Lots of lessons this week with new-to-Jazz singers. YAY! I get great joy de-mystefiing much of what those outside of the jazz world see as shiny untouchable jewels.

Lots of lessons this week with new-to-Jazz singers. BOO! Here in front of me stands the reason vocalists have a bevy of jokes about them not being musicians.

Jazz is a genre that many people think they can “just sing”. And I’ll take a shot that most people *can* sing the melody lines, with the written rhythms, or by learning by ear, if they have the inclination.

What many people *can’t* do, though, is breath life and self into a standard, not because they don’t fabulous voices, but because they don’t understand how these songs tend to “work.” For many vocalists, there is little attention given to the harmonic components of a standard. They tend to focus just on the melody line.

Hey, even trained vocalists have this going on. And who can blame them? Even in classical training, there is an implicit lesson being taught to vocalists: the sound coming out of your face is all you need to care about.

Let the conductor worry about what’s underneath. Pay attention to the accompaniment only when you aren’t singing. There’s no time to worry about accompaniment! You need to be worrying about your breath, your jaw, your resonant spaces, where is your tongue, breath again, blocking, fold closure, emotion, spin, spin, spin, breath again. I don’t think we voice teachers INTEND this. In fact, most I know pull their hair out trying to get our students on board with the theory side of things, only to be derailed by well meaning audiences or eye-rolly instrumentalists who say, “just sing.”

I digress. Point is, lots of vocalists don’t understand jazz because they don’t understand theory, which makes it impossible to understand harmony, which means you kind of don’t know what you’re doing. Plus, it’s hard. And intimidating. Especially when we can “just sing”.

So let’s change that just a little bit, right here, right now, and start with a basic harmonic idea in jazz:

The turnaround.

Turnarounds allow us to not be boring. They are way of hanging out in a key, without having to stay on the same chord. David Berkman says it’s like hanging out at a bus stop. You “could just stand there, or you could walk three paces one way, turn around and walk back six paces the other way and the turn around again and walk back three paced to get back to where you started.” You’re still waiting at the bus stop, only the first way you’re still, and then next, you’re filling the time with some interesting movement.

The function of a turnaround is to keep you hanging out with the I chord, in a much more interesting way. It’s there to give movement to a song, and to give your ear the sense of tension and release that wouldn’t happen if you just hung out on the I chord for two measures. It’s a holding pattern that isn’t boring.

Check this out:

The very basic idea would be 2 measures on Cmaj7. Let’s say eight beats total, and assume 4/4 time.

Instead of just hanging out on Cmaj7 for eight beats, we could:

Cmaj7 for 4 beats, Dmin7 for 2 beats, then G7 for 2 beats. We added in a ii, and a V7 to make it more fun!

Or we  could do this:
Cmaj7 for 2 beats, Amin7 for 2 beats, Dmin7 for 2 beats, G7 for 2 beats
Now go play it… recognize it as Heart and Soul? Oh goodie! We added a vi to that ii and V.
Or this:
Cmaj7, A7, Dmin7, G7: Here we got fancy with the secondary dominant
Cmaj7, Eb7, Dmin7, G7: I like this one… its got a tritone substitute.
Cmaj7, Eb7, Ab7, Db: More tritone substitutes. You’ll find this turnaround in Thelonious Monk’s Bemsha Swing

They all serve the same purpose, essentially. To get us from I, to V7, to I again, and replace eight measures of just I.

Why did you make me read that, Michelle?!

Because I love you, and want to you be able to do fancy things with your fancy voice! Humor me, and play around with some turnarounds this week. Then sing something over them. Start by playing just Cmaj7 for eight beats, and making up a little melody over it. Then play through these other progressions and see how it affects what you want to sing, or what it sounds like if you stick to the melody you made up.

This kind of ear and theory work is essential for understanding how to be part of the music, not just a voice on top of the music.

Plus, your band will be very grateful that you can have a savvy conversation about your lead sheets and improvisation. There is so much we can learn, but don’t let that stop you from starting small, and giving your skills something to turnaround.



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