William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

Be Like Mike (Part 2)

Originally posted in May of 2013

In this second installment of my “Be Like Mike” series, I will explore certain tendencies found in Mike Moreno’s treatment of chord tones in his improvising.

 To begin, let us revisit a few basic concepts:

  • The primary harmonic language of jazz is 7th chord harmony. The chord tones of any given 7th chord are its Root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. For the purposes of my analysis I will also be considering 9ths as chord tones, being as they are routiney utilized by jazz improvisers as a colorful substitute for the root.
  • When in 4/4 time, the strong harmonic beats in a bar are beats one and three, due to the fact that when harmonies change, they most often do so on these beats.
  • An important element in achieving clarity in improvised lines is the utilization of strong notes (chord tones) on strong beats (beats one and three, for our current purposes).

While playing and studying the collection of Moreno’s transcriptions I presented in Part 1 of this series, I became curious as to how he utilized chord tones on strong beats, and decided to analyze his solos in this regard. Before I began, I hypothesized that part of the reason Moreno’s improvising is so effective lies in his ability to occupy strong beats with strong tones.

The testing of this hypothesis required a two-step process on each transcription. First, I counted the amount of times Moreno played a chord tone (CT) on a strong harmonic beat (SHB). Second, I counted the total amount of times Moreno played any note (CT or non-CT) on an SHB. Using these two figures, I was able to calculate the percentage of SHBs occupied to CTs, a figure I called the chord tone percentage—or CTP. In essence, the CTP reveals how many times Moreno, when playing on a strong harmonic beat, is playing a chord tone over the strong harmonic beat. For example, in his solo on “Airegin”, Moreno is playing on an SHB a total of 224 times. Of those 224 times, he is playing a CT a total of 184 times. These two numbers yield a CTP of 82%.

As I applied this process to all the Moreno transcriptions from Part 1 of this series, I wanted to dig even deeper and come to a better understanding of the types of CTs Moreno uses. To do this, I tallied the amount of times Moreno used different CTs. I would then take those numbers, along with the total amount of CTs on SHBs, and calculate the percentage of times Mike used each chord tone. For example, in the “Airegin” transcription, Mike is playing a CT on an SHB 184 times. Within those 184 times, he plays a root 47 times. Thus, on that solo, when Mike is playing a CT on an SHB, he is using a root 26% of the time.

After applying this process to all six of the Moreno transcriptions, I compiled and organized all the numbers in an attempt to notice any trends within the figures.

As shown in the above example, Moreno’s improvising exhibits high CTPs, which are the numbers listed beside the tune titles. Additionally, the CTPs throughout all six transcriptions are within a fairly small margin, and the CTPs of four of them are within an extremely small margin.

The percentages of CT distribution are listed beneath each tune title and CTP, and although there are no obvious trends that emerge when studying these numbers, one can see Moreno distributes his CTs with a degree of balance. In his two “All the Things You Are” solos, his “Out of Nowhere” solo, and his “Woody ‘n’ You” solo, the difference between the most-used CT and the least-used CT is never more than 9%. Furthermore, the difference between the percentages of all CTs used yields several small numbers. For example, the highest percentages of 5ths used by Moreno is in his solo on “Isotope”, in which he was playing 5ths on SHBs 27% of the time. The lowest percentage of 5ths is found in “Woody ‘n’ You”, in which he was playing 5ths on SHBs 21% of the time. The difference between these two is only 6%, which reveals a startling amount of consistency with which Moreno uses 5ths on SHBs.

After compiling and analyzing all this information, I felt confident in contending that part of what makes Moreno’s improvising so effective lies in his ability to consistently occupy strong beats with strong tones. However, I wanted to take this idea one step further and apply the same process to solos by other artists deemed effective improvisers. I felt if I were to expand my test sample to artists besides Moreno, and still observe the same general trends, a case could begin to be made regarding the relationship between CTP and effective improvising. The solos I chose to apply this process to were:

Booker Little’s solo on “Milestones”

Tom Harrell’s solo on “Joy Spring”

Clifford Brown’s solo on “Confirmation”

Kenny Garrett’s solo on “There Will Never Be Another You”

Thus, I applied the same process to these solos, averaged the percentages of all Moreno’s solos, and compared the new statistics.

As it can be seen, when the averages of Moreno’s figures are compared to the figures of other effective jazz solos, we find a degree of similarity. Most importantly, the CTPs of all four additional solos are within 7% of Moreno’s CTP average. This means that in their solos, Little, Harrell, Brown, and Garrett are all placing CTs on SHBs at overall the same rate as Moreno. Additionally, we see the same types of consistency within their distribution of CTs as we observe in Moreno’s averages. In the case of Clifford Brown’s “Confirmation” solo, Brown’s distribution of CTs is strikingly close to Moreno’s, with the biggest difference being a difference of 5% in each of their uses of the 3rd on SHBs.

After my suspicions were confirmed regarding the relationship between CTP and effective solos, I was curious to see what types of percentages my process would yield on an ineffective solo. From a recording of a gig I played within the past year, I transcribed what I deemed to be a very ineffective solo played by a musician who will remain anonymous. The solo was similar to all others in its style and harmonic language, and based on my findings thus far, I predicted the solo would yield much different percentages. The results, seen below, supported my prediction in that the CTP was much lower than the others.

At 59%, the amount of CTs placed on SHBs by this improviser was 21% lower than Moreno’s average, and nearly 30% lower than the highest average in the test sample. The distribution of CTs, however, was not much different from the other solos or Moreno’s averages. For example, except for a large difference in the distribution of 9ths, the ineffective solo had approximately the same distribution of CTs as found in Tom Harrell’s solo on “Joy Spring”. Although Harrell’s CTP is 24% higher than the ineffective soloist’s, the distribution of CTs on SHBs is nearly the same. This oddity, along with the fact that I cannot seem to find any obvious trends within the CT distribution percentages, leads me to think the distribution of each CT within the SHBs is far less important in establishing the sound of an effective solo than the CTP itself.

Although this examination of the relationship between CTP and effective improvising did answer certain questions of mine and reveal many fascinating results, there are still several questions I would like to answer. Namely: if these improvisers are placing CTs on SHBs 75-85% of the time, what are they placing on SHBs the remaining 15-25% of the time? Additionally, a larger issue I would like to come to a better understanding of is whether or not CTP is a necessary element of an effective solo. This test sample certainly illustrated it to be true, but can I find an example of a jazz solo that is effective and aurally pleasing, yet has an extremely low CTP? My reflexive answer to such a question would be “yes”, but it is an idea I would like to further explore and analyze closely.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Leave your comments below!