 

Hankenstine

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Lester Young was the ultimate melodic improviser and Coleman Hawkins the great exponent of harmonic improvisation. Two great role models for us all.
 
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Pete Thomas

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Lester Young was the ultimate melodic improviser and Coleman Hawkins the great exponent of harmonic improvisation. Two great role models for us all.
This brings up another as[ect, which the titile of the thread didn't accomodate!

ie I said Melodic vs harmonic improvising, but of course you can have harmonic improvising which is also melodic. Is that the best of both worlds? Or always a compromise?

What I mean by that is, can you be as melodic when you "obey" the harmony as when you don't?
 

brianr

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What I mean by that is, can you be as melodic when you "obey" the harmony as when you don't?

I think so, yes.

but I feel that in order to do so, a player would probably have had to have spent some time on the mechanical approach to weaving through the changes with “ correct harmony”, ( in effect, training your ear to hear the harmony), before kind of forgetting it and playing melodically, whilst still ”hearing” the harmony in his/her head.

I suppose it depends on the complexity of the harmony of the tune.

for example, Stella by Starlight would probably require an element of
“obeying” in the learning process, that may not be needed to the same extent on Autumn Leaves.
 

hedgehog

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Lester Young was the ultimate melodic improviser and Coleman Hawkins the great exponent of harmonic improvisation. Two great role models for us all.
Now I want to listen to both of them carefully, ideally playing the same song, to hear how they are different. Any suggestions?
 

Jimmymack

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You shouldn’t be obeying the harmony, the harmony is a guide that you can follow or not. For me that’s when good improvising begins. Running the changes can get you out of a difficult spot to somewhere better. But you can certainly be melodic while playing harmonically, the best known Giant Steps solo is melodic while being full of chordal and scalar shapes, many of them repeated several times, but even so, why limit yourself?

George Garzone I think it was said “why do I need to play the chords, the rhythm section has that.”
 

Pete Thomas

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George Garzone I think it was said “why do I need to play the chords, the rhythm section has that.”
Well he may have been being just a tad facetious, but a lot of sense in that.

Music can work well when there is a combination of tension & release, or unity and variety. harmonic peace vs harmonic discord.

So you can build tension by going outside the harmony, and release that by coming back inside.
 
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Jimmymack

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George is being a smart alec even if he is right, and I’ve no reason to doubt that he sometimes does just that, but it’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t be said until after the saxophone students equivalent of the 9 o’clock watershed.
 

jbtsax

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The jazz saxophone player and teacher Ray Smith once spoke about improvising in terms of playing either "horizontally" or "vertically". Horizontally is generally playing lines in the key of the song. Vertically pays more attention to the individual chord changes. Is this the same as melodic vs harmonic improvising?
 

Pete Thomas

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The jazz saxophone player and teacher Ray Smith once spoke about improvising in terms of playing either "horizontally" or "vertically". Horizontally is generally playing lines in the key of the song. Vertically pays more attention to the individual chord changes. Is this the same as melodic vs harmonic improvising?
I don't think so
 

jbtsax

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Some of my thoughts on this interesting topic:

Performance of more "traditional" jazz both in combo playing and in big band arrangements often follows closely the "sonata allegro form" which is: Exposition - Development - Recapitulation. The exposition is the "statement" of the melody of the song, the development is the improvisation section, and the recapitulation is the "re-statement" of the melody so the listener can remember what the tune was when it started.

Depending on the jazz "era" and the player doing the improvising the solos were more or less variations on the melody staying within the form of the tune and its harmonic pattern or chord changes. This is not too far removed from the practice during the Baroque and Classical periods of "improvising" variations on a theme, and improvising over a "figured bass". Having a melody-based improvisation in itself to me makes it "melodic" in nature.

In terms of "melodic" improvisation two of my favorite players come to mind: Paul Desmond, and Aubra Graves. I can "drop the needle" in the middle of one of their improvised solos and generally know right away what the song is. I can't say that about all of the saxophone players I listen to. I am not implying that "free style" or "free form" jazz (that I don't understand or relate to at my age) is better or worse than the more "traditional" styles. It is just different. And yes, both types can be equally "melodic" in their own way.
 

