Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Know the Chords, Hear the Changes...or Not

In the 9 years that I’ve been playing music I’ve never fully believed in the concept of chords being a predetermined order of stacked notes that you then solo over. I don’t think I hear music this way, which may be why I was initially drawn to the single-note melodies of traditional Irish music despite having no cultural or social connection to that type of music. In Irish traditional music it seems that melody comes first and harmony/chords are a non-essential modern add-on.

Traditional Irish music is great, but I really want to play music that is not tied to any tradition, style or genre. Music that is completely free of those connections. So, then the question becomes how do you extend this concept of melody first into the realm of free improvisation?

For one thing I never know what the chords changes are to a song – I can’t really hear “right” from “wrong” in this way – and the idea of having to be aware of the chord changes and basing my selection of improvised notes on this knowledge seems restrictive. If I play a “B” note why does that have to be a G-major chord to meet someone’s idea of what sounds “good”? Couldn’t you pair that B note with the notes in a B-minor chord, or an E-minor chord, or any combination of notes that somehow complements that B note? And can’t you change it every time? 

Then I read about Ornette Coleman - the great melody writer and improviser - and how he had dispensed with chord sequences in his compositions and instead used melody as the basis for improvisation.  This gave him the freedom to take those melodies in any direction he wanted at whatever length, pitch and speed felt right.  Knowing about this makes me feel a lot better and when I listen to Ornette's music I hear something similar to what I have in mind or hoped could be done.
I won't pretend to even begin to understand what Ornette Coleman was doing or how he heard and interpreted music, but knowing that such an important figure in the history of jazz did not rely on predetermined harmonic structure gives me some confidence that you can effectively improvise melodically without concern for the underlying or implied chords.  Now I just need to find other musicians who want to practice this type of playing.  Hello?  Anyone?  Is there anybody out there?  Maybe an upright bassist or a cello player is reading this?  I'm sending out smoke signals.

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