Hey Jazz Guy: Constructing Chord Melodies

January 30, 2014

Hey Jazz Guy,

How can I construct an interesting chord melody from a lead sheet? –Building in Boulder

Dear Building,

The ability to create a great chord melody or solo arrangement can really take your playing to the next level and is a very important addition to your jazz arsenal. Although this is a deep topic that you can spend years perfecting, there are ways to break it down that can be useful and lead you in the right direction. The most important thing to consider is the given melody and harmony that form the basis of the song. The first example, typical of an A section from a jazz standard, will function as our practice song.

The single notes in Ex. 1 represent the melody, and the chord changes are as written. Step one is to pair each important note with a chord that includes that note as the highest voice, as shown in the chords in Ex. 1. It is also critical to remember what each note tells us about the accompanying chord. For example, the Bb in the fourth bar dictates that the G7 must have a #9 in the chord. For songs with a rhythmically active melody, like a bop tune, we have to choose the most important notes. However, for songs with a lyrical melody, like our example, all the key notes should stand out.

Next, we examine our chosen chords from the perspectives of melody, bass, and inner lines. The melody was our given, so that we keep. The bass line is also dictated by the chord changes, so we have kept most of our voicings in root position for now. The inner lines in Ex. 2 become interesting, because there is a lot of room for motion that can enrich the harmony and add tensions that put the chords in more appealing inversions.

This brings us to the final two crucial concepts: a capella lines and chord split- ting. A cappella lines [Ex. 3] can be parts of the tune that have no chord or passing tones in the bass, melody, and inner lines. In addition, they can include actual improvised moments that serve to fi ll space between chords. Chord splitting [Ex. 4] refers to distributing one chord over multiple beats in many voicings to create depth and texture. In Ex. 5 we apply each of these concepts to our practice song and analyze how they work together. (Chord symbols are provided for reference). The first two bars have some chord splitting and solo melodies as passing tones. Notice how the actual melody notes are emphasized and sometimes held on top of the inner motion. The third bar includes octaves to accent the melody and anticipation of the Bb. In bar four, we side slip down to the G7 and add a solo melody that targets the G note of the next bar. Most of this example is in a more traditional style, but we throw in some more modern voicings in bar 5. Bar 6 places the melody note on the downbeat of one, then follows a descending diminished series targeting the next melody note, F, for Bbmaj7. The final two bars are improvised to show that, when there are natural gaps in the given melody, you can fill them with solo lines and chord figures. Creating chord melodies is always a challenge, but practicing them can drastically improve every aspect of your playing. These basic concepts will give you a good place to start, but you can follow them anywhere. Remember to think of themes like sparse, dense, inside, outside, in tempo, and rubato. As always, listen lots, practice patiently, and jazz hard!

Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to guitplyr@musicplayer.com. Jake’s latest release is Evolution [Buckyball].

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