There’s a funny term musicians use to imply that a soloist is adequately navigating the harmonic form of a tune: “making the changes.” ‘The changes’ is quite obviously referring to the changing chords, but why is the word making the term of choice to describe the process of successfully improvising?
A quick look at the Meriam Webster dictionary reveals that the verb make has tons of definitions. One can make the bed, make plans, or make dinner, to name a few. Making the bed is essentially neatening, making plans is formulating, making dinner is creating. One could also make their dog sit (force an action), make money (earn/acquire), or ‘make something of it’ (come to a conclusion).
Suddenly to make seems rather ambiguous. Let’s think a bit more broadly – if you take the phrase making the changes out of the context of jazz and apply it to regular life, it suddenly seems like a rather profound task. To make a change would be a single feat, to make THE changes is to overcome a very large hurdle.
So how does a person make the changes on a difficult jazz tune? Just like in life where a large obstacle is successfully handled by addressing one small part at a time, an aspiring soloist must learn to navigate one chord at a time, and then the movement of that chord to the next chord and so on, before eventually being able to play the tune from top to bottom without stumbling. With enough tunes under your belt, you become able to make the changes on tunes that you’ve never played before, relying on experience and the know-how. It might not have been your greatest solo, but you were able to make the changes.
Life will undoubtedly throw impediments in front of every man that require careful navigating. I’ve always admired people who are able to steer around obstacles, not just successfully but gracefully. Musically, this would be the musician who not only plays great on a difficult tune, but makes it look easy.
If a friend of yours was having trouble dealing with a situation that required great attention, would you offer your help or would you shake your head and tell yourself that they can’t keep it together? We’ve all known a person who seems to lead a comfortable life only to find out one day through an incident that in fact their whole life had been filled with turmoil and threatened to turn upside down on itself for years. Maybe you always knew that person was carrying a facade, and now you are forced to ask ‘what if?’.
For some reason, in jazz there’s a tendency to dismiss the ability level of a player who can’t make the changes. For reasons mostly related to pride, it’s not kosher to offer help to a musician who works jazz-titled jobs but can’t cleanly improvise over chord progressions. Just because a musician can carry on the disguise of playing jazz to many, should those in-the-know wait around for their improvisational world to turn upside down?
Obviously the world does not come crashing down when a jazz musician fails to make the changes, but what is the ‘what if?’ for the jazz world? Should we speak up on behalf of the great art form, challenging our colleagues to play the very best that they can play? Does it denigrate jazz when a professional hacks apart a tune and calls it jazz improvisation? Lots of food for thought.
Anyways, as I navigate the many changes happening in my life, I wanted to update you on a little bit of information. First of all, my CD is finally off to the press and I’m very proud of how it’s come out. Here’s a sample for ya:
Secondly, I’ll be out of town this weekend during the monthly NJW jam session. But fear not, as I’ve left the jam in the exceptionally capable hand of Joe Davidian, one of my favorite pianists who makes the changes as well as anybody in the world.
Thanks for reading this far. More to come soon-