William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... Play Over the Blues Like Tom Harrell?

Tom Harrell is hands-down one of my favorite jazz improvisers of all time. His beautiful tone, never-ending melodic inventiveness, and masterful command of the bebop vocabulary create the type of paradigm for jazz improvisation that I have been going after ever since I started playing. You can imagine my surprise (and joy) when, about a year ago, I discovered a bootleg recording on YouTube of Tom demonstrating playing through the blues progression in all 12 keys. The video can be viewed below.

The blues progression is one of those basic progressions that every jazz musician must constantly maintain their abilities over, and a good test of an improviser's knowledge of the progression is whether or not they can play through it in all 12 keys. So after discovering this video, I decided that I simply had to transcribe what Tom was playing and see how he was approaching the blues progression. The recording opens with Tom improvising several choruses of blues in Bb, then he and Jamey Aebersold (the pianist) embark on playing two choruses in each key as they chromatically ascend through all 12 keys. In the following post, I'll discuss several thing we can glean from Tom's approach to playing over the blues.

1. Establish the Context With Blues Ideas

For the longest time, I had trouble striking a balance between playing blues ideas and bebop ideas over the blues progression. One of the first things I learned related to the blues progression was the blues scale. I learned that this was an excellent scale to use over the blues and could be used to melodically "generalize" the whole progression. Later on, however, I was told that the blues scale wasn't a very "jazzy" thing to play over a jazz blues progression because the notes of the blues scale clashed with some many of the harmonies in a typical jazz blues progression. Gradually, as I transcribed more great solos and got more experience playing, I realized that there is no "either or" regarding playing blues ideas or bebop ideas over a jazz blues; depending on how they're used, both are equally valid and effective. In fact, what I came to notice was that many of my favorite jazz soloists blended both blues ideas and bebop ideas in their solos and juxtaposed them as a means of creating development within their improvising. One effective technique is to begin a solo over a blues by playing melodic, bluesy ideas, then transition to more chromatic, beboppy ideas during key points of the form (i.e. the ii-V's). In his journey through all 12 keys, Tom does this very effectively. He begins many of his choruses with bluesy ideas over the first two bars (the I & IV chords), then introduces the major third when returning to the I chord in bar three as a means of preparing the transition to the ii-V of IV in bar four. The example below illustrates Tom doing this on five different occasions.

2. Be Able to Play Bebop Over the Blues

So, as Tom demonstrates, it's important to be able to play blues ideas over the blues. However, as he also demonstrates, it's equally important to be able to play bebop ideas over the blues. When we encounter the blues progression in jazz, we are typically encountering variations on the progression that involve harmonic ornamentations to the basic I-IV-V blues progression. There are a myriad of reharmonization possibilities over the blues progression, but the one thing they all have in common is that they typically all involve the addition of ii-V's in key parts of the blues form. Thus, being prepared to encounter the blues progression in a jazz context requires the ability to navigate ii-V progressions with some basic bebop vocabulary. The example below shows a great ii-V bebop line that Harrell plays at the end of his first B major chorus.

The cool thing about this lick is that the entire thing works well over a long ii-V, and the second half of it sounds great over a short ii-V. In the example below, I've inserted this lick into all the ii-V's on a basic "jazz blues" progression in the key of Bb. Try out the example by playing the lick where indicated and improvising over the rest.

3. Practice in all 12 Keys

One of the most important things we jazz musicians can do in the practice room is work on playing things in all 12 keys, and this recording of Tom playing the blues though all 12 keys is an important reminder of that! However, if we zoom in a little closer, we can see that Tom has not only practiced the blues progression in all 12 keys, but he's practiced specific ideas in all 12 keys. The following examples highlight two different ideas that Tom plays in different keys on the recording.

What I find really remarkable about these two ideas is not just that Tom played them in two different keys over the progression, but that he played them in the same places of the form over the progression. The first pair of ideas is played in the third and fourth bars of the progression, and the second pair of ideas is played in the eighth bar of a "Bird blues" approach to the progression. So not only does Tom practice his ideas in all 12 keys, but he also works on the same ideas in the same places in all 12 keys.[divider]

These are some interesting things I noticed when studying Tom Harrell's improvising, and hopefully you'll be able to glean some practice ides from them. What are some things you enjoy about Tom's playing that you strive for in your own improvising? Do you have any favorite recordings, solos, or Harrell-isms of Tom? Leave your comments below!