Soloing on Pop Changes – You’ll Hear It

Another SpeakPipe pops up! And today, Peter and Adam talk about soloing over pop changes for the improviser and recommend a few artists to check out.

The ending theme song for this episode is “Traveling at Night” by Burke Ingraffia.

Musicians & Tunes to Check Out:

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AM: I’m Adam Maness.

PM: And I’m Peter Martin.

AM: And you’re listening to the You’ll Hear It podcast.

PM: Daily jazz advice coming at ya!

AM: We’re not a break dancing podcast?

PM: No, I don’t even know if many of our listeners know. Well, yeah we have some mature, aged listeners like we are to remember the days of break dancing.

AM: That’s right.

PM: You young’uns, YouTube it.

AM: We have a SpeakPipe today from JD. Hey, if you wanna ask us a question, we are putting out the call for SpeakPipes. We’re challenging you to leave us a SpeakPipe question. We wanna answer it.

PM: We do, although we’re not as desperate as we were last week ’cause we’ve had so many come in now. We might even be getting picky.

AM: No let’s not. Let’s keep it rolling.

PM: No, keep it rolling.

AM: For sure.

PM: But before we were like–

AM: You definitely get on.

PM: You’re definitely getting on. Except that one off. That one was whack, remember a few months back.

AM: Yeah if you send anything slightly racist, we’re not gonna put it on at all.

PM: Even slightly.

AM: Anyway, let’s listen today.

JD: Hey Adam, Peter, thanks for all you guys do! Love listening to your podcast and all the great advice you guys have. My question surrounds soloing with maybe like pop music. I find sometimes with like jazz or R&B, kinda that style, having those seventh chords, those extra colors, it’s a little easier to kinda come up with ideas, but sometimes I get stuck when it’s just your basic one, four, five, minor six triad kinda deal in a pop setting. I think of guys like Jamie Cullum, or something that, that kinda take that
pop sound and kinda add a little bit more color and little bit out, but not so much that they lose the feel of maybe that style. Just wanna know if you guys have any tips or tricks for kinda playing over those basic triad chords, so, anyways, love to hear from you! Thanks again for all you guys do! Appreciate it.

AM: This is an actual question that I don’t think we’ve ever addressed, and it’s a great question!

PM: I don’t think so, and look, since we’re getting close to lunch now anyway, we wanna go eat, and this is about pop music, it’s gonna be short and sweet baby, okay?

AM: I love to do this, man. I do this all the time in the music I play.

PM: Yeah

AM: To play over triadic stuff.

PM: Yeah, but you also, you’ll take some simple pop tunes, very simple harmonically, and put a nice little Adam Maness arrangement on ’em, and they kinda become a little bit more complex.

AM: That’s definitely one thing you can do. Is you can, not jazzify, I wanna say, but you can make them more improviser-friendly, the pop changes. It depends on what kind of sound you want, but I think for JD’s question here, there are some ways to solo on just like straight ahead pop triads. I hear you do this with Dianne Reeves all the time too. You guys have a couple of tunes that are really pop tunes.

PM: Pop, R&B, real folk.

AM: Yeah, I had to do this in Erin Bode’s band for years and years.

PM: It’s hard!

AM: It’s a skill that you have to practice.

PM: A lot of jazz players are just like, “Oh, that’s beneath me!” ’cause they can’t do it.

AM: Man I have to say, one of my favorite musicians that I’ve ever worked with, and we did these things in Erin’s band, all these pop tunes, and he was incredible at it, was the great saxophonist, Seamus Blake, can play on triadic stuff like better than almost anybody I’ve ever heard, and you think of Seamus as this, from the bebop tradition, but like a modern thing, but, man, he has this lyrical sound, but that was the first thing that I think I thought of when I had to start learning how to do this was you kinda have to take bebop out of the equation a little bit. Doesn’t quite work all the time.

PM: Yeah you get that big triad or two chord, you don’t wanna necessarily be ♪ Be bay do bay be dah ♪

AM: Yeah, a lot of enclosures can sound weird. A lot of major nine arpeggios are not gonna work.

PM: Right, right, right. Yeah, it’s the vocabulary. And really the challenge comes in, I think that we always talk about melody, rhythm, and harmony as kind of being those most basic building blocks of our improvisation and really just music in general. But this kind of playing requires melody to become so much more important. And so especially a piano, which on its face can not be the most lyrical instrument. Like we we can get away with things sometimes by really exploiting like the harmonic aspects of things.

AM: Too much sometimes.

PM: Yeah, and rhythm and it’s
a percussion instrument.

AM: Totally.

PM: But playing over very simple chords means you have to be super melodic. And so I would actually think of somebody like Stevie Wonder. The way that he improvises over his songs. Now, yeah, of course his songs are very sophisticated harmonically in a way, but you can check out certain like “Isn’t She Lovely” has some very like, I don’t know. Well, that kind of goes
some places harmonically.

AM: You know who is the perfect person to check out for this though? Keith Jarrett.

PM: Oh, that’s true.

AM: But in the context of those vamps that he does. They’ll do those like 20 minute long at the end…

PM: Major two chord.

AM: …”Autumn Leaves” vamps. And he can go on those two chords forever. Usually triadic, maybe it’s some kind of seventh, but it’s never like change-y, you know what I mean? It’s all very in the pocket and he is so good at developing melodies on the piano like that.

PM: And if you think about it, what he’s doing a lot of times in those vamps, I mean, there’s a number of different ways he’s done them. But I think I’m thinking of the same kind of ones you’re thinking of. It’s like really concise and beautiful, well crafted melodies, but like, serious attention to rhythm and groove. So the harmony is not really, I mean, it is what it is for that vamp, but it’s not as adventurous really. It’s really about the melody and the rhythm. And so the lyricism comes out. And then he also exploits a number of other things that he’s just a master of in terms of sound and touch and dynamics and beauty and all that kinds of thing too. But it’s like having that confidence to just go, just play on that triad. He uses a lot of one, two, three, five like to craft.

