For those who are just getting on board, I’m in the midst of a series about how listening to Jazz is different than listening to Rock/Pop, because the two genres have a fundamentally different compositional structure.  I’m using the transcripts of an email conversation I had with my friend Bryan as the outline of the series.  Part 2 left off with me responding to Bryan’s questions about the difference between “jamming” and “improvising,” and I’ll use Part 3 to cover the rest of that explanation on Jazz improvisation.

The “Head/Solo/Head” Structure

The compositional structure of Rock/Pop is probably what you’re used to, because that’s what American popular music revolves around these days.  The easy way to summarize the “through composed” form of a Rock/Pop song is “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus.”  The idea is that Rock/Pop songs have sections, and the sections have different melodies and chord progressions.  The song gets mapped out into an arrangement of those sections (maybe including a bridge or a pre-chorus also), and as a band you just follow that arrangement and play the sections correctly and you’re good to go.  Rock/Pop songs obviously differ slightly from VCVCC most of the time, but the point stands.  So that’s how a Rock/Pop song works… it’s a “through-composed” arrangement of sections.

Jazz, on the other hand, follows what is called a “head/solo/head” compositional structure.  What this means is that, in contrast with a Rock/Pop song, a Jazz tune is essentially just a “chorus.”  It has chord changes and a melody, like the chorus (and other sections) in a rock song, but in jazz you just do the one and only section over and over the whole time.  The first time you play it, everybody does what they’re supposed to do: the drummer plays swing ride cymbal patterns etc, the bass player walks, the piano player plays the chord progression, and the melody instrument (trumpet or saxophone or whatever) plays the composed melody.  This is called the “head.”  The head is over when this first time through the “chorus” section is done, and then the band starts in right away into another time through the “chorus” section… repeating what they just got done playing.  But now, because the head is over, the song is in the “solos” part of that head/solos/head structure.  This means that the band keeps playing the chorus same as in the head, but the melody instrument now plays an improvised solo over the chord progression instead of the actual melody.  The improviser is the soloist, and as such, he is the focal point of the song at that moment.

It’s important to know that the soloist is the real heart of Jazz.  The head is played at the beginning only as a way to let the listeners in on the chord progression that the soloist will be working in, and when the solo section arrives, that’s when the song really begins (at least in the minds of Jazz fans).  As the soloist, you get as many times through the form as you want (I’ve been calling it the “chorus” so far, but it’s actually known as the “form”).  The whole time, the band just plays what they’re supposed to within their respective instruments’ roles… BUT, the non-soloing players listen closely to the soloist to try and support where he’s going with his improvisation.  For instance, as a drummer, I might hear a particular rhythm that the soloist is messing with, and I can join in on that or counter it (maybe with something on the snare drum underneath my swing ride pattern).  Then the soloist hears my accents, and that might give him some inspiration for where to go next with his improv ideas.  In this way a dialogue is created, but the dialogue is always within the context of the original form (chord progression and measure layout of the “chorus”).  Meanwhile, the piano player jumps in where he sees fit, and there’s room for the bass player to be contributing too.  So now the whole group is “discussing” what the soloist is playing, but the soloist still has “the floor” of the discussion, so he can musically tell someone, “dude, we’re not going down that road right now” or whatever.  Some side discussions can emerge, between me and the piano player maybe, but again, we have to remember that what any non-soloist plays should be centered on the soloist… and all of this is staying true to the original form.

All of the discussion going on underneath the soloist is known as “comping.”  I think the term is technically short for “accompaniment,” but I like to think of it as short for “complement.”  The things that I play underneath the soloist should “complement” what he’s doing.  As a comping musician, what I’m playing should be making his solo better, because I’m helping to facilitate what he’s doing.

When the soloist is done with his improvising, he plays something that sounds like a conclusion, and he does this toward the end of the form, and that signals that he’s finishing up.  The baton then passes to the next guy in line.  If our imaginary band were a typical saxophone quartet, then the first solo would be the saxophone player, and next would be the piano.  So, as the saxophone player signals the end of his solo, “the floor” then transfers to the piano player, and the process repeats.  The pianist might build his solo out from where the saxophone player left off, or he might pioneer a different thing entirely.  When everyone who is going to take a solo has taken one, then the band plays the head once more to end the song.  Head/solos/head… just like that.

All Jazz songs follow head/solo/head.  That’s where the close relationship with Blues that I mentioned comes in.  On that “Out Of My Mind” JMT track, the “head” would be Mayer singing the lyric for the song, and the solo section would of course be his guitar solo, and then he sings the head again at the end.  Boom.  It’s as simple as that.  What makes Jazz stand out from Blues is the usually complex chord progressions and measure layout in a jazz form (the “chorus” thing), whereas in Blues the form is almost always a 12-bar, “1-4-1-5-4-1” chord pattern.  I won’t explain that any further, but I bet you might already know what I’m talking about there.

So again, this is how Jazz works… ALWAYS.  That’s why musicians who have never met each other can play Jazz together without any prep.  “Jazz Standards” are songs that are traditionally very popular for Jazz musicians to play, because the forms are really cool/interesting/fun to improvise over or whatever.  Good examples of Jazz standards would be tunes like, “My Funny Valentine,” or “The Way You Look Tonight.”  As a working Jazz musician, if you know songs like that, then you can easily enter into the head/solos/head dialogue and play an entire gig’s worth of “standards” with people you have never played with before (assuming that you know the role of your instrument).

In Part 4 I’ll dive into a famous Miles Davis track to use as an example of what’s been covered so far in the series, but no promises on when that will be posted, because I’m up to my ears in prep for a subbing gig I have tomorrow night.