Theory Resources: Volume 1

Jazz Theory Resources: Volume 1


Trying to learn jazz is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done
(Jazz Book). Jazz Theory Resources is a jazz theory text in two volumes. Volume I (00030458, $39.95) includes: review of basic theory, rhythm in jazz performance, basic tonal materials, triadic generalization, diatonic harmonic progressions and harmonic analysis, substitutions and turnarounds, common melodic outlines, and an overview of voicings. Volume II (00030459, $29.95) includes: modes and modal frameworks, quartal harmony, other scales and colors, extended tertian structures and triadic…

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Trying to learn jazz is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done(r/piano)

First, you need to lower your expectations. Learning jazz is very similar to learning a new instrument. People picking up something new when they are already better at something else always get frustrated that they can’t replicate in a week what previously took them years… and then they give up.

Realize that you’re just going to have to put the training wheels back on. You won’t sound good immediately, and it will be much harder. Actually learning something new is very mentally taxing. Most people either polish stuff they are already good at or they stick to things that are slightly more difficult, but still in their wheelhouse so they aren’t absolutely mentally draining the way learning something new can be.

You have to be willing to work through that and use a lot of mental energy digesting hard concepts for a very long time before you get any good at any of it.

So let’s see what I can manage to answer. The obvious answer is to get a jazz teacher and everyone will say that. But of course, obstinate and/or poor people won’t, so I’ll throw out a lot of resources. The caveat being you still need to buy stuff. Youtube can be helpful for adding little nuggets of knowledge here and there, but is basically useless for following any sort of progressive, systematic method of improving.

> What voicings do I play

This is a complicated question. I usually recommend Intro to Jazz Piano for people getting started. It will start with 3-7 voicings in every key written out (which is nice for people coming from a classical background). That’s your pre-req stuff and then it starts putting them into use in actual context. Adding slowly increasingly difficult bass motion and right hand comping patterns in both swing and bossa styles. Eventually it gets into adding melodies on top of your voicings more interesting voicings. It also covers the very basics of improv theory.

But it will get you started on the very fundamental idea of which notes are important (spoiler… 3-7… and the root). Everything else is just window dressing.

A book I just ran into at a convention and picked up is The Chord Voicing Handbook. I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it. It’s essentially a glossary of voicing ideas for pretty much any chord you can run into. It’s aimed more at the type of person who finds themselves in a HS jazz band with only a classical background and a clueless band director who also can’t spell jazz chords (most can’t) or help in any way with keys. The problem is that you could use it as a crutch and not actually learn to think about the chord you’re spelling. If you used it as a source for voicing ideas and practiced them in context away from the book, it could be quite useful. Definitely a low priority book.

>How do I get from this chord to the next one while maintaining smooth voice leading

Answered in the Intro to Jazz Piano book. Basically learning about your 3-7 in a ii-V-I progression is where it all comes from.

>How do I even finger this chord

I seem to remember recommendations in the above book, but I’d also say don’t sweat it as much as you are. From a classical background everything has a “proper” fingering. In jazz and pop styles in general you shouldn’t think of there being a right and wrong way to finger things. If you learn it one way you’ve just learn “another” way to play it. It’s not necessarily the wrong one… just another option that could be situationally useful. That doesn’t mean it’s the most optimal, but playing a lot and exploring ideas will help you come up with better ideas. When approaching both scale sequence patterns and walking bass patterns I would just have to figure out how to optimally navigate specific exercises. I’d often come back a day later and re-evaluate realizing a better solution. But in the wide scope of things just having the dexterity to use a variety of fingering solutions and not play yourself into a corner is the most important. The foundation of good fingering choices that bleed over from classical training can help make good decisions going forward and is definitely where I’d tell someone to start. If you can’t play all of your major/minor scales, arpeggios and cadences with comfortable fingering choices, do that first.

>What the fuck do I play with my right hand, I’m not even hearing anything in my head

If you’re not hearing anything, you’re not listening to enough jazz. A lot of the melodic ideas just come from listening.

>I’m hearing something in my head, but I can’t replicate it on the keyboard

Training your ear takes a lot of time and dedication. It’s also an area where me and most jazz pedagogues differ. Those with a lot of jazz experience tend to immediately say “go transcribe stuff.” The problem is, they recommend transcribing jazz. NO. If you don’t understand jazz theory you’re just wasting time making blind guesses.

Burt Ligon apparently is on the same page with me about ear training. It should be learned in the context of a tonal center rather than as individual intervalic exercises. In his book, Jazz Theory Resources he talks about recommending that his students start by transcribing children’s songs and other simple, familiar tunes. Some balk, but the reality is that if you can’t sit down with staff paper and write out Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re not gonna be able to sit down and effectively transcribing a burning hard bop solo by Coltrane.

Start at the beginning. For the most part it’s about understanding your landing points in simple, triadic music. 1-3-5 (do-mi-sol) ofthe key. Everything else has a certain amount of tension that wants to lead to one of those notes. 7 leans hard 1. 4 leans hard to 3. 2 could go to 1 or 3. 6 leans weakly to 5. If you’re not familiar with solfege try singing scale degree numbers. Or, if that is odd (and 7 can definitely be cumbersome in the mouth) just single a syllable like “la” but think what scale degree you’re on at all times.

Also, in your case, stop trying so hard to improvise right now when you lack both the theory, the technique, and an understanding of the mechanics. It’s an exercises is futility and will lead to nothing by frustration.

>Now I’m playing a bunch of random notes from the harmony I’m in and it sounds like shit

This will get touched on briefly in Intro, but once again, the 3-7 concept is extremely important. You don’t want to play random notes in the key (and also, jazz frequently moves through several key “planets” –as Dave Frank calls them– in a short amount of space).

The 3 or 7 of the given chord is a safe, strong, landing points. 1 and 5 are safe, but a tad mild. 9, 11, and 13 can be fun if used well. It’s all about tension and release, but there’s a lot to understand to make all the working parts fit together.

>These chord changes are too fast, my mind can’t keep up

Stop trying. And certain don’t try to play a chart at speed if you can’t play it slow. It’s not different than classical. Slow down, use the metronome, play accurately, then speed up. With jazz you’re just going to have to isolate the chord chord and voicing ideas first and get good at them, then start applying them in real charts and just slowly build up your chart reading skill the same as you would sightreading or even learning sheet music.

>I take way too long to learn a bunch of fitting chords (let alone play something over it). Most of the time I just play the bass note to take some load of my brain

Same as classical. Learn simpler music and learn the fundamentals first.

>Almost every note I play comes as a surprise to my ear

You’ve probably not listened to much jazz so they sonorities are a bit different to you. Also, if you’re just not used to playing it, you might not know what to expect.

EDIT: I hit the 10,000 character limit… continued below.


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