Insights in Jazz

I had the pleasure of interviewing John Elliott. He wrote the book Insights in Jazz, which provides a systematic method to analyze and recognise chord progressions. It is based on the “LEGO bricks” approach and is a highly pragmatic (rather than theoretical) way to learn to play jazz standards by ear, and in any key.

Hello, John. Before we start talking about your book, can you tell something about yourself?

I live in Edinburgh, Scotland. I teach jazz piano, and I play in a jazz trio every week. During 2007, I helped Conrad Cork produce the final version (2008) of his Harmony with LEGO bricks by reviewing the whole book in detail and contributing summaries of the main parts.

In 2009 you wrote Insights in Jazz. In this book you analyze hundreds of jazz standards. Is it another Fake Book?

The ‘chord book’ resources have improved immensely over the last 20 years. But, as someone commented to me recently, everyone has all the Real Books these days, but they know fewer and fewer tunes.

While sight-reading is an important skill for playing in large ensembles like big bands, it is fundamentally not what jazz is about. You cannot play meaningful solos on a song until you have internalised that song. This means learning both the melody and the chord changes.

My book contains the chord progressions for over 230 songs analysed according to the method in the book. There are no melodies because these are copyright protected and also because these are best learned from recordings, rather than sheet-music.

A popular method of learning chord changes is by doing a harmonic analysis of songs (also called Roman numeral analysis or functional harmony). What’s wrong with this theoretical approach?

Basic functional harmony is still used in this method. However, the student is directed to the chunks of functional harmony that actually occur, rather than shown an abstract approach that they will never need to use. The regular II- V7 IM7 cadence is a well known example, and the student is shown the common variants that will occur. And each is given a short name so that we do not need to discuss Roman Numerals which can be difficult to communicate and translate into the aural tradition. The student learns to associate the feel with the short label and the job is done. They are not left wondering what other combinations might appear in the future.

Many theories of jazz harmony seem to contrive to present jazz harmony as difficult, which makes no sense in an aural tradition. There are lots of resources available to the jazz student, suggesting what can be played over particular chords and why functional harmony works the way that it does. The problem is that neither of these approaches is well suited to the problem of actually playing live jazz gigs.

Instead, we need to be aware of what kind of ‘musical events’ will happen and how to respond to them, in any key. A probabilistic approach is by far the best approach in the real world. If we know the most common events that occur in jazz standard chord progressions, then we can focus our time on making sure that we can improvise over them.

The Insights In Jazz book lays out a framework for the student to easily identify and name the events in a song. This is then applied to over 230 songs to show how it works. For example, you have supplied a roadmap from your book for the jazz standard What is This Thing Called Love.

Roadmap What is this thing called love

How should we read this chart or ‘roadmap’ as you call them?

First of all it is a holistic view of the song, what I call the ‘metaview’, and exploits the way that the human brain best remembers. It is as though we are looking down on the whole song from 30,000 feet and we can see the main features at a glance. We see the following elements:

1. Form

In this example the form is AABA (see the left hand side of the chart). Form gives a birds-eye view of complete songs. It is the starting point to see commonalities across the whole body of jazz standards.

2. Bricks

Next, looking in more detail, chunks of chord progression are identified as ‘bricks’. ‘What is This Thing Called Love?” contains the bricks: ‘cadence’ and ‘nowhere slow launcher’.

Colour is used to simplify the labelling of the bricks and to indicate when the harmony is minor (blue) or unexpected tension (orange), for example.

3. Joins

The only other thing we need is a means of getting from one brick to the next. This is covered by ‘joins’ which are the ‘magic moments’ that the student can learn to hear and are an important part of ear training largely overlooked.

In the example we see this joins: backslider, bootstrap, new horizon, down step, and static.

Once you learn a song in this way, you know all you need to know to play it in any key.

These bricks and joins have funny names like ‘nowhere’, ‘backslider’, ‘new horizon’, ‘slow launcher’ … Where do these names come from?

