Chords, Melody, and Improvisation
I wrote three articles for The Banjo Newsletter based on the jazz standard ‘Autumn Leaves’. The first shows several different voicings for the chords. The second article looks at the relationship between the melody and the chords. The third composes a solo and discusses similar approaches to improvisation. This video plays all three installments in chronological order. The articles follow, with links to download the Tabs individually.
Part 1: Chords
‘Autumn Leaves’ is made up almost exclusively of the “2-5-1” chord progression. This means the “2” chord in a key, the “5” chord in the same key, and then the “1” chord of that key. For example: A-, D7, G. These chords each imply a different mode of the G major scale, and when played in this order create a harmonic cadence used very often in popular music. What really drives this cadence is the ‘Root Motion’ of the chords up in fourths. A, up a fourth to D, up another fourth to G. (The variation most commonly used in Bluegrass is the “4-5-1”. Basically the same functional harmony, only without the root motion). Autumn Leaves contains several versions of the “2-5”. One leads to a G major: A-, D7, G. Another leads to the E minor: F#-7(b5), B7, E-. I know that looks more like a foreign phone number than a chord symbol, but trust me it’s not as complex as it seems. It’s an F# minor, (F#-) with it’s 7th degree (7) and a flatted 5th degree (b5). An F#-7(b5) is the “2” chord in relation to E-. Followed by a B7, the “5” chord to E-. The B7 resolves to E-, finishing a minor “2-5-1”. So you see that the “2” chord in a Major “2-5-1” is a regular minor 7 chord, written as X-7. But the “2” chord in a Minor “2-5-1” is a minor 7 flat 5 chord, written as X-7(b5). The important part is that the root motion is the same: 2nd degree, 5th degree, 1st degree. As we look more at harmony this will all make more sense.
Now lets actually put these chords on the neck! I like to use mostly 3 note voicings on the 3 inside strings. (D,G,B). The banjo sits in a high register for a ‘comping’ (accompanying) instrument, and the decay of the notes on the high D string is so quick. Those short, high-pitched notes will usually get in the way of the soloist. Sticking to the lower 3 strings and playing lots of chord inversions (when a note of the chord other than the root is on the bottom) will give you a solid, consistent sound while playing rhythm. You can play these as block chords (plucking all three strings at once) on quarter notes, like the Django Style guitar rhythm, or use any roll pattern you like over just three strings. I like to use backward rolls closer to the neck. That’s a nice mellow sound, but it’s still moving.
In the Tabs I’ve written two chords in most bars. Play through the tune using only the first chord in each bar. Then play through using only the second chord in each bar. The form of this tune is A A B C, so you have 2 variations of the A part, one for each time. The same splitting of the measure applies to measures 19 and 20. I’ve set it up this way to conserve space.
These chord shapes and locations are mostly ‘Inversions’ (not the root in the bass) and employ a technique called ‘Voice Leading’: a fancy way of saying “moving as little as possible from one chord to another”. This gives the music a very smooth feeling, unlike the typical banjo concept of sliding root position chords around the neck. Inversions are best used when a Bass player is present to give them some harmonic grounding, because the lowest note we’re playing (for example the first Cmaj7 in measure 3) is not the root of the chord. This Cmaj7 may sound like some kind of strange E chord, because that’s the lowest note you hear. The Cmaj7 may also seem strange because it has a B and C sounding at the same time, ½ step apart. The B is the major 7th degree of the chord. This is not a conventional voicing, but I believe it works well due to the quick decay of both notes. If you don’t like sounding them together, try rolling over that voicing and you’ll get a sort of dreamy effect. You’ll also notice that I use the same voicing for an F#-7(b5) in measure 9 and a D9 in measure 14. The notes F#, C, and E equal scale tones 1, b5, and b7 of the F#-7(b5), and 3, b7, and 9 of the D9. When a bass plays the roots, you will sound hip using this shape! Voicings are very ambiguous this way; they can very often be used to represent many different chords.
