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Masterless Effortry

I had a painful experience about 25 years ago and I found a really powerful solution that I know will help others and is worth sharing.

I was the pianist in a big band populated mostly by amateur players run by a retired professional trumpet player. We were on a gig in a local town hall and played the first half of our set of arrangements that we had rehearsed. All was going according to plan. And then it happened.

The leader chatting with the audience over the microphone suddenly said: “Any requests?”

Someone shouted back, “Pennies from Heaven”.

Our leader turned to me and said off mic, “Can you play it?”

I shook my head in a mild panic. He looked at me for a few seconds more, then said, through a Cab-Calloway-like smile, “Try.” Before adding, “In Bb.”

With that he turned back to the audience and started to play. He played once through the melody in order to fulfil his contract with the audience member and fashioned a small cadenza on the last chord which I joined him for, knowing it would be Bb. Almost every other chord I played before that was wrong. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do because I did not know what I was doing. In short, it was a train crash. For me at least.

In hindsight I displayed “masterless effortry” (an amusing take by a friend of mine on the title of Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, a book I would not come across for another 15 years or so).

The sense of shame I felt for not being up to the job was extreme. I quickly dealt with that uncomfortable feeling inside my head by blaming the leader (again, inside my head) for taking such an irresponsible risk by creating these unhelpful thoughts:

  • How could he be so rash/stupid/unkind?
  • If I’d had a chord sheet, I could have read it with ease.
  • It was not my fault! No one else in the band could have done it.
  • Why is the job of pianist so much harder than that of any of the other musicians in the band?
  • It would be ridiculous to expect me to know the chords to random jazz standards in whatever key he decides.

If I had read Nick Bottini’s, Just Play book about overcoming our unhelpful thoughts, I may well have handled the thoughts in my head better. Nick recently gave me a free copy of his book for making him laugh on his Wellbeing and Excellence Facebook group with a Limerick:

There was a young man called Bottini

Whose methods were rather unseemly

He’d post up a graphic

With words psychopathic

And host Zoom calls in just a bikini.

But I digress; back to my story: I received sympathetic looks from the rest of the band. We finished the set, packed up and went home. Nothing more was said about it.

Playing in jam sessions I occasionally found similar experiences would occur. I remember being so ashamed of my performance after being called to play on a standard tune I had not learned that I had to leave the building and walk the city centre for half an hour just to calm down. And when accompanying singers, it was often worse because you were lulled into a false sense of security by being given a chord chart in their key that usually turned out to be completely useless.

The Penny Drops

Eventually, I realised that the problem was never going away if I kept expecting the world to change. You can only change yourself and how you respond to the events that come your way:

  • Deal with your internal thoughts: Problems for musicians commonly occur becasue of the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what other people think of our playing and what they expect of us. Learning to clear this out of the way can remove a massive barrier to our enjoyment of playing music. See the reading list below for a couple of books on the subject.
  • Learn the territory: You need to identify and practice in many keys the chunks of chord progression that occur in the kinds of music you play. If you focus on the perfect voicings of Bill Evans playing with no-one else but his own trio, you will not be well prepared for what the world throws at you. There is so much listening and responding needed in a jazz performance, it is not possible to do if you don’t know the material and impossible if you are reading.

Something had changed. I knew that I wanted to know how to hear and memorise the changes to a song without having them in front of me to read. And I was on a journey to find out how I needed to change in order to achieve it.

I’d never had an experienced jazz teacher who could teach me about the oral tradition, common song forms and how chord progressions work. What I did know, I had mostly taught myself from books. Though I had done quite a lot of transcription, it was of random songs that I liked in order to learn a cool voicing from Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans and I rarely transcribed more than a few bars. And, therefore, I did not get to understand how songs are put together and, thereby, how to hear where a song will probably go next.

Another friend of mine mentioned a book by Conrad Cork about an approach to learning jazz harmony like LEGO bricks that join together to make songs. It was sold by Jazzwise, a UK publisher, at the time. This was in the days of books printed on paper. I read it from cover to cover.

