Updated: Nov 18, 2020
My mother-in-law is a great cook! You know, the kind that you simple go weak in the knees the moment you walk in the front door. And one of the things that I have noticed about all great cooks is they have certain recipes that are their "go-to's." They know how to make it, they have made it many times, and it always seems to come out perfect. Good cooks can do that, but chefs have an entire repertoire of recipes. Dozens, hundreds even!
The great jazz musicians are just like the chefs. The only difference is that instead of recipe's they know tunes. It may start out with just one tune that you can really improvise on. Then maybe three or four, then ten, and suddenly you start having a deep repertoire of music. Without learning tune, you are no different than a cook in a kitchen with no recipes!
This is where the fun begins. It is in the practicing of repertoire that musicians get to put everything together. Here is where we implement the language we acquire, here is where we get to outline scales and chords, here is where we can practice voice leading. The other interesting thing about learning tunes is that the unique chord progressions and patterns that you are thrust into teaches you a lot about improvisation and music - the tunes themselves become the teacher. So how do we get started?
First, it is helpful to break this down into two main parts - Melody, and Chords (harmony). The Melodic content of a tune cannot be overlooked. Simply learning melodies alone provides a rich tradition to draw from. Reading melodies is great, learning melodies by ear is even better. When I am working on a new tune, the first thing I do is find as many recordings of that tune as I can so that I can hear and copy the interpretations that I like the best. Real Books are good resources, but many times the melodies are written out in a very basic notation. The real presentation of those melodies is usually more rhythmically interesting than what is notated in the Real Book.
Next it is about getting into the harmony of the tune. I use a relatively simple 5 step routine. Step 2) Play the roots of each chord. I am doing this in time, so if a chord lasts a full measure, I am playing a whole note. Step 3) Arpeggiate the 7th chord. Working up to the 7th of the chord is important because here I can get into the major, dominant, minor, diminished, or augmented quality of the chords. Take time to really get this one right, because you will gain so much from it. Sept 4) Play just the 3rds or 7ths of the chords. and finally Step 5) isolate spots to insert some of the language you are working on. This can occur on specific dominant chords or ii-V passages.
I would suggest challenging yourself to learn a new tune every week. Go deep with a tune and really progress throughout the week. It may not seem like much, but over time you can acquire a ridiculous amount of repertoire by simply adding one tune a week! The members only section includes improvisation guides for a growing list of tunes which helps players identify spots in the tune to insert language as well as some insights on ways to approach certain harmonic challenges.