Improving Your Recall

Originally Published in Canadian Musician Magazine, May/June Issue 2014

Improving your recall

This article is geared towards the intermediate level jazz pianist who has a good understanding of harmony and basic jazz chord voicings.

Two commons question that I receive from my students are:

1. How can I work on finding the voicings we have been working on more quickly?

2. What is the best voicing for a given melody note?

In order to solve the problem presented by the first question, one must have excellent recall of their entire repertoire of voicings.  For the second question one must learn to think of how the melody note relates to the bass note instantly.  The following exercise was designed to solve both questions in one.

We keep a static pitch in the top of the melody, in this case C, while the bass notes ascend chromatically.  This forces you to think intervallically and generate 12 different harmonies on the spot for the same melody note.

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This exercise will take a while the first time.  These chords and voicings are not the only option for this exercise, try to find as many as you can.

Another version of the same idea is to take a tune and re-harmonize a section with the same type of chord.  In this second example we have the 1st 4 measures of the common jazz standard “All the Things You Are”.  Here is how it sounds if we decide to make each melody note the 9th of a min7th chord, I have used enharmonics for ease of reading.

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And here is how it sounds if we make each melody note the 5th of a major chord

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finally the #9 of a 7th chord

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This second exercise is really just for practice.  I wouldn’t advise completely re-harmonizing a tune on the spot when you are playing behind a vocalist or a horn player. However, this exercise often leads to discovering some really interesting harmonies and is fantastic for your ears.

Both of these exercises may seem challenging at first.  They will both lead to a deeper understanding of the chords that you already know.  You may also find them helpful as a compositional exercise or, when you have to improvise an introduction to a tune on the spot in a playing situation.  This type of practice is also a good way refresh a stagnant practice routine.  Feel free to alternate chord types when you play the second exercise, there is really no limit to the variations that can be applied!  After a week you should notice that your recall is much faster.