Recently I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who’s a great rock and funk bassist but not as comfortable with jazz. He told me he was having trouble wrapping his head around the progressions of jazz standards such as ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘Beyond the Sea.’ Here are a few of my thoughts I shared with him – which apply not only to bassists but other jazz instrumentalists, especially rhythm section players who have to hold down the foundation of a chord progression as well as be able to improvise over it.
Just as it’s possible to memorize a melody – “Happy Birthday to You”, “Star Spangled Banner”, etc – it’s possible to memorize a chord progression. Many musicians can play a 12-bar blues progression without having to think about it. With enough repetition, playing through a jazz standard – even one with a complex progression – can become second nature. The key is understanding that fluency in jazz or any other style has a lot to do with muscle memory: both in your hands (programming them to execute the chords) and in your ears, which are also muscles (hearing the progression, anticipating the changes, knowing the beginning and the ending just as one would with a famous melody.)
As with learning a melody, repetition is important. Why does everyone know “Happy Birthday?” Because they’ve sung it hundreds of times. No one sits down and tries to study it; they just absorb it by repetition. Twelve-bar blues progressions are easy to remember because of the hundreds of songs that use them. The challenge with chord progressions is that often times it’s hard to hear them over the vocals or lead instruments. Fortunately, there are several resources – CD/book play-along packages and web sites (such as this MIDI rendition of the chords to the standard “Black Orpheus”) available that allow musicians to listen to chord progressions on demand. When possible, following along with the lead sheet can be very helpful too, especially if you have an opportunity to practice but are away from your instrument (such as on a long airplane trip.) Never underestimate the importance of listening as part of your practice routine.