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CONCEPTUAL JAZZ: Change of Direction is Change of Complexion

By Frank Caruso

In past articles I have discussed the use of several devices, such as perfect 4th triads applied to scale patterns and chord changes, the use of tetrachords as practicing and playing tools, harmonic re-harmonization and the use of rhythmic space. These are all extremely valuable tools in unleashing the creative force that we strive for in jazz. THERE IS ANOTHER ELEMENT WHICH IS BASIC TO THE PROCESS OF EVOLVING TO A HIGHER EXPRESSION OF CREATIVE MUSIC — THE SIMPLE CHANGE IN DIRECTION OF A PHRASE OR LINE.

The title of the Chick Corea tune “Straight Up and Down” illuminates the process by which jazz musicians make simple ideas sound more interesting by merely changing the direction of the idea. Listening to jazz leads you to a place where your intuitive ear begins to notice the contour of a phrase. This simple act has a profound effect on the musicality of a solo.

Here are some helpful exercises for utilizing this intuitive part of playing to begin to allow you to possess a freedom of movement.

1) Play an idea

2) Make a note of the interval span of the idea. How far up or down the idea moves (up a 4th, up a 10th, down a 6th, down a 9th).

3) Play the idea with the same interval span in the opposite direction.

4) Notice how the “complexion” (nuance) of the line changes.

5) Play the same idea (ascending or descending) and create a change of direction in the middle, or at some point in the line.

As you practice this way your mind will begin to actually memorize many of these sounds. When you begin to memorize or internalize them you will begin to develop a new vocabulary. I like to describe this process as a form of “abstract memory”.

Depending on your devotion to using this creative discipline, you will begin to discover ways to change the direction of your musical phrases.

Another type of exercise is to actually play certain intervals in order to become familiar with the different environments that different intervals create.

For example:

1) Practice everything up and down a 3rd (major or minor, depending what the tonality allows) from a given starting point.

2) Same exercise with 4th, 5ths, 6th or any parameters you choose. Remember to play the phrase ascending and descending from the point.

3) Notice how the idea sounds quite different ascending than it does descending.

You might call this a form of “jazz solfeggio”. Solfeggio (sight singing) was the class I appreciated most as a creative musician because it enabled me to make a clear mental identification of intervals I was hearing while I was playing.

I hope this article will encourage you to expand your exploration and use of playing phrases in different directions. Becoming more sensitive to the change of the “complexion” of a phrase will allow us to discover sounds we may not have expressed in our playing or writing.


About Frank Caruso

Frank Caruso is currently serving on the Jazz Studies Faculty at Elmhurst College. His book on improvisation is available at which can be used by all instrumentalists. Frank also teaches at a private studio (The Music Suite) in Naperville and can be reached at



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