Many of them were coined in Cork’s book. Though some are not what I would have chosen, I saw no benefit in starting from scratch since there was already a community of users of his method. Some experienced players complain that these labels are all made up and not used in the wider community of jazz players. But the problem is that, in general, there are no names for most of these elements, apart from Roman Numerals which are not user-friendly to our brains. We aim to capitalize on the way the brain works and associate names of events to songs in which they occur, or the feeling that they evoke when we hear them. By naming them, we can make roadmaps of songs and then electronically search these roadmaps to see where the same events occur across hundreds of songs. This dramatically reduces the time taken to learn the repertoire.

The Slow Launcher uses what conventional functional harmony texts would call a secondary dominant (II7 in this case). It is typically made up of two measures of II7 followed by two measures of V7. Conventionally, this might be analysed as ‘V7 of V’ followed by V7.  In the real-time world of improvisation, this kind of abstraction takes too long to process. Instead, our method names the useful secondary dominants that actually occur so that the student can learn their sound and not waste time on others.

In a song of two halves (ABAC form) and also in songs with bridges (AABA), we often expect a Slow Launcher at the end of the B Section (see roadmap above). If students spend a short time listening to songs that do, they notice how many songs do this in exactly the same place; they learn the feel of this harmonic device and also how to reproduce it on their instrument. In a short space of time, they automatically know to play Slow Launchers (where appropriate) at the end of B Sections. This is a highly productive use of listening and practice time.

Another secondary dominant that is common is bVI7 and can be found in Out of Nowhere. So we call this the ‘Nowhere’ and we should be prepared to jump there on demand in a chord sequence since that is what happens. It is interesting to note that this chord is the tritone substitution with II7 and so, for simplicity and by association, we call II7 the ‘Somewhere’. Now we have labels for the common secondary dominants that can be used as shorthand and aides-memoire. So, for example, in the song ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ we see a ‘Nowhere Slow Launcher’ using bVI7 V7 in place of the more common II7 V7.

Clearly, there is some considerable learning to be done; no-one should expect to be able to play jazz overnight! But this focus means that the student can maximize payback without needed an experience jazz player teacher to tell them what to learn.

Your book also focuses on commonalities in songs. Can you give some examples?

OK. What do the chords for the following songs all have in common?

  • Corner Pocket
  • Don’t Go to Strangers
  • From Me to You (Beatles)
  • It Don’t Mean a Thing
  • I’m Confessin’ that I Love You
  • Just Squeeze Me
  • On the Sunny Side of the Street
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Satin Doll
  • September in the Rain
  • That’s All
  • The Things We Did Last Summer
  • Undecided
  • Under a Blanket of Blue
  • Woody ‘n’ You

The answer is that they all have the same bridge (or slight variants thereof), what I call the Honeysuckle Bridge. This bridge is so common that previously it has been named after a chain of US supermarkets, but that label is not a helpful one. By association with Honeysuckle Rose, we all know what we are talking about. Once you learn this bridge, you have advanced your ear training and saved time learning songs in the future. That was a simple example that many jazz players would know the answer to, but illustrates the power of the method.

Here’s another one. What have these songs in common?:

  • Tea for Two
  • You Don’t Know What Love is (bridge)
  • All The Things You Are
  • Anything Goes
  • Baubles Bangles and Beads
  • Bernie’s Tune
  • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
  • Gone With the Wind
  • How About You
  • I Love You
  • I Loves You Porgy
  • I Remember You (bridge)
  • If I Had You
  • I’m Old Fashioned
  • Like Someone In Love
  • Moonlight In Vermont
  • My Romance
  • Rosetta
  • Tangerine
  • These Foolish Things
  • They Can’t Take That Away From Me
  • Thunderbirds (TV theme)
  • The Touch of Your Lips
  • Winter Wonderland
  • You Go To My Head

The answer to this one is that they all have that special sound of modulating to Key III and use what the method calls the ‘Bauble’ join to get there. This is associated with the same event found in Baubles, Bangles and Beads.

Thank you John, I think our readers now have a good idea about what this ‘LEGO bricks’ approach is all about. To conclude I provide a list of books and websites where they can find more information.