Telling a Story


When you pick up a book, do you expect to know everything about it from the first page?  Would you expect to read all the words the writer knows in the first few pages as he astonishes you with his outrageously fantastic vocabulary?  Perhaps you would like to know the end of the story before you reach the middle?


If you are one of those people, then do not read on!  For the rest of us, let's read on...

Being a good Jazz pianist, as you should have realised by now after reading my other entries, is not about how fast you can play or showing off.  It's about self control, note value awareness and feel.  In this post, I am highlighting the idea of a storyline as part of your improvisation.

Let's take a song at random:  Autumn Leaves, in A minor.  The chords as I play them are:  Am11, D7b9, GM9, CM9, F#m9, B13, Em9.  Play those chords and you'll work out where to put the melody with them (and, just to refer to my previous post about learning a song quickly, you could do that now with those chords above:  II V I in G, up a 4th (common movement), then II V I in E.  Couldn't be easier!)

So, upon beginning the melody, what kind of 'story' shall we tell?  We could begin by introducing the standard chord structure and melody without deviating too much.  Let's play a standard Am chord, not even with a 7, as we begin the melody.   

Silence is a note too, so use this note!

Leave some space between each chord and melody; it shows control, professionalism, skill and above-average understanding.  Once finished, this time, add some octave movement on the melody; I don't mean block octave, I mean play the note with the thumb then the little finger.  It gives a nice open sound when you play softly.

Sometimes, you could embellish the melody; that means, don't improvise, just play a few notes around the melody but don't go off and improvise.  Play the note a semitone away or crush against the next black note, just little things to make the melody work.  Delaying the melody is a nice thing to do:  Play perhaps two chords and just before entering the third chord, bring the melody in from 2 chords before and join it at the right time with the third chord.  This will also be interesting because it will have the melody play over a different chord, thus providing different note values.  For example, with Autumn Leaves as my demo tune, Play Am / / / | D7b9 / / / | GM7 / / / | CM7 / / / | etc., you could, rather than play the melody (as per the words at the beginning just before the first chord comes in:  The Autumnnn leeeaavvvess into Am7...), don't play this, just the chord.  Then go into D7b9 (or b5 is nice), then the nice resolutory GM7 but as you play this chord, begin the melody quickly (the melody with the words: the autumn leeaavves.. drift by my winndoowww).  It really sounds impressive if you can finish that just before you play CM7.  Normally, the melody would be E Gb G C which, in the key/with the chord of Am, would be 5th, 6/13th, 7, m3.  But in G with a GM7, would be 6/13, M7, 1, 4/11.  I know the second time you play the melody, the notes are a little different as it finishes on a B not a C, but the point is, playing the melody later, over a different chord, gives the notes new values, so it sounds very interesting!

Moving into the song a little more, the time comes for you to abandon the melody and give the chords your own notes.  Of course, what follows assumes that you do have some improvising ability.  If not, read my other entries and/or send me a message.

Begin with a nice idea which fits easily to the chords.  Some pianists think that not many notes is boring but the opposite is true.  If you play the right 'values' with their accompanying chord, you need only play one or two notes anyway, at any speed of rhythm.

You may wish to portray an increase in happiness, or sadness, or loneliness.  Whichever you choose, play note values/chord extensions accordingl.

Consider call-and-response ideas:  think about a conversation between notes.  You may play the notes Eb, D, Eb, G, B, G (which sound nice over the chords of our demo song), then leave a little space as you play one or two chords, then respond to that with B, G, D, Eb, D, Eb, B, G, A.  What you are doing by thinking this way is 'sectioning' your improvisation.  This has two benefits that I can think of right now:  it keeps your improvisation tidy so you don't get lost, and it helps the listener follow where you are in the improv.

As the story continues, you may wish to introduce a new 'character', an 11 or #11.  DO NOT play a #11 with a m7 because it clashes; conversely, DO NOT play an 11th with a M7 because it clashes.  Therefore, 11ths are good with m7 and #11 are good with M7.  Try to remember that.

The sound of the 11th with a m7 is 'gentle soft open' and works so well in all parts of any melodic song; intro, general chords in song, ending chord.  Enhance your story by enriching it with (#)11ths.

A further enhancement could be by way of block chords.  This could express a depth of some feeling in your story.  It may uplift your listeners if used with dominant 7 chords, or 13ths.  Apply an improvised melody to the top of your block chord with your ring and/or little finger of the right hand playing some individual notes on top of the main block chord being played by both hands.  You may choose to approach the ending of your story by breaking down or slowing down the movement (less block/more arpeggio) of the chords.

As you end your story, you may play the melody once more in a 'conclusive' way, as if to say goodbye, or to weep over the silence of the large block chords which may have represented a death or loss.  A nice touch is to play circles of III/VI/II/V chords but switch between different keys as you do so, creating a rich blend of 'closing sounds' but never actually resolving when you 'should' to the I, but rather switching to a new key.  For example, the II V I in Autumn Leaves is in Em, the last chord, even though it starts in Am.  So, II and V of E are F#m and B7.  You could play that to finish, then move to the III, Abm, then the VI, C#m (and because it's a 6th, it could be played as a dominant, so play C#13, for example), then consider this C# dominant chord a V, which it is, in the key of F#, so resolve that C#13 to F#M7.  Then do a VI of F# which is Eb, so play a 13th, then the II which is Abm which, as we saw earlier, is also the III of Em, so consider the Abm the III now of E rather than the II of F#, and go back to resolving the III/VI/II/V/I of Em.  Sound great!

You may want to practice that one, but you'll get it.

So as you can see, rather than playing anything for your improvisation and perhaps quickly running out of ideas, why not 'chapter' your improv and slowly embellish it with new 'characters' and storylines?  You can express all feelings that a writer can using chords and extensions in melodies.

Happy writing!

Dan