The end of Autumn Leaves (measures 19 and 20) is often played with different chord changes. I’ve included 2 sets. The first brackets in both measures are an E- with a line cliché (descending note within the chord). The second two brackets in both measures are more 2-5’s leading into measure 21.
There are great recordings of this song by Miles Davis, Jim Hall, and Bill Evans (the pianist) just to name a few. And if you want someone to play along with you could get the Jamey Abersold jazz band backing track.
For more information on similar chord shapes and harmony, visit my website and check out the video lesson on ‘Diatonic7th Chords’.
Part 2: Melody Harmony Relationship
It’s important to have a good melody. If you want folks to remember your song, there’s got to be a good melody they can grab onto quickly and remember. And if it’s true about a verse and chorus, then isn’t it true about a solo too? Laying out some nice melodic content that really feels good against the chords the band is playing is the secret weapon of all great soloists. So how did they figure that out, and how can we? Well, we’ve got to understand what makes a melody memorable, what makes it feel so good. Ultimately it’s tension and release, but we’re getting a little more fundamental than that. What notes are being played and why?
In the “A” part of Autumn Leaves, the melody is always the 3rd degree of the chord. That’s the first note that determines chord quality: major or minor. So landing on the 3rd of a chord on a strong beat will always sound nice (something to keep when improvising!). Now notice that as we land on the 3rd of these chords, we’re playing a descending line C, B, A, G, from the fourth degree to the root of the G major scale. The bass motion (chord progression) under this melody is moving up in diatonic (within the scale) fourths. This creates “2-5-1” resolution as discussed previously in this column. These harmonic cadences set up locations of tension and release, and the melody is a very smooth, pattern-based pathway through the chords.
Another neat thing to note is that in measures 2,4,6, and 8 the melody uses the 2nd (also called 9th) degree of the chord on a strong beat. Example: the E on beat 3 of D7 in measure 2; the C# on beat 3 of B7 in measure 6. Strong beats are 1 and 3, weak beats are 2 and 4. You typically want to put chord tones on strong beats, and passing scale degrees on weak beats. By using the 2nd degree on a strong beat the melody establishes a pattern of more dense harmony, something very popular in jazz music.
The “B” part doesn’t focus on the 3rds of chords as much, but continues with the linear concept, ascending this time. Still relying on tension and release set up by the chord progression. As it moves into the “C” part the first three pitches are minor 3rds apart, creating a diminished sound (and opening the door for lots of diminished substitution over the B7 b9, email me if you want to talk about that!). Then the melody returns to the familiar descending line over a final “2-5” to the E-.
By ‘Voice Leading’ through the chords (moving as little as possible to the next available note) and landing good notes, both chord tones and tensions, on strong beats the melody of Autumn Leaves demonstrates a great way to approach ‘making the changes’. Whether you’re composing a vocal melody or a banjo break, or improvising on “Giant Steps” or “Dixie Hoedown”, these concepts will help you play something that the folks will remember.
The Tab included here is a ‘Chord Melody’, which is just what it sounds like: the chords with the melody. The video on the website includes the melody alone as well as more phrasing ideas. As you get comfortable with the chord shapes you can add more roll patterns or rhythmic ideas. If you want to experiment, review the previous column on chords for Autumn Leaves and create your own arrangement. I’d love to hear it!
Part 3: Solo, and Improvisation
Now that we’ve looked at several ways to play the chords to this tune and examined what the melody is really doing, its time to improvise over the changes. Jazz standards usually follow the same form as a fiddle tune in a jam session: Someone plays the melody then solos are passed around. Usually people take longer solos (2 or 3 choruses) and it only goes around the circle once. So if you listen to a recording of Autumn Leaves it could be anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes long, and 75% of that will be improvised solos, with a melody starting and ending the song.
By examining the melody in the last column, we know that landing on the 3rd of a chord on a strong beat is a good idea, and that playing motives of descending scale degrees will probably sound good too.