AM: One, two, three, five. That’s my pop thing too.

PM: Come on, now.

AM: That’s the go to.

PM: And maybe a little one, three, four, five. You could throw that in there.

AM: One, three, four, five. Absolutely, yeah, yeah.

PM: And a lot of four, three, four. One. So having the confidence to be like, take those more basic elements when you don’t have the sevenths and the 11th arpeggios and sharp and the extensions and all that. To really hear, and I know we get into some controversial area every time we talk about hearing and hearing something, and what does that mean? But I mean, to hear a simple melody and just to simply state it, it’s kind of like when you’re having a conversation with someone that’s not just a child where you’re talking down to them. But someone you’re gonna
say, I’m not gonna use, and I know I’ve been getting a little, I heard you guys making fun of me trying to use big words around the office lately. That’s okay though, little catchphrases and stuff. That’s okay. I got you, I got you. I’m going to get didactic on you.

AM: Who me?

PM: No, it’s like we’re
having a conversation and I’m gonna come get–

AM: Di-dac-tic.

PM: To use very simple words but to convey a sophisticated thought or emotion. And I think that’s what, you’re right Keith Jarrett. I think Stevie Wonder, I just haven’t thought of the right. No, actually “Isn’t She Lovely” is, I’m thinking of like his harmonica solo. Of course there’s so much emotion you can put through that instrument. But a lot of his key solos. I mean he can go crazy on changes too but he’s a very interesting improviser, Stevie Wonder. Like Keith Jarrett in a lot of ways.

AM: There are three players that, for me, I’m thinking of right now as we’re talking about this that come to mind that are just masters of this. Two of them are jazz musicians and one is totally out of left field.

PM: Well, let me guess. Are these ones we always talk about on this show?

AM: No, actually.

PM: Oh okay, good.

AM: The first is someone we talk about a lot, but I don’t usually talk about but, I’m thinking of Kenny Kirkland. When he played with Sting specifically.

PM: Oh, yeah. 

AM: You know? Some great piano solos. 

PM: “Bring On The Night!”

AM: Over not really change-y things. There’s some seventh chords, but it’s not like playing changes.

PM: Now he was exploiting rhythm.

AM: He was definitely.

PM: Melody, for sure. But it’s like when the harmony, he could be so sophisticated harmonically, but when it called for that really basic thing, his rhythmic thing was. And especially, like between the two hands and stuff, and the interplay he really went there.

AM: The second is Brad Mehldau. Especially on an album like Largo. That first track, “When It Rains,” is a lot of triadic concepts. There are seventh chords for sure, but it’s not like change-y. It’s not like one six two fives. And he is really playing in a language that’s more on the pop side than like a beboppy side.

PM: So that’s “When It Rains,” not to be confused with your unpublished, unperformed, undocumented “Make It Rain.” That little blues that you wrote there. (laughs) Okay, sorry.

AM: A couple of other people that you might check out on this, man have you ever heard of this Dobro player, Jerry Douglas?

PM: Oh, Jerry? Of course I’ve heard of this guy, yeah!

AM: Dude he’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard and plays such simple sounding language, but in a way and with a feeling that is so beautiful and melodic and just gets me every time. Check out anything Jerry Douglas has ever done. It’s bluegrassy, I mean, he’s made bluegrass, but he’s also done things like with Edgar Meyer and things like that. I mean, Edgar Meyer is someone too, that you could actually check out.

PM: Well Jerry Douglas has an advantage though ’cause the Dobro as an instrument it’s actually, I don’t know if you knew this, 47 out of 50 states it’s illegal to play bebop on a Dobro.

AM: Yeah, it’s impossible.

PM: It’s against state regulations.

AM: It’s also such an expressive instrument, let’s be honest here.

PM: Yeah, it is.

AM: Another person is Chris Thile, the mandolinist. I mean also he heavily relies on rhythm, big time. But all of that Punch Brothers stuff is triadic based soloing and there’s all of those guys that are super heavy weights at that.

PM: Absolutely, one more guy that I would mention that’s a master of this is Charlie Parker. Oh, no I guess not. That’s something different.

AM: Fairly beboppy. (chuckles) Fairly beboppy, I think.

PM: Kirk Whalum!

AM: Kirk Whalum, yeah!

PM: You could play a bunch of notes and still stay within that.

AM: David Sanborn?

PM: David Sanborn, hello!

AM: Yeah, yeah I see where we’re going now. I’m liking this.

PM: Yeah, yup.

AM: Yeah, cool. 

PM: Kenny G! (chuckles) Okay, no maybe not. Sorry. Whoa, sorry didn’t mean to go–

AM: Robert Glasper also comes to mind.

PM: Yeah. But yeah, this is cool man. Thank you JD for the question, interesting area that we haven’t gone to much.

AM: Very cool. All right, so what’s our ultimate tip?

PM: So the ultimate tip is we talk about playing over pop changes, pop tunes, is transcribe pop tunes. Okay, so this will kinda reverse engineer a little bit of developing your ears in a way that’ll help for this and just a number of different things. And this is something I used to do and I kind of said, even if you’re ashamed that people know that you like ’em, if it’s a little bit of, I don’t know, it could be anything. Anything catchy that you think is too simplistic or not worth your time. But you’re still developing your ears and it’s gonna attune you a little bit. So it could be anything you’re hearing on the radio or YouTube or whatever that you kind of like, it’s always fun to transcribe stuff you like. We’re giving you license to put aside that Charlie Parker solo for a little bit to transcribe a pop tune. And once you do?

AM: You’ll hear it.