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The Jazz Gym by Todd Johnson: Part 1 of the Improvisers Workout Program | Melodic Reps

Meet Todd Johnson –

Hi Friends, my name is Todd Johnson and I’m excited to have this opportunity to work with you all here at Bass Musician Magazine.

I’m a bass player and instructor from Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed to have worked with some of the worlds finest musicians like Mike Stern, Dave Weckl, Poncho Sanchez, Mundell Lowe and Frank Gambale in addition to being a member of the Ron Eschete trio since 1991.

As an instructor, I’ve been on staff at B.I.T. (1991 – 1999) and Cal Arts (1997 – 2003) in addition to performing at clinics and festivals throughout the country. I’m currently adjunct faculty at The Master’s College in Newhall, CA.

It’s been my experience that the greatest bass players all have certain skills in common. They are, in no particular order; technique, reading, bass line creation, theory and improvisation. A working knowledge of these skills is a must if you want play with the big boys.

The first of these skills we’ll focus on in this column will be improvising.

As an educator, the best way for me to teach you about improvisation is through jazz. Please don’t let the “j” word scare you. My goal is not necessarily to turn you into jazz musicians. I would encourage you all to give this a shot regardless of your musical background. Jazz is just the gym we’re going to work out in. Fair enough?

Once you learn to play jazz then everything else will be a lot easier. It’s like having plenty of money in the bank. You’ll never regret having a little extra currency in your harmony account. A good friend of mine refers to this as musical headroom. So, welcome to The Jazz Gym. Here’s some simple common sense solutions to get you started improvising.

Your first assignment is to download the song we’re going to learn.

Download the MP3 below, Autumn Leaves from the Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley cd Somethin’ Else and give it a serious listen. This version is a classic and it’s played at a learnable tempo.

Too many people try to learn how to play jazz from a book with their eyes without ever really listening to it. You wouldn’t try to learn to speak Japanese out of a book, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d use the book, but you’d also hang out with Japanese speaking people, watch Japanese TV and basically immerse yourself in the language. Learning to improvise requires the same thing. You have to listen to what you’re tying to learn. Now, click below for a quick preview of my Autumn Leaves video. It might give you some ideas for later on.

Your second assignment is to learn the melody to Autumn Leaves. Learn it by ear or from a chart, but learn it. The easiest way to sound melodic is to learn melodies. It seems obvious, but as bass players we don’t do it. We spend most of our time practicing scales, arpeggios and bass lines. The reason most bass solos sound like a doubled up bass line up an octave is because that’s what we practice!

Play the melody straight, without embellishments. Be sure to listen for the holes. Basically, holes are where the rests are.  Pay close attention to what you hear in those holes. This will come in handy for our next assignment.

Practice playing the melody along with Miles. This may sound extreme, but try playing the melody 100 times. Remember this is a language, so if you have to stop and think about it too much you won’t be an effective communicator. This stuff needs to be internalized. The only way to achieve this is through repetition.

Your third assignment is to practice playing the melody with embellishments. I want you to start dressing up the melody. Start filling in those holes we listened for in our second assignment. Play something simple and build from there. Make sure that if you hear an idea and miss it, that you go back and figure it out. Practice it a few times, then go back and play it in context several times. Repetition is critical.

Improvising is often referred to as playing the melodies you hear in your head. By going back and figuring them out, you’ll strengthen and develop your ability to transcribe yourself. I realize this seems obvious, but if you don’t practice playing what you hear then you’ll never get good at it. Don’t make the mistake of just learning a scale and thinking you’ll be able to solo. It doesn’t work like that. Scales are great, but they’re just an alphabet. An alphabet doesn’t say anything by itself. You can’t just learn the alphabet and think well now I’m going to learn a new language. We use combinations of letters to form words and then sentences. Melodies are the words and sentences that scales form.

FIGURE 1 shows you the chord progression and chord structures to the first 8 bars of Autumn Leaves. Here are some chord structure formula reminders; All minor-seventh chords are (1 mi3 P5 mi7), all dominant-seventh chords are (1 ma3 P5 mi7), all major-seventh chords are (1 ma3 P5 ma7) and all minor-seven-flat 5 chords are (1 mi3 dim5 mi7). I’ve provided some of the possible fingerings. These will work fine, but I would encourage you to explore other possibilities as well.

FIGURE 2 shows you the scales that fit the chords for our progression. Except for the D and G Spanish-dominant scales, everything is a mode of the Bb major scale.

So download and listen to Autumn Leaves, learn the melody, then practice embellishing and filling in the holes around the melody. Study and memorize figures one and two and next month I’ll show you how to add this information to our melodic workout.


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