I was hooked because I knew this was the key to the answer to my problem. Not only did it explain the method of analysing and memorising chord progressions in a key-independent manner, but it had at least half of the book dedicated to explaining how jazz should be taught and explained why most teachers from the classical music tradition simply don’t understand how to teach jazz. His approach is based on listening to recordings of the masters and the oral tradition. But also he explains very well the difference in mindset between classical and jazz musicians. One idea that really helped me was the notion that each jazz performance is just a report on progress on playing that song. It is not meant to be some kind of perfectly finished product.

It all made so much sense to me. So much, in fact, that I started to analyse jazz standards using the approach in order that I could analyse and memorise them.

I can be a bit obsessive about things. I soon found that I had analysed over 200 songs using a spreadsheet to build visual roadmaps for each song. It occurred to me that others could benefit from my work and, with Conrad’s blessing, I wrote my own book extending the method and including all the song roadmaps.

Conrad’s book is no longer available. My book was also published in paper form by Jazzwise for a few years, but I decided from the beginning to also publish it myself as a PDF e-book which continues to be a popular form.

Things have moved on since 2009 when I first published my book:

  • PDF e-book is more convenient than paper form because it is electronically searchable. Owners can print out pages should they wish to. Less paper is wasted, sunk costs are reduced and everybody wins.
  • I made a series of free podcasts about the method and examples song analyses.
  • I run a discussion group online where users of the method can share their experiences.
  • Practice charts for the chord “bricks and joins” are available for free on the iRealPro Forum. The iRealPro app can be used with the free charts to learn all the sequences in any key with auto-generated backing tracks.

Pennies from Heaven

So, back to my devastating experience with Pennies from Heaven. What have I learned since then? Well, it is actually one of the simplest jazz standards and its chord progression is very easily memorised in a key-independent way.

Here is the roadmap from my book for the song:

The overview is as follows:

  • The chords are written in the key of C, but once the bricks and joins are understood, can be played in any key.
  • A section: a common jazz turnaround. (Many variants are possible and you can find them by listening to various recordings of this song to see what people play.) Play the turnaround twice and that is the first eight bars covered and the key is firmly established.
  • B section: Cadence to IV followed by the Slow Launcher (II7 V7) that we learn to expect at the end of B sections.
  • A’ section: Starts like the first A section but ends with a cadence to IV like we saw at the beginning of the B section.
  • C section: a “meta brick” over eight bars that is probably the most common sub-sequence in jazz. A variant of this is the last eight bars of the 12-bar blues, so it’s sound will be familar to you for sure.

One of the advantages of this approach is that you are not phased by chord substitutions. It encourages you to think in large chunks of chord progression within which some chords might be substituted, but you still know where you are in the song and where you are going.

As an illustration of how powerful this approach is, take the last eight bars of the chord sequence. This brick is labelled as the “Pennies Ending” after this song it is found in. But it is well worth becoming familiar with because it (or a close variant) is also found in the chords for the following songs:

  • Last eight bars of the blues.
  • The More I See You
  • There’ll Never Be Another You
  • A Weaver of Dreams
  • You Go to My Head
  • I Thought about You
  • It Had to Be You
  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • Moonglow
  • I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me
  • East of the sun
  • Emily
  • I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • It Could Happen to You
  • It’s You or No-one
  • In a Mellow Tone

Taking this approach allowed me to memorise hundred of jazz standards and retain a trio gig for 12 years before the global pandemic temporarily stopped live music.

If you would like to read more about my book, download sample pages or purchase it, please check out my website. If you would like to read more about handling your own thoughts and emotions which are stopping you playing music, check out the reading list below.

Further reading

Elliott, J, Insights in Jazz, 2009.

Werner, K, Effortless Mastery, Jamie Aebersold Publishing, 1996.

Bottini, N, Just Play, ReThink Press, 2018.

By jaelliott24

Jazz musician, author and teacher.

One reply on “Masterless Effortry”

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