One of my favorite things about jazz is the range of musical expression it offers. Along with that comes a range of tempos, slow and fast, with different melodic stylings. Of these expressions, I often feel the most connected to ballads.
Jazz musicians often talk about the difficulty of playing at fast tempos, and how to navigate through them. It’s true that this can challenge one’s technique and ability to feel the time at quick speeds. But for some reason, we often don’t put quite as big of an emphasis on slow tempos, and the fact they can be equally as hard to play as fast tempos, if not harder. A slow tempo, of course, is one of the defining characteristics of a ballad. So we need to work equally hard on the slower tempo spectrum as we do fast tempos.
We also need to focus on the aspects that make a ballad a ballad. Not all tempos and song styles should be approached the same way, and therefore to play jazz ballads like a pro we need to hone in on these characteristics and put them into practice.
So if you want to play masterful ballads with confidence and true expression, consider some of these important tips:
It’s all about the melody.
When it comes to ballads, it’s all about the melody. You could argue that for most songs the melody is key, but for ballads you need to pay extra close attention. Remember, ballads are played at slower tempos and as a result, this brings more emphasis to the melody. In general, the rhythm section is more subtle and the instrumentalist playing the melody is even more at the forefront than usual. Big bands, for example, often use ballads to feature a particular instrumentalist. This also happens in smaller groups that per say have more than one horn player in the band. I’m thinking about the Cannonball and Coltrane album from 1964. Cannonball was featured on Stars Fell on Alabama and Coltrane on Weaver of Dreams, both ballads.
So it’s important to know the melody inside and out. It can also be helpful to learn the lyrics because the lyrics always tell the story of the song, can help you convey appropriate emotion, and the added bonus: lyrics are memorable, so they help you memorize the melody better.
Don’t just play your regular stuff.
If you think you should automatically play the same way you do on other song styles or tempos, think again. At slow tempos, playing your normal ii-V-I licks and such are often not appropriate or even possible. You have to treat the song differently.
Remember how I said it’s all about the melody? I’ll continue off of that idea. Use the melody to create your solos, not licks and lines. The melody is the most important part of the song, so use it to create new melodies off of it. Reference the melody in your solo. Embellish it. Let the melody dictate the trajectory of your solo.
Embrace the space.
Have you ever met someone who couldn’t handle silence and had to constantly keep talking, otherwise they’d feel awkward? Don’t make that your relationship with playing ballads.
A common temptation when playing over slow tempos is to try to fill up the space with notes. When you feel the urge resist! This doesn’t mean you can’t play busy, it just means you should only do so if that’s what your solo calls for, not because you are afraid to leave space.
Practice subdividing over slow tempos
Turn on your metronome at different varieties of slow tempos and practice subdividing over the time. Subdividing meaning: breaking up the beats into smaller parts. Ultimately, you need to be able to feel the time and different rhythms over that time. This is key.
An exercise I like to do for this is to take a ballad I know well and start playing only quarter note lines over the entire form. Just stick to improvising quarter notes for the first chorus and don’t stray from that. The second chorus, play only eighth notes. The third chorus eighth note triplets. The fourth chorus improvise sixteenth notes. Do all of this with a metronome on (I prefer beats 2 & 4). This exercise will help you get further inside the time and lock in these subdivisions.
Listen to how the pros do it
This one should not be underestimated. Listen to your favorite jazz musicians playing ballads and really try to get inside how they approach them. You won’t be able to play better jazz language if you don’t listen to it!
Remember, ballads are hard. They take a lot of practice. Ultimately you just need to spend a lot of time with them and take some of this advice into consideration. Start adding ballads and slow tempos into your practice routines.