“You don’t know what you like, you like what you know. In order to know what you like, you have to know everything.” — Branford Marsalis.
Musicians who forge their own path of rhythms, chord structures, and improvised melodies usually draw their models from their formative years as a musician. They develop a style not that different from the things they played in their earlier years, but is clearly not the same. Their compositions have become quite unique and specific to the performance. They make Jazz.
Due to choices in phrasing, tone, and arrangements, a musician’s audience begins to change. The more defined the music becomes, the more defined the listener base becomes. Jazz musicians slowly stop imitating what others were, or are, doing (cover tunes) and start exploring the limits of what they know as a musician by developing chord arrangements, creating phrasing, and dialing in the tone that felt right for the moment and seemed to communicate. In short, jazz players often move away from their roots and push into new territory.
It has been my observation that some jazz musicians try to read the audience. They start searching for phrasing that resonates with the audience and then pull out more phrases similar to the one that seemed to connect. They create new phrases while in the moment to continue that engagement with the audience. When it happens, it is a profound experience for the musician and the audience.
I have heard many folk and blues guitarists working open string chords with finger positions that stay in the same configuration but slide up and down the neck to create movement. You may recall that Peter Townsend (lead guitarist for The Who) built cords that do not have the third note of the scale clearly represented. The third note defines the chord as a minor or major chord; without the third note, the chord is neutral. These neutral chords defined a sound leveraged by numerous other musicians. I like the feeling these neutral chords create and I use this technique from time to time. Many of the blues players from the Muscle Shoals tradition used the minor 7th chord as a base chord for songs. The minor 7th chord has an interesting balance between melancholy and happy that is delightful to work with. If you listen to my work and you will hear the minor 7th chord used frequently.
The vocabulary of most jazz musicians include melodic phrases (angular in design and presentation) and chord structure phrases (modulation between tension and rest) that have their beginning in the essential roots of big band, folk, blues, and rock music. The phrasing models feel comfortable, are familiar, and, therefore, are useful tools to embed emotions into the structure of a song.
“I don’t need words. It’s all in the phrasing.” – Louis Armstrong