Without going too much into the music theory side of things, I’ll say that each chord implies a different scale. Many of those scales are “Modes” of the G major scale, a few of them are not. For example the first 4 chords of the song: A-7, D7, G, C maj7 are all found in the key of G, and imply the modes that start on their respective roots. That is to say that you could improvise using notes from the A Dorian, D Mixolydian, G Ionian, and C Lydian modes in that order for the first 4 measures of the song. However, the B7(b9) in measures 6,10,18, and 22, implies a mode from a different key, E Harmonic Minor (E minor with a major 7th, D#). But that’s a lot of information to think about.
An easier way in is to think about chord tones. You know that those notes are going to work. You know the A part melody is largely made up of the 3rds, so maybe try playing the 5ths or 7ths of the chords (almost like a harmony part).
Chord shapes are a good place to find the notes too. Check back to the first column of this series for some of those chord shapes. Look at some of the voicings for the “2-5-1” relationships and see which notes move. Those will be three different chord shapes in one “position” (location) on the neck. That gives you plenty of note choices for each chord without having to slide your hand around. This is very much like a guitarist or pianist’s approach.
The concept of “Key Centers” seems very theory based but don’t let it frighten you. All it means is knowing what is that target chord of a section, and what are its approach chords. For example the first 4 bars are all in the Key Center of G. There is a “2-5” setup and its followed by a IV maj7, but G major is where its all resting. The next 4 bars (4-8) have a Key Center of E minor. Meaning that the F#-7 (b5) and the B7(b9) are headed towards that E-. As I mentioned before, this part uses a chord borrowed from another key. The D# is the 3rd of the B7 chord. D# is not naturally found in the key of G. This creates a dominant chord that resolves to E-. I know that sounds tough but it’s the same thing as the B7 in the B part of Blackberry Blossom. So the A part of Autumn Leaves moves through the Key Centers of G major and E minor.
Composing a solo is a good way to get used to a tune and what ideas are going to work with it. Remember: Improvisation is just composition in real time. I’ve composed a solo using most of the techniques listed above over this chord progression. This solo uses mostly single string technique, I recommend using your thumb for every downbeat possible, you’ll get a more consistent sound that way. Many of these phrases could be played melodically or with open strings, but I chose these fingerings to help you visualize the accompanying chords on the neck as you play the solo.
The first A part uses arpeggios of the chords combined with some passing notes from their respective pentatonic scales. Then measures 5 and 6 do a forward roll over the first 3 strings while the voicing changes to fit the chords, ending on E-.
The next A part repeats a motive (melodic phrase) through several modes: first A Aeolian and D Mixolydian, then a new motive over G Mixo leading to C Lydian. Then a third motive over the F# and B7, again ending on E-.
The B part uses motives again, but these are based in different Key Centers. Measures 17-20 are based in E-, outlining the chords while maintaining the bluesy minor feel. Measures 21 and 22 use a very similar phrase, moved up and modified into the new Key Center of G. Measures 23 and 24 use a G major pentatonic scale with some chromatic passing tones, giving it a be-bop type feel leading up to the C part.
The normal melody in the C part starts with a diminished triad, so I’ve written a longer phrase descending through a typical diminished chord shape on the banjo. The syncopated rhythm is a little hard to look at, but it’s not so hard to hear. It’s pretty common in the jazz idiom. Measures 27 and 28 repeat an E- pentatonic phrase but move the E to D#, D, then C# following the line cliché over the E- chord.
Measures 29 and 30 use a very banjo-istic idea (let’s not forget that we’re still playing the banjo here). It’s a roll that Earl did quite a bit, basically two backward and two forward rolls stretching over the bar line. The left hand slides a 6th and then a tri-tone around, outlining the minor 2-5 down to the E-.
This solo is just to give you some ideas of how to arrange phrases and how the thing all fits together. Improvising ultimately comes down to 2 things: (1) Knowing what notes to play, and (2) Knowing where to find those notes. By playing through the chords, the chord-melody, and this solo you can start to see it all on the neck and then compose your own solo.
Please contact me with any questions or comments at Kyle.Tuttle.Banjo@gmail.com.
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