Wade Cornell

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For my listening ears the split is obvious. The academic "playing the changes" approach is one in which the player wishes to IMPRESS their audience (if they can find one) with their technical abilities. The melodic player creates stories and emotions to GIVE to their audience (and are much more likely to have an audience).

The technical player keeps themselves as the focus. For the melodic player the music is the focus and creating sounds, stories and moods that step beyond the stage.

I can't think of an example of a strictly technical player of today who is famous, although they are certainly (thanks to academia) the most plentiful. However it's easy to find examples of players who are melodic/lyrical that are successful. The best example I can think of is Jan Garbarek. There's also another category like Grace Kelly who are somewhat technical, but good performer/entertainers and not necessarily playing "standards". She keeps the focus on herself, but is such a delight to watch.

Maybe the dividing line has more to do with intent rather than how closely you stick to the changes? The academic model is very technically focused witch is great for engineering, but maybe not so good for being a creative musician.
 

CliveMA

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Performance of more "traditional" jazz both in combo playing and in big band arrangements often follows closely the "sonata allegro form" which is: Exposition - Development - Recapitulation. The exposition is the "statement" of the melody of the song, the development is the improvisation section, and the recapitulation is the "re-statement" of the melody so the listener can remember what the tune was when it started.

Depending on the jazz "era" and the player doing the improvising the solos were more or less variations on the melody staying within the form of the tune and its harmonic pattern or chord changes.
This is my personal preference with one extra condition. I prefer the solo to not only be variations on the melody but also be emotionally consistent. If the song is a sad song, for example, I prefer a solo that is sad.
 

Pete Thomas

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Lester Young was the ultimate melodic improviser and Coleman Hawkins the great exponent of harmonic improvisation. Two great role models for us all.
Although both very melodic at times, we can only speculate how they may have played without the constraints of chord changes. Imagine if they had the freedom of Ornette or Coltrane. Granted, Coleman Hawkins was still around then and elected not to go that route, but what if...

So basically I'm not so much thinking of the great players who were considered "melodic" within the contraints of conventional jazz harmony, but how the freedom of losing those constraints can pave the way for more melodic playing (as well as less!)
 

Jimmymack

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Ornette had a fully worked out theory and plan called Harmolodics, I have the book and can't make head nor tail of it but it's there in black and white. The most extreme recorded example of totally free playing is probably Ascension where everybody just seems to go for it (I'm sure they were bringing more to it than that) but the practice of free playing isn't just that, it involves listening and response which is when discovery takes place, otherwise it's just noodling. Losing constraints takes you nowhere and I'm certain that anybody who plays free is working from a range of structured bases that are personal to them, arising from practice. I'm not sure that every free player is aiming for melody anyway, some are more concerned with dynamics or audio assault, some play continuous lines that may theoretically be melodic but lack the dynamics and space that I think are essential to melody.

The notion of freedom that you are alluding to has awful echoes of amateur players (and artists) who refuse to imitate lest it corrupt the purity of their own expression. It's nonsense whatever the discipline.

A lot of modern players seem to either abandon or reduce the harmonic base when they improvise, so the melody may have a complex chord sequence but when it comes to soloing you are left with a basic vamp of one or two chords.

Sonny Rollins used to do something like that at the start of the second half of his concerts. He would set up a basic vamp on the bass and just take off from there, he would play dozens of choruses each developing from the last but the rhythm section was just supplying a background and was of little relevance.
 

Nick Wyver

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As I mentioned in the "what projects" thread, I've recently started playing with just a drummer. Which means I can do what I like without any reference to an underlying harmonic structure so you might (if you were feeling generous) call it melodic improvisation. Though I'm fairly sure some would call it 'noodling'. However, it pleases me and the drummer likes it too. The 10 mins we got to play at a jam also garnered some applause. Perhaps they were just polite.

I've spent the last 50 years improvising to a fixed harmony or just playing the dots. Playing freely and seeing where it takes me is quite a relief. We're not really expecting to get any gigs but the odd appearance at jams would be nice. It's a fact that I don't have the skill of, for example, Trevor Watts or Evan Parker who have been doing this for ever but I like to think it's not complete rubbish.
 

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