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Grasping The Importance Of Melody



Greg Chako shares a true life story while discussing the importance of melody in the context of learning about jazz music.

My first dedicated relationship was with a woman who didn’t know anything about jazz, but she usually accompanied me when I went out to hear it in NYC (we lived in Brooklyn). She told me that she could not recognize what song the soloists were playing as they improvised. It probably seemed to her that they were playing whatever came into their heads in the moment. She couldn’t grasp the road map of the song or what the ‘changes’ were, but she was curious and willing to learn. She didn’t play an instrument and had no formal music training, but she could recognize melodies from the Great American Songbook. What I told her to do was this: 

After the initial melody is stated and the soloing begins, keep singing the melody in your head while they’re improvising.

Time passed, and we heard many great players in what I believe is (or was) the jazz capital of the world. One night we walked down the stairs of The Village Vanguard on 7th Ave. South and sat down at a table. The players were soloing at the time and she turned to me and said, “That’s My Funny Valentine, isn’t it?” It was! I asked her, “How did you know that?” She replied, “I can hear the changes.” BAM! There it is!

The reason she knew the song within seconds, even though the soloists were improvising and the melody was not being implicitly stated, is because she had taken my advice to heart. She had been singing melodies in her head every chance she got, and cohabitating with a serious jazz musician like me, she got plenty of chances! 

If you can learn to keep the melody in your head as you listen to jazz improvisation, you will begin to recognize the form and harmonic structure of the song even when the melody is not being played. And if you can keep the melody in your head during your own attempts at improvisation, your solos should begin to sound more coherent, heartfelt, and melodic, because the original melody will guide your own note selection and help to prevent you from merely repeating cliches or some of the scales or arpeggios you may have been practicing recently.

In addition, when you are comping you should be aware of the melody at all times, especially if someone else is either playing or singing it, because as often as possible, the top note of your accompanying chord voicing should be a harmonious (consonant) interval away from the melody note, such as a third or a sixth.

I believe that guitarist Jim Hall once said that everything he needed to know about a song was in the melody. He suggested that his improvisational ideas sprang from the melody much more than from the chord changes. That’s a powerful concept and a lesson in itself.

Melody is the supreme guide towards learning any song, hearing the chord changes, knowing how to improvise well, and improving memorization as well as on-the-spot recognition of standard song forms. The first step in learning any song is to learn the melody.

Guitarist Greg Chako

Before you worry about improvising on any song, know how to play the melody well. Play it in different positions and different keys, and importantly, sing it while you play it. When you sing (verbalize) what you play, something happens in the brain to maximize muscle memory, hand-eye-ear coordination, and memorization in general. When we verbalize, the ‘data’ is internalized in our bodies and mind more quickly and effectively.

Sometimes we all get sort of lost or ‘rambling’ when we solo. Keeping the melody present in our minds as we play helps us to avoid that pitfall. We can use short melodic motifs that are built off the melody, like an embellishment of the melody, to springboard our soloing ideas. I do this as often as I can remember to . . . At my best, I’ll start my solo with a short and simple song-like motif that I try to develop into longer, more exploratory phrases. If and when I begin to either ramble, or lose track of where I am relative to the melody (God forbid!), I might try to either state the melody implicitly or refer to it obliquely in my solo. Doing that grounds me and brings my focus back (hopefully) to what is important: playing melodic phrases as opposed to letting our fingers fall where they may by habit, likely to some practice riffs that have no relation to the melody of the song being played, and hence no place in that particular performance moment. 

A big ‘eye-opener’ which helped me to understand the importance of melody and of starting my solos with short motifs occurred while I was attending a class in my Master of Music degree program. We were being introduced to Brahms 2nd Symphony, and had been given the entire multi-page score in a small booklet. The professor explained how the seeds of the entire symphony were sown in just the first few melodic phrases – that material of first 16 bars or so was manipulated and developed into an entire symphony! The same thing happens with Beethovens’ 9th Symphony, and Wagners’ magnificent operas filled with “leitmotif’s,” the short melodic phrases that were attached to specific characters such that when the listener heard one of those motifs, its association to a particular character in the play could be made immediately by the listener. Often, you’d hear the music (leitmotif) foreshadowing the actors’ appearance onstage . . . “oh, Siegmond (the tenor in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) is about to show up!”

We all can learn from the examples described above by grasping the importance of melody and endeavoring to utilize it as our supreme guide to learning how to play and appreciate jazz. 

Check out Greg’s latest release – Tokyo Live

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