‘Making the changes’ on the blues

Often when I teach an improvisation class, we learn Barry Harris’ scale outline of the blues and then compose a chorus of solo on this progression.  To illustrate how useful this outline can be, I thought I’d post some examples of choruses from solos on the blues that mostly stay ‘inside’ Barry’s scales (or ‘make the changes’, to use a common jazz term).  In its simplest form this outline uses the 7th scales based off the roots of the I7, IV7 and V7 chords.  (The 7th scale is a less cumbersome term for the major scale with the flatted 7th, sometimes called mixolydian.)  It can be a challenge to create something with melodic integrity using only these three scales – just listen to Miles Davis growl after his first chorus on ‘Straight No Chaser’ (which, as it turns out, is a great example of making the changes).  As you’ll see in these examples, this kind of simple, making-the-changes chorus is an important part of a number of great solos where the soloist either begins with a simple chorus or uses a simple chorus as a palate-cleansing break after some more exploratory playing.

Thelonious Monk’s solo on ‘Bags’ Groove’ on Take 1 from the album ‘Bags Groove’ by Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants is a famous example of simplicity: the first chorus is based almost entirely on the 5th and the root of the F major scale.  Over the second, third and fourth choruses Monk’s solo expands to include more harmonic detail, as well as a lot of chromaticism.  In other words, he moves from playing simply to making the changes in a fairly complex or abstract way.  In the fifth chorus, however (beginning at 8:02), Monk pares down his chromaticism and plays a chorus that stays completely inside the changes (and Barry’s outline) except for two notes.  (The E natural in bar 7  could actually be defined as ‘inside’ if you define the F major scale and the F 7th scale as equally correct choices to play over a F seventh chord,  as Barry Harris and most bop players do.)

Monk solo on Bags’ Groove Take 1

Monk’s solo was created in a situation that was a study in personal contrasts.  In the session that produced the Monk solo, Miles famously asked Monk to ‘lay out’ (i.e. not to comp) behind his trumpet solo (in his biography Miles claims that ‘Monk never did know how to play behind a horn player’.)  For Monk’s part, Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography reports that on ‘Bags Groove’ he ‘got up from the piano and stood next to Miles during his entire solo’ (a course of action he defended later, saying: ‘I don’t have to sit down to lay out’.)  In the context of this personal conflict, Monk created a solo that was a world of contrasts in itself, ranging from two-note simplicity to dissonant clusters to the orderly fifth chorus.

Miles Davis’ first chorus on ‘Straight, No Chaser‘ (at :29 on the shortest of the versions from ‘Miles Davis and John Coltrane – The Complete Columbia Recordings’), is an example of of the simple, making-the-changes approach as an opening strategy.

Another great example of ‘making the changes’ is Dexter Gordon’s second chorus on ‘Sticky Wicket’ (from the 1969 album ‘More Power’).  In this solo, laden with musical quotations, Dexter begins with a first chorus that emphasizes the flatted third (Db) over the I7 chord (Bb7).  He follows this up with a second chorus that starts with a quote from ‘Frankie and Johnny’ emphasizing the major third (D), and the rest of the chorus stays within Barry’s 7th scale outline.  (As if to say ‘OK, that’s enough inside playing’, Dexter begins his third chorus with a quote from Fucik’s ‘Entrance Of The Gladiators’, a tune that uses the entire chromatic scale over an octave range).

Dexter Gordon – Sticky Wicket first three choruses

Where Monk’s simple, making-the-changes chorus is an oasis near the middle of a long, experimental journey, Gordon’s simple, making-the-changes chorus is a brief break near the beginning of a long improvisational trip that eventually leads to double-timing among other things.  In all three of these solos, the simple, making-the-changes chorus is an essential tool in creating contrast within the relatively short cycle of the twelve-bar, medium-tempo blues.

An example of a chorus where staying inside the basic seventh scales is used to contrast the use of chromaticism and altered tones in other choruses is Sonny Rollins’ solo on Blue Seven, where the fifth and final chorus has fewer non-scale tones than any chorus in the solo.  The diatonicism of the fifth chorus effectively contrasts the first four choruses which, like the melody, highlight the augmented fourth (a.k.a. the flatted fifth).

If you’ve heard solos in your musical travels where simplicity of one kind or another – staying inside the changes, using a limited collection of pitches, effective use of space, etc. – is used to contrast with complexity, feel free to leave a comment.

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2 Responses to ‘Making the changes’ on the blues

  1. djlester says:

    Hey Tom.

    I think my favorite use of simplicity in jazz would have to be the opening solo to “Flamenco Sketches” by Miles Davis. Miles leaves a lot of space in there that could’ve been filled. The scarcity of it is what makes it sound so special, in my opinion.

  2. adelaure says:

    Impressive examples and analysis! Love the Monk solo and the way he rhythmically shifts his motifs… keeps you guessing.

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