Sometimes in jazz, like in life, the hardest thing to do is to just get started with something. When it comes to starting an activity like a song, it’s occasionally a challenge to break the ice and get over that first obstacle between you and your goal (making music). Once you’ve gotten a tune started though, the music seems to take on a life of its own and move forward, organically drawing energy from itself.
So how do you start a tune? How do you get that initial motivation and inspiration to kickoff of a jazz standard and set it on its course without always just resorting to the standard format of counting off a tune and starting right on the head?
One way to help you break out of the rut and stay inspired as you start the same songs over and over again, is to occasionally create your own introductions to jazz standards.
Adding an introduction can help set up the atmosphere for a particular tune and prime the audience for the emotional world you want to capture and explore with a given jazz song. Intros also give you space to isolate and explore one particular aspect of a tune and give you a chance to extrapolate and extemporize using the song as a launching point in a different way than you might normally do while soloing over a tune’s harmonic progression.
Introductions help give flow and variety to gigs and jam sessions, and a well-constructed intro can revitalize a tune by introducing a small element of surprise and anticipation for audiences. A great introduction can capture or hint at the spirit of tune by referencing it directly or indirectly, and adding intros to your playing can help you to add new life to old songs.
And on a practical note, sometimes you need to play an intro to give a fellow band member time to fix their equipment, talk to the club manager, find a piece of sheet music, sort out the form of a tune with another musician without having silence/downtime on stage, etc.
So, to help you start adding more intros to your interpretations of jazz standards, here are 8 strategies to constructing an introduction:
1. Tag the last 4 or 8 bars of the tune
Vamp/repeat the chord changes for the last 4 measures of a tune either with the melody or while improvising over it. This works great with almost every jazz standard, because standards are composed so that they are cyclical. The end of jazz tunes almost always transitions smoothly back to the top!
2. Improvise a solo cadenza
This method is most effective if the cadenza quotes or references the melody of the tune. For example, you can take one of the main melodic motives from the song and develop it, morph it, change it, and play around with it. You can also hint at the tune’s chord changes, rhythmic content/feel, and overall mood or atmosphere. Just let your imagination take over!
3. Vamp the first 2 or 4 bars of a tune
Similar to #1 above, this works on most standards. This method usually works best if you don’t play the melody until you’re actually starting the full form of the tune. It often is a great strategy to loop the first 4 measures and have instruments layer in one at a time. For example, you could start with the drums to set up the groove, then add bass, piano/guitar, and melodic instruments one at a time and then move on to play the full tune when you’re ready.
4. Play the melody and/or chord changes rubato or out of time
This strategy works with many tunes but it is especially effective for ballads. You can play the whole tune or just half or part of it, but the idea is to play it unaccompanied and slow down/speed up at will. Also feel free to embellish the melody and insert an improvised cadenza or two. You can add or subtract notes and rhythms, and even play it or modulate it to different key(s). You can re-harmonize it if you play a chordal instrument as well. Don’t be afraid to dramatically change tempos throughout.
5. Improvise a full chorus or a half chorus first, before introducing the melody
Instead of always starting every tune by playing the head first, you can start off with a short improvised solo and then play the melody. This is a fun and simple way to add variety and surprise to your performance practices.
6. Pick an important chord or tonal center from the tune and use it set up a modal vamp
A simple version of this is to pick the first or last chord of a tune or the V7 chord that would create a V7-I movement to the first chord of the song. For example, if the first chord of a song is F-7, you could vamp on C7alt., C phrygian, C7sus4, etc. and the move on to the F-7 to launch the tune after you’ve built up sufficient energy/tension.
7. Create and repeat a riff based off the tune
You can either pick a notable melodic/rhythmic fragment from the tune itself or just invent your own idea that fits the spirit of the song. Riffs are most effective when they are short, catchy, and highly rhythmic.
8. Set up a I-VI-II-V or III-VI-II-V vamp in the key of the tune
This is a very common strategy, and with good reason: it works! Just vamp one of those iconic jazz chord progressions in the key of the tune. This especially works best when the tune starts with a I chord because I-VI-II-V and III-VI-II-V resolve smoothly to the I and allow you to transition easily from the intro into the tune proper.
I hope these strategies are helpful and inspiring. Try to come up with your own intro ideas as well! This list is just a starting point to help spark your musical imagination.
Finally, be sure to practice your intros just like you practice your solos! And there’s nothing wrong with having a few stock intros worked out beforehand that you can pull out on a moment’s notice and use when needed. Also practice cuing the band, because part of creating a good intro is knowing how to successfully transition to the main performance of the song.